Friday, December 16, 2011

Humble Pie

Apricots by Amy Weiskopf, Courtesy Hirschl-Adler Gallery

I took my knives to Austin wrapped in a thick kitchen towel I bought years ago at the Saturday market in Buonconvento, Italy. That day, the apricots were so ripe, I bought the dishtowel to swaddle them, and carried them in their makeshift sling back to our apartment where they tumbled out playfully on the kitchen table. I ate them standing up, one hand cupping my chin. A kilo of “albicocca”, just like that—the very word makes me smile.

The trouble with traveling with the tools of your trade is checking your bags. To plead innocence, I made sure to tuck a harmless gadget like a zester next to them. I imagined the furrowed brow of the security guard scrutinizing the contents of my bag relaxing when he saw a ten-inch knife nestled next to a melon baller. Before 9/11, when I was a young chef cutting my teeth, I traveled frequently with my knives in a canvas carry-on pouch. I didn’t care if my suitcase was lost as long as I had my tools. I never wanted to arrive in a kitchen and ask to borrow a boning knife. In my youth it was a matter of honor to carry my blades sharpened, my initials painted with red nail polish on the handles. It worked in my favor dozens of times when I was looking to get my foot in the door, from The Pierre in San Francisco, to Le Crillon in Paris.

But these days, I’m through with proving that I’m the hardest working cook in the kitchen. I carry two knives in a cotton dishtowel with faded apricot stains and find my way to a lakeside resort in Austin where I’ve been invited to teach a cooking class and talk about my book. This will be the last stop on a book tour that began in Chicago one October evening, and took me through Wichita, Lansing, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, Mountain View, San Francisco, Oakland, and Seattle.

To recount anecdotes from each place is to restore the warmth I experienced at independent bookstores and small inns along the way. Everywhere I stopped, I was greeted with open arms wide enough to hug a tree. In Illinois, I read in three libraries, like visiting three bookish aunties. At Highland Park library, the elegant Beth served hummus and pita bread, in Lake Villa, Naomi brought me homemade jam, in Lake Zurich, there was a heated discussion about setting the table with china and silver even when you have take-out. In Chicago, when I arrived at my hotel after driving for hours in pouring rain, Gina took one look at my travel weary face and ducked away to return a moment later with a plate of stuffed peppers, remnants of their staff dinner, and poured me a goblet of red wine fit for Henry VIII. At Watermark Books in Wichita, they had been featuring recipes from Maman’s Homesick Pie in their café for days before my arrival. My cousin drove three hours from Kansas City to come to my reading. We talked late into the night and slept facing each other, our pillows close, like we used to when we were little. The next morning at dawn, when my cab didn’t show up for my early flight, Helen, who had greeted us so graciously the day before—“I read about your book in The Wichita Eagle!” she exclaimed, like Madonna was checking in—grabbed her keys and took me to the airport.

Shiraz restaurant in Grand Rapids had printed flyers announcing my arrival to read at Schuler’s books. The lovely owners made trays of dolmas and brought them to the bookstore. And that night, Fred and Gail, the same cousins’ in-laws, treated me to a delicious dinner and presented me with a pouch of you-make-your-own-luck polished pebbles—a take-off on the story of Stone Soup.

In Ann Arbor, after searching strip malls for a Detroit Lions sweatshirt for my son, I took a break and had the best cappuccino of my life at Comet Café tucked in the Nickels Arcade. For a few short moments, I basked in the youthfulness of the Michigan campus, entertaining ideas of becoming a teacher so I could walk along those leafy paths and share their sense of possibility. That evening, at Nicola’s bookstore, I was humbled by the display of my book in their front window, and their dogged search for The Swiss Family Robinson I intended to bring home for my son. Best of all was meeting Kit, a classmate from Iran I had last seen thirty three years ago, now a professor of Mid-East studies. She sat in the audience like a proud sister, flanked by friends she had brought along. And in Seattle, I gasped at the feast my childhood friend, Jackie, had orchestrated at the Book Larder, where I was lavished with more affection.

