Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Sweet Potato Recipe Contest

I’m a Sagittarius. It’s supposed to be the luckiest sign in the zodiac.

I’ve never won anything.

I’ve never even opened up a bottle of soda, looked under the cap, and won another bottle of soda.

So why I ever thought I could win the Sweet Potato Recipe Contest, I have no idea. The winner gets $1000 and the honor of having come up with the best new sweet potato recipe according to the Sweet Potato Commission of North Carolina.

Like most of my adventures, this one started off full-throttle. I spent some time coming up with sweet potato recipe ideas and then, the next day, headed to the Farmer’s Market to pick up a large bag of fresh sweet potatoes.

Three weeks and several bags of sweet potatoes later, I think I just might have a winner.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve learned more about the sweet potato than I ever thought I would know in my life. I can also now tell you exactly how to cook a sweet potato to get the proper texture for anything from soup to crispy French Fries. And did you know that sweet potatoes can not only be cooked any way you cook a normal potato, but that they’re WAY more nutritious? You will also be stunned to discover that the sweet potato contains fantastic amounts of protein, fiber, calcium, magnesium, potassium, folic acid, Vitamin C, and a ton of Vitamin A; and that a great deal of the nutrition is found in and near the skins. And you are now privy to this knowledge due to my slightly obsessive nature and a burning curiosity about all things.

If you aren’t obsessed with cooking, trust me, you wouldn’t have wanted to be around me the past few weeks as I bored friend after friend with my lengthy discussion of sweet potatoes. Not since my pursuit of the perfect paper towel holder for my kitchen (see earlier blog post) have I been so singularly obsessed.

As the days went by and I found myself elbow deep in mushy sweet potato pulp, I read up on sweet potatoes, posted cryptic updates on my Facebook page, and emailed and called family and friends letting them all know of my sweet potato activities and my intent to do everything possible to win this contest.

Finally, I came up with this:

Sweet Potato Skins

One distinguishing thing about sweet potatoes is that the skin easily peels away from the flesh, making sweet potato skins difficult to master---but not impossible! After several attempts at healthing them up by baking, I finally gave in to what restaurants do with regular potatoes---I fried them. The final result is amazing!

Here’s what you will need:

Sweet Potato Skins

Sweet Potatoes

Brick of Monterey Jack cheese

Good quality lean ham

Peanut oil

First you wash your sweet potatoes, cut the end bits off, and cut them into quarters. With a melon baller, scoop out a good portion of the sweet potato inside to get a nice skin. You can save these bits for boiling, frying or baking later, if you like.

Pour enough peanut oil (you can also use vegetable or canola oil, but I find peanut oil best for frying) to make a nice pool in the bottom of your pan. Raise the temp to about 250 degrees (that’s around medium to medium high heat, depending on your stove) and blanch the sweet potatoes for a few minutes till they get just a tiny bit soft.

Take them out, pat dry with a paper towel and let them rest for a few minutes.

Then, raise your oil to a high heat and drop the potatoes back in for a few minutes of frying. You’ll smell the sweetness of the potatoes as they cook and turn slightly brown at the edges. Turn them several times to get just the right amount of crispness on the outside and soft on the inside.

Pull them out again, pat dry with a paper towel, pre-heat your oven to 400 degrees and get started on your toppings.

Grate up a nice pile of Monterey Jack cheese and cut or rip your ham into tiny pieces to fill the potato skins. Put the ham on the bottom and the cheese on top. Place your filled skins on a baking sheet and pop them in the oven for about five minutes, just till the cheese melts on top.

Serve them with a side of sour cream and apple sauce.

Now, this, to me, was a winner.

Unfortunately, one of the prerequisites for entering this contest was that you post the recipe to your blog site. Yes, I have a blog site, but it’s certainly not all about cooking or food. While I do mention cooking and food quite often on this blog, you’re just as likely to find me writing about rats, going to the eye doctor, or finding free books in my laundry room. While this recipe might be good enough for a food blogger, for someone who wrote an entire essay about paper towel holders… Well, I felt that my series entitled “A Week’s Worth of Excuses on Why I Couldn’t Write a Week’s Worth of Essays of 500 Words or Less (In 500 Words or Less)” definitely put me in the Underdog category. With this fear in mind, I ate all the sweet potato skins without even taking a decent picture. Sure, I could have made them again---but suddenly, I felt I had to up the ante.

In an attempt to be Continental, yet simple, I tried to adapt a recipe a friend recently gave me for an amazing Pannekuchen (that’s a German/Norwegian-style pancake). This new jewel in my recipe box is so simple to make, yet so amazingly delicious. I added some sweet potatoes, adapted the recipe in an attempt to accommodate and came up with this:

Sweet Potato Pannukuchen

It was tasty, and yes, I ate it with some delicious Lingonberry Jam purchased during my last Ikea trip. But the texture was still off and I doubted it had enough sweet potato flavor to really put me in the running.

Then I came up with the idea of Sweet Potato Biscotti.

