Why my granny makes the Dowager Countess of Gratham look like a pushover

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My grandmother Nellie has no idea why the staff of her nursing home ask if she’s related to Dame Maggie Smith: she’s never seen an episode of Downton Abbey. But if I put on a fancy hat and tell her I am Lady Mary she’d squeeze my hand and agree. She can still place a face, just not with a name. Or, as she puts it, her “forgetter works real good.”

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Even in the advanced stages of dementia my granny can still summon a good one-liner. She’s had 92 years of practice. I’ve been on the Lady Mary end of her sharp tongue for quite a few of those years. Like the time I told her Ronald Reagan seemed like a good president and that I was joining the Young Republicans club at college.

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“I will not stand for a granddaughter of mine to display such utter ignorance of history,” she wrote in the first of weekly letters and newspaper clippings she mailed to me until the day I registered as a Democrat.

Then there was the time she asked if I was making the same salary as the men at a newspaper where I had a paid internship. I said no – the only other intern was married and had two kids to support so of course he got paid more. It was as if I’d single-handedly unraveled the equal rights amendment.

“We did not work so hard for so long to be forgotten so soon,” she fumed. I learned that she had always wanted to go to college, to become a geologist. But the rich Texas uncle she turned to for tuition said the money would be wasted on a woman. She’d just drop out, get married and have babies.

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So she never got to go to college but she did end up having babies, and more than a few marriages. One of them was to a union man, who encouraged her to organize the women where she worked: the ice cream counter at a department store in Portland, Oregon. That’s where she really started running circles around the Dowager Countesses of her era.

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Granny considers Gov. Kulongoski one of “her kids”

She not only unionized her shop, she became the Vice President and Political Director of Oregon’s AFL-CIO and chief labor lobbyist at the state capitol. I wore a wooden sandwich board sign hand painted with “vote for my granny” when I was eleven. She lost her only attempt at elected office but defeat made her stronger. She went to China with a television reporter and unleashed her righteous indignation on Oregon’s own Nike Corp for the unsafe working conditions in its factories. She became the kind of power broker usually reserved for good-ol’-boys in smoke-filled rooms. When she backed a politician they won the race but lost the chance to ever back down on her issues. Or skip one of her birthday parties.

She gave speeches and kept the notes, marked up for pauses and dramatic emphasis. I’m reading them now because my aunt has asked me to prepare an obituary when the time comes. These typewritten pages are a window to a different world. In one speech my granny coined a phrase for the women she was recruiting: the “until” workers. They were content to make less than men because they were only working “until” the furniture was paid off, “until” Junior got through school or “until” their husbands got their jobs back.

I can picture her in her gold-rimmed glasses, wide-collared pant suits, burnt orange lipstick and hair-sprayed up-do, lecturing women who couldn’t visualize themselves as equal to men. Even the Dowager Countess would have cowered. But not me.

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I got to be her Lady Mary. My tough-as-nails granny knew exactly when to scold and when to support her oldest granddaughter. After outliving four husbands, the one thing she never attempted to organize was my heart. When I broke up with my first, too-sweet boyfriend in college he wrote to my grandmother, begging her to make me reconsider. She only told me to make sure to find an equal match the next time. When I introduced her to the man I eventually married, my then 80-year-old granny shook Gary’s hand and gave him her business card.

This Sunday he will sit next to me and watch the final episode of Downton Abbey. There will be a box of tissues and a bottle of Tequila in front of me and when I sob at the sight of the actress who reminds me so much of my granny, he will suggest I propose a toast instead. To Maggie Smith for playing a reflection of the woman Nellie Fox actually is.

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On Forgiving Go Set A Watchman

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I belong to a book club founded by Southern women who might possibly be the biggest fans of Harper Lee: the Mockingbirds. They so love this iconic author that I interrupted a shoot in Alabama to send them these pictures from her hometown of Monroeville.

In the plaza of the courthouse that inspired the movie set. Ten more seconds and I would have had heat stroke
In the plaza of the courthouse that inspired the movie set. Ten more seconds and I would have had heat stroke

So I couldn’t have picked a worse time to be moving back to Washington DC and missing the meeting where we examine “Go Set a Watchman.” We’ve been procrastinating on scheduling this particular meeting for months in part because of spoilers that this book would devastate readers who have grown up treasuring “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Not me. I had to read Mockingbird in high school in Oregon and it didn’t have the same cultural resonance where there were only three African Americans in the entire student body. If anything, I categorized it as another book that romanticized and elevated white people to savior roles involving African Americans. It didn’t correlate to the race reality I knew, especially having grown up in Apartheid South Africa.