All this back and forth has not been easy on my family. They left the meatballs and baked ziti that lined the freezer untouched. Instead, I would call home around dinner time to learn my husband had invented a new dish, fried rice with a leftover pork chop, eggs in a basket, chop chae, and I loved the delight in his voice that our son had devoured it and would take the leftovers in his lunch box. But I could hear, too, a weariness, a when-are-you coming-home-mom, in my son’s “Goodnight, maman.” I would look in their gleeful eyes when they’d pull up to the curb to pick me up at the airport and think, how can I leave again in three days?

So I left for Austin, and once again, like Cinderella arriving at the ball, I found the utterly beautiful Lake Austin Resort, welcoming me at dusk. I hung my gown, a pressed chef’s coat and checkered pants, in the closet, and sat down on what had to be the fluffiest duvet, to gaze out my window at the lake. This sanctuary, with its dim lights, its enormous bathtub, its lake view, and private patio, was mine for two precious nights. Later, I walked underneath an arbor along a gravel path to a barn where I discovered an Olympic size pool! Ah, the sight of all that blue against the warm cherry wood. And like a kid on the first day of summer vacation, I swam until I saw the first stars in the sky.

I went to dinner exuberant, hungrier than ever, and sat with Victoria from New York. We talked about my cooking class the next day and when she asked about my book, I told her how humbling it had been to share this story with perfect strangers who received me like they had always known me, who told me again and again: “I wish I had known your mother.”, who were inspired by her recipes, enough to walk into their kitchens and make Persian dishes. “So it’s not tedious, all that traveling?” I must have looked at her like she had a screw loose. “Guess not!” she chuckled.

We ate scallops and risotto and talked more about what it was like to lose your homeland: “It was like your Katrina.” she said. Oh, I nearly kissed her! In all the years, and number of times I have tried to recount the tale of exile retrospectively, I have never been able to convey the utter despair, the mayhem, the heavy and sinister aftermath of a storm that leaves people, an entire nation, unmoored. Then I remembered watching footage of Katrina and sobbing, a growing pile of tissues at my feet. “Yes, in the sense that there was no home to go back to.” We said goodnight and I walked back to my room. But before collapsing onto the world’s fluffiest duvet, I unfolded my bundle of knives to inspect the blades, to cradle the handles, and trace the initials of that young cook who grew up to learn that there was still so much to learn.

My Katrina. It happened thirty three years ago. Noah made an ark, I made stone soup.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Wish You Were Here

Soup (Red Plate), 1997 50x58 inches Mitchell Johnson

When I was in college, my roommate Megan came back from Thanksgiving break with news that her Uncle Arnold had dipped his head into a bowl of chestnut soup and then left it there. His heart had simply stopped beating. Everyone at the table assumed he had had too much Jameson. “My Aunt Mary didn’t even budge!” Megan exclaimed.

I recall that story from time to time, and after so many years, the image of Uncle Arnold with his head in a bowl of soup has a certain patina. I imagine that I was there, too, watching Megan’s extended Irish clan raise their glasses to make a toast while her uncle perished.

This brings me to the relative period of silence since my post in November. This Thanksgiving, one minute my husband was playing checkers with my little niece, and a moment later he disappeared into the bathroom indefinitely. I knew enough not to make Aunt Mary’s mistake, and discreet knocks on the bathroom door only revealed a meek: “I think I overdid it.” I sighed and slipped him an Alka-Seltzer, then continued to calmly serve pie, cranberry cake, and coffee as if his vanishing act was quite ordinary.

What a fretful night he had and suffice it to say that my brave husband has an immense threshold for pain. His surgeon praised him post his appendectomy and fended off his rapid fire questions about how soon he could get back into the pool—he is an avid swimmer. He is also a terrific patient and recovering quite nicely, showing off his belly to whoever stops by with candy and puzzles.

