In praise of wonky imperfection

One of my “wonky” individual souffles.

My daughter-in-law recently told me about a PTA presentation that covered, among other things, the quest for “perfection” among children. This is especially daunting for children who are gifted and/or talented. They hear “Perfect!” or “That would be perfect if…” Cue the stress. I’ve been thinking about the quest for perfection. We do this to our kids, ourselves and the adults around us. A lot.

Where does good perfection end and bad perfection start?

There are times when perfection matters: Don’t misspell words on your resume. Then there are times when it’s overrated.

I think the triggers or influences that drive perfectionism can be subtle or not, and they’re probably pretty personal. My dad (who otherwise was pretty perfect) used to say, “If you’re going to do something, do it right or don’t do it at all.” But I wonder how any times that quest for perfection kept me from attempting something or attempting it again after a less than perfect effort. (Maybe I would have stuck with golf a little longer.)

Pie-making perfection

My grandma was a legendary pie maker. Her lemon meringue was the right mix of sweet and tart, with perfectly browned peaks that never “wept.” Her apple pie was as American as, well, you know. And when she delivered one of them to the church bake sale, they were top sellers.

An imperfect but tasty pie.

Grandma baked pies at lightning speed, her rolling pin banging on the table as she rolled out the crust. (Really, when I got older I realized we all backed away when she got the rolling pin out.) Although my earliest cooking memories are of making pies with her, using my own child-sized pie pans and left over bits of dough that I rolled and re-rolled and played with until it was genuinely grimey, I had no interest in learning how to actually make the crust and the fillings until I had my own family and became the holiday cook. By then, Grandma was gone and I was left to learn on my own. Mostly, I just made a mess of flour in the kitchen that resulted in patched-together crusts that led to store-bought pies. Problem solved.

But my pie-making ineptitude nagged at me. I wanted pie perfection.

And so, I hit the books. Ina Garden is usually my go-to, so I began practicing her crust. She uses the food processor, really cold butter and shortening. And I practiced pie dough. I told myself it was only flour, butter and shortening. And I think I’m beginning to get it. It’s not perfect, but it’s not patched together, it browns nicely and it tastes good.

I am reminded of a conversation I had with Marjorie Taylor of The Cook’s Atelier when I attended my second cooking session. We were discussing what I had tried cooking at home and I noted that my souffles rose and browned unevenly.

How did they taste?

Wonderful!

Well, she said, who cares if they look a little wonky.

What wonderful advice. Maybe “a little wonky” is something we should all accept from time to time.

So many books

You know that I am an avid reader (you do know that by now, don’t you?). Like  lot of readers, I need to have the next few books waiting in the wings (or piled on an end table or stashed on a shelf). And right now, I have an abundance of good reads lined up.

I picked up Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng because I was just seeing/hearing a lot of buzz about it. My instinct paid off because this book just blew me away. Ng is a wonderful writer with a real gift for deftly setting a scene (in this case the well-planned Shaker Heights community in Cleveland, Ohio), but it was her carefully drawn characters who really captivated my attention. The story revolves around a handful of otherwise disparate families eventually drawn into one compelling story. Ng was able to carefully step back from the developing story to recount the lives of these characters, almost like a short story or a novel within a novel. She does this effortlessly, without jarring the reader. On the other hand, their stories are not always pretty or fun, in fact Ng grapples here with some tough social issues.

Ng offers a lot to think about. A few other friends have also read it; we agree it would be a meaty selection for discussion. You or your book club may have already discovered Little Fires Everywhere, but if not, add it to your list. You won’t be disappointed.

One of my favorite reader friends shared the first three Louise Penny mysteries with me. (Apparently, you have to read them in order.) So I read the first, Still Life, and now I’m well into A Fatal Grace. There’s a lot to like here, starting with the charming Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, and the small town setting of Three Pines just outside Montreal, and its colorful residents, even if they do have an uncanny homicidal bent. And, there’s more than a dozen more titles waiting.

