30. January 2013 · 2 comments · Categories: Books

IMG_4735Last spring I bought this cookbook at the Milwaukee Public Library’s bookstore because I was fascinated with the rather vitriolic notes that someone had written throughout it. I wrote an essay about it and published it here.

Some time later Kate Murphy of the New York Times contacted me, saying she saw my piece, she was writing a story on cookbook marginalia, could we talk?

I’m happy to report that Kate’s story was published today in the Dining & Wine section of the Times, both in print and online.

Big thanks (and congrats) to Kate Murphy. It’s a really nice piece.


SALLY PHOTOS-5Over the years, many people have come in and out of my life. The ones who are kind remind me that I should be a little less cynical and controlling. The ones who are unkind remind me that I deserve to be treated better.

In a previous essay I wrote about these people who move in and out of our lives, some taking bits of our flesh with them, others leaving us with the most beautiful and unexpected gifts.

This essay is about the people who come into your life and never leave. Who know everything about you and love you in spite of it.

I am lucky to have more than one person like this in my life. There are Ohio girls Jan and Pat, whom I’ve known for thirty-two and twenty-six years respectively. I met Lori the week I moved to Milwaukee – sixteen years now. Greg was my friend for twenty-nine years before he died suddenly in 2010. I’ve come to discover that we’re still friends, just on a different plane now.

The most recent person to come into my life and stay is my husband John. The other day I realized that I’ve known him for ten years now. Ten years! This makes me feel glorious.

Sally is my longest-running friend. We’ve known each other forty-seven years now.

SALLY PHOTOS-9Sally and her parents and two older sisters moved to our town – Strongsville, a Cleveland suburb – from a few towns over. She was the new kid in a classroom of fifth-graders who’d known each other since kindergarten. I don’t remember what attracted us to each other. But her being a rebel-rouser and my being a good-girl probably had something to do with it.

I do remember the first time I went to Sally’s house, so far on the edge of town you could throw a rock from her front porch and it would land in the next county. Her father was Italian and her mother Irish, and even when they just wanted to talk to each other about the weather or what to have for supper, they hollered at each other. They sounded angry but they weren’t. Sally’s sisters hollered too. The sheer frequency and volume of it shocked me, whose family kept things bottled up inside.

SALLY PHOTOS-11I got over it quickly. Sally’s attitude then, and still is, “Whatever,” which she usually punctuates with a dismissive wave of her hand. In junior high, when I started sleeping over at her house, we snuck out of her bedroom window in the middle of the night, picked up Denise at her house, and walked across the street and into the next county to hang out with the Sterrett boys, who were much older than us. We made tents in my backyard, pinning two blankets to my mother’s clothesline, and then pulling out the bottoms and weighing them down with paving stones from the edge of the garden. We pretended to sleep until the middle of the night, when we met up with neighbor boys Bill and Jim and roamed the streets of our housing development.

SALLY PHOTOS-6One of these times my mother whipped open the front door so quickly we saw stars. You never saw four kids run in four different directions so fast in all your life. My mother took to calling Sally “the instigator.”

In high school Sal was voted “Class Clown,” while I earned the more sedate title of “Prettiest Eyes.” We were with each other on Senior Cut Day. We attended two different colleges in Ohio. I don’t know how we managed it because neither of us owned a car, but we did visit each other’s campuses a few times apiece.

After college Sally and I rented an upper flat together. I woke up most mornings to the smell of fresh-brewed coffee and Joni Mitchell on the stereo. Sal’s homemade spaghetti sauce was a staple in our kitchen.

SALLY PHOTOS-7We lived together a year and a half before Sally moved to California to work as a costumer and dresser. I got married. She ran into some trouble with a man and abruptly moved back to Cleveland. She didn’t look like her old self when she first got back.

This all changed when she met Jim. They married, bought a house, bought a second house and became landlords. We spent a lot of time at each other’s homes, and went out to the big clubs in The Flats and the mom-and-pop taverns on every corner in Lakewood. Sally and Jim have been married over twenty years now. I should know exactly how many because I was her matron of honor.

