Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Lemon Pounds Cake

I like to call this a pounds cake because you can make it exactly as you like it and gain several pounds from just a couple of pieces.

I also like to post recipes for things I will no longer eat. I derive the sensory satisfaction from the list of ingredients (if I read them fast, it's as though they are mixed into cake batter; try it), and I also feel a bit of glee that you might make this, and I will be losing weight while you are the ones gaining the pounds.

Pounds Cake

3 sticks of butter
3 cups of sugar
1/4 teaspoon of salt
6 eggs
1 cup of whole milk
3 teaspoons of extract (I use 2 lemon, 1 vanilla)
3 cups of flour

1. Preheat the oven to 325°.
2. Grease and flour a tube pan—fancy are harder to unmold and clean.
3. Cream the butter. Add the sugar and salt. Mix thoroughly.
4. Add eggs, one at a time, while the mixer is running.
5. Add flavoring to the milk and add to batter alternately with flour.
6. Mix thoroughly and pour into prepared pan
7. Bake for 1.5 hours or until tester is clean.

Turn out the cake, and let it cool. Pour glaze on top.


2 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
1/2 stick of melted butter
2 T extract or juice (I use lemon juice)
2 T milk

Mix well. Pour on the Pounds Cake (and pour on the pounds).

Eat. Completely. Keep thinking that the lemon glaze tastes like a Lemon Cooler cookie. Relive the nostalgia over and over again. Gain some weight. Wear my giant hand-me-downs.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Ready, Set—

Today is the day I slough my summer skin, that sun-dried outer shell, and expose my gooey center, the one that gets filled with cake and challah and buttercream. And then I’ll swear off that stuff for awhile. It’s a pattern.

I know it’s a pattern because I live a well-examined life. As a chronic chronicler, I know what I was doing last year (and the years before) at this time. I have pictures of the bread I braided and baked. I have pictures of my uncle’s taxidermy, my unhappy self, new leaves I had planned to overturn. My usual post-summer funk, a carryover from my summer funk, was coming to a head like an ugly talking boil. (It speaks with the Suck Voice, which, I imagine, sounds very much like Richard E. Grant.) Rejection, hand pain, fat—the usual.

It’s a coincidence, of course, that life seems to get crappy just before Rosh Hashanah. But here I am again, with back pain, insomnia, fat, a bit of the suck voice. I’ll overdo it tonight for a fresh start tomorrow.

The best part about Rosh Hashanah, besides the cake (this year: lemon pound cake with lemon glaze) and the challah, is that if I screw up—if I cheat on the diet or miss a day of exercise or lose my momentum altogether—I get another shot in January with the rest of you.

This is the perfect time for a fresh start, isn’t it? The air has that crisp newness. The sky is all swoopy with birds. The decorations are orange. And October is my birthday month! I can make myself ready for the shock of having to tell people I’m forty-six (forty-six? It doesn’t even sound right) by getting my roots touched up tomorrow and buying a whole bunch of new clothes that I’m bound to look great in by November*.

Between today and my birthday, which falls, this year, on the eve of Yom Kippur, Jews will do a lot of reflecting. We’ll ask those we’ve wronged for forgiveness (I try to do that as I go along so I can spend more time reflecting and planning and less time apologizing). We’ll be a little extra nice. We’ll set our goals. And then, it is said, if we were thorough enough, God will write us down in his book for a good year. L’Shana Tovah Tikatavu, the greeting Jews use for this holiday, means, literally, may you be inscribed for a good year.

Last year, I was written down big-time. I resolved, on my first New Year’s eve to do something with my book, and, in the two months, between Rosh Hashanah and Thanksgiving, I got an agent and a contract. I resolved on my second New Year’s eve to write a page a day, and I did it, finishing the manuscript seven months earlier than my contract required.

So what’s on my plate right now, besides my last piece of cake? A new book proposal is in the works, and I’ll need some serious charms for this one. And, since I’ve done irreparable damage sitting on my butt writing my first book, I’ll need to spend a lot more time moving around.

If you could start fresh tomorrow, what would you do? Wake up with a smile, despite how poorly you slept? Work harder, be nicer, eat better? Treat every problem as if it were an opportunity for creativity? We can’t abandon our obligations; on the contrary, we hand-picked these obligations—motherhood, marriage, careers. And we can’t expect to become a new person overnight. I don’t know about you, but I worked hard to become this one.