Leaving my family for a few days to resume my book tour, I learned he is back on his bicycle and swimming a few thousand yards a day. Earlier in the week I did a reading for the Ross School Book Fair in Marin and I was so touched that the parents had made my date bars and my mother’s quince marmalade to serve with scones. The Book Passage had done a beautiful job selecting the books for the fair and I was glad to do some Christmas shopping there. The following day I left for Seattle for a reading at the brand new Book Larder, a most inviting space, its shelves lined with gorgeous cookbooks, and Lara, the owner, calling out a warm hello to everyone who walked through the door. My childhood friend, Jackie, who lives in Seattle, had made posters announcing my arrival and driven around town pinning them up in all the coffee shop windows. She and her “Maman” had made trays of  baklava and Persian rice flour cookies scented with rosewater for the event. Cardamom tea bubbled in a silver urn and everyone who braved rush hour traffic, came in from the cold to be folded into Jackie and Lara’s welcome. I wished for time to slow down so I could take it all in, all this affection tucked into layers of filo dough and drizzled with honey. I wanted to take slow sips of tea and talk about my maman till dawn. I wish you had been there, too.

Our Thanksgiving may have been thwarted by a trip to the emergency room. There may have been hours of hand wringing waiting for surgery. But the real thanksgiving came later, when Papa came home from the hospital and asked for cream of wheat with brown sugar, and later in the week in Seattle.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Breaking with Tradition

Edouard Manet  Still Life with Fish, 1864

Imagine a long table laid with tempting bowls and dishes on a white cotton tablecloth with scalloped edges. Each bowl holds an exquisite sample of the cook’s inspiration. It’s a smorgasbord, a selection of appetizers, a buffet of zakuski. One platter may be pirogi filled with forest mushrooms, another, corn blinis with caviar, cabbage bundles stuffed with game, pickled cauliflower and beets flavored with dill, smoked sturgeon, and tiny fried anchovies. The room is lit like a theatre, the table illuminated by a single chandelier, and the guests dance around it and nibble gaily with a liveliness that can’t be contained in a chair. Chilled glasses of vodka and brut champagne circle like the rings of Saturn.

This is a table my father would have loved. Once, while on a Scandinavian cruise line for their second honeymoon, he crashed a wedding having caught a glimpse of just such a table in a room he happened to be strolling by. No one questioned the handsome doctor in a double breasted pinstripe suit who accepted a flute of champagne and clicked his glass against the beautiful blond next to him and said, “Skaal!” He was the perfect guest, he ate, he drank, he danced with the Swedish dames, and when my mother, after a thorough search, finally found him and dragged him away like a cork from a bottle, he smiled sheepishly and said, “Ah, but I could not resist the zakuski!” If there was one ritual my father cherished, it was a “buffet russe”, the Russian tradition of sampling multi appetizers while knocking back icy vodka shots, all the while circling the table, slapping backs, and laughing with your mouth full.

My father preferred to begin all parties this way, guests milling happily, a generous variety of hors d’oeuvres arranged beautifully (no waiters in tuxes teasing you with mouse morsels) and little glasses of good drinks. Only later, much later, when he was feeling the warmth of the smoked fish and vodka, when everyone was a comrade, and he could loosen his tie, hold my mother’s waist and twirl her around the room, was he ready to stroll to the dining room, to collapse like a sea lion into a chair for the hot meal. He felt trapped if he were served chips and dip and a modest glass of scotch, then quickly called to the table to sit for a lengthy meal next to someone he couldn’t get away from.

So this Thanksgiving, because I think my father played a big role in awakening my culinary enthusiasm, I want to begin with zakuski, to imagine him in that pinstriped suit and polished Bally shoes, a candlelit look of rapture on his face, tempted by bowls of spicy, warm, cold, red, green, and pink. In the freezer, we will line glasses near the Grey Goose. Champagne and pinot blanc, cradled in starched white napkins, will lean in ice buckets. And to slow the pace of our evening, we’ll crack pomegranates and drop the seeds like rubies when we pour the vodka. Our guests will be less inclined to do shots when there are pomegranate seeds floating in their drinks. I will iron my best tablecloth, a white Basque cotton with bold red stripes, a gift from my husband for our fourth anniversary. There will be red roses and candles floating in glass bowls filled with cranberries, and bouquets of crabapples with maroon twigs.

