Sunday, May 29, 2011

Second Draft

I’ve finally finished the second draft of the book I’ve been writing. I’m looking at it sitting prettily on my desk right now, all spiral-bound and thick, at over 300 pages. The title shines through the clear plastic cover at me. No Secrets, No Lies: A Memoir.

As far as I’m concerned, Draft 2 is it. Done, finito. No interest in Draft 3, unless some publisher begs me. I should be so lucky

Here’s why: I’ve spent five years at it. I’ve rewritten each page, probably each word of the book ad nauseum.  I took an entire year going from Draft 1 to Draft 2 to restructure the memoir, and have had two editors who worked with me along the way. Enough.

It’s hard to imagine what could take so much time, I know. I wonder myself.

What was I doing all those hundreds and hundreds of hours crafting this damn thing? I’m not really sure. It’s not like it’s the first thing I’ve ever written. How could it possibly be so hard once I decided to do it? I can only say this. It was.

It sounds simple, I know. All you have to do is figure out what it is you want to say and get cracking.

But that’s where I ran into trouble. What was it I really wanted to say? I thought I knew when I started, but it wasn’t long before I ran into trouble.

At first, I thought I was writing a book about raising our son who has Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD, formerly FAS, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome). Indeed, this could fill up a whole book, and many books about raising special needs children have been written. 

In Canada, a recent award-winning book by journalist Ian Brown, called Boy in the Moon, has won and earned, enormous praise for its thoughtfulness, insight and brilliant readability.

The first draft of my memoir was very much a book about my son Michael. Its title was Man Plans, God Laughs, from a Yiddish saying, referring to the curveballs life throws us. Like everyone else who has children, we hoped and expect they would be born healthy, and life thereafter would follow a certain script, with only minor deviations.

Well, for our family, it was indeed a case of  Man Plans, God Laugh. Our adopted-at-birth son was diagnosed at age six with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. His brain was irreversibly damaged by the alcohol his birthmother drank when pregnant with him.

The prognosis we received wasn’t good. According to the literature of the time, Michael’s future would be bleak. Chances were good he would drop out of school, be unemployed, live on welfare or even the streets, and possibly, be in and out of jail by the time he was twenty.

Without a doubt, there was no shortage of good material to use for the book. But I wasn’t that far along into it when I realized I had a problem. Was the book about me, or was it bout Michael. If the latter, what was I really going to say? I had no desire or qualifications to write a self-help manual, so that was out. Nor did I want my whole book to be occupied by our struggles with Michael.

Too much of my life was already devoted to him. Now my book? Michael of course, would have to be a central theme in any memoir I wrote because he is, indeed, a central theme in my life. But I had other things I wanted to talk about besides ‘life can be a bitch.’

So I was back to asking the questions again. What is it I actually want to say?

This is not easy to answer if you’re writing a memoir. No matter how well it’s written, a  memoir’s gonna be about Me, Me, and Me.  It’s a little embarrassing. So you better have something good to say or you’re just going to be one more narcissist flooding the bookshelves.

As I’ve said, I’ve always been slightly embarrassed when someone asks what my book’s about.

“Well, it’s a memoir,” I say, feeling the need to explain. It  implies that my life is so damn interesting, ‘I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading about me.’

The truth is, you have to actually believe that, to some degree. Part of you has to believe ‘I really do have something to say of interest to the rest of the world.’ 

On the other hand, in my case, as is probably the case for most memoir writers, I’m plagued by insecurities. 

A dose of humility is always good, but if a memoir writer has too much, it’s probably best to ditch the memoir and write about Lancaster Bombers or rare Slipper Orchids, instead. You gotta believe in yourself.

So I carried on. During the past year, I rewrote the book, developing a theme that ran through the first draft, but was not well-developed.

This is the theme of the present draft, the one I’m planning to send off to agents, hoping one signs me up, then tries to find a publisher.
This will give you some idea of ‘what I have to say.’ 

My grandmother died before I was born. Or that’s what I was told until I answered the family phone when I was ten and learned otherwise. A dark family secret was unleashed.  Begging to know more about my maternal grandmother, my questions were met with silence. It is then I made the promise of a ten-year-old: No Secrets, No Lies.

As I grew older and had a family of my own, I realized all families have secrets, whether inconsequential or life-altering.  I’m forced to ask questions of myself that we all have to consider. Who is it we’re really trying to protect when we hide the truth, and when, if ever, is the cost too high. While answering these questions, I discover why people, including myself, hide painful truths from the people we love.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Size Matters When It Comes to Corned Beef Sandwiches

I didn’t know there was a crisis in the world of corned beef, but when you think about it, it makes sense.  A good corned beef sandwich is full of thickly sliced, fatty but flavourful hunks of brisket, pickled in a seasoned, salty brine.

That doesn’t cut it in today’s artery-conscious world.  Corned beef on rye is just, well… not kosher. The under 30 set would rather eat a salad with marinated tempeh bits, edamame, sundried tomato, jicama and pine nuts tossed in a light miso-based caesar dressing.

And that’s a problem for people who make their livings selling Reuben sandwiches (corned beef, sauerkraut, swiss cheese and Russian dressing on rye, grilled).

