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Taking Stock March 2020

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…..Well.  It’s been quite a month, hasn’t it?

In my last post I mentioned that I was staying safe and clear of the pandemic; and then just two days later, I was told that someone in my workplace had tested positive for COVID-19 and they were sending a slew of us home for two weeks of self-quarantine.  I’m one of those people on quarantine, and I’m on day 7.

Fortunately, I remain asymptomatic.  I had a couple of obsessive days thinking about how I was behaving around the office and whether I’d done anything unsafe; but then realized that I’d still been keeping a good six feet from everyone – more so than others, in fact – and that I had a habit of walking with my hands in my pockets, I’d been washing my hands a lot at work, and that I tend to keep to myself.  So odds were pretty good that even if I’d had contact with whoever it was, that “contact” may simply have been “we both happened to get pizza that day we ordered some” instead of “we shook hands” or “we danced the conga” and I was likely going to be okay.  It was still a bit of a reality check that maybe I shouldn’t be quite so cocky.

It’s getting weird here in New York, y’all.  The hospitals are overcrowded, some nurses are reduced to wearing trash bags due to a shortage of protective clothing, and there’s a hospital ship in the Hudson and field hospitals setting up in Central Park and the Convention Center.  And yet, where I am in Brooklyn, it’s….really quiet.  I don’t see anyone out on the streets really – but I rarely do even when the world is normal.  I hear the downstairs neighbor’s two small children a lot during the day but that’s it.  So this is becoming more of an exercise in surviving cabin fever than anything else.

My roommate also remains healthy, and jumped on the chance to be the Designated Errand Runner during my quarantine – not that he goes out much anyway, just that he was looking for excuses to leave the house since he’s also been on mandatory work from home orders.  We’ve been keeping to opposite ends of the apartment during the day to stay out of each other’s hair, and that’s been working out okay.

And in the meantime, this was March for me…

  • Making: Things!  Lots of things!  I’ve been using the extra time at home to poke around in the overload of Craft Stuff I accumulated and never did anything with, and the junk that I have, and trying to Make Things.  I’ve decorated tins with washi tape; I’ve turned old tin cans into cannisters; and I have some old housekeys that don’t go to anything anymore, and the beads from a broken bracelet, and a toy colander the same color as the beads; at some point they are going to become a wind chime.  ….We will not discuss the fact that I don’t have anywhere to hang that wind chime, thank you.
  • Cooking: Lots of things!  I made three curries the weekend before last, partly to use up some pantry things and partly to splurge on myself a bit; this past weekend I made homemade Hobnobs, and sometime this coming weekend I’ll be scrounging in the vegetable drawer and making a soup stock.  Monday I made this intensely comfort-foody thing in the slow cooker with sausage, cheese, and tater tots.
  • Sipping: through my backlog of tea.  Since I’m home, I have access to my full tea collection, and have been pushing myself to use it each day; it will be a bit of an oasis of calm and will help clean that backlog out (something I’ve needed to do, let’s be honest).
  • Reading: Space Operaby Catherynne Valente.  It was this month’s selection in my local book club, and our host pitched it to us as “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy meets Eurovision”.  She’s definitely right about that.
  • Looking: at the walls of my apartment and going slightly stir crazy.
  • Listening: George Harrison’s son Dhani has started a social-media fundraising challenge, inspired by George’s song “The Inner Light”.  He kicked things off by doing his own cover of the song, accompanied only by a Tibetan prayer bowl.  It’s really lovely.
  • Wishing: I could at least go outside.  We’re allowed to go outside for exercise or for groceries or medicine – if we’re not on quarantine.  …Soon….
  • Enjoying: More like being grateful for the fact that at least I have some job stability, and – thank God – I’m healthy.
  • Eating: See “Cooking”, above.  It’s just my roommate and me here, someone has to eat all this stuff.
  • Buying: A couple too many DIY and craft books, to spur me to use some of the craft stuff.  I also splurged on 5 bars of fancy handmade French soap because hell, if I’m going to be washing my hands as much as I should be then I should at least do it with good soap.
  • Watching: Still hanging in with the movies!  Although the roommate and I are occasionally dipping into more just-for-fun films like Blazing Saddles.
  • Wearing: I am alternating between three different pairs of lounge pants and three different comfy shirts.  I don’t need to be in any videoconferences, and my roommate has seen me in this state before, and I had to put my work computer somewhere – so it’s in front of my closet, I have my loungewear to live in, and that’s just that, dammit.
  • Noticing: There’s a tree just outside my front window, right by the chair where I sit and have coffee first thing in the morning.  Usually if I see any birds it’s just the odd little brown house sparrow.  But lately I’ve noticed a pair of cardinals joining them – I’m hoping they’re picking out a nesting site, and hope we win.  This morning I also saw a bluejay wrestling with the remains of some street trash that had blown up into the branches; he was trying to pull off strips as nesting material, no doubt.  Every so often he’d turn around and squawk at one of the other sparrows in the tree to shoo them away.
  • Saving: random scraps of paper and other odds and ends.
  • Bookmarking: bookbinding tutorials, of all things.

…And otherwise hanging in.

Social-Distancing Update

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Image result for buster keaton sherlock jr

(I am cross-posting this with The Movie Crash Course.)

Over on my movie blog, I usually only post the above image if the blog is having a technical crisis; but if the current state of the world doesn’t call for the Buster Sign, I don’t know what does.  I just wanted to speak to how I was doing and give people space to check in.

