How to eat like an Italian—and still wear Italian

Laura Fraser, author of The Risotto Guru teaches us how to eat like an Italian.

TheRisottoGuruOne of the greatest pleasures of visiting Italy, of course, is the food. My new book, The Risotto Guru (Shebooks), contains essays on my most memorable food adventures in Italy—a Sardinian wedding feast, meeting a risotto master in Piedmont, learning to taste wine in Chianti, discovering the most flavorful island cuisine. Every time I leave Italy, I’m puzzled about how Italians manage to love food so much, eat with so much pleasure, and rarely worry about their weight. How do they manage to eat Italian and wear Italian designers? Here’s what I’ve learned from my years as a dedicated Italophile:

  1. Italians don’t eat between meals.
    Italians approach meals with ceremony, and don’t just grab handfuls of nuts or crackers every time they pass the kitchen, as many of us do. We graze and feel unsatisfied; they sit down at meals, eat until they’re full, and don’t need to eat again until the next meal. While the American snack culture is starting to infect Italy, most Italians don’t snack.
  2. Sit down to meals and eat them with other people.
    Eating is a social activity in Italy. Sit down and enjoy food in the context of conversation and spending time with others. Eat slowly; enjoy the food and the company.
  3. Never eat at your desk.
    If you don’t go home for lunch, go to a restaurant, or eat a home-prepared meal somewhere other than your desk.
  1. Never drink a cappuccino after 10:00. Coffee drinks with milk are only for breakfast. You will never find an adult Italian drinking a cappuccino after 10:00, and most certainly never after a meal. It’s straight espresso, or perhaps “macchiato,” with a little spot of milk, for those who have to have some.
  2. Eat only fresh ingredients.
    Most Italians eat very few processed foods—except, of course, the pasta. They’re incredibly picky about the freshest fruits, vegetables, fish, and meat, as well as the highest-quality olive oil. They would rather not eat than eat a microwaved Hot Pocket for breakfast. Which brings me to…
  3. Italians barely eat breakfast, or anything, until 2:00.
    We’re taught that a big breakfast is healthy, and prepares you for the day. Italians somehow survive on a coffee and croissant until late lunch, the big meal of the day. Some of them sneak in a yogurt. But they manage to get a lot done on coffee.
  4. Lunch is the big meal of the day.
    Italians take time for lunch. They go home for lunch. It’s the main event of the day, with several courses. They eat a light breakfast and a light dinner, which allows them room for an antipasto, primi (the pasta course), secondo (the meat course) and contorni (side vegetable dishes). Followed, of course, by an espresso.
  5. Portions are small.
    Italians may eat pasta nearly every day, but in much smaller quantities than we are used to in restaurants here. They eat, at most, a cup of pasta on a plate, with sauce. Unless they have celiac disease, they don’t shy away from gluten. But everything is in moderate quantities.
  6. Dessert is rare.
    Gelato and tiramisu may be some of the first things to come to mind when we think of Italian food, but Italians don’t have a sweet tooth (excepting the Sicilians). They rarely eat dessert, and when they do, it’s most often a piece of fruit. Gelato is an occasional summer treat, and a heavy dessert like tiramisu is for a special occasion.
  7. Never put grated cheese on a pasta with fish.
    Just take my word for it—they will look at you in horror if you ask for grated cheese on your seafood pasta.

A Look at “Almost Her”

What’s it like to be the identical twin of a celebrity? Here’s an excerpt from Caroline Paul’s Almost Her. Buy it here.

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January 1966 – first look at their baby brother Jonathan.

Initially, Alexandra and I exhibited all the signs of being identical. We had our own language, arunic babbling that our parents heard from the next room and which stopped when they entered. We called each other by my name, Caroline, supposedly because I could not pronounce Alexandra. We looked very much alike. But we also fought (Alexandra could not be seated behind me in the stroller because she pulled my hair, and in the crib she took to sitting on me when she felt like it.) Early on, Alexandra was the more precocious one, I more shy. Baby photos are easily deciphered because her mouth was always open, mid-babble or laugh, while I stared at her or at the camera like a marmot caught in the beam of a flashlight, baffled and resigned. And so it was pre-ordained: Alexandra had the makings of an actress, and I was already comfortable with the fleeting attention due a fake celebrity.

 

family4

June 1999- at a gay rights parade.

Here are the questions I am most often asked:
Are you and your twin close? Yes.
Do you look alike? Sort of.
Do you have ESP powers? Not sure.
Are there any strange coincidences? I rescue people in real life while Alexandra rescues people
on television. That’s pretty strange.
Have you ever fallen in love with the same person? I’m gay, she’s straight, so no.

 

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1992- Caroline and Alexandra in their work clothes, LA beach.

