Jottings

Written by Nancy Hala on . Posted in Fall

Traveling alone for business is the loneliest sort of travel. There’s no joy of adventure, or nervousness of the unknown, or thrill of who you might meet and spend time with. It’s all pretty well mapped out for you: cab, airport, plane, cab, office, hotel and then rewind and return. It is however a good time for reverie, for day dreaming. The unhurried simplicity of staring out an airplane window with just the clouds and your random thoughts passing by. Here are some of mine from a business trip last week:

No matter how many times I hear it, I love it when someone says “It’s 5:00 somewhere” as a segue for drinking.

My mom and dad met in a movie theater when my dad leaned over and asked her if she would like part of his Hershey bar. They have been married for 60 years. That’s one of the best stories I’ve ever heard.

I cook practically everything on high heat. This sounds like it’s going to be a metaphor for life but it’s not — I’m just impatient.

Some people are wonderful and terrible at the same time. And maybe these are the most interesting people of all. But you shouldn’t date them.

Pizza is my favorite food. If this were my last day on earth I would be eating pizza. If I followed the advice to live every day as if it is your last, I would be very fat.

People who establish themselves as the grammar police during a conversation suck all the fun out of talking.

I like to read books, magazines and newspapers in their traditional form. I hope that never changes.

A grown man wearing a baseball hat at the table should really know better.

I love when people say, “Let me jot that down,” instead of “Let me write that down.” Jot is an excellent little word with too few practical uses.

There are not many things in life that disappoint me more than a bad meal.

I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about nail color.

Regardless of how prevalent is has become, don’t be lulled into thinking it is anything but unspeakably rude to repeatedly check your phone while you’re having a conversation with someone.

That skinny straw in your drink is for stirring, not sipping.

I realized a moment too late that when my son told me he met a Swedish au pair, “Wow, straight out of Penthouse Forum!” was an inappropriate response.

I still think flying is neat.

Grievances

Written by Nancy Hala on . Posted in Spring

I try to keep them to a minimum. The dog two doors down from my house for example. I try to not let it bother me that his people leave him out in their backyard for extended periods of time, barking. He is a dachshund, a breed of small dog with a surprisingly big voice. The dog barks at squirrels, which are in no shortage on our street, so I’m sure they run periodically through his yard. He probably also barks at the sun and the clouds and whenever he feels the wind against his fur. I infer this because he never stops barking. Unless the squirrels are gathered around him like an audience, there must be moments when there are no squirrels in sight. He may be hyper-sensitive to his environment. He puts a paw down on the wet (or dry) grass and he barks. He puts another paw down and barks again. I wonder if this is true inside his house as well. Does he bark every time the tea kettle whistles, the alarm clock rings, the television is turned on? Does he bark at the carpet, at the walls? Maybe they put the dog outside for 20, 30, 40 minutes at a time just to get some peace and quiet.

On the other side of my house my neighbors have a backyard that is more like a playlot for the neighborhood kids. And when I say kids I mean teenagers and young adults because the kids around here, mine included, have all grown up now. I think I always assumed that when our kids grew up it would mean there would be less hanging out in the yard next door.

It is a long yard, lovingly tended, with bright green grass, nicely planted bushes and borders, an enormous tree from which hangs a tire swing, and a productive vegetable and herb garden. About one quarter of the yard is paved over with concrete and there stands a basketball apparatus: the pole with the backboard and the hoop; I don’t know if this is called something in particular. There is also a fire pit.

