Dressing the Part

“Oh – look at your pretty toes!” she said. I smiled as I looked down at my Merlot-colored toenails.  They hadn’t been out in public in quite some time.  No, it wasn’t the beginning of summer.  This was last week.  Weather-wise, we are still in open-toed shoe season, but here at the Folk School I’ve taken classes that require me to do something I haven’t done since I was twelve: wear sneakers for a week straight.

I’m not the sneaker-wearing type.  There was a two year period in college when I didn’t even own sneakers.  In general, I’m not a casual dresser either.  Yes, I wear jeans.  But usually with a cute top, earrings, and nice shoes – heeled boots in winter, platform sandals in summer. I don’t have a floor-to-ceiling closet full of shoes like my youngest sister Meg, but I’ve got my fair share.  Unfortunately, most of them haven’t been worn for quite some time.

Why?  Because I’ve chosen classes over the last few weeks that have an unwritten dress code.  In woodturning, there are plenty of sharp objects that can go flying – or falling.  So close-toed shoes are a must.  So are high-collared shirts for women.  No one mentioned this to me, but I was smart enough not to wear my usual V-necks to class.  What I thought was a high neck-line didn’t cut it, though.  Thankfully, the resident woodturner is a woman.  She understood and had a T-shirt on hand that I adopted as my smock for the week.  Prior to that, I had woodchips in places that I don’t care to get into here.

Also no-no’s in woodturning: hair worn down or in a pony tail.  Getting your hair caught in a lathe spinning at 1200 RPM’s – not good.  Getting anything caught in a lathe spinning that fast wouldn’t be good – so jewelry is also out of the question.

Me on the lathe in woodturning.

After my adventures in woodturning, I took a cooking class.  You would think you could wear whatever you want while cooking, but not in a place that has liability to worry about.  Knives can fall and slice toes, so once again my open-toed shoes were relegated to the back of my closet.

Last week, I was building a garden shed.  Well, trying to learn at least.  You don’t see open-toed shoes on a construction site.

Building A Garden Shed (back row: Francois, Cecily, Jane, Louise; front row: Tom (instructor), me, and Matt)

Thankfully, there is at least one night per week that open-toed shoes, earrings, and even dresses are seen on campus.  Every Tuesday night, there is a Contra and Square Dance in the Community Room.  Locals join students for this weekly event that even has live music.  No experience necessary, and no partner is needed.  In fact, this is the only place I’ve been where I’ve actually witnessed a shortage of women at a dance.

Dresses! Skirts! Jewelry! (Well, except Brad) And a little face paint to celebrate Scottish Heritage week. L to R: Lindsay, me, Victoria, Rachel, Julie and Brad

So on Tuesday nights, the dresses I used to wear so often in my previous life finally get to see the light of day.  I reach into the depths of my closet, pull out my open-toed shoes, slip my feet in and smile at my painted toe nails.

Adventures in Woodturning

An emotional roller coaster.  That’s how you might describe a tough week of unexpected things.  Or, if you’re me, that’s how you describe your week in the woodturning studio.  By 3:30 on Thursday, I’d had enough.  I put a plastic bad over the piece I’d been working on (to keep it from drying out) and walked out the door.  I hid in a corner of the porch, shed a few tears, and then listened to my heart.  The conversation went something like this:

-What do you want to do Rebecca?

-Well, I sure don’t want to make another bowl.

-So don’t.

It was that simple.  But how to tell the instructor?  Ugh.  So instead of going back in, I wandered next door to the painting studio.  There was near silence as the students painted seascapes and gardens in acrylics.  I wandered from easel to easel admiring their work and clearing my head.  (Well, figuratively at least.  I found out on Monday I’m allergic to sawdust – so it wasn’t possible to literally clear my head.)

Having restored my sanity, I walked back into the woodturning studio.  “I’m done,” I told my instructor.  “I don’t want to make another bowl.”

“Do you want to make something else?” he asked.

“No.  I’m just not having fun anymore,” I said.  He had reminded us nearly every day that we were on vacation and we were there to have fun, so he understood my sentiments, but seemed a bit surprised – even a bit crestfallen.

