Sunday, April 25, 2010

Smelling the Lilacs

It’s become an annual rite of spring. It can happen anywhere between the end of April and mid-May, depending on the weather, our schedules, and Mother Nature. But it definitely is not to be missed.

Usually Jim and I go together. After all, he was the one who started it. But last year, when Jake asked what I’d like for Mother’s Day, I had him take me there.

“There” is the New Jersey Botanical Gardens at Skylands. “It” is visiting the Lilac Garden to see—and smell—the flowers. The garden is a lilac lover’s dream, a breathtaking collection of over 100 varieties (each one labeled for those who care). I’m not sure what we enjoy most: their intoxicating perfume, which greets you before the bushes come into full view; or the stunning array of colors and shapes.The NJBG website says that peak viewing time is mid-May. Maybe it’s because of the unseasonably warm stretches of weather, or maybe not. But for the past two weeks, Jim and I have noticed some local lilacs already in bloom. So rather than wait and miss them (which happened last year), we thought we’d take a chance and go today. And we weren’t disappointed.
It was drizzly and chilly when we got there, so we were spared the usual crowds. And although not every bush was in full flower, a heady aroma filled the air as we climbed stone steps to a sloping lawn. We wandered the grassy pathways, cupping the flowers and pulling them close to inhale each variety’s unique perfume. I closed my eyes and was instantly transported to my grandmother Bernard’s house, where lilacs lined the gravel driveway and the scent drifted through the open windows of my dad’s car as we arrived for dinner on any number of sunny Sundays.
The raindrops that hung on every petal and leaf soon trickled from my nose to my lips and down my chin. The always-surprising color palette—from white to pale pink to light purple to almost fuchsia—was vivid against the gray sky. My favorites were the variegated purple with the white trim (for looks) and the pink with the delightfully small and curly flowers (for smell). I don’t remember the names, and it doesn’t matter anyway. Because next year I’ll fancy something completely different.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Going Green

Fall has always been my favorite season. It's such a relief from the heat and haze of summer. The crisp, cleansing air. The blazing patchworks of leaves, vivid against the unblemished turquoise sky. The smell of wood burning. Wrapping up in scarves and mittens. I even got married in late September so that my bridesmaids could wear brown crepe and carry baskets full of yellow, red and orange blooms.

Lately that seems to be changing. Over the past few weeks I’ve felt a growing sense of anticipation and elation that's unfamiliar. As the world took on that misty green blur that says nature is preparing to let loose, my mood turned noticeably lighter. My senses awakened. I've gone searching for crocuses and daffodils. I've watched my cat stretch, long and (temporarily) lean, on the sun-warmed tiles of the kitchen floor, and noticed that I feel like she does: eager to expose every inch of my body to the pale gold light.

When the weekend comes and Jim asks what I want to do, I say, "Be outside." And we've been making up reasons to walk outside, sit outside, eat outside. Sunday we finally went all-out and took our first "official" hike of the season. We tried a new trail up in Bear Mountain, a place where we'd stopped hiking a few years ago after my friend Maryanne gave me a bunch of maps for my birthday and we discovered new (and less crowded) parks to explore. But we were looking for something less challenging than our usual destinations (Jim's been nursing an Achilles injury all winter), and decided to try this loop hike around Doodletown.

We've been to Doodletown a number of times, so my fascination with how this hamlet became a ghost town has dimmed. But maybe because we were taking a different route (or because of my recent sensory shift), I found myself paying more attention to our surroundings. I'm usually so wrapped up in "hiking", in challenging myself to keep the pace up and my heart pumping, that I miss what's going on outside my line of vision. But there I was, stopping to snap pictures of crumbling walls and rusty buckets. Pausing to listen to the whooshing of a waterfall. Tilting my head to the sun. Chewing my apple slowly and enjoying its drippy sweetness.

As we neared the end of the walk I caught sight of a single violet poking up from a pile of dead leaves. An iconic image of spring! It instantly triggered girlhood memories of picking bouquets in the woods and presenting them to my mother, wilting from being held too tight in my grubby little fist.

Violets were my favorite flower then, just as they are now. When I got married, my bouquet was slightly different than those of my bridesmaid sisters. White roses studded with violets. The florist had to use silk violets because they were out of season. But I insisted on carrying them with me down the aisle. A breath of spring, a symbol of eternal life. My marriage came to an end—just like everything does in the fall. But those silk violets have lasted over 30 years. Who knows? Maybe I've always had a thing for spring.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Loving Luger's

Hamburgers are my sole excuse for not becoming a vegetarian. When it comes to food, a good burger and fries is my #1 guilty pleasure.

