Tuesday, December 24, 2013


I love the winter warm mitten pizzelle smell of anise. And I'm not even a smidge Italian, except where it counts. And that is, in my soul. My soul is a mountainous terrain outside Florence in the springtime, covered in poppies and beautiful-haired shepherds.

So I'll take pimpinella anisum (yes, folks that seriously is anise's scientific name; you gotta love a plant that incorporates the word pimp) over chocolate, brandy, and orange. Not always, but definitely in my Christmas cookies.

Loving anise enables you to use the phrase "ouzo effect" which is the effect anisette has on water, turning it cloudy. Ouzo Effect would be a great band name.  Note to self: Learn a friggin' instrument.

According to Pliny the Elder anise was used as a cure for sleeplessness, chewed with a little honey in the morning to freshen the breath, and when mixed with wine, as a remedy for asp bites.  So I'm calling the anise cookies I just made that were originally in German called springerle, by a new and better name.

Pass the Asp bites.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas Eve Eve

Christmas Eve Eve is, in my opinion, one of the best days of the year. The divinum mysterium and enforced magic hush of Christmas Eve hasn't started yet; there is no plummy intoning of the Festival of Lessons and Carols from the BBC, no "Lo, the angel said to Mary," and you are still 48 hours away from the waterfall of joy, disappointment and tape that is Christmas morning.

It's also Festivus, and lord knows I love a made-up television holiday that involves an unornamented pole as its centerpiece and the airing of grievances (hallelujah...finally, a religion that gets me), plus feats of strength. You know how well I do both juggle and bitch.

To make Festivus really cook I would add: errands. All the worst errands, like paying fines for overdue children's books with humiliating names like Harold The Farting Dog, making appointments with the pediatric orthodontist, adjusting a health insurance co-pay, mammography, and getting last minute tchotchkes in the mail for distant cousins.

And it goes without saying there should be a long-ass German word that begins with a capital letter for the action and emotion of having to to do these things.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Life's Rich Pageant

Botticelli's Mystic Nativity (above) it was not.  Every year my cousins and I put on a nativity scene on the landing of my grandparents staircase, not because we were particularly religious. But because we had an eye for spectacle. From early ages we put on plays: What If The Titanic Hadn't Sunk? and Sherlock Holmes AND Sherlock Holmes, so titled because my next youngest cousin and I couldn't agree on who would be the lead.

What was the Nativity but another play? One we could enlist my grandfather's big sweet yellow lab in, too, to play an ass?

My sister was always Jesus.  She curled herself up like a fetus and didn't mind being half zippered into a green pleather suitcase. That was our manger.

I tell this to my kids, and because they are hams to the core, they are so excited to change the words from the boring and indeciferable Away In A Manger, to the much more arresting, At The Bottom Of The Stairs In A Suitcase. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Baked Alaska

Ice cream and liquor soaked cake, swaddled like the infant Jesus in swooshes of Swiss meringue and drizzled with rum and then set on fire?  Now we're talking dessert. Plateful of twee little sugar cookies shaped like wreaths my ass. That's for delicate aunts and people who get all excited about in the shell English walnuts.

I want the dessert of my club-dragging, fur cloaked robust Pagan ancestors. Though of course they would have none of the ingredients to make it save brave-heartedness and the carcass of an oryx, Baked Alaska is their kind of Yule log, bang a drum, solstice-shdizzle, blow-paint your handprint on a cave wall in Southern France.

Welcome shorter nights and longer days, welcome.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Little Known School of Apologetic Marzipanstollen Poetry

I have eaten
the marzipanstollen
that was in
the cupboard

and which
you were probably
for Christmas breakfast

Forgive me
it was delicious
so sweet
and so marzipan-y.  

- William Carlos Williams


Shall I compare thee to a marzipanstollen?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate
but this time of year what I want is German fruitcake with 
an almond paste core.


- Shakespeare


To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield
To crappy knock-off German fruitcake that happens to be on sale. 

Who's with me? 

- Alfred Lord Tennyson


"Hope" is the thing with feathers -- 
and also stollen: an enriched sweetbread with nuts
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words:
Get more get more get more. 

I didn't meant to write that. 

