Nine Years and Nine Months

Nine years ago there was a massive rainstorm, a flooded apartment, a frenzied move, and an impromptu wedding in Pastor Schenkel’s office on Long Island. Stevie wore shorts and his blue flame Converse. I wore jeans and my flowered Doc Martens. We celebrated at the Candlelight Inn with hot wings and beer.

Grand Central Station

The best place I ever found to write was in New York City’s Grand Central Station. Seems strange, I know, but I spent countless hours during my college years, sitting on the cool marble floor of that beautiful building, back pressed against the wall, writing page after page as the bustling crowds passed by and never even seemed to notice me.

The thing about writing in Grand Central Station is that there is never an uninspired moment. Trains arrive and depart, crowds swell and taper, announcements echo through the speakers. An endless parade of potential characters plays out an impromptu performance that moves and changes with a life of its own.

There, in that space, I never seemed to have trouble tapping into something greater than myself. Call it God, the Universe, a muse, or even just inspiration—whatever name you want to give it, that’s where I found it, my own tiny corner of calm in the chaos. It was there that I lost myself, that I found myself. It was there that I found the courage to keep going.

New York will always be the city that saved my life.

There, on that dirty floor of the train station, my pen would fly across the empty pages on its own, filling the void with words and ideas from a place that I never even knew existed.

I’ve never found another sacred space to write quite like it. These days, I try to find space to write everywhere I can. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s magic.

And now that I’m finally feeling like the dust has begun to settle in my life, I’ve been able to create that space I need, that space that has been void from my life for too long as I focused WAY too much time and energy on everything but my writing and my family and myself.

I wrote pages today–pages–filling in one of the many holes that has been gaping in my memoir for far too long.

And it felt so fucking good.

And I’m finally starting to believe that it’s true–maybe God has to slam a door shut on us every now an then, because He knows it’s one we will never shut ourselves whether we’re too afraid, or too distracted, or we feel like we’ve already gone so far and we’re too invested.

So He trips you up and kicks your legs out from beneath you and He slams the door and locks it. And He makes you pick yourself up and dust yourself off and breathe as you gaze around in confusion and wonder at all the possibilities and opportunities that were right there in front of you the whole time, things you never would have taken the time to notice because you were too busy sprinting for that door with your blinders on, ignoring all the whistles and sirens and red flag warnings as you blew right on by them.

But all is right with the world again, and I’m excited for this new chapter because I know something really amazing is going to come out of it. I’ve got a story to write and a pen in my hand and when I close my eyes I’m channeling Grand Central Station. And I’ll keep writing, keep writing, keep writing because that’s what I do, and it’s never failed me.

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Nonna & Poppa Visit Nebraska

If there is any drawback to me having a very, very large family, it’s that we don’t ever really feel like we get to spend enough time with any of them. Since leaving Arizona in December 2010, I’ve been lucky enough to take Cadence back with me for a few visits, some work trips and some just to spend a little time with Momma Dawn and Mark. But somehow the trips always seem rushed (especially when I’m working) and always end too soon. Planning visits is always challenging with work schedules and my youngest siblings’ school and activities to consider. And now that Cadence has started Kindergarten just as my two youngest brothers are finishing their senior years in high school, finding ways to visit all the grandparents in New York and Colorado and Arizona is going to get even harder.

But if there’s anything we’ve learned being so spread out from so much family, it’s to take whatever visits we get and try to make the most of them. So when Nonna and Poppa said they might be able to come for a quick visit after Christmas, we jumped at the opportunity. We hung out, watched a little football, and just enjoyed the time together. I was lucky enough to get an extra day off work with Snowmageddon threatening to bury us (which amounted to little more than a few inches and some slick roads). And the only regret I have  is that I wasn’t better about getting out the camera while Nonna and Poppa were here. Next time, I’m gonna go all paparazzi, but for now, this will have to do…

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And I have to say, for being a desert rat, born and raised in sunny Arizona, Poppa Mark sure can shovel a mean driveway!

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The New York Pizza Quest

Once you’ve lived in New York, it’s hard to ever feel totally settled anywhere else. New York is the kind of place that gets under your skin. It’s the kind of place that just sort of seeps in and becomes a part of you if you let it.

I moved to New York in August of 1998 as a college freshman and spent the next nine years falling in love with everything about it from the people to the culture to the food.