But there was always a moment, in the time between the initial recognition and my demurral,
that I felt famous. I heard the wonder in the voice of the person before me, saw the awe in their eyes, was awash with their adulation and hope. Did I like it? Of course! I was living, if only
momentarily, the stuff of the American Dream. I was given free drinks at bars (again, no one inquired), better service at restaurants, solicitous attention in stores. This continued to amaze me – celebrities are the last to need anything extra. And yet I accepted it all. It was so damn fun (meanwhile, I wait for the day when I hear a waiter say to someone at the back table, “You’re a regular joe? A person of no repute? By golly, you deserve a comped lemon meringue pie.”) I was hugged by Dan Akroyd. I was kissed by Ray Liotta (when he realized I was not Alexandra, he stammered, stuttered, apologized, and fled.) After a trip to New York City I returned home to find photos of me posted on a celebrity site. I had had no idea that I was being followed by a paparazzi. There I was reading on a bench. There I was walking along the sidewalk. There I was making a funny face. These mundane movements, suddenly endowed with sparkling import!
It was amusing.
It was creepy.

 

Marion Winik: “I’m bad at resisting temptation of any kind but fortunately I don’t like sweets.” | Q&A

MarionWinik_webCUMeet popular essayist and former NPR commentator Marion Winik, author of the Shebooks August in Paris and Guesswork. In this fun get-to-know-you session Winik shows off her love of language, her quirky sense of humor…and a secret talent, to boot.

Do you currently have a job other than writing? What’s the most interesting day job you’ve had?

I teach at the University of Baltimore in the MFA program; I’ve been teaching writing to undergraduates and graduates for the last 15 years. In the ’80s and ’90s, I wrote technical manuals for a software company, and that job, though it may not sound interesting to everyone, was fun and challenging. I had the chance to work with a great group of people at the beginning of the tech boom—I had the very first Macintosh on my desk the day it came out.

Tech writing taught me the discipline I needed to be a writer. Before that, I really thought the whole career involved scribbling brilliant insights on napkins in bars at 3 a.m. As you can imagine, that only goes so far. To write 400-page manuals, you put your ass in the chair early and keep it there late and you type all day long and you certainly don’t bother waiting for inspiration. I’m not saying my work ethic is anything close to that now, but I definitely learned the basic procedures involved in producing a literary oeuvre comprising more than a few phrases.

I also worked for Stanley Kaplan test prep company for many years—I helped write and teach the SAT and LSAT courses at the New York headquarters and recorded tapes that were used in the centers around the country, and eventually I taught for them in Austin and New Orleans, too. Stanley Kaplan and his wife, Rita, were very much on the scene in those days; he was a character. He reminded me of my father, who was always giving you math problems and brainteasers and teaching you shortcuts for multiplying four-digit numbers and such.

What’s an odd fact about you that not many people know?

I am an extreme Jewish mother, very doting and nurturing, cooking all the time, stuffing everyone’s faces, waiting on people hand and foot. People don’t expect me to be domestic.

Also, I am apparently much shorter than people expect me to be—I’m not sure why this is. I’m five-foot-three or five-three-and-a-half so it’s not like I’m teeny-weeny but I guess I somehow give the impression in my writing of being a towering giant. This is an especially common comment from people who used to listen to me on NPR or have heard on me on the radio now. Must be my big, deep voice.

Another funny thing is that people claim I often look totally different than I looked some other time they saw me and this can cause hilarious situations. The other night I had a guest speaker in my class; I invited her based on a great performance she did at my daughter’s elementary school. She kept asking me about this other storyteller we had seen. I didn’t know what she was talking about; finally she said, you know, the middle-aged white woman who told stories about dating. What? “Hey,” I told her, “that was me.” She was incredulous. “Were you wearing a hat?” No…maybe a little eyeliner. Apparently for me that’s a complete disguise.

What is your favorite word right now?

 This morning I got my A.Word.A.Day email—I love these emails; they come every weekday from Wordsmith.org—and learned that the word spoof comes from a card game invented by a comedian in the 1880s. I love that! I am crazy about words and have many favorites. Once I was quite excited about using prelapsarian in an essay. I love to read lists of patois and slang: Jamaican, Yiddish, the Urban Dictionary, anything.

What or who inspires you most?

My children. Having kids saved my life and keeps me going. I am very close with all of them—Hayes, 26, Vince, 23, and Jane, 13.  Motherhood is a never-ending inspiration for writing, because everything is always changing, not just when your kids are small but at every phase of life.

How do you think your racial/ethnic/religious identity has influenced your writing?

I think there is an American-Jewish voice in writing, a slant on things and a type of humor, that might be the strongest real Jewish influence on me of any kind, since I was raised by agnostics who passed on only the worship of bagels and smoked fish. Discovering the work of Philip Roth and Grace Paley meant a lot to me.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I have a column at the website BaltimoreFishbowl.com that comes out every three weeks and I write book reviews for Newsday and Kirkus Reviews. I don’t have a big book project going or anything but if one comes to me, I’ll be thrilled.

Aside from writing, do you have any other secret talents?