But say you have a week-long planning period and dry run. What one thing would you change tomorrow? On your mark, get set—

P.S. The suck voice says this is a lame post. I tell the suck voice to stick it.

*Bob Schneider hits the World Cafe on the 13th of November and the Recher on the 14th.

* * *

Thursday, September 25, 2008

an open letter to my fantasies and crushes

Dear fantasies and crushes,

I have been thinking about you a little more than usual lately—Bob, Kip, Chuck, Billy, Willy. That’s because I’ve been spending a lot of time immobile—in bed, on the kitchen floor, on the sofa—moving my laptop from one barely comfortable place to the next.

I consider you a healthy part of my psyche. You help my self-esteem, make me more confident.

In my fantasies, my underwear is lingerie. My stomach is flat. My breasts sit way high above my navel. You have pecs and triceps. You smell like water. Your socks and underwear are new—like right-out-of-the-package new. And you are nice. You actually like me because I am cool and charming. We both dig cake and ale. And we are single. (What kind of person fantasizes about breaking someone else's heart?)

But I wonder, now, whether my imagined affairs with you are innocent, especially since I have told the world that I love you. The other day, author M. Gary Neuman told Oprah’s viewers that people who discuss intimate aspects of their lives are having emotional affairs. He said our spouses should be all the support we need.

(I know you stopped reading for a minute to sing, “Here in my car, I am safest of all….” )

One of Oprah’s call-in guests was a woman who suspected her husband of cheating. She checked his cell phone and found a photo of him, naked, wagging his stiffy. He was a call-in, too, and explained that he had shared his nude self-portrait with some online strangers. I can’t remember exactly why he did it, but I’m sure it’s why many of us expose ourselves to strangers. It’s what I do nearly every day in my writing or my photography.

(In my fantasies, you think everything I say is interesting, so, even though it wasn't about you just now, you are still following me, nodding, saying, "Yes, my love, tell me more.")

You and I want validation. We know our husbands and wives desire us. We know our moms and dads and sisters and brothers like our writing/singing/ dancing/guitar playing/stock brokering. It’s their job. But isn’t it grand to know that thousands of screaming fans love you, too? It's kind of like I feel when someone comments on my blog.

Neuman says,
Take a quick check: Do you send that funny e-mail to your friends at work—but not to your spouse? … Do you get a secret thrill out of flirting with coworkers—thinking it’s safe because you know it’s not going any further? If so, you’re committing emotional infidelity—and you’re draining your marriage of the energy it needs to be great.

I sent my husband an email yesterday, an interesting political essay I thought he might like. He doesn’t ever check his email. But many of my cubicle-working and self-employed friends, male and female, do. And flirting? Well, though it’s sometimes a thrill, it’s never a secret. I have never sent you a private confession of my love. It’s always a public declaration on your My Space page. Or it’s an open letter on my blog.

But its public-ness is not why it’s safe. And although your charm and wit and talent and all the delicious visible parts of you don’t really make you less accessible, they certainly increase the competition for your affection.

What makes it safe is this: In real life, my lingerie is underpants, six for twelve dollars at Costco. (They are made by Itsy Bitsy, which, in my size, is ironic.) My stomach won’t be flat until I grow a full foot taller. And gravity is unkind to well-endowed women; my shoulders have bra-strap divots in the bones.

And in real life, you have a flabby gut, black socks, and tighty whities with a finger-size hole in the saggy seat. You smell like booze and socks and the back of a bus. You have had sex with so many women that you would need a condom made of iron to keep me safe from your diseases.

That we will never see each other naked is the best part of my fantasy.

So even though a guy on Oprah says I should stop flirting with you and leaving virtual smooches on your pictures, I am not giving up on our love. I didn’t want you to worry.



P.S. Sometimes, when I think about you, the back-of-the-bus smell gets in the way, and you turn into Enrico Colantoni. He smells nice. Like olive oil and garlic.

P.P.S. You are so hot. [wink, wink]

Saturday, September 20, 2008

I'll keep this brief.