My lit group read One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. This book features an ensemble cast of nine characters who find themselves trapped together after a massive earthquake. To pass the time and manage their fears, they agree to each share one amazing thing about their life. This is a very disparate group in age, education and life experience. You can imagine how their stories must vary. One Amazing Thing is about the power of story telling, about what we are willing to share with strangers that we may never share with family, and how we often make sudden decisions that shape our lives forever. It was a good read and a great conversation.

Up next, There There by Tommy Orange, follows the lives of twelve Native Americans as they are traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. I’m sure there are some parallels to draw between this and One Amazing Thing, but There, There also promises to shed light on the plight of urban Native Americans. I’m looking forward to reading this.

I finally read Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, the story of a group of international hostages hostages held by rebel forces in South America. (And yes, without thinking I seem to have noted three books here with a similar premise.) I have to admit that this book moved waaaayyy too slow for me in parts, but I kept going and I’m glad I did. Here’s my question if you have read this book: did Patchett purposely slow down the pace of this book to demonstrate how time crept by for the hostages? I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

After reading a review of Patchett’s latest book, The Dutch House, I’ve added it to my to-be-read list.

What about you? Any good recommendations?

Hope you’re having a great day! Thanks for stopping by. See you again next time?

 

The old neighborhood

Technically, since the city annexed O’Hare Airport, the geographic center of the city has changed, but not for most Chicagoans.

If you grew up in Chicago or have lived here for any length of time you know that the city is a collection of neighborhoods: Hyde Park, Ravenswood, Lincoln Park, and Pilsen to name a few. And when you ask a Chicagoan where they’re from, it’s often a neighborhood they refer to.

My Chicago neighborhood is McKinley Park on the city’s southwest side, named for the park it embraces (Which was actually named for the 25th US president.). The neighborhood is centered on the triangle bounded by 35th Street and Archer and Ashland Avenues, but extends as far south as the southern boundary of the park on Pershing Road and to the old Canal and Interstate 55 on the north.

I should start by saying I never lived in the McKinley Park neighborhood.

But my maternal grandpa grew up there, he and my grandma were married there and raised a family there. He lived there until he was in his late eighties. My dad’s family also has its roots in the neighborhood, and I’ve always felt rooted here too. It’s from this neighborhood that so many of the family stories come, where I spent holidays and enjoyed Sunday dinners. I was not at all surprised when my daughter, who is more than a bit of an historian, took a walking tour of the McKinley Park area (Although I may be pushing the point; she’s done at least a half-dozen other such neighborhood walks since moving back to Chicago.) I couldn’t go with her on the first tour, so she took me on my own a few weeks ago.

In the past my grandparents house was painted red, like most of its neighbors, and it had tall windows in front, now replaced with this picture window. If you look closely, you can still see the shadow of the old windows and their stone trim.

We began here.

My grandparents lived in this little workman’s cottage, one of a dozen on their short block and countless others in the neighborhood. This was the brick house built for the masses after the Chicago fire. They were small, but must have seemed palatial to people who had come from tenements and boarding houses. (There aren’t many Chicago bungalows here; they came later.)

We took a walk down 35th Street, the commercial heart of the neighborhood. The William McKinley Legion Post (my grandfather was a founding member) is still active.

 

Another workman’s cottage, in 1910 the house had no bay window or sliding glass doors, and my grandparents were likely boarders in one or two rooms.

Our other destination on this street was a house we think my father’s parents lived in, at least for a short time. Maggie found them listed on a 1910 census at this address. (Like I said, she is an historian.) The next census finds them just a few blocks away on Honore Street. However, when we rounded the corner to look for it, those houses had been replaced by Nathaniel Greene School!

Since this area was first settled in 1836, it has been a working class neighborhood. The first settlers worked on the Illinois and Michigan Canal. Then came railroads, steel plants, and meat packing. There are new brick row houses  and townhouses in-filling empty lots. Several buildings have been converted into condos, including St. Philippus Church where my grandparents and parents were married.

My re-cycler’s heart loves that the church, no longer able to support a congregation, was spared the wrecking ball to provide housing.

The new school, houses and condo conversions are understandable; the McKinley Park neighborhood has experienced an increase in population since the 1990’s. And that’s hardly surprising since it’s still supported by a healthy manufacturing area nearby and outstanding transportation, including Metra’s new (to me at least) Orange Line. The old housing stock is well cared for, and some original landmarks continue to serve the community, including a funeral home and St. Maurice Church.

