Endings are hard

It’s a well-worn cliche that all good things come to an end. It’s also true that bad things come to an end, too, but we mostly seem okay with that. I remember years ago someone saying to me, “Endings are hard…even when they’re expected.” So here I am at the end of a bunch of things. The end of my MFA, the end of my manuscript, the end of my excuse to not put myself out there and find meaningful work. It’s been two years of ups and downs, a lot of learning, a lot of disillusionment, a lot of enlightenment.

I just had a meeting with my remarkable mentor who told me a story about the fight between Muhammed Ali and George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle (I had heard the names and the name of the fight, but wasn’t up on the lore). Ali used a method that came to be called the “Rope-a-dope” technique where he leaned against the ropes, covered his face, and let Foreman take his punches, which landed on Ali’s body and arms and thus didn’t score Foreman any points. Once Foreman was good and exhausted, just before the end of the eighth round, Ali landed one good hit to Foreman’s head and knocked him out. This fight, my own personal Obi Wan Kenobi said, is analogous to the writing process. You got to be tough, keep your hands up to ward off the blows of rejection after rejection, and then land the punch when the opportunity presents itself.

And so here I am at the end of this stage, about to leave the cocoon of grad school and go out into the world – a newly crowned MFA – and find someone to buy my scribbles. Rejection sucks but maybe I need to look at each rejection as if it were a blow from George Foreman – all that that rejection is doing is wearing those with the power to say yes or no down, tiring them out, until one day I land that TKO punch. And then it’ll be a new beginning, and new beginnings are not hard, not in any way.

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The food portion of this blog is just to tell you that I’m making chicken, kale, and beans stew for dinner. I’m using the robin’s egg blue dutch oven that I “inherited” and making multi-grain rice in my InstantPot, which, for the record, is worth every penny. Go now to Amazon and buy one. It’s the frickin bomb.

Suffer the little children to eat vegetables

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Psssst…I have a secret to tell you. It’s going to blow your mind and you’ll be all “no way!” and I’ll be all “yes, way!” And we’ll do that for a while until it gets old and then I’ll tell you THE SECRET.

Are you ready? Here it is…

Children are designed not to starve.

I know! That’s just crazy talk, you say. Well, it’s not just me who says it. Let me, however, qualify that secret by saying that if you don’t give them any food and they aren’t quite coordinated enough yet to prepare food for themselves, then yes, they will starve. BUT if you provide them with plenty of healthy options and follow a few tiny rules, they will absolutely not starve. And in fact, they’ll thrive.

I was at the cardiologists one day having my old ticker looked at – it’s good, by the way, thanks for asking – and he starts telling me how his daughter-in-law is going to cause his grandson to have an eating disorder. “She chases him around the room with food on a spoon, she cries and yells at him. It’s ridiculous!”

Yes, Doc, it IS ridiculous. And I agree that this is setting up a battle that will, I guarantee it, rage on for many many years. It’s really important to remember that kids have no power but they want it. They want ALL the power, the grimy little miscreants that they are. So they look for opportunities to take the power. “What?” he thinks, “She wants me to eat that food on that spoon? I don’t think so.” And then he sees that this little action – the shaking of the head, the snapping closed of the mouth – evokes a response from the parent that is pure emotion: anger, frustration, even hurt feelings. And baby glows with the knowledge of this newfound magical clout.

It’s our job as parents to keep our progeny alive. It’s actually hardwired into our DNA, I think – something kooky like survival of the species or something like that. But we also give so much to our kids in terms of time and love that when they reject our food, it feels like they’re rejecting us. So let’s just stop for a moment and take a deep breath and turn our attention to the French.

In France, kids eat everything. And they do so cheerfully and enthusiastically. Oh, and tidily! No using fingers or making a mess at the French table, mais non! French parents don’t make special meals for baby, they give them baby appropriate versions of their own food. It’s supremely important to the French parent that their children develop a palate, and this was even proven as part of a recent study of French mothers. After nutrition, palate development was the second most important goal when introducing solid food to baby.

The other thing that French parents do is reintroduce rejected foods from five to eight times. They’re patient, they don’t yell, if the kids make a mess they calmly take their food away. And – here’s the kicker – they don’t use food as a reward or punishment! Well, I don’t know about you, but there goes my whole parenting model out the window.

