24 May, 2006

a festival of Thanksgiving

I know what you're thinking: they've been gone only six months and they've already forgotten the placement of major holidays on the calendar! No, no, don't panic. Since American Thanksgiving means nothing here, but it would seem that the impulse to institutionalize gratitude is universal, in spring there is a Thanksgiving, although it's called Summer Thanksgiving. Now I don't know if it's nation-wide, but King's College observes it and that's good enough for me.

So above here is Avery with her beloved Mrs Bickley, who just seems to love her to pieces and in consequence, we love Mrs Bickley. And the proud Form Four contingent of Avery, Sophia and Anna, for once not trying to beat up on Anna's long-suffering little sister Ellie. Although in general, as far as self-defense goes, my money's on Ellie!

To celebrate this festival, the girls have been working long and hard on a musical performance, held at the most elegant church you can imagine: a John Nash creation called All Souls', Langham Place. Directly across the road from the church is the Langham Hotel where Avery and I tried to have tea one day after school, early in our stay, but it was hosting a private party and we ended up at Claridge's (nothing to sneeze at!). There was a jolly, jovial clergyman, the Reverend Mark Meynell, who delivered a very nicely balanced address, designed to appeal to the girls' sense of justice: if you give somebody something, the somebody should say thank you. So he pointed out all the good things God had given us, culminating in his only child, and the children were impressed. And a clever touch, too: if we forget to say thank you, there is always forgiveness and a second chance. I think it's a lovely sentiment. Forms Four, Five and Six were seated on the giant stage-like altar area when the parents started filing in, and I felt very, very happy to know so many people, so much thanks to Becky who has been so generous with her friends, not just in Avery's and Anna's Form Four, but Ellie's Form One, which along with my reading to the gulls gave me a warm sense of belonging that has been long enough in coming. So thank you, Becky.

The gulls were, one and all, trying mightily to look a combination of dignified, proud, pious and well-behaved. The sight of over 100 gulls in their plaid dresses, knees crossed, hands folded, was so different from what our experience of school has ever been that I felt quite teary! Susan, Sophia's mother, had gone out for lunch with me beforehand, and she said, "Bring on the tissues," so we each clutched one just in case. Good thing, too, because once the organ began to play and the children to sing their "Little Latin Melody," it was pretty touching. The senior choir, made up of Forms Five and Six, were remarkably accomplished (to use Jane Austen's favorite phrase!), all singing in tune and with expression. Each group stood up to sing, and then sat down again in perfect unison, but no clapping! I am going to file an official objection. OK, it's in a church. But to listen to all those four-year-old angelic voices singing "Hello, Mr Sun," and not reward them with some applause was very hard! The English accents, too, and the pitch of their tones, and the sheer number of little people singing, made it very, very enjoyable and painfully sweet. I had heard Avery rehearsing the various songs many times over, and I have to confess I didn't stop at any point to think that she was awfully cute. But Avery times 18 in an enormous historical church filled with flowers was very affecting. "This is a lovely wuhld..."

And the readings! Two Form Six gulls had been chosen to read extremely serious and rather punitive passages from something or other, and the gravity and perfection of their delivery was something to be proud of. Then when all the girls sang together, there were also orchestral accompaniments: several gulls including Ava played their recorders, and Anna and others their violins, and Avery and some of her friends mysterious percussion instruments. From his vantage point as father of a Form Six girl, my friend Tony hissed from the row behind me, "What's Avery got, a pepper grinder?" Sure enough, it was a very weird object, but it must have been producing appropriate sounds because Avery looked quite happy. Every time I caught her gaze, however, she removed all traces of smile and put on what John and I call her "pony face": complete concentration.

Just lovely. Susan and Becky and I gave the kids flowers, and then it was arranged that I would bring them all home for a playdate, which is just now winding down. Wish you could all have been here. Tomorrow will hold two momentous occasions: the First Grandparent Visit (John's mom!), and the annual All-School Photograph. So Avery is being forced into a bath so as to look the part of the clean, well-pressed schoolgirl, while a garlicky tomato sauce simmers on the stove. I think I'll toast some little baguette rounds as well and spread them with a fantastic goat cheese from the Royal Windsor Food Festival. Are you tempted to come stay? We'll pay John's mom to do a good testimonial and then the visits can come flooding in.

21 May, 2006

mental note

Note to self: in future, probably best not to wash a bright-red, brand-new pashmina scarf in the same load as husband's business shirts.

I'm in the doghouse. A bit.

You see, Avery went off to her school friend Alice's birthday party on Saturday, which was billed as a "disco and fashion show." Intoxicated at the opportunity to wear not only NOT a school uniform, but not even jeans or khaki pants, Avery went nuts. She rummaged through her closet until she found a dress that my sister Jill and brother-in-law Joel will recognize from the Christmas they gave her, as a joke, a whole pile of outrageously crazy, glittery, slinky clothes and watched my reaction to see if they were for real. I think my sister had a client with a kids' clothing store, and they were samples? The details elude me. In any case, this dress is the last remnant of that haul, which served Avery and her little Tribeca friends very well as dress-up clothes for years. This particular item is lavender, at the bottom, and then sort of morphs into a mauvey-ish pinky grey at the top, with spaghetti straps and sequins and beads and I don't know what all. Lined in silk, and at this point quite, quite short. It might have fit her properly four years ago. So she put this on, and did her hair up in a series of scary little puffs, held in place with glittery clips for whose provenance I cannot possibly vouch. They have all the earmarks of party favors. Anyway, to top this ensemble she threw her beloved red pashmina around her shoulders, added a pair of shiny maroon Mary Janes that I remember clearly paying $4.99 for at the Danbury, Connecticut Walmart, in a pouring rainstorm. Gee, this is like word association.

Anyway, there she was. I did not get to see the finished product as I was attending my "Autobiography Into Fiction" workshop at CityLit, but I heard reports that Avery looked quite stunning. The upshot, however, was that the pashmina got chocolate all over it, and without thinking I just stuck it in the washing machine blithely with everything else that was in it, including John's two favorite shirts (of course, they WOULD be) from Thomas Pink. Doubly unfortunate, he happened to go in the laundry room to get paper towels or something and saw the pathetic little streaky corpses where I had bundled them up on top of the machine. He bleated, "What on earth happened to my SHIRTS??" I had had every intention of high-tailing it over to Pink and replacing them before he saw the dreadful evidence, since Dorrie, the cleaning lady extraordinaire, says there is no way on earth they can be resurrected. She came in this morning, took one look and asked succinctly, "He knows?" All women are familiar with this situation. The pashmina itself, smug in its new cleanliness, is hanging over the kitchen door to dry, a reminder of my iniquity.

Ah well, John's off to New York and I shall swan off myself to Pink. I don't suppose it will do any good to take the poor things with me to match, since they bear no resemblance to their former selves. Sigh.