Now, I LOVE biscotti! But I’m kind of funny in that I don’t like my biscotti completely hard as a rock. My favorite biscotti to make is with dried figs and pistachios---a recipe I made up myself and whip up on a regular basis. It’s just slightly moist, but still retains a hearty texture.

Unfortunately, the moist, yet starchy sweet potatoes completely threw off the texture. Even after three tries, I still wasn’t happy.

But then, baking is a science. I’m sure Jonas Salk had his share of mishaps, too. However, unlike Salk (who tested the polio vaccine on his own wife and children before offering it for public consumption) I knew better than to offer my biscotti-gone-bad to anyone except the local birds, squirrels and (most likely) rats---this is NYC, after all.

It wasn’t BAD biscotti, just not prize-winning.

And that, after all, was my goal, wasn’t it?

It wasn’t as if I didn’t have other more pressing matters to attend to. A script under deadline. A short film I started the rehearsals for just today. My French studies so I can pass my French equivalency exams. And the loads of Spring cleaning that not only was begging for my attention, but that now included a daily sweet potato counter and dish clean-up that was seriously eating into my free time.

However, like an inveterate gambler, I somehow convinced myself that if I could just win the Sweet Potato Contest, the sheer act of winning ANYTHING just might turn my luck around. After all, who doesn’t love a winner? Unless you win too much, like the Yankees, and then everyone wants to see you lose.

But as a struggling writer-slash-waitress, I was surely not lumped into the Yankee camp. Tips haven’t been that good. Trust me.

It wasn’t until a mere two days ago that I came up with the recipe that could possibly topple my Sweet Potato Skins and turn the competition in my favor…

Sweet Potato Butter.


2 cups of sweet potatoes (boiled or baked)

¼ cup apple cider vinegar

3 tablespoons apricot jam

3 tablespoons brown sugar

¼ cup applesauce

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

¼ teaspoon allspice

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

½ teaspoon cinnamon

Simmer all ingredients on low heat for about 15 minutes till flavors come together. Blend mixture to a smooth consistency using either an immersion or regular blender. Let cool. Can in sterilized containers for long-term use or put in jars to keep in the refrigerator where it will keep for about two weeks---though it certainly won’t last that long!

As a kid, my Grandma used to buy jars of Apple Butter and, for a mid-afternoon snack in the summertime, would smear a glob of the cold, jam-like spread onto a piece of white bread to keep us going till dinner. Online recipes for homemade Apple Butter seemed to involve hours upon hours of simmering of fresh apples. But, with a large container of freshly-boiled sweet potato pulp all chilled in my refrigerator, I decided to try to put it to use. I looked thru some cookbooks for tips on how to make apple butter and then set off on my own.

The first batch was delicious.

The second was nothing short of perfect. Absolutely THE most delicious thing I’d ever had on a piece of bread in my life!

I quickly packed it into a few tiny jars and set it in my refrigerator to chill over night.

The next morning, I spread it on a piece of bread and had it with my coffee.

This was my winner!

If I had ever doubted the enormous amount of work I’d put into this Sweet Potato Contest, I had no doubts now. I could bottle this and sell it at the Farmer’s Market in Union Square and easily make $1000 in one weekend!---that is, if I knew how to can. Luckily, I knew my Sweet Potato Butter would last for about two weeks in the fridge in just a regular jar---tho it probably wouldn’t last that long in my apartment. I immediately made plans for the extra jars, saved one for myself, and planned to make another batch of it the next weekend just because it was so gosh-darned good!

Then, I went onto the Sweet Potato Recipe Contest Website to get some final tips on how to submit my recipe.

To my horror, I discovered that after all that work---they already had a recipe for Sweet Potato Butter listed on their website!

Early in the game, I had been so careful to make sure I wasn’t repeating any recipes they already had posted. And granted, my recipe was quite a bit different---but they already had Sweet Potato Butter. And I thought my idea was so original. I almost cried.

Instead, I smeared some of my Sweet Potato Butter onto a piece of bread and felt how fresh, sweet and spicy it was as the flavors rolled across my tongue. Every single nuance hit and blended just perfectly---yet, with all those flavors, you could still taste the sweet potatoes in all their perfection. Why, oh why?---I lamented.

Today, I packed a jar of my sweet potato butter into my bag and took it into the restaurant where I work. I pulled out a loaf of bread from behind the line, cut it into quarters, and began smearing the Sweet Potato Butter onto the pieces and walked around offering it to various members of the staff. Not only did they like it, but I immediately began to get requests for jars of the stuff.

However, the toughest critic was my manager. Like me, he is addicted to The Food Network. Unlike me, he has an aversion to most forms of cooked fruit. And when I mentioned Sweet Potato Butter, he made a face and, like a child, actually said, “Ewww.”

He did this twice.

However, he does swear that my Chicken Noodle Soup is THE best chicken noodle soup he’s ever had and recently, when he came down with a bad cold, actually handed me some raw chicken and vegetables from the kitchen cooler and begged me to go home that night and make him my chicken soup.

A tough critic, but he appreciates my work. Nevertheless, I was venturing into dangerous territory. Cooked “fruits” and mulling spices---two things he was definitely not feeling.