In Karen Le Billon’s readable and encouraging book “French Kids Eat Everything (And Yours Can, Too)”, she lists 10 food rules that she says will turn all kids into eaters like the French. No snacks, no emotional eating, be calm, and then at the end she has this rule: Enjoy! And here is, I think, the crux of our problem in North America. We don’t enjoy our meals, we mostly don’t eat together anymore, we mostly don’t cook at home or revel in food the way the French do.

So, mom and dad, relax. Give junior some fois gras with béchamel sauce and cunard a l’orange – I’m kidding. You don’t have to feed them French food, just feed them in the French manner. Be calm, give them lots of healthy options, ensure that they try foods over and over again, and keep putting it on their plate until it becomes “not new”. Neophobia around food is how our ancestors survived being poisoned in the old hunter-gatherer days. It’s natural to eschew the bitter vegetable for the sweet fruit because sweet things rarely poisoned anyone, but bitter things often did. Understanding baby’s reticence to try new foods will help lessen the feeling of rejection.

Most importantly, sit down together and be joyful. If we can emulate the French in this one area then the dinner table will cease to be a battlefield, and instead it just might become an oasis of warmth and nourishment and a talisman against the ravages of this crazy world. And it will be in this idyllic, positively utopian bubble of familial love that the baby will eat the gall darned broccoli and even ask for more.

 

Ultra-processed food is bad for your health and snow is cold

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In the tiny print, it says that this chart illustrates what was allowed to be claimed as a health food before the FDA, in 2016, stepped in with interim guidelines.

A comprehensive 2017 study out of Brazil is telling us something we shouldn’t have to be told: decreasing ultra-processed food would improve our overall health. Well, duh. I mean, it seems obvious, right? And yet, those pizza pops aren’t going to eat themselves, amirite?

According to this study, US citizens get on average nearly 60% of their calories from ultra-processed foods, with those at the higher end of calorie intake recording closer to 80% of their calories from this type of food. The study is quite complex and the researchers looked at both micro and macro nutrient intake across the large sample group of over 9,000 participants, showing that those reporting the highest calorie ratio from ultra-processed food had decreased macro and micro nutrients in their systems and were overall less healthy.

What’s sad is that this information doesn’t even surprise me. In fact, I thought the percentage would be higher. In related news, a report I read today says that the majority of people, especially millennials, eschew completely the three meals a day model and tend to eat on the go or eat in front of screens, with no fixed meal times. This type of “dining” lends itself rather nicely to eating ultra-processed foods because they’re easy to prepare, to eat (often not needing utensils or plates), and they’re cheap.

It’s all alarming as we watch the steady decline of our health due to completely preventable diseases and lifestyles. However, there was some good food news this week. Daniel Lubetzky, CEO and founder of KIND, gave $25 million to start an organization called Feed the Truth, a watch dog of sorts, which the website states “will provide resources such as infographics, relevant studies/media stories, and other documents in an effort to bring more transparency to the (food) industry and help educate consumers.” Halle-freaking-lujah.

I wish I could be Queen of the world, or could sign an executive order that would ban crappy food from being sold, especially when it’s sold under the guise of being good for you. Alas, I don’t have any dictator genes and I like to give people some credit that they can think for themselves. But thinking for oneself involves having facts presented that aren’t fabricated aren’t “alternative” in any way. Hopefully, the Feed the Truth people can help us help ourselves.

The difference between binge eating and “normal” eating is permission

I couldn’t have said this better myself. Fantastic post about what separates binge eating and normal eating, from the lovely Six Months to Sanity.

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Seriously. That’s it. So if you’re looking for strategies to stop binge eating, the solution is so free and easy that it probably seems too good to be true. But it isn’t. Hear me out.how to stop binge eating

The only thing that separates a binge from a non-binge is permission: Permission to eat what you want, when you want, without guilt, until you’re done eating. Permission to not be on a diet. It might be hard to imagine such a fantasy world, but this is what life would be like without diet culture. And it’s the world awaiting you when you ditch dieting forever.