….Miraculously, I not only am doing okay, I think I may have lucked into the best of all possible paths through this pandemic.  I’d lost a job mid-January, and was spending most of the ensuing few weeks on a job hunt.  By mid-February, that job hunt narrowed down to some leads in a business park that’s only three blocks from my house; I live very near a decommissioned Navy shipyard that New York has been turning into an industrial and business park, with about 450 different companies working there – many of them tech companies, media, or food-oriented.  Lots of artists have studio space there, there is a distillery and a winery, some movie soundstages, and even some small manufacturing companies.  I was hired in late February, and started there the first week of March.  I was thrilled about the new commute; instead of dragging myself onto a subway and riding an hour each way to get to work, now I have a pleasant 15-minute walk each way on largely quiet streets.  Maybe I pass the occasional jogger.

But then news of the Coronavirus started spreading, and people were realizing just how bad it was going to be. And I realized that I had been taken out of the subway system right before it had become a danger.  I thanked my lucky stars and kept walking to work.

Then New York started shutting down. First companies were shutting down of their own volition, encouraging everyone to work from home; Roommate Russ works somewhere where they require everyone to work from home.  My new boss also gave me the option to work from home if I wanted.  I thought about it; but I’ve decided to keep going in, partly to give Roommate Russ a quiet apartment during the day, and partly because my work space is actually a decently safe distance from other people even when everyone’s there.  And a week ago most of the other people in my office did start working from home; there were probably several dozen people in the office when I started there my first day, but now it’s down to about ten.  Most people are working from home, but there are a couple of people who have to head in – and a couple of stubborn folk like me who prefer going there. I’m actually less exposed to people at my office at this stage than I am if I stayed home.  And even more miraculous – the company is considered an “essential business”. So it will stay open.

My biggest worry was that I went to New Orleans in late February, right before starting work (when your 50th Birthday is the same day as Mardi Gras there’s really only one thing you can do about that).  The day after I got back, I felt something like the beginnings of a cold, but I dealt with that by horsing down several zinc lozenges and willing myself out of it; I didn’t want to call in sick my first day at work.  A couple friends joined me in New Orleans, and one of them said he also had a bit of a cold too; so I probably caught something there. But it passed within only a day.  And I am now past the window where anything stronger I may have caught in New Orleans would have shown up – and I continue to be fine.

This doesn’t mean I’m totally unaffected, of course.  Other than going to work, I’m hunkering down as much as possible; grocery runs and park excursions, and that’s it. I try to keep a good healthy distance from people even at work, and my grocery runs have been for oddball things like coriander seed, so I stay well clear of the whole toilet paper scrum.  I went for a bigger shopping run yesterday, and noticed that the store had set up barricades around most of the meat department and were letting people in one by one, like it was a velvet-rope nightclub; however, one section was left open. I discovered that that’s where the store had funky sausages and more exotic meats like duck breast, wild boar, and rabbit.  I took a look at the big line of people waiting for ground beef and chicken cutlets, then at the nearly-empty sausage-and-exotic-meat section, and then picked up a pack of merguez sausage and was on my way.  When the meat runs low in the house I may be back for the ground bison.  Roommate Russ and I have joked that Anthony Bourdain may be guiding our food choices from the afterlife.

Good thing, too, because cooking has been one of the ways I’ve been coping. I’ve got an overstuffed pantry even at the best of times, and a huge collection of cookbooks.  I also promised myself that I would be using a lot of the things I have this year, if only to clean them out and make room for new things.  So social isolation has turned into an excuse to amp up the cooking and baking like whoa.  ….We’re just about done with the pumpkin bread, brownies, and lentils de puy salad I made last weekend, and today’s menu includes three totally different curries, chickpea-flour crepes, chocolate cookies with cacao nibs, and an amazing mocha cake (to which I’m going to add some espresso chocolate chips I’ve been wondering how to use).

And I am still going to keep on with the movies.  I’m working on my latest review on that blog, and am exploring a couple of special events which those of you out there could join in.  (I need to explore the technical angle first; check there for any developments.)

I’ve realized that I’m very, very, very fortunate. I’m very aware that others are not so lucky and are struggling; I’m trying to think of ways to help, above and beyond just being a responsible citizen by staying home as much as necessary. I’ve been blessed, but I’m still in the fight with everyone else. Mrs. Miniver was about England’s reaction to war instead of disease, but I think the last scene still speaks to what we’re all going through.

Be well, all.

Belated Taking Stock – February

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ACK!  I missed this for February, but I have a very good reason, because a LOT of things have changed.  I spent most of February interviewing for a new job and preparing for a trip to New Orleans.  And – the day before I left for that trip, I was offered a job that a) pays pretty darn well, b) is with a company with a culture I will work well within, and c) is only a five-block walk from my house.  I’d also managed my money pretty tightly while I was unemployed so that I’d have enough to tide me over, so I had a very tidy financial cushion under me already; one that I kind of don’t need any more, so I’ve spent a very pleasant morning doing a survey of the house to see if there was any long-needed house items I could finally get (nothing too fancy – some file storage boxes and  rubber non-slip rug mat.  Woo!)

So since I start the new job tomorrow, let me get this out of the way.

Making:  Still working on papercrafts. My roommate saved some cereal boxes at my behest, and I’m going to be turning them into file racks and magazine racks to eat up some of the pretty paper.  I’ve also come back from New Orleans laden with some parade throws, and will be turning an old shoebox into a memory box of the really good trinkets from parades; another box will be for the throws I want to give away (I’ve spent several years now bringing a handful of strings of beads from a prior haul to offices, giving a few out to co-workers).

Cooking: I still have a huge backlog of food, but I’ve made a bit of a dent in the previous haul. These days it’s a bit more Cajun-influenced – I just made a roast chicken using Emeril Legasse’s recipe, and turned the carcass into a very spicy stock that I’ve been subsequently using for making my own yaka mein (a New Orleans take on ramen). I also came home with a couple pounds of Camellia brand red beans, which will be tomorrow’s red beans and rice.

