Dolce Zitella's Latest Post, Life Lessons, Writers and Writing

A Writer’s Writer – Carson McCullers

The following is a re-post from January 2018. It remains timely today.

She was a rock star.  Her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, brought her critical acclaim at the age of twenty-three and she made her mark on the literary scene of the 1940’s and ‘50’s at a time when the field was still overwhelmingly dominated by men.  Her body of work hauntingly echoed the themes of loneliness, unrequited love, and being different.  A southern gothic writer, she railed against racism and homophobia – and her message still resonates today.  Her name was Carson McCullers.

While living in a Brooklyn brownstone called “February House” with a menagerie of other writers and artists, she wrote The Member of the Wedding.  When she was in residence at Yaddo Artists’ Colony, she penned The Ballad of the Sad Café.  Later, as her health was failing, her home was a Victorian with a wrap-around porch and a view of the Hudson River, not far from where I grew up.  Each time I passed by that house, I imagined Carson, decades earlier, sitting on her porch, peering from her window as she sat at her typewriter, perhaps walking down South Broadway in the mornings.

When I came upon a grainy, 1958 recording of her reading from her work, I was awestruck.  There was a fragility in her voice, which quivered, as though she were about to cry.  That shakiness, along with her thick Georgia accent, conjured in my mind an elderly southern lady rather than a woman who, at the time, was only forty-one-years-old.

Carson McCullers left us a beautiful literary legacy.  Whether you’re looking for a thought-provoking book for yourself, or a good-read for your book group, her prose is lovely and her message will surely ignite great discussion.

 

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Life Lessons

Through Children’s Eyes

My cousin recently described what it’s been like to take her children, an adorable set of four-year-old twins, to the neighborhood playground.  Social distancing playtime means patient children await a turn to be gently pushed on a swing, as long as the swing to their left and to their right remain vacant.  But many times, there’s no need to wait because most of the neighborhood regulars are staying away.  This absence is not lost on the twins, as one of them recently observed, “There are no people.  Where are the people?” 

A friend of mine has two elementary school-aged daughters.  Their zoom school and homework completed, they watch television in the family room, adjacent to the kitchen where my friend is busy preparing dinner.  When a popular news magazine program featured a story about the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday,  one of the girls remarked, “Where are their masks?”  My friend had to explain that the episode was a repeat from last year, from before the pandemic.

Another friend, along with her husband and two older boys, like to end their busy work week by ordering take out from their favorite neighborhood pizza joint.  But as restaurants shuttered, in order to continue their Friday night pizza ritual, my friend began making her own pizza dough.  Even though she is by far the best baker I know, the dough has not always risen as it should, and sometimes the results were, as she put it, “flatbread.”  The boys, eager for any sort of pizza crust that could support chunks of fresh tomato and gobs of stringy, gooey mozzarella cheese, named this homemade pizza “quarantine pizza.” 

While some children are still too young to fully understand, that doesn’t mean they aren’t attuned to the ways, both big and small, that life has changed during 2020.  But clearly, children of all ages have been remarkably adaptable.  The holiday season has begun and I, more than even, will try to see things through their eyes.

 

 

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Girl Talk, Life Lessons

Eight

October is nearly over.  But it’s not too late. 

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month.  If you haven’t scheduled your mammogram – or if you’re overdue for your mammogram because of the ongoing pandemic – this is your chance to take care of yourself and to take control of your health. 

Fact: one-in-eight women will develop breast cancer during her lifetime.  Covid-19 or no Covid-19 – this staggering statistic has not changed.  I ought to know – I am one of the one-in-eight.  And so are some of my family members and friends.  That’s why I’ve written on this topic before,  https://dolcezitella.com/2016/01/14/how-i-got-to-red/ and https://dolcezitella.com/2016/10/20/inked/ and why I will continue to do so.