Think about it: What’s the difference between the times in your life when you enjoyed a slice of pizza, and those times in your life when you ate a slice of pizza and were SO MAD AT YOURSELF that you just ate the rest of the pizza to punish yourself? Permission.

That’s all.

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My house needs a diet

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Hi. My name’s Chubby. My Mama’s chubby. My Papa’s chubby. My dog’s chubby..

Now that we’re living in what a friend’s daughter calls a YA dystopian novel, I’ve been looking for ways to dispel the pervasive gloom of bad news and orange tyrant yawpings. I’ve been walking my dog in beautiful snow-covered High Park and actually making an effort not to hate winter this year. It seems to be, so far, working. But the one thing I believe that I can do that will lighten my heart is get rid of all the bloody, unnecessary, mind-cluttering, soul-stealing stuff that is weighing my house and my soul down.

I spent last weekend at the home of my elderly friends who both passed away during the annus horriblilis known as 2016. They weren’t hoarders – not by a long shot – but there was So. Much. Stuff. It was overwhelming. I went there to help their daughters pack up (did nothing to help) and to get one thing – a vintage robins’ egg blue Le Crueset dutch oven. I left with two boxes of various items – linens, kitchen gadgets, bowls. And the dutch oven.

Upon returning to my little teeny house and hauling in the haul, my house gave a little shudder, or at least I felt that my house gave a shudder. There was the definite sense that I had crossed a line – these two boxes of mostly useful, though of course unnecessary, things became the straw to my house’s camel’s back. It became abundantly clear: there’s just too much goddammed stuff and it clutters my psyche, making it impossible to think freely or create.

I’m up north right now, house sitting at my brother- and sister-in-law’s house in Orillia where it’s tidy, clean, uncluttered. I’ve written thousands of words in a day and a half. When I’m home, the linen closet calls to me to clean out the sheets that don’t fit any bed in our house, or throw out pillows that will never be slept on again. The pantry begs me to go through the jars and jars of dried beans, nuts, rice, and flours and throw out the food that would actually kill us if I cooked it, since some of it was purchased when we lived in Kingston. Twelve years ago. The back closet likewise clamours for attention. How many coats and jackets do four people actually need? How did we accumulate eight pairs of crocs? Does anyone even wear crocs anymore?

Years ago I wrote a piece about clutter for the Kingston Whig-Standard. This was in the day before digital so I can’t link to it, but it got some response. I was surrounded in the school yard after the article came out, people sharing their stories with me, revealing their shame because I had revealed mine. Stuff stresses us out. It’s not been that long since we went from procuring the means for survival to procuring bric-a-brac, we’re not genetically equipped to handle it. In my fantasy world I live in a modernist hard loft with floor to ceiling windows where my only possessions are quality tools for living (cook wear, one really good chesterfield, a cozy reading chair, and a great bed with good sheets), a few pieces of beautiful art, and books. And that’s it. It makes me feel better just thinking about it.

Let’s rise up against the crap that infiltrates our lives! There’s enough crap outside of our houses right now. If we start cleaning house on a personal level, maybe it’ll free our minds and our creativity. Maybe then we can find the wherewithal to face the storm that threatens to wreak havoc on our lives right now like no amount of tchotchkes ever could. Let the decluttering revolution begin.

Eating adventures in the big apple

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I didn’t even see this restaurant! Must be one of those “theme” places.

So what’s really funny is that despite all the work I do around food, researching and writing about it day in and day out, I’m actually quite resistant to eating at restaurants. I worked in professional kitchens. I know that even in the best kitchens things go on that make me leery about eating out. However, while I was in New York for a residency for my MFA, I had no choice. I decided that my big treat would be eating at Prune in the East Village, a restaurant owned by Gabrielle Hamilton, whose 2011 memoir Blood, Bones & Butter first put the bee in my bonnet to eat there. I’ll get to Prune in a moment.

During the week I tried to find the most economic ways to nourish myself while still trying things that I wouldn’t get to try at home. There are some really great, relatively inexpensive lunch places that became my go-tos and I found that my favourite became Hale and Hearty. I wish we had one in Toronto. Really great soups and simmer bowls, flavourful and satisfying, and service that was genuine, welcoming, and helpful.