Sipping: I’m about to make a big pot of tea.  I have a bit of a scratchy throat today – but I am chalking it up more to some minor cold combined with my sinuses going a bit haywire with the temperature changes I’ve subjected it to.  (I admit, though, to taking my temperature yesterday in the wake of Covid-19 fears….I definitely have no fever – in fact, my temperature was lower than the average – so I’m fine.)

Reading: I finally got around to reading Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential.  Tony has become a bit of an apartment patron saint – my roommate and I have been mainlining his reruns when we’re not watching movies – and I’d been given a copy some time ago that I realized I needed to read.  ….Dammit, the world needed that man longer.

Looking: Out the window east towards Bed-Stuy. It’s getting a bit warmer, and I’ll have more hours in the day (my commuting time is being reduced 75%!), so I’m thinking more about getting out more.

Listening: NPR.

Wishing: I’d had a little bit more gumption when I was unemployed.  But having a bit more resources to me from now on – in time and money – will be making up for that, I’d wager.

Enjoying: When I finish this I’ll be working on organizing the memorabilia from the New Orleans trip. And boy howdy that was a hell of a trip.

Eating: Dinner Friday was that roast chicken – seasoned with lemon, the Cajun “holy trinity” of celery, onion, and bell pepper, and a little cayenne. Dinner yesterday was a bit lighter (my stomach was acting a little odd) – a simple Japanese-inspired soup made by throwing some cooked rice into some quick dashi.

Liking: the free time that I’ve had.

Loving: the fact that I”ll still have some even after the job starts. (I work close to home!  I can actually do the pub quiz up the street every Wednesday because I don’t need to worry about being all sleepy in the morning!)

Buying:  I just splurged on some home improvement things – basic things like file storage boxes. My office has been in desperate need of organization and storage sorting, and that will help a good deal.  I also splurged on a Dutch oven yesterday after my brother’s family all sent me a Dutch oven cookbook as a birthday gift.

Watching: Movies and Doctor Who still – plus Picard, and I’ve been showing my roommate The Good Place. I’ve also gotten hold of the series Treme and need to get through that.

Hoping: that I don’t lose this high I’m on.

Needing: a new printer.  Next splurge.

Wearing: the super-comfy pajama top I splurged on before my trip, with yoga pants.  I’ll be in all day today, sipping tea and horsing down zinc lozenges to make sure I”m in a decent shape for work tomorrow.

Following: a couple new Youtube channel discoveries – found one that does a lot on the intersection of art and food, and I’ve also introduced the roommate to Alex Ainouz’s French Guy Cooking channel; we’ve agreed that Alex is an interesting combination of Jaime Oliver and Adam Savage.

Noticing: I’ve got way more energy and optimism.

Sorting: the souvenirs from my trip, and a lot of other gak.  It’s like I spent the first half-century of my life just sort of amassing things and now I’m thinking “wait…..do I need all of this?”

Getting: more excited about spring on the way.

Saving: money.  Still.  Somehow.

Bookmarking: various stew recipes.

Coveting: candles, even though I can make my own and probably should use ones I have already made.

Feeling: a tiny bit phlegmatic, and I am trying like mad to do something about that so I’m not sick on my first day of work tomorrow.

Hearing: the neighbors downstairs have two very young children.  Enough said.

Taking Stock – January

So I’m making one of my infrequent returns to this blog (although the movie blog is still going strong, go check out the Movie Crash Course where I’ve just posted review 250, end of ad, thanks).  I’ve already decided to make 2020 a year of self-reflection, so I may be popping in more often.  Especially now, since….er, I find myself rather dramatically and unexpectedly with more free time; I had been suffering with a terrible job all through 2019, to the point that I began quietly looking for something new in September.  I finally found something in December, quit the old job, took that new one – only for it to fall through three weeks later.  And by that time, it was too late to go back to the old one, and I’d waived any chance at severance as a result.

Ah.

However – all of that officially went down like three days ago, and I have within the past 72 hours signed up with 4 employment agencies, applied to about 30 jobs, and have four extremely, extremely strong leads from a job agency that caters exclusively to a business/industrial park that is a ten-minute walk from my house.  This has all underscored that I am going to be just fine.  I also have been super-intensely focusing on paying down debt for the past year and a half, and had to put that on a bit of a hold as a result of this going down – and when that pressure was off, I realized I felt more like “Me”.  So I think that while I am proud and grateful of the progress I’ve made on debt (I was about $14K in debt when I started, now I’m only about $3K), it underscored that maybe I was a little….obsessive.  I really can afford to ease up a tiny bit.

So there’s a blog I sometimes poke in at by an Australian blogger, Pip Lincolne.  Her crafting caught my eye first, but she’s got an honest, friendly voice, and I find myself stopping by frequently just to check up.  She has a monthly habit she calls “Taking Stock” where she has a list of things that she reports about, to just give a snapshot of what’s happening with her at that moment.  It seems a fine idea, and I’mma gonna start.  So here we go.

Taking Stock

Making:  Lots of papercrafts.  I have a bad habit of collecting pretty paper and foofy stationery supplies, with the idea of making something with it – but I never do.  And I’ve decided that dammit, I need to start.  I just made a little travelers’ notebook-style insert out of some scrapbook paper and some plain printer paper to track more stuff for the movie blog, and mirable dictu it looks okay.  The biggest thing stopping me from papercraft has been that it looks like a third-grader made it; there’s usually lumps of excess hot glue here and there.

Cooking: All the things.  I dealt with the “omigod I’m unemployed” initial panic by doing a serious analysis of the fridge and seeing that….uh, I’ve got a lot of food, with stuff in the pantry and vegetables coming in from the CSA. I talked myself into buying some beef neck bones this weekend to make bone broth, and further talked myself into getting some cheap tortellini.  Between that and the beets I got in this past CSA box, I’ve kept myself going with homemade borscht and tortellini en brodo.  And some homemade soda bread.  And I’ve turned CSA apples into fruit compote.  At some point I’ll be doing a serious analysis of the contents of my pantry and freezer to see how I can stretch it, and I’m pretty confident I’ll be able to feed myself for a really good long while (possibly as long as a month without buying much of anything).