The number eight has another meaning for me.  August is the eighth month of the year, and this past August marked my eighth anniversary of being cancer-free.  Even though the five-year anniversary is an important milestone for breast cancer survivors, eight years is the big benchmark for women who’ve had my specific type of breast cancer.  Having reached this milestone, I feel immensely grateful and blessed.  But I take nothing for granted.  I remain diligent and timely about my check-ups and testing, knowing that if I hadn’t been so diligent and timely a little over eight years ago, I might not have benefitted from early detection nor experienced such a successful outcome.

Stay on track.  Schedule your mammogram.  No excuses.

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Life Lessons, Pop Culture, Writers and Writing

The Typewriter

Yard sales are common in my town but I seldom, if ever, take part.  For one thing, to have a crack at the really good stuff, you must arrive early and I’m not a morning person, especially on Saturdays.  Add to that my inability to shake off the old city-dweller mentality that no matter how tempting a curio might be, “there’s just no room for it.”  So, it was very out of character for me to check out the yard sale taking place in my neighborhood this past weekend.

As I approached the house, I saw the usual folding tables filled with knickknacks and gently used kitchenware.  There were books, of course, and a seemingly brand-new tennis racket.  I paused in front of the historic banker’s chair that was in need of a little TLC, and considered the antique wooden ironing board that yearned to be a piece of art displayed on a kitchen wall.

Call it serendipity, or fate, that I should spot a manual typewriter.  I couldn’t believe my good fortune that, as late as 11:00 in the morning, a vintage Royal had not yet been scooped up.  My first thought: it’s still available because it’s expensive.  My second thought: didn’t Kerouac use a Royal?  I knew about his famous Underwood – the typewriter he used to write On the Road – but I remembered reading somewhere that although he favored the Underwood, at one point, he also used a Royal.  Another literary giant had used a Royal, but I couldn’t place who it was.

On closer inspection, the putty colored typewriter was dirty, perhaps nicotine stained, and laden with the kind of dust that accumulates from years spent in an attic or basement.  The keys had long ago yellowed and the roller was splattered with white-out.  Its carrying case was even more soiled, and I couldn’t tell if it was leather or some sort of fabric that had petrified.  Still, this was a vintage Royal that, given its body’s metal construction and iconic red logo lettering, I guessed to be from the mid-1950’s.  I doubted it actually worked.  In fact, I didn’t even care.  I just knew I wanted it.  And for ten bucks, it was mine.

As soon as I got it home, I went online:

How to clean a vintage typewriter
When did Royal introduce the portable Quiet De Luxe model
Famous authors who used a Royal

Turns out a small paint brush, a soft cotton rag, a gentle hand, and the sparing use of water and rubbing alcohol have gotten me off to a good start.  I think my typewriter is a 1956 model.  And Hemingway was the other writer who used a Royal.  In fact, he had three of them.

Why have I been so fixated with this typewriter all week?  It’s the sheer romance of the whole thing.

Think about it…  In this digital age where first our PC’s, and now our laptops, become obsolete every couple of years, we don’t keep them long enough to create a history.  We don’t get attached to them.  We just discard them.  Years from now, will I even remember what version of Windows I used to write this blog post?  But I do remember the typewriter I learned on, and used to write my college papers and my first short stories – a blue Smith Corona.  It didn’t possess the mystique of an old Royal.  I don’t imagine anything could.

This Royal is going to sit on a shelf in the room where I write.  It will be more – much more – than a conversation piece.  It will be my reminder of what’s important.  My talisman.  The compass that guides me to whatever comes next.

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Home Improvements, Life Lessons

Homegrown

A few years ago, when I left the city for a house with a backyard, my brother and I started dabbling with the usual potted herbs and tomato plants.  For two summers we enjoyed tasty tomatoes and enough basil and mint to last all summer.  However, this year has been different.

My brother is a plant whisperer.  He had the vision to create a raised bed garden in our backyard.  And although we share the watering duties, I take little credit for our growing harvest.

