Life has taken on a frenetic pace lately and I have been simply too overwhelmed to post! Not that I’m complaining. But honestly, since last Thursday when I was waxing lyrical about duck, it’s been all I could do to remember what to pack in Avery’s various bags for her various activities, and get her to them, and to mine in between, much less keeping a record of what we’ve been up to. But I’m going to give it a try, because so much interesting stuff has been happening.
My screenwriting class was a revelation. It’s hard to believe I’ve got the second class today and can I just confess right now that I have not seen a movie in the meantime? At least, I don’t think collapsing in front of a Lord Peter Wimsey BBC production that I’ve seen at least five times counts as “seeing a movie.” Or “film,” I should say, as the incredibly enthusiastic people in my class would do. The first thing, practically, that the instructor said was, “There are some stupid people in this world who…
Well, okay, no actual goose. But duck! It was the best dish, so I’m giving you the “recipe”, although the salad base can be whatever you wish.
Pan-seared Duck with Crunchy Salad
(serves four easily)
2 boneless duck breasts (these usually come vacuum-packed)
2 cups tightly packed baby spinach leaves
1 small purple cabbage
1 small white cabbage
2 red bell peppers
1 dozen small tomatoes
dressing: juice and pulp of a lemon, 1 clove garlic, finely chopped, 1/4 cup olive oil, dah balsamic vinegar, tasp Dijon mustard, sea salt
Place the duck breasts on a cutting board (NOT the one you will later use for preparing the salad; always use separate boards for raw meat and veggies). Score the skin in four horizontal slices, till you can just see the meat beneath. Sprinkle the skin with sea salt.
Heat a large skillet till nearly smoking, then put in duck breasts skin side down and sprinkle with sea salt. You would be wise at this point to cover the skillet with one of those grease screens, since duck is very fatty and you (and your priceless Armani jacket) will get splattered. Turn heat down to medium and let duck cook for 8 minutes. Resist the temptation to play with it, poke it, and above all DO NOT pierce it.
Meanwhile, pile the spinach on a large platter. Shred the cabbages finely (I cut them in quarters first to make small shreds) and slice the red pepper into small strips. Halve the tomatoes. Chop the chives. Scatter all this over the spinach. It will be so pretty you’ll be tempted to take a picture.
Now, lift the grease screen and turn over the duck breasts. They will sizzle madly, so quickly put the screen back on, and prepare to wait another 8 minutes. Combine all dressing ingredients and whisk enthustiastically, but know that you will have to whisk again just before dressing the salad.
Remove the skillet from the heat and, using tongs so as not to pierce the meat, lift the duck breasts from the skillet and place on a plate. Pour off the fat and reserve in case you plan to fry eggs or hash browns any time soon (you can always throw it away later if you don’t use it). Wipe the skillet with paper towels and place the duck breasts back in skin side down, then return to heat. Let the breasts sizzle for about two minutes, then lift them out of the fat and remove them to a fresh cutting board, where they can rest while you pour wine (or in our case, milk) and whisk the dressing one more time.
Now, you have a choice to make. Are you going to eat the delectable skin and completely ruin your resolution to eat less fat, or are you going to remove the skin and have a truly guilt-free dinner? Your choice. I did remove the skin, and let me tell you, we didn’t feel deprived. Slice the duck thinly or thickly, whichever you like, and lay the slices over the salad. Whisk the dressing one more time and pour over the duck.
There is something about the rich, tender, pink duck with a bite of crunchy, tangy cabbage and tomato, and silky avocado, and virtuous spinach, that makes this dish just delicious. And so good for you!
Then, the next night we had completely boring, forgettable fancy fresh ravioli from Selfridges. However. With it I made an accidental sauce that turned out to be sublime. It happened out of sheer neglect.
Sage and Butter Sauce
(good for any pasta, but also pork chops, veal scallopini?)
1 stick butter
12 sage leaves
1 tsp sea salt
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
Melt the butter in a small skillet and then add the sage, salt and garlic. Shake till nicely dispersed over low-medium heat, then walk away, check your email, fold the laundry, whatever. The point is, totally forget about the fact that you have melted butter sitting over heat. Come back in five minutes or so and find that you have slightly browned butter, and CRISPY sage leaves! I had been planning to lift the leaves out, and have just flavored butter, but no! They were crispy, like potato chips, and so good. The ravioli were just vehicles for the sauce. Some warm baguette rounds were perfect to soak it up.
OK, enough about food. How about that Thai military revolution? I swear, the leaders gave a press conference that the BBC broadcast and translated, and the head guy said, “We apologize for any inconvenience this coup may have caused you.” What? I love that. Coups can be so annoying.
Avery’s riding is going from strength to strength. Here is her little back, riding away on Sirius, the star pony belonging to Ross Nye’s daughter Kirsty, who runs the stable. I love this shot for the perfect Englishness of the setting. She has a new babysitter picking her up today, a girl called Chrisa who stayed here with our housesitter over the summer. I’ll be at the first meeting of my screenwriting class, which should be great fun. In a minute I’m going to lie down on the sofa and read “Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting” by Syd Field, which is said to be the bible for this sort of thing. There are several novels, both for children and for adults, that I think would make excellent movies, and I’d like to get my feet wet figuring out how one does that. How does one get the rights to the novel, and then what are the mechanics of turning writing into speaking? I find that often the weakest part of a movie made from a book is the part where the writer had just been expositing about something in omniscient writer-voice, but not having a character speak the words. Then when it’s a movie script, where do you put that information? The writer hasn’t given you any direction about who could speak it. This is true especially of Jane Austen, I think, whose “Pride and Prejudice” is filled with page after page of necessary information about how the characters feel, yet no one speaks it, it’s merely given to you by the author. So when it’s made into a movie, all that expository content gets lost and you end up watching the characters do things that aren’t shored up by dialogue explaining why they feel the way they feel. I’d like to explore how to do that better.
Then I’ll meet up with the babysitter and Avery at riding, and then I have a rare dinner out, all by myself, at the house of a lady interested in art history. Either I will be completely intimidated by all these arty people she has invited, and their rich philanthropist husbands, or I won’t.