But all has not been domestic embarrassment. For example, last week I was in an episode of "Who Wants to Use her PhD?", the little-known spinoff from that show you all watch and just won't admit it. There was a meeting Friday up in Notting Hill, for the "UK Friends of the NMWA," which means the London contingent that is gathering support for a visit from the founder of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. This lady, a Mrs. Wilhelmina Holladay (yep, she calls herself Billie) is 85 years old, started her museum of works by women artists in 1987, and for some bizarre reason (at least I've always thought it bizarre) decided to call it the "National" Museum of Women in the Arts. How "National"? It's a private collection. Just because it's in Washington does not mean it reflects anything "national," to my mind, and it gets no public funding. Don't get me started on this, as I've spent more hours than it would take to paint the Tower Bridge, debating the oddness of this whole institution. But here in London, all such complications have been laid aside to celebrate the fact that some 50 years ago, the Holladays decided to buy art only by women, and when they discovered that they could not do any research into what they'd bought because no one had written anything about these artists, they decided to open their collection to the public and hope it spawned (always a good word to use if you get the chance) some scholarly interest. Which it did, but by then feminist art history had got well and truly underway.

Anyway, a certain segment of the London expat community, namely a large number of Harvard Business School female graduates who are chomping at the bit to use their brains for something grander than homework supervision, has mobilised itself to bring Mrs. Holladay here in the autumn and fete her. I wonder if she has the strength to withstand the amount of fete-ing that is being planned. I tell you, these women have ENERGY. So I've been drafted in, first just as a person with a somewhat murky reputation for being "interested in the arts" (I've told almost no one about the gallery or anything else for fear of being in just the position I'm now in with this group), but the truth leaked out. So I'm going to try to have a conversation with my old friend - nemesis - colleague Susan Fisher Sterling, who's the Chief Curator at the NMWA, about ways we might get the London group and the Washington group together. Receptions at the American Ambassador's house, lectures at the Royal Academy, an official website marrying our two cultures which have such a "special relationship" to one another. That phrase is almost a code here in London: the "special relationship" between America and Great Britain that has landed them, as they see it, in quite a diplomatic pickle these days.

The meeting was actually quite interesting, and I admire so much the kind of women who can go from an MBA to running a household, to no doubt being the pillars of their children's school communities, to dressing up in their Jean Muir dresses and Manolo Blahnik mules and sashaying forth in the name of righting the sexist wrongs of the art world. More power to them. One thing I did find instructive and profoundly depressing: no one is using the word "feminist" ever EVER in these discussions. In fact one woman said, "When I told some friends about this meeting, one of them said, 'Isn't it ghettoizing women artists to have projects where the only thing they have in common is that they're women?' What do you all think of that?" I could hardly speak for having so much to say. It's such a nasty, specious little argument but its appeal is undeniable: that way everyone's off the hook for acknowledging inequity, because it would be sexist to try to right it! I merely said, with admirable restraint I think, "No more ghettoizing than an exhibition of 'just' photographers. Does every show have to include painting too?" I know women worry about painting themselves as victims, if they acknowledge, or even posit, that their sex might make a difference in how they're perceived or treated. But I think it can be discussed without its being about victimization. I do think I got three book sales out of the discussion, so now we can retire with my next royalty check.

I hate to say it, but I enjoyed my post-meeting jaunt around Portobello Road even more than the meeting itself! I've found out that the # 23 bus goes right from my corner of Oxford Street to the exact road I like best in Notting Hill, Elgin Crescent. And just around the corner in Blenheim Crescent is possibly the most wonderful bookstore in the world, "Books For Cooks." I wanted one of everything! And there's a cafe, but I didn't sample anything this visit. Next time. I came away terribly intimidated by the accomplishments of people who can write really wonderful cookbooks. I did indulge myself and pick up a copy of "I Am Almost Always Hungry," by Lora Zarubin. The introduction by Jay McInerney (of "Bright Lights, Big City" fame and almost no other kind of fame, poor boy) is pretty lame, in my opinion, being more about his impressions of Lora than the importance of the book itself, but the recipes look divine. Every dish you can think of under the sun is represented, from the simplest possible sandwich of toasted mozzarella and tomato confit, to "fillet of salmon cooked on a bed of sea salt in parchment with aromatic spices." And how about a little "roasted peaches with cardamom sugar and mascarpone sauce" to finish it off? Beautifully illustrated with photographs by Tessa Traeger, just completely intimidating. I consoled myself by looking at the photo of the author on the dust jacket, holding... her Jack Russell terrier, who we are solemnly informed is called Bessie. OK, maybe I could churn out an incredibly impressive cookbook of 198 pages if I weren't also following around a small person of slightly more demanding needs than your average terrier. Or maybe not. Too bad!

I also bought MFK Fisher's classic "How To Cook a Wolf," which is possibly the best bedtime reading there is. You can't go wrong with chapters like "How to Catch the Wolf," "How To Have a Sleek Pelt," and "How Not To Be An Earthworm." I love her observation, "Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg before it is broken." I also bought Julian Barnes's "The Pedant in the Kitchen," which looks entertaining but I've never read it before. It's practically against my religion to buy a book I haven't read yet. It's almost as scary as adopting a new kitten. Sure, I guess you could find a way to dispose of it if you got it home and you, gulp, didn't like it. But it would make me really uncomfortable. So I choose my kittens and new books with care. The bit that sold me was, "The sole liberty I take with a recipe is to increase the quantity of an ingredient of which I particularly approve. That this is not an infallible precept was confirmed by an epically filthy dish I once made involving mackerel, Martini and breadcrumbs: the guests were more drunk than sated."

I wandered around through the excellent farmers' market in the Portobello Road and bought so many vegetables that I spent the entire weekend devising ways to stuff them down my family's throats. Huge, bloomy artichokes, possibly 300 tiny, tiny tomatoes, a half dozen red peppers, avocadoes (I am addicted lately, and have convinced myself I have a potassium deficiency that can be addressed only with copious amounts of sliced avocado, drizzled with lemon juice and sprinkled with really expensive salt), and most interestingly, two different varieties of asparagus. Did you know that the asparagus season in Great Britain is only five weeks long? Here, in the days of Lord Peter Wimsey, they called it "English grass," and it could be served only in the following manner: lightly steamed just until it begins to smell like asparagus (since raw asparagus smells like nothing at all), and slathered with melted butter. The thing that intrigued me with the asparagus at the market was that some was fat and some was thin. Bunches of each, not mixed together. So being a dumb American I could ask the farmer why. After his initial shock at being asked to produce more verbiage than the usual "that'll be two pounds, my love" he came forth with the information that the skinny ones are the earliest stalks, and they've been harvested in order to thin the rows. The fat ones are the ones that were left behind. So I bought some of each, got my allotted "my love," and came home to see how they tasted differently. And they did. Avery and John and I agreed that while the "bite", the feel, of the big stalks is nicer, the little ones had more flavor. So take your pick!

Today after I've found replacement shirts and paid my penance, I have absolutely nothing pressing to do. I want to save a couple of errands for John's mom's arrival, like going to the Royal Academy Framers' to get some glass replaced on a piece that broke somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. I think that will be a cool place. But wait a minute: I could take it now, and collect it with her. I think it's just around the corner from Pink, so I can kill two birds with one pashmina.

