Sunday, November 30, 2008

winding down

One daughter leaves, one mother stays a tad longer, and the rain falls in a steady, relentless drip.

Distance is a funny thing. There’s distance measured in train or plane hours and there’s the physical count of miles, and each is too large for me to bear. When I travel to Europe, before the door of the Airbus closes, I am resigned to the heaviness of all that distance that is about to be multiplied many times over, distance between the place where I will soon sleep and where my daughters will be sleeping.

If daughters lived closer to where I am, perhaps I would not see them much more than now. I like to think that I give them space to create their own adult world. But we would share clouds and brilliant sunny skies and occasional Sunday dinners and I would not have to mentally add hours and time zones each time I spoke to them.

But they are here and I am there and so it must be for now.

And the rain falls, and it is a time to eat those eggs and grits and fried green tomatoes, and be happy that the next set of holidays is so close at hand.

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

the best of times…

Imagine: your daughters are grown, they’re heading forth in life, they’re fun, funny, wise, anxiously protective of you – all that, and you have this beautiful week-end together, imagine!

Don’t tell anyone, but I was sick, starting on the day I arrived. The kind of virus that I hardly ever get anymore. The kind that starts in your head and works its way to every pore of your body. The kind that you do not want to pass on to anyone, least of all your very busy daughters.

I always thought that it was a challenge to parent well when you yourself are sick. But it becomes especially so when you have so few days with your children.

And so I basically ignored the viral nuisance. And if someone will ask me whether I remember being sick this Thanksgiving, I’ll have to say no. All I remember, even now, are the mornings over cups of tea, over pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, the walks, the music, the food, yes, most definitely the food.

And the walk this afternoon up and down King Street in Alexandria.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

history, reopened

I have been happy that both daughters live in places that are full of history. The kind that belongs to the past and the kind that is very current.


Late this afternoon, we stood in line to enter the newly reopened Smithsonian Museum of American History.

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We walked through the American Communities and the American Wars exhibits. There was a lot of history to take in before they threw us out (past closing time). Not all of the presentation was, in fact, uncontroversial.

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Ah well. History is tough to take on an empty stomach. We quickly remedied this by eating a wonderful fried chicken dinner at Central.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

blogging a Thanksgiving away in D.C.

Well why not. Why not create a diary of a day (updates will be added periodically to the bottom of this post). For the lighter Ocean post that deals with the singular issues that arise when you prepare food in someone else’s (spartan) kitchen.

6:50: I’m up. They’re not (“they” refers, throughout, to my wee family that has come from various Midwest places and from Boston to eat together on this day). This is a good thing. It’ll be a while before I get breakfast going. Advance prep failed last night, as I had energy to bake only part one of the required items (“required” refers, throughout, to the “you can’t possibly leave that off the menu!” items, in this case -- the spice cake).

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Molasses, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg... I forgot to bring the allspice and cloves and believe me, no one will notice, as it's a densly aromatic little thing already. Great with morning coffee. Or afternoon tea. Comes from a ripped page of a cookbook. Don't know which cookbook.

7:15: Sunrise over Whole Foods. (I'm staying across the street from one. Bail out for when things start to go wrong.) No good photo to offer, but today isn't about good photos. You get the "whatever" part of a day.

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8:45: Apple puff pastries done and ready to bake. Good thing. The crew is stirring. To add insult to the Thanksgiving breakfast table, there is a Starbucks next door. Don’t need to give up on a morning espresso. Will bring a few up for us. Total indulgence. Supporting the neighborhood economy.

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9:20: All’s ready. Yes, with bacon at the side. This breakfast is all about good kitchen smells. In the morning, people can forgive a lot of food mistakes, so long as things smell good.

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11:25: Well, I took a little pause. Couldn’t really bring out the bird yet, felt a little like slacking. Perhaps this was not wise. Bird in fridge, dinner off schedule. One of the diners has a flight to catch tonight so there’s no margin for error.

When you can’t quite focus on the main meal yet, it’s good to do the cranberries. Easy. Colorful. Essential. Think how blaaah the colors of Thanksgiving table would be without the berries.

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1:15: Turkey is in the oven. Does every cook feel relief when this is accomplished? I needed to bake the cornmeal muffins before and we had issues with the herbs wilting overnight, but all that is less troubling than the sight of the raw bird on the counter when you know it should be turning golden in a hot oven.

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And what is the weirdest component of the meal? Easy. The cornmeal muffins. By the time I was at the grocery store yesterday they were out of yellow cornmeal. But they had the blue stuff. So there will be lavender blue muffins with red cranberries in pink and yellow muffin papers. A real treat for those loving the pastel look at Thanksgiving.