Finally, with great trepidation, I handed him a small plate with a sample of my Sweet Potato Butter on a slice of bread.

“Just try it.”

He looked at it cautiously and sighed.

“Well, you haven’t let me down yet,” he said, as he popped the sample into his mouth. A moment later, I saw him disappear around the corner. Oh no! He was spitting it out into the trash can, I thought as I began to walk away to avoid what would undoubtedly be some snarky comments.

Suddenly, he popped back around the corner and declared, “Okay---you win a can of sweet potatoes for that one!” he declared as he handed me a giant, industrial-sized can of sweet potatoes left-over from the Thanksgiving special.

“I didn’t think I was going to like that…but I need more.”

While I may not win the Sweet Potato Recipe Contest, I was a winner today. I received the accolades of my friends, co-workers and one pretty harsh food critic for my weeks of effort. I also now have a recipe that I will be making over and over again. And I have a giant can of sweet potatoes that may not be as attractive as an Oscar or a Tony Award---but it was earned thru years of effort in my kitchen.

After all, cooking, like all human activity, is really done for one true purpose---to secure love.

Today, thanks to sweet potatoes, I am a winner.

And I LOVE sweet potatoes!!!


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Table Voice

In waitressing, there’s something known as “A Table Voice”. Most servers have one. It’s similar to a Phone Voice, only we have to add facial expressions and body language to our arsenal. It’s not just a tone of voice---it’s a Darwinian trait developed by servers to survive.

When we are sat a table, we are not only required to go out there with knowledge, expertise, and a pair of strong, well-shod waitress feet---we’ve got to act our asses off. We have to laugh when an old guy makes the same stupid joke we’ve heard a thousand times. We have to pretend we don’t notice that a couple is fighting or that a guy’s toupee is crooked. We have to be able to stand there with a smile and continue breathing while the stench of a customer’s colostomy bag rides up our noses. We have to fend off unwelcome advances from idiot customers without yelling at them or slapping them. And we have to remain poised and in control when a crazy old woman starts yelling at us about her inadequate portion of cole slaw.

In short, we have to fake it.

And I’m not very good at faking it.

I've never been a good liar. My mother always caught me in a lie. Not only that, but she liked to pretend she had special “Mom Powers”---like the ability to look down my throat after a long hard day at pre-school and tell me what I had for lunch.

“Um…I see fishsticks, corn, and spaghetti.”

“How could you see that?”

“I’m Mommy. I can see everything.”

Wow. Mommy was magic.

And I was someone you could see right thru. Right down to the fishsticks.

Every server’s Table Voice is distinctive to who they are as a person outside of that unflattering uniform. In a way, we’re like the homeless guys in the subway. Some stand there and tell you their life story, some pound on a plastic bucket or sing “Lean On Me”, and some simply walk up and down the aisle asking for spare change. Yeah, servers generally smell better; but both of us depend on people reaching into their pockets for survival.

Me? My Table Voice is pretty much me---but with an extra added touch of competence and control. You see, I think waiting tables is something like being a Kindergarten teacher. You have to smile and speak nicely to them. And you’re the adult in the room, so you have to be more mature than them. But if they start to act up, well, unfortunately, you can’t beat them---but you have to let them know who’s in charge.

Now, you may not detect this undercurrent of parochial school discipline as I’m telling you about the specials---but it’s there. Trust me. It’s how I survive.

We all have our Table Voices that we switch on and off throughout the day. We use different tones and timbres of our voices for job interviews, mating and courtship, conversations with our grandparents, and getting that new puppy to stop doing that on the rug. It’s all about getting what we want.

In writing it’s called tactics. It’s what separates soap opera scripts from Sundance winners. That’s why Independent films are interesting and Daytime TV is boring.

But in real life, isn’t it exhausting? Why all the dancing around our wants and needs? Why can’t we all be like customers in real life?

“I want a cheeseburger and---yeah, go ahead and give me bacon, too. Well done. Make sure it’s well done.”

Sure, it seems easy. So what’s the big fear? That someone will look down our throats and spot the bacon?

And what’s so bad about wanting a little bacon?

In writing, there’s something called “finding your voice”. Today, as I was writing, I was stunned to discover that I’d actually found my voice. The funny part is, I discovered that my “voice” doesn’t like to speak. It likes to keep secrets and hold things till the end. It likes keeping a straight face in the midst of chaos. And it flat out refuses to admit it wants bacon. And, like all “voices” it reflects who I am as a person outside my unflattering writing uniform.

More interesting? Hmmm. Exhausting? Yes.

But just because I open my mouth, doesn’t mean that anyone should be allowed to look down my throat and see what I had for lunch.

Smile. Table voice.

Friday, March 6, 2009

DALF and other ruminations...

DALF is short for “diplôme approfondi de langue française”.

It’s a test. And I’ve decided to take it.

While most people make their New Year’s Resolutions on New Year’s Eve, I tend to wait until Fat Tuesday to get my ducks in a row.

In January, it’s so cold and, let’s face it, you’re looking at another two months of more cold. Who has the energy to do anything in January?

Me, I wait for Fat Tuesday.

