30 April 2009

'The Countdown begins,' and 'Yes, we have a winner!'

One month from today I will be "Mrs. D.E.B"!!!!!!!!!!!!! Woo-hoo! 
I find it incredibly hard to believe, what an amazing journey it has been.

Wedding plans are going well. 
The cake saga has be SOLVED!!! And the winner is....DUNCAN HINES!!
(Sorry, Betty.)

Cake mixes arrived, Sally the Cake Baker did her magic and sent samples home with the D.E.B. yesterday evening. I took one bite of the Duncan Hines version, looked at the D.E.B. and said: "Now, we are getting married!" It was "wedding cake" at long last. Alleluia! I think Sally the Cake Baker was about to go spare.

I have an entirely new nightmare on my hands with the blasted "wedding quilt" (what was I thinking?). 

But, for now, after a busy afternoon at the Stratford-upon-Avon Literary Festival, I'm pulling an "all-nighter" prepping for a pre-performance lecture on "The Winter's Tale" I have to give tomorrow morning to a group of 15-16 year olds from Italy.
If it's not one thing, it's another.
Good night!

24 April 2009

Channeling Cleopatra

Noblest of men, woo't [will thou/would thou] die?
Hast thou no care of me? Shall I abide
In this dull world, which in thy absence is
No better than a sty? - Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra

Midnight. April 23, 2007

“Daddy, it's me,” I could hear myself speaking in the odd, hollow, weak falsetto that always possessed my vocal chords wherever I spoke to my father. “I’m here. We all love you, and want you to get better. I love you. I love you, Daddy.” That was how it ended. “I love you, Daddy,” and then, he was gone.

Brief affirmation, followed swiftly by pandomonium. Vain attempts of human science to alter the will and timing of God. It was his time, and this was how his story as to end. He slipped away, silent as the night, even at the turning of the tide.

My father’s favorite Shakespeare play was King Lear. I have no doubt that he ever appreciated the irony of his choice. A number of parallels can be drawn quite easily between the play and our own family drama: noble, majestic father, three headstrong daughters vying for his approval… 

Indeed, for much of my life I have felt as I have been trapped inside a poorly directed production of King Lear, where I have been rather woefully and unwillingly double cast as Cordelia and the Fool. By contrast, my two, older sisters have always seemed quite content in their unwitting performances as Goneril and Regan. Even a little too content at times, if I may say so.

April 23rd. Shakespeare’s birthday and my father's death date. This date now holds more poignant meaning for me.  I lost one, on the date that I routinely celebrate the arrival of other.

It is now a date that unites fully the two elusive male figures that have shaped so much of my life. Neither man, to me, seemed to have existed as flesh and bone, more as icon, myth and legend. Similarly, their biographies hold close to basic facts and traces, limited documentation, and minimal, personal archival presence.

Their essence to me is/was/has been a body of work, sinews of greatness, achievement and accomplishment. These were the thoughts that crossed my mind, as I stared at the mere mortal who lay before me. This was not my father, this could not be my father. 

I marveled, as Cleopatra does over the body of the dying Antony, is it possible that such a great man can die? He was my father, a man I felt a barely knew beyond the public persona he lived each and every day.

Literature, poetry, and particularly the works of Shakespeare were a meeting place for my father and I. Shakespeare became our common ground, a metaphoric campfire around which we could sit side by side, and share a common language, interest and bond.

The days that follow any passing are surreal. One moves as in a dream, or a blur. Not knowing how exactly one has moved from point A to point B. Briefly, right before the start of my father's wake, as relatives, friends, and members of the community gathered at the funeral home, I had a moment of extreme clarity.

Before I realized where my legs were taking me, I knocked on the Funeral Director's door. "May I use your computer?" The Funeral director kindly allowed me to print out a copy of Sonnet #18.

I returned to the sanctuary, and informed my siblings that I would like to say something. I had no idea what. I stood at the podium, beside my father's open casket, like Mark Antony speaking over the corpse of Caesar. But unlike that noble orator, my speech was simple, and I offered words of love, instead of warnings of war. 

"My father introduced me to Shakespeare," I said plainly, "and so these words are for him:"

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee



23 April 2009

No Holds Bard

The Birthday Celebrations for Stratford-upon-Avon’s most famous son are in full swing. Stratford-upon-Avon is heaving with tourists (when is it not?) from around the globe celebrating the life, times, works and hometown of William Shakespeare.

 To add to the merry-making, today is also the Feast Day of St. George, patron saint of England. There are lots of festivities for both Will and George planned throughout the county over the coming weekend.

In my little pocket of Warwickshire, on the banks of the Avon, we have marked the day in our own quiet Barfordian way. Morning prayer at St. Peter’s with the vicar reading those famous lines from Henry V – “Cry ‘God for Harry, England and St. George!’” – guess he was sort of killing two birds with one stone, as it were.

This weekend, there’s a special St. George service planned at the church, and our “local,” the Granville, is offering a special “olde English” menu all weekend, in honor of the saint.

As for me, I have spent the day out in the glorious sunshine, writing in the garden. This was a welcome and wonderful reprieve after a stint of “shakespearing” at the Shakespeare Trust this week.

I spent the past two days at the Trust helping to lead a Shakespeare-centered debating project for 14-16 year olds. This workshop is geared toward “middle of the road” students. Not the highest flyers, but the ones who, with the right encouragement could be high flyers.

The students who participated in this workshop were from 4 different schools in the area of the English Midlands called “the Black Country”.  Its moniker is derived from the regions heavily industrial past in coal and iron.

As such, it makes sense that the students in our groups were from mostly urban, working class backgrounds. This kind of work can be very demanding, more than a little bit draining, but it always rewarding. And yesterday was no exception.

There is a very funny British comedienne called Catherine Tate. For her sketch comedy series, “The Catherine Tate Show,” she has created a host of hilarious characters.