Oh, and a huge triumph for Avery! She got 96 out of 100 spelling words right, on a terrifically important spelling test at school yesterday. She was simply beaming from ear to ear with pride when I picked her up yesterday. “That’s never happened before,” Mrs D told her. “Apparently I’m an average 14 1/2 year old,” Avery told me, trying for nonchalance but not getting anywhere near it. She’s so proud of herself, and so are we. Now if she can just get that sevens times table down…
Let’s see, Avery’s playdate with Jamie started out at the ice skating rink, went on into dinner at the Lucky Spot, and culminated in a sleepover! I am very glad for Avery to have a new friend, who was last week just a classmate. But Avery admires Jamie, and as far as I can see there’s every reason to. The child just started chatting casually with the waitress at the restaurant, in ITALIAN. Fluent. And she can speak French! And is the least pretentious gull you can imagine. Really lovely. For some reason they decided to dress alike, so Avery’s closet was ransacked and this is what they came up with. I think if we’d gone to a French restaurant they would have been made to wait tables. I was glad to see them have such a good time, although it’s a close contest which gets boring more quickly: watching gulls ride ponies around and around, or skate around and around! I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time doing both.
Then I just wanted to show you this salad to inspire you to do the same. There’s no recipe. But the cooking show “Celebrity Masterchef,” on the BBC had a guy on last week who did a version of this salad, and topped it with sauteed duck breast. I think I will do that tonight. Avery will have to have leftover tomato sauce and noodles, since she is anti-duck. Or rather, I’m sure she’d point out, she’s actually PRO-duck, and anti-eating-duck. Whatever. What you want is a number of crunchy vegetables, and a really sharp dressing. I sliced up purple cabbage, white cabbage, red bell peppers, and chives. Delicious and so good for you.
Finally, readers, I have a confession. Many of you knew me way back when, when I was either busily teaching art history, writing about art history, or selling actual art. What happened to me? It’s almost like all that knowledge and enthusiasm and expertise was in some reservoir that’s been drained. The exceptional experiences are just that, exceptions. There was the outstanding Carl Andre show I saw here last year, at Sadie Coles Gallery. That was simply stunning, black cubes in an ever-decreasing grid, or ever-increasing depending on which direction you looked in. Superb. I made a complete fool of myself, lying on the ground looking at it from a flat perspective. Then there was the Eva Hesse show in New York at the Jewish Museum this summer. But these are exceptions. In general I don’t seem to have the wherewithal to go to a gallery or a museum, or once I get there to stir up much enthusiasm for what I’m seeing. The Kandinsky show, for example.
I don’t even know what sorts of reviews it has been getting, so I cannot say if my reaction is typical. But Avery and John and I were out and about this weekend, trying to find something called the Thames Festival, which had been much hyped (sort of reduntant, that, sorry) in the “what to do” sections of everything. Well, we got caught up in some random, sort of scary parade of sad-loooking individuals apparently from some Fire Brigade club, or something. People of all shapes and sizes, wearing various ratty uniforms indicating their loyalty to something weird, and playing lots of shrill piccolos and massive drums, stopping up traffic and in general being like a freak show. I have no idea. Anyway, it ran all along the Embankment, as the Festival alleged to do, so we randomly followed it, with Avery covering her ears in dismay at the din, and me worrying about getting my wallet stolen. Finally we gave up, and John and Avery decided to see “Pirates of the Caribbean.” I had actual negative interest in seeing it, would rather stick hot needles in my eyes, so I begged off and we parted at some bridge or other, which made me think, “Gee, maybe the festival’s on THAT side of the river,” so I crossed. Let me tell you now: do not ever try to go to the Thames Festival. Thousands of people, grizzling children, overwhelmed parents, disaffected youths, nasty pensioners, just awful. And the festival? Just craft tables trying to get me to buy birdfeeders from Uganda, tie-dyed t-shrits from Portugal, or to have my tarot read. And terrible food smells. Although I did have a good pork and leek sausage, carrying from my bangers and mash obsession.
Finally I thought, “You know what you need? A break from all that is horrible and massively crowded and smelly. You need a moment in the Life of the Higher Mind.” And there I was, in front of the Tate Modern. Well, actually I could see the Tate Modern through a haze of billboards touting Insect Circuses, Trapeze Shows, and “If just 10% of all Britons turned the water off while brushing their teeth we could fill three gatrillion swimming pools in Ibiza,” or some such righteous message. I have no idea what that was doing there. I remembered then that Jamie’s mother, who takes life extremely seriously, had told me of her concern that she might not get to the Kandinsky show at the Tate. And there I was, just a mechanical bull away from the entrance to the show. So I went.
Now mind you, I used to be a kind of minor non-expert expert on Kandinsky. Seeing his gorgeous paintings in the Art Institute in Chicago, the big-city cultural mecca of my college years, I was inspired. Truly, they inspired me to major in art histoy and even to specialize in teaching 1900–1940. But the Kandinsky show left me quite chilly. I don’t know if it is because so many of the paintings were under glass, old glass, so that all I saw was the crowds behind me? Or were my favorites not there? But I could not feel much enthusiasm or warmth toward the show.
Mostly I wandered through the rooms, lost in a sort of memory show, about how happy I was in those faraway teaching days, preaching to my besotted students at Hunter College, standing on my soapbox extolling the evils of patriarchal systems of teaching art history, forging new paths in feminist theory. And at the gallery, too, I was uber-passionate. I could have worked 25 hours a day, choosing artists, curating shows, going on studio visits, writing essays, meeting with clients. Where has it all gone? Over the summer, going through my boxes of books in the barn, when I came upon one that was art history books I felt very disconnected. There had been a possibilty that I would give a lecture at the Royal Academy on Camille Claudel, this autumn, to coincide with their Rodin show. The person who was meant to make the decision about the lecture series quit, or got fired, and my resume got lost among all the details, and now it’s not clear whether I’ll give the lecture or not. And I think I should care more than I do! I’ll really be worried if I get to the Rodin show and I don’t get excited. After all, I was excited in Rome to see the Michelangelos. Maybe I should just remember that I’m a three-dimensional gal, not a painting person, in general.
I’ve been invited to a dinner party Thursday night with some of the “Friends of the National Museum of Women in the Arts UK” group. Not a name that rolls trippingly off the tongue, but if you use the acronym NMWA most people are in the dark. Anyway, some Americans here in London are trying to get a UK branch to evolve, and this dinner on Thursday is bringing a bunch of them together. The organiser has even sent around an email detailing who the guests will be! Like that party at John’s boss’s house, where we got virtual resumes from everyone in advance. There are people whose occupations are listed as “suppporter of opera,” and “supporter of theatre,” plus an expert in Russian expressionism, so perhaps I can get her to re-invigorate my art passion.