However, the best damned thing I ate in New York was an accidental kale salad. Why accidental? One of my fellow students and I decided to walk up from lower Manhattan to the Whitney. It was about a 40 minute walk, and we hadn’t eaten for hours, so by the time we arrived at the museum we were pretty hungry. We decided to try the restaurant in the Whitney and sat down. After being handed a menu, we both scanned it, stood up, put our coats back on and walked out. A kale and squash salad for $22? And of course I translate that into Canadian money so it’s actually $4,000,000 Cdn, or something like that. Either way it’s too much to pay when we’re heading to Prune that night and I wanted to splurge there.

We trudged across the street to an adorable place called Bubby’s. There, on the menu, is a kale, beet, and squash salad. It’s $12. It comes with a dressing that tastes like lemon merengue pie. It has pomegranate seeds on it and pecans and GOAT CHEESE. The service is warm and perfect, the salad is up there among the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth and did I mention it was $12?

I was saving my pennies for my big treat – Prune! I was so excited. We ended up being a group of six and in a tiny restaurant, we took up a lot of space. It started out so great. The hostess was a professional – welcoming, warm, showing us where the shawls were and taking our coats. I chatted with her briefly about Gabrielle Hamilton and how much I enjoyed her book and her attitude towards food, which is mostly that it needs to taste good. What? That’s crazy talk, right? It was all so lovely.

We shared some bar snacks, which were okay – nothing that made me roll my eyes back in my head – but did the job of holding us over. Then my friend and I shared a whole grilled fish with toasted fennel oil, which was freaking delicious, and I ordered some braised escarole, because I couldn’t imagine how one braised escarole and made it taste like anything other than slimy lettuce. Well, it seems, you can’t. It was awful, over-salted and slimy as I imagined. But I had to try. I tasted bits from my other companions’ dishes and everything was uniformly delicious.

So what was the problem? I’m sorry to say that the warmth and the humour of the hostess did not trickle down to our server. She forgot a side dish, charged us for drinks that we didn’t order, and generally had the warmth of a Winnipeg winter, and that’s being harsh to Winnipeg. It was really too bad. I would like to go back sometime, maybe with just one other person this time (figuring out the bill was an irritant. Why oh why can’t American restaurants split bills?) because there was so much about it that was good. But the server kind of cast a bit of a pall over the evening, I’m sorry to say. I did, however, have one of the best ciders I have ever had in my life there. I guess at $16 a bottle, it should be, but it was quite heavenly and worth it.

I also had a bloody delicious sandwich at a vegan place called Blossom. Anyone who knows me would probably find it amusing that I went to a vegan restaurant because they know that I think that all you can order there is endive with a side of moral superiority, but Blossom proved me wrong. It was delightful and welcoming and the food was super flavourful. They also let me and my friend chat for a couple of hours without giving us the hairy eyeball. I forthwith reserve all judgment of vegan restaurants!

So there you go. This was eating in New York on a budget (plus one indulgence). I won’t be back there for at least another four years now, and I’m sad because I love New York. I love the rhythm of the city and the energy. I love how people move through the city, purposeful and lively, everyone seeming to move to the beat of “Staying Alive”. I’m going to miss it.

I wonder if Bubby’s delivers to Toronto?

 

 

Let them eat tofu

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Tofu baked with Indian spices and sesame seeds. I can be nourished and smug all at the same time!

Further to last week’s post about what the hell to eat, I made the mistake of watching Food Choices last night on Netflix. Why was it a mistake? Because despite the documentarian’s earnest effort to not let his own journey serve as judgment, I felt that I was doing the eating thing wrong AGAIN. It’s essentially an exploration of how westerners eat and that if we only could embrace a plant-based lifestyle, every single one of our problems would go away.