I used to say that if I was facing execution, my last meal request would be a McDonald’s #3, super sized and hold the soda. But that was long before burgers became the food trend of the moment! Burger outposts have been multiplying faster than bunnies—and so have the number of excursions I’ve made to check out an ever-growing list of “best burger” claims. From White Manna to the Shake Shack, Johnny Rocket’s to In-N-Out Burger, Cheeburger Cheeburger to Jackson Hole, Burger Joint to Corner Bistro, Five Guys to Five Napkin Burger, there isn’t an all-beef patty I won’t try.

Jim and my son Jake are willing accomplices on these amazing, surprising and delightful culinary adventures. And sometimes we invite friends and family to come along. Such was the case on Saturday, when a group of eight of us headed to Brooklyn to sample the highly touted burgers at arguably the area’s most revered “temple of beef”: Peter Luger Steak House.

Luger’s sits unceremoniously under the Williamsburg Bridge, and the quality, ambiance and service are legendary among carnivores. Most rate the steak the best they’ve ever eaten, the ambiance shockingly casual, and the service less than friendly. Stories abound about rude maitre d’s and waiters who’ve walked away in disgust if the table’s order isn’t up to snuff. (This seems pretty absurd, given that the day we were there the “steak for two” was priced at $85 and everything else was a la carte. But what do I know?) Rumor has it that ordering a “Luger-Burger” is considered nothing short of sacrilege—so I could hardly wait to see what happened when our entire table did exactly that.

I was definitely disappointed when our waiter didn’t bat an eyelash. Maybe the side orders of potatoes and creamed spinach and a half dozen Brooklyn Lager’s helped us save face. Or the fact that we went for lunch, not dinner. Unfortunately, none of the above prevented me from being disappointed in the burger. The quality of the half-pound of meat was fantastic and it was cooked precisely medium-rare. But the bun-to-burger ratio was weighted too heavily towards the bun, and the cheese and slab of onion added nothing of value.

So what was there to love about Luger’s? The company. Jake, several of his closest friends, one friend’s fiancĂ©, Jim, and his oldest daughter, had all decided that the search for the perfect hamburger was as good an excuse as any to create a special occasion. At 26, Jake has a full life of his own. Being with him and any of his friends usually only happens at the occasional Yankees or Red Bulls game. So what a treat it was to spend a few hours talking, laughing and trading reviews with such an illustrious group.

For the record, none of us thought it was worth a return trip (unless you're ordering steak.) And Jake and I still put the Shake Shack at the top of our list. But as we said our goodbyes and headed off to enjoy the gorgeous afternoon, I knew that this burger experience would rank among my most memorable ever—for reasons far more important than the lackluster cheese.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

What Price Happiness?

Jim thinks I’m a rule-follower. It’s true that, deep inside, lives the soul of the six-year-old girl who never (ever) colored outside the lines. Who got the rare bad grade in art school when she had to emulate Jackson Pollock. And whose attempts at creating that “bedhead” look end up (literally!) falling flat.

But I think I've evolved into a slightly mellower version of that girl who, in hindsight, needed to feel she had control over some aspect of her life. (A story for another day.) For those of you who are chuckling at this claim, I've got proof! Several of the women in my “change group” were chatting about The Happiness Project, and one of them suggested checking out an article about the author,Gretchen Rubin, in the Sunday Times. Rule-follower that I am, I dutifully pulled it up on my computer screen, read it from beginning to end—and promptly ran screaming from the room.

My flight response wasn’t triggered by the theory that we can take charge of our happiness. Or my annoyance that a woman with her, shall we say, "unburdened" lifestyle, has the nerve to be unhappy in the first place. What freaked me out was the elaborate structure she’s imposed on the process of creating more fun in our lives. It requires a Toolbox, for goodness sake! Can she be serious?

It’s not lost on me that this rebellious response to following Ms. Rubin's rules might be connected to my resistance to goal-setting. The funny thing is, I'm still seeking some guidelines of my own. And I've been thinking that the Kaizen principle is something I can put into motion, even without having dotted the “i’s” and crossed the “t’s” on my intentions list. When my iPod died while I was out walking Friday, the resulting silence lead to an ah-ha moment about how I can use the one-small-step-a-day philosophy to create my own take on the Happiness Project!

Here’s how it works: I do one small thing a day and write it down. It could be in my journal. Or here. But it’s got to be noted in writing and acknowledged for what it is. A conscious effort to inch closer to one (or more) of my "big three" objectives:

1. Save money for a fabulous vacation
2. Reconnect with my inner artist
3. Lower my cholesterol without meds

It feels doable. And it’s not giving me heart palpitations! So I test-drove it this week. The small steps included swapping almond milk for soy; walking for an hour instead of watching TV; working on a mixed media art project instead of proofing a newsletter for work; tallying my March expenses on my budget sheet; and getting a free heart health assessment at Valley Hospital. Just listing them here gives me a sense accomplishment. And reminds me of the joy I felt as I made note of them each day. Hmmmmnnn…maybe I should create an Excel chart that maps out my progress? That sure would make the little girl with the crayons happy!