One of her characters is “Lauren Cooper,” a disaffected teenager known primarily for her now-famous catchphrase: “Am I bovvered?”

Imagine being surrounded by a group of Lauren Coopers, as you stand armed with only your wit, and the sole directive of getting these disgruntled garden gnomes to engage with you, each other and Shakespeare. Words fail to describe fully the very public nightmare this situation can be. Horrid.

There I stood, in a sea of discontented youth, trying desperately to light a spark, and these kids were having none of it. We limped through the first hour, which felt to me like pushing a boulder uphill, while wearing a backpack full of lead bricks. Make no mistake, it was worse than trying to herd a tribe of cats. Blindfolded.

And I have to say, the girls were the worst! Gangly arms folded tightly across uniformed chests, expressions on their faces at once blank and smug. They huddled together in a tight ,little groups, finding strength in their almost photocopy sameness. Wisely, I diffused each gaggle’s group mentality by splitting them up, and making everyone stand next to someone from a different school.

Breaking the groups up helped immensely. The ring leader, the main girl who was “too cool for school” was suddenly floundering at sea without her “back up” surrounding her. Also, not surprisingly, liberated from the ring leader’s sphere, her fellows were free to actually relax, enjoy themselves and excel.

One such girl was Annie, the smallest, shiest member of the “cool girl” gang. I could see immediately that Annie had different spark/spirit about her. My instincts were right, and as the day progressed she went from strength to strength.

The day actually ended in a competitive public debate, and Annie was shocked and elated to hear her name announced as one of the 6 semi-finalists. The finals round was a heated debate on the following motion: “This house believes that Shakespeare is no longer relevant.”

I was responsible for prepping the team opposing this motion, which included Annie and two other bright sparks. We had half an hour to formulate points and decide who was saying what. In this session, Annie took the lead, and then she led the troops into battle.

During the final debate, I sat on the sideline like an anxious stage mother. And, I was absolutely gutted when the judges declared victory for the other team, the Proposition. My heart sunk, as I immediately felt the day had been lost. I had visions of little Annie limping back to her circle of friends, only to be chastised for daring to try.

Thankfully, I was distracted by one of the other teachers. But, in the midst of our conversation, I felt a small tapping on my shoulder. I turned around to see Annie’s little face beaming up at me.  “Thank you, Miss. Thank you. I can’t believe I did that. Thank you so much!” she said as she threw her arms around me, and gave me a huge hug.

“You are very welcome. Listen, Shakespeare wrote ‘to those who have been given much, much is expected,’” I said to her, trying not to cry, “I’m expecting great things from you, Annie.” Her smile beamed again, “Thank you, Miss!” And with that she scurried away.

The power of Shakespeare to empower and change lives is something that I have had the good fortune to witness consistently throughout my life. And, It never ceases to amaze, unnerve and humble me that I have the opportunity be a small part of that process. Beyond the parades and the birthday cake, Shakespeare is 400 years old and still going strong!

Where there’s a Will, there’s a way.

20 April 2009

Shall we dance?

I adore Eva, my fitness guru, but this time, she may be going too far.

Over the past several weeks, I have watched carefully as Eva, an October Bride-to-Be, has slowly slipped into her own personal and unique Bridal vortex. 

These days, she is focussed on "The First Dance," and she can think or talk of very little else. At first, I enjoyed the game I played with myself of guessing the precise moment when Eva would slip into the vortex. 

I'd wait, count to ten slowly as I watched her eyes glazing over, then, bang! She was in. Then, just as quickly, the music in the gym--which Eva controls from her desktop computer--would suddenly shift. Sometimes, she would do this with such abruptness, that I would nearly trip as I ran and sweated on my treadmill.

"I like this one," Eva would say, shouting over the blaring muzak, "it is Enya." "Lovely!" I panted back at her, still trying to run. "Yes, but you see, the problem is in Poland, no one can understand what it is Enya is saying." "Eva," I say flatly, giving up on the treadmill altogether, "It's Enya. No one can understand what she's saying. If you like, use it." 

Sometimes, I have even joined Eva in her "First Dance" vortex. One day, I brought in my iPod and shared my first dance song ideas with her. She wasn't overly impressed with my choices, but that's okay. She likes Enya. 

At moment, this is my "First Dance" shortlist:

1.) "At Last" by Etta James 

(I know everyone likes/uses this one, i.e., "the Monica and Chandler song," but trust me, I've earned this song this hard way.)

2.) "Just the Way You Are" - Billy Joel, but better still, the Diana Krall version. 

(Back story: One day, while I was still living in NYC, I was out shopping in Soho, The D.E.B. phoned me, just as I passed Anthropologie. Five hour time difference, it was very late for him, he grabbed his guitar and sang this tune down the phone to me. I was crying in the streets of Soho, missing him like there was no tomorrow.)

3.) "Save the Best for Last" - Vanessa Williams 

(It is so unfortunate that for most Brits this song is the theme tune for the "Bisto Gravy" advert...Why?...Who'd want people thinking about gravy while you're trying to have a moment?) 

4.) "Sweet Love" - Anita Baker 

(An oldie, but a goodie.)

5.) "Vision of Love" - Mariah Carey

 (So twee, and yet, so fabulous.)

6.) "O Mio Babbino Caro" - Maria Callas, Renee Fleming, whomever. 

(The theme from "Room with a View"...hello!)

7.) "My Heart Will Go On" - Celine Dion

(I'm blaming Eva for this one. And, yes, I do realize that "Titanic" doesn't end well.) 

8.) "Right Here Waiting" - Richard Marx 

(Another Eva suggestion. The lyrics are pretty perfect in terms of  "our story," i.e., "Oceans apart, day after day, and I slowly go insane/I hear your voice on the line, but it doesn't stop the pain...")

9.) "I've Got You Under My Skin" - Diana Krall 

(Cole Porter. Period.)