Let me start with some things I am not so good at. I am not good at walking and I fall down a lot, so as you can imagine I also suck at sports. I’m not so great at driving, either. I never remember to moisturize and am not skilled at putting on makeup. I’m bad at resisting temptation of any kind but fortunately I don’t like sweets. I don’t have much patience. I am not much of a gardener.
On the plus side, I can do a nice, long headstand.

Do you have a thought that you’d like to end with?

From William Saroyan: The most solid advice…for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.

Want smart and funny? Download Guesswork, Marion Winik’s irresistible collection of essays, only from Shebooks!

Originally published May 2014

Six Things To Know About Travel With Children

AugustinParisAugust in Paris sounds like the title of a delightful, romantic movie, but for Marion Winik, Paris wasn’t delightful or romantic. What it was, was stressful and chaotic because when you’re traveling with your entire family that’s usually the way things go for mom.

Thinking of heading out on your own family adventure? Marion has six things you should know before you go.

  1. The term “family travel” is an oxymoron.

What you see if you visit Chichen Itza with your children in tow is the same thing you see in Ocho Rios or Epcot Center: the exotic crushed relentlessly under the heel of the mundane.

  1. Think carefully before including your mother-in-law.

Though I have neither superpowers nor a signature form-fitting costume, I do have something in common with comic book heroes. I have a historic nemesis. Mine is a seventy-two-year-old Italian lady from Philadelphia.

  1. You need not accompany the children on every slide in the waterpark.

Jane spent the next three days imitating my pitiful scream as I went over the edge — less a woo-hoo! than the sort of plea for mercy once heard at the Spanish Inquisition.

  1. The Mayans cannot help you.

Marion Winik FamilyDay Six found me in a snit. I’d broken a fifty-five year ban on organized travel to travel to Peru with my daughter’s seventh grade class and I’d begun to remember why I might not like such a trip. I also remembered that I was not all that interested in ruins or the brutish ancient civilizations behind them.

  1. As your children will tell you, everything that goes wrong is your fault.

There is a reason these things happen to me and not other people, people who lock their doors and use fanny packs when abroad and don’t take their passports out of the hotel. My son Vince has kindly called it an “aura of vulnerability.”

  1. When you finally get away without them you are at a total loss.

I remember standing in the grocery store in Georgia befuddled. What did I like to eat? I had no idea. I was pretty sure it wasn’t Hot Pockets or sliced orange cheese.

One last thing before you go; add Marion’s collection of family travel essays, ‘August in Paris’ to your phone or tablet. Then, when you’re stuck in a two-hour line for that roller coaster that flips you upside down, you’ll have something to read. Misery does love company after all.

Snapshots from a Tangier Love Story

Images from Author Carol Ardman and excerpts from her book Tangier Love Story.

New York 1972 Carol

Carol in New York, 1972

An unexpected meeting. . .

Sitting across from me, in the quiet shade of a leafy café on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, Paul Bowles ordered two mint teas. He asked me how I liked Tangier. Honeybees hummed around the rims of our glasses and I felt shy as I told him how I wandered for hours, enjoyed getting lost, how much I liked the street life here, the architecture, the food and the music. This obviously pleased him. He seemed to want to know all about me, and he was so easy to talk to, so receptive, so casual and sympathetic I found myself telling him. I had been married and divorced, I said, trying not to let on how depressed I still felt, though the relationship had ended the winter before. Incredibly, he had heard of my ex-husband, the composer Steve Reich, though he had only recently become well known. “A CW—composer’s wife; that’s what Janie has always called herself,” Paul said, making the designation sound oppressed, ironic, and comic all at once. Then he explained he wrote music as well as words.

Traveling like a native. . .

Carol on Camel

Carol on a camel holding Jane Bowles’ typewriter

We drove south, staying a couple of days in the intense, medieval city of Fez, on to Rabat, the capital of Morocco, Casablanca with its wide tree-lined boulevards, staying in nice hotels for a song. We drove to Marrakech, where we saw scribes, note-carrying doves, and a cigarette- smoking donkey in the Jemaa el Fnaa, and down, across moon mountains, where for a whole day we saw no animal or human, except for a man on a camel far away on the top of a cliff. When we had a flat tire we knew Abdulouhaid had to fix it quickly, because we had no food or water and could die before help came.

The writer’s muse. . . 

Carol and Paul in Atlanta, 1994

Carol and Paul in Atlanta, 1994

Paul set up his typewriter and wrote in the morning on the patio of a little hotel near the desert village of Taroudant. I remember being elated by the sights of the Sahara and the mere thought of Paul there tapping out words. Feeling I was taking Jane’s spirit with me, I strolled down the hill to the country market, noisy with camels and people selling silver jewelry and cloth. A few days later in an oasis out of the Arabian Nights, white-robed men reputed to be Sharifs—descendants of Mohammed —welcomed us to their village, its green fields bordered by babbling brooks and shaded by date palms.

