Sunday, December 25, 2011

Heart





It’s Christmas day, and I’m taking a little break from all the excitement. The nieces and nephews have opened their gifts here at Grandma’s house, after a big brunch. Paper and boxes are strewn all over, as in houses everywhere this morning.

These children who have always had more than enough, now have even more. I don’t begrudge them this, of course--they are seriously good kids. They are grateful kids. And they are also, even at a young age, giving kids. They are eight-year-old triplets, an eleven-year-old, and a seventeen-year old. Though their lives are not trouble-free, by any stretch of the imagination, they have never gone to bed hungry, thank God. They have never worried the roof over their heads would be gone, and any doubts about the ground beneath them have probably been fleeting. Still, there is always great joy in seeing the delight in their faces when they open a box to find revealed something they deeply desired. There are smiles, even the occasional squeal.

My partner and I don’t have kids--by choice--but we love kids. Especially these kids. We’re glad to share in their Christmas excitement, even as it becomes rather raucous. But in between the gifts and the crazy quantities of food, something else this year has brought me to tears--the good kind--more than a few times.

This morning, in Staten Island, there is a child I have never met, a boy of three years, whose parent or parents are struggling, like many in our country now, and like I would be, too, but for some effort and even more good luck, over the course of my entire life. Perhaps for this boy and his parents Christmas feels like something of a crap shoot--maybe they’ll get lucky, maybe they won’t. Maybe the boy is too young to really think about it in those terms. I don’t know. But I do know that this year he was hoping Santa would bring him a toy car from the movie “Cars”, and a tee-shirt from the same.

I know this because not too long ago the man I love and share my life with told me he had bought a toy car and said tee-shirt for the boy in Staten Island. Through his employer, a company which encourages charitable giving, he found out about the boy and his Christmas wishes. He mentioned this in passing, really. He’s a modest sort, not one to call attention to himself for good or ill.  This is a man who insists on us having a portrait hanging in our kitchen of famous curmudgeons Statler and Waldorf, of Muppet fame (actually, he wanted it in the living room, right over the couch, but the kitchen, kind of tucked behind a door, was my compromise). He likes to say he models himself after them--and he can definitely be prickly at times, even in his humor. He doesn’t want you to know the truth about what lies beneath. But he can’t fool me. 



I watch him in summers walking along the beach with my nephew who worships him, and digging in the sand with all the kids, giving them his attention in a way that I think is sometimes hard for him with adults. I watch him this morning patiently and meticulously helping my niece fix her new gumball machine that isn’t working the way it should, and I know he has a long way to go if he wants to hang with his friends Statler and Waldorf. But deep down, I don’t think he really wants a seat in that balcony. That’s no place for a guy like him.

He is on the phone now with his family in Italy and Germany, loved ones far away, so perhaps he understands something of “doing without”--just like the little boy who desires a toy car that might otherwise be out of reach. Perhaps this big boy desires that he could be in two or three places on the globe at once.

This morning and this afternoon, amid time with family, I keep seeing this three year old boy. I keep picturing him, now driving his parents nuts as he pushes and drives this car along the floor of their apartment, making car noises, smiling, laughing. I picture his parents, perhaps relieved that “Santa” found their house, their son.  I see the boy’s mother smile, perhaps close her eyes, and not knowing to whom she owes this gratitude, she gives thanks anyway, for whatever heart has delivered these smiles and car noises to her home today.

And I give thanks, too. I know that heart. 
I know it well
And I give thanks.

To all those, like my sweet partner, who reach out beyond their own lives to touch those they may never meet, to give in big and small ways at Christmas and throughout the year, I give thanks for your spirit moving through this world.

Merry Christmas.




Monday, December 5, 2011

Have Yourself a Mafioso Christmas . . .





She was Beautiful and Perfect, and we named her Clarice.

This is, I’m almost afraid to admit, a true story. Different readers will take from it different things, of course. Some will find in it a poignant Christmas tale of love between humans and the natural world. Some, overcome by a wave of nostalgia, will turn to Sopranos episodes on Netflix. Some will find in it a good laugh, while still others will find in it confirmation of their long-standing belief in my mental instability. I think it’s fair to say that any of the above outcomes will warm the reader’s heart and satisfy during this holiday season. Now, as I was saying . . .