In the summer months, which are approaching here in Chicago (it should get steadily warm about mid-June) the neighborhood kids come around and hang out in this yard. They play basketball – the rhythmic thump thump thump reverberates throughout my house no matter where I sit if my windows are open, which they typically are in the summer. Even if there is not a basketball game going on, sometimes one of the boys who lives there (a kind, sweet boy), stands alone in front of the hoop and just dribbles the ball. Thump thump thump at regular, unbroken intervals so I know he’s not actually throwing the ball at the hoop – ever – he’s just smacking it against the pavement, catching it and repeating the motion, over and over. Is he meditating? Is it therapeutic for him? I find myself counting the thumps, and then timing the spaces between the thumps, and also wondering if he’s standing in one place or walking around in circles, dribbling, which is something I saw him do once when I was on my deck, grilling dinner. I leaned against the deck railing, barbecue tongs in one hand, watching him dribble the ball while walking around and around in a slow circle in front of the basketball hoop. Thump thump thump.

The concrete area of the yard happens to be situated directly below and to the left of my bedroom window. One of the great pleasures of my life is going to sleep in warm weather with my bedroom windows open. It’s one reason I hope to never live in the kind of apartment building where the windows are sealed shut. I can’t imagine summertime without summer breezes wafting through my house. Especially at night.

The fire pit in my neighbor’s backyard is quite a draw. The kids seem to really like it. And again by kids I mean 20-year olds. They gather around it at night and sometimes they don’t even light a fire – they just use it as a reference point, a place to pull up their chairs, talk and laugh (loudly) and probably drink and smoke, which is fine with me, they’re not my kids, but the drinking and the smoking seem to fuel the talking and the laughing, so it goes on late into the night. Once the gathering didn’t break up until 4 a.m. I know this because I was awake.

Like I said, I keep my grievances to a minimum. Focus on the positive. There are moments, like right now, when there is no barking, no thumping and no fire pit party. My house is quiet. My deck is peaceful. My front porch is an oasis. These are the three places on earth I love to be, particularly when there is no noise. And then they let the dog out again.

Plant strong, pounds lighter

Written by Nancy Hala on . Posted in Winter

Lettuce

All my life I was a skinny girl. Tall and skinny. Growing up in Ohio, I remember back-to-school shopping at Higbees with my mom. Our biggest problem was finding jeans small enough to fit around my pencil-thin waist but long enough to cover my ankles. The notion of finding jeans that touched the floor was pure fantasy. To this day, when I try on jeans that are long on me, I marvel at them in the fitting room mirror.

In the end, my dear mom sewed fabric around the bottom of the jeans we bought to make them long enough. Yes, jeans extensions, the first of their kind. Sometimes she tried to match the denim fabric (always a shade too dark or light), or she went for a lively print. I remember sitting on her bed watching as she bent over her sewing machine, trying to make my bell bottoms wearable. The end result was perhaps not as fashion forward as we both would have liked, but the effort was certainly there.

In high school I had friends who struggled with their weight, girls who yo-yo dieted, drank Tab and skipped lunch. Not me – I ate whatever I wanted to eat. Big breakfasts and lunches, an entire family-sized bag of nacho cheese Doritos after school, two helpings of dinner and ice cream for dessert. I didn’t exercise and never played a sport – in fact I barely avoided flunking gym. I rode my bike a little, climbed a few trees and mowed our lawn. That was it.

I assumed I’d be skinny forever. As an adult I weighed 128 pounds and was a size 4, probably too small for my 6’0” frame. I remember one night as my mother watched me dive into a second enormous plate of spaghetti and meatballs, she said, “One day you’re going to hit a wall.” I had no idea what she was talking about. What is this wall you speak of?

And then. All of a sudden (it seemed), I put on a bunch of weight. Okay, not all of a sudden – over the course of 20 years, after having two kids and watching my metabolism slow to a stutter. It finally dawned on me this eating-anything-I-wanted strategy did not work anymore. After a life of being skinny, I was … not skinny. Let’s leave it there.

Fortunately, I had a revelation. Like most revelations, it began with new information. I read a book called Eat to Live by Dr. Joel Fuhrman. Now, this is not the sort of book I would typically read. Typically, I would skim the opening paragraphs then flip to the back to see if any recipes appealed to me. Then never look at it again. But I read the book from cover to cover. It was compelling, this new information about my favorite friend, food. I started experimenting with the recipes. I started feeling better. I started losing weight.