If you have nothing to do at 3:00 tomorrow and want to see me try to read, nervously, from my book, please join me and the handful of others, who may or may not be waving sticks with giant Mariska Hargitay heads glued onto them. In return, I may or may not sneeze on them.

For a brief sample, please check out the September 2008 issue of Brevity, where I have a piece called "Three Bites." I also have a little ditty on the Brevity Blog.

It's important to, you know, get out there.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


Two confessions. The first will make me look a little queer, as my sister called me last night, when I started to cry. “Oh, shit, Les, you’re so queer,” she said. And the other will make me look, well, queer.

First: Beautiful music makes me cry. Set aside, for a moment, that the notion of beautiful is subjective. The first time I heard Charlotte Church’s giant voice erupt from her tiny body, I cried. I cried when I heard Sungha Jung, age ten, play U2's “With or Without You.” And I cried watching the Indigo Girls at the Ram’s Head last night. They start strumming chords and singing righteous harmonies, and I have to hide that intensely private moment when beautiful voice meets soul.

Sometimes words will do it: I see them in a beaker, added one at a time, and starting to smoke, like some potent elixir of love, and that concoction is so gorgeous and too big for its container. I spill, too. The first time I hiked Zion Canyon and looked down over the West Rim Trail, I cried; I still cry at the same spot. I am overwhelmed by the awesome power of beauty. I am sure there is another, better way to say it. Nothing can adequately capture that momentary shock of ecstasy. I imagine it must be what people mean when they say they saw god.

So I cried at the start of the Indigo Girls concert last night, and I cried again when they played “Power of Two,” the moment the first note began. I told Beth that my daughter, Serena, would get in the car when she was a tiny little girl and say, “Power of Two,” Mommy, “Power of Two.” She knew all the words. I buried my face in my hands. “Uck! You’re so queer,” Beth said.

Second: I sometimes go chick shopping at the lesbian mall.

That's not a particularly sensitive thing to say, but I liked how it sounded when I thought of it last night as the title to a funny song I would write later. Ladies, you know you’ve done this. A year ago, I went to see a local male musician and wound up talking to my friend about what women would be our type*, if women were our type at all. (I’m not going out on a limb here when I say that straight men probably don’t do this about other men; even if they think it, they don’t share.) Some friends approached in mid-discussion, and we asked them if they’d ever given it a thought. One had; the other vehemently denied having ever done so.

That game gets replayed at every girl-band concert. You know how you got a contact buzz when the people around you at the Bowie concert were smoking pot? There’s a sort of contact-sexual-orientation thing that goes on in a room with two thousand lesbians. (Even the men at these shows are lesbi-men—not gay, but pro-woman and not afraid of their feminine side.)

The Indigo Girls (with Julie Wolf last night, W00T!) are some hard-working broads. Though they played some of my least favorite songs, they outplay nearly everyone I’ve ever seen. Seeing a woman lord over a guitar the way these women do, the way Jonatha Brooke and Brandi Carlile and Missy Higgins and Nancy Wilson and Suzi Quatro and Chrissie Hynde do, just makes me proud to be a girl.

Women are powerful—in pairs, in groups of a thousand, by the dozen, individually. But while a woman guitar player can push my happy button, it still matters what she’s saying. I can’t get behind her if she makes a lyrical demand that I put my faith in Jesus or help take away women’s reproductive freedom. It’s not enough to be a tough, strong wearer of lipstick. You don’t score with me by virtue of your vagina. It’s not enough to be named Hilary or Sarah.

It’s when our ideals match that your womanhood can—and even should—give you the edge.

Nothing queer about that. Only beautiful.

*Brandi Carlile

* * *

What I like most about the Indigo Girls is their duality. Amy is dark; Emily is light. Emily is often associated with the prettier melodies, while Amy writes the more brooding songs. Two of my recent favorites are Amy's "Tether" and Emily's "All That We Let In." My daughter is actually learning to play that one, her favorite.

Monday, September 15, 2008

the sun and I will have our ups and downs

When your back is wrecked, you sometimes can't walk, sit, stand, or lie down without a whole lot of pain. When it's on the mend, you sometimes need a reminder of the things you can't do.