We can’t afford caviar, but we will serve poor man’s roasted eggplant caviar with good fried bread, mushroom tarts, a pâté with prunes soaked in cognac, pickled cauliflower and beets, smoked trout with dill crème fraîche and cucumber. Our aim is variety, not necessarily harmony. Let the flavors crash into each other like ill-assorted relatives, all the ones who avoid each other all year long and are then thrown together in your dining room to make merry and break bread. We will invite them all and their grudges, too. The buffet will jolt them into a new routine. Gone are the chaste crudités with sour cream dip, the sideboard with the old silver gravy boat and serving spoons, the orange mums and tapered candles. They will be forced to get up and serve themselves from the beautiful platters of braised red cabbage and turkey, fried sweet potatoes, butternut squash and ricotta turnovers. The newness of it will spark amity, even allowing a newfound affection for the sister-in-law or cousin or brother who grate on each other, chew noisily, sweep brussel sprouts to the rim of their plate, let their kids run amok, or manage to offend with a compliment.

The next day, you won’t find us resentful of the pile of dishes, the glasses that won’t fit in the dishwasher, and the linen napkins that need to be laundered and ironed. We’ll bask in the afterglow of a good party, select a few leftovers to have for lunch with the last drops of pinot blanc, and clink our glasses to the handsome doctor in the pinstriped suit.

Call Me L'il Broiler

Monet  Les Dindes, 1875

Every year we name our Thanksgiving turkey. It started when my son was five and we had checked out Robert McCloskey’s,  Homer Pricefrom the library and he could not get enough of Homer’s only-in-Centerburg stories. We even had the books on tape and he liked to pop them in his Fisher Price tape recorder and listen to Freddy, Homer, and Uncle Ulysees spin their tales while he built towers with his Legos. I had to buy D batteries in bulk to put new ones in every few days. That year, with twenty five guests coming for Thanksgiving, I bought a twenty five pound turkey and when my son saw it slip out of its plastic bag into the sink, he named it Homer.

I did what I always do three days before—we washed and dried Homer, rubbed him with olive oil and the zest of five or six oranges and lemons tossed with plenty of thyme, kosher salt and fresh black pepper, wrapped him up, and put him to bed until Thanksgiving morning. Over the next few days I caught my son peeking in on him in the garage fridge and I’d say: “So, how’s Homer doing?” and he’d reply: “He’s still here!” I didn’t worry that he would harbor any feelings for Homer—he loves to eat too much. Actually, naming our turkey had elevated his status, becoming an icon, revered for his sacrifice.

And he truly was delicious.  My husband carved, popped juicy morsels in his mouth, and declared Homer the best turkey ever.  Until next year, when my son became a football fan, and he chose the name of the 49ers quarterback,  Alex Smith.  It was a miserable season for the Niners, but Alex was tasty.  So were Simon (when he went through and American Idol phase), Henrietta, and L'il Broiler (both characters from the Walter Brooks "Freddy" series).

This year, an obvious choice pops into my mind: Mr. Cardinale, my son’s fifth grade teacher. Since the school year began his jokes and antics have invaded our dinner table, his toilet humor has interrupted our meals, prompting us to beg our son to leave it at the doorstep. Granted, it’s a welcome respite after years of school as something to be endured. Better to see my son happily leave for school every morning and return eager to share the day’s ha-ha moments, than the long Monday morning I’d-rather-work-on-a-slave-ship face. We’re thankful for Mr. Cardinale and what better way to show our gratitude than to make him the centerpiece of our Thanksgiving table?

My Afghan Brother

A friend once described a compulsive habit I recognized well in myself. He called it “Bakery Tourette’s”, a condition I had long enjoyed but in this new light seemed suddenly embarrassing. My husband smiled at me knowingly and reached for my hand. Was this some kind of intervention? My relationship with bakeries stems from my earliest childhood yearnings. Some kids look up at the sky and wonder how airplanes can fly, I only wondered how a simple yellow cake could have such a perfect dome, how it would yield to a knife and spring right back up, what held the crumbs together and why did they dissolve in my glass of milk? How could a warm bun with butter and jam make me cry when I came home from school, opening a range of emotions I had kept in check all day long and now helped me recover from an ugly incident on the playground? Flour, butter, eggs, and sugar repeated themselves in magical patterns that mystified me until I went to France and learned to bake. I was unstoppable then, but still lured by bakeries.