As a child, I was raised Catholic. I never quite understood how Jesus fasting and praying for 40 days in the desert was the equivalent to my giving up candy for the same amount of time. But nevertheless, the nuns seemed to expect us to do something (or NOT do something) for 40 days and nights.

And I was never big on candy.

Usually, I cheated and vowed to read more books. But reading books was no torture for me. I was the weird kid who loved to read. And why should I give up anything? I mean, I didn’t really eat a lot of candy or watch a lot of TV. What was I supposed to give up? Green beans? Why?

Of course, the point was to try to improve your life to show appreciation to God for his great gift of life to you yada-yada-yada...

But why this emphasis on pain and deprivation? Why did you always have to “give-up” something to become a better person?

Even as a child, I was thinking outside the box. Sure, I could have promised to “give-up” reading and practiced the piano an extra hour a day. But then, I could equally have given up practicing the piano so much and read more books.

Seven years old and caught in a metaphysical dilemma.

In the end, I usually opted for the books. We were told to write our Lenten promises on a piece of paper and turn them into the teacher. I don’t remember anyone ever calling us out on them the day after Easter:

“So, Jimmy---I see here that you were supposed to give up chocolate for Lent. How’d that go for ya?”

There was no follow-up. And no one ever questioned why, with most children vowing to give up candy, these same children were suddenly greeted with a giant basket full of candy from an enabling bunny the first morning of their sweet reprieve.

Children don’t have very many bad habits. Children rarely need to quit smoking, quit drinking, quit using crack, or even quit eating French fries and get off the couch. In fact, I have a theory that quitting anything is much easier if you replace it with something much better. And, as someone who is STILL smoking (and certainly not proud of it!) I’ve discovered that it’s much easier for me to resist the temptation to smoke when I have something I would much rather do right in front of me.


I studied French for four years in high school. After four years of high school French, I was supremely disappointed to discover that I could hardly understand a word.

I went to a Catholic, all-girls high school. And, may I say, as a gal who wore that uniform for four years---we young girls had NO idea that you men thought our uniforms were “hot”. To us, they were the same damn clothes we wore every freaking day. To us, they were boring!

We couldn’t wait for picture day or that first week of school when you got to wear your own clothes. We thought they were drab, plain, and simply functional. A way to democratize the students, keep them focused on their work and a way to help save our parents some money on clothes for growing girls. If anyone would have told us that full-grown adult men thought we looked “sexy” in our plaid skirts and white blouses---well, we probably would’ve laughed them out of homeroom.

And no, we most certainly did NOT wear sexy little underpants underneath our skirts. We wore plain cotton underpants and often even, a pair of shorts. Yes, shorts! Sorry to burst your bubble, guys. I’d wager that nine out of ten Catholic school girls to this day are wearing a pair of biking shorts under those nasty little wool skirts. Please. We have French Club and Play Practice after school. We’re busy, active gals. We need to feel comfortable and relaxed without our granny-panties showing. Yes, granny-panties! We’re fourteen---what do you expect, pervert?

But I digress…

I trust that I was given the best that French high school language education had to offer. But something, apparently, was missing.

After high school, I continued to “keep up” my French. Mainly by---yes, reading.

I once heard a story about the famous British biographer, Lytton Strachey. Strachey was a member of the Bloomsbury Group, which included such luminaries as Virginia Woolf, Clive and Vanessa Bell, E.M. Forster, and John Maynard Keynes. Strachey could often be heard “reading from the French” around a Bloomsbury fireplace to the rapt attention of his peers. But oddly, it was noticed that during a group trip to France, Strachey would not condescend to speak the language with the locals---insisting on using The King’s English to communicate in the French countryside.

I would hazard to guess that Strachey could not actually SPEAK the language. Nor possibly, understand all its idioms, patois and argot. How do I know?

Because I was that gal.

The ability to read a foreign language and the ability to understand, speak and write it are entirely different things. Americans (who are rarely bi-lingual) often wrongly assume that the foreign fellow who speaks English with poor grammar and sentence structure does not understand them. Trust me, he understands you. But being able to speak in proper English and understand proper English are two different things. To understand merely requires a certain amount of computation. To speak requires creativity and command.

While my French has improved considerably over the past few years, I’ve decided that my goal for Lent and the rest of the year is to finally be able to understand, speak, read and write French like a native. Writing is the hardest one. Writing shines a spotlight on every tiny flaw in your grammar, syntax and command of idiomatic slang.

I’m determined to be perfect! Well, at least in French. I will probably always have dirty dishes in my sink. I can’t help it. What can I say? I like a snack and a cup of tea. I can’t be washing dishes every half hour. What am I---a machine?

In my quest for perfection, I’ve discovered that high-speed Internet is a godsend! Thanks to the Internet, I can now watch celebrity gossip news from France, high school plays videotaped in Lyon, documentaries on the plight of the albinos in Tanzania, and MUCH better international news coverage than any American channel---and that’s including CNN! Sorry, Anderson Cooper.