She was beautiful and perfect, and we named her Clarice. 
She was with us for only 4.75 months which, true, is a longer span of time than most Christmas celebrants can claim--so maybe in some ways this is a happy story. We loved her and we should be glad for the time we did get to share together, knowing the fleeting nature of all things of this world.

Clarice was our Christmas tree. But of course, she was so much more than that we rationalized.  It was many years ago, in the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia, when I was living with my then-boyfriend (whom we’ll call Guido, even though that is not his real name), that we had just moved from a cramped studio apartment to a much more spacious two-bedroom place in a unique, quirky and very old building just a few blocks from the famed mummer-zone, Broad Street. We could breathe there, finally. We could get furniture out of storage, put books on an entire wall of built-in shelves, entertain friends, and we could get a real, sizable Christmas tree at last.

This had special significance for us, since my boyfriend’s grandfather had a Christmas tree farm in southern New Jersey. This was, I can honestly say, no ordinary Christmas tree farm. In a beautiful and touching display of possible Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, these trees were cared for like members of the family. Fed, watered and trimmed to perfection, each was its own little masterpiece, symmetrical with full and healthy bows perfectly scented. My boyfriend and his father had occasionally helped tend this tree farm over the years, and now the fruits of their bonding expeditions would pay off. 


We would go to the farm and after marvelling at the peaceful beauty of the endless fields of trees, basking in their unique perfection, focusing in on The One stately enough for a young couple of discerning taste, with a sharp and jagged implement we’d mercilessly hack cut it down in its prime

[Could this be what those in the biz call foreshadowing?]

Then, we’d oh-so-tenderly lash it down to the roof of the car with coarse ropes and subject it to the insane g-force of Guido’s racing-circuit-trained driving. Once home, after pulling my knuckles from the dashboard, we’d gingerly remove the tree from the roof, carry it inside the apartment, and jam it into the tree stand, screwing the bolts tightly into its trunk as it oozed its lifeblood sap. See? Heartwarming.

At this point, she was not yet Clarice. She was not yet even a “she”, as our compulsion to anthropomorphize had not yet reared its hideous adorable head--convenient, considering the aforedescribed tortures inflicted upon our new friend. Before stringing the lights or hanging any decorations, we sat in wonderment at its glory. She was the perfect height for our place. She was perfectly straight. There were no gaps in the branches to be found anywhere along her entire length. The gradual decline in her width from bottom to top was entirely soothing to the eye, with no jarring assaults on our aesthetic sensibilities. Surely we had never seen such a pleasing shade of green before. And need I describe her fragrance, because I’m sure I could not adequately do so, never having ascended to heaven, myself. Once we brought out cookies and consumed a half gallon or so of hot chocolate (the Christmastime equivalent of beer-goggles), we were sighing in the throes of adoration, like the parents of a newborn, entranced by every burp and smile.

Then came the white lights, strung both close to the trunk and on outer branches to highlight her sublime depths. It was at about this point that we realized the ridiculousness of “gilding the lily”, as they say. Why cover up what could dazzle all on its own? We scrapped the idea of tarting her up with ornaments, and went with the simple strands of popcorn and cranberries we had prepared ahead of time, and red bows. She had an understated elegance and grace, akin to those rare ladies-of-a-certain-age that one sees at Lord and Taylor who have not opted for cosmetic surgery and ample gemstones. That is, until we topped her off with not a star or an angel (for wasn’t she already our little angel?), but Barbie and Ken dressed in garish holiday garb. Don’t ask me where we got this--I can’t remember or have blocked it out.

After a few days and nights of eagerly plugging in her lights to watch her proudly gleaming, we sensed our baby was a “she”, and decided to give her a name, the better to personalize our accolades. I don’t know how or why we came to the conclusion that “Clarice” epitomized feminine beauty in tree form--perhaps the ump-teenth viewing of the Rudolph holiday special?--but that’s what we settled on. From then on it was “Oh Clarice, just look at you!”, and “It’s so nice to see Clarice when I get home”, “I think Clarice needs some water”, and so on. Remember that part in the beginning about mental instability? Yeah . . . don’t pay any attention to that.