Or maybe all my art passion got replaced with food passion? Certainly my cookbooks came along with me to London, where their poor art history confreres are left stagnating in a barn. Here’s the rub, however. Many of my feminist-ish mother friends and I have often discussed the difficulty of finding, much less indulging, one’s life passion when it will have to end every weekday at 3:30. And not happen at all if your child wakes up with a fever. So perhaps it’s all right for my Avery passion to get the lion’s share of oxygen for the time being. After all, she’s awfully nice.
What on earth, you might ask? Is that really an Anglican priest on horseback? It sounds like a third version of those wonderful old-fashioned appetizers, “Angels on Horseback”, which are oysters wrapped in bacon and grilled, or “Devils on Horseback,” the same thing only I think kidneys instead of oysters? Whatever, no, the photograph above isn’t a tasty treat, but it was a treat nonetheless. I’ll explain.
So Avery has been riding at her stable this week, the wonderful Ross Nye Stable, meeting lots of new people and horses and generally having the time of her life. They are a combination of relaxed and intense, relaxed in terms of scheduling, clothing, etc., but very precise as far as training goes. So I got to see her on Thursday in the ring in Hyde Park just below the Bayswater Road, and met a nice mother called Dana whose little girl Syrie was having a lesson at the same time. It’s always a bit nerve-wracking walking from the stable in the mews to the ring in the park, because the road is extremely busy with those typical English drivers who would be as polite as anything if you run over their feet with your trolley in Marks and Spencers, but would as soon flatten you in the road as look at you. I think it’s the enforced stopping for pedestrians in zebra crossings that makes them so aggressive absolutely everywhere else. I always torment myself by wondering what would happen if the pony Avery was riding spooked at something and just decided to go somewhere else, rather than following the other ponies in a nice orderly group to the park. Anyway, after her lesson, Alexa the trainer mentioned that there would be a little get-together on Sunday, and did we want to come? She gave me a little card announcing “Horseman’s Sunday: a unique local institution celebrating the life and work of horses stabled in Central London.” Apparently in the 1960s, to protest the threatened closure of the stables, Mr Ross Nye (who is perhaps 80 years old now) began to take his horses over to the nearby church, St John’s Hyde Park, and ask the vicar to bless them. Truly, I am not making this up. Well, over the 39 years it’s been going on (Mr Nye is AWFULLY excited about the 40th anniversary next year) the event has grown enormously both in size and in elaborateness. Alexa explained that Avery should turn up at 10:30 on Sunday and they would walk the horses over to the church, have the blessing, and then go to the park for a “gymkhana.”
I have always wondered, from all my English books, what a “gymkhana” is and why on earth it is called that. Well, now was my chance to find out. It turns out that the term refers to the Urdu word for “racket court,” and was originally used to mean any organised sporting event. But in England it has come to be applied only to equestrian events, and especially those highlighting children’s participation. So as in so many English things, it’s important to be up on your Indian terms. Like jodhpurs. An odd word, I always thought, but I never knew until now that it was the capital city of an Indian state, and the inhabitants wear tight-fitting breeches suitable for riding. So there you go!
We took Avery to the stable, then, yesterday morning where she was pressed into service grooming the horses. At times she finds it a bit awkward to be thrust into yet another barn with unfamiliar children and trainers, and not knowing exactly what’s expected of her. I don’t blame her. Luckily Emily was there! So she guided her around and before you knew it Avery had a curry comb in her hand and was busily taking care of some pony. The plan was that the children would draw names from a hat to see who was lucky enough to ride to the church, and who would merely walk along helping out. Up came a dapper elderly fellow wearing immaculate jacket and trouses, and a HAT, and he immediately enjoined her to tie back her hair. Did you know it was the law in England that people handling livestock cannot have loose hair? “Easy enough for us blokes, mind you,” he said cheerily, “but you young ladies must keep neat and tidy.” This was, it turned out, Ross Nye himself. It was clear that John and I were entirely unnecessary to the proceedings, so we headed off to find the church and wait for her there.
It was just a couple of blocks away and preparations were underway. Local businesses had set up odd little tables with favors and information about themselves. There was a young lady selling drawings of horses, and she would draw your horse if you wanted her to. I spied one chap who looked terribly familiar but I couldn’t think why: was he an actor? No, I realised, it was my vet! There promoting his clinic. There was a church service going on, and choral music floating out into the cool September air. When it was over, two vicars came out in their long black soutanes, which they quickly covered up with bright green embroidered robes. Then, believe it or not, came the sound of hooves. Many, many hooves. Eight of the hooves belonged to two horses that were destined to be the vicars’ mounts, so with some really awkward help from little Pony Club people, they climbed onto the saddles and sat there, looking completely odd! Up the square came the Ross Nye contingent, and there was Avery on a pony! The lucky girl. He was called Winston, and he looked terrified. So many horses! And carts, and carriages and fancy outfits. There was one fellow in a blue velvet jacket and pink jodhpurs, with spiky white hair, and a lady (it took me a long time to discover that she WAS a lady!) in proper tartan tweeds and knee-high boots. And many, many little girls (including Avery) in the traditional blue button-up shirt of the Pony Club.
The church bells rang for noon, and the horses all gathered around the forecourt of the church for the prayers and hymns, and Ross Nye’s speech about the importance of horses throughout history and their meaning in all our lives. Let me tell you, hundreds of horses all crowded together listening to prayers and speeches get real excited when people applaud. I thought there would be a mass revolt, but the riders got their mounts under control (although Avery reported later that Winston was scared to death). Then they were all marched out, around the block, and then back, one at a time, up to the front of the church for Ross Nye to offer the rider a rosette, say a few words about who owned the horse, and pass them along to the vicar (in a bright green robe ON A HORSE, too odd!) who made the “father, son and the holy spirit” gesture with his hand and blessed the horse! Honestly. And then they all trotted away, back where they had come from, some from as far away as Oxfordshire. Just to be blessed.
