Monday, November 22, 2010

The Best Book Club Meeting Ever!

Way back in August I mentioned that I had attended an author talk and book signing by Ann Hood, author of The Red Thread. At that time, Ann mentioned in passing that she has been to a member of the audience's home to attend her book club meeting. After the meeting, my friend Colleen and I approached Ann and (nervously) asked her if she would be willing to come to our book club to discuss her book. And she said yes! Well, that meeting finally happened last Thursday and I am happy to report that it surpassed our wildest expectations.

Ann arrived at the restaurant a few minutes after the rest of us and immediately put us all at ease by breezing in and saying loudly and cheerfully "Hello Book Club!". At that very moment, I knew this was going to be the best book club meeting ever. I had been a little worried that we would all be tongue tied and star struck and the meeting would be stilted and awkward. It was anything but. Ann has obviously had plenty of experience with this type of thing and quite smoothly took the lead and set the tone for what turned out to be a very relaxing and informative evening.

She enthusiastically and thoughtfully answered all our questions about writing, becoming an author, her writing process and the book itself. No topic seemed to be off limits. And even though I'm sure she has answered these same questions thousands of times before in all of her various appearances, she never seemed bored by the questions or gave an answer that seemed "rehearsed". It was amazing.

The best part was learning about how she constructed The Red Thread and all the elements that went into the character and plot development. Fascinating. I came away with a much deeper understanding of the story itself. I wonder how much more I would get from all the books I read if I could only pick the author's brain over pasta and wine.

I can't say enough about what a wonderful and gracious woman Ann is. I still can't get over the fact that this best-selling, famous author, who has a very busy life would take the time to come to our book club and talk to us for over 3 1/2 hours. She lingered over dinner and never gave us the impression that she needed to leave or would only be willing to stay for a limited time. I am still shocked by her generosity, openness and kind spirit. I feel very lucky to have been able to spend time with her.

In all my gushing, let's not forget the book itself. The Red Thread is a terrific book about 6 couples who decide, for a variety of reasons, to adopt little girls from China. It is also the story of Maya, who owns the The Red Thread Adoption Agency, and has her own very personal reasons for being in this business. The story follows each couple from their orientation at the adoption agency to the day they pick up their long awaited daughters in China. Each of the characters is very well developed and each one is flawed in their own ways. What I was most impressed with was that I could see myself in or identify with each and every one of them. That really impressed me. But, I think the thing I liked most about The Red Thread is that Ann Hood not only tells the stories of the adoptive families, she also presents us with the stories of the families that give up their daughters for adoption. And, like the American couples, each one does so for a variety of reasons. It was a delightful surprise when I came to the story of the first Chinese mother. I was not expecting that and I appeciated seeing their stories as well as the stories of the adoptive mothers. Doing this added a richness and fullness to the story which made the "adoption story" fresh and new. I would give The Red Thread 4 stars - I really liked it!

I can't say enough about The Red Thread and especially about Ann Hood herself. Many of the members of our book club were buzzing about it even the next day. It was an experience I will never forget and one for which I am grateful. I'm sure this will go down as our best book club meeting ever.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Chef Madeleine

With all the recent excitement about Katie's achievements in her senior year of high school, her graduation and the drama of her going off to college, my younger daughter Madeleine has been sadly missing from Pam's Perspective. Well, today I'm going to remedy that.

Madeleine, a HS sophomore, is a genuinely talented and brilliant young lady. Like her sister, she is involved in a lot of clubs - and has recently added two more to her ever-growing list. One of the clubs she is involved in is French Club. Last week was French week at the HS and Madeleine used that opportunity to put her love of baking to good use. First, she baked a lovely walnut cake to share with her class. Each student was asked to bring in a food item from a different region of France. Walnut cake is from Aquitaine. She did a great job and aside from the last minute realization that she needed walnut oil, it all went off without a hitch. And luckily, we were able to get some walnut oil at a small local market. Phew! Disaster averted.

Later that week, was the big culminating event of French Week - the live cooking demonstration on the school's morning news show, The Sunrise Show, which is broadcast into all the morning classes. For the past several years, Chef Bob, the owner of a local French restaurant and father of two HS students, has hosted this 8 minute segment. Unfortunately, Chef Bob's girls have all graduated and the French Club was in desperate need of a new French Chef. And who do you think volunteered for this position? Yup! Madeleine. She decided that she would prepare croissant for her segment.