I went over to my lathe and pulled off the hunk of wood that had defeated me.  I squirted compressed air over the beastly machine and swept up my plot of studio space as we did each night.  My teacher sat in the classroom area a few feet away.  It was the first time I’d seen him sit in the studio all week.  I couldn’t look him in the eye.

My workstation for the past week

I finished cleaning, walked out, and burst into tears once again.  There’s a fine line, I decided, between giving up and just not feeling it’s worth doing something anymore.

The next morning I headed back to the woodturning studio.  On this, our last day, all I wanted to do was finish the projects we’d started earlier in the week.  This was the first time in my life I’d been the last in the class, the slowest one.  While the other students plowed away at new projects, I spent hours finishing the first two we had worked on.

And as I was turning a stem onto my mini-goblet, I remembered how much I enjoyed doing this same technique the first day – experimenting with making beads and coves down a line of pine.

My finished mini-goblet

Experimenting with beads and coves on Monday night.

Bowls, on the other hand, were not something I enjoyed.  So though I had spent the Thursday night reworking my entire class schedule to avoid wood or traditional “manly” crafts for the next three months, I changed my mind (as I so often do).  I even told my instructor I might be interested in a class that focused on spindle work and not bowls.  He told me which teacher to avoid – because he’s mean to his female students.  Since I’d been near tears more than once in his class, I greatly appreciated his advice.

Next week, I’m taking a cooking class.  Unlike the woodturning studio, I have actually been in a kitchen before.  I know what a lot of the tools are, and the basics of how to use them.  I could even make something with them.  So I figure already I’m off to a much better start.  And now, I can appreciate every wooden piece I will touch in that kitchen:)

Myths of the Sisterhood (Part 2)

I described the house where I was saying to my sister Liz.  “It’s right on the ocean – on a bluff.  There’s stairs down to the beach.  Actually, it used to be an old inn and the brochure aid ‘seven steps to the sea.'” I had been to this house many times in the last ten years, but this was my first time I was here for an entire week in the summer.  I was volunteering as the sous-chef.  My taste-testers?  The vacationing Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame.

Liz still had the image of Sisters from our childhood days in Catholic School: their heads covered in habits, living in a convent the inside of which we never got to see but could only speculate about.  We’d wonder if they had long hair or short hair under their habits or if they had to make their own beds.  And it was alarming to us when one day, in the school parking lot, we saw Sr. Marie driving a brown station wagon.  “They drive?” we asked Mom.  “Well, how else do you think they get anywhere?” she responded.  Honestly, I’d never thought about it.  Nor had Liz ever thought about Sisters vacationing in an oceanfront house.

Liz: Do they go swimming?

Me: Yes.

Liz: Do they wear bathing suits?

Me: Yes (thinking “What else would they wear?”)

Liz (whispering – even though we’re on the phone): Do they wear bikinis?

Me: Liz – most people their age don’t wear bikinis.

Liz: Oh.  How old are they?

Me: Sixties, seventies.  I don’t usually ask.

Liz: Well what kind of bathing suits do they wear?  Twenties-style ones where they’re all covered up?

Me (laughing): No – regular bathing suits.  Most of them where those ones with the skirts attached on the bottom.

Liz: Oh.

I think this was before the point where Sr. Anne showed me how to use a boogie board and ride in on the waves….

So here I am to banish myth number two: that Sisters don’t enjoy a swim in the ocean once in a while – in a bathing suit.  Just like you and me.  Who knew?

The beach near Villa Marguerita

Myths of the Sisterhood (Part 1)

It was two years ago that I did my first stint as sous-chef at Villa Marguerita – the vacation home on the Rhode Island coast belonging to the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame.  They work hard in their various ministries – at schools, hospitals, and other non-profits – and then come here for some R&R.

Many people have a view of “women religious” as stern women in habits.  That was my image from Catholic elementary school, and when I talk to others about my week here cooking for these sisters I find that a lot of people still have that image.  Most people have never thought of Sisters not dressed in habits, let alone sunning on a beach.