Back at the stable it took some time to establish that we had time for lunch (which some people had been smart enough to bring as a picnic) and then we’d head to the park for the gymkhana. So we found a pub and had cottage pie and fish and chips, and John went home to take a nap, having just come in the day before from New York. Some of the girls rode ponies to the park, but they ran out, so several including Avery rode over in Mr Nye’s car, which she reports he drives VERY slowly. I bet. Another mother and I walked over, doggedly following the ponies all the way around the park instead of cutting across. I was already tired from having walked all the way to the Tate Modern yesterday, to see the Kandinsky exhibit (more on that later) while Avery and John saw “Pirates of the Caribbean.” So by the time we reached the enclosure I was worn out! Just as I got there, my mobile phone voicemail called me, and there was a message from friends that they were at the ring, and so was my daughter, and where was I? We met up and watched the girls play lots of pony games, riding around cones, trying to grab flags as they passed by, and finally some jumping. It was a gorgeous day, perfect to be out and about. And you know what? The horses all looked, well, blessed.
It’s an odd life, in a way, that can be encapsulated by these two photographs. Actually yesterday was a very productive day in retrospect, although at the time it felt that all I was doing was retracing my steps over and over, acquiring more shopping bags each time. Let’s see, after dropoff I climbed ALL the stairs at King’s College Preparatory School to reach Form Three, in time for my first day reading with the gulls. A little sprout called Brynne read from “Stanley, Flat Again,” to which I asked, “Have you already read ‘Flat Stanley’ then?” “Oh, yes, now he’s flat again,” she explained. “What happened this time?” I asked. “I know the first time a bulletin board fell on him, but then of course his brother could pump him up with the bicycle pump.” Silence. “Really, how did he get flat AGAIN?” I persisted. Finally, Brynne explained, “Oh, you know, he just… did. He just… got flat. You know how it is.” Afterward Miss King, the PE teacher (who had been at the computer alongside us at the time) said, “That’s what I love about little girls. He can just GET FLAT and that’s the way it is.”
So I headed off to John Lewis to buy bigger versions of Avery’s PE kit and cardies, since she’s grown exponentially this summer. The new ones looked enormous at the shop, but when she tried them on after washing and drying, frighteningly they fit. Sigh. I also acquired at John Lewis the items you see here: “Learning with Ladybird!” Avery is not loving her times tables and the prevailing wisdom is that setting them to song will help. “I just don’t know my sixes or sevens, and PS 234 seemed to think that learning up to the tens was enough, so I thought I knew my twelves, but only up to times ten!” The pressure is enormous. Her maths homework the other night made me shiver. John needs to come home.
Then a spontaneous haircut! I have been longing to get rid of all this awful colour, so I just popped in to a salon in the High Street, and was out again in 40 minutes, a whole new me. Although Avery called me a muskrat, because it is really short. “But I like muskrats!” was her belated apology. Then I rushed home, stopping at the Body Shop for some newfangled olive-flavoured shower soap John’s interested in. I dropped everything off at home, did laundry and chose a photograph for Avery’s birthday party invitation. It’s to be a Halloween birthday, since English Halloween celebrations are, we have heard, muted to say the best. I’ve already ordered all sorts of American candy and decorations that poor John will be lugging home in his suitcase on Saturday, bless his heart. So I rushed out again to the Button Queen to find black buttons we can glue on cards to surround with eight Sharpy legs and have, voila, a spider. While waiting at the Button Queen as a lady painstakingly chose six buttons for a blouse she was wanted to wear during the holidays (nothing like planning ahead), I looked out the window to see that across the road was a shop devoted entirely to sausages. Yes, sausages. “Biggles Gourmet Sausages,” it said, with a logo of a flying pig wearing pilot’s goggles and a jaunty scarf. So after acquiring my buttons I crossed over to the shop and the SMELL! Can I just say how good the sizzling sausages they were fitting into long crispy rolls smelled. I decided then and there that we were having bangers and mash for dinner, something I have never put together but is a classic English dish of course. I bought four “Marylebone Pork” bangers, described in the shop literature as “An old, resurrected traditional London recipe seasoned with mace, ginger and sage.” Mace is, of course, the hard outer shell of a nutmeg that, when grated, is a lovely delicate flavour.
Then to the photo shop to drop off the photograph for duplication, then to the stationery store for cards and envelopes. Then to collapse at Marco Polo in the Marylebone High Street for the best hummous I have ever had. Is it the parsley and tomato drizzled with olive oil on top that makes it so good? I don’t know, but it was lovely.
At pickup Avery announced that she really needed a new ruler AND a mechanical eraser (or “rubber” as she says since she’s English now) so we were back to the stationer’s. Finally a stop at Marks and Spencer for fruit and salad ingredients to offset the completely fatty dinner I was planning, and finally HOME. Sigh. Read a note from school about emergency measures in place for “Terrorist or other attack in Central London.” How reassuring to know that the school has “sufficient stock of basic emergency provisions for sustenance for forty-eight hours.” I can rest easy now.
I had the cosiest toes-up on the sofa, Tacy on lap, while Avery did her homework nearby. What luxury to be able to spend the day doing things just to take care of us! I sometimes wonder where I found the ambition to run my gallery, when in reality I’m often perfectly happy just taking care of us. I think the answer is that the gallery was the right thing to do when it happened, but I’m not a business owner at heart.
So bangers and mash. There are several schools of thought on this topic. Some people swear by baking the sausages for half an hour in a slow oven (isn’t it funny to describe an oven in terms of speed, instead of temperature?). I myself love the sound of sausages in a skillet, so that’s what I did. Then, too, some people feel that gravy is essential to the dish, but I happen to live with a child who thinks gravy is the scourge of God, so no takers there. Then, too, I have read of recipes that call for mashing the potatoes with a teaspoon of butter, and milk. I’m sorry. Butter doesn’t come in TEASPOONS. Unless it’s being rationed. So what I cooked for us was this:
Bangers and Mash
(serves four, since I simply cannot cook for two, or even three)
4 large pork sausages
3 large King Edward or other mashing potato
1/2 stick softened butter
1/2 cup single cream
skim mik (to thin)
2 tsps sea salt
fresh ground pepper to taste
Peel potatoes and quarter them, then put in large saucepan and add water to cover (I love Laurie Colwin’s story of a boyfriend who, when given this direction, asked in consternation, “what cover?”). Boil for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, place sausages in a skillet over medium heat and cover with a splatter screen. Turn them frequently as they cook to make sure that all surfaces are nicely sizzled. The sausages will feel stiff to the poke when they are done, perhaps ten minutes in all.