17 May, 2006

better, I think

Doesn't he look happy to you? Of course at the time he and his sisters were completely maxed out on catnip, Avery's gift from the vet as a reward for his good behavior. She also discovered yesterday that while you can't hide a kitty Prozac in tuna, or smoked salmon, or cream cheese, you CAN hide it in broad daylight crushed in the palm of her hand mixed with catnip. Honestly, after all our subterfuge and John's attempt at brute force (he has the bloody scratches to prove it), Avery simply held the stuff out to him and he ate it. What cheek. We can but hope now that he calms down. I've been like the medieval plague masters, running around spraying every surface I can think of with happy-making pheremones, like sinister incense at an exorcism. I feel an utter fool, but there you go: the things we do for our children.

I was so impressed at Avery's skating lesson yesterday! Her instructor Zoia has taught her all sorts of tricks, with names like "lemons" and "uppy uppy uppy." She ended up staying a really long time, watching Coco's and Angelica's private lessons, and then when they were over, the three girls acted as if they'd been let out of prison and just went around and around (being enjoined several times by the "rink minders" to go only "anti-clockwise," not randomly running into people), holding hands and generally acting as a sort of benign menace to the rest of the skaters. I hung out with Angelica's babysitter Fati and Coco's mum Allison, and we traded stories about our completely remarkable children. When we all emerged, it was pouring down rain and Avery and I ran to the skate store to get a skate bag, to find it inexplicably closed. What sort of vacation day is Tuesday? Disconsolately onto a bus and home, wet and cranky, but a nice cosy evening at home with butter tomato pasta sauce and a baguette. We've been watching a really entertaining television show called "The Great British Menu," where pairs of chefs from the various corners of Great Britain get together and compete in front of judges with an appetiser, a fish course, a main course and a pudding. So you end up with a Welsh winner, an Northern Ireland winner, and so on. Then they will compete to discover who is awarded the chance to cook the Queen's "official" birthday lunch in June. Yes, just like famous dead people who need their birthdays to fall on a Monday to create a long weekend, the Queen has a real birthday and an official one. The menus are unbelievably complex, intending to reflect local ingredients and traditions. Last night's involved one chef's crouching over a rainy, nasty beach somewhere in North Wales, picking slimy seaweed to cook down and mix with oats and parsley and deep fry. Eeew. The poor Queen! Anyway, watch it if you get a chance. When the judges are forced to down portions of cockles in a raspberry broth accompanied by lamb carpaccio in a lime and liver sauce on a bed of seaweed, you'll be grateful for your plate of pasta.

16 May, 2006

a little home improvement

Finally the ribbons have come back! These were such a fixture of Avery's room in New York, proudly added to each weekend upon returning from a show. But they've spent the last four months crowded on a bulletin board stuffed in a corner of the never-frequented guest room, a low priority compared to figuring out bookshelves, clothing storage, how to keep Wimsey from using her pillow as a second litter box. Then yesterday John, in a desperate bid to keep life worth living even if he couldn't go to India, had the brainwave that if we strung a nice ribbon around her bedposts, it would give her a place to display her beloved "rosettes," as they're known here. And did you know that in England, red is first place? Neither did I. So yesterday while John and Avery were munching on a "gourmandise" from Paul Patisserie in the High Street (it's a custardy version of pain au chocolat, if you can imagine the indulgence), I was at Les Rouleaux across the road, a shop devoted entirely to... ribbons. Of every description you can possibly imagine. Oh, there's the occasional pom-pom or bit of velvet roping, but mostly it's ribbons as far as the eye can see. A favorite haunt of Avery's, even though anything but plain green is verboten at King's College. I bought what I thought would be a bit too much red ribbon, having estimated how much was needed by getting John to test the bed length against his considerable wingspan. (What a treat to have him around for pickup, I must say, as well.)

At home I strung the ribbon along and while I cooked dinner Avery arranged her rosettes, in a complex order of event, importance of event, level of achievement, etc. Plus on each side she hung one of her birthday party favor rosettes that says "Avery's 9th Birthday Party, NYC 2005". John thought it so funny that she arranged them facing in, toward her! "Well," she defended herself, "it gets really boring in bed, trying to get to sleep. Now I have something to look at." So cosy! I love this picture because you can see all the things that make her room her room: all the books, dolls, horsey figures, and a view of the garden. Plus if you look closely, a Tacy facey down low.

Wimsey survived his visit to the Hyde Park Veterinary Clinic quite well and it's been determined that along with the whatever wafting out of the electrical outlets, he also needs, dare I say it, kitty prozac. Well, try stuffing a pill down this manic cat's throat. It didn't happen yesterday and I can't imagine it will happen today. But he seems better with the plug-ins, so we'll hope for the best.

Today I shall meet up with Avery's class at the Queensway Skating Centre, because apparently if I do, she can stay afterwards and skate more. It turns out that Ava and Clio have been doing this all year and I never knew. Or Avery never cared until today. But it will make a little change of pace and I'll see if I can get a good picture of the three girls.

15 May, 2006

feline anxiety again

Yes, Lord Peter Wimsey has slipped into recidivism over the weekend and is showing signs of a decline into nervous agitation once more. He has anger issues with his siblings, apparently, and everyone has come under fire, even the normally impervious Hermione. So it's back to the vet late this afternoon, after pickup. Avery can come along and hold his hand. Perhaps it's time to drop the cosy aromatherapy and move into something really effective, like scotch.

And I have an extra husband at home today. He was meant to be in India, but for reasons lost in the mists of officialdom, his visa never came through, so he's perched disconsolately on the sofa, looking oddly out of place on a Monday, muttering under his breath and feeling terribly disappointed. Then I came into my study and here is a sad little article sitting in the printer, all about Bangalore. Poor guy. But Avery was thrilled to have him here this morning to come with us to school. She was swinging her new tennis racket and looking menacingly at the sky, daring it to rain and spoil her first lesson at school. Last Monday it didn't so much rain as look as if it COULD all day, so whoever was in charge cancelled the lesson and boy was she unpopular for the rest of the week. We have to hope for better things today.

My agenda today is singularly dull: I must put all your names on our change of address card envelopes, not that you're panting to mail something to me in this day of electronic communication, but you never know. Then I have scads of photos to put in my album to bring it up to date after Avery's birthday party in November. I do this purely for John's mother, who loves nothing more than sitting on the floor of the living room and leafing through album after album, looking earnestly at pictures she's seen a thousand times, not to mention that she took most of them! But this time it will be more fun, because we've taken them all and it will all be new. His parents are due to arrive in 10 days or so for a long-awaited visit, which will be a special treat. Fun to show them around our lives. But in the meantime, these tasks make for rather a limping sort of administrative day, punctuated only by laundry, whooppee!

