Category Archives: Cooking

The Arborist

What am I?

A writer?

An arborist?

Sometimes it’s hard to sort out. A year ago I “took a break” from books and publishing (my literary agent’s words) and jumped into the world of trees. Since then, something in my chest seizes up when a person introduces me as a novelist, or when I’m called upon to speak about my works of history before an audience, or when somebody says to me at a party, “What do you do Oh, you’re a writer?” I feel like protesting, No, no, no, I’m an arborist. Don’t you get it?

My days have been filled with exotic new things. With learning. About what lies under our feet when we blithely course down the sidewalk, for example how something I’ve always taken for granted, like a curbstone, is shaped.

curb.JPGLike a bowling alley gutter, sort of.

I’ve learned about the crucial importance of a uniform.

uniforms.JPG

About the delicate beauty of tough New York City trees, like this lithe young lopsided linden.

little linden.JPG

The love of guardian lions throughout the five boroughs.

lions.JPG

The imaginary people I was always ensconced with at my computer have been replaced by real people in real time. Like smart and genteel Roland, a Filipino with a Chinese great grandfather, who is the senior inspector for the city on my current job. He’s got seven kids, and he instructed me on how to make a flavorful porgie soup.

Roland.JPG

At the same time, as I thump my chest and proclaim myself an arborist, something in me wants to tell the people who know me in this role that I am a writer, thank you very much. I want to blurt out, I’m a writer, actually. I relish the response. Oh really, what do you write? Are your works published? Can I find you on Amazon? It’s a skin I am sometimes happy to slip into. Again.

And here I am, writing about trees, about living, about writing, in this blog. I feel the faint percolation of something inside, not quite a book idea, but thinking about thinking about a book idea.

I’m not sure what it would consist of, but maybe some of these things. It could tell of losing faith in writing and publishing, losing an idea of myself, only to rediscover the world and my self as an arborist. It would be about grand old trees, and street trees, and leaves and seeds and stems. The gnarled, venerable roots of things. My own roots. Yes, and it might feature that recipe for porgie soup as well. The title comes so naturally: The Arborist .

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All This and a Cow Face Too

It looks like I will soon be working a new assignment, in a park rather than the mean streets of Brooklyn. Green! Summer! Lofty trees! Even a lake.

Yet I already feel nostalgic for this world of impressively staunch street trees, truck exhaust and rough-edged asphalt corners.

I’ve spent the last week on Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, a neighborhood that is dominated by Carribbean customs and flavors. I walk around and everything is out of my wheelhouse, out of my comfort zone.  It’s amazing.

The men on my job pour concrete sidewalks, and the inspectors deliberate over the quantity of water in the mix.

testing concrete.JPG

Meanwhile, without a tree to care for today, I roam. Salvation beckons on just about every corner.

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What about the second born and third born? The gospel is tucked away sometimes.

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I always want to get the names of the tabernacles down when I’m driving past and regret not being able to. I never knew so many existed.

good life.JPG

I like watching how women go about their lives here. There are produce stands everywhere, some with edibles I know.

ginger.JPG

And some that baffle me. Some kind of space potato, maybe.

potato.JPG

The ladies here comb the displays for the perfectly ripe mango or green coconut and select just that one, foregoing a bagful, whether out of economy or exacting taste I don’t know. I love that these markets have not been coopted, all saran wrapped like Shoprite. This is a foreign land where newcomers have retained their habits.

trini buss.JPG

The offerings at Fish World just swam in this moning from the West Indies.

fish.JPG

There are baby sharks, delicate porgies and orange striped fish that look like Nemo. Me and the other women get a stainless bowl and a plastic glove and lift the whole fish into the bowl to go to the register. I purchased a red snapper and baked it last night Veracruz style, it was delicious. There’s also a bin of heads and tails and shoppers have a field day with: soup fixings.

Every other store is a hair braiding joint or a nail salon. Women dress to impress, their aspirations indicated by this sign for a beauty shop.