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But, the turkey stock is bubbling the collard greens for the mushroom bundles are wilting and I have a helper to peel and chop the squash. Life is good.

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5:30: And so there you have it. The meal. Moments of doubt – too many wild mushrooms! No, too few! And the smoking turkey. And the need to bake the mushroom bundles when there wasn’t an inch of space in the oven. And so much roasted garlic for the potatoes, and this and that and then it all comes together and you feel so gratified!

It’s a blur of images, flying, one after another, served on a table cloth that has been in my family since I was a little kid in Poland, finished off by pumpkin soufflés. By 6:45 we were done, the dishwasher was on and the departing party departed.

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What a beautiful day!

Thank you.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

in the air

Families. One thing I can say for certain – there are lots of them. And they’re traveling today. My flight to DC was full and I think half the passengers were under the age of five.

It was wonderful.

On the metro into town, all I could take note of was the affection, the laughter, the comfort level between people who knew each other from the core. Take a photo of me – shouts one teen boy to his sister. It’s my first metro ride! Further down, a dad is pulling the cap over his daughter’s eyes affectionately.

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Families. Children. Lovers. Friends. In DC, for this week-end.

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From a rooftop, I see the monuments and, close to the White House -- the inaugural stage, under construction. Can I say this? It feels different in DC this time around. Out on the street, in grocery stores, at metro stops – it feels different.

Maybe it’s just me.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

packing up

For the fifth time in a row, I am packing Thanksgiving in a suitcase and taking it to where others reside (04: New York; 05: Chicago; 06: Chicago; 07: D.C.; 08: DC). The humor is not lost on me: I am in all these years not only the principal cook, but pretty much the only cook. I take Thanksgiving to the homes of people who are not equipped to handle the burden of all that food preparation. At the most basic level, it means there isn’t even a decent knife on the premises.

Each time, I began fretting earlier about the enormity of this responsibility. This year, I’ve been tossing ideas and lists around for many nights (this is the stuff of sleepless hours). I blame the increased time it takes me to coordinate this on my progressing age. Ten years ago, I laughed at people who started laying aside things to take on a trip in advance of the trip. That was ten years ago.

As I wished my office colleague a good holiday, and she wished the same to me, we paused for a while to consider this ever intriguing force called “getting older.” At the end, before she waived a cheery good bye, she said – well, the nice thing about aging is that there are so many of us doing it.


And because I am getting to that age where an espresso in the afternoon is a solid must, I took a moment in between classes to pause for one here, by the lake that’s slowly freezing over. A last crack, an open seam and then it's a sheet of ice. For months.

Happy week of Thanksgiving, from Wisconsin.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

different times

I worked at home today, enjoying the pleasure of staying indoors when the world outside looked rather gray, or at best, white-on-gray.

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My only venture was to take the elevator downstairs to retrieve the mail. Typically, I open the mailbox and the trash receptor at the same time. Things pass from one to the other so quickly that I worry if someday I’ll neglect to pick out the envelope with an unexpected, but completely legitimate gift of cash from some distant friend. Here’s a thousand, for your unfailing loyalty. Eh, unlikely.

Today though I needed a break from stuff upstairs and so I took the time to actually leaf through catalogues. Nueske’s is begging me to come back and be their customer again. Hey, they’ve moved beyond just plain old bacon! And Pottery Barn bed and bath – so crisp! And Barney’s CO-Op – so ravishing! And one more -- Williams Sonoma. There were days when I actually considered upgrading juice tumblers. Such pretty juice tumblers!

I threw it all away of course. Even before the economy tanked, three things happened to put me into a state of purchasing celibacy: first, I overspent on overseas travel and must make up for the error of my ways; secondly, I intend to travel in the future, and so (here's a novel idea) I must save for this; and finally – I started hanging out with a guy who never wants to acquire anything unless it’s absolutely necessary and it is the cheapest such item in the entire marketplace and that includes searching Ebay. He cannot, for example, understand why I purchased a new cell phone when I could have bought someone’s old one on Ebay for one tenth the price.

And so I have not been buying much of anything. And mostly, the move toward strict purchasing frugality is a good one. Take an old pair of pants and pretend the shortened leg is on purpose! Or wear a boot over it. And a loose sweater to cover the fact that it doesn’t fit as well. Something to do with years of overwashing, or overeating, or both.