Thanks to the Internet, I can now read blogs from home cooks all over France and French-Canada, can now look up any topic on “Wikipédia, projet d’encyclopédie librement réutilisable que chacun peut améliorer”, I can pick up the local argot “slang” on numerous discussion bulletin boards, and can even watch classic French films like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg on You Tube.

In short, I am well on my way to “parfait”!!!

My goal is to take (and PASS!) the "DALF, diplôme approfondi de langue française" by the end of the year. With this document, one can test out of the French language in any French university. This also certifies that you are completely proficient in the French language for any job that requires French proficiency.

No, I’m not planning on becoming a UN translator. But with this, I COULD.

At the very least, it would certainly qualify me for a position waiting tables at Café Un, Deux, Trois.

But then, I’d be waiting on the French. God, I love the French---I just wish they’d learn how to tip.

Or I could be like Nabokov and start writing my stuff in a foreign language.

Fille de Jacinthe. Hmmm…

Sunday, March 1, 2009

What Are You Doing Right Now?

A few months ago, I joined Facebook.

At first, I found it completely boring. No matter how much anyone touted the joys of Facebooking, I would rather spend time with my friends in real life over poking them or inviting them to join my ridiculous group online.

Despite my immediate negative reaction, a few months later, when the weather got blustery and cold and I didn’t want to go outside and play, I started to actually enjoy Facebook.

You see, by this time, I had garnered quite a few Facebook Friends---and yes, I actually KNOW my Facebook Friends. Well…except for maybe three or four. One of my Facebook Friends/Strangers is a famous polar explorer, author, and environmentalist. I’ve read all his books and have admired his work for years. And I do know a few people who know him personally. But me?---never met him. Would like to someday. And if he did a book signing at Barnes & Noble or some dashing speech at The Explorer’s Club in Manhattan, I would certainly jump at the chance to hear him speak. And he didn’t have a fan page. So I requested to be his friend.

The next day, he Facebook friended me back. Yay! It was kind of exciting.

“I am now online friends with a man who has travelled to the North and South Poles,” I thought to myself. “I feel like a more interesting person already.”

I was so thrilled, in fact, that I took a moment to write on his Facebook Wall---possibly the closest thing to a fan letter I’d written in my life. I steadied my hand, steeled my nerves, and strained my writerly resources to chuck up the perfect Facebook Wall Post:

“Longtime fan! Keep up the great work!”


Yeah. That’s what I wrote.

Something intelligent and witty like that. I leaned back to view my Benchley-esque prose.

Sad. Really sad.

As if a guy who’d survived on sticks of butter as he mushed a team of sled dogs over frozen Antarctic terrain needed MY encouragement to “keep up the great work”.

Despite this flicker of online embarrassment, I did find it fun re-connecting with old friends I hadn’t seen in a few years. They wrote on my wall to say hi. I wrote on theirs to say hi back. Occasionally, they would send an email to my Facebook Inbox giving a bit more personal detail on what they’d been up to.

Within days, long-lost relationships picked up right where they left off.

Well, sort of...

At least, in a virtual way.

We emailed, sent each other videos, notes, photos of kids and pets---and commented like crazy.

They commented on my pictures. I commented on theirs.

They tagged me in their 25 Random Things Note. I tagged them back in mine.

They sent me virtual gifts. I gifted them back, as well.

Poke. Poke. Poke. Poke. Superpoke! Poke.




And then there were the Status Updates. That little window at the top of the screen that continually beckons you to answer the question:

“What are you doing right now?”

When I first joined Facebook, I didn’t quite understand the reason for this question. But, like a good student, I filled in the correct answer:

“…is writing.”

Because that’s what I was doing. Writing.

It seemed the proper answer. I had no idea that a message saying that I was writing was immediately sent to my then, six Facebook Friends---informing them (in case they were wondering) that I was, indeed, writing.

And I discovered that this piece of vital information had been blazed across cyberspace because a few hours later, someone felt the need to comment upon my post.


I had no idea how they had gotten the message so quickly that I was writing. In fact, I had no idea that anyone particularly cared. But apparently, the fact that I was writing caused one of my friends to feel the unstoppable need to say, “Good!”

Can’t say it gave me the sort of stamina it takes to fill up a backpack with butter and start waving at penguins. Not really. But it certainly wasn’t any lamer than “Keep up the great work!”

Status Updates suddenly became interesting. People were actually reading these things. Why were they reading them? And what were they up to that might be more interesting than what I was up to?

Some friends tweeted constantly about their every boring move. Others seemed to shift emotions more times per day than a contestant on “America’s Next Bi-Polar”. Other updates were more impersonal---amusing little tweets about things in the news or a silly thing that happened to them that day. For a few months, I found these discoveries about my friends fascinating. Watching the Live Feed was like watching a reality show starring people I knew. In the past few months, I’ve learned more about my friends than I normally would have been privy to: the birth of a new baby, the death of a beloved pet, a crippling case of insomnia, colds, the flu, the drama of auditions and getting (or not getting) the part, a new home, a desperate roommate search, new jobs, an engagement, a painful break-up, a new kitty, new band tour, new haircut, new mittens and more birthdays than you could shake a stick at.

