I pass by the Joel Oppenheimer Gallery on Michigan Avenue at least a few times a week when I’m home. It’s on the ground floor of the Wrigley Building, and for several years I didn’t go in because it appeared painfully fancy from the outside. The Wrigley Building, referred to as “the jewel of the Mile,” is a two-winged castle, Chicago’s Big Ben, a tribute to human potential and intelligence, it is among our finest hours as a city. A gallery worthy of space on the first floor of a building like this can’t help but be intimidating, but then I reminded myself one afternoon that the whole Wrigley empire was built on chewing gum. That day, I went in.
The Joel Oppenheimer Gallery, which is staffed by a small number of terrifically friendly people (including the handsome Sarah and Mr. Oppenheimer himself, who on the day I met him was wearing a snappy bow-tie I’ll wager is part of his daily ensemble), specializes in John James Audubon prints. Did you have Audubon’s Birds of America in your house as a kid? We did. Kids are nuts about animals and drawings and drawings of animals and I remember poring over the illustrations in that huge book for hours, freaked out by what I considered ugly birds (vultures, and I was right) and delighting in the sweet ones (lo, the tufted titmouse!) All creatures great and small may be wise and wonderful but some are more wonderful than others:
I had my eye on a print in the window for so long and when greeted by the kindly Sarah on the day of a big sale at the gallery, I pulled the trigger. I love my art and I now love the gallery. On their website they say, “Inquiries are received with pleasure.” With pleasure! Note: Sarah’s desk is a bit foreboding when you walk in, all lacquered and finely turned, but her ever-present, generous wine glass of orange juice atop it quells nerves.
There’s one other piece I’m after. Something about life in the last few years has made me more open to a certain strain of ugliness. The jolie-laide is cool with me, surely because I’m more of a realist than I ever was and there is comfort in looking at things the way they are and the way they are is not always soft n’ glossy. While I don’t plan to inquire to Joel or Sarah’s pleasure about any vulture renderings, I have been obsessing slightly about that guy up top. The warthog.
He’s huge. Several feet across and so tall. Where would I put him? The bathroom? Would I get ready faster in the morning? He couldn’t go into my bedroom; I’d scare my guests. Perhaps the hall, but he needs room to breathe. If the price is even within the galaxy of possibility for my budget (doubtful) I’d get him and figure it out later. Maybe he could go in the kitchen. He looks pretty hungry.
I like him because he’s ugly. I like him because he’s so ugly, he magnificent. He didn’t choose not to be a titmouse. He’s just a lil’ peccary, squalling and stomping, feral and powerful enough to go into any building, faster than me.
When I moved into my condo, I chose not to get a washer and dryer.
There’s a hookup in my pantry (nearly typed “panty”) for this, but I have my priorities. These piorities include high heels, quality prosecco, and a refusal to allow enormous metal boxes to hold my pantry hostage. Besides, there’s a cheery, spacious laundry room in my building. Let the 21st floor have the metal boxes; my calves get exercise anyhow when I take the stairs with a hamper on my hip.
The best part of the laundry room is that there’s this magazine shelf. Done with your magazine, kindly resident? Put it on the shelf for someone else to enjoy! Give a magazine, take a magazine. This is almost worth my entire monthly assessment. On the shelf with astonishing regularity are Town & Country, Vogue, W for heaven’s sake! I leave New York and Harper’s and Elle and though the magazines are not always current, it doesn’t matter. Is Town & Country any more relevant to me now than it was in April of 2011? You see my point.
There are often, gloriously, issues of Food & Wine and Bon Appetite, though these go fast. It was in a hastily grabbed March 2012 issue of Bon Appetite that I learned a simple, fascinating way to discern a good cook from a mediocre one. Ready for this?
Ask the chef to roast a chicken, make a salad, and bake a chocolate cake. That’s all you tell them. Here now, excerpts from the article by Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer:
“You can tell a lot about a person’s cooking skills from these tasks. Take a roast chicken. First, there’s choosing the bird itself: Is it organic and locally raised, or one of those hormone-injected, bodybuilder-like things? Do the cooks rub the skin with butter, olive oil, or nothing at all? How are those trussing skills? Do they roast long and slow or high and fast?”
“When they make the salad, what is the choice of greens–tender, crunchy, or both? How do they wash, dry, and store the leaves? Is the vinaigrette made with lemon juice or vinegar?”
And the cake?
“Even a simple chocolate cake requires some baking acumen, not to mention imagination. A sponge cake is really just two foaming batters folded together as the flour and cocoa are gradually sprinkled in. Visualizing those delicate batters, you can see and know how to carefully mix them together without deflating one tiny bubble.”
And so it is that I have a system for gauging my own cooking: In what manner do I roast a chicken? Just what is my chicken-style? If I have a signature salad, I can say with conviction that whatever it is, nuts are involved. As for the cake, I made a killer Sacher torte over the holidays last year and if I needed to impress, I’d do that again.
There’s a special feeling one gets reading words like, “rub the skin with butter,” “tender, crunchy,” and “two foaming batters” while doing a load of whites. To be learning and drying, well, it’s worth a nice roasted chicken for dinner, at least.
One day not long ago, I got very sick on an airplane.
As it turns out, something inside my body had ruptured. Is there any more terrifying word that “rupture”? So close to “rapture” you wonder if someone was joking. What ruptured wasn’t an appendix (there’s just one, right?) and it wasn’t my spleen, but it felt like I was dying when it happened. Considering my history of being quite sick for long stretches with ulcerative colitis and complications from it, I not only felt like I was dying, I recognized the feeling of feeling like I was dying and this made it all worse.