And yet…

Don’t tell anyone, but…I miss those days. Yes, sure, beyond my means excesses, sure, I know, I know, but I miss those days when it all seemed possible. A sweater from Barney’s Coop, pillow cases from Pottery Barn, because I once thought that torn pillowcases could be replaced rather than sewn up many many times and used ‘til they are virtually colorless from overwashing. I miss the moments of indulgence – the buying of a special wine to save for a special day. I have a wine cooler now, but it is growing empty as special days drain its contents and nothing of value is added. I miss buying art rather than trying to sell my own. I miss buying one hundred dollars worth of perennials for the yard, come spring. I did that in the past. Not often, but still, it happened. I miss buying a book at Borders for keeps and not for a day, after which reason nags at me and I reluctantly take it back.

It is, I know, unseemly to feel wistful while leafing through catalogues, when people are losing homes to which junk mail could be delivered. Or maybe it is exactly right to think back to the days when we felt endlessly optimistic and purchased creams that smelled of rosemary and lavender. Maybe now that we have sampled both excess and collapse, we can settle in for a happy middle ride, with health care for all and less taste for things that are beyond what the pay check can handle. Just an occasional sweater, one book, and one jar of cream. No more. I promise.


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Sunday, November 23, 2008

let the show begin

The six weeks starting about now, mid November, are written by some spirited team of script writers who are determined to pack in a lot into the three act play. We are the actors. We move along to their script, liking it, sure (no one forces you to take part), but knowing that the play was written before you were asked to join. To do well by it, we need to follow directions. Do your part, or the entirety will fail. If you’re the cook, you know what’s before you: one week ahead, do this. Four days ahead, start doing this. Two days ahead – do this. Six hours before – begin this. At the end of November, you take a breath and start all over again. Act II requires the greatest talent and grit. The fun is in pulling it off even as life, work, everything continue as ever. You get no time off to participate, you need to squeeze it in to life as you know it.

It’s funny that I embrace the holidays (and accept my roles in the script of the season) in the way that I do. Not being raised on Thanksgiving, I feel I’m still learning the various bits and pieces of this part of the production. But I like nearly all of it. I read it as having the subtext of bringing people together over food. What better story line is there?? I love food, I love my being with important to me people. Each Sunday should be Thanksgiving-like, if that’s what we pull out of the day.

The pages and pages of script having to do with Christmas are also a favorite of mine – again, in a humanistic sort of way, being the heathen that I am. I’m not much into the shopping part, but it’s never been a big chore since we don’t have a large family. Picking out some items for the kids seems a fairly minor commercial imposition. Oh, I’m not craft-oriented either, but it’s not as if you have to take on all possible roles in this. There are others who can carry forth with their craft talents. And all other parts are pleasurable. Strains of beautiful music, messages of peace and joy, good food and insanely fragrant trees, decorated with – and here, I fit right in! – traditional stuff, much of it from Poland.

This week-end I spent a long time pulling together a Thanksgiving menu. On Wednesday, I’ll pack up a suitcase of pots and pans and head out east, recipes, knives and ladles in tow.

In the late afternoon, I took a walk to Whole Foods to pick up stew ingredients (this is stew weather!) for the remaining days before I travel east. I had a very slim hope for some photographic miracle between home and Whole Foods. There’s not much to work with on this stretch: a deserted construction site, a parking lot, a strip mall, two gas stations and finally Whole Foods.

But because boring walks so often dump lovely surprises your way, especially this time of the year, I was thrilled to come across this guy. He was engaged in the very simple act of tightening a light bulb.

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Ah… One of my favorite seasonal treasures, setting up for business – the Shell gas station Christmas tree stand. Not that I buy from this guy, that’s not the point. The point is that it is evocative of other years, other eras, other plays, and in its simplicity it has that naked beauty to it (plain old lightbulbs on a string) that clasps at your throat. So here you have it, the beginning of the play.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008


Three strangers walked into my condo very early this morning. It was a mistake – they meant to visit a vacant unit that is for sale on the floor below me, but it was interesting to be sitting in morning disarray and to have three people staring at you.


Later, the phone rang. Caller ID showed it was a cell phone. A dignified, deep voice on the other end. Nina? It’s Doctor R. Just calling to see how you’re feeling after yesterday’s procedure… For real?? A doctor (dentist really, but it’s the same…), calling me on a Saturday, to find out how things were progressing?? A small thing perhaps, but I was impressed. I made a note to recommend him to the thousands I meet daily who ask me where they should have their root canals treated.