1. You can’t go grocery shopping and pick up the giant box of large-size Milkbones from the bottom shelf, put it in your cart, put it on the conveyor belt, put it back in the cart, put it in your car, and bring it in your house. You can’t even do the first thing.

2. You can’t lug your new kneeling chair, which you discover was delivered without so much as a knock at the door (you know, because your junkyard dogs would have made a fuss), into the kitchen. You can’t even squeeze the 19.55 pound box from the place between the railings where the UPS guy wedged it.

3. You cannot put together the chair that you cannot lug into the kitchen from the front porch, especially hunched over in another chair while holding the heavy metal parts in the air until you get their holes matched and their screws tightened.

4. You cannot sit on your ass for hours writing, while your L5 throbs, and your feet grow numb.

5. You cannot make the bed! Do not make the bed! You don’t even make the bed when you’re feeling good!

6. You cannot take forty of your husband’s long-sleeved shirts off the hangers to the washing machine in the basement; take them out, wet, to put them in the dryer; and bring them all upstairs, where you cannot hang each of them back up in the closet, fastening at least the top two buttons while you lean over the bed. And you cannot do this after having done this with forty short-sleeve shirts, and you cannot do it again with forty more long-sleeve shirts. And your husband, who refuses to wear deodorant, but whom you caught hanging up a shirt he’d just taken off after working in it all day—on a day he walked a mile to work-doesn’t even understand why you would.

7. You cannot squander the sunsets. You cannot miss the chance to carry your heavy camera up three flights of stairs to the attic, slide up the window screen, and lean, crookedly, on a narrow, dirty sill filled with dead bees, and shoot the sunset.

Because when the time comes that the list of things you can’t do grows unwieldy, itself a thing you cannot lift, your ability to enjoy the sunset—no, your desire to enjoy the sunset, your not having given up on the sun’s big, smeary, wet goodnight kiss—is the test of whether you should continue—making lists, adding to your list of days.

* * *

Friday, September 12, 2008

back. in black.

“I liked my old fun Mom.” That’s what my daughter said to me while I was brushing my teeth and moaning in agony last night, after having gotten a spinal cortisone shot.

Part of me felt sorry for her, having to watch me suffer every day and cry, unable to do anything to comfort me. Part of me felt ashamed for letting my daughter see my cry so often (to my credit, she was supposed to have been in bed, where I had just kissed her goodnight). But the third part of me—because we are all divided in thirds—thought: I used to be fun?

There is nothing easy about constant pain. Years ago, my husband asked me why I was so angry, why I yell all the time instead of just answering a question. I told him that’s the way I was raised, that my family answered loudly (a notion my mother objected to on the phone today, just before she screamed at my father, and then she had to admit it). I realized later that chronic pain simply makes a person cranky. Remember that pain chart? I’m truly always at that five, and being at a five takes its toll.

Being at a nine stresses out everyone, even the people who don’t love you. Even the doctors. Yesterday, at the pain clinic, I cried a dozen times. Everyone who worked there was cheerful and sympathetic; they see people like me all day, every day, and even if they can’t relate, they understand.

But the doctor suggested, before giving me my shot, that I go on Cymbalta. He said that in low doses, it helps chronic pain. It also takes the edge off the depression and anxiety that go with pain. He thinks that it, in conjunction with the shot, will provide just the relief I may need. He said the same thing to my husband, though with Marty, the doctor called them “mood swings” and said he could see that I was suffering from those, too.

Part of me thought that doctor was getting major kickbacks from the drug company! Marty had three samples in his briefcase. Another part of me thought he was really trying to help. How good of him to inform my husband (don’t worry: I indicated on my privacy form that the doctors could talk to my husband without fear of a lawsuit) about my misery, impress upon him how much physical and emotional distress I have suffered.

But that third part of me—because we are all divided in thirds—thought: Men! They just have to stick together, don’t they? This is the kind of doctor who would give some nice drugs to the husband of a woman in labor. He’s the kind of scientist who invented a drug for PMS. Oh, hey, it helps the women primarily, but don’t be surprised to find, on that mile-long patient information sheet—that one of the side effects of Cymbalta (besides diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, tiredness, blurred vision, tinnitus, and general brain numbness) is “happier husband.”