Here’s the problem with anthropomorphizing something that you’ve . . . yes, I’ll say it . . . killed. It’s probably the same reason why slaughterhouse workers might be advised not to name the animals (“C’mon Fluffy, get in the truck.”). At some point, you have to let go.

We learned this the hard way, as December passed and Clarice showed the first signs of losing her bloom, so to speak. By January, the waterings became more frequent and more futile. By February, her unearthly green was becoming a decidedly earthy brown. By March (yes, that’s right, I said March), we couldn’t keep up with the sweeping of pine needles, or the excuses to our friends who were starting to worry about us. Of course, if we waited long enough, there would be no more pine needles to sweep. Great! We had only been able to bring ourselves to take off the strands of berries and popcorn, and the lights, lest a fire start. So there she was, like some aging whore decked out in only her too-red ribbons, like a lipstick smear, everything sagging that once was perky and enticing. Now it was, “Oh, Clarice. What do we do about Clarice?”

What we couldn’t do at this late juncture, and given the joy she had previously brought to us, was just dump her on the curb outside for the trash collectors to toss her into the crusher. I’m not sure they would collect trees in early April anyway (yes, that’s right, I said early April. Get off my case, already). But we had to come up with something before our landlord, accompanied by the fire inspector, hauled her off in cuffs.

Christmas tree murder scene. *

In a stroke of insanity genius and sentimentality, we decided to bring her back to her place of origin, kind of. We decided that we would give her back to the Earth. We decided she would rest with others of her kind. We decided that we would drive from Philadelphia to New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, and like so many before us, dump the body there.

“She can be gotten rid of . . . I’m just sayin’,” just said Guido.

But the shame. What to do about the shame? We weren’t about to tie this shriveled arboreal corpse to the roof of the car. That would invite questions. That would be undignified, and probably scratch the paint job. This is when it’s good to have Guido for a boyfriend.

“The trunk,” he said. “We’re buyin’ a hacksaw, and she’s goin’ in the trunk.”

Here’s where this little Christmas tale becomes something of a confessional, people. Hell, it’s practically a deposition.  I didn’t plan this, but here it is. We laid out a tarp, we unscrewed the bolts and took her out of the stand and there, in the middle of our living room, we cut off her limbs and put them in bags, then cut the stump in half. After sunset, with darkness on our side, we put the bags in the trunk and drove across the bridge to New Jersey in silence, except for one brief moment of revelation.

“We’re out of our [effing] minds,” I said.

“Shut up!” said Guido sharply, on edge, “ . . .Dammit, [sniffle, then quietly] I loved her, too.”

“You want a tissue, Guido?”

[It's possible that I’m not remembering that last bit of dialog entirely correctly]

There, on the darkest and back-est of back roads we could find, I stood watch while Guido shook out the bags of . . . refuse. . . until every last needle was gone. Sure, we knew people had dumped far worse things in the Pine Barrens, but who would believe it was just a Christmas tree we were disposing of, in April? We walked backwards to the car, obscuring our footprints, he put the empty bags in the trunk, and we crossed our fingers that we wouldn’t leave tire tracks, too.

On the way home it was left to me to break the awful, painful silence. “Your mother called. She wants to know if we can bring the dessert for Easter dinner on Sunday”.

“Yeah, sure. [regretfully, thoughtfully] And we can bring her some of those. . . whattaya call those frickin’ things . . hyacinths? In a pot.”

“Yeah. In a pot, Baby” I said softly, knowingly, touching his hand. “In a pot.”






*Photo Credit: Mattsenate, Wikipedia.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Vote 'em . . .Out?


Is this troll trolling?


I read a lot about politics and government, both home and abroad. I read news items, op-ed pieces, blogs. I occasionally read the comments on these articles and blogs, too--and before you ask, yes, I do enjoy nails on a chalkboard and a good tasing now and then.

OK, that’s an exaggeration. But given the content of most comment threads in the political world, one might prefer being tased or listening to the chalkboard screech. I do find it fascinating to see Godwin’s Law in action, as well as the many layers of trolling that exist--including trolling of trolls. That is, I can enjoy it for about 1-3 minutes, and I never let myself get pulled into the ring.

