Poetry: Found Art, Trifle & Tart

Is is still okay to say “Boyfriend” when you are both dancing on the precipice of 50? So what do I call him?  Life partner?  My old man? Significant other? There are MANY significant people in my life. The gorgeous Italian “inamorato“? I usually call him the best human being I ever met.  Anyway, this man is an artist,  And I, in my complementary role, am a visual learner and arranger of things.

Sometimes my love and arranging shows up in the food I make. Last night, I made one of his favorite desserts, Trifle – lemon pound cake with lemon custard, whipped cream, strawberries and raspberries. No cooking, just arranging. . You could soak the pound cake in liqueur in you like. The concept is to make a deep well of summery joyfulness.  It doesn’t matter if you just buy the pound cake, the artistry is in the assembly.

Dinner?  Pesto and goat cheese tart with heirloom tomatoes. Bake it for 8 minutes at 425 degrees. If you want it crispier, broil for 1 minute after that.  It’s a par-baked pizza crust, 2 tbsp. basil pesto, 4 oz. cream cheese, 1/2 cup goat cheese, top with mozzarella and arrange your cherry toms.  The heat does something magical to the goat cheese.  It’s tangy, soft and sweet all at the same time, a perfect match for the acidity of the tomatoes. Tear up some fresh basil leaves to nestle between the cream cheese and mozzarella layers.


When our mutual friend introduced us back in October 2013, I don’t know if was I felt was love. He was too familiar. Not in any of his actions or words, but in the way my entire inner workings reacted to him just being. I had hit a spot in life when I did not believe in romantic love. When I was very sure dying alone would be just fine and dandy. I’d make sure it was dandy, because I would leave thorough instructions on my memorial service. I was THAT bored. I was THAT stuck. I was THAT set on memorializing myself as a loner.

Whatever I felt – passion, revulsion, the immediate need to protect my heart and my solitary way of life – it was powerful. After the most perfect day-long date in the world, in which he painted and I made shepherd’s pie and we talked and kissed randomly, I actually said. “Let’s pretend we never met.”

We did not speak for a few weeks. Then in late November, on a Thanksgiving day when I was completely alone and bereft of plans and people, I asked him to dinner. And he said yes.  During those two dark weeks, I wrote “Found Art”.  It’s not specifically about love. It’s about a specific moment in our lives when invisible lightning hits us. All our glib platitudes from Rumi and “Keep Calm” posters fail us. All the Silly Love Songs become dire warnings with the forceful insistence that you ARE going to feel this.  Stupid me clinging with a deathgrip to the notion that I am a self-contained work robot. So here is the poem.

Found Art
I had seen it before somewhere in a dream
A fleeting mix of ideas and color and imagination
Too true to be believed
I may have walked past it a hundred times
Images captured by the mind’s eye moving in outer circles
Barely concentric to my life
I was afraid to look at it
Because it might just tell the story of my childhood
Or list reasons for my darkness
It was an abstract
The vein and bone and brain of a human being
So magnified and precise that the pixilated cells
Seemed to move
I was afrai
d to look at it
And when I did I could not look away
I stared until the cones of my eyes ached
And my brain bled and black words dripped heavy from my pen
And the noise all around stopped because it whispered my name
Like a familiar
Like a river
Like a lo
Like a devil
Like a desert
Like the West wind
Like a lover
Like home
Transfixed, I watched it move
I reached out and could not help running my hands
Over the curve, over fibonnaci spirals
Over sinew and skin and scar
And sweetness and painless light
It was a living map
A breathing mirror of all I fear
And worse, all I hope
Split in the exact center
Between the brain hemispheres
Deep down to the heart
In a Fissure of dark and tranquil and quiet
That knew my name and called to me quite clearly
I could
not close my eyes or fill my lungs
Although my mouth hung open
Waiting in awe for that kiss
Waiting for the wet, secret dark
To enfold me and invade me and
Fill me up with beautiful words
But it knew my name and was already adept
At shredding my fear and
And ripping expectation to oblivion
I moved away slowly
Unwrapping myself from pleasure incarnate
Unsticking skin from skin
Untwining myself from this masterpiece
And I am still shaken, still swept up
Still aching
Still aware that it knows my name
Still needing a baptismal to wash away
The burning swirl of fingerprint and tongue


LOVE: The Losing of a Breast; The Finding of a Belly

I was in the middle of a great love.

My mother and my son are both Geminis. Her birthday was June 13th and his is June 20th. They were, for a time, my twins. I watched my mother become the best grandmother and friend a boy could have. Like me, Connor has Asperger’s Syndrome. He does not open up to many people and he is very quiet. Mom was only 4’10” and she would get right down on the floor with him. Their connection was deep and true and full of laughter.