Paul was changing my life, but I could trust him to carefully see to my well-being. I felt so undeserving of attention and praise, it was a long time before I considered the possibility that I made Paul as happy as he made me.

Tangier Love Story is available for download at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

  Enter to win a collection of Shebooks in our Life, Love and Risotto Giveaway.

 

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Rosemarie Robotham: “The greatest risk every writer takes is to tell the truth”

Rosemarie Robotham, author of the Shebook memoir Jamaica Dreams—a story about first love and a forgotten youth in tumultuous 1970s Jamaica—shares the ups and downs of her writing process.

JamaicaDreamsWhat prompted you to write Jamaica Dreams?

I wrote most of Jamaica Dreams right after I got back from my most recent trip to Jamaica in January. My mother was very frail, my uncle had died, and all the family had gathered for his memorial service. I had lived abroad in New York City for more than 30 years, and there were cousins and old school friends whom I had not seen since leaving home at 18 to attend college. It was an extraordinary gift to discover that the bonds you make in a shared childhood can outlast decades of no contact. I cannot even begin to express how grateful I am for that. But to meet so many people from one’s past after years of absence is very much like confronting your former self. Suddenly, the hidden girl I was before leaving home was once again visible to me. Being in that place, with those particular people, unlocked something in me, a sense of who I used to be. It felt as if a lost piece of me had been rediscovered and could finally be reclaimed.

Are there any themes, characters or imagery that you find recurring in your writing? What are they and what is their origin?

The last house I lived in before leaving Kingston to attend Barnard College in New York City has definitely become a central character in my own personal narrative. That house on Paddington Terrace sheltered everything, the sprawl and tumble of my family, the secret teenage infatuations, the cousins and friends who moved in with us for months at a time (so that the neighbors across the street at first thought we were a boardinghouse), the barefoot walks with teenage friends up and down the baking asphalt, the twilight conversations just outside the front gates, spun out as long as we could before our parents finally called us in; all of it settled in me like so many shimmering fragments that have found, in this story, a permanent home.

When did you first decide you were a writer?

robotham-photo-300x400I didn’t publicly own the title until I got my first book published in the mid-’90s, but I certainly knew from the time I was a little girl hiding in my room writing stories that it was the activity that most excited and filled me. Even so, I actually started out in college as a studio art major. But I was taking writing classes as well, and they were more thrilling than anything else I was doing. So I switched gears and became an English major with a writing concentration. That was when I started secretly to think of myself as a writer.

Do you have an imaginary reader you write for? Who is it?

The quick answer is not really, because I could not begin to write if I let myself think about how a reader might respond to what I am struggling to express. I pretend, while I am writing, that no one will ever read these words; it is the only way I can be completely honest and fearless in the writing. But afterward, when I am done, at some point I will read what I have written trying to imagine my mother’s response to it. In that sense, she is my imaginary reader. I don’t change what I’ve written if I imagine a viscerally negative response from her; I just want to know I have to brace for it. But you know, my mother has turned out to be my most generous reader. She is 92 now, and somehow she has always found a way to expand her understanding of her only daughter to accommodate whatever I might write. And I always felt if my mother could deal with it, then it didn’t matter who could not.

What’s the greatest risk you’ve taken in your writing?

The greatest risk every writer takes is to tell the truth, especially the deepest, most difficult emotional truths. That’s what makes it all worth it, though. That’s what sets you free.

Have you ever written anything personal that you thought would upset people close to you? Have you ever shied away from writing something because someone you know might read it?

In Jamaica Dreams, I wrote about my father’s drinking, which was not something I thought I would ever put in the public square. My father died 18 years ago. He was my life’s best example of goodness and integrity and an impeccable work ethic. He achieved much in his life, even being knighted by the Queen of England for his work as a jurist. This was the face most people saw, but I knew this private struggle he’d had during my growing-up years. It has always been so compelling to me that my father, this towering figure, had this very human struggle, and don’t we all? I really did think my outing my dad’s battle with alcohol like that would upset my family. But I wrote the story anyway, because the way he waged that war, the example he set for me, would give me the tools to reset my course when my own life threatened to be derailed. He showed me how.

What advice do you have for an aspiring writer who is just starting out?

Keep a journal. Start a blog. Write every day. Write about what terrifies you. Write as if no one is ever going to read your words. Listen to how people talk. Tell your story. Tell other people’s stories. Dare.

Want to be swept away in lush stories about new love, family ties and forgotten youth? Read Rosemarie Robotham’s short memoir Jamaica Dreams, only at Shebooks!