Sipping: The aforementioned bone broth – I used the Binging With Babish recipe, only in my slow cooker instead of the stove because who has time for that.

Reading: Just finished something from my book club – the complete Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. We’ve discussed the first book in the club so far, and will be meeting to discuss the next two soon….and, meh.

Looking: At the four walls of my apartment a little too much…going to be doing something about that.

Listening: When I discovered the “Sufjan Stevens” channel on the I Heart Radio app, I never looked back.

Wishing: I’d gotten just a tiny bit further on the debt paydown before this went down, nevertheless.

Enjoying: enjoying the fact that I’m nevertheless not panicking any more.

Eating: Breakfast today was oatmeal with that apple compote.  It’s actually dead easy – brew a cup of tea, add a spoonfull of honey, then chop up a pound of any fruit and use the tea to poach it for about 3 minutes.  You can even save the tea and drink it as an iced tea later.

Liking: the free time that I’ve been given.

Loving: the fact that I’m more prone to using that free time in doing stuff rather than being all panicky.

Buying:  veryveryveryveryveryvery little.  My grocery bill for this week was less than ten dollars.

Watching: In addition to all the movies, I am diving back into Doctor Who, and have discovered a source for all of the Northern Exposure series.

Hoping: that I get a job quickly – but not so quickly that I lose this rest.  Maybe getting committed to something in February with a start in early March is just about right.

Needing: I actually need to finish this up soon so I can head out to lunch with a friend.

Wearing: one of my beloved plaid shirts. I was not going to be able to wear patterns in the old job so I am returning to form.

Following: the latest in the impeachment mischegas. Also the Oscar discussions on Twitter.

Noticing: did I mention I’m not panicking? For me, that’s big.

Sorting: I gotta go through my books – I’m thinking of a mass pilgrimage to The Strand to sell them. I’ll also be able to reclaim the space they occupy.  (Don’t worry, these are books that I either never read or were never mine; I had an old roommate who moved to Australia and left a huge book collection behind to either keep or sell off, and this is the remainder of what I have from that.)

Getting: Kinda hungry for lunch.

Saving: More money than I thought I’d be able to.

Bookmarking: all the movies I can stream on Netflix.

Coveting: A stand mixer with a dough hook.

Feeling: surprisingly okay!

Hearing: the dulcet tones of NPR.  I also gotta get going.

Know Thyself

Hiya.

So I have been pondering a lot about the coming year. This year I’ve basically written off as a wash; I have been wrestling for much of the year with a job I hate, I haven’t traveled, and I have been pretty much just keeping my nose to a grindstone.

But next year….next year feels like it’s going to be more significant.  It’s the year I turn 50.  It’s the year I will finally be debt-free for the first time since the age of seventeen.  It’s a leap year, and it’s an election year.  It’s a year I feel like a lot is going to happen.

I have been thinking a lot about how I can capture that all.  Well – over the years I have somehow acquired a stupidly huge range of “guided journals for self-reflection” kinds of books, of various stripes – some weekly workbooks with dedicated topics to explore each week, some more “as you need them” works of inspiration, some dedicated to capturing the natural world.  They’re all meant to instill a sense of awareness of the world around and of self-reflection.

I have dug them all out, and they will now live on my bedside table – and starting the last week of December, I will start in on all of them.  Every last one.  From the blank page-a-day calendar upon which I will record the days events in a logbook to the old Use-The-Moon-Phases-To-Reflect-On-Your-Subconscious books I got in college.

I’m also going to capture things in knitting – there are lots of variants of the “Temperature Scarf,” where you gather different shades of yarn and assign them each to a different temperature range, and then knit a stripe each day in a color matching the day’s high temperature. I tried that with a blanket last year, but that was a lot of knitting and I abandoned it after about a month.  Maybe a scarf is more manageable.

Regardless I’m going to be embarking on a year of very thorough self-analysis.

September’s Process

(This is a rerun of something I wrote in 2014.  I still have nothing more to add when it comes to my reaction to the anniversary of 9/11.)

Ask the farmer to transfer the tomatoes from their box to a bunch of bags. Wince as he packs the bags too full; they’ll crush easier. Carefully tuck them into the cart, and start home, wincing again as you hit each tiny rut and bump in the sidewalk.   Grab a bag of ice as you pass the deli on your street.  Wince again, and add a groan, when you get home and realize that what with the cart, the bags of tomatoes, and the ice, you’re going to have to make more than one trip up and down the four flights of stairs to your place.  Sigh and get to it.

My local farmers’ market has a “canners’ special” each year – a bushel of tomatoes, sold cheap to those wanting to put things up. I’ve been picking up a box every year since about 2011 – it seems to be just enough to last yearlong, with about a dozen cans of tomatoes and a couple jars of fresh tomato juice each time, and the process is messy and annoying enough that I only do want to do it once.

A few years ago I got into the habit of scheduling this ordeal for the anniversary of the 9/11 Attacks.

Clean out the sink first.  You’ll need an empty sink for the dishes after, and you’ll also need it for the ice water bath when you’re peeling the tomatoes.

Weigh out your tomatoes, laying them into little clusters on the dining room table – six pounds each. Save aside the ones that crushed on the way, to make tomato sauce and salsa to keep in the fridge right away.  Throw out the couple of fungus-y tomatoes that managed to sneak into the bushel.  Fetch enough empty jars from that top shelf in the kitchen, and dig through the pile of canning supplies trying to find enough lids.  Steal a couple from the teeny jars you have in the closet.

Dig out the big stock pot you got from your cousins 20 Christmases ago. Tuck in the first of your canning jars, and fill the whole thing, jars and all, with water.  Set that to boil while you dig out the other two big soup pots – fill one with water, and start that boiling while you fill up the sink and dump in part of the bag of ice.