I can’t recall ever passing a bakery, including a Happy Donuts, without feeling that tug on my sleeve. A magnetic field would reach, even if I was across the street, and pull me into oncoming traffic and through the glass doors. I have seen this irrational behavior in some women in the vicinity of jewelry shops, so I tell my husband: Just be glad I have a croissant tic. The odd twist to my condition is that this involuntary draw is most powerful when I’m in the vicinity of bread. Good bread, fresh from the oven, to hold against my chest. Only a baby is better.

Take Acme in Berkeley. I would stand in line under a hailstorm for their bread only to reach that unadorned counter and the person behind who looks genuinely happy to see me. Patiently she listens as I order one of everything with a friendly reminder that it’s cash only. Never just a baguette for me, I’ve driven across the bay to take as much of this place with me as I can fit in my car. And never in the trunk, I need to be enveloped by the scent of these warm loaves on the long way home. There’s Poilane in Paris. I like to leave it for my last day, after I’ve already been inside dozens of patisseries and boulangeries and sampled lemon tarts and éclairs and madeleines. I make my way slowly to the narrow rue du Cherche Midi, appreciating everything in this beloved city where I learned to cook, from the pearl gray sky to the pretty shop windows. This stop, an essential part of my pilgrimage, offers few choices, insisting instead on making the same outstanding bread over and over again without fanfare. I inch my way inside to find the ladies are still there, exactly how I left them a year ago, two years ago, fifteen years ago, slicing the enormous loaves of pain au levain into halves or quarters, counting dark raisin rolls that could sustain you for a day or two, weighing irresistible petit sables, tiny butter cookies, that transform coach to first class on the plane ride home.

I have brought you this far, only to make a staggering confession. I have forsaken them all since I found bread nirvana in a loaf of Afghan naan. A few weeks ago I went to the Persian market to stock my pantry with a few spices that were running low, but really I go there when I’m homesick for Iran. I like to eavesdrop on the banter between the old guys at the register and sniff packages of sumac and dried rose petals. When a delivery van pulled up with fresh bread, I smelled it before I saw it. Unlike the flatbreads I usually bought like lavashor sangak, with its sharp sourdough bite, this long slipper naan, part whole wheat and sprinkled with black sesame seeds, smelled of toasted nuts and wheat fields. Standing in line to pay I heard a man with a loaf of his own exclaim to no one in particular, God Bless the Afghan bakers! Indeed. There is a wholesomeness to this bread that when toasted and spread with feta cheese, fresh shelled walnuts, and mint, makes you feel instantly loved and nourished. Any variation, with sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, and sea salt, dates, honey, or fig jam, is at once the ultimate open-faced sandwich. It is what you crave when you’re hungry, and what comforts you. My family laughs when I tell them it has changed my life, that my urge to make impulsive u-turns when I spot a bakery has waned.

After I made my discovery, I had to do some detective work to track down this Afghan baker. The Persian market was not forthcoming with the location of the bakery and the number I begged for was disconnected. It wasn’t until I asked Sarah, the stunning Afghan woman who cuts my hair, that I had a lead. She knew instantly: Ah, Maiwand Market! and gave me the address in Fremont’s Little Kabul, cautioning me to wait until a few days after Nowruz, the Persian New Year that coincides with the first day of spring and is also celebrated in Afghanistan. It will be a mob scene if you go now. Of course, we never have to stand in line, my father knows the owner. I had half a mind to call Sarah’s dad and ask him to take me. Exactly three days after the spring equinox, during one of the season’s raging storms, I talked my husband into going to Fremont promising a bowl of Vietnamese pho on the way. Only you would brave a tempest for a loaf of bread, he said. Only you would indulge me, I replied.