Oh my! If you've been following my blog for a while, you can imagine the terror this inspired in me. Me, the woman who hates to cook. The woman who pondered Me? A French Chef, after seeing Julie and Julia with her husband and deciding (quite illogically) to go out and immediately buy Julia Child's cookbook thinking she and her hubby would bond over cooking Julia's recipes. And who upon opening said cookbook and actually reading one of those recipes, promptly closed it and ordered take out! Yeah, that woman's daughter just volunteered to bake a complicated French pastry during an 8 MINUTE segment on national school TV.

Thank goodness Madeleine is incredibly independent and never requires any help from us when it comes to her school projects. She worked incredibly hard on this project. She spent the better part of a week gathering all the "props" she would need, making dough and croissants and preparing her segment. She presented it much like you would see a cooking segment on The Today Show. She had all the ingredients pre-measured and mixed them together on air. Then she whipped out a bowl of dough,which had already risen the requisite 4 hours, she then rolled it out, showed some pre-cut and the finished project. It was all very well done. We even got her a chef's coat and hat to wear (at the last minute she was too embarrassed to wear the hat). We were so impressed with how seriously she took this assignment and what a good job she did. The experience even gave her the idea that maybe she will do her senior project around some aspect of baking! In typical Madeleine fashion, she is always thinking ahead!

She that she does get from me! As a matter of fact, I just had a great idea about what I can do with that Julia Child Cookbook. I can wrap it up and give it to my little French Chef for Christmas. See what I meant about thinking ahead?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Pam and Margaret's Rejuvenation Retreat

Recently I blogged about how overwhelmed I had been feeling. As far back as the summer I had thought seriously about renting a cottage on a beach somewhere local and just spending the time by myself resting, reading and regrouping. This idea never did go very far because after doing a little research I learned that renting a beach cottage is expensive, even if I waited until September.

Then salvation came on Labor Day weekend when Sandy happened to mention that she and Dad had a time share week that was due to expire at the end of October and that they would not be able to use it. She then offered it to anyone who might want it. I didn't hesitate to take her up on her incredibly kind and generous offer.

And that led to what I think of as Pam and Margaret's Rejuvenation Retreat (a sort of sedate and middle-aged version of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure).

Margaret is a dear, dear friend of mine who I have known since Katie and her twin boys were in kindergarten. She also has a daughter who is the same age at Madeleine. Our kids have grown up together and our families are close. But it's not just our kids who have grown up together. Margaret and I have grown as parents, wives and women together. We joke about spending our advanced old age in the same nursing home. Anyway, I decided to invite Margaret to join me on my "retreat" since she is experiencing many of the same adjustments as she navigates her way through having her oldest children leave for college. Margaret and I have done a little traveling in the past and we like the same things - books, art, museums, history (wild and crazy, I know). It seemed like the perfect fit. I would get my time away from life to regroup AND I would be able to do it with a friend who "gets" it.

Sandy helped me find and book a room at Vacation Villages in Hancock, MA in the Berkshire Mountains.

This was the perfect destination since I have been wanting to go to the Berkshires for years but never managed to get there. The main draw for me was the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA.

I love Norman Rockwell and the museum did not disappoint. We got to see many of Rockwell's oil paintings, including one of my favorites - Freedom from Want - and ALL of his Saturday Evening Post covers. It was fabulous.

Freedom from Want

Image from Google

We also got to tour his studio, which was moved onto the site of the museum after his death.

After touring the museum we explored the tiny town of Stockbridge and had lunch at the famous Red Lion Inn.

Of course, I found the Stockbridge Library!

Overall the town itself was disappointing - not much there beside the Inn. But it was cool to see the site immortalized in Rockwell's famous painting - Main St, Stockbridge.

Main St., Stockbridge (detail)
Image from Google

Before leaving for our Retreat, I did a little research and found out that aside from Stockbridge and the Norman Rockwell Museum, there are quite a few other interesting things to see and do in the Berkshires. Margaret and I took a tour of Edith Wharton's Lenox, MA estate - The Mount.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I knew little or nothing about Wharton and what I learned on the tour intrigued me enough that I borrowed a Young Adult biography of her from the library and read it when I got home. Edith was a fascinating woman who led a rich and interesting life. If you are at all interested, the book is The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton by Wooldridge. The visit has also inspired me to add at least one of her books to my tbr list. I think I'll start with The Age of Innocence, for which she won the Pulitzer (the first woman to be awarded that prize).