10.)  "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off"- Ella Fitzgerald 

(Unfortunate title, great lyrics: "You say tomato, I say to-mah-to". Very apt, of course. Gershwin, of course.)

At the moment, Eva is all about Celine Dion. Non-stop Celine Dion. (Last week, it was non-stop Shania Twain.) Have you ever tried to run to Celine Dion? I mean, okay, she's great and all, but it's far from the most fitness motivating music in the world! We are all being very patient and supportive, but I think by the end of the week somebody's gonna crack.

All this has me thinking. What is it about the "First Dance" as wedding ritual? What does it symbolize, what does it mean? And what's the best song to choose? What are we, the couple, meant to be trying to convey in that moment? Who we are? Who we were? Who we hope to become? All of the above?

The D.E.B. and I have decided to have two songs, a sort of his and hers, Bride's Choice, Groom's Choice First Dance songs. That way, we each get to have the "soundtrack moment" we both want. He has chosen: "True Companion" by Marc Cohn. Very nice.

The D.E.B.'s choice has me leaning heavily toward Etta James for mine, as it is a short and punchy tune, comparatively speaking, with my other choices.

As Shakespeare wrote, "If music be the food of love, play on!" 


18 April 2009

Easter in Barford

When all is said and done, I do believe that Easter may very well be my favo(u)rite holiday. I love everything about it. The time of year, the dead of winter giving way, tentatively, to the new life of springtide. The crisp freshness in the air, early spring buds pushing through dark earth, and the foods of Easter are simply fantastic: asparagus, lamb, salmon, yum!

Back in my old parish in NYC (Church of St. Luke in the Fields) Easter is always more than the just the "Highest Holy Day of the year," oh no, at St. Luke's, Easter is a week long Love Fest! As Easter approached here in Barford, I wondered how I would cope without the traditions and practices I know, love and hold so dearly.

A few weeks back, I got into a rather interesting discussion with a visiting Anglican priest at St. Peter's. Somehow, we got on the topic of liturgical practices and (surprise, surprise) I was quite firmly on the pro-High Church side of the debate. 

"But, God doesn't require all that to be praised," the wise, old priest smiled at me with kind, warm eyes. I resisted the urge I felt to scream, and instead smiled sweetly and replied: "You're absolutely right, God doesn't require it, but God certainly deserves every bit of it." (I have to say I was rather proud of that one.)

The way I see it, there are so many other things, institutions, people that we are willing to "bow down to," metaphorically, of course. We worship and reverence wealth, power, money, attractiveness, status, celebrity. We lavish limitless pomp, ceremony and grandeur upon our fellow mortals, a few examples: fans queue for hours to catch a glimpse of their favorite screen siren in full regalia on Oscar Night; we rise to our feet when a judge enters a courtroom, and so on.

I also believe that ritual is central to the human existence. I would argue that our predilection for ritual is what makes us human. The action of ritual enables us to underscore the significant of a particular moment, and it is the means by which we are able to transcend the mundane to reach the divine. God may not need all the "smells and bells," but I certainly do.

So, it was to be an Easter without liturgical pyrotechnics, and to be honest, I was more than a little sad about it. But, resilient and resourceful gal that I am, I vowed to make a real go of it here in Barford (and beyond), and try and enjoy Easter as it is observed in my little village.

The week began with Palm Sunday. There was an early morning procession to the church through Barford. A merry band of Barfordians gathered outside the Village Hall, and waited for the choir and the clergy in the glistening morning sunlight. After a few prayers and responsive readings, we progressed to the church. 

Although there were no special services for the Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday of Holy Week, St. Peter's Church was open each of the days for prayer and reflection. Maundy Thursday was the first big official, service day.

On Holy Thursday, Her Majesty, The Queen, gave out "Maundy Money" at St. Edmundbury Cathedral. This is an ancient royal tradition, that dates back to the 13th century. (Love that!)
I attended a quiet evening service at one of Barford's sister C of E parishes, St. John the Baptist in Wasperton

The church at Wasperton is tiny and old. Not as old as St. Peter's, St. John's is a lovely, wooden 19th century chapel. Very sweet. The service--like most in these parts--was very low-key and pared down; though utterly sincere and heart-felt.

There were a number of services to attend on Good Friday, and the D.E.B. and I chose to go to the afternoon service at St. Peter's. As we arrived, The D.E.B. was roped into service, and asked to read the role of "Peter" in the Passion story. (I was very proud.)

Holy Saturday was spent prepping for Sunday -- the D.E.B. and I had invited our friend Sally (Not "Sally, the Cake Baker") for Easter Lunch. We cleaned and tidied, and I made at start on my big baking project: Key Lime Pie. (Easter requires a bit of citrus zest, I think.)

Saturday afternoon we attended a small soiree in the churchyard honoring the reinstatement of the Church Clock (see post: "Watching time"). After the bells chimed 12 noon, there was a champagne and canape reception in the unseasonably warm and sunny weather. 

During the reception, our wonderful Vicar made his way over to me, and asked which Easter service I would be attending. My heart sank. 

Secretly, I had been planning to sneak away from Barford village, and attend the big Saturday night Easter Vigil at the Collegiate Church of St. Mary in Warwick to get my "smells and bells" fix for the season.

I had no choice but to confess my temporary defection: "Easter Vigil really means a lot to me," I stammered, "I'd planned to go tonight to St. Mary's." The vicar looked crestfallen. "Oh, all right then." he said sheepishly, "I'd hoped you'd come along to Easter Vigil here, tomorrow morning, and do a reading." 

The Vicar is such a cutie-pie, I couldn't just let him walk away. "I'll do it." I said before I knew it. Before I realized, I'd committed myself to the 7:00 AM Easter vigil service! Yikes, making it on time for 9:30 AM is a enough of a challenge as it is.

The D.E.B. is such a sweetie, after I told him what I'd done, he went to the Vicar and volunteered to do a reading as well. "Since you're going to the 7 AM service, I'll go, too. Don't want to be home without you." (Isn't he a doll?)