The shot hurt. Don’t let anyone tell you it is only mildly uncomfortable. It hurt, and then it hurt all night. That’s why I was crying while brushing my teeth (and inhaling my Advair and watching TV and sleeping). And I’m told I won’t begin to feel relief until three to eight days from administration of the shot.

This morning, though, I woke up without that achy feeling of having slept wrong all night. I got out of bed without the painful, halting wrench. I walked into the bathroom smoothly, without the feeling that my tailbone was carrying a lead anchor. I took the stairs with only one foot on each tread and walked briskly to the kitchen, where I announced my decreased pain to everyone. Even on the deck this morning, practicing walking, I shouted to my neighbor, “I can walk!” and she noticed, from that far away, that I was standing up straighter.

No one could have been more relieved than my daughter. The other day, I took her to Rock School and used one of the lesson rooms to lie on my back with my legs on a chair. Another mom noticed and told me she, too, is suffering from a herniated disk. When Serena finished her lesson, she overhead the mother telling me how she’d been alternately yelling at her kids and crying for several weeks. I could see my daughter’s ears perk up.

When we left the building, she asked me, “Doesn’t it make you feel better to know that someone else has the same thing?”

Because pain turns off nearly all of your normal better instincts (like when two skinny girls tell you they're on diets, and you compare the diet instead of saying, "Are you crazy, you skinny things?), I said no, it didn’t please me to know someone else was miserable. It didn’t ease my pain at all and only made me feel sadder.

“Well, it sure makes me feel better.”

I realize now that she’s been frightened for these few weeks—worried that I had some awful disease and was going to be crippled or dead or, worse, like this forever. Mean. Sad. Old. Unfun.

I hope this is the beginning of the end of my back pain. I don’t think any of us can take it anymore. I walked by a mirror this morning and almost didn’t recognize the profile of the woman reflected in it. What had happened to the hunched over crone, the witch who carried an apple to the front door of the seven dwarfs? Granted, she had some great hair, but she walked like a hag.

I never want to see her again.

This morning, I put on my underpants without holding the dresser. I practically hopped into them. Maybe soon I’ll be able to jump into my Fun Mom suit.

I never want to take it off.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

the chairs

I used to push and pull them
with cheery clang and jangle
send them to each other
as violent as a tango
or as gentle as a glissade
and draw the fur of dogs,
pull the dust of shedding sunlight,
from piles around their ankles.

I am with the soot in a heap,
my back thrown into spasm
by the motion of my broom.
I glower at their fancy footwork
curlicues of black steel
that swept me off my feet once
and tease me now under the table
partnered up and ready to dance.

I am suspicious of them all—
not just these pretties casting
perfect shadows in morning light.
But every chair—wing and parson,
rocker, stool and throne, the straight
and curved, the soft and hard—
all are suspect now.
A chair should be trusted.

A chair like a lover should know
exactly how to hold you.

Thursday, September 4, 2008


“On a scale of one to—” the triage nurse begins.

“Nine,” I say, scanning the room for a chart. I find two, and point out one to my husband, who is confused by my numerical outburst. He has seen an ER from a patient’s point of view maybe once since I’ve known him. The chart, in case you don’t know, is a series of circular cartoon faces, the first of which is happy to be alive because he has “no hurt.” What follows are varying degrees of suck: hurts a little, hurts a little more, hurts even more, hurts a whole lot. Ten is crying. He “hurts worst.”

I had been crying for days. My back had begun interfering with my life about a month ago, and I blamed it on my sixty-year-old mattress (I believe my husband was conceived in this very bad, on this very ancient Serta). So one night at eleven, I went to Overstock.com and bought a memory foam mattress. Comfortable as it is, my back did not respond. I could barely walk last Friday, when I went to see the chiropractor. And when we were finished, I couldn’t walk. I stood in the middle of the Belvedere Square parking lot, crying on my cell phone for my husband to come scrape me off the wheels of the next oncoming car. By Sunday morning, I was ready for pills.

“See, if my pain were a ten,” I tell the nurse and Marty, “I’d have a gun in my hand.” They both smile. “You don’t see the gun on the chart because they only show the face. He obviously hasn’t put it up to his head yet.”