On a second trip into Lenox on a rainy day, we discovered the Lenox public library (big surprise, right?).

Unlike the Stockbridge Library, the Lenox library was open and Margaret and I decided to look around. It was unbelievably beautiful inside and I could just picture myself spending hours and hours sitting in this room reading. *sigh*

Wharton is not the only famous author to call the Berkshires home. Herman Melville also lived there at Arrowhead in Pittsfield, MA.

It was at Arrowhead that he wrote Moby Dick. We did try to visit Arrowhead, but when we arrived the door was answered by a tiny old lady who said that the museum was closed and the next tour would be the following day at 2:00 pm. Margaret and I decided to take a few pictures and forgo the tour, since the house itself was not all that impressive and looked slightly neglected. We did learn that Melville and Henry James would often visit and have long conversations in this barn that sits behind the house.

Margaret has a strong interest in yoga and meditation and she wanted to pay a visit to Kripalu, a yoga retreat in Lenox. Kripalu is situated on a hill and the setting is appropriately serene and idyllic.

When we went into the main building to explore, we were both surprised to find that the atmosphere inside was not particularly silent, hushed or reverent. There were lots of women milling around in yoga gear talking and laughing. There was also a large white board posted on the wall that showed each day's yoga offerings in addition to classes specific to the various workshops being offered that week. Margaret knows two women who have spent time at Kripalu. One comes every year for a weekend retreat, all by herself. The other has come once for a week long retreat. I must admit it was intriguing to me. I have taken a handful of yoga classes in the past, but have never become an aficionado. I am, however, interested in exploring this as a potential source of exercise. Who knows, maybe a Kripalu retreat is in my future.

On the advice of another friend and Williams alumna, Margaret and I visited Williamstown, MA and the picturesque Williams College campus. Both the town and the college are the epitome of old New England. Margaret and I had a wonderful time exploring the tiny town of Williamstown and touring the campus itself. I couldn't stop taking pictures. Each time I turned around there was yet another gorgeous view.

Margaret could only be away from home until Thursday, but since we had the time share for a full week, I decided to stay on and enjoy some solititude. I simply didn't feel ready to step back into my life after spending several days sightseeing and exploring. I felt as though I really could benefit from time to just "be". To think and reflect. I actually thought it would be good for me to stay until I felt bored and lonely. It didn't take long. On Thursday, I drove to the top of Mount Greylock in Lanesborough, MA. It was a 8.5 mile drive on a twisting road with gorgeous views and nary another car in sight. It was a wonderful opportunity to focus on my feelings and evaluate them.

When I arrived at the top, I sat on a stone wall overlooking the valley below and just let the natural splendor wash over me. It was a very emotional experience. As I sat there I let all the pent up emotions bubble to the surface without trying to control or contain them. I sat there a long time. And when I left, I felt better. I really did. It was weird. I've never experienced anything like that before.

I spent the rest of that day in the room reading, relaxing and thinking. And the next day, I knew I was ready to go home and step back into my life. I guess sometimes we just need the world to stop so that we can catch our breaths and evaluate our emotional responses. At times, that is easier done when we can remove ourselves from the demands of everyday life. I know that I benefited greatly from Pam and Margaret's Rejuvenation Retreat. I feel so fortunate to have had that opportunity. And I am grateful to Sandy and Dad for affording me it to me and to Geoff and Madeleine for encouraging me to take it and to stay until I felt completely ready to come home. I am so lucky.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Cliffs Notes Blog Post

For the last several days I've had several ideas for blog posts swirling around in my head. Unfortunately, I don't seem to be able to get any of them to crystallize into a full blog post. So today I'm writing the Cliffs Notes version of several blog posts:

Books: I have read a couple of really good books recently, but since I didn't get a review written in a timely fashion, I can no longer remember enough details about them to write a full a review. So here's what I remember:

Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls - excellent book by the author of The Glass Castle. This time she tells the story of her maternal grandmother (Lily?) who was without a doubt a woman ahead of her time. Lily admired Scarlett O'Hara because "[s]he was tough, she was sassy, she knew what she wanted, and she never let anything or anyone get in her way." The same could be said of Lily herself. 'Nough said! 4 stars.