- Emily Dickinson


And the angel said, Fear not: for behold,
I bring you currants, sultana raisins, and, like, a donkey's weight in candied orange peel,
which shall be for all people. 
For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Baker

Oops. I meant Savior

- God

Friday, December 13, 2013

Every Walk Is A Sort of Crusade

The manuscript I've been working on for two years is almost done. By almost done, I mean I have one last essay to write to bookend the thing, to give it a completed narrative arc, if such a thing can be said of a memoir of the diagnosis of chronic pain and managing to live within that cage and to call plaintively out from it like a baboon.

The truth is there is no decent satisfying American coming of age narrative arc, except my going from innocence to experience that shit happens.

William Styron, the novelist who was struck by severe depression in his late 60s and wrote Darkness Visible is the illness narrative we are most familiar with and -- after a hospital stay -- he got better.  This is good and right.  That's a wrap, a bedtime story.

It's not happening for me. Therefore I must learn to pace the cage. Not expect to be repatriated to Health, a country in which I was a happy mango-eating native.

I must learn to be thrilled by small things like a zoo animal does a peanut or a banana. Forget my birth forest.

A perfect pink sunrise. The titmouse that got stuck in the bird feeder. The warm wet-wool scent of my children. I must not catastrophize, but stay in the moment, appreciate what is. If this all sounds to you like an affirmation poster in a Used Car sales lot, I agree with you. Nevertheless. What else is there?

Styron coined the phrase the "walking wounded" to describe the chronically ill, and I like that. I am thankful I have to guide me Thoreau's essay On Walking which he wrote as he was dying. "For every walk is a sort of crusade." And every piece of writing is too.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Venn Diagram of Latin Dance and Writing

Dance. Click on the link for Fruko y sue Tesos "El Preso" and, if you can stay still, you might be me, when I was younger. When I was younger, I didn't dance. I didn't think I needed to. Ahh, foolish youth. As an adult, I think dance is one of the best responses to the crushing awareness of our own mortality.


I came to Latin dance in my early 30s. Ryles Jazz Club, Thursday nights, Cambridge, MA's Noche Latina. It goes without saying I was terrible. Whitegirl, overbite, cintura of concrete.

However, (and this is unusual for me) I didn't care what people thought; I was in love with the dance floor. I took lessons and became marginally better, my swivel took on a Bill Cosbyish turn that was an improvement

I took a tango class with an Argentinian teacher, my uptight Episcopalian Northern European body in some sort of tropical animistic swoon. I practiced salsa turns in front of my bedroom mirror in Somerville with my 2 inch rhinestone salsa heels on.  Where had this feeling been all my life? All the meditation I had ever tried never came close to this, living in the moment.

Dance is the antithesis of writing for me. It might, in fact, be the antithesis of me. Writing is all above the neck, all noggin, analytical, internal, and, to some extent, like searching for dry sticks, the kindling for a fire. You hope you can make a blaze with it. You are a Boy Scout on a Winter Wilderness Mission. You are trying very hard not to die of exposure.

Dance on the other hand is not about hoarding and gathering, preparation and survival.  If anything it's about letting go.  Trusting. If you have a heartbeat you have rhythm.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


You know I have a crush on marzipan. Everywhere and in anything, but no place better than in bread. It's like that first dip of your foot into a hot tub in the winter in which it just so happens bathing in a weensie European bathing suit is John Malkovitch. Come on. Know that I mean?

Bread and marzipan is the happy union of two of my favorite things, and the Germans, my people on my mother's side, have done it for centuries at Christmastime.

You slice through the dense-ish candied fruit studded panettone-like loaf and there -- Lo! -- is a heartlight of almond paste. Toast it and butter it, and I almost almost don't care that John Malkovitch has no idea I exist.

Saturday, December 7, 2013


If you are of North Western European extraction as I am (and according to the genomics site 23 and me more than average percent Neanderthal) you know marzipan. Shaped like fruit, as above, is very Italian. To be more classically German around the holidays you'd have marzipan shaped like a pig.  

Marzipan, unromantically labeled "almond paste" in American grocery store isles, is nothing of the sort; that's like calling romantic ridiculous love where you cavort in public in a Roman fountain "a positive emotion."