Drain the potatoes. Mash with butter and cream, and some milk if they are too thick, then add salt and pepper to taste.
With this, to salve my conscience, we had sugar snap peas sauteed in olive oil, and a nice salad of spinach, tomatoes and avocado. Yum. The perfect cosy dinner for a thunderstormy London night.
Well, silly me I forgot to take my camera to the riding lesson at the new barn today, so I shall have to wait to post a picture of the darling new pony, Rowan, until Thursday when Avery has her next lesson. Suffice to say it was successful! And readers, let me tell you of my satisfaction upon making the journey to the stable: it was but a 5-pound cab ride away from school! Ross Nye Stables, in Bathurst Mews, with lessons across the Bayswater Road in Hyde Park. Now, why did it take us so long to go there? Ah well, we’re there now. The mews itself is gorgeous, cobblestoned as they all are, and simply overflowing with windowboxes full of pansies and violets, and trailing vines and ivy. I say this with spurious authority since I cannot really identify any flowers except marigolds, which my mother made me enter into every Flower Show at School 77 (for which I earned a pathetic Honorable Mention every year, so sad). My point is, it’s a very flowery mews. So they put Avery on sweet Rowan, who is rather Scout-like in his size and demeanor, and since my loyalties have always stayed with Scout, I felt good. She and two instructors headed off toward the park and for some idiotic reason I followed them, only to be abandoned for The Mile, the path around the entire park. So I spent the hour on a ruinous phone call to my mother-in-law (how do we manage to talk for an hour? I can easily do that with my mother, too).
Home to exchange via email dinner plans with the Divine Sarah Webb, with whom we’re planning our Paris trip. You simply must go on Sarah’s website and see her artwork. Her show, “Fat and Blood and How To Make Them” was one of the highlights of the life of my gallery in New York. Can I boast for a moment and say that Edward Albee bought one of her pieces? That was beyond thrilling.
But I digress. Did I tell you that the formidable Mrs Davies, headmistress of King’s College Preparatory School, invited me by letter over the summer to teach a Book Club after school this year? Her letter was a marvelous piece of English language engineering, begging my kind forgiveness should her invitation strike me as a “cheeky” one. On the contrary, I was thrilled. I have missed the Book Clubs of Avery’s little girlhood, with a host of children sitting on the gray felt rug that zipped around the column in our Tribeca loft, reading to the little sprouts and having snack. I think I did it for five years! So this was great. Except for the stifling unseasonable heat and the fact that the school seems allergic to having the windows open. It was a horrible flashback to the Fashion Show.
The Club was assigned to Mrs Miekle’s sixth-form classroom, which doubles as the English Room. The sixth-form girls were busily packing up their rucksacks, complaining about the amount of homework given that day, the incredible meanness of various teachers, changing into dance leotards, sharing water bottles. Their piping English voices and sort of awkward pre-adolescent demeanor was simply adorable. Then they departed, to be replaced by Avery and Anna, and the New Girl Elizabeth, who Avery had press-ganged into signing up for Book Club. And then, four gulls that, in typical nine-year-old fashion, did not identify themselves and simply plopped down on the floor. So I opened “Betsy-Tacy,” asked if anyone knew what an autobiography was, got a resounding silence for my pains, then Avery said yes, it was a person telling the story of her own life, so I explained that this book was a fictionalized autobiography. It was the author writing down the stories of her childhood but giving all the characters different names. I read the first three chapters, and there was rapt attention from the girls, who gradually sank down with their heads on their backpacks, staring at the cover illustration and occasionally asking for clarification as to which girl on the front was which character. I had worried a bit because the story starts out about five-year-olds, but there was no problem. They loved it. If any of you have little girls who do not know Betsy-Tacy, run, don’t walk to your nearest real or virtual bookstore and snap it up.
Home sweating to death, via Villandry where Avery wolfed down, I’m ashamed to say, both ice cream and a pain au chocolat. I really must bring a healthier snack to pickup!
Friends sauntered in for dinner, the truly luscious chicken curry with oranges and apples, and a salad of lamb’s lettuce (it is also called mache) with a vinaigrette of my own invention. It is not for the faint of heart.
Garlic Lemon Vinaigrette
2 cloves garlic
2 tbsps olive oil
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp Dijon mustard
Here’s the fun part, if you’re at all OCD. You roll the lemon around on the counter, which for some reason makes it give more juice. Then with a sharp paring knife, peel it all round, leaving no pith (I just can’t stand that word. But it’s not as bad as “moist”.) Then very carefully section the lemon, taking care to discard seeds. The sections will look like tiny pale mandarin orange sections as you get in a can.
Peel the garlic and chop it right with the lemon sections which you have sprinkled with salt. It will become a kind of liquidy paste finally. Scoop this with the flat of your knife into a nice small bowl. Gradually whisk in the olive oil and watch it emulsify. Then whisk in the vinegar and mustard. Dress the lamb’s lettuce just at the last moment before eating, because the leaves are so delicate and will absorb the dressing right away.
For dessert we had English strawberries (red all the way through, such a delight after their American cousins that look like strawberries and bark like strawberries but smell like nothing but their plastic containers and are white and hard inside. Ick.) sprinkled with Amaretto and tossed with a tiny bit of sugar. I wanted to sprinkle them with Cointreau but I didn’t have any and was too lazy to go back out. One of the things I love about my friend (and there are so many) is that she was quite fine with her children having a bit of Amaretto with their fruit. Although Avery, no child of her spirits-loving parents, wrinkled up her nose and said, “Eew, what’s wrong with the strawberries?” Ah, youth.
I’m so pleased to go to bed tonight with a successful Book Club under my belt, and a new pony and barn. Now all we need is for John to come home and start shopping seriously for our Mini, and the autumn will be looking quite bright indeed.
Five years ago, of course, was that terrible day. It feels so odd to be away from New York on the anniversary, almost like I abandoned it. So I thought I would think a little bit about where we were then, and then maybe it would be easier to think about where we are now.