But to finish about the horse show. The names of the horses are like music: Cortaflex Amber du Montoix, Sodexco Van Essen, Saffier, Van Der Brand Kleek, Roal Von Raphael. We actually recognized lots of horses and riders from the Sheffield Show, and I can imagine you'd easily develop allegiances if you went to a series of events. And the shopping opportunities were unbelievable: on either side of several long grassy avenues were white canvas tents filled with STUFF. It was very like the Hamptons Classic in that way. Had we been in the market we could have bought Avery an entire hunt habit, complete with silk-lined jacket with velvet piping. There were saddle shops from France, bridle companies from Italy, every kind of horsey clothing (I mean for people), jewelry, carrying case, boot, you name it, that you could possibly want. And the hats! You could go to Ascot straight from the show. My favorite item however is the "shipping fuzzy." I want to have a pony and a trailer just so I can buy some shipping fuzzies, which are squishy sheepskin-like pads you attach to the pony's bridle so that her face does not get scratched during the journey in the box to the show. And the people! There were special shiny badges that denoted one as "Groom," "Rider," "Press," and most coveted probably, "Owner." Some borderline smackable people just oozing luxury with too much jewelry and spoiled children. Lots of tweed and velvet and high shiny boots. And tiny, tiny little girls in regulation yellow jodhpurs and stubby plaits showing under their velvet helmets, ending in little red ribbon bows. Apparently all ribbons must be red and subdued, unlike the variety and size of the bows at American shows. Very sweet.

The best event was last, the Young Rider Accumulator Show Jumping. I remembered it from the British Open in Sheffield, the event where each jump is worth progressively more than the last and at the end there is a ridiculously high jump that can garner the rider 20 points if she's successful, and get 20 points taken away if she's not. The drama! There's nothing more exciting than a rider who gets all the way through all ten jumps without knocking anything over (and it's against the clock, which makes it even more nail-biting), and then the announcer wonders over the loudspeaker, "Will Gemma take the risk? Is the Joker going to make or break this course?" and then we all hang in breathless silence to see if she goes for the high one, and... a perfect score! Once again, nearly all girls, and then one wonders where they all go in the transition from Young to Mature rider. A mystery to me. And where are all the men training? There aren't any at Avery's barn in Wimbledon! I mean there are men, but no boys. Someone must explain it to me someday.

Just at the end of the Accumulator, a light rain began to fall and in the sky above the arena was an enormous rainbow! A fitting end to a really exciting day. I sped off to the food tent with pockets full of money and came away with a sublimely mature cheddar cheese wedge, a little jar of amazing tiny balls of Saint Marwenne goat's cheese suspended in spicy sunflower oil, from the Neet Foods people at Trelay Farm, Marhamchurch, Bude, Cornwall. I love addresses like that. The brochure for the Cornish farm reveals, "During the Crusade the Duke of Cornwall was kidnapped and duly held for ransom by the Saracens. The Saracens ransom demands were met by the people of Cornwall who paid for his release with 15 circular Gold Bezant coins. To this day the Cross of Cornwall depicts 15 circular Gold Bezant coins for this transaction. For our Saint Marwenne circular balls of cream cheese, we demand nothing in return except your pleasure and appreciation of their distinctive taste."

Well, that and two pounds fifty pence per jar, but who's being picky now.

Also I picked up a big round sourdough bread from Daylesford Organic, and some beautiful Scottish smoked salmon from The Organic Smokehouse, Clunbury Hall, Clunbury, Craven Arms, Shropshire. Now why can't we have addresses like that in America? I'm sure it makes the food taste better. The Smokehouse people, Michael and Debbie Leviseur, were lovely, asking how the jumping was going, had the Queen looked to be having a good day out? "She were here yesterday, which was a treat," the lady said as she wrapped my salmon. "Surrounded by security she were, and the reporters! You couldn't shake a stick at them, they were so thick around her." And the man piped up, "'Twere a great pleasure to see her, wasn't it Debbie? You feel as if you know her, don't you, from all them pictures you see in the magazines. And there is she is, as perfect as can be. Now Prince Philip, he were here later that afternoon. Just in a tweed cap as I might be myself, all alone. No one noticed him a bit."

I wheedled a closed farmstand into parting with a bunch of perfect tomatoes on the vine, and then they didn't let me pay for them! The sweet owner, one C.J. Sheldrake of Beaumont Farm, Priest Hill, Old Windsor, Berkshire, averred, "No, it's a pleasure, and a proper end to the day. You enjoy, now." We trudged rather wearily past the wisteria-covered walls surrounding the castle grounds, and caught the train to Waterloo, then the bus to Marble Arch where we collapsed with our picnic dinner and an early bed.

14 May, 2006

Royal Windsor Horse Show

Oh, what fun we had! First of all, Windsor is a beautiful spot. John and I had been there years ago as newlyweds, but I didn't remember much about it beyond that the Royal Standard flies above if the Queen is in residence, and the Union Jack if she is away. Well, the flag was flying yesterday, and as you can see from the tiny, tiny yellow blob in the picture above, she was at the show! Never an ardent Royalist, I must nevertheless confess to a definite thrill at being 75 yards away from the monarch.

I was especially pleased at the day because it combined Avery's and John's favorite thing (horses) with my favorite thing (food). This year was the inauguration of the Royal Windsor Food and Drink Festival, a celebration of all things organic and local, in a nod to the Prince of Wales' obsession with healthy, natural food in which I completely am in agreement. I had to make a mental note, however, not to be an ignorant ass and ask for avocados to go with the excellent local tomatoes, or a lemon for my London gin. Such is the global supermarket mindset into which I have lazily fallen.

We started out with a beefburger from the incomparable Daylesford Organic farmshop, unfortunately well done for all those tiresome people who go weak at the knees at what they think is dangerously undercooked beef, but there you go. It was tasty anyway, served with real mustard-seed mustard (labelled in an uncharacteristically French-tolerating way, "moutarde") and fried onions, in a floury bap, which is a nice soft British roll not to be mentioned in the same breath as their awful spongy American companions, sorry to be a snob. Then we strolled over to the Castle Arena to catch the very tail end of the Show Jumping Championship in which our favorite from Sheffield, Robert Smith, won handily. Sweet 17-year-old Hannah Paul came in second, which must surely bode very well for her future. Then John couldn't resist any longer: the whole event was sponsored by Land Rover, and his radar was already out in full flow, having spotted at least three thousand Defenders on the short walk from the train to the show. So we meandered over to something called "The Land Rover Experience," where really goofy people as enthusiastic as John (there were surprisingly enough to make quite a long queue!) got to sit next to a professional driver on a closed course (you always hear that in car things, don't you) and go up and down and around and hang nearly sidewise and do all the other magnificent things that only a Land Rover can do. The poor boy who wouldn't ordinarily queue to be given a thousand pounds had no problem standing in the hot sun, sandwiched in between a smoking teenager and a couple who clearly should have simply got a room. What did they think they were going to be able to do in the Land Rover with the professional driver along for the ride? Avery opted to wait with John while I did a quick spin through the foodie hall, and it was magnificent! I sampled so many things that my stomach was wailing in protest. Chilli crackers, smoked mackerel pate, native Cheddar cheese, Wiltshire ham, strawberries and cream, smoked salmon and cream cheese, ginger snaps! I drew the line, however, at ale, wine or champagne. Completely overwhelmed by sheer choice and wanting to buy some of everything, I waddled back to where the two were still in the queue and we agreed that John would ring me on my mobile when he was close to the front and Avery and I would come back from wherever we were.