This is an example of the mix of old and new housing stock.

Finally, we got to McKinley Park, 69 acres of green in the midst of the city, with a lagoon where my mom and uncle ice skated, a field house, and so many ball fields where Dad and my uncle spent a significant part of their lives. In fact, they met there and played ball, sometimes together and sometimes against each other, long before Mom and Dad met. It’s still a leafy oasis, popular with runners and walkers. On this September Saturday, there were soccer and baseball games. It’s still the magnet it always was.

We sometimes think of “old neighborhoods” as falling into serious disrepair or, conversely, becoming gentrified and even chic. Not so in McKinley Park. This “old neighborhood” never had the panache of the North Shore or the leafy, residential vibe of the suburbs. It has always been sturdy, a bit hard-scrabble, largely populated in my grandparents’ day by first- and second-generation German and Irish immigrants. Today it retains this sturdy, working class character, and the immigrant mix includes Hispanic and Asian residents.

It has adapted more than it changed. That’s what intrigued me as Maggie and I walked down one street and up another, peering down gangways and admiring pocket gardens. My daughter shared the architectural background gleaned from her walk, while I was filling in the anecdotal from my memories. I’m glad my daughter and I did this, but I must admit that for me it was a bit bittersweet. There are few family members left from that era to share this, to tell them the house on Damen is painted blue (!) and the Legion Hall has hardly changed.

So, I’m especially glad you came along with me on this “second” walk in the old neighborhood. See you again soon!

Re-writing history

It’s hard to believe that a landowner/businessman would design and oversee the construction of this mansion based on pattern books, but John Drayton did exactly that.

This year as we were planning a beach trip to South Carolina, I also wanted to re-visit Drayton Hall Plantation. Although we had visited years ago, before social media and blogging, I have been following them on Instagram for some time. And in my mind, the folks behind Drayton Hall have been doing a fabulous job of teaching history.

Briefly, Drayton Hall is an 18th-century plantation on the Ashley River about 15 miles from Charleston, and its history and architecture are notable. Historically, Drayton Hall is the only plantation to survive the Revolutionary and Civil Wars intact. Additionally, it is a remarkable example of Palladian Architecture in the United States, built by John Drayton Sr. and designed without the benefit of professional architects. Instead, like many other other wealthy and well-educated planters of his time, Drayton relied on British “pattern books” that detailed classical architecture.

The first time I visited Drayton Hall I was sorely disappointed. As someone who loves historic homes and had visited the likes of Mount Vernon and Williamsburg more than once, I loved seeing these buildings restored and renovated as necessary and filled with the appropriate furnishings. In fact, for me that was a big part of their allure.

This reflects how the building was found when it was acquired from the Drayton family, on the 1970’s. The workmanship on the paneling and molding is remarkable.

Not so at Drayton Hall.

Drayton Hall is a preservation, not a restoration. So, it’s empty. What you see are the architectural details of a building that was inhabited by Draytons from the 1740’s until it was turned over to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the 1970’s. It has never had electricity or indoor plumbing. The preservation philosophy at Drayton Hall was to stabilize the house and maintain it as it was when acquired from the family. This was radical at the time, but it has resulted in considerable technical and scientific research into the original building and the people who lived there. And the lessons learned  have given me a whole new appreciation for the role of historic preservation.

For example, historians originally believed construction was begun on Drayton Hall in 1738 after John Drayton Sr. acquired the property. However In 2014, scholars examined the wood cores of the attic timbers and determined that they were cut from trees felled in the winter of 1747–48. Because the attic would have been framed well before the remainder of the house, scholars now believe Drayton Hall was not occupied by the family until the early 1750s. This is just one example of the kinds of data the building continues to reveal.

Expanding on plantation history

Today the plantation includes an Interpretive Center and Museum. The Interpretive 
Center traces the history of the property, the Drayton’s, and South Carolina. This history includes that of the enslaved people who built the house, planted the crops, tended the fields and served the family, all of which made plantation life possible. This reality is nothing like Gone With the Wind.