Different cabinet now – dig out the big mixing bowl and balance a colander on top.  Shuffle the bowl and pans around on your counter while you’re waiting for all the water to boil.   It’s already getting hot.  Look at how many dishes this is already using.  Sigh.

Canning is just complicated and frustrating enough to lure me from the thoughts I’d otherwise have this day; it’s busywork, keeping me at a low level of distraction and giving me something else to be cranky at.  It also gives me an excuse to shut myself away from people.  But it’s not so intricate that I can’t recover if I do, despite myself, slip into memory.

I was in New York City that day; I was on “standby” with my temp agency, dressed and waiting just in case they got a last-minute call so they could send me right out.   So I was at home that morning, and I lived close enough to the Towers that I heard the impact of both planes as they hit.

The reason I was on standby, though, was because the day before I’d missed a call from my agency asking if I was available for something starting on the 11th.  By the time I called them back, they’d already given it to someone else.  It wasn’t until the evening of the 11th that I remembered that my agency had a lot of clients in the Twin Towers – so it was very possible that if I’d taken that job, I’d have been one of the people in the Towers that day.

Drop the first few tomatoes into the smaller pot of boiling water.  Realize you forgot to set a timer, curse and do so.  Wait.  Start madly scooping tomatoes into the sink ice bath when 30 seconds is (sort of) up.  Wait thirty more seconds – more or less – and grab a tomato from the sink, juggling it in your hands a little.  Still hot.  But the skin is fortunately slipping off.  Peel it over the colander and dig out the tough core with your fingers, dropping skin and seeds and tomato goodge into it as you do. Crush the meat in your hands and dump it into the second pot.

Notice, as you reach for a second tomato, that you’ve squirted juice onto the side of the fridge.  Swear.  Try to dig the peel off the second tomato.  This one’s more stubborn.  Swear again.  And then again when you squirt tomato down your shirt front.

Look at the remaining tomatoes in the sink, and then over at the 14 pounds you haven’t even gotten to yet.  Swear again.

Sometimes my not having been in the Towers feels like a copout.  We hear a lot from the First Responders and their families; the next of kin of the victims; the military.  We don’t hear as much about the experiences of the ordinary schlubs like me – people whose experience with 9/11 was only in coping with the city’s aftermath.  I didn’t know anyone in the Towers, I wasn’t there myself, no one I know died.  What’s my problem?

But even if no person I know died, the place was badly wounded.  For three months I tried to ignore the smell of smoke hanging over everything – the fire at Ground Zero was still going, and that meant that something was still fueling that fire, and I didn’t want to think too hard about just what that fuel may be.  I also tried to ignore the “Missing Person” posters that blanketed every single wall and bulletin board and lamppost with their futility.  And the shrines in front of each police precinct and firehouse, a small pile of dead flowers and burnt-out bodega candles clustered against the side of the building near a taped-up few pictures of smiling cops or firemen.  You saw these things ever once in a while before, of course, when one guy or another was killed in action.  But this time it was every precinct that had one, every fire house that had one.

The president and the mayor were trying to tell us all to go about our business and get back to normal.  But there were some long and lingering signs pointing to the fact that things were not normal.  Not at all.

The pot full of jars is boiling, so start simmering the crushed tomato on the stove and start fishing jars out of the pot, carefully dumping the water back in.  Dole a spoonful of citric acid and a spoon of salt into each jar.  Get the idea to tuck sprigs of oregano into a couple jars and clip some off your oregano plant in the window.

Ladle the tomato carefully into each jar.  Swear again when you overfill one and have to scoop some out.  Wipe all the jar rims.  Start to wipe the counter while you’re at it but then realize you’re just getting started so why bother.  Screw the lids on each jar, holding each one gingerly from the heat.  Grab each jar with the funky tong thingies you got just for canning jars, praying you don’t drop anything as you carefully lower them back into the still-boiling stock pot.

Set the timer for a half hour when the stock pot’s full.  Consider sitting down for a bit, but sigh and start peeling the next pile of tomatoes.

Even in the weeks immediately after the attacks, I found myself more angry at other Americans than I was at the attackers.  My friend Colin and I had a discussion shortly after, about “what would you do if Osama Bin Laden was in this room right now?”  And honestly, the most I would have done is smacked him like Cher did to Nic Cage in Moonstruck and asked, “what the hell was that?”  Even today, I can’t entirely escape the thought that Bin Laden and the attackers were not sane.  I would no more blame them for acting while under the influence of extreme religious fundamentalism than I would blame a rabid dog – neither knew any better.

However, our country did know better when we started a war under false pretenses with the wrong damn country, one which we are still fighting today.

Even worse are the politicians who preach platitudes about supporting the brave first responders who risked their lives during the attacks – but then turn around and cancel bills meant to give those first responders support for their health care.  Or the regular people online who blanket Facebook and Twitter and such every September 11th with Photoshopped pictures of the Twin Towers and eagles and flags and the “Never Forget” slogan in sparklefont – but then go back to slagging New Yorkers as “libtards” the very next day.  Both those camps are people who are exploiting the worst day of my life to make themselves look good to others, and I have very little patience for that.

The person I got the angriest at, though, was a man who came up to me on the street two days after the attacks.  I was standing near my neighborhood’s local mosque, and he was walking past and saw me there, came over to me, and nodding at the mosque, said, “so this is where the snake pit is, huh?”

Never before in my life have I been as angry as another person as I got at that man.  “This is a HOUSE of WORSHIP!” I roared at him.  “HOW DARE YOU!”

“It’s a SNAKE PIT!” he shouted back; but he was backing away from me.  We shouted back and forth at each other a few seconds more, him calling the mosque a snake pit and me scolding him for his prejudice; but he was backing away down the street and finally just ran off, driven off by my rage.