We ended up at the Shetland Pony Grand Nationals, which is the most hilarious, seemingly out of control event. Dozens of tiny Shetland ponies with their fluffy feet all line up at a starting spot, ridden by small children, and then the gun goes off and they ALL race together over jumps, around the arena, fast as lightning. This event was open to all of Great Britain, so there were Irish, Northern Irish, Welsh, Scottish and English little riders. You would not believe the speed, and at such a low level! Just on Avery's sight line. Pretty thrilling, I must say, and the children were so proud. Just as it ended John called, and we raced back to Land Rover World, to find that he had been plucked from the line as the one single person and was already in a car, with some random family, about to tip over and be squashed like a beetle. But no, all was well, and he was beaming from ear to ear when he got out.

Then the three of us piled over to the arena where Her Majesty the Queen's Challenge Cup For Services Team Jumping (what a mouthful!) was to have its competition. An amazing sight: three by three horses and riders, each team representing some specific branch of "all serving Officers and Other Ranks from any Unit, Hunt, Polo, Riding, or Saddle Club of the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Army, Royal Air Force, and Mounted Police, and the Auxiliary members of those Services... to be ridden in uniform." It was absolutely glorious. Phases one and two of the competition had already happened, so we were left on Saturday with the final competition in which just one representative of each team went the course of jumps. But first, oh my. All the team members came majestically into the arena, warming up, all in their magnificent uniforms, some complete with truly funny hats, all saddle pads marked with the team name. And women! Since 1996 they've been allowed. Partway through the warmup, there was a hush. "Ladies and Gentleman, Her Majesty the Queen has graciously entered the arena." Everything stopped and "God Save the Queen" began to play on the loudspeaker and it was really exciting to lean down and tell Avery to put her hands to her sides and stand straight and tall. Even the elderly pensioner couple behind me who had cleverly brought folding chairs rose solemnly and stood at attention. Finally the song was over and the Queen sat down, and everyone else who had a seat sat down, and the competition began. Great jumping, really high and scary. After that was the completely silly and time-wasting "Household Cavalry Best Turned Out Trooper," which is in effect a horse beauty contest. No actual high heels and bathing suits were produced, but all the competitors did was walk toward the Queen's Box in an orderly fashion, turn towards her and... stand there, looking nicely "turned out." Believe you me, they were all fancy. No untoward pooping as so many of Avery's ponies have done in competition, all fluffy manes and tails, superbly glossy coats and the riders had swords!

OK, I must go tend to my pork chops (purchased at the Festival from Daylesford!), asparagus and festive holiday dressing, although there is no holiday. Wait, wait, it's Mother's Day! It isn't any such thing here, so I must remember to call my two darling mothers and say "We love you." I have a special present for each on order, but the Royal Mail delivers for no American holiday, so I must be late. More on the show tomorrow.

09 May, 2006

the summer hat

I couldn't resist posting this picture, although it's not a great photo per se. But the hat is so cute. You should just see about 20 of the little gulls running along with their hats, swinging their rucksacks (do not even think about calling them backpacks, you American ninnies).

I'm at my desk in complete denial that my function for the day is meant to be installing the individual shelves in my bookcases in my study, and filling them with the mysterious contents of all the boxes still on my floor. I just don't feel like it! Avery and I felt that our morning cuddle this morning was quite a nice little cocoon from which it was entirely unnecessary to emerge to go to school. However. This evening her beloved babysitter Erin (a dead ringer for Katie Couric, which is quite odd, right down to the giggle) will come and do cartwheels with her and eat fish fingers, while John and I go off to the King's College Form Four administrative meeting, at which no doubt major decisions regarding Avery's future will be announced. Mostly I think the staff are befuddled as to what to do with a child whose verbal skills are off the chart, but who shows no marked brilliance at anything else. A mystery. But all the parents are going and so shall we.

OK, no more excuses. The shelves beckon and so off I go.

08 May, 2006

sick as a parrot?

Don't say anything. Come on.

Last time, I promise. Give me a break, it's a picture of him in Tribeca. Just one little picture and I promise I'm finished.

OK, that's over. On to the subject line of this post: a completely new one for me! Sitting in the taxi coming back from taking Anna home, I heard the radio announcer talking about the World Cup this summer. "Sven Goren-Erikkson has named his team for this summer's effort in the World Cup. After the break, we'll give you the list. Who is over the moon, and who's sick as a parrot?"

OK, as silly as "over the moon" sounds to a novice in England, at least it's jolly familiar nonsense language for "really happy." Therefore, one assumes that to be "sick as a parrot" means really, really disappointed, but... from where can this expression derive? Are parrots particularly sick, when they're sick? Very odd.

I feel bad, now, that I gave you two such difficult recipes. So to make up for it, here's a super easy entire dinner that we had over the weekend, thus providing me with leftover pork for the fried rice the next evening (and more than enough for pork sandwiches in between, if you can bear that much pork two days in a row -- I certainly can).

Pork Roast with Potatoes Anna and Roast Beetroot

1 2 lb fillet of pork
1 bunch beets (usually 4)
four large white potatoes (not baking, though)
1 bunch rosemary
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 tbsps olive oil
salt and pepper
1 stick butter
3 tbsps balsamic vinegar

An hour and a half before you want to eat, cut the tops off each beet and wrap them as a group in foil. Put them in a hot, hot oven (425).

Then get a couple of grocery bags you've been saving for when you scoop out the litter box and put one inside the other (bags, I mean, not the litter box). Then put in the pork roast, the rosemary, the olive oil and garlic, salt and pepper in the bag and shake and squeeze until you're sure the roast is coated. Leave until the beets have 45 minutes left to cook.

At the 45-minute moment, put your roast in a foil-lined pan (then when you're cleaning up you just ball up the foil and throw it away, and put the dish on its blameless shelf wherever) and put it in the oven, taking care to put the bunch of rosemary underneath it. Then quickly peel and thinly slice your potatoes, or happily run them through a slicing blade on your cuisinart (my OCD self delights in the hand-slicing, which is saving me thousands of dollars in therapy). Then melt the butter in a heavy skillet and arrange the potato slices in as even a fanned series of layers as you can. Salt and pepper them and put them over a low flame. LEAVE THEM. Do not succumb to the temptation to stir, poke, turn or in any other way interfere with their lives at this point. You can just sit around in the kitchen reading your book for about 20 minutes.

Then, put a plate over the skillet and turn the potatoes out upside down. Then slide them back into the skillet to cook on the other side. Again, resist the temptation to play with them! The point is to give yourself a break while also letting them cook undisturbed so they'll come out all nice and intact and crispy.

Finally, when the beets are done, take them and the roast out of the oven. Let the roast rest while you peel the beets and cut them up, and splash them with balsamic vinegar. Then carve the roast and slide the potatoes onto the plate again.

Done. It's easy peasy, as they say here, and completely comforting and GOOD for you. Well, there is that stick of butter, but don't be picky, please.

06 May, 2006

some incoherent ravings about food

That's one of Avery's and my favorite lines from the Laurie Colwin book "Family Happiness." Two European immigrants are sharing childhood songs, in German, and translating them for their families. After one particularly silly song, though, Klaro says, "There is no translation for this song. It is merely some incoherent ravings about food."