Later, Ed suggested that we look at toilets. For the writer’s shed. Mind you, there is no plumbing scheduled for the writer’s shed in its immediate future, but Ed thought we should be prepared for the day when the shed joins the twentieth century.

We picked a toilet. This one:

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As usual, we picked based on price, but with a ten dollar boost to acquire the slightly larger model because I swear, the regular bowl looked like it could accommodate only half of a Wisconsin adult buttock.


Later, we searched Ebay for cheap shower fixtures (again, being far sighted and optimistic that the day will come when water would flow to the shed). We put in a bid for a basic model that had water jets streaming from a number of places. Yes, this for the shed without a water source. But, it was cheap and Ed's imagination is flying. Eventually, there will be a free standing shower, with a curtain around it. Not any curtain, mind you. This one will have Ocean photos emblazoned on the fabric.

If that doesn't inspire me to finish the great Wtriting Project, I cannot imagine what would.

We spent many minutes at Menards and then at Home Depot and I have to say, I love shopping at Home Depot because it is the only place in the world where there are more people to help you than you could possibly want.

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It’s late now. We have a toilet in the back of Ed’s Geo, we have a bid in for a shower head, and we even know where to find a two burner cooktop for very a very small price, in case I decide that I will hibernate in the shed long enough to cook a pot of soup. On the day that I will remember to take a pot there, because, of course, there is no plan to furnish it with pots. Or even spoons. To say nothing of, well, water.

Friday, November 21, 2008

comfort and joy at La Baguette

I am the only person I know who has three separate dental specialists attending to what I regard as standard dental care: the surgeon, the endodontist and the regular guy who does everything else. If I was in phase one of dental care when I first came to America as a little kid, I am now in the senior phase of picking up where my childhood tooth doctor left off.

In addition to accumulating a drawerful of dentist stories, I am accumulating unfilled prescriptions for painkillers. I believe in a glass of rosé wine as a good cure-all.

Today’s endodontist asked what I do for a living (they all ask that; interesting, isn’t it? how much can we milk her for…) and he removed all instruments so that I could give a clear and unambiguous answer. When I told him of my affiliation with the law school, he relaxed. He then listed various colleagues of mine and assured me that they were his friends. I wasn’t certain if they were friends in the same way that I was now his “friend” or if they were really truly buddies, but it felt intrusive to ask and so I just grunted admiration for the wide circumference of his social circle.

After a long spell on his chair I decided a treat was in order and so I hurried to La Baguette to pick up bread and a chocolate croissant.

Both the bakery and the café part were absolutely hopping and that, along with their free samples of the new Baujolais (2008 est arrivée!) made my heart sing.

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I listened to the French behind the counter, chatted with Madame as to the true meaning of la poissonerie and all worries receded.

It’s good to have happy spots to retreat to when the weather stays cold and your only scheduled meeting for the day is with a dentist.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008


It never even hit freezing today. Twenty-seven degrees. I felt it. Anyone who walked by the lake felt it. And the winds! Crazy.

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From my office window I watched the blackbirds. Hover, dip, then settle. Unaffected by any of it.

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The only thing I can say is that in the northern counties, they had snow. A foot of it. Can't even think about that. Too much too soon.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


In the end, we went to pick up burritos for supper. The day had dragged with worry and fretting in the way that you worry and fret when you realize that something needs to be rearranged, something isn’t right in this set up.

So at dusk, we went to Borders, where I returned a book – third in a row, as if I can’t keep any purchase anymore, they all seem frivolous, unnecessary and there is no room for the unnecessary. Ed bought me a cup of coffee and I spent many minutes looking at Annie Liebowitz’s new book of photos and sipping that double shot frothy milk combination until the cup had only cold froth at the bottom.

We were early at the burrito place. The idea was to pack them up and take them home for later. With some late show on TV maybe, or one of the videos Ed is forever picking up at the library. Not many people looking for food now. A couple of kids, a cop, no one excited about anything, except maybe about how much rice, how much beans, how much chopped tomato should go into your tortilla.

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At home, we did not wait. We opened up our burritos and ate first one half, then the other, as if it had been a long time since we had something warm and nourishing and comforting, or at least that’s the way it felt to me as the TV droned on about the failing auto industry, the failing markets, and all the rest of the day’s news.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

near the end of the semester

On some days, there is very little on my mind beyond the legal argument. I’m not joking. I wake up thinking about one class, move into the afternoon thinking about another and by evening, when I am at the bus stop waiting to head home, everything seems to be about the law.