And by the way (yes, I'll get to the point about voting them "out" in a second), what’s the origin of the internet “troll”? I mean the term, not the actual thing (which, I suspect, originates somewhere in the 5th, 8th, or 9th Circle of Hell). I hear people talk about not feeding the trolls and telling them to go back under their bridge, but doesn’t the practice of internet trolling resemble the trolling that anglers engage in even more than a simply ugly mythical creature? You know, where you drag bait through the water and watch the sharks or whatever come out to feed? I suppose it’s a hybrid of these; an ugly mythical creature out fishing. But I digress.

Lately I’ve seen a lot of well-meaning comments to the effect of “We need to vote these [insert adjective form of expletive here] [insert plural noun form of expletive here] out of office!”

This puzzles me, as I’ve read this on English speaking sites based in the USA. If these commenters had ever voted they’d realize that no such mechanism exists. We do have recall votes, but they don’t seem to be calling for that. I’m not hearing “Recall the [insert plural noun form of expletive here]!” and all that that entails (Wisconsin aside). What I’m reading and hearing is “vote them out.”

Please don’t kill the messenger, but I just have to point this out. It’s important: apart from the elaborate recall process, we can only vote people in here in the good ol’ USA. That means that, when you’re talking about how dissatisfied you are with this guy or that gal or whomever, you really do need to think about . . . alternatives. Solutions. You need to know what’s going on, not just in your backyard, but in other backyards in other parts of the country and the world. If you wish to be rid of your favorite target of internet ranting, great, but who will replace them? How different are they in deed, not just in word? Because simply stepping into a voting booth and leaving the ballot blank, or not going to the polls at all, isn’t going to send your “vote em’ out” message. What it will do, is allow another candidate--most probably a member of one of our two official major parties--to get the job. So again I would ask you, are they really that different, in practical terms, from “the other guy”?

National Archives, Washington DC
This kind of makes me want to know who I’m voting for, since voting for someone is all I can do. I have to know what I want, not just what I don’t want. Which explains the first two sentences of this post. It explains why I check out various sources of info, rather than trusting the one that most confirms my existing viewpoint. That can be damned uncomfortable, let me tell you. It also makes me want very much to see fundamental changes in our political system. Yes, I certainly want to see campaign finance reform. But I also want to see legitimate third parties; real parties with a commanding presence and no need to gather signatures just to get ballot access, parties taking a sizable chunk of the vote, without one or the other major parties claiming that candidate “stole” votes away that were rightfully theirs. Who told those [insert plural body-part related expletive] they were entitled to my vote, that it belonged to them?


News flash to the major parties: If I vote for a candidate outside your two established parties, it's not that candidate who has "stolen" a vote that belonged to you--you never had my vote in the first place, because you don't represent what I want. I'm not "giving away" an election to someone else. If I voted for You, I'd be just throwing it away, voting for more of what I don't want. Get it? And for those who support one or the other established parties, good for you, but shame on you for suggesting that any voter has less of a right to vote for their own specific interests instead of yours. When you do that, you sound just as entitled as the plutocrats on Capital Hill. So, for crying out loud . . . just stop it, already.


My vote belongs to me. And yours, Dear Reader, belongs to you. It’s an awesome responsibility we share, finding those who most represent--in deeds, not merely in words--our most deeply held beliefs, needs, values, interests, desires. I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of tired of having to choose the lesser of two evils when exercising my civic duty at the polling station. A friend of mine is fond of saying “If you choose the lesser of two evils, you’re still choosing evil.” 

But it's just a mini-evil . . .
Well, I’m not sure I’d use the word evil, but I do want to choose a great candidate one day, not just one who is somewhat less crappy, somewhat less corrupt, somewhat more articulate and camera-friendly, somewhat more “electable” [blech!] than the other guy. This two-party system holds us all hostage. Do people really end up saying "I'm going to vote for John Doe because he's electable! I want someone . . .able to be elected!" Can we not aim any higher than this? It seems to me that many an American voter is constantly on the defensive, often voting more out of a sense of blocking what they're against, rather than advancing what they're for. "Well, I'd like to vote for X because he has great ideas, but he can't win and I really don't want to see Y win, so I'll vote for Z." You know why Mr X can't win? Because that voter, and other good people like them, keep buying this line of thinking and making their choices out of fear. 