So the shocking revelation in GSAW that Jean Louise’s father Atticus was actually a racist didn’t ruin the book for me. It was easier to believe Atticus’s “change” of character than Scout’s. He was a man of his time all along. It was his noble belief in the law that she, and we, misinterpreted as selfless empathy. If Jean Louise really were the 26-yr-old, holier-than-thou character the author asks us to believe, she’d never have forgiven her father’s change of character in one afternoon.

Her quick forgiveness feels fake, unnatural to the sassy, headstrong character that I enjoyed meeting at the start of the book. Same goes for her uncle. When he tells Scout that it is precisely when those she loves are wrong that they need her the most, I found myself arguing with him. On the surface the advice seems noble but in my experience it also rationalizes going along with the status quo.

Of course I’m not the first to find fault with these aspects of the book, or its literary shortcomings. It reads more like a stage play, full of soliloquies and asides meant to tell, rather than show, what we are meant to understand. But on this front, I forgive Harper Lee.

“Watchman” was submitted to publishers in the summer of 1957. I would argue that any novel published, without a give-and-take editing process, 58 years after submission would be equally awkward. It was, essentially, a first draft. Here’s what others have written about the troubling chronology:

“The novel was finished in 1957[12] and purchased by the J.B. Lippincott Company. Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, although impressed with elements of the story, saying that “the spark of the true writer flashed in every line,”[12] thought it was by no means ready for publication. It was, as she described it, “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.”

I can only relate it to how I would have felt if someone published the first draft of either of my memoirs. The Other Mother was so angst-filled and journalistic that my editor made me burn it down and start over. The initial versions of the book I’ve just finished are similarly awful – I tried to fill it with my sense of injustice against Latin America instead of my own experiences.

So I’m left with the irony of forgiveness. I’m willing to forgive Harper Lee and the character she wanted us to admire in To Kill a Mockingbird but not the character she asks us to admire in Go Set A Watchman.

It's so hot in Harper Lee's hometown I swear these characters just melted into a statue
It’s so hot in Harper Lee’s hometown I swear these characters just melted into a statue

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The lovely Josefina Blanc — educator, activist, mother and all around Renaissance Woman. Life’s good when you’re a former model, photographed in dreamy natural light by Gary Geboy

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Josefina

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Ariel isn’t a mermaid, she’s a rock-star sushi chef in Denver

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Regular readers already know that I am a dance snob. And a pho snob. But I am also a sushi snob. A little ironic given that the idea of eating raw fish repulsed me well into my 30’s. That’s when I met my husband and started traveling to film shoots in Asia. He coached me through the easy stuff at first, California rolls and the like, and soon I was drooling over live mackerel still quivering on the skewers that brought it to my table. I realized I’d become a sushi snob when I couldn’t convince a client to even try sushi on Kyoto’s famous Pontocho street and it stuck me as tragic.

photo by Gary Geboy, with Ariel Bilyeu's permission
photo by Gary Geboy, with Ariel Bilyeu’s permission

So given my hard-earned expertise (that’s a euphemism for conceit) I did not expect to be wowed by sushi on a recent shoot in Denver. Frankly, I picked the place because the white leather booths at Epernay Lounge looked kinda swank and the name (@EpernayLounge) sounded like it would at least have good champagne. That and it wasn’t a chain stuffed with tourists along 16th Avenue.

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We sat at the bar, as all sushi snobs do and discovered that the twenty-something wielding the knives was executive chef Ariel Bilyeu. As in girl power in a traditionally male arena. This was already interesting. And then we opened her menu. Anyone who comes up with names like the Pablo Escolar roll is onto something. And forget the champagne. There was a haberno-infused tequila cocktail called the Ex Lover that even a happily married woman can’t resist.

Ariel, training her staff
Ariel, training her staff

We over-ordered and then watched as she sliced, plucked and shaped our meal. I’ve never seen someone so enthusiastic about micro-greens. She wasn’t gentle with them either – one leafy herb needed a little roughing up to release its incredible aroma. We got the full before-and-after taste test, courtesy of Ariel’s latest obsession.

She’s one of those people who grew up multi-tasking and happily answered my questions as she worked. Yes, she learned how to make sushi in straight-up Asian style. No, the work ethic depicted in Jiro Dreams of Sushi is not an exaggeration. Yes, she takes liberties with the genre to spice things up but still loves the classics.

