Life in Progress: A weblog by Heidi Price

Cooking for compliments

"Guess what I'm doing?" I asked when the saint-in-my-life called last Monday night.

I call him a saint because even though he had just finished a 12-hour work day, he called. He called even though I know the last thing he probably wanted to do at the end of a long work day was listen to me babble.

He said he couldn't possibly guess. He was too tired.

"Come on. Guess," I pushed. "I'll give you a hint. It is something I never do."

I'm trying to become domestic. Lately, every time I cook anything, I tend to hammer the point again and again and again. After two missed guesses that led me to believe he thinks I spend my off hours engaging in all maner of unhealthy behavior - he nailed it.

"You're cooking," he said.

Bingo. I had been in the kitchen for hours singing "I Believe I can Fly" by R. Kelly and pressing plum tomatoes through a strainer. I added each cup of puree to a pot of what I hoped would soon resemble creamy tomato soup.

I wanted to do something with the bumper crop of plum tomatoes in my garden. As fate would have it, a few days earlier, a coworker lent me a recipe for Cream of Tomato Soup. Many years back, his wife had taken a cooking class in Pittsburgh with French chef Jacques Pépin and received several recipes to take home. Once I made this recipe, my coworker told me, I would never eat tomato soup out of a can again.

The soup turned out to be every bit incredible as promised. Make it, if only to fill your kitchen with the aroma of French thyme sauteing in onions, butter and garlic.

Cream of Fresh Tomato Soup or Potage a la Creme de Tomates

(Serves 6 to 8)

4 Tbsps. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 Tbsp. Olive Oil
1 yellow onion, peeled and sliced thin (about 1 and 1/4 cups)
3 to 4 ripe tomatoes, chopped coarsely (I used my puree from my plum tomatoes)
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 sprig thyme
3 Tbsp. tomato paste
2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
3 cups chicken broth
1/2 tsp. sugar
dash of salt
dash of freshly ground white pepper (I found small containers for 99 cents at Penn Mac in the Strip.)
1 cup heavy cream

- Heat 2 Tablespoons of butter with the oil in a saucepan. Add the onion, garlic and thyme and sauté for about five minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and tomato paste and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Sprinkle with the flour and mix well with a wooden spatula. Add the broth, sugar, salt and pepper. Simmer 15 minutes.

- Pour into the container of a food processor (I used a blender. It worked fine.) and blend at high speed for a couple of seconds. Strain through a fine sieve. Pour into a saucepan and add the cream. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 2 to 3 minutes.

- At serving time, stir in the remaining butter, bit by bit. Serve with or without croutons. (I made grilled cheese with swiss and Italian bread.)

Are you okay?

(David Montgomery and his wife, Alice, in a recent photo)

I hate making mistakes in stories. There is no hiding from your gaffe's in the newspaper business. Your name is there, right above the glaring error.

So on Tuesday morning, when I learned I'd misprinted a phone number in a story about a bank robbery, I decided to go for a walk around the block and practice my deep breathing. In truth, I wanted to take a drive and get a cigarette and a venti nonfat latte, but the walk around the block seemed the healthier, less-expensive life choice.

As I turned the corner onto East Wheeling Street, a woman wearing large, dark sunglasses approached me.

"Do you remember my husband?" she asked in a voice thick with emotion. "He helped you that day when you fell in the street."

I remembered.

A few months back, I had gone to fetch coffee for several of us in the newsroom at the cafe across the street from our newspaper. Walking back, trying to balance many cups of coffee, I tripped on the curb in front of Hickson's, the office supply store on East Wheeling Street in Washington. Trying to savethe coffees, I fell hard on the ground, scraping the skin off my elbows and knees and spilling hot coffee all over myself.

A man came rushing out of the building.

"Are you okay?" he asked me and bent down. He said he felt really bad for me because he falls too sometimes and it is such an embarrassing thing, especially in front of other people. I wasn't so much embarrassed as grateful for his kindness.

I fall pretty often and, after more than three decades, I am beyond embarrassment. I told him I recently tripped at a Pirates baseball game and what stunned me even more than the hard sidewalk was the fact that no one stopped helped me. Not one person among the dozens who saw me fall in the parking lot asked me if I was okay. This kind man listened to me babble for a while then extended a hand and helped me stand and sent me on my way.