An article in Silicon Valley’s MercuryNews has this to say about it.

“A man walks into a Jewish deli and doesn't come out with a giant pastrami sandwich.

That's no joke, in more ways than one, because in this modern, organic, smaller-portioned, locally sourced, sustainable, artisanal pickle world, a bigger-than-your-head sandwich burgeoning with fatty cured meats of unknown origin just doesn't cut the muster -- or the mustard, as the case may be -- anymore.”

So what’s a deli owner to do? Talk, shmooze, and eat, of course.

A Deli Summit was  sponsored by Saul’s Deli and Restaurant at the Jewish Community Center of East Bay in Berkley, California this week. Designed for deli owners and customers to explore the thrills and challenges of a modern deli, it might as well been dubbed:  Stayin’ Alive.

Menu items on the summit’s slightly tongue-in-cheek agenda included:  "Pickle pricing," "In defense of hand-slicing," and "How size matters: of menu and portion."

The real menu during the evening’s proceedings?  House-baked Bialys and Smoked Fish, with chive cream cheese, red onion & capers. Sweet and sour pickles on the side,  7.  Openfaced 10. 

Make no mistake, this summit is serious stuff. As Julia Moskin says in her New York Times piece,  “Can the Jewish Deli be Reformed?,” the beloved institution of Jewish delis continues to disappear,”  but a few brave delis are breaking up canons of the dying model and have something to share with their fellow restaurateurs.

“At Saul’s Restaurant and Deli in Berkeley, Calif., the eggs are organic and cage free, and the ground beef in the stuffed cabbage is grass fed. Its owners, Karen Adelman and Peter Levitt, yanked salami from the menu in November, saying that they could no longer in good conscience serve commercial kosher salami.’

Fortunately, the new formula for delis doesn’t mean throwing the potato knish and chopped liver out with the salami’s bathwater,  “…but to make it more foodie friendly for today's health-conscious society.”  The potatoes are organic and the meat antibiotic free. Why not? How can it hurt?

I’m quite pleased, though I hadn’t had a corned beef sandwich in the last twenty years, until recently.

I grew up eating at delis, at least once a week with my family in my hometown of Detroit. Dinner out? That’s where we’d go, to the local deli. I always ordered the same thing, a Dinty Moore. They don’t have it on the menu in Toronto, and I when I first moved here, I sure missed my triple decker corned beef, tomato, lettuce and Russian dressing sandwich on toasted white, with a fancy toothpick to hold it together.

I never did find out how my beloved sandwich got its name, nor the name of my other favourite  Detroit deli sandwich, a Swanky Frankie (hot dog split down the middle, stuffed with cheese and wrapped with bacon, grilled, and served on a bun).

Yikes. I can barely believe I ate either, but I sure did love my Dinty Moores and Swanky Frankies. Like everyone else, though, with time, the amount of salt and fat contained in each started to turn me away.  Maybe if I lived close to a deli I might have “treated” myself once in a while, but the truth is, I lost my taste for that kind of food. Or so I thought.

I was visiting my sister in Detroit a few months ago. She asked me where I wanted to go for dinner, and I heard myself say, “Stage Deli.” She ordered a lovely little salad with dressing on the side. Me?  I went for the Grilled Reuben with coleslaw (inside the sandwich, replacing the sauerkraut).

I was in foodie heaven. The moist corned beef’s saltiness was perfectly countered by the sweet in the Russian dressing and coleslaw. The sandwich was grilled to perfection, ensuring the swiss cheese oozed the way it should over everything. The bread had a nice toasty exterior without being too crisp. 

I ate remarkably slowly that night, not wanting my meal to end.

I don’t think it was just nostalgia. I really do think it was a damn good sandwich. Something everybody in the world should have and enjoy. Maybe once every two years.

I guess that means the Deli Summit will have to become an annual event.  Too many people like me around going someplace else for our salads.

But Long Live the Deli:  I really do recommend that you either go out for or make your own Reuben.  They're pretty fabulous. If you opt for home-made, just make sure to use good-quality corned beef. The kind you get at a deli.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Bird Nerds

I was sitting on the front porch this evening with my daughter and her boyfriend.
“There’s a downy woodpecker on the tree over there,” she said to us. “A male. See its red head?” All matter-of-fact.

A simple comment on the surface about an avian sighting, perhaps, but not to me. I was beyond thrilled. Not every twenty-one year old knows a male from a female downy, or cares, for that matter. But she did, and boy o’ boy, that means the world to me.

My husband and I not infrequently wonder what we’ve managed to pass on to our children. But in this case, it was obvious. Our love of birds. And I’d count that among one of the traits definitely worth passing on, besides a love of dancing, of course.

I then told  my daughter about the many entries on my Facebook page in the last few days either mentioning bird sightings or showing pictures of them. Several friends went off to Point Pelee this week, and I was appreciatively the recipient of wonderful photos of a rose-breasted grosbeak, kingbird. yellow warbler, Baltimore oriole and black-throated blue warbler.