Those faces—called the Wong-Baker FACES Pain Rating Scale—are at just about every hospital and pain management center across the country. They were devised by Donna Wong and Connie Baker, who frequently saw young burn victims who had trouble communicating their pain. Wong, a nurse consultant, and Baker, a child life specialist, had children fill in the faces in the pain scale, and a pattern developed—the shapes of the eyes, the mouth, and the nose in various stages of distress had similarities. A professional artist rendered the final version. Those pain charts are now used for adults, too, and in hospitals everywhere.

What makes my pain a nine instead of an eight or a seven? For one thing, my personal pain chart doesn’t go down to a one. Each day for me is a five, and I’m not just saying this because I’m a typical Jewish hypochondriac, dyed in the wool (with red dye #3, hence the cancer I probably have) by my own father.

About twenty years ago, I made my dad a t-shirt designed to look like a rock band’s tour souvenir. IHADTHAT, it said, with World Tour 1988 below. On the back, over a caduceus, what looked like tour cities was really a list of all the illnesses my father had or claimed to have had in his lifetime, from acid reflux to yeast.

The scary thing is that, at forty-five, I may have visited more cities.

My exam by the doctor is brief but delightful. He tells me to visit one particular restaurant in New Orleans, but I am to go to the side door and mention my waiter, Pierre. I can flip the bird to all those suckers waiting in line at the front door. (The doctor doesn’t say this, but I imagine they are a bunch of rich tourists, and that’s what I feel like doing at the moment, OK? I’m in pain here.)

In case you’re lost, the ER doc, who looks a bit like a pleasant version of Garrison Keillor, is speaking metaphorically. He wants me to see the nurse practitioner at the orthopedics office; that will get me in faster than if I were to try to schedule an appointment with a doctor. The N.P. is the side door.

The nurse brings me a percocet, and I insist on cutting it in half. Thirty minutes later, when I start to cry again, she returns and practically orders me to take the other half. I do. And I realize this anti-pain culture has some important functions. When patients cry and moan, it scares the other patients. This is especially true at the dentist. Face it—you do not want to sit in that chair next! Your vocalized pain also stresses out the nurses, who do nothing for you except adjust your bed or give you a pillow. So pain relief helps all the people around you, even if it does nothing but blur your vision and cloud your judgment.

I leave all doped up, almost fainting and vomiting several times on the way out.

I spend much of Tuesday on the phone, trying to get an appointment with someone right away, trying to find a sympathetic soul. My dad knows a back surgeon's father and puts a call in for me. It's just what I need. The secretary talks to my insurance company and secures me a next-day MRI. The catch? Because there is always a catch. It may be three weeks before I see this very popular doctor. I cry again because there is sometimes power in being pitiful. "When you get the results, will you at least call me and tell me what I should be doing for those three weeks? Because I can't just sit here and be in pain and crippled."

"No," she says. "We can't do anything until you're seen."

On Wednesday, my maternal chauffeur drives me to the MRI. I hold up the films as we drive home with the top of her bitchin' convertible down. All kinds of demons reside in my spine: a bat, a Muppet, and an evil poodle. I put the films away and check my messages to find one from Pierre—the waiter in that New Orleans restaurant! He can see me at 1:30!

I briefly consider the ethics of my dilemma. Do I wait weeks for the other doctor, whose office helped me get the MRI? Or do I learn my fate today, in just two hours?


Kathy Mulford pins up my spine pictures and proclaims that I have a severely herniated disk, at least a year in the making.

“Imagine an Oreo,” she tells me. The pain relievers and anti-inflammatories have made me ravenous, so I have no trouble picturing the cookie, which has a bite taken out of it. “Your vertebrae are the cookie pieces; the creamy filling is the disk. When you smoosh the cookies together, the filling oozes out.” Or it would ooze out, if Nabisco weren't so stingy with the creamy filling. She points to the spinal canal, where some creamy white filling has leaked, and explains that my nerves are in that canal, and the spongy disk is bearing down on them.

This morning, I start my new regimen of Medrol dose pack and percocet, a delicious cocktail. Next week, I get a shot of cortisone in my spine. Maybe then I’ll be able to walk.

Through the din of pain and the fog of pain medicine, I have found the moral of this story: Go in any door that's open, and keep your creamy white filling where it belongs.