I moved back home in 2008 when my mom’s breast cancer had returned. She had had a radical mastectomy in 2006, followed by chemo.  Although she had somewhat accepted all the accoutrements of the disease, she never really embraced them. She had wigs, hats, shirts with allowances for drains, post-mastectomy bras, and even weighted falsies. She had all the necessary crap that they dole out to women who lose a breast in an attempt to make them acceptably normal to society. It wasn’t her and it wasn’t comfortable.  And it all ended up stuffed in her sock drawer while she sat bald, braless and comfortable binge=watching The Sopranos.

One day though, one special day of birthday magic smack in the middle of June, a miracle happened. We always celebrated their birthdays together.  I had brought Connor over for his 8th birthday, Boston cream pie, candles, flowers, little gifts for both.

The oven was on, and the air conditioner was going full blast.  Although she was sweating, her tiny feet were like blue ice.  She asked Connor to go grab a pair of socks for her. He headed into her bedroom.

“HEY!” he exclaimed.  “HEY!”

“What is it, Sugar Booger?”

“Granny!  I found a belly!”


“I found a belly!”  Connor darted out of her room and ran into the kitchen with his shirt hiked up and a heavy flesh-colored false boob slapped on his stomach.  He pushed his stomach out proudly.

My mom and I burst out laughing. Neither one of us ever would have thought of it. Connor wore the magic “belly” the rest of the evening. He fell asleep on her couch full of lasagna and cake, clutching a stuffed Pikachu with one hand and the “belly” with the other.

It was magic indeed.  This was love, laughter and true imagination holding fast against loss, pain and the precious knowledge that life is finite.

When the cancer came back, it came back everywhere. My son was 10. He was so open and caring and happy with her.  He would stay with her while I ran out to get her groceries.

When she was hospitalized, I would watch them walk down the corridor together. Both blonde, the same height, sharing knock-knock jokes.  Because between them nothing was about cancer or autism. It was about love. No labels, no expectations, no prognosis. Just love in its most honest, accepting expression. And I was in the middle, watching in awe, as both their halos shone bright.

My mom passed in late July 2010.  My son turns 19 on Tuesday.

He has grown into a wonderful, smart, and loving human being.  He’s a responsible young man who has a good job, attends school and takes good care of himself. He is a brilliant artist in the middle of producing his own comic book.  He is a grown version of that child who sees people without limits and finds laughter in unexpected places.

I am still in the middle of a great love. And so incredibly grateful to be his mom.

Everyone Likes Hot Dogs

My stepdad John was a Hungarian trucker. His CB handle was “The Happy Hunky” and he was a pretty amazing guy. He loved my mom. She did not have to work so he encouraged her to make friends and be artsy. She pursued ceramics and macramé and painting. When we moved into his house, he asked her to make it a showplace and redecorate. And she did! She reupholstered sofas and stained cabinets and laid new flooring. She thrived and she was happy.

People came to our house for dinner parties featuring his stuffed veal pocket and her lasagna. Red wine, good coffee, a little weed, Fleetwood Mac and Leo Sayer. Insane marshmallow fruit ambrosia, homemade cheeseballs with walnuts, highball cocktails, floating conversations about Stephen King, Jimmy Hoffa, Dennis Kucinich, Steve Martin and some lawyer named Mr. Hickey.

The dynamic of my relationship with John was not easy to define. I thought he was funny and I respected him. He thought I was funny and smart and marveled at how serious I could be about minutiae.  He was a good 15 years older than my mom and had already raised a daughter. He only really got angry when I disrespected my mom.  Other than that, he had me figured out.

My room would be a mess the entire week he was on the road. My mom would beg and cajole and threaten so I would clean it. John would come home on the weekend and simply say, “Wow! Who dropped the bomb?” It would be clean within 10 minutes.

I was still stuck in Spaghettio mode and had developed a nasty habit of wiping my mouth on my sleeve. Nearly every shirt I owned had an orange stain. My friend Dawn had also picked up this habit from me. Both of our mothers were frustrated. One night she, Dawn was over for dinner. It was Saturday so John was home and made “real” spaghetti.  It was real because it was made with dry noodles and Ragu.

During dinner, John took a big sloppy bite and wiped half his mouth on my sleeve and half his mouth on Dawn’s.  We were horrified.

John shrugged and said, “I thought it was okay to do that.  After all, you two were doing it.”  I could hear my mom through the saloon style kitchen doors laughing. I never wiped my mouth on my sleeve again.