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The Soundtrack to Your Life: Lesley Gore’s Birthday Wishes, by Marianne Lonsdale

JimandLesley

Lesley Gore with the author’s brother, Jim

The word dork may have been invented to describe my older brother Jim.  He often hated himself for being weird but at the same could not contain his quirky interests.  Like being the Northern California Vice President of the Lesley Gore Fan Club.  He drove our father nuts. “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows moved up five spaces on the Billboard charts this week,” my fourteen-year-old brother gushed. I didn’t raise my head but let my eyes sneak a look at my father.  Didn’t he care that Dad would start yelling any minute?  Jim’s inability to keep his mouth shut fascinated and horrified me. Jim reached for the mashed potatoes.  Dad didn’t look up from his newspaper.   He was clueless about to what to do with a son who preferred Lesley Gore to playing baseball. “Stop chattering about that stupid singer,” my father yelled.  “Nobody cares about her.”  He slammed his fork on the table.  “Could you at least read the first page of the sports section?  Then you’d have something to talk to guys about!” Dad stormed into the living room carrying his wineglass and jug of Red Mountain Wine.   He flopped down in his easy chair and turned on the TV.  Dad ridiculed anybody and anything he didn’t understand.  The relationship between my father and Jim remained cantankerous as we journeyed through adulthood.

****

I could hear the stereo blasting “It’s My Party” from the street, before I stepped into my brother’s front yard.   I had to hand it to my brother – he was one loyal fan.  Who would have guessed that when he was forty-four he’d still be hot for Lesley Gore? The door to Jim’s cottage stood open.  He sat on the couch, hunched over a notebook, pencil in hand.  Cigarette smoke clouded the living room. “Hey, Sis,” he said.  “Glad you could make it.  Long time since we celebrated Lesley’s birthday together.” He raised a tumbler from the coffee table.  White cream floated above a dark liquid.  His favorite drink, a White Russian – kahlua with vodka and a splash of cream.  A slight slur to his words told me Jim had already toasted Lesley more than once today. “How about I make you a drink?”  Jim winked. “Sure.” I steered clear of Jim most of the time.  His drinking depressed me.  The only time he’d admit he needed anybody’s help was on the telephone at three in the morning.  After a fight with his boyfriend.  I’d stopped answering those middle of the night calls. “What song do you want to hear?” Jim asked, handing me my drink. “How about ‘You Don’t Own Me’?” “Great choice,” Jim said. “Just let me write the title on today’s list, and I’ll play it.” “Do you still keep your music charts?” I asked. Jim used to list in a notebook the songs that he played each day.  He calculated his weekly, monthly and annual top ten.  I had no idea he was still at it. “Yeah,” he said.  He rolled his blue green eyes upwards and smiled.  “Silly, but I enjoy it.” That’s Jim, honest about so much.  He didn’t try to hide who he was.  He’d be embarrassed but he wasn’t hiding.  I loved that about him.

****

I don’t know the details of my brother getting clean and sober.  Odd, because I’d propped my brother up for so many years, but I’d backed away during his last years of speed and alcohol.  When he finally reached out for help, he was still pissed at me for abandoning him. Even odder is that he did reach out to our dad.  Dad, sober for twenty years when Jim called him, jumped right in with support. Going to AA meetings together became routine for Jim and Dad.  The change in their relationship was miraculous.

****

My brother celebrated his second year of sobriety with a trip to Las Vegas to see Lesley Gore perform.  I spoke with Dad on the phone a few days after Jim’s return. “Have you talked to your brother since he got back from Vegas?” Dad asked. “No, did he have a good time?” “You gotta talk to him,” Dad said.  “He’s so wound up. He talked to Lesley Gore after the show.  She remembered him from the fan club days.  Jim is flying like a kite.” A happy Jim is irrepressible.  His enthusiasm used to drive Dad nuts. “I’m tickled for him,” Dad finished.  “But you gotta hear the story from Jim.” I hung up the phone, stunned to hear Dad excited about a Lesley Gore sighting.  I sure had underestimated his capacity for change.

****

Jim’s fiftieth birthday was his first that he looked forward to sharing with our father.  My parents planned a birthday dinner at their home. They hit on an idea to write to Lesley Gore, to tell her of the upcoming birthday.  Lesley replied with a lovely handwritten letter to Jim, care of my parents. Her note arrived four days before Jim’s birthday.  Dad could not wait that long.  He called Jim and asked to meet at the Starbucks in downtown Oakland.  Mom and Dad rode BART for the several miles from Daly City to San Francisco, then through the underwater tube that goes under the bay, and emerged in Oakland. The three of them had just sat down at an outdoor table when my father took the letter from his coat pocket.  He handed it to Jim.  Dad’s lower lip quivered. “Oh, my god,” my brother said, spotting the return address label that read L. Gore. Jim slid the letter from the envelope, read Lesley’s birthday wishes and her thank-you for all his years of support. “I don’t believe it,” Jim shouted.  He rose to his feet.  “I got a letter from Lesley Gore.” Jim called me as soon as he returned home, shouting out every word in the letter. My seventy-two year old father had made the leap from refusing to accept a son who didn’t fit any mold he recognized to being happy that his son was happy.   He’d moved to a place of unconditional love and taken Jim with him. Mission accomplished, letter delivered, my parents finished their coffee and headed back to the BART station.   Who would have guessed that my father would end up using Lesley Gore to celebrate the life of his son?  Jim and my father hugged good-bye.  They both cried, having traveled much further than a round trip from Daly City to Oakland.   Marianne Lonsdale writes personal essays and short stories, and is developing a novel. Her work has been published in the San Francisco ChronicleLiterary MamaFiction365The Sun, and Pulse. She is a founding member of Write On Mamas, a San Francisco Bay Area writers group.