So I have had a very foody few days, and have been working hard on both my own cookbook and the editing job I'm meant to be doing for Gladys Taber's work, for her granddaughter Anne Colby in Connecticut. I thought that in addition to keeping you up to date on how riding is going in Wimbledon, and how we spent our weekend, it might be nice to give you a couple of excellent recipes that my friend Susan and I have been sharing and commenting on. That's the beauty of food. Someone invites you for lunch and you love what she serves, so you ask for the recipe. Then you get to natter on in your email exchange about not just the recipe, but what's happening in Form Four at King's College, and what I might say at the Royal Academy where Susan works, when I lecture on my sculptor. We also get to trade husband stories and go off on tangents about odd people we know in common. Then you invite her to dinner and she likes what you made, and it all gets started again. It's so much more than just eating. And every time I make this curry dish, or she makes my fried rice, we will tell the people we're feeding all about each other, and for the moment I'll be in Susan's kitchen with her, and she'll be in mine. I love that about food.

I'm not going to lie to you: both of these recipes require that you like messing about with food. They're not shortcuts and they're not labor-free. They also have two other things in common: once you've made them, you'll never want to have the takeaway/order-out versions of either of them again. And they're great for leftovers, which helps with the effort you're putting in. These are recipes for a day when you have some time early on, perhaps, and then a chunk of time when you can't be in the kitchen, and then some time right before you want to eat.

Susan’s Moroccan Chicken Curry

2 tbsps olive oil
2 tbsps butter
2 onions, chopped
4 carrots, chopped or grated
3 boneless whole chicken breasts, well trimmed and cut into bite-size chunks
2 apples, coarsely chopped
4 oranges, squeezed and pulp included, but no seeds
1 large chunk of fresh ginger, peeled & grated
1 tsp ginger powder
4 tbsps sweet curry powder, not hot
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup white wine
2 cups single cream

In a large, deep saucepan, melt the butter with the olive oil. Add the onions, then the carrots and let them cook/soften a bit (as for a risotto). Then add the chicken chunks, stir and brown a bit. Then add the apple, the orange juice, the ginger, the curry, the stock and the wine. Simmer for about 10 minutes, then add the cream. In total, for this to be properly cooked, it should gently simmer for about 45 minutes. You can then re-heat it before eating, or once cooled, put it away in the fridge until the next day.

This is a very flexible recipe – you can vary how fine or coarse everything gets chopped, and you can vary the flavors according to taste (more orange, spicier curry, etc.) Sometimes I have also used some plain yogurt in addition to cream. Serve with Basmati Rice (always steamed in one and a half times the amount of water as rice).

Kristen's Festive Fried Rice

An Undetermined Amount of Peanut Oil
1 red onion, diced
three cloves garlic, diced
1 big chunk ginger, peeled and chopped
2 cups of leftover pork, chicken, beef or prawns, cut in bite-size pieces (more than one of these if you like)

1 cup each: chopped broccoli, carrots, red peppers, sugar snap peas, green beans (diced small)
1 bunch green or "salad" onions, sliced thin
1 handful bean sprouts

three eggs, beaten thoroughly
dash sesame oil
soy sauce to taste

2 cups basmati rice

First, put the rice to cook with three cups water and salt. Then, in a hot wok, cover the bottom with peanut oil and saute the garlic, ginger, onion and meat until hot through, and the garlic, etc. are nicely softened, then remove with a slotted spoon to a really big bowl. Then saute the broccoli, carrots, pepper, sugar snap peas and green beans until just cooked, and remove also with slotted spoon to join the meat. Add more peanut oil to the wok if needed, and a dash of sesame oil. Then saute the salad onions till soft, and just briefly toss in the bean sprouts, then remove all to the big bowl. Take this chance to check the rice, which will cook in about 20 minutes. Fluff it up and keep the lid off to encourage extra steam to escape and dry the rice up a bit.

Heat the oil again and throw in the eggs, scrambling very quickly and keeping them moving constantly until they are broken up. Now, toss in everything from the big bowl, and the rice, and fluff all until hot through.

Serve with plenty of soy sauce.

So there you have it! Two really good things to eat. If you leave out the meat from the rice dish, it's an absolutely guilt-free, nearly fat-free vegetarian option, good for when you're feeling guilty from... all that creamy chicken curry!

As you can see from the above photo, Avery did not ride the wacky Biscuit on Thursday; instead as a sort of vacation she rode Cookie (yes, there's an after-school-snack theme in the names, I agree). But that simple sentence masks the sheer hellish annoyance that was getting to Wimbledon on a Thursday afternoon after school, when temperatures in London had risen to an unholy 80 degrees with no warning, and half the tube lines shut down because something essential was threatening to melt. I picked Avery up at school where she began what was to be a recurring lament about how tired she was. Not conducive to a pleasant trip to do something I had absolutely no interest in to begin with, with sweat pouring down our faces as we struggled with half of the London commuters in existence. Why did everyone want to go to Wimbledon? And of course on the way back there was an equal number of people struggling to get to Central London. I wanted to wave my magic wand and tell all the people on both ends of the miserable journey to stay where they were for heaven's sake. One of those days when one's interest in humanity's continuing wanes.

We got there finally and she rode off across the Common, alas without me since her usual instructor who gives us a ride to the arena was not there and I didn't have the energy to walk the three or so miles to follow her. Instead I wandered around Bayley and Sage spending money on things like tapenade, porcini-stuffed tortellini and other things you buy when you're a) killing time and b) starving. The outdoor beer garden of the Dog and Fox pub adjacent to the stable filled with unappealing youngish white Englishmen with pasty faces and badly-cut suits. Ick. The barn staff prepared for a "training dinner" that was to consist of anything and everything thrown on the barbie, so I was smoked out from the bench where I had been trying to read my tacky tabloid newspaper (learning that a singularly hideous Picasso had sold for $52 million at Sotheby's. The second most pricey painting by that Spanish lout was "reputed" to have been bought by Las Vegas hotelier Steve Wynn, and I was in the slightly cool position of knowing that he had bought it, because in the heyday of my gallery when I sold him an enormous Miriam Schapiro canvas he indicated his ultimate goal of possessing said Picasso painting no matter what the cost).

Finally Avery returned, and far from having had a lovely relaxing ride on a not-insane pony, she had been forced to control a rabid Cookie when she was attacked and bitten by an off-lead dog on the trail. Can it never be calm! We sweated our way home on one bus, one train, another bus. John came out of the house to meet us on the pavement and in answer to his cheery cocktail-in-hand greeting, "So how was it?" I merely handed Avery and all her clobber to him and said, "Don't ask, here is your child." Meaning the sweaty, exhausted, filthy, cranky one, as opposed to my child, who is always charming.

So much for the Thursday afternoon experience. Once a week, on the weekend, WITH her father, is quite enough barn, I opined.

I've gone shopping! I bought a tiny little pair of sort of fullish shorts, that look like a skirt when they're on. Dark gray blue, all the rage. And a little brown peasanty top, and a pair of black "footless tights," which simply scream 1986 to me, but hey, they worked back then and they work now. They will be so cute under a longish tunic that I have been saving for just such a development. I went to the French Connection UK, whose acronym in advertisements always causes Avery to screw her eyes shut and say "bad word, bad word." Avery spent Friday night at Anna's house, in advance of the big birthday party the next day, so John and I had quite the most divine Indian dinner out EVER. A lovely, swellegant place around the corner called Deya. A little complimentary starter of a teacup-sized portion of lentil soup, with a tempura mushroom suspended over the top from a toothpick laid across! Very clever. Then onto a crab fried rice with sweetcorn (no! it was good!), black truffles and coriander, then a chicken dish that was good but not crazy good, and creamed spinach and saffron potatoes. I asked so many questions of the waiter that finally he and his maitre d' were huddled by the kitchen looking at me as if I were Gael Greene come to London, and after that we got star treatment! I must be a famous restaurant critic in heavy disguise! What fun. And so nice to have a Date.