The tomatoes have been plentiful, and we’ve grown some healthy zucchini.  Our basil, mint, rosemary, and parsley plants remain hearty. The romaine lettuce, spaghetti squash, baby carrots, and peppers red, yellow, and green are all thriving.  And just this week, our raspberries have started to bud!

Every afternoon, I delight in going out back to check on the plants, then gather a few tomatoes, maybe a zuke, and some fresh herbs for the evening’s dinner.  Now don’t go picturing a Martha Stewart-like scene where, in the late afternoon heat, I venture outside in a canvas gardening apron and straw hat, holding a big rattan basket.  The reality is far less quaint.  Clad in a paint-stained cropped T-shirt, and a Strand Bookstore baseball cap, I’ve got a gallon-size Ziplock bag in my hand.

Our abundance of tomatoes has made Caprese salads a frequent side dish.  We’ve enjoyed chicken Caesar salad using our romaine lettuce, topped pizza with our zukes, and sprinkled chopped peppers into omelets.  Beyond the fresh taste of these homegrown veggies, the satisfaction factor has been enormous.

Who knew the city folk could grow food?

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Life Lessons, Zitella's Favorite Recipes

Potatoes, Onions, and Eggs

Lately, I find myself thinking about my grandmother.  She and my grandfather married in September 1929, less than a month before the devastating stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression.  As newlyweds, and during the early years of their marriage, they made sacrifices and weathered hardships they could not have anticipated on their wedding day.

During the Depression, my grandmother spent her time in the kitchen “stretching” and “making do.”  Fifty years later, when she was living with us, during the most prosperous times she could have ever imagined, my grandmother held steadfast to her belief in “waste not, want not.”  I watched as she smoothed out the wrinkles in a sheet of aluminum foil, so it could be used again and again, until it was tattered beyond repair.  She wrote grocery lists on the back of used envelopes.  And she placed her morning teabag in a whiskey glass, and reused it for her weaker and less flavorful afternoon cup of tea.  Even though we assured her that these measures of conservation were no longer necessary, she couldn’t seem to relax her life-long habits.  Intellectually, I knew why she did these things.  Now I finally understand it.

These days, I keep a small cup next to the bathroom sink, which holds a sliver of soap that, three months ago, I would have thrown away, thinking it was too small to use in the shower.  I freeze any and everything – from blanched spinach to buttermilk – and flour has become as precious as gold.  Each morning, I open the refrigerator and plan my meals according to the shelf-life of the coveted fresh produce I feel lucky to have.  A potato gets cut in half, and the half that isn’t eaten tonight is stored in the refrigerator, preserved in water, for a future meal.

Once considered “Italian peasant food,” Potatoes, Onions, and Eggs is now a popular frittata that appears on the brunch menus of trendy neighborhood eateries.  For me, it’s comfort food – and one of my go-to recipes during this pandemic.  Here’s the recipe for Potatoes, Onions, and Eggs.

Mangia! 

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Best of Boston, Life Lessons, Pop Culture

Ice Ice Baby

There’s an indoor skating rink about a half-mile from my house and, for the past couple of years, whenever I pass by, the place whispers to me: Ice Ice Baby, Ice Ice Baby

First, a little background: I skated regularly throughout my childhood and teen years.  While I was never exactly graceful, I had good balance and could move at a steady clip.  The last time I was on the ice was during college and, after that, my skates were left abandoned in my parents’ basement.  Eventually the leather dried and cracked, and the skates got tossed.

Over the years, I replaced skating with spectating and, as evidenced by my past blog posts, I not only love hockey, I am hopelessly devoted to the Boston Bruins

Because my Bruins make it look easy, and because this charming old rink is walking distance from my house, it was only a matter of time before I got the urge to lace up and get back out on the ice.  What better way to get in some cardio and burn a few calories, right?