And it was pure rage. Rage which still comes faintly back to me when I write about that moment these many years later.

Carefully lift the processed jars out of the stock pot.  Worry at one that hisses a bit.  Check the lid; it’s a good seal.  Resolve to keep an eye on it anyway.  Top up the water and drop in the next round of jars.

Carry the jars over to the window by your oregano.  Linger there a few seconds each time you do, to catch the breeze for just a minute before returning to the hot kitchen.  Fiddle again with that jar you heard hissing.  Hear one of the jars clink in the stock pot and run back to make sure it didn’t break.

Food was one thing that helped me cope during those first few weeks.  Cat food, mostly.

I got into a bad headspace after a week; I didn’t have work right away, and so I was stuck with nothing to do, which left way too much time for me to let myself get caught up in endless mental rabbit-track loops replaying what had happened.  I’d either sit in my apartment in a weird fugue state, or do things like lock myself in my room and stay awake for 48 hours reading Lord Of The Rings cover to cover.

But while I was in a bad mental place, my cat Zach was not.  War or peace, political strife or good days – it was all the same to him.  All he cared about was food – Zach was an enormous glutton.  And two hours before his dinner, he would start asking after it, with his loud and strangely nasal “Miaou!”s.  In the weeks after the attack, his “Miaou!” was the only thing loud enough to finally pierce the voices in my own head, and rouse me to get up and off the couch and give him a scoop of kibble – and oh, wait, while I’m up I maybe should get a sandwich or something, shouldn’t I?….

And so while Zach ate and I numbly nibbled, I thought about how Zach didn’t care what had happened; all he cared about was that he was alive and he wanted to stay that way – and that I was alive, and it was my job to feed him.  I had a responsibility to keep him fed – and while I was at it, I had to keep me fed too.

I was alive, and I had to keep living for the people who couldn’t.

Chop the tomatoes that crushed on the way home.  Dump them into a Tupperware container with the not-enough-to-fill-a-jar tomato meat and stick it in the fridge to deal with later.   Mix up the skins and seeds in the colander with your hand to finish straining the juice.  Empty the colander into the trash.  Drop the colander in the trash as you do. Swear again.

Get that really big measuring cup and measure the juice from the bowl.  Just over two pints; dump the water out of the tomato bath pot and dump in the juice.  Bring that to a boil while you get two more jars.  This time it’s easier to fill the jars – it’s all juice.  Much more pourable.  Save the extra aside.  Seal those up too and set the juice jars inside the stock pot.   These get fifteen minutes; take a very deep breath, summon your courage and grab a paper towel to start finally wiping down the countertops and get going on the dishes. Pause halfway through to get a rocks glass from your “bar” in the living room.

Food was a place to start living again.

I’ve always been an active cook, but I picked it up after the attacks.  Especially the canning – it started as a whim, making jam and then liqueur, and then when I moved to Brooklyn I tried canning a couple pounds of tomatoes just to see if I could.

I now routinely make jam and applesauce and pickles every year, mainly just to cope with the bounty I get from a CSA; when I know I can’t eat something fast enough, it either gets canned or frozen.  I hate to waste things, so this kind of canning is more salvage; I’m stopping it from going bad so I can have it on hand to use in something.  Someday.  At some point.

Tomatoes are a little different – it’s the only thing I can as a planning-ahead thing.  I cook a lot of Cajun and Italian food, and tomato soup is one of my comfort foods, so tomatoes are a staple, and this is my big annual stocking-up.  I boasted to my mother once that I haven’t had to buy a can of Del Monte or Contadina from the supermarket in four years.

There’s also something comforting about that big stockpile; about opening the hall closet where I keep all my canned stuff, and seeing those jars stacked up.  It’s a bounty – the means to make a years’ worth of some of my favorite foods whenever I choose, and knowing that because these are really good tomatoes, it’s also going to be really good food.

But it’s also a promise and a commitment and a celebration.  It’s my own declaration that I’m still here, several years on, to eat those tomatoes.  And share them with others who are also here.  Canning on September 11th each year is my way of celebrating that I’m here, and signing on to stay here.

Bring the juice jars over to the windowsill, and finally turn off the stove.  Leave the last pot to soak, measure out a bit of vodka and dump that into the glass with the balance of the juice.  Forgive yourself for having to look up how to make a Bloody Mary.  Finish mixing it and bring it to the chair by the window with a heavy sigh.

Look at the jars of tomatoes.  Twelve of them this year, a neat row of jars with swirls of orangey-red. Twelve meals’ worth of future soups and chilis and jambalaya.

Think about jambalaya a moment, the play of the smoky Andouille and sweet pepper on your tongue.

Take a sip of your drink.  You overdid it with the vodka a tiny bit, but the blinding freshness of the tomato comes through.

Feel the breeze through the window, a relief after the hot kitchen.  Look out the window.  You’re looking east, so you can’t see the sun, but the sky is colored for sunset anyway, the blue tinging to pink and lavender.  Sip your drink again and look at the sky.

Then back inside to your home, one which you’ve filled with friends whom you’ve fed with tomatoes in years past.  Remember one meal, all of you sitting around the kitchen table and laughing.

Look back out at the sky again, thinking of them.  Thinking of life.

You are alive.

 Breathe.

Thirteen, Thirty-One, Forty-Nine

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Some years back, I was at a neo-Pagan shop picking up a particularly nice-smelling incense they specialized in.  After he’d fetched it for me, the clerk suddenly gave me an intense stare, peering at me through his glasses and between his shaggy bangs.  “When’s your birthday?” he asked.

“……why?”