Saturday we bit the bullet and assembled the supplementary bookshelves from John Lewis. My lack of both manual dexterity and spatial relations stunned even my husband, who must be used to it by now. But tomorrow I plan to spend the day filling the two in my study and thus emptying the last of the horrid moving boxes. Then I can hang pictures on my wall and be all finished with the "I just arrived" look I've got so sick of. Everything has to be nice for the Friday Form Four coffee morning here. I'm quite nervous!

04 May, 2006

not just a pretty face

I almost forgot my best story of all. Last night Avery and I were watching one of my favorite movies ever, "Strong Poison" by Dorothy L. Sayers. Part of the plot involved a fake medium pretending to speak to those who have "crossed over," and those "waiting for the Great Change." "What Great Change is that?" Avery asked. "Well, some people believe that when die, you don't just die, but you pass over into another realm. Some of these people think it's Heaven, and some people think you move into another body," I explained. "Oh, right. Do you believe in heaven, Mommy?" I said, "I would certainly like to think that when you die, you don't just stop existing at all, but I'm not too sure what happens. What do you think?" Avery pondered a moment. "I think that you live a life of perpetual thought. Just thinking, endlessly." I objected, "But wouldn't you get awfully hungry, and then you wouldn't be able to concentrate?" "No, you wouldn't have any body needs, because I don't think you would keep your body."

"You know what," I mused, "Mamoo used to wonder what would happen when she got to heaven and had to choose between Grandpa, who died so long ago, and Lon, who she's been so happily married to for so long." Avery was unconcerned. "I am pretty sure that if there is a heaven, it's not nearly so strict about things like that. I don't think there's any rule about bigamy in heaven."

To try to keep up with my daughter's intellect, I have been trying to open my mind to some great British playwrights, so I started with a screenwriter for "Spooks" called Howard Brenton. His commentary on the DVDs was terribly erudite but also funny, and for such an intellectual powerhouse (with over 40 plays under his belt) I thought he didn't take himself too seriously. So I ordered "The Romans in Britain," in a collection of his early work, and boy am I out of practice as far as stretching my thoughts. Very dark, very intense, but worth a try. Pip says that I will enjoy it more if I read it aloud, but I think that might just mark my descent from the merely odd to the truly loony. Anyway, give it a try.

klumpfenbildende katzenstreu

Isn't that a much more entertaining way to say "clumping cat litter"? It would be so wonderful sometimes to be German. I am actually completely mystified as to why my cat litter is German, but it really helps alleviate the boredom of taking care of these cats, to be able to read on the label of the bag that what I am about to dump into their box is not only "babypuderduft" but also "99.5 straubfrei." Now, being a lifelong connoisseur of cat litter, as well as having a handy grasp of basic German, I can easily see that the product is 99.5 percent dust-free, but "babypuderduft"? I haven't a clue, and I hate to look it up in my German dictionary and lose the romance. It could mean anything.

As you can see, the garden at Warburton House is in full bloom. Every morning when I pull up the shades in Avery's room, the tulips are tightly shut, but by the time we've finished breakfast they're wide awake. It's a beautiful spot.

Let's see, what have we been up to? In my continuing efforts to replace every single function in our old life with its exact replica here, I have found a shoe repair shop. I have been missing Boris, my Russian shoe guy on Greenwich Street in Tribeca, with his big belly and jolly laugh and tolerance of my bad Russian. Even more, however, John's shoes have been missing Boris. Oh, the times he scolded me, "You are the wife. He is the husband. This means that he will never know when it is time to come to me. Only you will know this. Please do not let them get so very bad. Someday, Kristen, there will be nothing that even I can do."

But he always could. So lately John has several times left his favorite loafers out, suggestively, invitingly by the front door, and I have kindly put them back on his shoe shelf. Finally he was forced to come clean. "They really need new soles. And heels. Please." In my mind's eye I could see a little shoemaker's shop near school, so yesterday I started off to pickup a bit early, and after assiduous questioning of the street cleaner (no idea), the homeless guy who always sells the fundraising magazine "The Big Issue" outside the grocery store (no idea) and the flower truck guy (pay dirt!) I was in Paddington Street at "James Taylor & Son, Bespoke Shoemakers Since 1857." Forget leather: I could just smell the money as I walked in. An ancient storefront with all mahogany and brass fittings, the requisite set of King Charles spaniels snoozing in the storeroom, and a spare little Englishman in a white coat, eager in his quiet English way to return John's shoes to their former pristine life. "Is there really an adequate market for your services, bespoke shoes that is?" I asked in amazement. "But yes, madam, I assure you," said the man, "we are quite busy. And of course we are proud members of the Honourable Cordwainers' Conference, and have been for many years."

The Honourable What? I had to come home and look it up. For some reason it struck me as anachronistic that such a group of people would have a website (was it the white coat perhaps?), but they do. Mind you, it is an " dot org", not a " dot com." Clearly this is all in the manner of public service, bespoke shoes. It turns out that "cordwainer" is the ancient term for "shoemaker," and the society has mission statement, and a coat of arms. And a patron saint! But that's not all. Their American counterparts (oh yes, it's an international conference) have lofty plans for a SHOE MUSEUM, can you hardly wait? It will contain all the historical artifacts and ephemera pertaining to the history of shoemaking in the United States. Plus plans for archaeological field work, and visiting exhibitions. But lest you feel you cannot wait until the museum opens to get your fill of the history of cordwainery, the website assures us that "On a more immediate basis, the guild shoe collection will be on exhibit at The Gustafson Gallery, Colorado State University in 1999 [a video catalogue of the collection was made at this year's AGM and will soon be available to members]."

Of course it will. A video! Of a shoe collection. What could be better.

Well, enough of that. We will have to choose between eating next week and paying for John's new soles and heels, but I didn't really expect anything less.

We're getting excited for our next horsey event, The Royal Windsor Horse Show! It will be Saturday the 13th of May (actually the event will last five days but I thought one day would be sufficient for us). There will be showjumping, and carriage-driving (a favourite of the Duke of Edinburgh), and more to my taste, a celebration of Prince Charles' interest in organic foodstuffs. Remember away back in January when I told you about the vinaigrette made from the Prince's personal recipe? Well, it's all part of his Duchy Originals food line, including quite the best pork sausages you've ever eaten. Sure, the Prince himself is a bit cracked, but I have to get behind him on the whole movement against genetically modified foods. Do you know that even at the rather lame Marks and Spencers Food Hall, each package of meat is labeled with the farmer's name who supplied it? Now for all I know some employee of M & S is sitting in a dark room pulling names out of a hat and laughing hysterically, but for some reason I believe the whole scenario. I really did get my pork mince from James Ludley of Herefordshire. Anyway, the horse day will be fun for Avery, who tonight gets to go to Wimbledon for her first Pony Club evening lesson. It will be such fun, after all these months, to see her make friends with fellow pony girls. It's going to be a late night, though. It takes a good hour to get there, for the 5:30 lesson, then an hour on the pony, then an hour to get back. I think I'll pack her a little picnic dinner.