His name was David Howard Montgomery, the woman in the dark sunglasses told me. He was her husband of many decades and together they had owned and operated Hickson's, the store I had fallen in front of on East Wheeling Street. He had died barely a month ago at the age of 71. Bone, Liver and Esophogeal cancer. He was sick only weeks after his diagnosis, never letting on, hiding his pain from everybody, his wife told me. She also said that he had talked about helping me that day in the street.

"I didn't think you knew he died," she said she thought I would have wanted to know. Then she walked away from me, up East Wheeling Street toward Hickson's.

Walking back to the office, I thought about the circumstances that brought me to this street corner, on this particular morning, and into the path of this woman, who reminded me that in life, one complete stranger can help another complete stranger simply by extending a hand and asking three, simple words, "Are you okay?"

Not a Steelers Fan

I got my Eat n'Park cookie. Sunday morning, I ran The Great Race with the saint-in-my-life-who-likes-to-exercise and a friend from work. The saint took an early lead and when my friend and I crossed the finish line 1 hour and eight minutes later, he was there waiting with Eat n' Park cookies for each of us.

But that's not my story today. What I want to tell you about takes place about 30 minutes later in a parking garage in downtown Pittsburgh. Hours earlier, before the race, he had pulled his car into the garage and parked in the first available spot about one-level up so we could catch the bus up to the race start line.

When we returned to the car after the race, the parking garage was clogged with idling cars going nowhere - all drivers were trying to find a parking space for the Steelers' game. People were honking horns, drivers were standing beside open doors, trying to figure out what was causing the holdup - a fender bender several floors up maybe?

We were one spot away from the ramp to the exit. If someone would just let us backout, turnaround and catch the ramp, we could be out in minutes. Otherwise, we would have to sit in this snarled traffic jam all the way to the top of the garage and then back down again.

I approached a cherry-red Honda Accord almost directly behind us.

"Excuse me," I said to the blonde driver. "Is there anyway that the next time traffic moves forward you could give us about one minute and not pull forward so we can back out and go out this exit instead of going all the way up? We're not going to the game and we're hoping to dodge this traffic."

"I'll think about it," the blonde said and then rolled up her window in my face. (That move is so much more effective on cars with power windows. She had power windows.) I stood there looking in her driver's side window amazed at her brush off. I don't understand rudeness. I really don't. I looked at her Steelers jersey. I think it was either a #36 or #86. I took a few seconds to think mean thoughts. She didn't deserve to wear that jersey. Jerome Bettis and Heinz Ward would never treat people like that. I turned so that she could see the number on my Steelers jersey, #75, Mean Joe Greene. Didn't she see we were kindred spirts? Steelers fans need to stick together.

I don't take the word "no" easily. But life has taught me that when faced with a disagreeable person it is best to be as sweet as possible. Sweet yet persistent usually wins the day.

I tapped her drivers side window down again. She rolled it down a crack.

"Did you think about it?" I asked. "Listen, I don't mean to be rude but this would only take a few seconds of brake time from you. We just ran The Great Race and we are hoping to get out of here."

She again said she would think about it and once again she powered the window up in my face. After several deep breathes, I went and stood in front of her car inches from her front bumper. Then I began directing traffic. I asked all the drivers in front of me to scootch their vehicles forward as much as possible. They gladly did. With the Honda Accord not going anywhere it gave him enough room to back his car out, turn around and make it to the exit.

All the true Steelers fans in front of us cheered loudly as I walked to his car.

"Were you a political science major?" one of the drivers yelled as I got in and we drove off toward the pay plaza. I grinned for the next several blocks.

Embalming School

My best friend, who lives in France, not far from Lyon, returned to teaching school a few weeks ago after a one-year hiatus.

"I'm thinking of becoming an embalmer," she told me this morning. "I've worked with children and now I'm ready to try something different."

Her assignment this year involves teaching English to kindergarten-age children. Every day she comes home and tells her children, her husband or me, "That was the worst day of my life."

"You said that yesterday," her children say.