He grabbed a notepad.  “I want to do your numerology,” he said.  It was a bit slow at his counter, but that still doesn’t explain why he was that determined to give me a complete numerological workup at that exact moment.  He asked me my birthdate and name, and then, pen flying across the paper and fixing me with intense looks as he spoke, he gave me a five minute dissertation on numerology, complete with telling me my birth number, how to calculate it, what such a number portends, and how to calculate a separate number based on my name and how it also affected me.

I have forgotten nearly all of what he told me – I’ve always been a little dubious of numerology – with one exception.  “The thing about life,” he said, “is that it goes in eighteen-year patterns.  Or, more like pairs of nine-year patterns,” he added, sketching a curved line for me on the page – up, then down, then back up.  “It takes you nine years to go from here to here,” he said, pointing first at the beginning of the line up high, and then the valley.  “And then, it takes another nine years to go from the bottom here back up to here.  And then it repeats,” he said, continuing the line in a few more swoops up and down the page.  “So if you want any insight into where you are now, a good way to find out is to look back eighteen years to see what was happening to you then.  That’s when you were at the same place in the pattern.  Not nine years,” he warned, staring at me and tapping the paper.  “Eighteen.  That’s the pattern.”

In late June Alex told me he was moving to Los Angeles.  It wasn’t entirely surprising – he’s always wanted to get into screenwriting, and after visiting friends there this spring he came back saying that writing jobs were “free-flowing” there and I suspected this would happen.  What did surprise me was how his brave leap started me thinking about what I’m doing with my own life as well.  “It looks like you’ve triggered a midlife crisis,” I joked to Alex, “it’s just manifesting as something deeper than a facelift.”

He moved out this Monday.  But I had a decent amount in savings, so I’ve chosen to treat August like a sabbatical – take my time finding the next roommate, and otherwise live alone, trying to do some digging into my own brain and clearing some things out while I did the same with the apartment.  It’s going to be a tough job – not only have I built up an amazingly stupid amount of junk in this apartment that should probably go, I’m afraid that I’ve buried some bits of myself out of necessity and they need to be unearthed.  Doing that out of sight of any other human is probably going to be a very wise move.

It’s scary as hell, I’m not going to lie.  It’s triggered some really uncomfortable moments at work, where I’ve had to fight back the urge to burst out crying at my desk out of sheer frustration that I even have to be there instead of….somewhere else, doing….something else.  But that’s the thing, I haven’t been sure yet what the somewhere and the something else are, or what I want them to be.

But it’s a start.  And looking back a couple of eighteen-year jumps, it looks like that may be the pattern.

Eighteen years ago I was 31.  That spring I’d been working as a secretary in a bank while working as a stage manager when I could, mostly at a little company on the Lower East Side five minutes’ walk from my house.  I wrote a little bit for them as well.  But then in June, the department I was working in imploded, and they laid off about 70% of us, me included. But at my meeting with Human Resources, they presented me with an eye-poppingly huge severance package.  “Ah,” I thought.  “I’m not being laid off.  I am having a summer of theater funded.”  The first rehearsal for the latest show at my theater was that evening; I’d been tapped to be the company dramaturg, and I turned up early to tell the director, “you know how you didn’t want to ask me to stage manage because of my job?….Good news!”

That summer was the beginning of a full-bore concentration on theater.  I dedicated myself to it more intently than I had before, a move which carried me through another seven years and nearly 30 shows, an Equity card, three Fringe Festivals and a stint off-Broadway complete with seeing my name in a review in the New York Times.  It also led me to doing double-duty in writing – that same director moved on to another theater the following year, and when they needed someone to write program notes for their shows, he called me up and even offered to pay.

Relatedly – although I didn’t know it was related at the time – that summer also introduced me to my friend Colin.  But “friend” wasn’t what we were thinking initially – we actually met through an online personal site, and…er, in the interest of discretion I’ll just say that that was the avenue we explored at first.  We dated only very briefly, but had already been talking about working together by the time we called that quits – so when Colin called me literally the next day to ask “I know we just broke up, but…do you still wanna try working together?” I surprised myself by saying “you know what?….I do.”

First we tried working on a quick fundraising event for his own company, and then I gave him some help at another event, and a couple months later he invited me to join his company fully, a move which lead to us co-producing another 10 years’ worth of plays and founding a playwriting contest that at last count helped to launch the careers of three different writers.  I was there to see him meet Niki, the woman he would ultimately fall in love with (and ultimately move to Colorado with last year), he was there to see me meet the man I fell in love with (and who ultimately broke my heart).  I helped him and Niki paint their first house.  He did my taxes for two years simply because he was convinced I could do better than taking the standard deduction.  He teased me for being a sucker for plays about people growing up Catholic, and I teased him back over his soft spot for bioplays about Shakespeare.

We developed a conversational shorthand that relied heavily on quotes from Princess Bride and Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and a professional decision-making method that involved southern barbecue and pitchers of margaritas. We worked in the same office for nearly eight years and only had two major arguments, neither one about work (they were instead both about politics, which lead me to decree that henceforth, on Election Days, we were only allowed to talk to each other about puppies).  We once giggled ourselves into breathlessness over the title of a play we received – “To Barcelona!”, complete with exclamation mark – because after three hours neither one of us was capable of saying the name without heroically shouting it in a Castillian accent and pumping a fist in the air.  We both nearly got trampled at a protest march when a group set fire to a banner in the middle of the crowd behind us, sending a crowd of people stampeding at us from behind and a flying wedge of cops charging at us from the front (I grabbed him and dragged him onto a side street barking that we’re going to walk this way RIGHT NOW, please). We both recognized in each other a few years back that “it looks like neither of us is really into theater any more,” and I know that helped me face that it was time to close that chapter of my life.  He has an insight into me and my mind that I have come to value tremendously.

Eighteen years ago today, I didn’t know any of this was ahead of me – I was likely only just finding Colin’s profile online and sending my first “hey, how are ya” message before slipping off to rehearsal for the show I’d just started working on.