These days I eat mostly plants most of the time. I dropped 30 pounds over five months, but just as importantly I feel GREAT: better overall health, more energy, and also more knowledge about food and nutrition.

Sure, it was a challenge to learn a different way of cooking. Everything I ever made was full of butter, oil, salt, sugar, animal product, not to mention white flour. When I think of the way I used to eat every day, it’s no wonder I blew up like the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man.

I knew I wasn’t going to exist on salads alone, so I had to get creative. I started a website – www.teachagirltocook.com – for recipes that I discovered or created over the past few months in my quest for delicious vegan dishes. The idea behind the title is this: a while ago I was teaching a friend of mine how to cook – she was a true novice, didn’t even know how to cut an onion. I thought I was the expert. Then, after many years as a traditional cook, I realized I had to teach myself how to cook differently. More healthfully and more mindfully.

From traditional cook to plant-predominant foodie. That’s my journey. I plan to never hit that wall again.

Bruce

Written by Nancy Hala on . Posted in Fall

The first time I saw Bruce Springsteen in person was the first time I fell in love. It happened at a concert at the Richfield Coliseum, halfway between Cleveland and Akron. I was 17 years old. My friend, Russ Shulman, had a pair of tickets and he invited me to join him: 19th row seats on the floor. On the floor.

If you’ve never been to or seen footage of a Springsteen show, you may not know this but floor seats are where it’s at. The people on the floor go crazy when he plays fan favorites like Thunder Road, Rosalita and especially Born to Run. There’s no sitting at a Springsteen show anyway — I mean, what’s the point — but the floor is something more than rows of people standing. It’s rows of people electrified, lifted, carried away by his intensity. The beauty of the Boss is that he plays both to the crowd and to the individual. He runs across the stage and opens his arms wide to embrace the whole room, and then he stands still to sing his jagged poetry just for you. You can’t help but swoon.

TV is good

Written by Nancy Hala on . Posted in Winter

I grew up in the 1970s in a small suburb in Ohio, where I went to school and hung out with my friends in our various rec rooms. Sometimes we went to football and basketball games, and afterwards to the local pizza place. I joined the ski club. I worked briefly at the Dairy Queen.  That was about it.  TV was as culturally important for me then as it is now. The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, Three’s Company and Starksy & Hutch.  On the weekends, Star Trek (William Shatner) and Space 1999 (Martin Landau no less). This fine programming was the hallmark of my youth.

TV is still one of my favorite things and I don’t understand people who don’t watch it: Downton Abbey, Archer, Parks and Recreation, Happy Endings, Parenthood, 30 Rock, American Horror Story, not to mention all the police procedurals that are so dear to my heart. Then there’s the wonderful world of cable – HBO and Showtime have been producing not-to-be-missed series for years now. It’s hard for me to relate to people who never watched The Sopranos in the same way I can’t relate to people who don’t drink coffee. It seems like they’re just trying to be difficult.

Stretching, reaching, flying

Written by Nancy Hala on . Posted in Winter

The other day I was scolded by my yoga teacher because I didn’t want to do a headstand. I was afraid I was going to break my neck so I opted out of the pose in the middle of class. In my defense the woman next to me didn’t want to do a headstand either. I think I was emboldened by her when she said, from her inverted position, “I hate this.”  I immediately piped up and said “I hate it too”, hoping that if two of us hated it we would be excused. Like in gym class, when there was always a better chance of getting out of dodge ball or gymnastics if more than one girl complained at a time, and we would be sent – a small, defeated group – back to the locker room to change. I was always secretly pleased with our strategy. It meant I could sit on the bleachers and read instead of having rubber balls whipped at me. 