My friend responds that yes, it was true yesterday and it is equally true today.

A few phone calls back, I ask her if it is really that bad and she tells me that one of her students tried to stab another child with a colored pencil. They don't listen. They don't behave, she tells me. She had a momentary breakthrough the other day with all her students chanting an English rhyme, in sync, when a little girl interrupted to announce that she went to the swimming pool. The moment was lost.

My friend is so serious about embalming school that she actually found an embalming academy near her home and has been reading up on what it would involve. Enthusiasm, she tells me, and a sensitive nature. She figures her husband can deal with the families and she'll just work on the bodies. Then she recites a passage from a book she's been reading about how friends need to support one another in their search for greater wisdom.

My friend, I support you.

Park v. Track

I like to run (by run I mean mostly walk) in the park. There is a running track pretty close to my house with brand new turf and everything but I always drive the extra few miles to go to the park.

Here is why:

- Running at the park a few weeks back, I saw an older couple on the side of one of the trails. The man was picking berries from a tree and feeding them to himself and his wife. Both of their cheeks were stained scarlet with berry juice. They looked like purple grape bears. As I passed, I asked them what kind of berries were on the tree. The man looked at me, held out his hand and said, in a heavily-accented voice, "Vitamin C!"

- Then there's the group of four guys who, every Sunday morning, walk through the park smoking cigars and wearing stained ribbed tank tops and dress pants. They all look like they just walked off the set of The Sopranos and every time I get near them I turn off my Ipod so I can hear them talk. It's some of the best dialogue I've ever heard but I can't repeat any of it here. They cuss a lot.

- Early this morning I was running around the lake and listening to Buckets of Rain by Bob Dylan. At a crest in the hill, I saw shafts of sunlight breaking through the tree branches.

And that is why I like the park better than the track.

On this day

On my way to a doctor's appointment in Squirrel Hill Monday morning, my car ran out of gas on the four-lane NASCAR raceway known to locals as the Parkway East.

As I was driving, I was talking on my cell phone to my friend-who-works-in-a-bank when my car started to sputter. I know this sputter. I could tell by the way the car was chugging that it was out of fuel.

"I think I'm running out of gas," I told my friend.

"Well, those things tend to happen when you have a stack of cds obscuring your gas gauge," he said. Then he said he had to go.

I got out of my car and walked to my doctor's appointment. It wasn't very far. After my appointment, I stopped at the BP.

"Do you need a ride?" a man who was pumping gas asked me. He had heard me begging the BP gas attendant to lend me the gas can instead of making me buy it. I didn't want to buy another gas can. Not another. I had two already.

"No," I told the man at the gas pump. "I'm okay."

I made it back to my car and as I was sitting on the side of the road trying to assemble the spout, the man at the gas pump pulled up behind me.

"You need a funnel," he told me. I was a little creeped that he had come when I told him not to, but I remembered we were on the side of a congested highway. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people were driving past every minute. Surely he wouldn't try anything dodgy here.

He didn't. He helped me assemble the spout, lent me his funnel, and waited until I filled my car with gas and started it again. He wasn't a creep. Most people aren't.

I thanked him. He got a very serious look on his face.

"Mam," he said "on this day of all days Americans should be nice to each other."

Then I remembered what day it was.

Mr. Bones

Most Saturday mornings throughout the year, I drive to Ohio to work auctions with my mom.

Yesterday morning, as I was driving off the suspension bridge that spans the Ohio River, a black dog jumped from the hillside next to the highway and right into oncoming traffic on the other side of the median. As tractor trailers and minivans closed in, the dog jumped across the median and directly into the path of my car.

I didn't hit the dog. I slammed on my brakes and avoided hitting the dog or causing an accident. I pulled my car over and got out. The dog, casting a wary glance over its shoulder, started to run along the berm of the highway, away from me. I got down on my knees - thinking I might seem less intimidating. I whistled and called but the dog just kept running in the opposite direction. She eventually jumped another concrete barrier and ran down a steep hillside to the Ohio River.