So, it wasn't exactly what I had planned, or hoped for, but I am learning--slowly, but surely--to take life here as it comes. And in the end, the early morning Easter vigil service was lovely. 

We crept to the church through the quiet, cold, sleepy streets of Barford. It was still dark-ish, as dawn was just breaking. We arrived to find a small gathering of faithful souls. The candle-lit service was truly beautiful. I was so proud of the D.E.B. when he got up to read. (I love his voice.)

Because there was such a small number of us, we were all able to sit on the altar where the choir normal sit. It was such an incredibly intimate experience, as was celebrating the first
 communion of Easter with the D.E.B. kneeling beside me. That's almost too much to take in, even for a goofy Episcopal girl like me! Heavenly.

After the service we were all invited to the Rectory for breakfast with the Vicar and Mrs. Vicar. Then home to prepare Easter Lunch. The salmon was divine (Thank you, Delia Smith!), but my Key Lime Pie was an absolute disaster (Thanks for nothing, Martha Stewart!). 

Thank goodness Sally had brought along a lovely sherry Trifle for "pudding." And there was lots of champagne, chocolate and laughter.

So in the end: No smells. No bells. But lots of love and Easter joy.


17 April 2009

Seek and Ye Shall Find!

American white cake mixes--amongst other USA goodies--found in England!! 

Check out the following online specialist foodie shops the supply American treats in the UK:

"American Sweets": www.Americansweets.co.uk
(Just ordered "Duncan Hines White Cake" mix from them, should be here on Tuesday! How's that for a quick result?)

"Let's Eat American": www.letseatdirect.com

And, mega thanks to Nanny Debbie who spotted "Betty Crocker White Cake" at Bakers & Larners!

Let them eat cake...

Plans for getting work done today have been foiled -- by cake. 

My wonderful English "cake baker," Sally, graciously sent along yet another cake sample for me and the D.E.B. to try. As with her three previous "American wedding cake" attempts, she has made a lovely and positively yummy little cake. But, it's still not quite right. 

I don't really want to try her patience much further, but you know that feeling, when you know precisely what you want, and you want so desperately for the other person to get it right, but it's not? That's where I am. I really want to say: "Oh, Sally! Well done! It's perfect." But, that isn't 100% true. What she has done is lovely, no doubt. And would be perfectly splendid on the day, but it's just, not, quite, it.

I have already spent countless, precious hours scouring the internet for recipes, so today, more urgent action was needed. I sent out frantic emails to friends across the water ("Go buy some slices of wedding cake, and post them to me!"), and even dropped a pleading, electronic missive to legendary Italian pastry chef, Biagio Settepani, owner and Head Baker of Bruno Bakery in Manhattan. I have no shame. Besides, when I lived in the West Village, I was a regular at Bruno's, so why not. I'll be shocked if I hear back from him, but it was worth a shot. 

Even more foolishly, I posted a "Wedding Cake Distress Call" to all my friends on Facebook. (I'm still awaiting all the witty responses which will undoubted ensue...) What else is a girl meant to do?!

Then, like a flash of lightning, it came to me: Betty Crocker. 

Forget Martha, Betty was there long before! Betty Crocker White Cake, isn't that what I'm looking for?? Surely, the answer to this dilemma and major life crisis can not be as simple as that? Or could it?

At least I now have a focus to my campaign. One grand last ditch effort, before I give up the cause. So, I just need to make several boxes of Betty Crocker White Cake mix magically appear on this side of the Atlantic. 

My beloved Sainsbury's actually carries numerous Betty Crocker products and mixes, just not the white one. So, pushy Yankee doodle that I am, I wrote them. "Dear Sainsbury's: Please help!"

We shall see how far I get. I only hope, for poor Sally the Cake Baker's sake, that Sainsbury's can save the day.

16 April 2009

Pink celery

Today, I discovered the English delicacy that is “Rhubarb.”  I will confess that my interest in this quintessential English dietary anchor was not motivated purely by cultural or culinary curiosity. I needed to offer the D.E.B. a “peace offering” and I recalled that his favo(u)rite childhood pudding/dessert was his mum’s 'Rhubarb Crumble'.

I needed to apologise for a recent outburst. As noted in “Bridal Breakdown #4-6,” my sense of humour is not these days what it should be. I find myself getting very heated over very, very minute and meaningless things. Thankfully, the D.E.B. is very loving, forgiving and still wants to marry me in spite of it all.

Here is the rub. The D.E.B. and I are very similar creatures, almost too similar in fact. Allow me to explain...

When I was six years old, I asked for a twin. Christmas morning came, and nothing, neither the brand, new “Easy Bake Oven,” nor the Walt Disney "Tinkerbell" costume—complete with magic wand—could allay my severe and heartfelt disappointment.

“I asked for a twin.” I said unequivocally, gossamer wings drooping slightly. “One day, when you’re older, we’ll explain why that wasn’t possible,” my mother said softly, as she poured smooth cake batter into one of those tiny, aluminum baking tins.

Lo, and behold, my prayers have finally been answered! Well, sort of. Metaphorically, at any rate. The DEB and I share the same birthday: the same day, though not the same year. 

I have never been heavily into astrology, although I do believe some of it has to be true. I have never met a Scorpio who didn’t have a sting, nor have I ever met an Aquarius who wasn’t mellow.

So, true to form as resplendent, noble Leos, the D.E.B. and I feel things quite deeply, the sunny, majestic leonine exterior belying the easily wounded fluffy kitty beneath the surface. We are quite equally matched in our capacity for brooding and sulking in silence.

But thankfully, we are also equally matched in our capacity for forgiveness, unconditional love and affection. With or without the “pink celery.”

p.s. Very proud of my first and very successful first attempt at “Rhubarb and Stawberry Crumble”! The D.E.B. loved it!! "Just like mum made." Found a super easy recipe online by Annabel Karmel. Sooo pretty and pink. Gorgeous combination of rhubarb and strawberries.