John’s signature recipe was Stuffed Veal Pocket. I had no idea what veal was. I had reasoned that if it had a pocket, it was cousin to the kangaroo family but bigger. As an isolated kid who had been living out of tin cans, I was about to discover a new world.

Early Saturday mornings, John would drive out to the Cleveland West Side Market on 25th street. I wanted to go.  I mean why not go to the store? You grab a cart, listen to elevator music, check off your list, say please and thank you.  I had been to the store with my grandparents every Thursday in my life. What was so mysterious about West Side Market? Did they not allow kids?  I begged, I cajoled and threatened. Finally, John took me to West Side Market.

Yelling – not always in English. Smells – FISH, meat, flowers, baking breads. Colors – Vibrant palettes of fruits and vegetables. People shoving and crowding and knocking into me with their bags. Old women in babushkas buying parsnips, gorgeous dark eyed young men stacking fish, enough cut flowers to make me feel like I landed in Oz. Noise and bustle and haggling, the chaos of making a deal in hunter-gatherer heaven and above all this the atmosphere of shared passion for nourishment of the senses.

Each element by itself would have been enough to scare a shy child. The noise and confusion and unfamiliar faces and fish that looked back at you. But this special cloud of mayhem was driven by the cohesive purpose of trade. The food here was not just food. Jewels from the earth and sea harvested with intention and love. Buyers understanding the ritual negotiations and intrinsic magic within each carrot or peach.

There’s a place in the far corner of the Market on the Loraine Avenue side called Johnny Hot Dog. It was opened in 1912 by Mary Trisco and still open today. There is no better hot dog in Cleveland or maybe the whole Midwest. They even make a hot dog breakfast sandwich.  When John went to the Market alone, he would bring home a big brown bag of them with chili, diced onions and bright yellow mustard.

This particular morning, I held his John’s hand as we waited in line. The air hung heavy with smoke of grilled meat and sweet, fluffy steamed buns. I noticed there was a man in the back corner staring at me. His skin had a moist gray sheen like wet cement. His scent cut through the hot dog heaven and I felt real fear blooming in the back of my brain. I was pretty sure he was dead.  He had left this world and now returned to haunt Johnny Hot Dog. Because they had the best hot dogs on Earth. And we had to pass him on the way out and he might kill us for ours.

“John, I want to go home.”

“What’s wrong? C’mon, we’ll bring your mom a bag and make her day.”

“That guy. He’ll kill us for our hot dogs when we get ‘em.”

“What guy?”  So John couldn’t see him. Definitely a ghost, definitely dead.

“THAT GUY!”  I pointed and was loud. The man dropped his eyes. People’s heads snapped toward us.

“THAT guy?  Oh no. No, that’s just Clarence the Fire Bug. He don’t kill people. He just likes hot dogs like we do.”

It was the perfect answer. It established that he knew Clarence, that Clarence was neither dead nor murderous, that Clarence loved hot dogs like a normal not-dead person. Also Clarence was gainfully employed as a Fire Bug, which had to be a really cool job.  I was suddenly not afraid.  Staring people smiled at us. We bought a dozen chili combo dogs and headed home. On the way out the door, I made a point of saying goodbye to Clarence.

It took me decades to arrive at John’s sheer brilliance. To any child, the unfamiliar can seem terrifying. Even more so if that child has a gigantic, rampant imagination. Stranger Danger aside, we are taught that anyone not like us could be a threat or not a good person. Society uses markers like race or income class to measure differences and create separation.

What John did was phenomenal.  He did not really know Clarence – in fact he came up with his name on the fly. It didn’t matter. He destroyed everything different or scary about him in the simple statement, “He just likes hot dogs like we do.”


Poetry & Recipe: Sweet Summer Treasures

Today was my first trip to the local farmer’s market. The jewels of summer laid out in heady glory, each vegetable or fruit courting attention. Today I sought treasure and the feeling of home. The essence of love in pie form. Blueberries and nectarines without hesitation.

Tomorrow is June 11th. On June 11th, 1888, Vincent Van Gogh was conversing with Emile Bernard. “There can be no blue without yellow and orange.” 

And there it is: Dark, limpid globes of blueberries set against the tart sunshine of nectarines. And it has to be an oat and honey crumble. No false sugar or bland crust to hide the beauty. Honey to bring in flower nuances, Oats to deliver the earthy, solid texture of warmth and home.

The picture above is the end result.

Peel 3-4 nectarines and arrange in the bottom of the pan. Add 1 cup of blueberries. Drizzle with honey.  Melt 1/2 stick of butter in a pan and stir 1 cup gluten-free quick oats and 2 tbsps. more honey.  Top fruit with crumble. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes.  Let cool a bit, enjoy and share with people you love.