How I Lost My Best Friend, by Lynn Lauber

get-attachment copy 2My best friend P and I are standing on the corner of Rice Avenue and Allentown Road on this day in 1967, discussing despair and possible suicide—two of our common topics.  A car careens around the corner, filled with the blonde heads of high-school boys who are the cause of our malaise in the first place – thick necked, feckless, their pink and white mouths always open with jeers, catcalls, and absolute power.  We ignore their taunts and deftly sidestep their car’s path as we continue our conversation.  For all our talk, dying isn’t really in our plans. It’s part of our song and dance routine; it’s a feature of our being best friends.

If I’d signaled otherwise, P might have followed me out into the road and to our doom.  I’m the dominant one, not that we speak of such things.  But I definitely run the show, this dance between us–so unlike the real ones we’d never be caught dead attending—the proms and homecomings and other sanctioned events.

Instead, that night we’re at the Rodeway Motor Lodge off Route 61, in bed with young men who my grandmother would call “dusky” after she got  up from her faint on the floor.

I’ve talked P into coming here because my current boyfriend, the tyrannical Miles, said his friend was in town and needed a girl.

So P is with a long lanky youth named Langdon who she’s never met before and will surely never see again.  We both have worn our maxi skirts, knee high boots and vinyl coats for this outing – we could be walk-ons in a budget version of Superfly if someone nearby were filming, if 1972 still weren’t still in the future.  We think we look grand.

As I lie there staring at the ceiling, I hear a faint thump on the other side of the plywood wall, which must be P’s head against the bedframe –a kind of desperate communication.

What is she trying to convey with this rhythmic pounding?  I close my eyes at the thought and slip back into the shallow center of myself.   

I use P; we both know this–especially for her Pontiac Tempest, commodious as a sofa, which I need for illicit visits with Miles.  I need her for fake slumber party locations, counterfeit mother’s signatures, to make calls for me in the middle of the night.

In turn, she is my apprentice in deception, pancake makeup, crash diets.

She is pink and petite with owl -like glasses that frequently fog.   Each winter we drive to Florida long enough to burn our skins a deep maroon, then speed back in order to glean attention for our remarkable, temporary bronzeness. (This is my idea, as are all others.)

We are 16, 17, then 18; finally we can escape our hometown.  P follows me to Columbus where I attend college, though she can’t afford classes herself.

We live together in a brick turn-of –the- century apartment, where roaches dance around the gas ring and fall from the ceiling into our hair.

I read Sartre, while P works in a Fotomat—a bathroomless booth in the middle of a parking lot.  She brings home photos of other people’s vacations that we laugh over at night.

We visit Planned Parenthood and carry pink disks of birth control pills in our macramé bags.  We can officially sleep with anyone now.  After so many years, we are free.

A student who lives in an apartment above us finally snags my heart; he’s unlike any type we’ve known before. He skis and drives a sports car; there are country clubs in his background.  He likes P, too, and we all go out together for fried pork tenderloin sandwiches and Marx Brothers’ double features.  We are a threesome, though they each are separately mine

The wind shifts; we are 19.  I learn about continental plates and how to spell Moliere; P works at Budget Meats and brings home half-priced liver.

One holiday weekend, I have to go home alone; leaving P and the boyfriend to their own devices.

When I walk into the apartment after my return, I know what happened; P runs water in the sink and won’t meet my eye.

I expect the boyfriend to deny it, but that P does is the clincher.

“You can’t lie to me,” I scream at her.  “I’m the one who taught you how!”

This is how I lose my best friend.

I could say it was because of a man, but I can’t make myself believe it.

It was me, it was me. It was me, all along.

 

Lynn Lauber’s most recent book is Listen to Me, Writing Life into Meaning (WW Norton); her essay, “When One of Me Became Three,” was published in the NYT’s Modern Love.

 

 

 

BFF–Then and Now, by Deborah Carroll

Debby head shot

Ellen was everything 16-year-old me wanted in a best friend. She was fun, smart, skinny, and never without a string of guys lusting after her. Occasionally, she’d push one in my direction. I trusted her: she was perfect.

So I ignored the warning signs of her imperfections and mine, I guess.

When Gail who sat in front of me in English class turned around one day and whispered that Ellen had been speaking ill of me behind my back, I dismissed her message. I liked Gail and knew her to be pretty down to earth but I chalked her warning off to jealousy.