SALLY PHOTOS-1There have been private moments, which I don’t feel comfortable putting here. Times when I veered off course and it affected her, and vice versa. Desperate times when one helped out the other.

There was the family reunion at Sugar Island, which happened at a really bad time in my life, which might have been a really bad time in her life too. We clashed on that trip, had a giant fight, and didn’t talk to each other for five, six years afterward.

During that time I got remarried. Sally’s mother died. (Her father had died some years earlier.) She and her sisters sold the family home and moved their Aunt Muriel, their mother’s sister, into another house. On a trip to Cleveland, I visited Sally for the first time in six years.

It felt like being home. No awkward silences; it doesn’t matter if your lipstick’s on crooked; it certainly doesn’t matter if you’re even wearing lipstick, not with Sal. You know just where to jump in. Your souls are connected, as deep as Earth’s inner core.

SALLY PHOTOS-3If you have this even with one person in your life, protect it with everything you’ve got. Especially if it’s not perfect. It’s not meant to be perfect. That’s the utter beauty of it. Loving one person for ten, twenty, thirty, forty-plus years, because of and in spite of everything, is life’s rarest jewel.

I don’t know what took us so long, but it was Sally who came up with the idea to Skype over the holidays. I was at the beginning stages of coming down with the flu and we agreed to limit our conversation to twenty minutes.

SALLY PHOTOS-10An hour and fifteen minutes later, we were sufficiently caught up on each other’s lives. We picked up where we always did, where we’d last left off, no matter how long ago it was, quickly and effortlessly. We talked about Muriel, who’d died just two weeks earlier. Sally looked off-camera and remarked that her family is getting very small now. She used her iPad to show me her and Jim’s Christmas tree, how she decorated their fireplace mantel, their beloved cat, which she found in a dumpster sixteen years ago, and the river, lined with bare trees now, that runs alongside their backyard.

Watching as Sally walked her iPad around her house reminded me of all the home videos she’s shot over the years. There are no slow pans; she doesn’t linger on any one thing for very long SALLY PHOTOS-8before she’s on the move again. When she sees something that she wants you to see too, she goes to it quickly and you’d better hang on for the ride. There are the continual clicks of the camera as she zooms in and out and tries to focus. There is the ongoing narrative that’s delivered a little too close to the microphone. You hear breathing.

If I ever saw a home video Sally shot that was in focus and didn’t give me the spins, I’d be extraordinarily disappointed. It’s one of her quirks that I adore.

Another is that she both boils and fries her homemade breakfast potatoes in the same pan and it takes two or three hours and you’re about ready to pass out from hunger by the time she puts them on the table.

But they are damn good. So are the eggs, the bacon, the toast, juice, coffee, and conversation. The love. I wouldn’t want any of it any other way.

Jim and Sal will be married twenty-five years this September.

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This is me, circa 2000, climbing at Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin. I don’t remember the route name but it was a 5.8 or something like that. Rather difficult.

There was a group of us, tight-knit, who climbed at all the gyms in town: three YMCAs, Adventure Rock, Milwaukee Turners. We took turns driving each other out to Devil’s Lake, and broke off into smaller groups that climbed at gyms in Whitewater and Appleton. Some of us, including me, were climbing instructors at the Y.

It was a good time, but these people have faded from my life, and I haven’t climbed since 2004.

That same year, I was diagnosed with an underactive thyroid, which had slowed my metabolism to a crawl, causing a 20-pound weight gain. In 2004, I also got married, took a new job, and moved to an urban neighborhood where there’s at least one marvelous restaurant or pub on every corner.

By 2006, I had put on 42 pounds. Although most women might be offended by this, for my birthday that year John gave me four personal training sessions at the gym where he, a marathon runner, also worked out. He knew how miserable I’d become. It was one of the most loving things he’s ever done for me.

I worked with my trainer, Lauren, for two years. It was a great experience and we developed a strong friendship, but looking back I can see that I didn’t take the work nearly as seriously as I should have. After our sessions, John would come pick me up and we’d go out for Mexican food. My stamina and muscle tone improved. But I didn’t lose weight.