Standing out from these messages was one terrible note. Not in a Status Update. It wasn’t that sort of note. This one came thru the private email to my Facebook Inbox: A dear friend found out last week that her beloved five year-old nephew had been diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Something called Brain Stem Glioma.



According to my friend, the prognosis for this form of cancer is particularly grim. And on a silly little blog like this, I can’t even begin to relay my feelings. As I type these words, I feel meaningless even thinking I could touch upon such a personal family tragedy and the illness of a beautiful child.

This child is important. This blog is not.

Yesterday, I went onto the hospital-sponsored website created by his mother. A place where family, friends and friends of friends like myself can convey their love and support of this little boy and his family.

I don’t know this little boy. Have never met him. But reading the notes posted on his lovingly-created site, one thing is clear:

This little boy is loved.

He is loved so much by everyone around him and has an amazing team of doctors, nurses, specialists, family members, friends and loved ones surrounding him every day.

He may only be five years old, but in five years, he has managed to find more love than most people ten times his age.

He is possibly, the luckiest boy in the world.

Last night, as I read the beautiful notes of support, love, hope and prayers posted on his website wall I realized that this child actually has friends. Real friends.

Not Facebook Friends.

Real live people he sees on a regular basis, plays with, and enjoys spending his day with. People who think about him constantly---not just when they’re scrolling the News Feed and happen to read his Status Update.

These are people who actually CARE about his Status Updates. Because he is doing more than “…is thinking about ordering a pizza.”

He’s battling cancer. A little five year-old boy is going head-to-head with one of the most evil monsters that could ever hide under a little boy’s bed.

Oddly, if it hadn’t been for Facebook, I might not have been able to keep in such close touch with my friend who has been so supportive of me and my little daily problems and concerns these past few months. If it hadn’t been for Facebook, I might never have learned this information at all. But for some odd reason, upon hearing this news, I completely lost interest in Facebook.

Not that I was so gung-ho to begin with. Sure, for about two or three weeks I was enthralled with the novelty. I was never addicted. And yes, such a thing is apparently possible.

According to several health and wellness websites, there is indeed something called “Facebook Addiction”. Like any other addiction, you keep going back to it hoping it will give you pleasure. But the more you do it, the more you need to get that same high. It begins to interfere with your job, your relationships, your health and your life in general. There is actually an online quiz you can take to tell if you are a Facebook Addict.

Last week, an aspiring New York City model and actor wrote a Status Update on his Facebook page:

“Paul Zolezzi was born in San Francisco, became a shooting star over everywhere, and ended his life in Brooklyn. …And couldn’t have asked for more.”

Three hours later, Paul Zolezzi’s body was found hanging on some monkey bars in a playground in Brooklyn.

Not long after he posted his Status Update, a friend jokingly commented on his status, “Are you dying? Or just staying in Brooklyn? I hope it’s the latter.”


And I thought I felt like shit after I posted “Keep up the great work!”

It just seems odd to me that just before a man takes his own life, he logs onto Facebook and takes a moment to thoughtfully answer the site’s computerized question, “What are you doing right now?”

I wonder how long Paul Zolezzi sat staring at his Status Update waiting for a comment to come in before he packed up the rope and took a walk to the playground.

While most children are pretty computer-savvy nowadays, I kind of doubt my friend’s five year-old nephew has a Facebook page. And, even if he did, I would imagine he would find it much more entertaining to go outside and play hide-and-seek with his friends than to follow their activities on Facebook.

According to an article in this month’s Utne Reader titled The Lonely American, one in four American households consists of one person only. More people are living alone in this country than ever before.

The article goes on to talk about the “busyness” of Americans. As Americans, we are encouraged to believe that we can be anything we want to be if we just keep trying. The Utne Reader explains:

“A good friend described the impact of busyness on our neighborhoods brilliantly: ‘Being neighborly used to mean visiting people. Now being nice to your neighbors means not bothering them.’ People’s lives are shaped by how busy they are. Lives also are shaped by the respect and deference that is given to busyness—especially when it is valued above connection and community. If people are considerate, they assume that their neighbors are very busy and so try not to intrude on them. Dropping by is no longer neighborly. It is simply rude.”

I found this particularly interesting because as a child, I was raised to not be “a bother”.

My mother used to HATE when people dropped by---but for a practical reason. She was a single working Mom. She worked nights and slept during the day. Stopping by to ring her doorbell for a friendly lunchtime chat was the equivalent of her ringing their doorbell to see if they wanted to buy Girl Scout cookies at five o’clock in the morning.

I was taught that not bothering people was as important as honesty, integrity, and hard work.

When email first came out, I was thrilled; because I could now communicate with my friends without actually bothering them. No longer would I interrupt someone’s dinner or pry them away from an important televised ball game. I could go onto my computer at any time of the day or night, quickly state why I was contacting them and then let them read and reply at their leisure. Never again would I feel as if the sound of my voice were a nuisance.

You would think that would have taken care of the problem. But it did not.