Eight hours later, the auction finished, I drove back to the marina where I'd last seen the dog. She, I think the dog was a female, was sitting in the railroad tracks maybe 50 feet away from where a family was having a picnic. When she saw me she ran again, this time into a thicket of bramble bushes. I kneeled down, crawled into the bushes and tried to coax her out. There was glass all over the ground and I was afraid she would cut her paws. Every time I moved closer, she moved farther back. I could see the indentations between her ribs. She didn't look rabid, only scared and hungry.

I couldn't catch her. Everything I did seemed to scare her.

Eventually, I left. I called 911 and asked them to call Animal Services and call me if they found her. On Sunday morning, my mom took down a plate of cooked chicken, hoping if not to lure the dog out from her hiding place then at least feed her. Still nothing.

You might think this is a lot to go through for a dog or maybe that I'm foolish. Maybe I am. But I've owned a dog and loved that dog, lost it once and found it days later, starving and scared.

And I've read Paul Auster's amazing book - Timbuktu - about a dog named Mr. Bones. Read this book. Read it even if you are not a dog person. It is a novel written from the point of view of a dog but through this dog's eyes you see people in a new light. It is brilliant and simple and calm.

Read it and I promise the next time you come across a dog that looks scared and lost, you will stop.

And if you figure out a way to coax a dog out of the bramble bushes, please let me know.

Training for a cookie

For the last month or so I've been running, four or five miles at a stretch, several days a week.

My goal? An Eat n' Park cookie.

See, even though I'm not what one might call "a runner", I've been running The Great Race for the last several years. I love this race. Singing "Shout" as you cross the start line, the bag pipers at Carnegie Mellon University, the lady who hands out free beer in Oakland. The band playing as you run past Duquesne Unviersity. It's really a great race, pun intended.

But by far, my favorite thing about the race, is the Eat n' Park, smiling sugar cookies. Every year in Point State Park, where the race concludes, sponsors set up booths for the runners. They hand out bananas, water, oranges, and in the case of race sponsor Eat n' Park, smiling sugar cookies

The problem with being an out-of-shape, sporadic runner is that by the time I cross the finish line, all the Eat n' Park cookies are gone. Gone. I cry, having run 6.2 miles to get the cookie. Most of the bananas and oranges are gone too but nothing bothers me so much as the empty cookie box.

"What do you mean they are gone?" I say to the girl, who has to turn the boxes upside down to show me there are only crumbs inside.

I'd like to blame the piggy runners who cross the finish line ahead of me and take more than one cookie, but if I was that fast and that skinny I'd take a stack of smiling cookies too. I'd like to blame Eat n' Park for not bringing enough cookies or for giving them out to those who reach the booth first. But how could they know that the red-faced, sweating stumblers at the end of the line need those cookies much more than those healthy jack rabbits who finish early?

"I'll go down and get you a cookie," he tells me a few nights back, explaining that while he couldn't run the race with me this year because of work, he would meet me at the finish line with a smiley cookie.

But I've got a better goal. I will train. Train fiercely. Determined and focused, I will run this race with speed. I will run like the jack rabbits. I will cross the finish line well ahead of the pack and I will get my cookie.


On Sunday morning after breakfast, we sat down to watch Rick Santorum and Bob Casey in their first debate. Or I should say we watched them spend the better part of an hour interrupting, maligning and insulting each other on NBC's Meet the Press. The two men are running for a seat in the U.S. Senate and instead of simply answering moderator Tim Russert's questions about Social Security, the deficit and Iraq, as political candidates are wont to do, they tried to answer the questions while at the same time discredit one another.

I couldn't help but think back to a conversation we'd had a few weeks back. We were talking politics and a book I had just read by David Rakoff, called Don't Get Too Comfortable. In it, Rakoff goes off on a rant about former first lady Barbara Bush. He told me that he despises personal attacks. Once any conversation, debate or argument turns personal, he turns away from it.

He tells me a candidate would win his vote if they would just say something to the effect of "Listen. My opponent is a really great person. I can't say a single bad thing about him or her. But here is why you should vote for me. Here is what I am going to do for you."

I've never met such a candidate. If I did, he or she would have my vote too.


