Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Begin Agin?

If you glance over at my blog roll on the right, you’ll see something called Begin the Vegan, a very short-lived project I started when I went from vegetarian to vegan about two and a half years ago.

Ask me today what’s one of the things I’m most passionate about, among the most fun elements of my life, the subject that’s part of my consciousness pretty much every day, and being vegan—planning dinner, shopping for shoes, buying a rug, picking a shaving cream, and did I mention planning dinner? (I love to cook!)—would be at the top of the list. Yet I haven’t blogged about it since July 2010.

I knew it was perhaps overly ambitious to start a second blog when this one had just come back from a dormancy of 15 months (and has since endured another lapse of almost a year). But I was game to try, and for a few months it helped me articulate my feelings and discoveries about my dietary evolution—which have continued unabated since then (of course they’ve continued—they’re feelings!), though one wouldn’t know it. I just hate to think it appears I’ve lost interest.

What I’ve lost is the impetus, and the courage to start again with the very real possibility that I could stall once more. Then I’d have two sputtering engines in my literary driveway.

In the meantime, I might have written about a get-together with college friends a year and a half ago where I brought a delicious vegan cake I made in honor of our collective 50th birthdays, and the first thing one friend said when she tasted it was “How many eggs are in this?” Or the next get-together with those friends earlier this year when I made the same cake (because one friend had missed the first gathering), and the cake was an embarrassing, damp-centered dud. But I bit my tongue and remembered Julia Child’s culinary admonishment from her fabulous memoir, My Life in France: Never apologize!

I could write about D., who has been nothing but accommodating as he himself has evolved to a mostly vegetarian diet since knowing me and a vegan-friendly (and appreciative) attitude toward my cooking in the last two to three years.

I could write about the fun (and frustrating—Candle Cafe, I’m talking about you) cookbooks and blogs I’ve discovered. (I’ve added a few of my faves to the roll here.) The things I’m willing to compromise on (ratcheting down to merely vegetarian when dining out with friends or as a guest at someone’s house, afternoon tea with D.) and the things I’m not (meat!). Or the fact that my sister and brother-in-law recently became vegan for reasons of their own and what it’s like to have compatriots in the family even as I try not to let others in the bloodline feel self-conscious about their own cooking, which I can still enjoy (see compromises above).

I could blog about all of this. But I haven’t even looked at Begin the Vegan in nearly two years, until today when I went there to see when my last post was.

So why am I blogging about it here?

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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Outward Bound

Seeing the wonderful movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel the other night got me thinking, and not only about how rarely you see older people in films depicted as anything but pathetic or clownish—which they certainly are not in this story, but rather as actual adults with ambitions, inner lives, and nuanced spirits. 
The movie—about a group of “seniors” (a word I’ve always hated; I makes me think, at what high school?) who are lured to an overpromised retirement home in India—is essentially about a junior year abroad for adults. I’ve written before about that kind of experience, which I knew as a young man, as well as my history of shying away from adventure. It's always heartening to be reminded that the door isn’t really closed. 

My 50th-birthday trip to Germany last summer made me think I’d like to do a two-week Goethe-Institut program in that country someday. Much like the movie, I've thought of it as a mini–junior year abroad for the adult me. I’m better equipped to roll with any disorientation and language problems than I was at age 20—and I’d better be, because two weeks goes by fast. Also because I took a German test on the Goethe-Institut site after I got back and was shocked to see, in stark numerical terms, the rudimentary level this former German major had devolved to. I mean, I knew from the trip that my street skills had atrophied (I had to be reminded by a phrase book how to ask for a restaurant check), but I’d always tested well! 
In my mind, I tend to define adventure in literal terms—travel, relocation, trying new activities—but it's worth acknowledging the smaller doors I've stepped through. During the four years I was single after my last long-term relationship, one of the biggest surprises to me was that it was possible to make new friends in your forties. Strangely enough, I never really doubted love was possible again, but I didn’t expect new friends—real ones, not the verbs but the nouns. A couple of them in particular helped sustain me during those years, just by being up for getting together on a Monday or Thursday night or a rainy Saturday at 4. Those times when the 15-year-old in you takes over and you think everyone else must be busy and why would they want to spend time with you on such short notice? When the riskiest adventure feels like picking up the phone to call someone you're still getting to know, and the nicest sound is that person saying, “Sure, let’s do it.”

Photo: Oberammergau, Germany
By Billy

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Wednesday, May 09, 2012

How Can I Keep From Singing?