15 April 2009

Bridal breakdown #4-6

Ending a relationship is never easy, so I decided to let Eva down gently.

"I quit!" I declared as I walked into the Leisure Club gym this morning. "What? What are you saying to me?" Eva's impeccable comprehension of English seemingly had failed her at this pivotal moment in our discourse. 

"Eva, I can't do this anymore. I can't take it. I can't run another mile, swim another stroke, or lift another weight. None of this is working anyway!!!" I stammered, on the brink of tears. "How do you mean? Look at you. You are so much better." said Eva, refusing to let me break up with her. 

"Eva," I said flatly, trying to remain calm in order that she too would see the solid reason behind my decision, "at this point the only thing I am losing is my sense of humour, and my will to live. Please let me go." 

"You are being so silly," she said, a twinkle in her bright, blue Polish eyes. "Chodz tu," ("Come here.") she said, leading me across the gym towards the dreaded, evil, evil treadmills. "We both have weddings, so, we work together."

Eva is getting married in October, so she understands--albeit from a distance--a measure of the terror that I am feeling. We ran side-by-side on the twin treadmills, with Eva pushing the controls of both machines higher and higher, faster and faster. 

My will to live evaporated completely, and it was all I could do to hang on and not fly off the menacing machine. "Think of dress!" Eva shouted 8 minutes in, as I panted and sweated. "Think of Darling English Boy!" she said as she increased the speed on my machine, and hers. "Think of shun-high!" "Shun-high?" I panted, confused. "Yes, Shun-high! Keep going!" Eva encouraged.

Twenty-five minutes later, I wobbled off the treadmill, and collapsed on the exercise mat, more sure than ever of Eva's determination to kill me. As I lay there, eyes closed, Eva went and switched the music on the gym sound system. Suddenly, '90s techno-pop gave way to the sound of a soft, melodic love song: "From this Moment On."

Suddenly, I sat up. "Shun-high?" I asked in Eva's direction. "Yes," Eva replied, "Shun-high Twang. Would be beautiful love song for 'First Dance,' no?" 

I was utterly exhausted, but couldn't help but smile as I watched Eva waltzing around the gym. My sense of humour may just be on the mend. 

14 April 2009

Watching time

Time is running smoothly once again in Barford. 

This weekend, on Holy Saturday in fact, the village celebrated the official "Re-instatement of the Church Clock," the central time keeping device of our village.

The time piece, designed by Oldham  & Co., dates back to the late 19th C.; and thanks to the great generosity of a long-standing village resident (now deceased), the clock has been restored to its formerly glory and magnificance. 

We all gathered in the churchyard at 11:50 AM, and after a few words of thanks and dedication,the lovely chimes began to ring out, just as the vicar promised, at roughly 33 seconds before noon. 

So now, it seems that Barford is precisely 33 seconds ahead of the rest of the world.
Oh, well, better to be ahead than behind...

09 April 2009

Driving ambition


Driving in England. I agonize over this one activity like nothing else in my life.

Here was my plan. The D.E.B. and I had planned to do our big Easter shop yesterday evening. Then, a thought flickered through my mind: it was a bright sunny day, I was feeling frisky and chirper, why not do the Sainsbury’s run by myself?

You see, The D.E.B. has been being a very good lad, and has been cycling to work, so the car (a.k.a.,"The Tank”) has been sitting on our drive, taunting me, teasing and tempting me.

What am I so afraid of? I don’t really know exactly. The stupid thing is that I actually learned to drive here in Britain. Years and years ago, while I was a graduate student the opportunity to learn to drive presented itself, and I took it. Took the test, two or three times, and eventually passed. I know how to drive, and am licensed to do so.

But that was many, many years ago, and in the interim, living in the States—my fellow Americans will have to forgive me, but I must say this—I have become a very lazy driver. Driving in America is a doddle. You could do it in your sleep, in fact, I am sure that I have driven in my sleep!

To me, it seems that driving is quite a casual affair in the States, where else in the world would one find “Drive-Thru Liquor Stores”? I remember one time, when I was in high school, some friends and I were out on the town; we went to the “Drive Thru” liquor store/off-license for some Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers (Egad, I’m showing my age here.)

And, I kid you not, as the man behind the counter, leaned out of the window to hand us our package, he said to the driver: “You want me to open those for ya?”  I wanted to shout from the back seat: “She’s driving!”

More than casualness, there is just the matter of skill sets. In many ways, at least for me, it seems that driving in Britain requires a different set of skills. And that’s what worries me. It will just take a bit of time for my brain to re-re-adjust to driving here.

I did make it to Sainsbury’s yesterday, though. And proudly did the big Easter shop all on my own. Felt very empowered and liberated. (And got a super deal on whole salmon!) My victory was bittersweet, however...a minor boo-boo that resulted in a cracked, passenger wing mirror.


Victories of the week

This week I finally mastered “the forward crawl”. 

Not bad for a chronic hydro-phobe, like me. (After seeing the film Titanic, it was weeks before I could cross a bridge, or take a bath.)

I have been going to the gym everyday for the past 4 months, and the daily practice has paid off.

And, I conquered the elusive, British classic that is the ‘Yorkshire Pudding.’ I had solid guidance from Delia Smith. On her website, she softly admonishes: “A classic Yorkshire pudding is not difficult to make provided you have the right recipe, the right size tin and the right oven temperature.”

In the end, it was all about trusting the heat (that seemed remarkably high to me), and distracting myself long enough for them to actually bake, undisturbed, for what felt like a very, very long time to me.

So, after a long winter of culinary mishaps, and countless soggy and misshapen hockey pucks, victory was at last mine! The D.E.B. and I did a little jig of joy about the kitchen, and I was ever so proud.

