Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Now that I’m old and toothless

Last month I turned forty. I didn’t want to make a big deal of it, really. I said no presents, and please no big party. But it was harder to say no to the all-expenses-paid stay in a Florida waterfront property with a pool, surrounded by loved ones. Age does bring wisdom.

They say it’s not how old you are but how old you feel. And I must say that for a moment I did forget my age when handing out slices of tiramisu birthday cake to the under-fives around the table. They did eventually nap, though, so I think the rum might have counteracted the effect of the espresso.

I fretted away my entire thirty-ninth year dreading what it would mean to turn forty. I would be so irreversibly grown up. My knee wrinkles would be permanent. I could no longer decide to go back to school to become a professional pet groomer. I might need glasses. I couldn’t dare think that the gas-station attendant was flirting with me, or that I could ever again leave the house without a handbag. People would call me “ma’am”.

Following tradition, I suddenly decided to set myself a couple of goals to achieve before turning forty: have another baby, and secure a contract with a publisher for my memoir. If I didn’t accomplish these two feats, I thought, the world might implode. Or I might melt away in a puddle on the floor like the Wicked Witch of the West. The fact that I set these goals only three months before my birthday helped me get in touch with my inner masochist. Because, in my experience, it takes about nine months to grow a baby. And I’m pretty sure that before you find a publisher, you first need to find a literary agent.

Of course, what I realized as I tried to get the kids to stop eating the candles, my own face smeared with cocoa, was that the only thing I might end up melting into was a puddle of mascarpone. I was forty and nothing had changed. Except for a rather attractive tan.

For the past two years since biting into an innocuous piece of toast, I've dreaded losing the rest of my devitalized tooth, which no dentist would go near. I stopped eating on that side. I flossed oh-so carefully around it. I fake-laughed into the mirror to see how close to my smile line the tooth came. I had nightmares. I imagined the gaping hole in my mouth that would toss me into the category of tattooed, chain-smoking abused wives whose only friend in the entire trailer park is a stray dog.

If you have serious dental problems, I don’t recommend eating dry Corn Thins in bed in the dark. But I can’t really blame those crispy snacks for the inevitable that happened today - the rest of my tooth fell out. And you know what I felt looking down at my tooth, which incidentally was about the same color as the puffed corn? I felt relieved. The dread was finally over. And where there used to be jagged edges and dark terrifying crevices, now there was only space. Freedom.

I’m old, toothless and unpublished and I'm still here. What is there left to fear? I now have no fear of my own self-imposed deadlines: I laugh at them! I’m no longer afraid of the word “dental implant”, technically a denture. I no longer fear opening umbrellas in the house or putting away loaves of bread turned upside down. I have no fear of publishing my blog post a bit late: my seventeen faithful readers may not even notice. I’m no longer afraid of having nothing to say. I no longer fear that my butt will get pinched in a dark alley. I now have no fear of literary agents because I know that the closer I get to the one hundredth rejection, the closer I’ll be to finding the right agent. So bring the rejections on, folks! One lucky agent and I will be laughing all the way to the bank.

Even if only to withdraw cash for a dental implant.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

How proofreading is like cooking

Leftovers. That just won’t do tonight. It’s scientifically proven that three-year-olds won’t eat anything presented to them more than twice within any twenty-four-hour period, no matter how many different plates you may attempt to re-serve it on. Besides, after a day cooked broccoli loses all nutritional value, not to mention its aesthetic appeal.

The only thing good about leftovers for dinner is the extra fifty-two minutes I’d save on cooking and washing dishes. Fifty-two glorious extra minutes to dedicate to the freelance proofreading work for which I’m slightly past the deadline. (Just by four or five months, mind you.) Fifty-two luxurious minutes – of sixty productive seconds each – to dedicate to rewriting sentences like this:

In a daze he fell into sleep and then he saw his members come to urge him, saying: "Go back quickly! The thunder will arrive tonight!"

I don’t like to follow recipes. That could be why my cakes don’t always rise. But that’s also why, in my student days, I always had very content (if slightly overweight) roommates: give me a cucumber, some raisins, sardines and day-old polenta and I will invent you a mouth-watering two-course meal. It’s my culinary trademark: I can make something out of nothing!

Feeling tired, the monk fell asleep and dreamed his former gang members were urging him: "Go back quickly to the Buddhist temple! The thunder will arrive tonight and strike you dead for your previous sins!"

But tonight I don’t have the luxury of bare cupboards. The fridge is full. Lamb, chicken breast, beets, portobello mushrooms, whipping cream. The choices are overwhelming. I have no excuse not to go gourmet tonight. And hey, why not? The moon is full and, despite what my apron might suggest, I’m feeling a bit fancy.

In the clutches of a stupor, he drifted off into an oneiric state, whereupon his gang affiliates exhorted him: "Turn back in haste from whence you came! The thunder shall make its appearance this evening!"

But wait a second. I can’t fry absolutely everything in butter. I have to take into consideration the nutritional needs of a growing boy, and those of a husband who’d rather not grow any further. What we need tonight is something wholesome like steamed fish, brown rice and spinach sautéed in extra virgin olive oil. Easy on the salt this time.

He was tired so he took a nap without protests and without even needing a back scratch and he had a deep rejuvenating sleep that lasted at least an hour and a half. Then he had a dream that his lovely little friends from the Italian playgroup came to ask him, “Would you like to come back with us? There’s a thunder and lightning show tonight!”