Every issue presents itself as a courtroom scene. Here’s the allegation, here's the evidence, here’s the defense, here’s the outcome. From differences I face with my occasional traveling companion, to issues that arise at work, I argue in my head with a TV version of the real thing: but your honor! (I play the role of judge, too.)

At times like this, I know I need a break. A severance. Or at least a pause. So that I can wake up and think about the fruit that should load my cereal bowl and not what arguments are to made in favor of raspberries.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

pretty, for now

The thing about the first anything is that it always has elements of the unexpected. The first haircut – oh, is that how it looks?, the first job – that paycheck sure didn’t last, the first good bottle of wine – are you sure this is good? Can you tell?

I can say the same about the first snow of the season. A dusting really, but for several minutes it fell fast and furiously…

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Purchase photo 2206 a Jackson Pollock sort of way (as seen from my condo)

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…and when it was all over and done with, and the sun was out again, it all looked prettier than a painting (especially on raspberry canes, in sunlight).

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Who would have thought I had kind things to say about the coming of winter. Or, is it really winter yet?

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

explicatus, apologia, errata and pizza

A quiet day? Well no, a turbulent day, even if much the turbulence is of my own doing. Disagreeing with friends over the possibility of comprehensive health care for all, disagreeing with my occasional traveling companion over whether “not having the DNA for it” frees us from duty toward another, disagreeing with family members about travel, disagreeing… oh, let me stop here.

Just one more: arguing with myself as to how to recompose the mood of a chapter, the long ago written chapter of my Great Writing Project.

An accomplished author once told me that you cannot go back and rework a book that you had written and left unpublished, unpolished, unfinished several years back. The changes in your life will put you in to a different mindset. You cannot, should not write as if you were writing then and so you must write as you are now. Meaning, you should rewrite the whole thing.

I am getting to the point where this is how I approach the finished chapters (roughly one third of the Great Writing Project):

The first dozen rewrites led to an improved product.
The second dozen rewrites led to a way improved product.
The next two rewrites made me squirm a little: I wasn’t in love with what was there when I opened the folder.

I feel that if I wait a significant amount of time to finish this, I will hate the whole thing and never let it go anywhere except to the garbage can next to Bagels Forever on University Avenue (which is where I dumped some twenty journals from my adult years when I concluded that I hated every word I put on paper in those years.)

Hence my current disgruntlement. My public (and eventually private) apologies.

Tonight Ed and I, our DNA differences notwithstanding, found comfort in excellent pizza, and let me recommend that to you if you find yourself after a day of toilet cleaning, Great Writing Project hating and a generally feeling bearish. If you are in Madison and you cannot afford a flight to Napoli and indeed, you do not even want to struggle with parking near Porta Alba (another excellent pizza place, but inconveniently downtown), do go to Brutta on Monroe Street. It has the smell (and taste) of burning wood, the sauce is legit and the crust is as it should be. Food is the great mellow-izer.

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

mother, writer, good person...

Not too long ago, I heard somewhere that, when asked what best defined her, Michelle Obama answered that first and foremost she saw herself as a mother.

With camera lights glaring in your face, would you, without thought or hesitation, have said the same (assuming you are a mom)? Would I?

I panicked for a second. Do I have something in me that would push itself forward, in competition with motherhood? When I was significantly younger, I thought, at different ages, that I would make the following a priority: a career in journalism, then academic math, then academic economics, then academic sociology. Eventually law. But not without hesitation: confused and infused with wanting to be a cook, a photographer, a horticulturalist, a cartographer, a downhill racer, and through it all, a writer. When career choices weren’t pounding at me, I thought about wanting to be a “good person” rather than “an angry and selfish person.” I assumed I would also be a wife and mother, but I gave those categories no great thought. Dolls were a small part of my childhood play. I had them, but I didn’t quite know what to do with them. Not once I started going to school.

Still, it was hugely reassuring to realize that now and indeed from the first day after the birth of my first daughter, I think that the most important things that have come from me have been those done in my role as mom.

Perhaps nearly every mother would answer in the same vein. After all, we spend so much time on this project – it would be a shame to say that parenting is a mere secondary talent.

So, insofar as so many of us think the same way, why are we so lackadaisical in our preparation for it? I never held a baby until my own was born (at least this is my recollection) and I did more to sharpen my cooking skills than I did to figure out the mommy deal. Learn it as you go along.

I thought about this as I drove past my writer’s shed in the making. There it is -- to the left of the silo and the old barn:

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I came home to the dusty draft of my writing project. I put it aside and called daughter. Not available. So I went back to the writing project.