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Signage fascinates me, like this lamppost poster. A woman on a bucking bull in Brooklyn.

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A very sexy rodeo. Really. Well, meat is a theme here, live or butchered, with some of the stores devoted to it (Meat Mart). You have to work your way through dank-smelling aisles to find the true gems, the items on sale today.

cow skins.JPG

I’m going to miss this neighborhood, its mysteries concentrated in a six block radius. I’m turned inside out, almost levitated by the power of all I don’t know.

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To Wee or Not to Wee

Let’s talk bodily functions. One bodily function.

I have crisscrossed Brooklyn many times now saving trees. The availability of a place to pee structures my day. After my commute to the site, always on a residential street with nary a store, the first thing I do is trek to the nearest commercial stretch to beg some bodega owner to use their restroom. It’s 6:45 am. Few places are open. Sometimes the person behind the counter just says No, with a cold, distrustful look in his eye.

Out of order! he sometimes says.

Really?

Women behind the counter more often take pity. One said, after the automatic Out of order! and after I begged her, plucking at my orange vest to show I was somehow for real, Only wee-wee? Yes! So I won her over.

The vest counts for a lot.

The day goes on as we proceed to lay new sidewalk and save trees at different sites throughout the borough, and I take breaks when I can to walk off to find facilities at a pizza parlor, a 7-11, a candy store, a diner. The stall at a diner is bare bones.

bare bones

I come back, the workers are digging. The men are pouring concrete, smoothing it out with their floaters. They’re throwing big hunks of old cement into the bucket of the back hoe.

Did they pee while I was gone?

I ask the engineer on the job: Where do they go?

He laughs. He seems surprised that a woman would raise such a distasteful subject with a man she barely knows. Really, I say. I’ve never seen them leave.

They have their ways, he says.

A laundromat I went to with a kind and respectful proprietor had Halloween decorations all over the walls, including framed ghoul portraits and red bloody handprints across all the washers and driers.

The woman had even decorated the bathroom, so that when you turned to the side this skeleton is what you would see. Giving the paying/peeing customer a little chuckle.

skeleton

We traveled across the country once, Gil, Maud and I, and before we left Gil ordered some kind of device off the web so that we wouldn’t have to stop so often at rest stops. Maud and I were disgusted, we didn’t even look at it. But now I sort of see the point.

I think the crew might have a pail in the back of the truck. One of them dumps it at the end of the day, like a chamber pot.

Female jet pilots take their facilities with them into the sky. When you’re flying for 11 hours, trekking to a bodega is not an option.

There are books and websites devoted to finding women’s rooms in various cities, including Manhattan. As far as I know there is not one on Brooklyn. But the quest leads me into some nooks and crannies I might otherwise regard as unworthy of my time, like a little Mexican grocery on Avenue U. The owner was polite in directing me to the back of the store, and as I walked through, past the kitchen, the aroma of fresh tortillas nearly knocked me over. So did the pic on the back of the bathroom door.

mexican

People ask if there are any women on the construction crews I’ve worked alongside. No, I say. Why do you think that is? we wonder. They’re just so strong, I say, It would be a very unusual woman who could do that kind of heavy labor.

There are dozens, hundreds of women macha enough to work construction. But that’s not the real reason, of course. It’s that a woman couldn’t hold it in.

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Slowdown Saturday

A knuckle-sized frog hopped straight by the woodpile.

A butterfly lit on a thistle.

Chickadees flocked around the bird feeder, making off with safflower seeds.

A long day, reading a long novel.

Excitement: Oliver thundering from the porch toward the rabbit he’ll never catch.

It grew cool, deep shadows stretched across the grass.

Then there were dinner pancakes, made with fresh-laid eggs from the good neighbor’s coop and local blueberries, soaked in a friend’s home-tapped maple syrup.

blues

“Summer afternoon, summer afternoon,” said Henry James. “To me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.”