On a whim, I bought a pair of ice skates.  Then brought them to be sharpened.  And, realizing I was sorely out of practice, and considerably older than the last time I went skating, I picked up a set of knee, elbow, and wrist pads.  I was ready to go.  Ice Ice Baby, Ice Ice Baby.

I skated about twenty minutes before I stumbled.  Suddenly, I was airborne and, arms out-stretched, went leaping through the air as if I were about to dive into a swimming pool.  Only this water was a frozen block of ice.  I came down on my stomach and chest, remaining prostrate and stunned until a nice stranger helped me up.

The pain was immediate and sharp and I figured I’d pulled a muscle in my arm.  I left the rink and, as soon as I got home, I reached for the Ice Ice Baby.  The next day, when I couldn’t move my arm at all, I sought medical care.  Turns out I fractured my shoulder.  Specifically, the ball joint of my humerus bone.  Note the spelling: that’s humerus, not humorous.  Because there is nothing funny about it.

For the past week I’ve been mostly immobile, sprawled out on my chaise, popping ibuprofen for the pain, and eating ice cream because, clearly, I need more calcium in my diet.  The one thing that could drag me from the chaise and back out into the world?  Tickets to the Bruins/Vancouver game.

As my brother and I approached the Garden, I spotted the bronze statue of Bobby Orr that immortalizes his famous “flying goal.”  Pointing to the statue, I exclaimed, “Hey, that’s what I did!  I went flying through the air just like Bobby Orr!”

Only Bobby Orr didn’t suffer a fracture.  He scored the over-time goal that won the Bruins the 1970 Stanley Cup Championship.  Ice Ice Baby!

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Life Lessons

Catching More Z’s

Are you tired?  Of course you are.  Nobody’s getting enough sleep.  Blame it on FOMO and our electronic devices; our 24/7 mentality and longer work days; and our over-consumption of caffeine.  But wait – that might be a chicken and egg situation.  Is sleeplessness the consequence of drinking too much coffee, or are we drinking gallons of coffee to combat fatigue?

When it comes to sleep health, I’ve heard it all before.  Moderate the temperature in your bedroom, don’t eat anything past 8:00 pm – and the best one – get up the same time on the weekends as you do on weekdays.  Ha!  Fat chance I’m gonna set my alarm to wake me at 6:00 am on a Saturday morning.

As a night-owl, I stayed up well-past what is considered a reasonable bed-time, only to be startled awake by my ear-splitting alarm clock.  Make no mistake, the reason it’s called an “alarm” clock is because the shrill sound incudes panic and distress.  Then, like a true java-junkie, I relied on a venti-sized coffee to shift myself into high gear.  And I thought I was doing okay.

But a couple of months ago, I committed to making some big changes in my life that have resulted in a dramatic improvement in my sleep health.  First, the easy one: since I didn’t suffer from FOMO, I shut off my cell phone at dinner time and I don’t turn it on until the next morning.  Next: I’ve broken the late-night habit of forcing myself to stay awake just so I can cross one more thing off my never-ending to-do list.  And finally: working at home has enabled me to swap commuting time for additional shut eye.  The results?  I have never been more clear-headed and present; the dark circles under my eyes have vanished; and my caffeine consumption is down to one half-caf-half-decaf cup of coffee a day.  I still get all the flavor, but I no longer need the jolt.

Maybe you’re thinking all this change is too drastic.  And realistically, your current life-style does not allow for one or more of these changes.  Understandable.  But think about how much effort you put into deciding what you eat – and won’t eat – and how you make time for a workout or yoga class.  The three-legged stool of health is nutrition, exercise, and sleep.  Two legs are not enough for stability.  We need that third one – sleep.