Drayton Hall is constructed from bricks made on-site. Often enslaved children worked on brick-making. Look closely at the red brick on the right in the third row. A child’s handprint is visible.

One of the things Drayton Hall has done very well is to reveal more about the enslaved people who lived there. Plantations like Drayton Hall and its counterparts throughout the South would not have been possible without the labor provided by the enslaved community. It’s important we understand the economic impact of slavery on the South, the North and even Europe.

During our visit we attended a presentation, Port to Plantation: Slavery and the Making of the Early Lowcountry Economy. The presentation takes visitors back 400 years to the beginning of the Triangular Trade Route (from Europe to West Africa, to the Americas, and back to Europe), paying special attention to the middle passage which carried slaves from West Africa to the Americas. Slaves were traded in South America, the Caribbean and North America, but their role in the American South is now under increasing scrutiny thanks to additional historic research like that at Drayton Hall.

Portugal, Great Britain, France, Spain and the Netherlands all participated in the slave trade, sending ships to West Africa, where they loaded slaves for the Americas, then after selling the slaves, reloaded their ships with valuable cotton and rice to return to Europe. The passage itself was gruesome, with hundreds of Africans packed onto ships. Many did not survive the journey, and those who did were often crudely “warehoused” at their destination until they regained their strength for the auction block. This was, after all, business, and the factors or agents responsible for the slave sales depended on top-dollar transactions,

Drayton Hall is not alone in re-thinking how it presents slavery. The McLeod Plantation on nearby James Island, and the Aiken-Rhett House and Nathaniel Russell House, both overseen by the Charleston Historic Foundation in Charleston have also re-cast and expanded their interpretation of slavery. They have traded the term “slaves” for “enslaved people” to more clearly recognize them as people rather than property. To read more about this, including the controversy it has generated, see the recent feature in the Post & Courier by Robert Behre.

Not everyone is a fan of this revised history. Guides at these and other sites report visitors who complain that this history is “depressing” at the least. Some are more outspoken than others. (A sign of these outspoken times, perhaps?) But as hard as some of this is to see or hear or read (I find myself speechless over the child’s handprint in the brick), I think we are very fortunate to continue to learn more about this chapter in our history. This historic site visit pushed me to consider how little I know and how much more there is to learn.

It’s also a reminder that one of life’s great gifts is the opportunity to re-think, re-write, re-imagine, and grow. What if we gave similar license to other life experiences?

Thanks for stopping by. See you again soon!

 

The truth about my summer

This is the “finished” side of our basement. If you look at the floor in the corner of the closet on the left, you can see how the perimeter of cement has been re-done for new drainage. Those boxes  holding tools are up-ended cabinets that were under the wall-mounted wine racks. Wallboard was removed to make way for water proofing.

As I write this my husband is banging around in the basement, re-constructing our finished space there which was de-constructed to make way for a french drain (a fancy name for a trench around the entire inside perimeter of the house which is excavated with jack hammers and then lined with gravel, drain pipe and fresh cement) to replace the failed drainage tiles around the exterior of our foundation.

Are you following this? Because I can hardly follow it and I’ve lived it this summer.

But this very expensive hole in the basement has pretty much been the story of our summer. Really. Bigger than two weeks at the beach (where we escaped once we had implemented our remediation plan), more time-consuming than the yard and garden, and more worrisome than the stock market.

It started with not one, not two, but three heavy rains and subsequently a repeatedly wet basement in May and June. Not ankle-deep flooding, just puddles in the utility room. And then squishy carpet in the finished portion. And it kept happening. Where is this coming from? The hunt was on. Pull back carpet, have the restoration company out and set up their industrial fans. (They can dry anything. Really.) Move things off the floor, out of the way, into the garage. Move more stuff. Call water-proofing companies. Wait for their estimates (It was a very wet season all over Chicago and the suburbs and these guys were really busy!), wait for a building permit (the city gets involved here) and then wait for the new cement to dry.