Room by Emma Donaghue - this is the first book in recent memory that I couldn't wait to get back to every time I had to put it down. Room tells the story of a 29 year old unnamed woman who is kidnapped at age 22 and kept hostage in a hidden room. In time she gives birth to a little boy, Jack, who has only a rudimentary knowledge of the world "Outside". The story is told from 5 year old Jack's perspective and it is absolutely fascinating. 4 stars.

Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda - Secret Daughter tells the story of Kavita a poor Indian woman who secretly gives up her baby daughter for adoption to avoid its death. At the same time Somer, an American woman and her Indian husband decide to adopt a child from India after learning the devastating news that Somer is infertile. Gowda deftly intertwines the stories of Kavita, Somer and the child that binds them together while presenting the story from the perspective of all three women. 4 stars.

Theater - I have seen two very good plays in the month of November:

Oklahoma! - I had never seen this play or movie before, so while I was expecting it to be old-fashioned and corny, I was not expecting it to be somewhat racy and to deal with some very serious issues. What a suprise!

Absurd Person Singular - This play really demonstrated to me in a very overt way that different people can have very different reactions to the same play - especially if the play is a "dark comedy". Geoff and I attended this play with friends and while I focused more on the comedy and found the play to be hilarious, my friend couldn't look past the very serious and dark events happening on stage and didn't see the humor in the story. When we shared our views with each other on the ride home, we both wondered why we didn't see the other side. It occurred to me that this is the beauty and power of live theater. It can evoke such emotional and divergent responses in the audience. Fascinating!

Politics: The more you know, the more frustrated you become. I have never been an overly political person, but this mid-term election cycle I decided to pay more attention and educate myself on the races - local, state and federal. I even attended a deadly boring Town Council meeting earlier this week. And now I'm frustrated, annoyed and riled up. I have the absolute wrong personality for this. I get way too emotional and have far too little patience for the nonsense. Not to mention that the president and one member of our Town Council were at times extremely rude to residents who got up to speak at the meeting. It made me furious. I liked it better when I was uninformed and blissfully ignornant! I'm not sure I can go back to putting my head in the sand, but I wish I had never taken in out.

Aging: You know you are old when sleeping in on a weekday holiday means you don't get up until 7:19 am. Ugh! Even worse is when you decide that you really should start exercising so you decide that since you are getting older and haven't really worked out in any serious way in years, that you should start with something gentle and easy - like yoga. Let me tell you, nothing brings home how old you are like realizing you have absolutely no flexibility left. And when you wake up the next day (after sleeping in until 7:19 am), your muscles feel like you ran the NYC marathon. Yup. I'm old!

Friday, November 5, 2010

An Emotional Adjustment

It's been a long and emotionally draining month since I've last updated. And honestly, it feels a lot longer. Adjusting to having Katie away at college has been more difficult than I would have thought - and not in the ways I was expecting. Getting used to her being gone actually happened within the first couple of weeks. The more difficult part for me has been helping her through the normal ups and downs of her adjustment while being so far away. Let me start by saying that Katie is doing amazingly well. She is happy at the college she chose, she has made lots of friends, has joined a few organizations and has jumped into them with both feet. No surprise there! She has handled all the little "problems" that have crept up with maturity, grace and a sense of responsibility. I couldn't be prouder.

So why has it been so emotionally draining? Because I can't stop worrying and obsessing about all those little "problems" that creep up. When she calls to talk to me about them (for which I am eternally grateful. And Katie, if you are reading this, please do not think I don't want you to continue to share your ups and downs with me), I then worry about whatever it is that is going on. It is so hard not to see her every day so that I can gauge by her demeanor, attitude, or by simply asking her how it's going. And, of course, the next time we talk/text everything has worked out and the problem is long over. But, I've still been thinking about it. To be fair, I figured this out fairly quickly and it's not so much of a problem now but it has contributed to this feeling of being completely drained and overwhelmed.

It didn't help that during one of the most trying times, Geoff was away on business for TWO WEEKS - in Europe. So while we did talk on the phone a few times, I couldn't really get into the whole emotional mess during a transatlantic phone call. Those were a difficult two weeks.

Thankfully, I am beginning to feel a whole lot better. I think I have a handle on all of this and as Katie moves forward in her first semester at college, there are fewer and fewer adjustments to be made. And she truly is handling everything so well, that I really don't have anything to worry about. It just took a little while to get to this point. What I've learned from all of this is that it's not only the students who have to adjust to college life. Parents do, too. And in ways I wasn't expecting.

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