I wrote the poem below on a night like tonight, full strawberry moon rising above the peach-lavendar sunset. When summer is opening up in every color, in every breeze, in every flower, in all its bright affirmation of love and life.

The Other World of You

I know there is a secret part of you the world cannot touch
That glow beneath the skin, incandescent purple just at sunset when you
Are certain it is your will alone that melts winters into ripe summer blaze.
That part of you I glimpse in flashes through your eyes in the
crescent of your iris, the eclipse of soul dancing around the full
moon of your field of vision.
In my light, the half-light cascading chiaroscuro, I can read your secret map,
follow the nerve and vein of you, chart indigo rivers to your heart, find
my location by the pulse of your blood, the longitude of your
half-dreams unborn to the light of day.
The carbon-star of you burning through my heart simple and singular as a
fingerprint, I trace my lips across your cheek and suddenly
I am home.




Cougar: Fur Family Part Three

Two days. I had 48 hours to find Cougar a new home. Someone who could see in him all the wonderful glowing, feline qualities that I did.

Nancy Birnbaum was 7.  Our backyards met diagonally and she was perpetually left outside alone. Her parents were nice and good people. Her brother Jimmy was in my class.  He was pink-skinned towhead kid who was constantly auditioning for school bully sidekick. One time Davey Shoemaker, our class bully, told him to follow me home after school and give me a gut punch. It had rained that day and I caught him following me and whacked him squarely in the forehead with my umbrella. It left a mark. He didn’t speak to me again but he didn’t try to punch me either.

I suspect he had managed to punch the smaller kids in the neighborhood, which is probably why Nancy had no one to play with.  We had nothing in common except that no one wanted to play with us. Nancy had met Cougar twice. She had seen me head to the garage with the cat food and had been curious.

Cougar leapt from his perch in the rafters and circled us.  He tilted his head and narrowed his deep golden eyes. I handed Nancy one of the cat food cans and let her feed him.  “She’s a friend.  It’s okay.”

He rubbed against her shin and she plopped down, putting the food on the floor between her outstretched ankles. He purred and rubbed his ears against her pink canvas shoe. Then he shoved face in the cat food, grunting happily while she petted him.

“A silver cat with gold eyes!” she giggled.  “Cougar’s my friend!”

“He really is the best cat. He’s a ratter too!  Not afraid of anything. He’s silver like a knight wearing armor.”

Cougar wound around her, nudging and making tiny sounds of happiness. Nancy was small, not so wild. Most importantly she was kind.

“Somebody has to take care of him.  I’m moving away.  I have food for about two weeks and a brush.  You probably need to ask your mom.  I don’t want you to get into trouble.”

“Oh she won’t care!  I love him!”

“She probably will when you run out of food or spend all your time in our creepy garage. So please just ask.”

“You mean because of Howie?” Her face darkened. My stomach felt like lead.  “My mom says he’s dangerous and not to play over here with you.” Her bottom lip stuck out and she fought little sobs.

The whole neighborhood had seen him chase me, yell, threaten.  They had peeped through curtains and shutters and shook their heads and clucked their tongues.  They had engaged in gossip feeding a deep poison cauldron of speculation about what else went on in our house. Isn’t is sad and awful. Isn’t it tragic?  That girl is in trouble. That girl IS trouble. There was a swell threatening to drown me. And they were helping to make the weather.

But I had Cougar. He had been my champion. And now I had to be his.

“Tell your mom to meet me here in about an hour. Make sure no one sees her come in.”

I sent Nancy off, skipping with the possibility of having her own champion. I made it into the house silently, locked myself in the bathroom.  I filled the sink with water and cleaned myself up, brushing my teeth, putting baby powder in my hair to dry out the oil.  I found some clean clothes that my mom had bought from a garage sale and squeeze myself into them.

Once I was somewhat presentable, I went quickly to the garage and gathered up all the cat food, little homemade toys and the brush into a paper sack from Lawson’s.

I sat on the cushionless plaid couch and gathered Cougar into my lap. This could be goodbye. He mewed tiny question marks, batted at the sack and started kneading my leg.

“I don’t want to leave you, but I can’t leave you here. There’s too many bad people, my love. You deserve someone who loves you.”  I felt dizzy, acid cloyed at my stomach. My shoulders ached. Why did they call it a broken heart when you felt it all over?

The door creaked and Nancy stepped inside with her mother. Mrs. Birnbaum was a chubby, no-nonsense lady.  She wore her dark, wiry hair in a Dorothy Hamill bob and a Hawaiian floral housecoat that snapped up the side.  Her hands moved from the housecoat pockets to rest on her hips. She sighed and looked at me and Cougar, colorless lips in a curl.