When I saw Ellen had scrawled “SKINNY 8s” in lipstick on her bedroom mirror, motivating her to get her weight to 88 pounds, I looked the other way and pretended that wasn’t weird or scary.

When I broke up with my boyfriend because I just wasn’t feeling it with him and told him we’d make better friends than lovers and she started dating him a week later without checking with me, I told myself it wasn’t a betrayal.

We chose to room together at college. That’s when alarm bells blared too loudly to be ignored. Our common boyfriend, still her actual boyfriend at the time, was also at our school. Back in those stone-age days otherwise known as the time before cell phones, we shared a hall phone for four rooms. From about Day One, the time it took for Ellen to meet a new guy, she’d give me instructions on what to say when the phone rang. “If Harry calls, tell him I’m at the library,” she’d say when she was actually in the boys’ dorm across the courtyard with Dave. “If Dave calls,” she’d say when she was with Jim, “tell him I’m shopping on College Ave.”

The problem was not just that I was lying to these guys, all of whom were my friends. The problem was Ellen was instructing me to lie to my friends. It made me wonder: Would my friend Ellen lie to me?

I watched her lie to other girls as she fabricated stories about her life. I watched her tell lies about how much she ate, sometimes lying to herself, as she would talk about how little she ate even after I saw her eat the cookie she swore she never touched.

But I never caught her in a lie to me. And I wasn’t forthright or strong enough at the time to talk to her of my concerns about our eroding trust. But at one point I did tell her I would no longer make excuses for her when the phone rang. I saw the look on Dave’s face when he stopped by one day looking for her and I had to lie about where she was. He was crestfallen as it dawned on him he wasn’t her first (or only) priority. It dawned on me about that same time. If Ellen would put me in this position, causing me to hurt people I cared about, how could I trust her? Why was she my best friend?

So, I gently broke the news to her about my inability to keep up with the lies. She didn’t take it well and started yelling at me.

“That’s what friends do for each other! They lie! They put each other first.”

Do they?

I thought about it. I wasn’t witty or articulate enough to debate the point at the time. I backed down and we continued to live together until ultimately I manufactured an argument about $2 she owed me for the curtains in our room and got angry enough about it to request another room assignment. I moved across the hall. We never discussed our break up. We didn’t see much of each other as we both had boyfriends who took up most of our time. The next year I transferred to another college and we just lost touch.

Many years later I was in a department store dressing room with my friend Judy. As a grown up I don’t often describe anyone as my “best” friend anymore but if I were to do so, it would most likely be Judy. We were in there trying on scarves. Yes, scarves, an accessory not usually tried on in the privacy of the fitting room. But Judy had lost her hair after having chemo and she didn’t want to expose her bald dome in public. No one but her husband had seen it. Plus, neither of us was the kind of woman who had the “tying scarves beautifully” gene so we figured we’d experiment in private. We laughed until our eyes filled with tears, mostly from how bad we were at designing anything lovely with scarves, but also, I’m sure, because her bald head silently spoke volumes about our fears.

And for reasons I’m not quite sure about, Ellen came to my mind. I realized sitting there basking in the glow of Judy’s head, how deeply Judy and I trusted each other. Trusted each other. Not just how much I trusted her but how much she must have trusted me to allow me the honor of seeing her in her most vulnerable state and knowing how the sight of her that way would only make me love her more. I thought back to my days of eroding trust with Ellen and was only then able to figure out the flaw in our friendship wasn’t that I couldn’t trust her. It was that she couldn’t trust me.

I had never done the work it took to build that trust. I had seen her vulnerabilities – her “Skinny 8s” on the mirror, her constant need to have a string of guys, her penchant for impressing people with stories about how great she was – but I didn’t understand those were vulnerabilities, not strengths. I missed the signals my friend had sent me about the ways in which she needed my support. In my narcissistic view of the world at 16 I thought it was about whether I was getting the trust and support I craved.

I am a better friend now, I hope. These days I strive not so much to have a best friend as to be one.

 

Deborah Carroll is a former educator, the author of two parenting books, and numerous educational publications for newspapers as well as several young reader serials.

 

 

The Devil Made Me Love Prada, by Peggy Northrop

Like Andy in The Devil Wears Prada, I showed up at Vogue in 1990 with all the wrong clothes. Andy’s were cheap and preppie. Mine were cheap and just….weird. I had moved to New York from San Francisco, where my idea of dressing up was to wear a vintage boy’s tuxedo jacket in metallic blue, sleeves rolled up to hide the stains (from what, I never stopped to wonder), over pegged black cotton pants and ankle boots. I owned three beaded evening gowns from the ‘30s, a Norma Kamali grey belted sweatshirt dress, a few ‘50s bowling shirts and one black skirt, knee length. But no jackets. No suits. No heels.
Anna Wintour hired me to be her health editor, so she probably figured she could keep me under wraps somewhere until she got me sorted out. I had a long way to go. It was the winter when all the fashion editors came to work in hip-length fitted jackets over tight black leggings. My first day in the old Conde Nast building at 350 Madison, I remember a sense of confusion bordering on panic: ‘No one is wearing any pants!’ It was the reverse version of my childhood first-day-at-school nightmares, where I’d slip-slide in my white anklets down the hallway at North Franklin Elementary, having forgotten my maryjanes.