Because, tho I tried to keep my emails to the absolute minimum in content and frequency---I would often receive a reply to my email over a week later, “SO so sorry I’m just now getting around to this. Things have been SO hectic around here. I’ve just been so busy this past month and it doesn’t seem to be dying down anytime soon. But YES!!!---To answer your question---I WAS a camp counselor! ---and we used to use Calamine Lotion for bee stings. And yes, if you’re allergic, you’ll know pretty quickly. Sorry about your nasty bee sting! Hope all is well!”

A year ago this week, I had the most horrible experience of my life---I was running for the subway to work, fell, and broke my jaw.

It was a horrible experience. The doctors at the hospital told me that the jaw is the worst bone you can break. I had to have surgery for the first time in my life. They had to cut into my face and insert a steel plate into my head. And if it seems like I’m telling this in a scary campfire story way---trust me, it was that scary. I was warned before the surgery that one of the potential hazards of this new surgery was that a crucial facial nerve could potentially be cut---partially paralyzing my face for life.

“I have to let you know that it’s a possibility,” the doctor solemnly warned.

After I fell, I walked to the emergency room. Alone. I sat in the waiting room alone. I hesitated calling anyone until I had gone thru most of the preliminary tests and been given the diagnosis. I didn’t even call my family until five minutes before I signed the admittance papers. I didn’t want to bother them.

The call started with my calmly saying, “Hi. I hope I didn’t wake you up and sorry to bother you. But I had a little accident…”

I went thru the surgery alone. Of course, my mother was ready to hop on a plane to be with her little girl. But I begged her to stay home. I didn’t want to bother her.

“By the time you get here, I’ll be done with my surgery and back at home. Really. I’ll be fine.”

Two days later, I got a cab to pick me up outside the hospital doors and had it drop me off at the drug store about ten blocks away to pick up my prescriptions. I waited by myself for about half an hour while they filled them and then walked the last ten blocks home to my studio apartment in the cold.

I spent the next two weeks recuperating at home. Alone. I had no visitors. Lots of people called. And that was perfectly fine with me. I was more than happy to give them any updates they needed over the phone when they called. But I live all the way uptown in Washington Heights. It’s such a long ride on the subway. Really, I don’t need anything. I’m fine.

I also looked horrible as my face swelled up to twice its normal size. I spent two weeks hobbling on a bad knee back and forth to the hospital for follow-ups and then lying on my bed watching television while zonked out on Percocet.

At the time, I didn’t feel lonely or even alone. Maybe it was all the calls and emails I received. Maybe it was the Percocet. But I felt self-sufficient. And I wasn’t bothering anyone. I was proud of myself for handling this with strength, courage and perseverance.

The article in The Utne Reader goes on to say that Americans are encouraged to be self-reliant. A little something we can blame on Thoreau and Walden Pond. That pick-yourself-up-by-your-boot-straps mentality that shows you are, indeed, a winner. America’s history is full of the stories of immigrants who left their families overseas and went on a frightening journey to a new land with fifty dollars and a dream in their pocket.

On the wall in my living room is a framed copy of a ship’s ledger. The ship was The Kaiser Wilhelm and it arrived at Ellis Island in New York City on December 20th, 1905. The page from the ledger lists the immigrants’ names and the answers to the questions they were asked upon arrival.

One of the names on the list is Helena Kustra---my great-grandmother.

According to the ledger, she was nineteen years-old, female, single, able to read and write, of Polish nationality and race, from the town of Blazowa, free of any mental or physical illness, not a polygamist, not an anarchist, not crippled or deformed, and not in any way recruited to come to the United States by organized labor. They also asked how much money she had in her pocket.

Helena Kustra came here with five dollars.

What most of these Great American Stories fail to mention is that, while she may only have had five dollars in her pocket---she came here with loads of family and friends.

Numerous people from her small town in Poland are listed next to her name---the entire group of them obviously standing in line together, muttering their fears, hopes and concerns in Polish next to the Bohemian woman with eighteen dollars and conjunctivitis in the left eye.

At Ellis Island, they were asked their final destination city. Her entire group listed “St. Louis”. The name of the street and the relationship to the people in St. Louis is written in tiny, scrawled print and indecipherable---but one thing is clear. They did not go thru their journey alone.

Living in New York City, I meet immigrants everyday. Not just the casual friendships made with the guys at the corner bodega, but great people I actually know, hang out with, have real conversations with and consider my friends. Most of them find it odd that I don’t have any family here in NYC. On holidays, they’ve even invited me to their homes to spend the day with their families.

“Oh, that’s so sweet. Thank you. But that’s okay. I’m fine. Really. I have so much to do. I could really just use the day off.”

That’s certainly true. I am a busy, New York gal. And I don’t want to be a bother.

They smile and nod their heads as if they understand us crazy, busy Americans. So why do I get the feeling that these same immigrants, living in two-bedroom apartments with six other people, feel sorry for me?

Most of these immigrant friends have computers.

None of them are on Facebook.

Two weeks after my accident, I went back to work. I was in pain, with visible stitches, and a hugely swollen (but temporarily) partially paralyzed face. No facial nerves were cut---but a salivary gland was “nicked” and it caused the left side of my face to swell up three times its size. It was like the worst toothache imaginable---on about seventeen teeth. Not even the Percocet helped. I avoided friends. Didn't want anyone to see me like that.