When Stevie and I left New York in 2007, we left behind a lot. We left family and dear friends. We left pieces of ourselves. And we left a helluva lot of really amazing food.

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s good food everywhere. There’s this dish called Pollo Fundido at a little family-owned restaurant called LB Cantina in Florence, Arizona. It’s a homemade chicken chimichanga topped with jalepeno cream cheese and pepper jack cheese, and it will change your life. No joke. I may have eaten my weight in Pollo Fundido the three years we lived in Arizona, and every time I go back to visit, LB’s is one of the first places I go while I’m there. And here in Lincoln, Nebraska, we’ve got a bunch of really great restaurants serving some seriously amazing stuff. Take the Full Leaded Jacket from this little place called Leadbelly for instance. It’s a fresh hamburger patty served on a homemade cinnamon roll and topped with white cheddar, chili, sour cream, scallions, chopped tomato, red onion, fresh jalapeño, crisp tortillas, and a queso sauce so awesome they actually call it queso awesome. I know, it sounds like some stoners got together after a night of heavy smoking and just dumped together everything they saw in the fridge, but let me tell you folks, the Full Leaded Jacket is so freakin’ amazing it’s damn near a religious experience when you take your first bite of that flavor combination.

And yet, for all the great food we’ve had in Arizona and Nebraska and every other place we’ve traveled in between, there’s one craving we just haven’t been able to truly satisfy since we left and that’s good ol’ New York style pizza.

In Arizona, the first time Stevie called up the local pizzeria to order a large pie, the girl on the other end of the phone started to stutter.

“Um…sir…we sell pizza here.”

It took every last ounce of strength for my dear hubby not climb through the phone and shake her. Instead, he cleared his throat and tried again.

“Uh, yeah, I know,” he said. “I’d like a large cheese pizza, please.”

Luckily the pizza was tolerable. Not great, but not the worst we’d had in Arizona by a long shot.

When we moved to Lincoln, we embarked on what became known as The Great Pizza Quest, meticulously working our way through every pizza place in town, searching for something that could fill the void.

Sadly, it was an utter failure. Sauces were too sweet, toppings too heavy. Real pizza dough/crust was nowhere to be found and in its place, a dense bread that soaked up the oil from the overabundance of cheese and left a puddle on the plate. While places like Yia Yia’s and Momo’s had some really great flavors, the crusts were all wrong. We thought we might have gotten close the first time we ordered from Lazzari’s, but then the sauce got sweet and they started overcooking the pies, and there’s nothing worse than burned cheese and brittle crust.

Well, nothing worse except pizza cut in squares. I mean, what is that about anyway? Stevie got to the point where the first question he would ask when he walked into a new pizza place here in Lincoln is whether they cut the pizza in squares. If the answer was yes, he would do an abrupt about-face and walk right back out again.

Each visit back East only exacerbated our longing for some real, authentic NY-style pizza. And after our visit to New York last summer, where we spent 10 days gorging ourselves to get our fill before we flew back to our pizza-less lives in Lincoln, I decided enough was enough.

If I could teach myself to make Black & White Cookies that tasted every bit as good as the ones in New York, then damned if I couldn’t learn how to make NY-style pizza too.

And so, I set a little goal for myself and I put it right out there on Facebook for everyone to see, hoping that broadcasting it might help make me accountable.

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I’m thinking, after all this time, a lot of folks probably thought I’d forgotten. I mean, it has taken me almost 11 months, but here’s the thing…anyone who knows me well, knows that’s sort of how I operate, at least when it comes to big projects. Back when we were both students, it used to drive Stevie nuts. See, I’d get an assignment in class, say for a 20-page research paper. The deadline would be a month away. For a good 3 1/2 weeks, it might appear to the untrained eye that I was doing nothing. Then, a couple days before the paper was due, there would be a stack of books on my desk and a few scraps of paper with some notes scribbled here and there. Then, the night (or sometimes even a few hours) before the paper was due, I would sit down at the computer and begin to type. Then I would hand in the paper and the assignment was complete. Stevie always hated that I could do so well when it seemed I was always doing things last minute, but that wasn’t really the case. All those weeks when I was doing “nothing”, the idea was growing in my mind, the details marinating. I could “see” it coming together in my head. Every now and then I would jot down an idea or a few sentences that I could come back to later. By the time I finally sat down to hammer it out, it was all there.