Marzipan is ambrosial. Marzipan is almonds and sugar (yes, traditionally, just almonds and sugar) whirred into a succulent fondant-like texture that can be enrobed in dark chocolate and sliced into thin half moons and fed to your beloved from a plate while you thank the bees that started the whole process by going face first whole hog into almond flowers.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Practical Pain Management

How coo coo is it that modern medicine with its genetic testing and chemicals and fMRIs and brain tinkering toolkit still relies in pain management on the Wong-Baker Faces Pain Rating Scale?Mention Wong-Baker faces to anyone with a chronic pain condition and it's like doing standup, I know! Right? Bananas.

Whenever I am in a pain clinic I always lean over to the person next to me (and there always is somebody, we are not the few, the proud, we are the many, the desperate -- pain clinic waiting rooms are crowded) and I ask,  "Hey. Psst! Dude, what's your Wong-Baker face?"

It always makes them smile, no matter what they've circled. And then I feel that I have done some good.

Like Mel Brooks said, "The only weapon I've got is comedy."

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Tufted Titmice

Used to be I felt the dolphin was my spirit animal. That was in the way back machine of an epoch I call I Want To Be A Marine Biologist.

Now what makes me sigh Whitmanesque, O me! O life! is the titmice. They have descended on the winter bird feeder like totems. It goes without saying they're cute as buttons. But they also have great personalities.

They are bright eyed, curious and funny; the females remind me of Mary Tyler Moore, the males of Robin Hood. They perch on the bird feeder as a crew and look in on me, alone in my bathrobe on my laptop as if I am their Eeyoreish neighbor who needs a halloo and a reminder of what's important, that larger things are happening, there is a world outside my navel, and I am but a mote of dust in the cosmos -- and that I need to get more bird seed.

Once one even tapped on the glass to underline the point.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

What I Want For Christmas Is A Wine Skin

I can take it or leave it when it comes to slouchy ankle boots, I'm meh about diamonds though they say they are a girl's best friend, what I want for Christmas is a wine skin. Why? Because I want to imagine I am on an attic vase.

Because when you have a chronic illness as I do, what you want is not fashion or bling but that thing that is ineffable: merriment. The Great God Pan. Bacchus on a boat. Revelry. Guffaws and pranks. 

Audrey Hepburn said, “I love people who make me laugh. I honestly think it's the thing I like most, to laugh. It cures a multitude of ills. It's probably the most important thing in a person.”

Day in day out I feel like the inside of a slouchy ankle boot, but with a wine skin I could sit under the Christmas tree gnome-like, singing, mimicking David Sedaris mimicking Billy Holiday and crowned in laurels. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Medical Office Waiting Rooms

Recent research suggests that looking at things that are pretty (such as a view of nature, not a bullcrappy mound of Peace Plants,  a "nature band-aid," as pictured above) helps us heal faster. 

Color anyone surprised? 

In this article, Sally MacConnell, Vice President for Facilities at Johns Hopkins,  "discussed the importance of light and color in hospital design," "great views of the Chesapeake Bay," and entry spaces are large with "beautiful lobbies." "There's artwork in every elevator lobby, with impressive views of the outside world."

Well, Sally,  dream big and do it soon because the outside world is totally invisible from most of the medical offices I wait in. The real world ceases to corporeally exist as soon as I turn into a medical office garage.

Most of the medical offices I wait in (and probably that you wait in, too) are dimly lit warrens of tone-on-tone upholstery in the supposedly soothing neutral tones of puce, bone, and dun that can only serve to remind one that "ashes to ashes" is a potent truism. If there is a plant, its a ficus that needs water.

And while you're at it, Sally, can you replace the so called "front office staff" with Monet's Water Lillies? That would be both tranquil and more helpful.

Also, since the sky literally is the limit, how about some natural light like in an atrium in an Italian renaissance architectural landscape? Happy doctors who all look like George Clooney and have the charming we're-all-in-this-together manner of the Dalai Lama.

Let there also be a snack bar with the snacks I like, elliptical machines so I get get in a workout while I wait, and a place that does one hour dry cleaning.