I have worked with three-star Michelin chefs and I confess that my enthusiasm for meeting this baker far exceeded my anticipation of cooking with master chefs. Sorry, Michel Bras. We pulled up to an ordinary corner grocery and ran inside. At the far end was the bread counter behind which stood the most haggard looking men I have ever seen with brown pockets under their eyes so deep like they were staring at me through binoculars. How long had they had stood before those clay ovens? Since they were boys, barely tall enough to pull bread from the fire? Had their small hands learned to shape and ripple the dough? These guys made line cooks look like honeymooners. One man handed me a hot slab of bread the length of a piano bench and held up two fingers. Two dollars? I asked. He nodded. I held the bread to my nose with my eyes closed and what happened next was a wave of nostalgia that welled up and I was once again eight years old with two coins pressed into my palm sent out to buy bread. Am I old enough to go by myself? I asked my mother. Old enough, but still afraid, afraid of the young men who straddled the path that curved past our house in Tehran. I even worried about the bushes that lined the road, of what may lurk behind them, underneath them. The worst part was the entrance to the bakery where several men always stood in the shade of its awning laughing coarsely and leering at me. At last inside, the baker stood in his undershirt, he, too, unshaven and haggard. Radio Tehran blasted the national anthem before the noon news hour and the announcer’s voice reassured me that the world is as it should be, that my mother was home waiting, that we would have lunch together and I must buy the naan sangak and leave quickly. By now the coins had left deep impressions of the Shah’s profile in my palm and I let them fall, one, two, on the glass countertop with a faded travel poster of Isfahan underneath. I held the long oval loaf like a shield against my chest. Now invisible to the men, I ran home.

We drove home in the rain, my face pressed into the still warm bread while my husband did the math: I don’t know honey, ten bucks of gas, five for the bridge toll, for a two dollar loaf of bread? And still there remained an unsolved piece of the puzzle because at the store they told us they don’t deliver bread anywhere. So I was back to square one, wondering where the original loaf had come from. Days later I was given another phone number and the man who answered spoke as if he had been expecting my call. Where do you live? he asked me. Where are you from? What is your name? And when I told him, he immediately switched to Dari, which is charming and effusive:Donia jan, you are like my sisteryou are the world, your voice is kindness itself, how is your family? How are the children? I am so happy you called. How much bread do you need? I will bring it to your doorstep every Saturday. At this I chuckled and gave him our address thinking he’s pulling my leg. So I gasped when he rang on Saturday afternoon to ask me how many loaves I needed. Sure enough, around eight thirty, a green Hyundai pulled up and Kabir walked up to our porch cradling his bread like a child. As much as I wanted to hug him, I knew it would freak him out so I held out a cup of tea and some cash.

How could I keep it a secret? When I told Sarah, she exclaimed: My mom will be so jealous you have your own delivery man! When I told my friends, they quickly put in their orders and our house became the drop off location. Kabir did the math and it’s worth his time. He likes his tea with two lumps of sugar and we always have a nice chat. We learned he had fought with the Mujahedeen, that he had watched his country fall, and to spare him his father had sent him abroad. He learned how to bake bread from the bakers in Little Kabul and opened a place in San Jose. So many wars and families torn apart, he laments.

How little we know of ordinary Afghan people, of the ones who were left behind, of the children sent out to buy naan at the market, of those who never return, blown to bits, their bodies defenseless behind soft shields of bread, and of the ones among us who straddle two worlds, who craft new lives and watch the battleground that was their home on the evening news. God bless my Afghan brothers and sisters.

Nose Dive

I started swimming regularly when I was pregnant with my son. Slowly at first, a tentative breaststroke, with my head held high above the water. I watched the clock and climbed out after twenty minutes. Within weeks after my son was born, the lap swim lanes at our nearby pool closed and the only way I could continue swimming was to join the masters’ team that practiced there. I balked at the idea. I had seen those masters in the locker room, many of them former college swimmers, loud, muscular, and fiercely competitive. I had never been on any team. Title Nine did not exist when I was growing up in Iran, and at thirty nine, I thought I was too old to learn how to swim.