When I took Avery to school this morning, it was hard to look at the girl with almost two numbers in her age and remember the little nearly-five-year-old, small enough to carry, going to school on the second day of kindergarten, when the unthinkable happened. It was only years later that she told me, “I was the last one in the big red door,” meaning the door in the school yard at PS 234, minutes before the first plane hit the building just four blocks away. I asked her yesterday what she remembered of that day, and there is very little. Which is so good. My mother suggested that of course it will always be something that happened to her, something she will always be part of. But thank goodness she wasn’t nearly ten on that day, when we tried so hard to make her not part of it.
It was such a famously crispy blue-sky day of course, and I suppose the time might come some day in the future when there can be a crispy blue-sky September morning that doesn’t feel terribly wrong. And a tiny, tiny part of every school dropoff remains rooted in that morning, when leaving her at school was followed almost instantly by such fear and indecision, haste and worry. But the other side of that coin is how glad I am at every school pickup that it’s all gone fine, there she is, all’s well. And I’m not sure I would have been smart enough to feel that way without that day, so perhaps it’s a silver lining of sorts.
John is there today, probably just waking up in his tacky hotel room in midtown, shortly to walk over to Times Square and start his work day. It is the first anniversary that we haven’t been together, and the first I have spent outside New York. I remember spending the first anniversary at my new art gallery, on a street that was cordoned off for months after September 11, 2001, with so many visitors coming in to be glad the gallery was there, glad the street was open, that the children were back in their school on the corner that had been closed until February. That’s what Avery remembers. “It was awful having to move schools.” But she remembers that in much the same way that she remembers the hated “corporate flat” where we stayed here in London for the first few weeks. A place not of our choosing, filled with temporary things, knowing you didn’t belong. And how good to get to a place where you did belong, and could put down roots.
I remember that the school’s website, otherwise completely upbeat, positive, forward-looking even in the dark days of not knowing where we would relocate to, had one photograph that seemed to acknowledge what had happened to us: a picture of the school calendar, hanging slightly askew in the principal’s office, with yellow smiley faces marking off the days of September, and stopping abruptly at September 10. I wonder who posted that picture? It seemed to me to represent all that had been lost.
Five years on, in another time zone, another apartment, another school, even with four completely new cats! In a strange way it’s odd to have feline companions that weren’t with us in those dark days, but only a totally crazy person like me would think of something like that. I thought this morning that Dorrie would come to clean today, not dear Carmen who I met at the police barrier at Canal Street on whatever day after September 11th, sad and devoted. When I cleaned out Avery’s closet this spring, finally purging it of years of outgrown clothes, I found the little skirt she was wearing that day, a little orange two-layered skirt with pink gauzy flowers sewn to it. I remember I put it on her the next day, too, thinking in some dogged, crazy way that then it wouldn’t be “what she was wearing on that day.” Of course it stayed “what she was wearing on that day” forever after that, no matter how many times she put it on.
Tonight friends will come for dinner, since it seemed as if we should be with other New Yorkers. And then tomorrow won’t be the anniversary of anything, which will be good. I have to remember how fortunate we are that no one we knew died, that we’re together. How much worse it could have been, and was for so many people. My sincere plan is to become a bigger person for whom it isn’t always all about me. To all of you in New York, we’re thinking about you.
Is that it’s hard to fit him into a Mini Cooper! But we’re going to try. We’ve been carless for too long, we’ve decided, so yesterday we started on the road to official adoption of an orphaned Mini and test drove a model at Park Lane BMW. One of the dubious distinctions of living in Mayfair is that within three blocks of our flat, one can purchase an Astin Martin, a BMW, a Bentley, or… a Mini. It’s the cutest car ever. But very tiny, so John had to fold himself up like a clown in a phone booth to get in. At first, the saleslady Anita was very skeptical (or “sceptical” as they insist on spelling it here), watching his head graze the roof, his knees tucked under his chin, and poor Avery completely squashed in the back when he pushed the driver’s seat back to its fullest extent. But life, including car purchases, involves compromise, so I sat back in my comfy passenger seat and watched as John and Avery negotiated who got what amount of room. He started off with the suggestion that she merely ride at all times with her legs crossed on the seat, which was greeted with a guffaw and the countersuggestion that we get a convertible so he can put his legs out the top and drive with his hands. Finally seats were adjusted to everyone’s satisfaction and we took turns driving around Hyde Park, marveling at how it turns on a dime, or a sixpence, the surprising amount of engine power for such a teeny little vehicle. And Anita, whose accent suggests her origins in someplace ending in a “stan,” assured us of its remarkable “safetyness,” which is reassuring, and surprising considering all the other cars on the road top it by several if not many inches.
So John is headed off to New York for the week this afternoon, and when he gets back on Saturday we’re going to look seriously for a nice used Mini for our very own. I actually felt quite comfortable driving, which is astonishing since my last remembered driving experience in London ended in my being hit by a tour bus full of visiting Finns, then ricocheting into a Jeep owned by a Greek diplomat. The poor bobby who attended the scene said he felt like he was stuck in a NATO meeting. The poor car was totalled, or rather 100 pounds shy of being totalled which meant we had to get it fixed. I was fine, but it has left me (and the British driving community) a bit hesitant about my taking the wheel again. I think some nice driving lessons would be good.
Other that, I confess to a bit of boredom. None of the tasks staring me in the face seems interesting: sewing on more name tapes, folding laundry, gluing photos in the album, grocery shopping. I need an adventure. Wait, I’m going to have one! I almost forgot. The second weekend in October, Avery and I are going to journey off to Paris, to stay in a darling little hotel with my dear friend Sarah and her daughter Eve. It’s Eve’s tenth birthday present, and it will be a nice time for the two girls to parlay their long-distance, mother-motivated friendship into a real time friendship. You see, Sarah and I met ten years ago when I was planning a conference session at the College Art Association annual meeting, and one of the papers I accepted for the panel was Sarah’s, on the English painter Gwen John. It later turned out that Sarah had been living right in my neighborhood the last time we were in London, and taking a course at Christie’s and doing all her research right smack where I was doing mine, at the Victoria and Albert Museum library. We are convinced that we imprinted on each other without ever meeting, which accounts for our incredibly close friendship as soon as we met. Immediately we corresponded by email several times a day, with letters that were equal parts art history, pregnancy, and food. Years went by when, as she reminded me recently, we each knew what the other was having for dinner every single night! By the time the conference took place lo these many years ago, Eve was nine months old and Avery three. It was very convenient to have Sarah in my life, because at the other end of a keyboard was a faithful report on exactly what to expect Avery to do, eat or say in six months’ time.