Over a month after this horrible accident, someone gave me a hug.

It took a few moments to dawn on me that no one had hugged me since I fell. It was a hug from an immigrant friend. A friend who felt bad that I was still in such pain and who was trying to cheer me up. This friend thought nothing of this hug. He hugged his friends and family members on a regular basis. Self-reliance was not a part of his culture. I, on the other hand, realized that outside of doctors and nurses, no one had physically touched me in over a month. The effect was staggering.

It wasn’t as tho I didn’t have close friends or family---they just weren’t physically near me.

According to the news reports, Paul Zolezzi had moved back to NYC from his hometown of San Francisco a mere ten days before his suicide. Back in San Francisco, he had recently been arrested for buying heroin on the streets. His mother, who hadn’t seen him in quite some time, said she knew of his troubles and addiction and simply replied, “I was praying for him.”

According to the news, at the time of his death, he was sleeping on the couch of a friend named Melissa Lopez, 33, in Brooklyn.

I know a Melissa Lopez about 33 in Brooklyn. My Melissa Lopez is the sort of good-hearted soul who would take a stray, wandering friend into her home and let him sleep on her couch. She would sit up nights talking to him. Share her feelings, experiences and insights. Sure, she might bring Jesus into the picture a bit too much for some folks. But it would all be done for the right reasons. And she could turn off the Jesus whenever she felt it was too much. She would hug. Cuddle. Nurture. And do whatever she could to help a tortured, heroin-addicted soul come back to life.

I don’t know if this Melissa Lopez is MY Melissa Lopez. I haven’t seen Melissa in almost a year and don’t have her number. But some 33 year-old Melissa Lopez in Brooklyn thought enough of Paul Zolezzi to take him into her over-priced and tiny Brooklyn apartment and let him sleep on her couch. He could have talked to her. Shared what he was going thru with her.

Instead, he went on Facebook.

I don’t get the phenomenon of Facebook. Perhaps my tendency to not be a bother even extends to Facebook. I’ve often found myself thinking about commenting on someone’s Status Update or their photo and have resisted the temptation.

“I just commented on that thing they posted a few days ago. If I post twice in one week, they might think I’m too needy.”

Last night, as I read the hospital bulletin board about my friend’s five year-old nephew, I saw unabashed emotion. For this beautiful child, there was no holding back. There was no thought of appearing “needy”. No worry of “bothering” the family with their posts. There were messages from teachers saying how all the other children were looking forward to seeing him back at school. People who couldn’t wait to come visit him, offers to babysit the other children while they dealt with treatments, offers of any kind of help the family could possibly need.

This was not just an online community---this was a village and this was THEIR child.

The sort of village Paul Zolezzi certainly had not found on Facebook.

The Lonely American looks at these social connections (and disconnections) and then pulls the last string on the fragile sweater of our lives as it topples the front we put up when we cry out, “But I LIKE being alone!”

This is the seemingly unbreakable defense uttered by millions.

We LIKE having our own place. We LIKE being able to come home and watch whatever we want to watch on TV. We LIKE not having anyone nag us about washing the dishes or picking up after ourselves. And especially---we LIKE the quiet, the space and the peace after a long, hard day at work.

I’m a writer. I certainly enjoy my solitude. Do I need it to write? No.

Yet, I’ve often found myself throwing these lines of defense back in the faces of people who question my choice---yes, my CHOICE to live alone.

And as Americans we get our feathers in an uproar when it comes to matters of choice.

But is it really a choice? Or are we just ingrained to think of it as such?

Our culture teaches us to prize being self-reliant---much in the same way the early 20th Century Japanese culture prized obedience.

The most extreme Japanese followers became Kamikazes.

Our most extreme followers hang themselves on monkey bars.

In both cases, alone.

The Lonely American shoots down every reason we offer for our self-imposed disconnections till we’re left with nothing to do but admit that we, indeed, are alone. And lonely.

And who wants to admit to being lonely? Most people would rather admit to a crack addiction than admit to being lonely.

Lonely people have no friends. Lonely people are mentally deformed in some way. They’d have to be---because if they weren’t so mentally screwed up, they wouldn’t be alone.

Today was the last day my friend’s nephew had to spend with his family before he started his treatments. Today he was not alone. And tomorrow, as he begins his journey, he will not be alone, either.

Most of the rest of us will.

Will we play on the monkey bars with our friends and family or will we virtually hang ourselves from them alone?

“Loneliness was never the goal,” The Lonely American says. “It’s just the spot where too many people wind up. We get stuck because the world we have wandered away from is so frantic and demanding. We get stuck because we have dreamed about lonesome heroes who stand defiantly apart. We get stuck because we feel left out and stop looking for ways back in. We should remember that the outside was not meant to be our final destination.”

Tomorrow is the one year anniversary of my accident. Tomorrow I’m calling a friend and playing on the monkey bars.

I just hope I don’t fall!

What are YOU doing right now?