The two party system divides us along simplistic, mythical lines, and instills fear of being forced to cross over into the dark netherworld of “The Other”, and losing whichever supposedly righteous identity we’ve chosen to align ourselves with. In the end, we end up aligned with a long history of suckers, plain and simple, compromising away the very things we most need and want. Is that really democracy?


This probably seems like the kind of post to put up around election time, and it’s already the end of November. That’s OK. You see, I know good citizenship takes time and effort, and we’re busy people, all of us. So maybe this little reminder, now, a year before the next Big One, can be useful to someone reading this.

Here’s the challenge to those who say they don't have time to become more informed. And please don't take this as a lecture. It's not meant that way at all--I know we all have busy lives to live, myself included. It's meant to be a pep-talk, to inspire you to do what I know is a really challenging thing for people who have only a 24-hour day, and to give you a few tools if you click on the links. You don't have to become an expert on everything. But wouldn't you like to know about the things that matter to you? See if you’re up for it: 

Rah! Rah! Rah! Go People Go!



Maybe skip an episode of House or whatever is the medical-show-of-the-moment, and read about health care policy. Read about costs, fraud, pharmacological research, Medicare policy, fee-for-service versus other models that exist outside the USA. Read about where the USA ranks among the world’s nations in health care (hint: perhaps not where you think). Read (or watch, if you follow the link) about the number of bankruptcies filed in the USA related to medical bills, and then read about how that compares with the rest of the developed world.

Maybe cut back on “World of Warcraft” a little and read about our military spending compared to other countries, and where that money goes, and who wants to cut benefits to veterans while asking them to bear the burden of multiple wars overseas. Read about war widows and orphans, and the costs we don’t measure in dollars; the costs we can never measure.

Maybe cut back by 30 minutes each day or each week the time spent playing Farmville the next time you’re on Facebook, and read about some farm bills and farming; read about farm subsidies (aka farm welfare) and who gets them. Read about genetically modified plants and seeds, environmental protections, farm impacts on water quality, the FDA, food inspections and government oversight. How are they doing? Which candidates support which policies?


Maybe cut back 30 minutes of Mafia Wars gaming, and read about crime; how we stop it (or fail to), how we prevent it (or fail to), how many people crowd our prisons and who they are, why they’re there, and what options they have when they get out--because not everyone is there for life, nor should they be. Read about those who write the laws that effect all of us, and those who write the laws that are sometimes unevenly applied. Read about who supports and who opposes capital punishment, and how it’s applied in their state. Read about crime victims and which candidates support them, support or oppose strong and reasonable gun control legislation. Read about the modern-day mafiosos (they don’t wear fedoras necessarily, so don’t be fooled) who pay for campaigns, in the hope of writing laws in their favor. Read about the deals that make for corporate welfare and major companies that pay zero dollars in taxes due to subsidies and loopholes set up by their friends in government. These guys could teach the mafia a thing or two.

"Goldman-Sachs is on the phone. I don't think you can refuse."



Kids keeping you busy? Well, if they’re old enough, you can give them a lesson in civics and open up discussion with them, start training them to be the best, most engaged citizens they can be. Have them look up a topic, or a representative’s voting record. Talk to them about an issue they can identify that directly affects them. They want any excuse to be on the computer? Well, now you can give them a really good one. Kids too small for that? Then remember that decisions made by our leaders today (or their practice of “kicking the can down the road”) will directly affect your kids later on. Do you want to know about those effects? More importantly, don't you want to know more about that guy or gal who's trying to kiss your baby?

Photo credit: Jim Bourg/Reuters file.