“I spent a year learning how to roll rice,” she said. “It was awesome. I got screamed at every day.”

Executive Chef Ariel Bilyeu
Executive Chef Ariel Bilyeu

Luckily there was none of that at Epernay. Hipster electronica piped through the sound system while black-light, body-painted dancers prepared for a late-night performance. Ariel patiently showed the chefs working under her how to prep the plates. Maybe it was the Ex-Lover but the best part of the show was watching men who were as awed by her precision and presentation as I was.

Oh, back to the sushi. The Pablo Escolar yellowtail roll was creamy heaven. The baby octopus in wasabi vinaigrette melted on my tongue. And the avocado-and-eel caterpillar roll I ordered had micro-green ears and caviar eyes.

I couldn’t eat here just once. So I scooped up a stack of Ariel Bilyeu’s business cards to take back to the hotel lobby. Pushy? Maybe. But I am a sushi snob and visitors to Denver deserve better than Maggiano’s Little Italy and the Hard Rock Cafe. Epernay Lounge is going to make the concierge’s reputation.

Pho snob eats her words in Atlantic City

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I am the least logical travel blogger to write about Atlantic City. I’m that person you shouldn’t stand next to at a slot machine because my eyes are glazed over and I exude buzz-kill vibes. It’s not a judgment thing, exactly. Just being inside a casino bombarded by flashing lights and incessant mechanical noises makes me feel like an epileptic seizure is imminent. Which is not entirely unfounded — if you’ve read my memoir you’ll know why.

But I’ve found myself in this neon-throbbing, cash-flashing city twice in the past year, doing PR and media for sporting events. This time I head straight for the sushi bar with cell phone in hand to distract myself and earbuds ready to block out the noise. But Lady Luck is with me because I meet a chatty, handsome barkeep named T.J.

He’s a recent veteran and an Atlantic City native who was trained as a chef but should run for Mayor or at least Cheerleader-in-Chief for behind-the-scenes Atlantic City. He immediately confesses that the best food in the city is not to be found in casinos, which is why I am not naming the casino where this conversation is happening.
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Instead he googles the address of a Vietnamese dive called Hu Tieu Mien Tay that he swears was written up in The New York Times as having the best pho on the East Coast. I look it up. He’s not exaggerating.

I still have my doubts. Maquest tells me it’s in a strip mall 10 miles from the casinos in a suburb called Pleasantville. And then there’s T.J.’s credibility. He claims to love Poutine so much he’s plotting a food-truck empire built around the slimiest of hangover food. But I’m a pho snob and I can’t resist comparing this reportedly authentic version to the best I’ve ever had. Which also happens to be in a strip mall on 185th street in Aloha, Oregon. So there.

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The ambience might put off some. But for me, walking through a Walmart-sized Asian supermarket full of fresh green vegetables next to Hello Kitty clocks and weird Japanese candy is a good sign. The chef doesn’t have to go far for ingredients.

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I order summer shrimp rolls, just in case I’m disappointed in the pho. And they’re spectacular. We grow basil in our backyard and catch shrimp from the creek out front in South Carolina but still haven’t mastered the art of rolling them together with noodles and coming out with something presentable.

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When the herb plate piled with bean sprouts, mint, jalapenos and lime wedges comes out, I understand what most visitors to Atlantic City feel when they rattle the roulette dice in their hands: anticipation, bordering on immoral. This plate comes with a strange, long, ragged green herb the waiter says is tall Vietnamese cilantro. I think. That’s how authentic the accent is. He warns me it’s spicy, but I wad some into my mouth anyway. How could cilantro hurt?

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Let’s just say I am relieved to cool off my mouth and lips with the steaming hot pho broth. Which is revelatory. The old man at the table in front of mine is spoon-twirling it into his mouth with much less slobber than I can muster, but he looks like he eats here everyday. I don’t get much pho practice in Beaufort. So forgive my runny chin.

And my runny eyes. I’m not going to lie. It is so good I’m crying a little. Which I’m going to blame on that weird cilantro since otherwise I’d seem like some pathetic white woman sitting alone under a vinyl painting of the Great Wall moaning to herself.

My faith in T.J. is restored. I’m never going to try the stuff but if YOU visit Atlantic City and get bored of gambling, take a chance on T.J.’s future poutine food truck. If it’s half as good as his palette and referral service, it’ll be worth the chance.