No, way too obvious. One look at these dishes and he’ll be on to my game. There will be tantrums and demands everything be thrown into the trashcan and replaced with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. There’s a reason why cauliflower in French school cafeterias is served hidden in batter. I need to prepare a much more casual-looking meal, with secret health benefits, and present it nonchalantly, like, “Hey, I just threw some hamburgers and homemade french fries together. A little mesculin salad on the side. No big deal, you don’t really have to eat any of it if you don’t feel like it.”

He was sort of tired so he went to sleep and then he had a dream where these guys were like: "It would be really great if you came back, but no biggie. It’s just the thunder’s coming, that’s all. You know, whatever.”

Yes, I’m sure it would be wolfed down within minutes. But homemade yam fries, hamburgers packed with shredded carrot, the chilled attitude – it just all seems like so much effort. And I’m a bit tired tonight. I think I’ll just do what I do most nights. I’ll grab the leftovers, because I hate to throw out something good. Then I’ll take a bit from here and a bit from there. I might check online for some inspiration. As usual, presentation will be flawless. It won’t be too original, but with this audience it’s best not to stray too far from the tried and true. Best of all, it’ll be ready in under twenty minutes.

Feeling drowsy, he dozed off to sleep, whereupon he dreamed his gang members were urging him: "Hurry back! The thunder is coming tonight!"

Next sentence, please.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The diary that broke the camel’s back

I don’t know about you, but I like to travel to America with half-empty suitcases so on the way back I can fill them up with treasures not easily found elsewhere: green Tabasco, Curious George collections, Marcona almonds, metal toy cars, white tea, unbleached pull-up diapers, Turkish sumac berries, real chicken bouillon. And at New Zealand customs I like to say, “Nothing to declare.”

This time I even managed to bring back family jewellery of indefinite value, photographic equipment for resale, and Bulgarian goods carried on behalf of someone else and not packed by myself. But if you’re a mom with dark circles under your eyes and scrambled eggs on your shirt, I’m fairly certain you’re allowed to check “no” on all the boxes on your customs declaration form.

But I didn’t dare try to import from my hometown the most precious goods of all: my unearthed teenage diaries and letters dating back to my first year in Italy. OK, so they might not seem valuable, but they may help me write my second book – which, along with my other unpublished memoir, may one day very well become a New York Times bestseller – making these diaries and letters possibly worth millions of dollars. And I’m pretty sure you have to declare that.

I didn’t pack them mostly because they were too valuable to lose. The suitcase might get lost in transit. The plane might go down. Besides, they were a tad on the heavy side. I had already stratified my luggage to the brim with books like The Gruffalo and Clifford The Big Red Dog. Being the last of the great literature to be packed, those three hardcover diaries and countless letters and photographs just seemed like that little extra weight I’d regret turning up with at the check-in desk. Even without a scale or a good grip on kilo-pound conversion, I guessed they might weigh about a pound. And that little extra pound, I sensed, might just break the camel’s back.

Here, the Italian saying seemed even more appropriate – la goccia che fa traboccare il vaso – the last drop that would make my suitcase literally overflow. I imagined the check-in employee at the airport the next morning telling me my baggage was overweight. I imagined having to hand out to perfect strangers bottles of Giovanni Eco Chic shampoo and hyaluronic acid night cream.

So I set the writing aside to be faithfully entrusted to the U.S. Postal Service. First class international priority mail, insured with tracking.

I must have done something good in a previous life because early the next morning the travel gods were with me. First of all, my sleep-deprived three-year-old was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (though I wasn’t sure this would turn out to be such a good thing). Secondly, our luggage was checked all the way through to New Zealand. And best of all, while one suitcase was indeed overweight by around four pounds, the other suitcase was under the maximum by around four pounds! All I needed to do was transfer some items from one bag to the other, without losing my child in the crowds.

What passengers and staff at Washington National Airport saw next wasn’t pretty. With my suitcases splayed open on the floor like two slaughtered beasts, out came all my dirty secrets: unlaundered underwear, a bag of wet bathing suits, a jar of Better Than Bouillon, the new easy-grip Tampax and my secret of all secrets that would expose me to everyone as a fraud: Palladino sage-green eyeliner. But in the midst of all that, I also found a lifesaver – the bottle of Whole Foods fruit-shaped chewable multivitamins that are packed full of nutrients and taste a bit like…Life Savers. To ensure a few more moments of patience from my little guy, I risked grumbles from the growing line to unscrew the lid.

“Do you want a vitamin before I pack them away again?” I asked in Italian.

“Two,” he answered back in Italian. He’s a good negotiator. And I’m a sucker for a guy who speaks another language. “No, not these. A mountain and a rainbow.”

“You mean an orange segment and a raspberry?”

“No, no, wait. Hmmm...” His face lit up. “Two fish!”

“You mean two pineapples?”


“C’mon, honey.” I could hear some throat-clearing in the line. And my dirty underwear was still fanned out in immodest display. But as the vitamins worked their magic, I did manage to fling things around to balance out the suitcases. The first weighed in at exactly the maximum of 50 pounds. The second came in at 49.5 pounds. Only a half of a pound to spare!

I breathed a sigh of relief: thank god I hadn’t brought those diaries and letters after all! That extra pound would truly have pushed us over the limit.

Or was it the two multivitamins that made the difference?