Practice and patience seem to be the keys to mastering most things.

Cake report

On Tuesday evening, The D.E.B. and I invited our friend, Sallie (not Sally the cake baker) to join us in our garden for a glass of wine and a bit of cake. It was a lovely, warmish spring evening.  We sipped chilled ros√©, and prepared ourselves for the task at hand. 

Before us, three lovely wedding cake samples: 1.) a traditional English sponge with jam, 2.) Sally the Cake Baker’s attempt at American wedding cake, and 3.) a combination cake, American wedding cake with jam.

In the end, it was number 3 for each of us. Sally the Cake Baker had done a very good job of getting the flavo(u)r and taste of the American wedding cake just right, the only thing I could fault was the texture. Her version with quite dense. 

American wedding cake is meant to have a very light, airy texture. So, we are going to have another go. Sally the Cake Baker thinks the difference could be in the flour. 

Could it be that American flour has a unique characteristic that its British counterpart lacks? Or perhaps there is a special flour that American bakers use to produce wedding cakes, and nothing else. I promised Sally the Cake Baker that I would do a bit more research on this for her next attempt.

07 April 2009

Having my cake, and eating it, too

Warwickshire cake baker, Sally McCluskey, has had a go at producing an American wedding cake for me and The D.E.B. to sample. She delivered it to The D.E.B.'s office this morning and we are having a cake fest when he gets home tonight. I can't wait! I really, really hope it's what I'm looking for...

I scoured the 'net for wedding cake recipes, but all I could find was the weird, wacky and innovative. All I wanted is a plain and simple wedding cake. There is a certain taste that traditional American wedding cakes have, that anyone who has ever had one knows. It is quite simply divine, and inexplicable. I have no idea what the "flavo(u)rs" are that go into it. It's just dreamy. In the end, I did find a recipe that seemed straight-forward enough. We then had to convert the measurements so Sally could re-produce it with English tools and devices.

She stopped by a few weeks ago, and we had a great meeting. She had loads of magazines and pictures for me to look at. I like her aesthetic: simple, clean lines. And she really liked the idea of a "Poetry cake": a three-tiered cake with lines of poetry written along the sides.

Anyway, Sally is super talented, so I have very high hopes. Here's her website: Cake Vision UK 

06 April 2009

State Secrets

“I hear you're attending Marriage Preparation classes in Wellesbourne.” remarked Phil, balancing himself atop the large, yellow Body Ball. “Yes!” I wheezed breathlessly from the cross trainer. “How’s that going?” asked Graham, as he headed toward the treadmill. “Back in my day, they’d never have had ‘classes,’ you just called in on the vicar, or were forced to call in on the vicar, rather.” Phil smiled broadly with a chuckle.
Times have certainly changed.  And, as I said to my wonderful gym chums, I’m very thankful for the preparation course. This is something the Church of England gets absolutely right. I think it is much needed in this day and age. As my friend, Mikala, reminded me on the phone today, I am secretly quite a staunch traditionalist at heart, though my life has often been far from it.
At our marriage seminar we walked through “The Marriage Service” line-by-line, word-by-word. But this is much more than a rudimentary “Do-you-understand-what-you-are-saying?” exercise. We dissected the text chunk-by-chunk and explored issues that are directly and tangentially related to the points being made.
As a part of this, there were a series of written and conversation-starting exercises that we were to complete individually, and then share with our partners. The exercises tackle some really important and pertinent issues.
The first exercise is called “Appreciating Your Partner and Their Talents.” Rationale: “Do you appreciate your partner? Do you value yourself? Marriages are built on a combination of each partner’s talents. Someone once said that one key to a good marriage is where ‘My partner enables me to love myself more.’”
We are then meant to fill in the following blanks:
1.) Something I really appreciate about my partner is (blank). 2.) Something my partner does really well is (blank). 3.) Something I like about my partner’s appearance is (blank). 4.) One special memory about our life together so far is (blank).  We then had to share our answers with our partner, in the form of a direct sentence: “Something I really appreciate about you is (blank).”
The next exercise was called: “Where Does it Come From?” This exercise looks back on that pivotal relationship of our parents, and their marriage. The dynamics of our parents’ marriages have such a significant influence and impact on how we interact with the opposite sex, and how we see the construction of marriage in both positive and negative ways.  One often hears people making statements such as I want to, “marry someone like my Dad” or “never ever be a wife like my mom.”
For this exercise we had to sit and consider who did what in our families, i.e., paid the bills, did the dishes, disciplined the children, mowed the lawn, taught the children how to pray, sent out Christmas cards, and etc. The course leaders stressed the point that these childhood experiences can create strong, deeply-held convictions, assumptions and expectations of which we may not even be aware.
The most interesting part of the exercise for me was that in addition to outlining our own experience of “who did what,” we had to guess what our partner’s experiences had been. Coming together later with our answers revealed much about how my Darling English Boy and I became the people we are.
In his family’s household, the washing up/doing the dishes was a shared responsibility, most notably done by the children. The D.E.B.’s mum was responsible for the family purse, and paying the bills, while she and the D.E.B’s dad shared the tasks of disciplining the children, deciding where to go on holidays, and deciding where the children went to school, & etc. They also made a joint effort in sending out Christmas cards and entertaining guests.
I was astonished. 
By comparison, my family was a clich√©, 1950s, American sitcom. 
I never once saw my father (god rest him) wash a single dish, and I’m sure he had no idea where my mother even kept the broom, let alone the Christmas cards. 
I’m not saying my parents had a bad marriage, clearly, it worked for them; their marriage was just very different to the one that the D.E.B.’s parents had.
I will say that my parents' marriage did in some ways, put me off the idea. I can also say now that I did resent the way my father wasn’t involved in household chores and such. There was clearly a “male/female” divide in terms of who did what, and who had the ultimate and final say.
After delving into the past, we had to look at the present. The next exercise was: “What Sort of Person Are You?” Again, working individually, we had to decide and note down, between ourselves and our partners, who was: a.) The more clothes conscious. b.) The one more likely to take risks.  c.) The more thrifty. d.) Gets angry the soonest. e.) More ready to show affection. f.) More inclined to sulk. and, g.) the more reserved. 
When we came to share our answers, The D.E.B. and I had each awarded the other with the “most affectionate” mantle.
There was a great deal of substance in this experience for us. Particularly in the area of who gets angry soonest (me) and who is more inclined to sulk (The D.E.B.). This exercise led us to talk about conflict, and how to handle differences.
As I said to my gym chums, I think the one thing we as people are not taught to do well is to disagree. Arguing is viewed as such a negative thing, yet it is something that inevitably happens in every relationship.  I really appreciate our Preparation class acknowledging that, and pushing us to actually think about “How do you argue?”
Other points we addressed were: “The ways we express love to one another: Touch, Words, Service and Gifts” --  raising such questions as “How do you feel you are being cherished in this relationship?” And, “Which ways of being cherished are most important to you?"
“Marriage is seriously joyful, seriously hopeful and seriously demanding.”
One of the course leaders—a priest who was truly amazing!—got up spoke frankly about how his first marriage didn’t work and had ended, and how God had blessed him with a second. 
He was honest, open and vulnerable with us, and that meant a lot. He led us through a segment called “Commitment Through All The Changes Ahead”.
We were asked to list some of things that we were individually looking forward to, which we hope might happen during our marriage, either in the near or distance future; also to list the things we might find more challenging, painful or fearful; and then finally, asked to consider and list “roots you can put down now which will help you to cope with situations as they occur in the future.”
The remaining two segments were the most profound: “What Do You Want From Your Partner?” (Rationale: Sometimes it is hard to tell your partner that you want something from them; but how will they know if you don’t tell them. Equally important is being willing to listen to your partner’s needs – sometimes we have to be aware of unspoken signs.”) and, “It Worries Me…” All about revealing your fears and concerns about marriage (money, boredom, loss of freedom, and etc.)
Great stuff. 
And things that most people rather not thinking about. Much easier to get caught up in flowers and tiaras…The leaders intended all of this to be a springboard into our on-going conversations with each other as we journey into marriage.
“So,” I said, huffing and puffing my last 5 minutes on the cross-trainer, “what’s the secret to a good marriage?’
“Oh!” Phil and Graham say in unison, more than ready to give some fatherly advice. “Keep the woman under control,” cheeky Graham said with a smile and wink in the mirror. “Do as I’m told,” Phil says plainly, finishing his squats.
“Of course, you know,” said Graham, slowing down his treadmill, and facing me, “Phil’s answer is based on reality, while mine is completely and utterly from the realm of fantasy.”  