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Leafy Air and Cheese

I can breathe again. I took a trip to Michigan and Wisconsin, the Great North Woods, which has leafy air worthy of inhaling.

Also, sweet black cherries worthy of devouring. They sell them, washed, plump and juicy, from little stands at gas stations.

cherries

I experienced a hailstorm that hit just as our sailboat anchored in that lovely private lagoon a ways into Lake Superior. Just enough to put every wet person on board in stitches.

I can breathe again because I turned in the manuscript of my new novel and my editor said he likes it. A lot. That’s an outsize sigh of relief. It made me open to everything around me.

I found that lying in bed on the shore of Lake Michigan, I could feel every delicious cotton fiber with my toes.

I saw the sights, hugged family, brought home souvenirs from people who had made them with their hands.

rye

There was rye flour from the farmer who grew it, at Maple Hill Farm in Washburn, Wisconsin.

And fingerless gloves knitted by his wife. She sewed a pad of suede on the palm for good gripping.

fingerless

The Northland is kind, even its rusty old trucks.

kindness

The region loves its fish. Smoked, fried or souped.

whitefish

It offers a hundred different moccasins.

bambi

Thrives on pop (drive-in menu, top right). Known to us North Easterners as soda.

pop

Then, of course, there is the cheese. I tasted a Michigan dairy’s Colby-style specimen, bright orange and moist, that was produced from a 1915 recipe.

Did I mention that my editor liked it? The novel, I mean, not the cheese.

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Deep in the Novel Cave

Sshhh. I can’t hear you. I am writing a book. Or as Father John Misty said in a song last year, “I’m writing a novel, because it’s never been done before.”

I want to make amends for letting my daily posts slide a bit recently. It’s partly that I’m preoccupied by the release of Savage Girl, yes. But more relevant, perhaps, I have been deep in novel-writing, a process that in my experience tends to zone out most other activity. Like laundry, dishes, housekeeping.

My new book tells the story of a girl in 1776 New-York (back when the city had a hyphen), and I have been spending all my time in that British-occupied city.

Let me tell you what it is like in my household when Gil and I are writing books.

We wake. Let Oliver out the door. Let Oliver back in.

winsome OIiver

Coffee, lots of it. We sit down at the computer. Get up for lunch, the lightest lunch possible so that we won’t be sluggish in the afternoon. Sit down once more at the computer. Knock off in the late afternoon. Let Oliver take us for walk. Dinner. Game of Thrones reruns. A fitful, novel-haunted sleep.

Next morning, begin again.

It is boring. It is fascinating. To me, anyway, if to no one else.

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” Thus quoth Somerset Maugham. And so it is really a matter of creating new rules, a new language, every single day until you get your 450 manuscript pages finished. You never know what you’re doing. It’s insecurity raised to the max, alternating with momentary blips of glee that you got something right. Got something write. Ha.

Anything outside that process is hard to fathom, hard to incorporate – the spring buds on the trees, the return of the birds, social beckonings, exercise, even cooking good food, something that for me almost never falls by the wayside.

I remember years ago attending a party with a book freshly done, wiped out, eyes bleary, toasted to a turn, and thinking that it was impossible to even have a social conversation with someone who had not just finished a book. I simply could not relate to a book-less human being.

“There is nothing to writing,” said Hemingway, “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” A mite melodramatic, are we?

Once upon a time, the novelist Amy Tan’s house burned down with her manuscript in it. She didn’t have another copy. She said she had no interest in talking to anybody whose house had not burned down, she was so consumed by what had happened.

So Gil and I retreat into our little cave, better known as the Cabin. The only thing in the Cabin is, right now, a pair of computers. And a dog. (Oliver refuses incontrovertibly to fall by the wayside.) There is the odor of hyacinth in the air, a strangely chemical smell, if beautiful. And a new page to be written, with words I cannot yet imagine.

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Pub. Date-Savage Girl

There are no two better things in the world. The day your book is published. And pancakes.

pancakes

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