Now it’s September. I think we’re on the down-side of this, looking at putting things back together in the next month or so. I hope. My husband has been storing nine cases of wine in the dining room. (Not a bad thing. It makes the good stuff more accessible.) I can’t even remember all that I carried out to my “holding pen” in the garage. And I have no idea where my so-called “fall decor” is.

There is an upside. We have done a remarkable job of culling the stuff stashed in our basement. And while I was driving loads to Goodwill, I also cleared a lot from the closets and happily delivered several boxes of miscellaneous school memorabilia to my son in Ohio. I would hardly compare this clean-up to Marie Kondo, but it feels good.

Choosing your words

And since I didn’t want to close on a whine-y note about my basement, I thought I would share some well-chosen words. As many of you know, Instagram is my social media weakness. I think of it as a daily shelter magazine of pretty rooms and gardens (because those are pretty much the only feeds I follow). But some how in the last week or so I have come across the most wonderful words there, witty and wise.

First, this made me laugh out loud, and is so much like me. (And why do women of a certain age seem to tip so easily?)

This, I think, is excellent advice.

Finally, from Aibileen Clark, one of so many unforgettable characters in The Help. I wish I’d had these words to repeat to my kids every day as they went off to school.

Thank you so much for stopping by. I look forward to seeing you soon!

Looks, cooks and books in August

My looks this month can be summed up in three words: Charleston window boxes. They are charming, creative, and put a welcome face on homes and businesses across this charming and historic city.

I think of window boxes as decorating/gardening details, the kind of exclamation point Charlestonians always add and the rest of us wish we had thought of. I love them all and I can’t stop taking pictures of them when I’m in Charleston.

When I assembled the photos I most recently took, I noticed that most of these boxes featured far more greenery than flowers, perhaps a nod to Charleston’s steamy summer weather? I also think a lot of people replant the boxes with the seasons. However, look at the color and texture they get without flowers!

 

I am  a fan of ferns, so this box caught my eye right away.

 

And I thought this box mixed a lot of color although it uses limited  flowering plants.

 

This one also used colorful caladiums as well as some substantial traling plants. Here they pretty much reach the sidewalk!

 

This box was at a business.

 

And I loved this against the brick.

 

What I’ve been reading

We have a new, independent book store in our neighborhood. That alone is good news, but it gets better: the staff is friendly, low-key and eager to help you find something you are going to love reading. In my case it was Cooking for Picasso by Camille Aubray. This was my beach read, light but lots of fun. This is a dual story that moves between a modern American woman grappling with a family crisis and her French grandmother who cooked and eventually modeled for Picasso during his stay in Juan les Pins in 1936.

This sounds contrived and it was. But we actually stayed in Juan les Pins while in France last fall. Picasso and his artistic contemporaries are inescapable there as well as in Antibes and Nice. We visited the Picasso Museum in the former Chateau Grimaldi, which also makes an appearance in the novel. We loved this part of our trip, so it was really fun to read a novel in that setting.

After Picasso, I needed to read Where the Crawdads Sing for my morning book group. Everyone is reading this, it has been on the best seller list for dozens of weeks, selling more than a million copies since its release last year. It was also something of an unusual choice for AM Lit. We don’t typically pick something that current; on the other hand, we assumed we would all be reading it, so why not read it together?

Author Delia Owens tells the story of Kya’s survival as a child essentially alone in a remote marsh of North Carolina. Kya’s story is both disturbing in that she is left alone to fend for herself and inspiring in the way she handles it with the help of just a few others. Owens alternates telling Kya’s story with relating the events surrounding a mysterious death several years later.

Crawdads generated a lively discussion. This book raises so many questions, not the least of which for me is the role of a celebrity recommendation. In this case Reese Witherspoon chose Crawdads for  her book club. How much does that shape a book’s popularity and recognition with both critics and readers in general?

Then our discussion leader for this month pointed us to a recent article in Slate which detailed Owens’ role related to another murder. (And no, she is not a suspect.) If you have read the book, read this. It’s interesting to consider how this real life murder may have shaped the mystery in the novel. If not, wait until another time since the Slate article includes a spoiler about the book’s quirky ending.