“So this is the cat?”

“Mom! MOM!  Look! He’s perfect!” Nancy bounced up and down like a tiny version of her mother on springs.

“He’s big.  He’s a biggie. He eats a lot probably.”

“Well, he’s a mouser, but I give him two of these cans a day.”  I handed her one of the Friskies tins.

“Mmmm.  You love this cat?  Why are you giving him to my kid? What’s wrong with him?”

“I’m…I leaving. Going to live with – somewhere else. I don’t want him to die or starve or be left here with Howie.”

She put her arm around Nancy. “That guy’s an asshole. I shouldn’t use that word in front of you, but he is. That’s a big cat, Nancy.”  She shook her head, looking at the garage floor.

“I know!  Cougar’s huge!” Nancy crowed.

“You’ll be someplace safe?” Mrs. Birnbaum looked me in the eye for the first time.

“Yes. There’s a lady in Cleveland I’ll stay with.”

“Oh Mom!  I love him!  I love you!  I hope Jimmy loves the cat.

“Jimmy will love the cat or I’ll beat Jimmy’s ass. Don’t worry about it.”

“Okay.  C’mon then, Biggie.”

Biggie?  Cougar looked at me, patting my red face with his velvet footpads. I stood up and handed the food bag to Mrs. Birnbaum. Cougar never took his eyes off the bag.  I watched his graceful exit as he padded after her and across the yards to her backdoor.

I thought my heart would crack and splinter and ache. But it did not.  My Cougar, my valiant friend and champion was no more.  In a sweet 30 yard journey, he had left his feral life with me to become the adored, well-fed Biggie Birnbaum.

And now I was ending my time as a feral girl. Tomorrow, I would move into a beautiful townhome in Cleveland with Barbara Scully. I would learn the joy of doing girly things like makeup and putting pink rollers in your hair just right.  I would learn about Buddha statues, Night Gallery and Sha-Na-Na. She would teach me to cook eggs and make Irish coffee. For three weeks, I would learn to be a normal human girl again. Barbara was an amazing lady. And like Cougar, she would be my friend for the rest of my life.


Food Fight: Omelets

This morning I made myself an omelet.  It was an unhurried, conscious act of self-care. I’ve been eating a vegetarian low-carb diet.  I still eat eggs and cheese because no one has to die for those. I’m not getting preachy about it – I just never really liked meat.

But this omelet – 3 large eggs, butter, pink Himalayan salt, herbe de Provence and 2 campari tomatoes wrapped around a triangle of garlic herb Laughing Cow cheese. “Vache Qui Rit”.  The Cow Who Laughs.  This omelet was everything right with the world.

The process is meditative. Waiting for the butter to melt just so. The soft sound of the whisk whipping eggs to a golden froth. The patience of letting everything rest in the small, shallow pan until it is ready. omlet.jpg

I cleared the table and ate slowly and alone in quiet.

I cook for everyone every day. I embrace and thrive in the role of being a creative nourisher. I’m not a chef. I’m not a professional. But I understand what keeps my little family happy and strong. We eat dinner together nearly every night and we rarely go out.  Omelets are special to me. Omelets are the doorway.

I didn’t grow up around my mother for most of my life.  But when I was 18, I moved in with her. I was away at college most of the time, but when I was home I would make her breakfast. She always wanted an omelet with everything – which meant whatever we had. Ham or bacon, onions, mushrooms – light on peppers and cheese. Buttered toast. Hot chocolate.

And no matter what passed between us before or what was going on, the world would just stop so we could eat our omelets and talk and laugh. We’d sit in the living room of her little trailer, forks clicking against pink plates with little blue bonnet-wearing geese painted on them.  There was no formality. Nightshirts and bare feet on the couch. Usually a B horror flick from Showtime running in the background or MTV when MTV was actually music videos.  Making fun of celebrities and singers. One time she asked me if David Lee Roth had a potato in his pants and I shot hot chocolate out of my nose.

Omelets are a barometer of the heart for me as well. As I fell in or out of love with men I cooked for, the omelets would reflect it.  I know that still to this day I cook with emotion more than skill. I may know the techniques, but I follow intuition and bend the recipe rules. So when I would start to feel caged or diminished by someone, any dish I made for them would be derailed. The omelet would be too salty, overcooked, flavorless and once ended up on the ceiling hanging there in a drippy, sad metaphor.

But this morning’s omelet was about me and this moment in my life when I choose to nourish myself with my favorite things. Solitary joy.  Creating something with love. Savoring it with gratitude. I’ll be cooking for everyone else later.