Eighteen years before that I was just thirteen.  I was only a few months into puberty, something I find comically ironic now that I am likely only a few months away from the end of that part of my life.

I don’t really remember all that much of that year. I keep on thinking of things but then realizing they came either a year or so before or a couple years after; meeting my best girl friends Sue and Cliona came when I was eleven, writing a goofy book with Sue and another friend came in high school, when I was fourteen.  I even tried browsing a couple history sites for news events from that year, but save for clinically noticing that “okay, I remember that movie” it didn’t trigger anything.

But doing the math that may be because there were things that went down that spring that I’ve wanted to block out.

I was bullied as a child for a solid three or four years, pretty much from fourth grade up through seventh.  Not for any real definitive reason that I know, either – I was a little bit quirky, prone to nerdishly obsessing over random things, and perhaps some kids didn’t know how to relate to that so they turned on me.  Or, maybe it was just the reason any kid gets bullied, because I was there and I usually didn’t fight back.  I didn’t know how to fight back, either – when it started, my parents advised me to just ignore it, which I internalized as “even though you do hear what they’re saying and it hurts, don’t let them see that you’re hurt.”

And a lot of times the things they said would seem like compliments if you were to type them out and read them.  They would tell me I was smart, I was pretty, I was their best friend.  They would wave really big at me when I walked into a room. They would tell me that my hair was pretty and my clothes were cool.  But they said it in exaggeratedly sarcastic, syrupy-sweet overly fake voices that made it obvious that they were picking on me.  It was especially insidious, because how was I going to complain to a teacher about that?  “They’re picking on me by telling me I’m pretty”? I had friends, but only a couple, and they weren’t always around and didn’t really know what to do to help me either.

And so I sat, in classroom after classroom, in lunch room after lunch room, for four years, listening to the giggles and sarcastic whispers telling me that I was sooooo smart and sooooooo pretty, and knowing they meant something completely different from what they said and not being able to do anything about it. To this day I have a hard time trusting praise or compliments from anyone because my bullies taught me that sweet words are usually insincere.  Only when I know you well will I believe you if you praise me, and sometimes not even then.

Still all of that was prelude to when I was thirteen.  It wasn’t constant, either – it came in fits and starts, as different people saw me in different classes.  But that spring it suddenly got physical when a group of girls in my gym class took to laying in wait for me after I changed out of gym clothes and was trying to get to my next class.  When I was with my friends, they would leave me alone, but when it was just me, they’d giggle and follow me, trying to corner me against a wall and…and I didn’t know what they wanted to do and I didn’t care, I saw enough menace in their eyes.  Once they even trapped me in the stairwell and one threw the threat of a punch at me, all of them giggling when I flinched.  It got worse as the semester went on, with them not even waiting until after class sometimes, trying to corner me in the gym itself.  I’d spend most of class trying to dodge them and escape their notice, and was not always successful.

But sometime that April, at the beginning of a gym class when we were playing volleyball or something, the teacher told us to all form ourselves into groups for games.  I saw my buillies heading my way and I was cowering, knowing they were going to try to pull me into their group so they could corner me – and suddenly three other girls from class that I didn’t know got to me first, standing around me in a protective huddle.  “Hey, wanna play with us?” they said, a mite louder than necessary.

“Uh….okay?”  I dumbly followed them, and they introduced themselves to me as we found our way to a net.  We played a haphazard game – the three of them had known each other a while and had a lot of in-jokes that I didn’t really know how to relate to, but they treated me decently, and we all were equally bad at volleyball so it didn’t matter as much that I was bad and I took their laughter when I blew a serve as the good-natured laughter it was.  I was still puzzled about why they’d sought me out, but went with it.

After class they told me what they were doing.  “We don’t like seeing you getting beat up by the tough girls every day,” they said.  “We decided we wanted to do something.”

“Really?”  The thought that anyone even noticed what was happening to me, much less actually wanted to do something about it, floored me.

“Why don’t you tell the principal?” one challenged me.  “You don’t have to take that.”

“I don’t know….I don’t think he can really do anything, he won’t understand.”

“That’s stupid!” she retorted.  “Of course they can do something.  And you don’t have to take that, it’s not fair to you.  You should tell him!” When I still hesitated, she added, “I’ll come with you and hold your hand, want me to?”

She did hold my hand.  Literally, as I sat in the principal’s office and sobbed and hiccupped my way through finally telling someone what was happening, she sat in the chair beside me with my hand in hers.. She’d taken it when she saw me start crying and held on.

The school mismanaged it, of course, by trying to set up a mediation between me and each of the other bully girls, and I had to sit in front of the principal as they lied through their teeth about what they’d been trying to do.  Schools usually mismanage bullying, in my experience.

But the notion that someone standing outside of my hell had even noticed me, and had decided to try to help me, was a crack in this sense of self-belief I’d been constructing that told me I didn’t deserve anything better. I was on my way to believing that this was just what I deserved and that was that.  Those girls reaching out just that one time was the first inkling I had that that was bullshit.

I didn’t realize I was thinking that the August I was thirteen.  Mostly I was just relieved that round of bullying had ended, and I was trying not to think about it any more.  It’s only now, 36 years later, that I realize that it was the last time I was properly bullied at all.  I did have a few more people try a time or two over the next couple years, but I thought differently about it; it was a reflection on the bullies, not on me.

The August I was thirteen was the end of a hard few years and the beginning of realizing that I deserved better.

I’ve had a hard few years.  I was starting to believe that the rut I’m in is as good as it can get; I had to settle for less, just to protect myself.  But that’s over now.  I’ve started looking into ways to change the path I’m on and do more with it; it will take time and years to get there, but I’ve started to remember I am worth that path.  And it’s very possible, if my history repeats itself – as it seems to have done – that the things ahead of me might be rich indeed.

Eighteen years.  That’s the pattern.