The wife of a college friend passed away at age 51, so last weekend most of my old, small "circle" of a half dozen or so traveled from various points along the Mid-Atlantic to bear witness at her memorial service outside Boston. I'd only met her once, at a college reunion nine years ago (she didn't go to our school; she and her husband met years later), but a better angel of my sometimes reluctant nature prevailed, reminding me that intimate acquaintance with the deceased isn't required and  funerals are for the living.
It was billed as a memorial "salon," at which loved ones could speak, read, sing about whatever inspired them. It went on more than two hours, and there were some lovely moments. The Quaker hymn "My Life Flows on in Endless Song" (which I know as "How Can I Keep From Singing?," by Judy Collins and Enya) and "Dona Nobis Pacem" were among the planned portions of the program, sung by those gathered. Someone read the exquisite, heartbreaking, and right poem "Let Evening Come" by Jane Kenyon. There were lots of memories of my friend's wife, proof that stories are truly the components of a life, the breathing blocks from which a human can be recalled and invoked, indeed created—from which we're all created, every day. I never knew her, but after the memorial I had a sense of her.
The only person in my circle who was moved to speak was one who recited, from memory, "The Owl and the Pussycat." I asked if she'd planned to do that and she said, "NO!"
Afterward my group and some others went to our friend's house, the home he'd shared with his wife until her death, and drank beer and wine and listened to a story she had written herself. I had to leave before most of the others because my sister and brother-in-law, who live in the Boston area and with whom I was staying, were taking me out to dinner. (We had also been through a lot recently, and I wanted to honor that.) I felt rushed and inept as I said goodbye to my college friend and his teenage daughter, and then to all my old friends who I don't see often and who had traveled to be there as I had. 
Just before the memorial, I'd squeezed in a brief, half-hour visit with yet another friend (from a different time in my life, grad school) who lives in the area. We'll catch up a bit more this summer in Provincetown, where it turns out she and her family will overlap with D. and me for a day or two. She walked me to the church where the memorial was, and as we said goodbye, I heard myself say "I love you." I sign my letters to close friends "love" and "xo," but I don't think I've ever said "I love you" to a platonic friend in my life (which might come as a surprise to the friend I said it to, but it's true). The words just tumbled out. I meant them, but they were also on the surface that day looking for someone to receive them. It was that kind of day.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Somewhere Where Deep Down Inside of Me I Don't Want to Be

Tonight my brother and sisters and I met to start talking about some of the logistics of arranging a funeral for our father, who has not died yet but is steadily fading. It might be this year, it might be later.
One of his younger brothers passed away a few months ago from Alzheimer's (at 91, Dad is the eldest of eight, and three have died). My two sisters went to the funeral in Buffalo, and when they asked our cousin—whose father was the deceased—how she and her brother had pulled such a nice ceremony together in such a short time, our cousin said, "We didn't. We planned it." That's when my sisters realized we should start thinking about how we'd like to honor both of our parents when the time comes.                                   
Tonight's discussion was a productive one over pizza. I won't go into the details here, but for a conversation I was dreading, it went surprisingly well, even with some laughs.
Last night, I was reading letters Dad wrote to me when I was in college. He didn't write as often as my mother did, but he corresponded throughout my four years away from home, often just a postcard from a museum, sometimes a single-spaced typewritten letter of a page or two.
Here is an excerpt from what appears to be the first full letter I ever received from him, dated September 11, 1979, within the first couple of weeks I was away at college, feeling miserably lonely and out of place. At this point, I'd had more than one tearful phone call with both him and my mother. This letter from Dad exemplifies so much of what made him who he was—the formal language, the highbrow mixed with low, the offering of memories from his own life, the encouragement and generosity, the kid-like interest in the modest pleasures of the world. The rest falls away.
Dear Billy,

Your feelings about finding it hard to adjust sound exactly the way I felt when I first got into the army air force. But it is bound to get better. It is not knowing when that makes it bad. . . .
I found in my own life, adjusting to these unfamiliar and indeed alien situations, that the difference between liking and not liking usually was somehow or other allied to finding a friend or two who bit by bit contributed to removing the alien-ness of the atmosphere. Actually it doesn't have to be a friend—they are rare enough. It can just be a pleasant acquaintance. . . . If it is possible to do so, Philadelphia has many fascinating museums. The Benjamin Franklin Museum is world famous and on a par with the Smithsonian. Give it a try if you can spare the time. Of course it has been a long time since I was there, but I remember with pleasure that they have a little movie house there where for a pittance you could see classic black and white films of historical note. Call them up and ask. . . . 
I noticed that on the back of the Grape Nuts Flakes box there is an offer for a "Yogurt Machine" that looks pretty nice. Would you like that for a gift? It would be a good hobby and you could make your own without a lot of fuss. Things like that fascinate me. As you know. There is an old joke about Philadelphia that W.C. Fields was supposed to have originated. There was a contest in which first prize was a week in Philadelphia. The 2nd prize was two weeks in Philadelphia. I am sure it's not really fair. Sounds like the things people used to say about Buffalo. There is something good and interesting about every place. I used to determine that I would find something to do at some real holes where I was on TDY (federalese for temporary duty) and would read a Baedeker or other travel guide and find that there was a Roman ruin, or an old cathedral, or a dinosaur dig or whatever. That is what I would do to put some fabric in my life, and of course it is a useful surrogate for providing the feeling for having a purpose for being somewhere where deep down inside of you you don't want to be.

Love, Dad

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