My Vogue makeover began in week three, when a longtime fashion editor invited me to lunch at the Royalton. I was touched by what I assumed was a friendly gesture. Over tuna nicoise (which I ate, unlike my date) I was asked if I had a hairstylist in New York, and if perhaps I’d like her to arrange for me to go to the Donna Karan showroom to buy some clothes wholesale?

Now, unlike Andy in the movie, I knew some designers’ names. Plus I actually admired my boss (after all, she’d just doubled my salary). And I had been an anthropology major at Berkeley—I was determined to participate, not merely observe.
First to go was my bad late-80s perm, dyed faintly purplish to cover my premature gray. I was so brave, I even let the stylist wax the back of my neck to even out my hairline. Short choppy brown hair achieved, I schlepped my one black wool skirt to the drycleaner and had it hemmed to the regulation 19 inches. (Minis were the leggings alternative that season. Anna’s were Chanel. Mine would shortly be shiny with wear.) At the Donna Karan showroom I tried on a flesh-colored gathered-front jacket over a skirt (which the showroom muse told me sternly did not go with my coloring) and a fluid chocolate brown pantsuit. I bought both. I remember my hand trembled as I signed the credit card slip for $1,723.

Though my fashion editor friend (okay, not friend—that first lunch was our last) pronounced airily that she “wished the suit had more interesting buttons, perhaps of horn,” Anna could see I was trying. “How do you like your new haircut?” she asked me one day. And, “I’m glad to see we got you into a short skirt!”

I spent five years at Vogue, my tenure marked by fashion missteps large and small. For Christmas one year my husband, obviously coached by an expert, presented me with a tiny, bandage-tight Azzedine Alaia miniskirt. The look on my parents’ faces as they watched me wriggle into it over my pjs was something I hadn’t seen since I was 16. When the weather warmed up I realized I could not risk the subway in the skirt, especially if I wore my skintight white velour top. In the cab on the way to midtown, the driver turned completely around in his seat to leer happily at me through the partition. (We lived in the Meatpacking district, pre-fashionable and full of hookers, so his mistake was understandable.)

Then there were the car-wash pants. No name designer this time, the pants appealed to me because of the cunning strips of fabric that flowed from knee to shoe tops. Standing still, you see, the pants looked completely conventional. In the slight breeze of the fitting room, I glimpsed a few slices of calf. What I didn’t figure on was the flapping sound I made as I walked—or the escalator from the subway at Grand Central, which threatened to masticate and swallow the trousers, not to mention my legs. Anna called me into the Vogue art room later that day to review a layout, and watched, mesmerized, as the pants streamed in behind me and settled back down. In the silence someone said, “That’s an interesting choice.”

I had always wondered why so many of the most famous fashion editors on the planet wore what amounted to an upscale waitress uniform every day: black pants, ballet flats, white shirts, black cashmere sweaters looped over shoulders. Now I got it.

I came to love and appreciate and even covet high fashion while working at Vogue. Granted, my seat at the circus was high in the bleachers. The subjects I covered (health, and later politics and women’s issues) were considered nonessential, not filler exactly, but certainly never center ring. Once, when a story of mine was deemed too lousy to run in the scheduled issue, I asked, “But what are you going to put in its place?” Anna answered brightly, “Another frock gets lucky!”

Still, the negative cult of personality that has grown up around Anna Wintour never rang true for me. I’ve worked for terrifying bosses, and she wasn’t one of them. She had high standards – she would occasionally write the single word “dreadful” on copy (it usually was) but just as often her verdict was “wonderful.” She respected passion, which meant you could argue with her and win. She worked hard, expected people to show up on time and do the same, didn’t gas on about herself in meetings, went home at a decent hour. Most of the people who worked at Vogue when I did still do. She’s loyal.  She once told me she felt she owed it to her staff to be decisive. Whenever I dither, I think of those wise words.

When I left Vogue after five years, a rumor made the rounds that Anna had offered me a Chanel suit if I would change my mind. This is a good story, but it is not strictly true.

When I announced that I was leaving (a bad move, Anna told me, and she was right—the magazine I joined folded after five months), she deputized a staff writer to stroll down to my office and see if there was anything that could be done to convince me to stay. “Well, I have always wanted a Chanel suit,” I mused. His response: “If you stay, I’ll make sure there’s a Chanel suit on your desk on Monday morning.”

I was tempted, I really was. But to be honest, Chanel never did it for me.
I should have asked for Prada.

Peggy Northrop is the Co-founder and President of Shebooks.net. She is also Editor-in-Chief of Sunset Publishing and a former senior editor at PN web 004.