01 April 2009

April Fools

Perched atop my favo(u)rite treadmill, I could see Jackie 1 was "giving it some wellie" (working very hard) in the swimming pool this morning. (Lucky her, she had the whole pool to herself, a rare privilege we all relish.)

After punishing myself in the gym, I was ready to reap my “reward” (a swim and a steam) and wandered into the pool area, just as the other members of what I have deemed, “The Monday-Wednesday Swim Club” arrived (Jackie 2, Beryl and Judy).

After swimming flat out for an hour, Jackie 1 was ready for a good old natter (chit-chat). To be honest, I used to find the “M-W Swim Club” really annoying. But now, fitness goals achieved, I am mush more relaxed about things, and have really grown to enjoy their company. And they were all on top form today.

“I’ve been dying to tell you,” Jackie 1 swam over to the edge of the pool to meet me, “I went along to a wedding at Walton Hall over the weekend. It was lovely, but quite different. When the bride came in, she didn’t have any music at all. Rather, the vicar asked us all to applaud her. Can you imagine? She came in to the sound of people clapping and cheering her! Isn’t that unique?”

Before I could respond, Jackie 2 chimed in: “Well, that’s fantastic. Why not? People should do what they like.” “Well, yes, that’s my point, exactly. You should do exactly what you want!” Jackie 1 said patting me on the back.

“Morning, girls!” Beryl and Judy had arrived. These two are quite simply, fabulous. They are two peas in a pod, same height, same build, best friends. Both in their 60s, they are a laugh a minute, and as tall as they are wide, and they could care less what anyone else thinks about that.

(“If people don’t like what they see when they look at me, don’t look, I say!” the wonderfully boisterous Beryl declared once.)

“Are we talking weddings, again?” Judy teased and winked, lowering herself into the pool. “I remember my wedding like it was yesterday,” she added. “Oh, that’s so sweet,” giggled Jackie 2, splish-splashing around the pool, but never actually getting her hair wet.

“It weren’t sweet, we fought the entire time!” Judy confessed. We all froze and looked at her. “Oh, yes. That’s right. He and me, we fought every day the week before the wedding, and the week after.” Judy revealed.

“No!” the Jackies and I exclaim in utter disbelief. “Yes. After two weeks of that, I’d had enough. I packed my bags and went back to my mum’s!” said Judy, she and Beryl erupted into laughter. “Don’t look so frightened, lovey. She weren’t back home with ‘er mum, long,” Beryl gave me a wink.  Judy explained: “Of course, I went back. After he came a’begging!” The twin peas cackled in unison. 

“Did you keep on fighting like that?” Jackie 2, her mocha-colo(u)red, springs piled high on her head, enquired timidly. “Goodness, yes,” Judy said proudly, “I’ll tell you. There aren’t two glasses in my cupboard the same, what with me throwing ‘em at him when we was having a row.” “She’s not lyin’!” Beryl testified. “My goodness...” blushed the demure Jackie 1.

“Well, there’s a lot to be said for a good fight, isn’t there, Judy? A lot good can come of it. ‘Specially in the making up.” cheeky little Beryl winked, and reduced us all to schoolgirl giggles.