He interviews experts with lots of letters after their names who remind us mortals that we’re eating all wrong. We don’t need animal protein, one Doctor Muckity-Muck states. We can get all the protein we need from vegetation. Even hunter-gatherers, says Doctor I-know-way-more-than-you, didn’t eat that much animal protein. And for the sake of all that is kale and tempeh, stop drinking another species’ milk! Only we ridiculous humans drink another animal’s milk or drink milk at all past weaning. Maybe they haven’t accounted for the fact that other animals lack opposable thumbs, milk stools, pails, and other sundry milk procuring and processing equipment, not to mention know-how. Besides, what really separates humans from other beasts is that we figured out how to make cheese. And if you ask my dog, she’d tell you that that’s why dogs are so loyal. The cheese, and nothing else.

And so today I wandered to the overpriced, organic vegetable shop up the street and bought tofu and kale and beets and good curry powder and even vegan cheese (because I’m curious). Maybe I’ll give this reduced animal protein thing a try and see how it goes. My intestines are always a mess so I’m going to see if reducing animal protein is the way to go. We’re not big red meat eaters, in fact we might have beef a total of four times a year, but we do eat a lot of chicken and fish.

But I shan’t give up eggs. You can’t make me! You’ll have to pry them from my cold, dead hands. Their big argument against eggs was that they came from factory-farmed chickens who were fed corn and antibiotics, etc. But I eat organic, free-range eggs that come from happy chickens who I’m sure are fanned with fronds by hunky, shirtless farm boys and carried around on litters all day. That is what I tell myself anyway.

My biggest problem with this documentary is that it failed to mention food as anything more than nutritive. It also, despite the efforts of the narrator to make it all seem accessible and doable, served to remind me that this kind of food choice has the whiff of elitism about it. Eating this way requires, if not a lot of money, then time, research, and the luxury to give a flying feck. For people living with food insecurity, the plight of the animal they’re eating is kind of secondary to the plight of their children’s hunger.

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Next week: What I ate in New York City and why a $12 Kale salad from Bubby’s was note perfect.

 

 

When bad things happen to good fats

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I don’t know about y’all, but I’m super confused about what to eat these days. And you know what? I probably research and think about food issues more than the average person, so imagine how your regular Joe Shmoe feels? Every single gall-darned article you read offers conflicting advice. Eat the meat, don’t eat the meat. Eat the carbs, don’t eat the carbs. Okay eat the carbs but only “resistant” carbs. Eat the fat, don’t eat the fat, unless it’s “good” fat – and what makes it “good,” exactly? (That’s rhetorical. I know what makes a fat good. It gives to charity and likes dogs).

Speaking of which, I was walking my dog and encountered a lovely young lady from the local yoga studio who regaled me with her Ayruvedic diet and how they say that you should “chew” your breakfast, not drink it. Soooo…smoothies are bad? I asked. Yes. Yes, they are. What? Gall-darned it again. Sigh.

The new buzz diet is the ketogenic diet. Basically, it’s vegetables and those lovely good fats and low protein, and again, no carbs. Goal: To make your breath smell. Its proponents say that it turns your body into a fat-burning machine. Used by some medical professionals to control seizures in epileptic children, it’s been adopted by the weight conscious to lose pounds and inches. Check out Diet Doctor. What’s awesome, of course, is that you can also spend a lot of extra cash on ketone meters and ketone urine strips. Just what I want to do every day – pee on paper or prick my finger to check my ketone status. Sigh, again.

And then I was reading a Guardian article yesterday about how “cancer diets” (Everything You Wanted to Know About Cancer Diets) can’t be trusted, and the people shilling for these diets can’t be trusted, and that you should only believe what your doctor tells you and most doctors don’t want to burden their already distressed patients with food restrictions or what not. I get this and I know that it’s almost impossible to study the effects of diet on humans because of the very fact that they’re humans. How can you control for what people put in their mouths? How can you apply the gold standard of research to people unless you have them in virtual lock down with no access to any other kind of food than the food you’re feeding them? Imagine if a scientist relied on self-reporting by his or her subjects for data? They’d be laughed out of the lab, my friends.

And so, doctors and nutritionists and the like will tell people to eat sensibly. What in the bleeping bleep is sensibly? It’s so subjective. I wrote about this frustration in an earlier post on “Normal Eating”. What I consider sensible is inedible to another. When Michael Pollan says, “Eat food, not too much. Mostly plants,” I’m afraid he’s shrieking into the wind. Lack of cooking skills, lack of nutritional wisdom, abundance of cheap, processed food, and a food industry that tells us we’re too busy to shop and cook are all complicit in creating a confusing food culture that I think is eroding not just our health, but also our connection to our food and all the lovely things food does for us, which goes far beyond nutritive.