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Life Lessons

Change of Life

My grandmother’s generation called it “the change of life.”  But nowadays, women of a certain age call it what it actually is: menopause.  Me, I like the phrase “change of life,” because it evokes the notion that when you reach a certain age, you’ve lived long enough that there’s not much left that scares you, and you’re willing and open to taking chances.  There’s the belief, and even the expectation, that you can actually change your life in some grand way.  Granted this takes a great leap of faith, with no guarantee of the eventual outcome.  But if you possess the will to change, the conviction to stick with your decision, and have support and encouragement from some friends or family, well…

Case in point: a friend of mine with a cool studio apartment and a great job in Manhattan left it all behind and moved to Denver.  For a man she was dating who swore he would never get married again.  Ten months later, they were engaged.  In a few months, they’ll be celebrating their seven-year wedding anniversary.  Another friend took a chance on an old house in the country that needed extensive work.  As she and the realtor stood in the kitchen, my friend turned on the faucet, and thought: if water comes out, I’ll buy this house.  The water flowed and it turns out buying that house not only changed her address, it changed her livelihood and led her to a new love.

Now I know what you’re thinking – these sound like the plots of Hallmark Channel movies, but I promise both are completely true.

However, unlike all those entertaining Hallmark movies, where the heroine always finds true love in the end, I stand firm in my belief that a happy ending can be anything you want it to be.  Which brings me to my “change of life.”

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be leaving my job of nearly 17 years.  As the news spread through my office, the same questions were posed to me.  Where are you going?  What are your plans?   And when I answer – that I don’t know exactly where I’ll land – I’m met with various reactions.  Some think I’m a little crazy, while others are proud of me, excited for me, and at least one colleague wishes she could do what I’m doing.

My change of life is not about a man.  It’s about how I want to spend the next years of my life.  It’s about purpose and well-being.  It’s about faith and resilience.

As a writer, I’m big on symbolism.  We are deep in October so everywhere I turn, in my quiet neighborhood, as well as on the city streets, I see mums in rich autumn hues of burgundy, pumpkin, and gold.   Mums are generally under-rated when compared to other flowers, like cheery tulips or romantic roses.  But, while tulips are synonymous with spring and growth, let’s face it, their delicate stems easily flop over.  And the roses of summer are fragrant but they are hard to grow.  Mums can weather change, and they don’t wither on the first cold day.  Just like women of a certain age who aren’t afraid of much, mums remain hearty and resilient.

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Best of Boston, Life Lessons

September in Boston

Emerson UnionThe following is a re-post from September 2016.

“They’re baaaack…”   At summer’s end, nearly a quarter-of-a-million college students descend upon Boston.  They arrive in SUV’s and with U-Hauls that get double and triple parked along the city streets.  It’s a chaotic and familiar scene that jars my memory, transports me back to a September when I was a student.

My classes took place in a cluster of century-old brownstones that was Emerson College.  The Back Bay streets I walked were lined with gas street lamps, and every statue and church marked a piece of history.  There was no quad, no field house, no bookstore, nothing even remotely resembling a traditional campus – this was an urban campus.

The city was filled with a new kind of student – their oxford shirts and Shetland sweaters were packed away in their parents’ attics.  These young men and women were costumed in vivid colors, leather jackets, tight black trousers, walking boots, male and female alike wearing haircuts as short as their fathers had worn thirty years before.  They liked to gather in front of the Mass Communications Building and smoke clove cigarettes.  Their energy was palpable and it made me feel as if I were in the midst of a bizarre 1980’s new-wave cartoon with loud, clashing colors.

The Emerson Library windows overlooked the Charles River.  The water was calm but I could imagine the prep school trained crew teams from the Cambridge side of the river out in the early morning, their movements synchronized, their breath coming in steamy huffs.  I never got up early enough to actually go down to the Esplanade to watch them.  I would’ve felt out of place there.

It was an odd mix of scenery, of philosophy, of fashion.  At first I didn’t know exactly where I fit into the picture.  But this was where I belonged.  I found my niche.  My peeps.  My voice.  And although I knew it was not possible, that September, I wished that for once, time could stand still.

red poppy

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