You’re too busy looking for a job to do this? I hear you loud and clear. The last I read, for every one job opening in this country, there were 5 people looking for work. But maybe, just maybe, one day when it all gets too frustrating and you need to feel more empowered to change that state of affairs in a big way, you’ll take a day off from the search--you’ve probably earned it-- and read what leading economists say about various plans put forth by different candidates. Maybe you’ll decide to read about the deregulation of banking and finance that started a long time ago and got our economy to start circling the drain. Maybe you want to read about who is or isn't looking out for you and your family, your retirement, your ability to put food on the table, your job training opportunities, and who is looking out for the greedy [insert expletive of your choice] and irresponsible pathological gamblers who helped get us all into this mess (and no, I don’t mean only Wall Street guys and banking execs). . . .read about those reps who seem to care only about keeping their jobs and the benefits they receive as government employees, but that they would deny to you and your own family (health care, just one example).

None of these things concern you? I can't imagine how that's possible, but then go ahead and seek out info on the things that really do matter to you. Because one thing I know for sure is that the current broken system thrives on our sense of being helpless, thrives on our exhaustion and depletion and, ultimately, on our inaction. Remember this guy?

You don't have to face off with tanks. Just the internet, then the voting booth.

 You don't have to be him. Not even close. You only have to do a little searching for what matters to you most (is it really Facebook? Is it really TV?), and who you want representing you to make it happen.

. . .and if you find him or her--you know, the one who’s looking out for you and me--please let me know who that is, and tell me why you think so. Because the next time I enter a polling place, I don’t want it to be from a place of vulnerability and ignorance and being “against” someone. I want it to be from a position of strength and empowerment, with a clear vision of what I’m voting for, of who and what I’m voting in.





Cheerleader illustration credit: Clip art licensed from the Clip Art Gallery on DiscoverySchool.com

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Occupy the Hors d'Oeuvres Tray


Increasing Lei-offs have inspired the Occupy Hawaii protesters**.

As the Occupy Wall Street movement has been much in the news, for a variety of reasons and from many different angles, I was glad to see an inspiring story recently about a creative and bold young performer from Hawaii who goes by the single name of Makana. If the name doesn't sound familiar, he's the guy who was invited to play at a Hawaiian luau attended by world leaders who were gathered for a summit to plan a Pacific free-trade pact--world leaders who included President Barak Obama. 


"Global warming? Hah! Pass the coconut shrimp, Senator."


You can read about this young man--his song and his giant cojones--all over the web, but here's a place to start. I admire his bravery in doing what he did, and I also like his rather Dylan-esque intro to the song, reminiscent of "come gather round people, wherever you roam. . . ". Now, I don't know if I like the song enough to listen to it for forty minutes, so I guess it's a good thing that my invitation to the Pacific free-trade summit got lost in the mail or the ethers of the interwebs--because that's how long Makana played his protest song before a critical mass of people at the dinner actually noticed. 




This makes me wonder if the failure to notice someone speaking (or in this case, singing) a powerful message to them right in their midst is a good example of what we're facing (and by we, I mean those of us who agree in whole or in part with the many messages--if not always the methods--of the Occupy Movement). It seems a metaphor for what has been happening in this country for some time--the people are suffering, right under their noses, and those in power just keep on going with the party, with their comfortable status quo.

What must happen to break up this party? What would make them look up from the hors d'oeuvres tray, short of a fire alarm or the sound of something shattering?





** I apologize.





Friday, November 11, 2011

Mangia


[Back home now, but with time to process my trip and some feelings about it, I’m still pulling out notes for Italy posts. I hope you enjoy this one.]

Diego's hanging tomatoes, Giugliano, Italy 2011

Here is how an outsider realizes what is inescapably central to Italian life. See if you can guess:

We are sitting at the table eating lunch.
On the television is a news segment about various kinds of cured meats.
When we pause to speak, it is about the food we’re engaged in eating.
Sometimes, talk turns to what we’ll have for dinner . . .
. . .or perhaps what we’ll have for lunch tomorrow.
Or about whether or not the owners of the preferred pastry shop have returned from vacation.

A brief news item comes on telling of the death of someone in Amalfi who fell off a balcony--they mention, of course, that the victim of the tragedy was eating gelato at the time.  No, I’m not kidding. I suspect a lot of Italians die while eating--they practically dare you to each time you sit at a table. Either they will eat far too much, or the simple amount of time spent eating will increase the odds that death by natural causes comes during a meal. So, this additional detail in the story does heighten its poignancy for a people so endearingly oriented to gastronomy. Diego and I both mention, a bit irreverently, that we hope it was his best gelato ever. Then, of course, we seamlessly return to eating.