You need to know that this story has a happy, funny ending. But I have to tell you how bad it was before we get there because it’s part of how we get there.
I was bent over so far in my seat, clutching my abdomen, that my head was almost under the seat in front of me. White as freshly fallen snow, I vomited once, twice, almost three times, that’s how bad the pain was. When you’re involuntarily barfing from agony, you know something is very wrong. The people next to me shot out of the their seats (honestly, it was more to help and less because of the vomit, but the latter probably contributed) and before I knew it, I was laid out on the three seats and I heard over the PA, “Is there a doctor on board?” Really, they said that!
A man came up to me, looked extremely concerned, asked me if I might be pregnant, I squeaked out a “No, I don’t think so” and then I passed out a little. I say “a little” because I don’t remember anything else before suddenly being in a wheelchair at my gate with paramedics looking at me and writing things down.
I got pain medicine in my body and felt markedly better and really, the whole thing kind of cleared up pretty quickly, though I was bone tired. If you really want to know, which you maybe don’t but I’ll tell you because I don’t want to confuse you: I had an ovarian cyst. A largish one. And it raptured.
So then came Verda.
Verda was fifty-something employee of the Atlanta airport (ATL). Verda was charged with getting my gimpy self to my connecting gate. The paramedics, deciding that I was actually okay, cleared Verda to whisk me off. Whisk me off, she did.
“Honey,” Verda said, “You thirsty? You need a snack? Let’s get you something, honey, you’ve been through a lot.” She was a true Atlantan, a black woman, a mother with a southern accent. She wheeled me into a Hudson News and I was eye-level to the chips and candy.
“Get you some chips, honey. The salt will be good for you. You like potato chips?” I said that I did, sure, and reached for PopChips. Verda nearly smacked my hand.
“Mm, no, no. You want those?? Honey, get the regular. They’re better.” She grabbed a large bag of Classic Lay’s and put it on the counter. I got a Gatorade, too, and Verda got me her employee discount. As we moved out of the shop and into the stream of airport traffic, Verda began to talk. Totally unprovoked, she told me about her current situation. I listened with rapt attention and cracked the bag of Lay’s. She was right. They were way, way better than any PopChip and my body nearly screamed, “Oh God! Thank you!” when the salt and fat hit my tongue.
“Honey, I got problems,” Verda said. “I tell you what. This young man’s after me! Right here at work! He’s sayin’ all kinds of things. Honey, I’ll tell you right away: I’m a married woman. This young man, hm! he doesn’t seem to mind that, and I’m tellin’ him, ‘What do you want with some married woman!’ And child, I am twice his age! But he keeps after me and I just don’t know.”
“Verda!” I exclaimed, instantly all in, “What are you gonna do?”
“Nothin’! Nothin’ at all!” We were passing through the C terminal when Verda paused and lowered her head down to mine. “I ain’t the kind, but lemme tell you…” Pause, then with a keen eye on mine: “You open-minded?”
I nearly choked on a chip.
“Yes,” I said, swallowing, thankful I was faced front with Verda behind me; she couldn’t see my ill-conceived glee. This was the most brilliant code for “Can I tell you something I shouldn’t? Something of a prurient nature?” I had ever, ever heard.
“This young man, he’s sayin’ he’d like to do things. To me!” Another pause, then again, “Now… You open-minded?” I nodded vigorously. I am, after all.
“He’s tellin’ me how he’s gonna make love to me and all this kinda thing. I have had it. I shouldn’t have listened to it for so long! And let me tell you somethin’ else: there’s another man trying to get after me, too! Now, he’s not as young as this young man, but I tell you what.”
“Verda!” I exclaimed, “You’re beatin’ them off with a stick!” I was halfway through the bag of chips. I never eat chips.
We got to my gate and Verda made sure I was gonna be okay. I sat slumped in my wheelchair till it was time to board. Wobbly, I got to my seat and the second leg of the trip was uneventful. I never told anyone about what had happened. I was okay and I would see my doctor, but no use in frightening the mother unit or the rest of the family needlessly.
I did tell several people about Verda, though, however obliquely. I just told about the “You open-minded?” part because it was so delicious. And now I’ve told you.
Ye, the wheel of life.
It turns, it turns, the relentless, uncaring wheel;
Blind, wise; a soundless roar rushing in the ear of every man —
Hark! The child’s cry, the mother’s soothing;
These be the sounds of Wheel’s beginnings!
And woe! For even in the tend’rest eye:
Death minds with patience — or alas, for some, with none;
The wheel shall shudder, in time —
For to close the old mill down.
Congrats, you guys!!
I am not new to blogging. From 2006 – 2011 and a little into 2012, I posted to my blog nearly every day. The long-term experiment was called “PaperGirl” and she was among my best of friends. Wanna see what roughly six years of blogging looks like on paper? It looks like that picture up there. As I begin this iteration of my blog, I have this probably unfounded and rather obsessive need to let everyone know that I’m not new to this, that this is like drinking water, that I’m not going to drop of the face of the planet, that you can trust me.
The reasons I stopped PaperGirl (unofficially but clearly, once it had been 6 months since my last post) was simple: life got complicated. My marriage failed. I got slightly famous in a small corner of the world and wasn’t so sure how to navigate the personal and private at first. I became the editor of a magazine, i.e., work heated up. There were reasons to stop blogging and they were all excellent. It was a matter of appropriateness and responsibility, of priorities and timing. I actually prioritize nothing over self-expression, so that didn’t go away: it just went offline. My volumes of journals will bear this out, but you won’t see those. Sorry — aside from being handwritten and hard to read, I think I have a moral turpitude clause in my contract.
It feels so good to be home. I mean, back. I mean home. I mean home.