So no, I hadn’t forgotten about my great pizza making resolution. And while it may have seemed like the idea was lying dormant, it has been on my mind all these months since I first challenged myself to do it. I’ve been going over the plan in my head, researching methods, reading blogs and articles and reviews, plotting just how exactly I was going to do this and do it right. (I was also waiting for the morning sickness to subside, and then for my aching pregnant body to return to semi-normal after Henry was born, so yeah, it has taken awhile).

By time time I finally purchased the ingredients and mixed up that first batch of dough in my kitchen, I’d spent 10 months making pizza in my head.

And I’ll tell you what, ladies and gentlemen, those were 10 months very well spent, because I’ve done it. Stevie is a self-professed pizza snob–he has no problem admitting it. Being a born and raised New Yorker who probably has pizza sauce coursing through his veins at this point, he is very picky when it comes to any pizza that claims to be NY-style. My first attempt last Friday was okay. The flavor was there, but I’d gotten way too overzealous stretching the dough and it ended up being so thin in the middle that it tore right through. Even so, Stevie declared that very first pizza the best in Lincoln.

But I knew I could do better.

I made another round on Saturday when we were at my parents’ apartment watching the Husker game. Again, the flavor was right, but after stretching the dough too thin the night before, I erred on the side of caution and the crust ended up being a little too thick.

Back to the drawing board.

Monday, I gave it another go, only this time I made the pizza way too big for the peel, and I had to try and cook it on the aluminum pizza pan I’d purchased for serving. The crust ended up cooking too fast on the edges, but was still underdone in the middle, so I had to cut slices and throw them back on the stone in the oven to crisp, which meant the outer crust was way too crispy.

So, I asked Stevie and Cadence if they were sick of pizza yet and when they both said no, I pulled out another piece of dough and went through the process again meticulously with Miss Cadence helping and Henry keeping a close eye on us from the living room.

And tonight…tonight Stevie folded his slice in half, took a great big bite, and gave me two very enthusiastic thumbs up.

And while I’m still planning to keep on practicing until I’ve honed my newfound skills to the point where I can make a pizza in my sleep, I’m satisfied, and pretty damn proud of myself for bringing another piece of New York here to my home in Nebraska.

Mission accomplished.

What’s next?

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The Great Bagel Delivery, Part 2

Last year, Stevie’s sister, Michele, decided to send us a little taste of New York for Christmas–a box with 1/2 dozen fresh egg bagels in it. She wanted to surprise us, which was awesome, but she’d never met Electra. How was she to know that our dog is a crazed food whore who would chew through layer of packing tape, a cardboard box, and a Ziploc freezer bag just to get to the bagels inside.

I caught Electra, with her head shoved in the box, just as she was attempting to swallow one of the bagels whole. Stevie and I couldn’t decide if we were angry, or a little impressed with her good taste.

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After the Great Bagel Heist of 2013, Michele let us know that we should keep an eye out for another delivery this year. The box arrived on Saturday, and Stevie made sure to set it on top of the piano where it was well out of reach. Electra spent the morning parked in front of the piano with her nose in the air, licking her chops, reminiscing about the delicious bagels of yesteryear.

By the time we began unpacking the box, she was drooling on the floor and panting heavily.

She gave it a valiant effort, stretching as far as her beagle/basset legs would let her, but she came up short. This year, sweet hound, the bagels are ours.

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We Love You, New York

It’s been 13 years. I keep thinking that one of these days, it’s not going to hurt so much when they start rolling the footage of those airplanes flying into the Twin Towers. I wasn’t in New York when it happened. I’d hopped on an airplane just a few weeks before the attacks, putting a little distance between myself and my own demons as I took what would have been my senior year of college off to spend a little time with family and a whole lot of time in therapy.

I was sleeping in Texas when the first plane hit. My Aunt Leslie woke me before she headed out for work, saying New York was on the news. Something was happening.

At that point, no one really knew anything.

I stumbled to the kitchen to make some coffee, staring in disbelief at what was unfolding in front of me on the screen. At first I thought it must be some old movie footage, or maybe some sort of sick joke. The second plane hit and the tears began to fall. And as I watched the first tower crumble, I fell to my knees on the living room carpet, sobbing and praying.

Please, just let me wake up.

I was fortunate. I didn’t lose anyone I loved in those attacks. And yet, like so many others who woke to the horror that beautiful September day, the events have left an indelible scar.