After lunch, we go out to the garden, where much of what we’re eating was grown. At a large table on the patio, Luisa and I take the tomatoes and some fresh basil and smash it down with a pestle into large glass jars--on this day, about twelve of them--and then Diego tightens the lids and carefully stacks the jars in a giant metal container outside, fills it with water and connects the outdoor gas line to it for the fire.

Do you have a separate gas line in your garden? I don’t. These people mean business.

In between these activites, we pump our veins full of more high-octane espresso, if for no other reason than to give us fuel for future eating, later in the day.  Perhaps to give the espresso time to work its way into our bloodstream, we might also take a nap on one of the hammocks in the garden, where we dream of gelato or cured meats or tomatoes. . .

Dreaming of food under the orange trees, Giugliano, Italy 2011

Or dream of figs. I confess, I now have a serious addiction to fresh figs--but only fresh. How could I even consider the dried ones after having access to two giant figs trees right outside the door? There is one with green figs, and one with the darker purple ones. 

One of Luisa and Diego's fig trees, Giugliano, Italy 2011

I have fallen in love with them, if you want to know the truth of it. That’s not hyperbole or a metaphor. My brain is experiencing the same chemical rush, the same crazed longing that is typical of those “in love”. It’s like Dante and Beatrice, only I get to actually have them. How amazing is that?! I go to sleep with my belly full of them, and I wake up thinking of them, knowing they’re right there, growing next to the patio. Through the open windows, as I slowly awaken to the world, I hear them calling to me, singing their sweet, figgy song from up high in the branches. They're singing it in Italian, too, so how am I supposed to resist this? I sneak out past my hosts, not wanting to appear as greedy and desperate as I actually am, and make my way to the trees, looking to where the perfect, ready-to-burst ones are. There is a long metal hook near the tree, used for grasping higher up branches to bring them within reach. But like a plague of insects, I’ve nearly stripped this tree of ripe ones over the last few days, to the point where even the hook can’t help me. I’ll have to climb, so there in my bare feet, I try.

I’m bad at this. I used to be good at the whole tree-climbing thing. I tell myself that the downgrade in my skills is because I’m getting older, and no sooner has the thought entered my mind than I hear Diego’s voice behind me. “Mi permetta,” allow me.

Apparently, Diego didn’t get the memo that he’s 70. Like some previously unknown breed of Italian monkey, he’s up into the highest parts of the tree that could be considered safe (and some that definitely are not), in a matter of seconds. The man has no sense of danger (as evidence, his driving may be the subject of a future blog post if I can bring myself to recollect our journeys). He has the hook, and I’m relegated to the role of foreman, sighting the big ones and pointing to where he might snatch them. He starts handing them down to me, and I quickly realize I don’t have enough hands. I snatch an apron off the table where we canned tomatoes, and before long my apron is overflowing with the little beauties and I’m in ecstasy.

I can’t just wolf them down, though. Oh no. I have to savor everything about them. I take in their shape, the beautiful green exterior, then slowly and neatly slice them in half so I can admire their glistening ruby interior, the color almost as intoxicating to me as the taste. 

Ruby-red fig and friends, Italy 2011

This is kind of painful to write, since I am now separated from my loves by an ocean. Yes, you can occasionally get them here where I live. But even at my favorite market, a small plastic container full of 7 or so of the smallest and saddest specimens you’ve ever seen costs 6 dollars. I’m spoiled, clearly. How can I pay that when I’ve enjoyed big, beautiful, totally fresh figs, as many as I can stuff down my gullet, for FREE? The good news is that we’ve discovered a fig tree (right now, more like a small bush) growing next to the driveway. The plan is to transplant it and protect it through the winter, to baby it and sing to it, to massage its leaves, read to it, “water” it with limoncello, whatever it takes to bring forth its lusciousness.

I would say I left a trail of fig rinds behind me in Italy but, because he is a true Italian dog, Bruno will eat anything. This includes fig rinds. I appreciate his enthusiasm for destroying the evidence I leave behind of my addiction. Way to go, Bruno.