 

A tap on the shoulder

Written by Nancy Hala on . Posted in Fall

My father is an engineer and he likes to remind me that every force in the world is balanced by an equal and opposite reactive force. Newton’s third law of motion. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. I grew up hearing about this. It means if you push against a wall, the wall is pushing against you with the same force, otherwise you would push the wall over or it would push you over. When you’re standing on the ground, your weight is a force against the ground, and the ground is pushing up against you with equal force – if that didn’t happen you would sink.

Extrapolating on this line of thought, you could say that whatever energy you put out into the world is precisely what you get back. Even simpler: You get what you give.

I have been going on college tours with my daughter, Olivia, this fall. These are my first college visits in 30 years, since I was in high school. I didn’t go with my son, Alex, because he was recruited by rowing coaches and went on “official” visits where parents are not invited. 

College is sort of the last stop on the parenting train. We’ve taken them this far, but there is one more leg of the journey. I think by the end of high school a lot of parents are ready to fully let go. They are happy to write the tuition check, or help with the scholarship applications. They don’t mind packing up the car and driving the kid to school. They look forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, but pretty much they feel their job is done.

Rowing

Written by Nancy Hala on . Posted in Fall

RowingI was once told that rowing is like asking eight people to take the perfect golf swing at exactly the same time, over and over again. People also like to say that rowing is the only sport that began as a form of capital punishment. A combination of technical precision and brute strength, for as difficult as rowing is, rowers themselves are an understated group. There are no showoffs in the boat; they win as a crew and lose as a crew – no one is the superstar. No one dunks a basket and hangs on the rim, dangling in the air. No one scores a touchdown then spikes the ball and dances a jig. No one runs the bases with his arms up, high-fiving his teammates along the way. They row as hard and fast and correctly as they can, then they cross the finish line and stop. After a few minutes, they turn the boat around and row it back to the dock, lift it out of the water, and carry it on their shoulders to the trailer.

The only fans at regattas are the families of the rowers. Moms, dads, sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles and friends gather around the team’s tent where food is served and cold drinks are stored in coolers. Some people sit in folding chairs but mostly they mill around, talking and taking pictures. I have hundreds of photos of my son Alex at rowing tents and trailers: drinking Gatorade, laughing with his teammates, carrying boats, listening to his coaches. There are no stadiums full of fans. There is no halftime show. It is rarely televised. And after graduation there are no zillion dollar contracts or corporate sponsors. So why do it – why row?

Where’s your jacket

Written by Nancy Hala on . Posted in Fall

September – every parent’s annual kick-off month. Each September, schools supplies are purchased and new outfits are folded in drawers. Forms are filled out and class schedules are discussed. The days are chilly, and everyone needs to put on a jacket. “Where’s your jacket?” has been my refrain for more than a decade.

Things that I believe: Without me, my children would be perpetually cold and poorly fed. They would never read under correct lighting. They would drive unsafely (instead of safely, which is the way I tell them to drive). They would always be locked out of the house because they would never have their keys.

Put another way, I do not take a laissez-faire attitude toward parenting. I consider pretty much everything my turf. Not the really private things – I have never and would never go through their drawers, peek at their computer files or read their text messages, because I think that’s creepy, but also I don’t have to. Why? Because when they were five I made them put on their jackets.

My wine story

Written by Nancy Hala on . Posted in Fall

I was told recently that it is important to have a wine plan before diving head first into an evening dedicated to eating and drinking. This conversation took place at a dinner party hosted by a dear old friend of mine and that featured three new friends, owners of the Brown Estate, a rock-star-cool winery in Napa Valley, California.

Before going any further, a few clarifying facts: I have consumed wine for years without knowing a thing about wine. I mean nothing, usually not even the name of the wine I’m drinking, let alone the region of the world where it was produced or the type of grapes used in the making of it. It was at this dinner party that I first heard the words “viticulture” and “viniculture” used in actual conversation and I was so transfixed I repeated them softly to myself throughout the evening, hoping no one noticed my lips moving.