When I was here two years ago, I had a funny conversation with my sister Liz that brings home this point.  Liz has no bones about speaking her mind nor about verbalizing the questions others only think of but are too scared to ask.  The conversation went like this:

Liz (in a whisper – even though we’re on the phone): Do they drink?

Me (with a slight giggle): Yes.

Liz: Do they get drunk?

Me: Noooo.

Liz: Well, how much do they drink?

Me (matter-of-factly): A beer or two with dinner.

Liz (incredulously): They drink beer?!

Me (laughing): Some of them.  Some have wine, or a mixed drink.

Liz: Like what kinds of alcohol do they have?

I named off some of things that had graced the drinks cart at dinner.  And with that, banished the myth that Sisters are stern, mean women who never relax with a drink:)

Villa Marguerita

The Mother’s Day Shrimp

There is definitely some sort of brain growth that happens – almost palpably – when you’re learning new things.  I don’t mean things you find in books – though perhaps you can feel it there as well.  No, I mean things that you experience that you’ve never experienced before.  And the great thing is that you have the opportunity to learn something new nearly every day if you just keep your eyes open for it.  Such was my experience on Sunday with shrimp.

On Mother’s Day, my father and his best friend prepare a meal for their wives.  Gary picks out the recipes and serves as head chef.  Dad and us kids are sous-chefs.  I’m usually amenable to preparing whatever needs doing.  As a child helping mom prepare for holiday meals, however, I steered away from tasks that involved food I didn’t like to eat.  Namely, mayonnaise and mustard.  Deviled eggs?  Nope – someone else can do that.  Stuffed mushrooms?  Nope.  Shrimp would have also fallen into this category.  I have only come to like it in the last five years.  And that was only because the guy I was seeing cooked it for me and, not knowing him too well, I felt bad telling him I didn’t like it.  So I tried it, figuring how bad could something be that was cooked in butter and garlic?  I’m half Italian, after all.  Now, shrimp scampi holds a special place in my heart (though they guy doesn’t!).

So when dad’s friend Gary asked me if I’d peel shrimp, I hesitated for a moment.  The only thing I’d ever had to do in the way of preparing the little guys was taking off the tails in order to pop them into my mouth.  These ones had legs!  But I’m more cognizant now of the fact that a lot of what I eat once had legs (or once was a leg) and I think it’s good to know what your food goes through from farm to table (or from water to table in this case).  So Gary showed me how to peel them – which I must admit is much easier than peeling garlic.

Once I was done with that, the next line in the recipe instructed you in deveining the shrimp.  I’d heard of this, but never done it.  Gary came over and together we figured out how to do it – or so we thought.  But our first two shrimp didn’t appear to have their “vein.”  Family members debated as to if the shrimp had already been deveined (which I didn’t think was the case since it seemed silly to do it without peeling the little guys first).   Our third one finally showed us what it had – and as an Anatomy instructor I had a feeling it wasn’t a vein.   Human anatomy was my favorite course (no pun intended).  And I could definitely identify the veins of any dead animal – human or otherwise.  I commanded my brother who was sitting at the family computer to google “deveining shrimp.”  He one-upped me and found a you tube video.

The instructor from Epicurious told us, first of all, that deveining wasn’t necessary but that the shrimp sure looked prettier peeled open like that.  She confirmed that my technique of making a shallow groove along their backs and peeling it open was indeed correct.  Then, she explained that what I pulled out was not a vein at all, but their digestive tract.  Ha!  I knew it!  I figured our first two shrimp had done me the favor of clearing their digestive tracts prior to being pulled from the ocean.  I went back to the process of deveining our future meal, carefully pulling out digestive tracts filled with – well, I knew, but no need to dwell on it.

After coating the shrimp in oil, tossing them in the rub my sister prepared, and skewering them, I thanked Gary for expanding my culinary horizons.  He gave a jolly laugh and went to find the ginger root my father needed to make his recipe.  “What the hell is this?!” my father, definitely not the culinary expert, asked upon seeing the stalk of ginger.  I guess I didn’t get my appreciation for learning new things from him:)