My husband, an excellent swimmer, convinced me that I had nothing to lose. Easy for him to say, he didn’t have to show off his doggy paddle to our “team”. And so began our new routine, bundling our infant boy in his car seat and driving to the pool to join the morning workout. And while he snoozed on the deck, I learned to stroke and breathe, to keep my chin tucked, to reach and pull the water, and flutter kick “like your feet are in a shoebox” – this from a fellow swimmer’s husband who stood on the deck with a thermos of coffee and never hesitated to correct my form and technique. I owe my stroke to Dick’s belligerent, incredibly effective hollering. But progress was slow. Standing in the shallow waters of lane six, I gazed longingly at the swimmers in the faster lanes, their arms like eggbeaters churning the water. From where I stood, they were swimming in the ocean and I was a turtle in the baby pool just trying to get to the other side.

Months went by before I stopped long enough at the wall to realize I wasn’t alone, that I shared a lane with some wonderful people. Unlike lap swimming where you grudgingly acknowledge the half-naked person next to you, the camaraderie in my lane was reason enough to show up at 5:45 am. Barely recognizable to each other in our street clothes, we were best friends in the pool – asking after our kids, jobs, or aging parents between sets, and urging each other forward during the swim. If you were gone too long, everyone asked where you’d been. We commiserated over sore shoulders and aching backs. And in the showers, a wet and noisy crowd exchanged recipes, news of our kids’ birthday parties, soccer games, and college applications – all of us yelling at once over the din of hair dryers. I felt lucky to be a part of it.

Every week that went by was marked with small improvements. A hundred yards didn’t take an eternity and boy was I flying when I put on fins or paddles! Our coach, the extraordinary Tim Sheeper, gave quiet, thoughtful tips, and I pushed off the wall, more mindful of my stroke. It wasn’t long before I realized what the others had always known, that he has never once repeated a workout. As a chef, I may never make the same dish the same way twice, but it isn’t brand new and unrecognizable each time. Tim’s uncanny ability to compose a completely original workout day after day, unlike any written before, is as remarkable as a composer writing a new opera every day. I’ve given up trying to figure out how he does it but when we pull up to the wall to hear the next round, my mind immediately organizes his set into an order like the one a waiter takes at your table in a restaurant. Somehow, I remember the sequence better when I picture tasks and I work up an appetite for breakfast. Soon we’ve finished the set, I’ve witnessed another pink and orange sunrise, and I feel a sense of possibility that I remember from childhood.

People often say things like. “If you had told me twenty years ago that someday I would be a vegetarian, I wouldn’t have believed it.” Similarly, if someone had told me that someday I would be on a swim team, I would have said “Yeah, right!” My son is ten years old now, marking a decade since I joined Menlo Masters. Throughout the years, my husband has been my loudest cheerleader as he’s often been when I’ve faced seemingly insurmountable tasks. He will yell “Good job!” across the five lanes that separate us and give me a thumbs-up. It’s corny, but it motivates me in an oh-gosh-thanks-didn’t-know- you-were-watching kind of way. Dick passed away leaving us rookies bereft, so any encouragement, any correction, goes a long way. My butterfly is dismal, flapping my wings and going nowhere, but the backstroke is coming along thanks to Ann, Dick’s wife. Her stern yet enormously generous coaching keeps me in line. And Coach Tim, who has brought us all together, stands on deck, day after day, before the break of dawn, in the rain, in freezing temperatures, challenging you to beat your time, swim with your shoes on, take fewer and fewer breaths, and you wouldn’t dream of wimping out, ever.

I’m still going to the pool when it’s dark and everyone in my house is asleep. I miss seeing my baby boy swaddled under the canopy of his car seat. I’ve moved up a lane or two and I watch the clock only to measure my speed. Counting clears my head of all the noise, lists, schedules, and emails waiting on my desk. My most complex thought may be whether I’ll make pancakes or oatmeal for breakfast. In that hour before the sun comes up, I am only aware of the bubbles from the swimmer ahead of me and the silhouette of the person behind me, and I know without exchanging a word, who it is, by the unique way they swing an arm, or kick mostly with their right leg, or tilt their head for a flip turn. Then I wonder if fish recognize other fish in their school from a similar data of gestures. No wonder I don’t recognize them at Trader Joe’s without their cap and goggles.