Finally, I just finished The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin. And guess what? This is also a story told in two different time frames, but with an interesting catch. It begins in 2079 when the narrator and the youngest of the Skinner siblings is 102. I was totally unprepared for this opening, but quickly got caught up in the story. The plot is somewhat familiar: it centers on a group of four siblings who are forced to raise themselves after their father dies unexpectedly in 1981 and their mother takes to her bed for two years. They later refer to this as “The Pause.” Their bond is remarkable and the role each assumes in the family is unique. This engaging story caught me completely off-guard. I didn’t always like the characters, but I couldn’t put the book down.

What’s next on my list? My grandson has pointed out that I’ve fallen behind on my Harry Potter reading, so The Prisoner of Azkaban is next.

One quick cook

If you have not heard of sheet pain suppers, where everything is essentially roasted together on a standard sheet pan, you’re missing out on some delicious, easy cooking and clean up. Although a lot of these recipes are geared to larger families, I have easily modified them for the two of us. And it’s also easy to tweak the main ingredients to your preferences. My latest effort starred smoked sausage (my husband’s request) which I paired with halved cherry tomatoes, sliced peppers and slices of polenta. Despite the fact that the cherry tomatoes pretty much cooked down to nothing (I think I might try halved or quartered romas next time), we really enjoyed this. We had never tried polenta this way, but it roasted beautifully. The peppers were delicious, and I would add more next time.

That’s it lately. Pretty quiet actually, but that’s fine with me. Thanks for stopping by.

See you next time!

 

 

I’m skipping Christmas in July

I’m not sure who came up with the idea of Christmas in July, but I am not buying into it. Not the Hallmark movies, not the Christmas in July decorating blog posts, and definitely not the pre-, pre-season sale on artificial trees. And I have my reasons.

July is the heart of the summer. It’s the long, sweet stretch between school years. It should be celebrated with more than picnics and fireworks on the 4th, but with entire days spent at the pool or popsicles for lunch. July is long and luxurious, reading a book in front of a fan. Yes it’s hot and sticky (especially this year!) and sometimes stormy. And even if you can’t get away to the mountains or the beach, there’s always the hose. (On the hottest days, I always “need” to hose down the patio.)

And then there’s the food: sliced, salted tomatoes straight from the garden, sweet corn, cold shrimp or chicken for supper, the best watermelon. This is all the stuff that’s so out of place at Christmas, when we’re thinking hot chocolate and fancy cookies.

Christmas should be savored in its own season.

Christmas is sacred and special. If we preview it six months ahead of time, we risk watering it down. The holiday season is its own, magical, list-making, secret-sharing time. Christmas (and for that matter Hanukah and Kwanza) are nothing like July. It’s about the Christ Child, angels and three wise men, not to mention shorter days, holiday lights, and hoping for snow.

Of course, it’s a busy time and we need to prepare. The smartest among us do just that. But I think the best of us do so quietly, so the holiday season opens with us ready to enjoy the celebration. Otherwise we risk being talked-out and tired of it before the first bells jingle. And don’t tell me you haven’t bemoaned the appearance of holiday goods in stores as soon as the school supplies are sold out.

If you rush Christmas, you could miss something good. I really don’t want to miss back-to-school, falling leaves and Halloween. I want to enjoy decorating with pumpkins and gourds. I do not want to miss Thanksgiving.

I speak from experience

Back in the dark ages, in my twenty-something career before having a family, I was a buyer for a gift catalog. Christmas was our bread and butter. We worked on it all year, literally. In February and March we made the rounds of the gift, toy and holiday shows where we selected items for consideration in the holiday catalogs. In May and June we finalized the merchandise, designed the pages and wrote the copy. In July we delivered it to the printer and signed off on the proofs so the catalog could mail in September. (The print industry runs well-ahead of the calendar.)

By the time Christmas rolled around, we’d already “been there, done that” and were scheduling ahead to start again in February. I used to say I was getting twice as old in half the time. When I left that industry, I was anxious to reset the calendar and live in the present. I haven’t looked back.

Go ahead and savor Christmas in July if you must. I’m fortunate to be writing this from the beach in South Carolina, where life is sandy and salty. And there is no way I’m going to rush the season!

Thanks for stopping by. See you again soon!