And Pollan once again nails it on the head when he says: “…there are many other reasons to eat food: pleasure, social community, identity, and ritual. Health is not the only thing going on on our plates.”

 

 

 

 

 

I’m baaaaaack…I think…

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That’s me, on the right. Cute! Look at that nose.

I emerge from exile, like a kidnap victim held in an underground bunker by a conspiracy theorist for a decade, eyes squinting at the light, shocked by the fashions. Tentatively, I step towards my saviours, besieged by sirens and whirling lights. People are shouting, “Pamela! How does it feel to join the land of the living again?” and “Pamela! Are you finally going to frickin’ WRITE something?” It’s been something of a time, as they say.

Deaths, and not just the famous ones, ailments, depression, writer’s block, laziness, tiredness and an overall sense of the world going to hell in a hand basket have kept me from writing anything but the terrible, awful, no-good words that I extracted with the grace of wresting rotten teeth from my own mouth with rusty pliers that then went into a couple of crappy chapters that will have to be entirely rewritten. And judging by that preceding ridiculous run-on sentence, you can see why they’ll need to be rewritten.

But here I am. Alive, not exactly kicking, but shuffling a bit, which is a far cry from the prone lump that I’ve been. I’ve even gotten some of my assignment done for the residency that I’m going to in New York City in a week and a half. This is huge, people. Huge. The fact that I’m writing anything at all feels like a miracle.

I’m going to write about food again soon, I promise. We had a funeral, where there was the usual funeral food, but because it was posh, it was catered, not provided by the Ladies Auxiliary in a church basement. It didn’t stop the salmon and tuna sandwiches on white bread from arriving, however. And then there was Christmas and all its attendant food thingies. Because of the death of my husband’s mum and lack of preparation/shopping/caring, we ended up at a friend’s house where, among other strange offerings, we ate kangaroo. And of course, it’s not Christmas without me getting gastroenteritis and not being able to keep anything in my system – I’m sure there’s some psychological component to this, but I’m too old and grumpy to explore.

Anyway, my friends, stay tuned. I’m half a chapter away from finishing the first draft of my book, and New York awaits. It’s going to be a time, I tell ya, and this one will be good. I hope.

Lobster Rolls and Ennui

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My mother loves the word “Ennui”. She has the word on a piece of paper on her fridge with the proper way to pronounce it written underneath – ahn wee. It’s a word for rainy, foggy days, and it perfectly describes the state that I find myself in every time I’m in Halifax.

I was born in this city, but moved to Ontario shortly after, spending summer vacations here and a few months here and there in my 20s when I was broke and my parents were once again back where they belonged. And it’s a city I desperately want to love. There’s so much to love about it. And yet…

I find myself in a state of ennui whenever I wander her streets. Something pushes down on my heart and the thrill I should be getting from the vibrant waterfront with its delightful lobster shacks, market, museums and ebullient self-awareness that this is a tourist destination, is instead replaced with an amorphous dread. I’ve wrestled with this and have come no closer to understanding this feeling.

I’m here for my second and last residency for my MFA, trying to will time to move more slowly with sheer willpower so that it won’t be over. And so I’ve decided that this time I will quash the negative feelings, seek out the pleasures of this pretty town, and listen for the rhythm that matches my heart beat and that I believe should be my birthright.

Last night a friend from the program and I wandered down through Holy Cross Catholic graveyard – very cool – and down to the waterfront to Dave’s Lobster where we got a lobster roll (on gluten-free bread!) to share. Wending our way back to King’s College, we sought shady side streets and found ourselves on one such adorable street painted with an argyle pattern. It was Argyle Street. Cuter than a bug’s ear, as my Aunt Jane would say.

This morning, I was up at dawn and opened my dorm windows a little wider, taking in a deep breath of salty air. A tingling of affection fluttered somewhere in my cold heart. I have just over a week left here. Perhaps by the end that tingle will turn into love, and, after half a century, I can finally feel like I’ve come home.