When I was a climbing instructor at the Y, I also worked out there. In graduate school, I switched over to the university rec center. In 2010, the year after I got my master’s degree, I joined one of those franchise gyms, a seven-minute walk from my home, owned by someone you never see working out there but who occasionally rolls up in a brand-new BMW wearing an expensive suit. When you join this particular franchise gym, your paperwork not only comes from the gym but also from the finance company you pay your monthly fee to.

I got serious about losing those 42 pounds. Started counting calories using an app called Lose It. For two and a half years my new gym and I had a beautiful relationship, with the bonus that one of the trainers there also had a master’s in English and we had a number of robust discussions about literature and writing and teaching. The manager, female and young, was quite professional for her age, a hustler in the good sense of the word who really grew the business.

Everything was fine until sometime last fall, when I couldn’t bring myself to go there anymore. I wasn’t quite sure what it was. Maybe watching people drip sweat all over equipment and not wipe it down. The young woman with the blaring iPod her ear buds can’t contain, who has her choice of every other treadmill in the empty gym but takes the one right next to me. Maybe it was the guy wearing those minimalist Erewhon shoes with toes, who does the same move with a set of barbells an hour and a half straight, dropping the weights from two feet up every time. The one I saw spit on the carpet next to the elliptical machine.

Or maybe it was the attorney who burst into the weight room where three of us were peacefully working out, who dropped to the floor every piece of equipment he touched, continually marked his progress in a notebook that he continually chucked to the floor, and in between practiced a closing argument.

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This month I finally called the manager and told her, “I would like to cancel my membership.”

“How come?” she said.

I told her I wanted to return to my sports.

“Which ones?” she asked.

“Running. Yoga. Climbing. Dancing,” I said.

She didn’t say anything, just made a noise. I got the strong feeling she didn’t believe me.

I put on my running tights and old Nike Storms and headed to the gym to sign my cancellation paperwork. The manager barely looked at me. Checked boxes and drew lines on the form quickly, as if sketching. Pushed it across the desk at me and said, “Fill out the upper half.”

There was no conversation, no friendly banter as I filled out the top half. No “sorry to see you go” or “thank you for being a member for the past two and half years, come back when you’re ready.” I slid the paperwork back, and she handed me a piece of paper from the printer.

“Your receipt,” she said. It was on letterhead from the finance company.

That was it. “Take care,” I said.

“Yep,” she said back.

The trainer with the master’s degree cheerfully said “see you!” as I left. I pushed open the front door of the gym. The sun hit my face.

And I ran. As fast I could.

Along the way I recalled the years 1995 to 2005, when I became the athlete I never really was growing up. I had won two canoe races. Learned to cross-country ski. Downhill-skied in Wisconsin, Upper Michigan, Colorado, Vermont. Backpacked 10 miles. Ran a 15k race without stopping once. Took yoga. Kickboxing. Spinning. Cycled 100 miles in two days. On hills.

And I danced. Oh, the dancing. The first swing dance at the Knights of Columbus on Milwaukee’s south side my girlfriend Lori took me to led me to contra dancing, then Irish set dancing, then Scottish country folk dancing.

During my run I realized that, similar to the road trip I’d taken last fall, what had been keeping me from the gym were all these things I used to be and had forgotten about and wanted back. I needed to more freely move through time and space again.

I still have my copy of Pat Murphy’s Toss the Feathers, which tells you how to dance the Irish sets, which are all danced the same way, no matter where you are in the world. But I can’t find my Climber’s Guide to Devil’s Lake, which makes me kind of sad.

I do have my copy of Devil on the Cross by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, though, which he autographed when I met him in 2006 during grad school. Funny where life takes you sometimes. The detours. Wrong turns. The retracing of steps back to the campfire, whose embers are still burning.

So far I’ve lost 26 of the 42 pounds I started gaining nearly ten years ago. I have no interest in getting down to the weight I was when this all started; 10 or 12 pounds over would be just fine.

Which means only six more to go.


Had I seen this in my gym last fall, it would have sent me right over the edge. The person who posted it on YouTube says that when there are three or four empty treadmills in a row, she’ll turn them all on and dance from one to the other.