Apart from figs, I think it’s fair to say that I probably consumed at least two whole boars in Italy. OK, maybe not that many, but it certainly felt that way. At nearly every meal, lunch or dinner, Luisa would say, while waving a plate in my direction, “Blanche . . . prosciutto!” [note that she doesn’t actually call me Blanche. She knows my real name]. She had the wild boar variety a few times. Every time I picked up a sandwich at a shop during the day, there was inevitably prosciutto involved. Some pasta dishes also often included it, especially when I was in Tuscany. However, while I love prosciutto, I am steering clear of the stuff for a while. It didn’t have the same addictive properties as the figs. Perhaps I’d feel the same need for “space” from the figs if they had a snout and tusks, but they don’t. Does that make me superficial? Maybe. 

Luisa and Diego's little paradiso, Giugliano, Italy 2011

There was something wonderfully and refreshingly real about these meals, I must say. There wasn’t processed-anything, there was never ketchup or mayo, or some mysterious “cheesefood”. There was cheese--lots of it--and therefore it was indeed food. I ate much more than I do when in the states, but it didn’t feel like it. I didn’t feel heavy or stuffed--I felt nourished. I felt supremely satisfied. Buffalo mozzarella that’s fresh from the market, and ricotta that’s also fresh, has a very different taste than at home--and is often eaten all by itself, no need of accompaniment. The fish and tiny clams Luisa picked up at the outdoor market were also amazingly fresh and tasty. Olives that haven’t been brined beyond recognition--that actually taste like olives--are a rare pleasure for this Americana, though Italy does have the briny ones, too. Cucumbers and broccoli rabe, tomatoes and peppers that were just picked tasted of life itself, like the warmth of the sun itself. 

Diego and Luisa's plums, Giugliano, Italy 2011

A dessert of freshly picked, juicy and beautiful yellow melon, white grapes, prickly pear cactus fruit, gigantic peaches and nectarines, or deep purple plums was like some kind of divine communion, each bite saying “you are loved. Do you get it yet? You are loved”. Of course, there were also the home-grown and home-vinted wines, “from a friend”. We should all have such friends. We ate slowly, usually outside, without the hurried need to finish up and clean up and be on to the next thing--in Italy, the next thing would probably mean preparing for another meal, anyway.

And this was every day.

--except when Diego rescued a neighbor who had locked herself out of the house. With a rod, he reached through a window (thankfully they don’t have screens on the windows there) and retrieved her keys to much rejoicing. The next day, by way of the grateful neighbor, there appeared on the lunch table a golden box of pastries so big that despite our enthusiastic consumption, it was also there at dinner. Nothing says “grazie” like cannoli, sfogliatelle, creme tarts topped with plum slices or apricot, creme puffs, rum babà, chocolate tort, and millefoglie. I was briefly tempted to try to steal her keys for a repeat performance. 

A hero's "grazie", Giugliano, Italy 2011

All of this probably goes a long way toward explaining why I would, while in Italy, go to great lengths to try to get the tomato smell out of my hands after a day of canning. If ever the smell of tomatoes would be an aphrodisiac, it would be to Italians. It could be dangerous to go into Napoli proper with this stuff so permeating my flesh. Unless I can thoroughly wash it out, it’s just asking for trouble, really. Let’s not pretend that Italian men need any encouragement (“Ciao, bella!”).

It might not be the worst idea, though, for me to occasionally drench myself in tomatoes here at home, if only to flush out some lonely expatriates willing to talk food and eat food, share fantasies of growing lemons and oranges and olives in New Jersey (could this be an up-side to global warming?), and help me tend a small and hopeful fig tree. This tomato scent, perhaps with a touch of basil or garlic behind the ears, will be my signature and my devastating weapon, to lure artichoke recipes next spring and maybe a garden laborer or three. I know there are real Italians here, and as God is my witness, I will find them. Perhaps I’ll market this fragrance in a little tomato-shaped bottle to like-minded Italophiles yearning for company and support. Eat your heart out, Calvin Klein--you don’t know nothin’ about obsession.