With that, Beryl and Judy began their laps in the tiny pool. The Jackies and I returned to more simple wedding talk: “How are you wearing your hair?”; “Who’s going to lift your veil for you?”; “Has the D.E.B. decided what he’s going to  wear?” and etc.

I explained that I had originally planned to wear my hair down, since the D.E.B. prefers it that way, but that my opinion had changed during my first fitting.

“The Dress” requires a much more pull-together coiffure than my rather unruly, and unkempt long and loose look. I had yet to even think through the “veil lifting” issue. 

Both Jackies think I should have the D.E.B. do the lifting. (“That would be so romantic…” Jackie 2 swooned.)

And as for what the D.E.B. is wearing, I informed them that things had taken a decided 19th C. turn, and that the D.E.B. would be wearing a charcoal grey “morning suit.”

“Oh, like Mr. Darcy,” sighed Jackie 1. “He is my Mr. Darcy.” I blushed, and the two Jackies squealed with glee.

“Listen,” Jackie 2 leaned in close. “Don’t worry about the arguing. Marriage is the greatest adventure I’ve ever been on.” She smiled and swam away, corkscrew curls still dry.

Later, while sitting alone in the steam room, I hear strains of singing. It’s Beryl entertaining Judy with a rendition of “The Cuckoo Song.” Beryl was twirling about in the pool, while Judy, sat in hysterics, watches from the side.

Beryl was reminiscing about Springtime when she was a little girl at school. “Teacher made us sing that song, everytime. And we had to do the ‘Daffodil’ poem, and act it out, with gestures and all!” she exclaimed, as Judy howled with laughter.

I opened the door of the steam room and teased them: “Oy! You two are having far too much fun out here!” This only served to set them on an even bigger roar.

At which point, dear Julia arrives. Poor Julia’s been feeling under the weather, and only managed to get to the gym very late. “What sort of time you call this?” Beryl teased her from the pool. Poor Julia, she had no idea what a time she missed.

“Lord, what fools these mortals be!” – Puck, A Midsummer Night’s Dream


Wild thymes

Mrs. Macbeth was lying in wait for me on my way home from the gym.

“My dear, we must, must, must settle your flowers. The time is drawing near and I must know what you want.” Mrs. Macbeth is the responsible for all floral arrangements and decorations at St. Peter’s Church. She is actually quite an amiable person, truly quite lovely, warm and funny. But, when she is on a mission, she is a force to be reckoned with.

It seems that the flowers for our wedding have been top of Mrs. MacB’s list for quite some time. I appreciate her attentiveness, but have found myself welting under the “Decide now!” pressure that ensues whenever we encounter one another in the village shop, at church or in the street.

There was no escape. This time she had caught unaware and unguarded. And without my D.E.B. there, to charm and diffuse the situation. Thankfully, I was a bit more prepared this time.

Normally, when Mrs. Macbeth has caught me, I have become an incoherent jumble of nervous, barely capable of stringing a complete sentence together. “…Tulips?” I’d stammer meekly. “Oh, no! ” Mrs. MacB. would exclaim soundly. “Hy, hydrangeas?” I’d try again. “Goodness no!  That’s a late summer flower!” she explains. “I really like Lillies of the Valley, they…” I struggle to find my voice. “My dear,” she’d break in firmly. “You really must go away and think this through. Every flower you seem to want is for a different season than the one your wedding’s in.”

Today, however, I was prepared. On Tuesday, the D.E.B. and I visited a lovely little florist shop in the tiny Warwickshire village of Kineton. The shop, which is called “Flower Thyme,” is run by a petite and perky woman called, Jill. Jill is a bundle of energy, and her bright, blue eyes sparkle when she smiles. 

“Helloooo!” she greeted us at the door of her shop with a big smile. She remembered us from our brief meeting at the Wedding Fayre at The Glebe Hotel last month. “Let’s talk flowers!”

In my next life, I’m going to be a florist. (And without my hayfever and pollen allergies.) What a great life. Surrounded everyday by nature’s beauty, sounds pretty fabulous to me. It seems a great job, and Jill clearly loves it. She had stacks and stacks of photographs for us to look at, and well as several fresh bridal bouquets for me to test-drive. (Which I enjoyed immensely.)

I immediately fell in love with a beautiful nosegay bouquet made of lisianthus, ranunculus, roses and freesia. The flowers were all in shades of ivory, with touches of green provided by tiny springs of eucalyptus and lamb’s ear. Although I had walked in determined to order lavender roses, I kept being drawn to the white lisianthus bouquet. “I think that’s the one for you.” Jill smiled broadly, eyes twinkling. I had to agree, there was something so elegant about the creamy, white flowers.

I loved the bouquet as it was, but requested a few add-ins: instead of lamb’s ear, I have requested springs of English ivy, myrtle and rosemary. I chose myrtle because I’d read somewhere that Queen Victoria had myrtle in her bridal bouquet (myrtle and orange blossoms, in fact).  If it was good enough for her, than why not?

As for the rosemary, apparently, in ancient times, brides carried this herb in their bouquets to ward off evil spirits. (Hey, whatever works.). And, of course, as Ophelia says, “Rosemary, that’s for remembrance.” (Had to get some Shakespeare in there, somewhere.)

The D.E.B. liked the look of lisianthus as well, and decided to have that as his buttonhole flower. (His groomsmen will wear lilac lisianthus in their buttonholes, the D.E.B.’s will be white.)

We had such fun together picking flowers with Jill, and she informed us that she has a wealth of experience dealing with “church ladies” in charge of flower arranging. Jill reckons she’s mastered the fine art of working with women like Mrs. Macbeth: “Oh, you know. Their hearts are in the right place. They just really care a lot, that’s what you’ve got to remember. They want your day to be as beautiful as we do.” Jill said.

She added: “I know the best way to handle ‘em. Drop the flowers off, and run away as fast as I can!”