“Bird nerds, that’s what you are,” my daughter said. “In a good way. I’m one too, I guess.”  She mentioned some guy she saw recently in the city with a pair of binos around his neck looking up, and actually thought it was cool someone young was interested in birds (other than her parents, I guess).

We talked about the many Facebook entries of birds, and I realized how our postings says as much about the  recipients as it does the senders. It's not just a fluke that besides bird musings, my page was plastered with political issues (with links), comments about major social issues (with links), a Save Species of the Deep message (with link), notices about flora returnees to the garden as well as announcements about upcoming events, particularly photography shows and music concerts.

No entries about extreme fighting or duck hunting,  petitions against gun registration or fundraising appeals for the Tea Party.  I liked what all my entries said about my interests. They were pretty much all there.

But today, I liked a bird entry on my Facebook page best of all. My daughter had posted it a few days ago. It was a simple message, but it made my heart skip a beat.  “Great-crested flycather!” it said.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Find anything you want on google (with the possible exception of love)

If I wasn’t already, I’ve become a bore. I have a good reason, of course. I’m renovating. And along with the undertaking comes a one- track mindset. Basically, all my thoughts hover around one and one thing only: my kitchen.

I’m so single-minded these days, I couldn't care less how anybody’s day went at work, whether their tulips are in bloom yet, or if the kids are eating their vegetables.
I DO want to know whether IKEA cupboards’ hardware work well, whether pot or track lighting gives the best illumination, and how deep a kitchen sink should be.

Could you please stop yawning?

I’ve solicited whatever information I can from friends, and surprisingly, two actually take pleasure talking about hardware, lighting, and backsplashes. They’re willing to debate relative merits of granite and laminate countertops, though the conversation doesn’t go far.  It’s laminate hands down. Cost is a mitigating factor, and there’s no contest.

But it’s a little embarrassing to admit I lie in bed trying to decide if the sink should be 20 or 18 gauge stainless steel (18). So instead of asking friends, I google: “Which is better, 18 or 20 guage steel sinks.”  And lo and behold, Bob from Montana, Shelley in Iowa and Bruce in Beaverton were just waiting for me to ask. Go for 18, they say. The 20 will dent sooner. You’ll be glad you spent the extra few bucks.

Are convection oven options worth having?  Yes, they are say google bakers out there in cyberspace, all thrilled with the results, especially on sponge and angel food cakes.

Dare I paint our wooden floor, and if so, how do I get the hardest finish?  The sailors tell me to use epoxy urethane (available in matte finish), the kind they use on their own boats. The finish will last forever, they say. Make sure to apply a few coats.

Helen in Tofino, B.C. says IKEA has switched to new German hardware on all their kitchen cupboards, and potlights give the best all around, even lighting. Lucy in Miami swears by Moen faucets, because they offer the best guarantees in town, usually replacing anything with even a minor defect.

There’s a surfeit of reviews on dishwashers, ovens, stoves and fridges. So many, in fact, I get cross-eyed reading them. Bill in Eureka Springs says don’t go near high-end Miele or Bosche. He bought both and says they’re over-rated and overpriced. Deena in Washego says spend the extra money and go European. Everyone agrees: stay away, at all costs, from IKEA dishwashers. Too bad, they’re cheap.  Samsung gets 4 star ratings from Sears customers, fewer stars from Best Buy buyers. Conflicting opinions abound.

What about KitchenAid, Frigidaire, Maytag or GE? All I have to do to find the model number of a product I’m considering, enter it, then wade through dozens and dozens of opinion pieces on each. The problem is that each appliance company has more than a dozen models, and my eyes start to glazr by the time I’ve read what everyone wants to tell me about their experience with each. Frigidaire dishwashers don’t get your dishes clean, I’m told. Frigidaire dishwashers really get your dishes clean, I’m also told.

Who are all these people?

When I first started my online research, I was pleased to find people sharing their experiences. I can’t tell you the number of products I crossed off my list because Charlotte in Austin and Brian in Toronto told me to stay away.

Then I entered sensory overload mode and decided I had to rethink this googling-everything-in-sight thing. I didn’t know who to believe. Did Sheila in Boston get a defected Samsung Frigidaire, Model 24DL7XJ, or does Helen in Carlsbad have low standards since she believes Model 24DL7XJ is sweet perfection?

In a way, it’s very nice that everyone wants to share their experiences and help those of us in the middle of reno decision-making hell, not a nice place to be. But I’m more fascinated than thankful.

I find it fascinating to see people “connecting” with other people, even if it’s about kitchen faucets and pot lights. I see a little online community developing with to and fro between entries. “You didn’t like the IKEA lazy susan corner cupboard hardware? How come? Maybe I can help you organize it better.” “You want to paint your wood floor?  Let me know when you’re ready. I’ll walk you through it. I’ve done a few stencils.” It’s kinda charming, I guess – one more way the cyberworld “connects” people.

Maybe the IKEA lazy susan people will become Facebook friends,  and the floor painting people will eventually text message.  It’s anyone’s guess what’s next. Possibilities, endless. To paraphrase a line from an old television series, 'There are a million and one kitchen questions out there in the Naked City.'

I started this blog by saying you can find anything you want on Google with the possible exception of love.  Maybe I’m wrong.