A few years back, my older sister Julie gave me a book "The 48 Laws of Power" by Robert Greene. Each of the 48 chapters outlines a strategy for gaining the upper hand in almost any situation. Each law is backed up by a historical account of how it has been applied to win wars, seduce lovers and topple empires.

It's not the type of book one reads cover to cover, but rather it is a collection of chapters, each dealing with a law, that can be read on its own. One might call it bathroom reading.

Take Law #15 - Crush Your Enemy Totally.
Below the chapter title a paragraph reads:
All great leaders since Moses have known that a feared enemy must be crushed completely. (Sometimes they have learned this the hard way.) If one ember is left alight, no matter how dimly it smolders, a fire will eventually break out. More is lost though stopping halfway than through total annihilation: The enemy will recover, and will seek revenge. Crush him, not only in body but in spirit.

The Crush Your Enemy Totally chapter includes a story of two childhood friends who grew up to become rivals and war generals. The more aggressive of the two, Hsiang Yu, had numerous opportunities to slay his former friend, Liu Pang, but each time allowed him to escape. In the end, Liu Pang, bested his Hsiang Yu.

See? That's why its improtant to totally crush your enemy. If not, you'll end up like Hsiang Yu.

For years, I kept this book by my bedstand. Cracking the spine occasionally, to read an anecdote or historical account when I couldn 't sleep. To Greene's credit, it is incredibly well-written and an easy read.

Then, a few weeks back, I picked upthe book for a different reason. My life appeared to be heading in the wrong direction and I wanted to set it straight. I wanted to manipulate people. I wanted to bend them to my will. I wanted every situation to turn out in my favor.

I read the laws over, and a few of the more doable ones stood out:

-Do Not Commit to Anyone
-Control the Options: Get Others to Play with the Cards You Deal
-Concentrate Your Forces
-Strike the Shepherd and the Sheep will Scatter
-Think as You Like But Behave Like Others
-Discover Each Man's Thumbscrew
-Infection: Avoid the Unhappy and Unlucky
-Play a Sucker to Catch a Sucker- seem dumber than your mark
-Pose As A Friend, Work as a spy

I had a plan and this felt better than just letting life happen. After a sleepless night spent planning my emergence into the power scene, I began to falter. Don't commit to anyone? I commit to everyone I love. I don't know any other way to love even though I know it is sometimes to my detriment. Avoid the Unhappy and Unlucky? Well, this would involve dodging all of humanity at one point or another. I couldn't pull double duty as a friend and spy. I have a hard enough time just being a friend.

I reconsidered the 48 and found one that might actually be doable.

Use Absence to Increase Respect and Honor.

Might this be applicable at work?


By bicycle

My sophomore year of high school, I moved from Ohio to Pittsburgh.

Well meaning locals gave me tips on living in the big city. Avoid any neighborhood with "Hill" in it, except for Squirrel Hill. "Heights" is okay, but definitely avoid "Hill." Also steer clear of the Homewood/Lincoln Lemington neighborhoods of Pittsburgh.

When I started working in Washington, well-meaning locals and acquaintances offered the same advice. Washington has its own "Hill", they told me, and it is best to avoid it.

For many years I did just that. I avoided certain streets, drove around entire neighborhoods entirely. These pre-cautions were not baseless nor was my adherenece to them. They had their share of crime.

But in avoiding certain neighborhoods, certain clusters of homes, an insidious thing started to happen. I started to pity the people who lived there, imagining their lives - dodging bullets everytime they stepped outside their doors, trampling over used needles on their way to the bus stop.

It's not true of course, not for most. To come full circle, I've spent the last several months riding my bicycle through the neighborhoods I'd spent years trying to avoid. It hasn't been by choice. I've been trying to catch the guy on the bike in front of me. As I've pedaled and panted, I've ridden past birthday parties in back yards. I've seen run down houses and well-kept ones. Last week, we found a former conservatory (see previous post) in Homewood that used to train young, black opera singers who performed all over the east coast.

I would never have noticed the birthday parties, the people, the smells if I'd been in my car. I would have been concentrating on driving while talking on the phone. Two wheels is better. There's no filter between you and the neighborhood you are riding through. People smile at your flushed, face as you pedal up the hill.

A good way to get to know a neighborhood I think.

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