Then we decided to turn the panel discussion into a book, which sounded very simple but actually took forever and a day to accomplish. We used to joke that our children would be able to read the darn thing by the time we finally published it. And it was TRUE. And they weren’t particularly early readers, either. Our husbands refer to this work as our “get rich quick scheme.” I recently got a bi-annual royalty report from the publisher assuring me that as soon as my royalties for the last half-year reach $50, they will issue me a check. Ah, well, what price friendship. And do you know what? By googling Sarah I got to an Amazon page that solemnly informed me of the following facts: in our book you get 3,133 words per dollar and even more important, 4,837 words per ounce. I think that’s a bargain. And only 24% of books available on Amazon contain a higher frequency of complex words than our book contains. Again, so much bang for the buck.
But seriously, October 14 will find the four of us happily eating our way through Paris, watching the puppet shows in the Luxembourg Gardens, showing the girls all the magnificent artworks that inspired us to be art writers and curators, and one of us a fabulous artist herself. Even more important, it will give Eve and Avery a chance to discuss what college they want to go to (my money’s on Bryn Mawr College, where I got my incredibly useful and lucrative PhD). Because we’re planning that they’ll be roommates.
Poor little bunny. Avery woke up Thursday morning feeling just generally off-colour, as they say, a little fever and a sore throat. We made the joint executive decision that she should stay home for the day. Luckily she had Hat, which is technically a hat, but is more importantly a crucial sleeptime item and home to many of the smaller fry among her bedtime animals. Hat was made lovingly for her by Judy, our dear farmer friend and neighbor in Connecticut, with wool from sheep that Avery had fed milk to as lambs. I suppose in the intervening year or so it has been actually worn, but really it presides over bedtime. Most comforting.
So we spent a very quiet day, Avery mostly horizontal, but rousing herself to root around in her doll clothing and change all the American Girl dolls’ outfits plus hairstyles. Among her things she found a lace doily given to her by the artist Miriam Schapiro, who used to show at my gallery, and it turned out that the doily made a very good hat for Tacy (perhaps not in Tacy’s opinion). All of us curled up on Avery’s bed and I read aloud from Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, and we drank countless glasses of Sprite and apple juice, and then I realized I had a pot of chicken stock in the refrigerator, or rather a pot of chicken bones that had simmered in salted water and only needed to be made into soup. This is pitifully simple to do, practically free, and there is nothing more comforting. After simmering, the bones in their water can sit in the fridge overnight, and then the layer of fat that solidifies on top can be skimmed off, the water brought to a boil again, poured through a strainer into another pot, and any good chicken bits left in the strainer returned to the broth. Check to see if it needs salt (it will), and voila. Homemade chicken soup. Of course, to this simple soup you could add carrots, onions, turnips, parsley, almost anything. But Avery likes her soup plain. Believe you me, it perked her up considerably. But not enough to allow her to go to Anna’s for the planned afternoon and evening, during which John and I were meant to go to school for the Early Year Meeting of Form V parents with Mrs D, so he stayed home with her and I headed to school for another of those sessions that makes me feel entirely inadequate as a parent.
Honestly, the level of seriousness that is applied to these girls and their education (or more to the point, their achievement on the all-important senior school admissions exam next January) boggles the mind. I really am a slacker mother at heart, and luckily have been blessed with an almost entirely self-motivated child, because I have a really hard time buckling down to the importance of homework, the centrality of the PE kit, and most awful, the eventuality of leaving King’s College for someplace even more achievement– orientated (I love how the English add that extra “ated” to the word). I remember my own education as a rather lowkey affair, and certainly not involving my parents to a great degree, although I could be wrong about that. Of course my mother drove me to swim practice, they attended musicals in which I had some lame part, had my friends over for sleepovers, read my report cards (“Kristen is a nice little girl but she talks too much”). As far as I can remember, my parents’ interaction with people in authority was entirely limited to a visit by my father to the principal of my 5th grade, when I was caught swinging on the girls’ bathroom door bars when I was supposed to be in French class. But I don’t recall a lot of thought or planning going into my education as a process. I think we just went to school. It’s a whole different ball game here.
All of us parents crowded into the music room at school, had glasses of wine or water pressed into our nervous hands, and made small talk while waiting for Mrs D to be ready. She and the Form Teacher, a divine lady called Miss L, quickly got us in line and the meeting began. Such matters were discussed as the importance of our children learning the 24-hour clock, drilling the multiplication tables, parsing sentences at the speed of light, and most crucial, buckling down to homework. No more mid-week playdates. These gulls will be sent home with homework on at least two subjects per day, sometimes three, and my word, the supervision it’s meant to require amazes me! Currently my supervision of Avery’s homework consists of trying to make sure Tacy doesn’t eat it, given her proclivity towards ingesting any and all bits of paper around the house. But Mrs D is very concerned that the gulls not be allowed to “faff about” when they’re meant to be memorizing 9 times 9 and where Northern Ireland is on the map. It never occurred to me that Avery would be inclined to faff! I don’t think she is. But I’ve got to take this mother thing more seriously. I immediately feel about 9 years old myself in situations that involve women in authority.
All the language is so different, as well. We are at the beginning of the “Michaelmas” term, a word I’d always associated with daisies (why? I have no idea) which turns out to refer to the festival day of St. Michael on September 29, and has been generally extended in the academic sphere to mean “autumn”. Much was made of the division of class into the “A” group and the “Alpha” group, separating the children into faster-learning and slower-learning groups, and how important it was not to turn this into a value judgment. I wonder what the gulls themselves make of the distinction, and what happens to children like Avery who can spell anything under the sun but can’t remember from one day to the next how much is 9 times 9. Poor child, inheriting my completely skewed abilities. Also apparently there is something called “study skills” that will require some hired outside expert to explain to the children. This has not happened yet, and we parents are not to worry about it… yet. What can these skills be, if the kids haven’t learned them already? We were warned off the notion of hiring what in America would be called a tutor but here is called a coach, which is sort of a relief because I wouldn’t know where to begin.