I had my second acting class yesterday and we had a fine time. Three of us met opportunistically in the CityLit cafe for lunch before the class, and it turns out that both English Natasha and Brazilian Marcus are waiters in pubs. I guess that's where a very expensive degree in archaeology from Goldsmiths' College gets a nice English girl these days. They are so painfully young! They nearly patted me on the back of my hand when I told them I was a mother and didn't have a job. "But that must be so fulfilling, nurturing a new life," Natasha assured me, clearly unconvinced. In class we did a really intriguing exercise. Each of us was paired with another student, and we were each to tell an incident from our own life, a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Then we were put together with another pair of students, and two of us recounted our partner's story, to the whole group of three. Get it? The idea was threefold, I guess: one, to exercise our individual ability to tell a story. Two, to exercise two people's abilities to retell a story. Three, and most interesting to me, was to teach the teller of the story to let go of her narrative, and give ownership of it to the other person. There was no interrupting allowed when the partner retold the story, and he or she was under no obligation to be faithful to the original. Then, among the four of us we came to a consensus as to which story (between the two we had heard retold) would make the best play. Then we assigned parts to each of us and rehearsed it, and acted it out for the whole class.

I told a story about a trip on the New York subway to Avery's barn in the Bronx, and having a man sit across from me with a Starbucks coffee cup in his hand. Every once in awhile he would look into the cup, into the little sippy place in the lid. Then he would look around the subway car and try to catch someone's eye (not an easy thing to do with contact-shy New Yorkers on public transport). Then he'd look into the cup again, and once in awhile blow gently into it. Finally I couldn't take it anymore and walked over to him. "Would you like to see what is in my cup?" he inquired, recognizing a sucker. "I really would," I said, and he took off the lid. There, huddled inside the cup, was a hummingbird. Bright blue and green and yellow. Its wings were fluttering slightly, but it didn't look particularly disturbed. "I have an office that looks out onto the World Trade Center site," he said, "and today I was just feeling really down, about everything, and gazing out the window, when this little fellow flew into the pane and fell to the ground outside. So I ran down the stairs, not wanting to wait for the elevator, and there he was, on the sidewalk. I thought he was dead, but I couldn't just leave him there. Then I realized I was still carrying the coffee cup I'd been drinking out of at my desk. So I poured out the coffee and scooped him up in the cup. I set him on my desk and thought I'd bury him, when I got home after work. But then, the cup started to move on my desk! I looked in the top, and sure enough, he'd been only stunned."

"And here you are," I said. "Carrying a hummingbird in your latte cup on a #1 train to the Bronx." "Yes," he said, "and I just had to tell somebody." "Could I possibly have him?" I asked tentatively. "I'm meeting my little girl in Riverdale for her horseback-riding lesson, and she would just flip, to see him like that." "Well, another time I would say yes," the man answered, "but as it happens, I've told my own little girl about him and she's waiting at home. We'll release him there. But any other time, I would." The train stopped at his station and he got out, waving goodbye.

After I finished, my partner Julian (the crack-addicted ex-con, remember?) retold it to Susie and Marcus. What caught my attention was what he left out, unintentionally. Number one, he didn't mention that at first the man thought the hummingbird was dead. And he left out that the man's office overlooked the World Trade Center. So when Pip, the instructor, asked us how it had gone, I asked her if she thought that the parts that Julian left out were left out because they weren't important to the story, or because I hadn't told them well enough to show that they were important. "It could go either way," she said. "That's why I'm hesitant about writers who then go on to direct their own plays. There's no voice of reason, no objective ear, no one to say, hello, that isn't important, that doesn't belong. But it could be that you needed to edit your story, to make it clear to Julian why those details were important, if they were. But so often, writers leave in bits that are of importance only to THEM, not to the story. And for all of us, writers, directors and actors, our allegiance is to the STORY." Also she pointed out that while it is the prerogative of the director, and of the actor, to mess about with what the writer has done, we all have a moral obligation to that writer, the person who originally put the idea out there.

So interesting! Then we acted out our chosen story. We decided that Susie's story had more action and more characters, so it was a better choice. She and a friend had been on their way to New York for a visit, and were shopping in the Harrods' shop at Heathrow for presents to take along, and missed two announcements for their flight, nearly missing the flight itself and having to beg and plead to the steward. So I became the friend, and since Susie had to leave early, Marcus became her, and Julian was the irate British Airways steward who had to decide whether or not to let us on the flight. And, my fellow Americans, I am duty-bound to tell you that because of my nationality, the character of the friend took on a number of important qualities: I was to be bossy, insensitive, loud-voiced and ignorant. These are, it turns out, the salient characteristics of any American! At least my three fellow actors had the grace to apologize for making me act that way. Talk about type-casting.

My next venture toward self-improvement is going to be an all-day course later this month called "Autobiography into Fiction." I think it would be good to figure out a way to turn this blog into a novel. But the key will be learning how to make it interesting to regular people, not my long-suffering friends and family. Any suggestions welcome.

Since it would be sacriligious to end a post without a recipe, here's the chicken dish we had last night. Many of you have eaten this at my table, and many have asked for the recipe, so here goes:

Lillian Hellman's Chicken (to be served with Dashiell Hammett Spinach, but that's another story) Serves four

2 whole boneless chicken breasts, split and finely trimmed
1/2 cup Hellman's mayonnaise (get it?)
1/2 cup grated parmesan or pecorino cheese
juice of 1 lemon
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 1/2 cups homemade bread crumbs

Now before you object, there is simply no need for canned bread crumbs to exist. Have you ever wondered what sort of bread the Progresso company deems bad or old enough to be pulverized and put in a can? So march yourself over to your pantry, take out that blue can, and pitch it. Go on, you know I'm right. Then start saving your leftover hot dog buns, that third of a baguette you righteously didn't eat last night, the crusts of the bread you used in your picnic lunch. If you just have a bowl on your counter where you can throw these little leftovers as they appear (don't cover the bowl or the bread will get moldy), then when you are in the mood you can grind them up. Just throw them in your Cuisinart and whizz away. The sound of stale bread in a Cuisinart, for the first few seconds, is a very satisfying, violent rattling noise like a car crash where nobody gets hurt.

Mix together the mayo, cheese, lemon juice and pepper in a bowl big enough to accomodate a single chicken breast. Pour your bread crumbs on a wide plate. Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil for easy cleanup. Preheat your oven to a nice high temperature. My New York oven used to operate at only one temperature, no matter where I set the dial, so all my recipes can survive at 425 degrees.

Smear each chicken breast generously with the gooey mixture and then roll equally generously in bread crumbs. Lay each on the foil with some space between them. Bake for 30 minutes, and voila. It's the perfect big-party dish because you can make it ahead of time and slice it cold when you need it. With a nice bowl of basmati rice and a green salad, you're all set. And excellent leftovers!