From the moment I first arrived in New York as a wide-eyed 17-year-old co-ed, New York felt like home. The nine years I spent there were some of the best (and the worst) of my life. I lost myself, and found myself on those crowded city streets. I fell in love there. I learned to love myself there. In so many ways, New York made me whole.

And so I imagine that is the reason that I feel my eyes burning each time I see the old footage of those broken buildings, each time I watch those wounded souls wandering in the streets, the towers burning behind them. It’s the reason I feel something crumbling inside me each time I see those towers fall.

I made it a point to visit Ground Zero as soon as I returned to New York in the fall of 2002. I’d spent that year cleaning up the broken pieces of my life, slowly healing from the years of self-loathing and depression. And as I walked up to the barricades surrounded the area that was still very much filled with rubble and ruin, it occurred to me that in spite of everything those evil men had done to destroy our city, our country, and the spirit of the American people, something beautiful and strong was emerging from the ashes. Because no matter how much darkness they might try to rain down on us, our individual sparks of goodness and light can never be extinguished. Not really. And so I made a point to visit Ground Zero every now and again for the next few years, to pay my respects to those who had been lost, and to renew my own belief in the resiliency of the human spirit.

Stevie and I visited Ground Zero shortly before we moved away from New York in 2007, and it wasn’t until just this year that we had a chance to go back again.

But this time it was different.

How do you explain to a 4-year-old what happened that day? As parents, so much of what we do is to protect our children, and I know that sometimes the first instinct is to grab them up and build a little bubble around them to protect them from the dangers of the outside world. And yet I know that doing so will only cripple them. Life isn’t rosy all the time. And somehow I believe that our job as parents is to teach our children how to cope with the things they face in this life–both the good and the bad. I believe that talking to them about some of the horrible things can help them understand, and make their own lights shine a little brighter.

And so, Stevie and Cadence and I hopped a train to the city on a humid Monday morning in July. We didn’t have much of an agenda. We wanted to try and hit a few of our favorite spots, find a good Black & White Cookie, and then head down to the 9/11 Memorial.

Cadence wasn’t sure what to think at first. She loved riding the train and the subway, but was a little overwhelmed by the bustling crowds as the noise as we approached Times Square. Though it had always been one of my favorite spots to people watch and wander, I was sad to see what Times Square had become–a chaotic, seedy spot filled with pushy panhandlers dressed in dirty knockoff Disney costumes. We indulged Cadence with a couple quick photos, and then left it behind. We walked to Grand Central Station and showed her around, then hopped a train uptown to take some photos in front of the Metropolitan Museum. Afterward, we let Cadence blow off some steam at a playground in Central Park.

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It was another short walk to the subway that would take us all the way downtown. We found a bakery on the way, and demolished some Black & Whites before heading down to the Memorial.

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Emerging from the subway, we were surprised to still see so much of the area barricaded. It had been 7 years since our last visit. I guess we’d just assumed that enough time had passed for everything to be made whole again.

Each time I visit, I find myself marveling at the stillness. Right there in the middle of the city that never sleeps, in the middle of the chaos that is New York City, there is an eerie silence that seems to have permanently settled over Ground Zero. The Memorial was packed with people–tourists and police and volunteers. We wove our way through the crowds, collecting an informational pamphlet and a couple of bracelets.

We Will Never Forget.

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As we approached the first reflecting pool, we stopped. Steven and I knelt down and began to tell Cadence the story of the two tall buildings that used to stand where the water now fell into the gaping holes in the earth. We told her how some bad men stole airplanes and crashed into those buildings because they wanted to hurt people. We told her how a lot of people, brave men and women, police and firefighters, hurried into the buildings to try and help the people who were hurt. And we told her that a lot of people died when the buildings fell down.

She was quiet, studying the scene around her, looking at the pictures of the Twin Towers in the pamphlet.

“Mommy, did you die in the building?” she asked.

“No baby. I didn’t. But a lot of other Mommies and Daddies did. And they built these waterfalls and made this place for everyone to come visit so we can remember the people who died here.”

She didn’t want to talk about it anymore. But I watched her big eyes drinking it all in as we toured the site. She traced the letters of a name with her finger, and then gave her Daddy a hug and laid her head on his shoulder as we paused in front of the pool where the North Tower once stood.

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This morning when we woke, the footage was already playing on the news. Cadence pointed immediately at the screen.

“Hey, that’s New York. I remember. I was there,” she said.

She remembered.

We remembered.

We love you, New York. We will never forget.

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