Avery told me that she had to work on her “resting smile,” because Miss L wants them to look cheerful as they work. Left to her own devices, Avery’s resting expression looks like she is about to be run through with a sharp object, or has been already and is in shock from loss of blood. She looks very, very serious. We call it her “pony face,” a look of utter concentration. Under Miss L’s tutelage, however, a more friendly expression is to be desired. “She explained it like this: would she rather look out at us and see happy children, or gloomy children?” I can’t imagine anyone less gloomy than Miss L, but this does not translate into light-hearted at all. Rather, she has the demeanor of someone in her element, someone who has a very clear notion of what life is about and is perfectly capable of transferring this knowledge to a bunch of 9-year-olds. It should be an interesting year.
In May they will all go for five days to the Isle of Wight! Properly chaperoned of course, for a sort of Outward Bound experience called PGL, named for the founder’s three initials, but the gulls call it “Parents Get Lost.” This is intended to help them bond as a class, I suppose to counteract the reality that they are all competing for what sounds like about four spots in all these posh senior schools. Ah well, a good attitude is what’s important, no?
I came home in the bloomy twilight, feeling overwhelmed. But John seems to feel everything is under control. Our next move is to have a meeting with Mrs D herself, in her intimidating Private Study, to assess what sort of school would be right for Avery. I think she’ll lose interest in us when it turns out we’re not considering boarding school! The three schools that sound like possibilities are Godolphin and Latymer, where one of Erin’s girls goes, City of London School for Girls, and St. Paul’s School for Girls. Miss Leslie told me that St. Paul’s has a curriculum like a university, for 11-year-olds. Does that sound like Avery? I can’t decide. Maybe home schooling is best. Sigh.
I admit it: I’ve always felt a bit smug about Christmas Eve. About not waiting to shop until then, I mean. My packages are always under the tree and I’m happily making oyster stew, while other, presumably less organised, people are frantically making their way to the shops for last-minute gift items. There is something of desperation in their quest, and they know they have only themselves to blame.
Yesterday was my comeuppance.
Avery discovered late Sunday evening that her school shoes, the lovely navy blue Mary Jane Start-Rites that were her pride and joy in January, are too small. For some reason this announcement did not fill me with horror as it should have. I merely said, “Oh, we’ll pick some up tomorrow.” As in First Day of School Eve. What was I thinking? I collected her from her playdate with Anna, and Becky intimated that there might conceivably be a problem with finding shoes at the last minute. “You know, I heard John Lewis is completely out of anything between a size 13 and a 2. Amy did call me though to say she had seen some at Trotters, or maybe in the Kings Road.” It had come to this. REPORTED SIGHTINGS of shoes. Pure gossip. So I thought, let’s just head to John Lewis anyway, school uniform nirvana, and at least order a pair. At least we can find out exactly what size she is and then even go online. Sure.
We made our way through the hot and even (for English people) rude crowds up to the 4th Floor, past the toys, infantwear, Schoolwear, whatever, into the Children’s Shoe Department, where all hell had apparently officially broken loose. There were untold numbers of children, disgruntled at the end of their school holidays, their intractable younger siblings all melting into whatever happens to younger siblings at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, their harrassed and sweaty mothers losing tempers and taking away precious playthings as punishment. There were hundreds of mateless shoes, mostly of the black and blue description, all plainly destined to accompany school uniforms the NEXT DAY. And there wasn’t even that bit of excitement in the air that might be there on Christmas Eve. All these mothers were spending all this money on stuff their kids didn’t want, for school that no one wanted to have begin!
So we queued up for the awful Judgment-Day sort of machine into which you enter your needs and then wait for a piece of paper to spit out on which is specified how long it will take to have your needs fulfilled. There was a Draconian fascination to the process, though: how many children, male or female, how many pairs of shoes, special widths? We were told that it would take 58 minutes for our number, “93J,” to be reached, and for someone to help us. It sounded like the knell of doom. And then the lady behind me said, “You know, the shop shuts at 6.” NO! That was a bald-faced lie, it turned out, but worth a good two minutes’ agony. So we sat. And watched the chaos. I began to count the number of minutes it would take Avery to have a bath when we got home, and to calculate the likelihood that I could also get dinner ready in that period of time. Many children tried to climb over those little hilly pieces of carpeted furniture where the feet being measured are meant to go, and fell off, resulting in tears, blame, more sibling rage. And the numbering system! When I heard “95J” bellowed out I got all incensed, thinking we had been passed over, but it turned out that before “95J” was “44N,” and after that was “23Y.” What? You couldn’t even get yourself excited to watch the numbers count down like at the DMV. It was all completely random, and as such completely infuriating.
I amused myself with the various speech patterns and accents of the salespeople who called out the numbers. One lady whispered her numbers in a tone that only dogs can hear, and was visibly heartened every time she said, “Last Call, 61P,” or whatever, and no one answered. Then she could go on to the next number. I never saw her help anyone. Then there was the guy from Dickens who kept repeating, “Furty-free haitch, furty-free haitch,” and I thought I would explode. Finally it was our turn. I surrendered my hot sweaty little scrap of proof that I was in fact “93J.” Avery had nearly fallen asleep on my lap. The salesman measured her little feet laboriously, announcing with sinister delight that her left foot was slightly larger than her right. “We will go with the larger size,” he intoned. What a strategy. He crept off and we held hands like children in a forest. What would he bring out? He came out of a faraway closet staggering under a huge pile of boxes. What riches! We would even have a choice! But box after box was opened to reveal shoes with purple flowers, with pink heels, black shoes, shoes in the wrong size. Nothing was right. There was not a size 1 1/2, width F, Navy Blue Rumba Mary Jane to be had. Other mothers were snatching away the rejected shoes, ready to compromise on anything just to get out of the store. We consoled ourselves that we had at least achieved that one thing: her size. We can still hope.
Maybe they’ll be in her stocking tomorrow morning?
But the first day of Form Five went swimmingly! Despite the awfulness of short shoes and the wrong color hair thingys, she was accepted at the door of King’s College Preparatory School and went in with her friends. Lots of parental kissing outside the door and exchanges of high-pitched reports on summer holidays. Now, normally I try to achieve a completely anti-social, silent, creepaway sort of dropoff, but not today. I am actually so glad to have friends, real friends, that I didn’t mind that they expected to be talked to at 8:15 a.m. I wonder what I said?