On My Outrageous Friend…

Image result for image outrageous friend

My Outrageous Friend…

She didn’t know who I was the last time we talked, but she managed to carry on a conversation with this stranger who called to wish her a happy birthday. Now a phone conversation is beyond her grasp.

My friend, my outrageous friend. I may be lost to her; she will never be lost to me. Too many memories, experiences shared. And doesn’t every serious person need an outrageous friend, a window into thinking, behaving, as we thought we never would, but always, covertly, longed to.

Cookie was that for me. We laughed until our sides ached, doubled over with breathless delight. I accepted and cherished her idiosyncrasies that placed her family in paroxysms of fury and sometimes despair. She had a flair for the dramatic, all right, and no compunction about indulging it. Many times I stood beside her, figuratively if not literally, sometimes picking up the pieces. I was happy to do it.

She loved me, that I know. She thought I was wonderful, perfect, smart. Well, who wouldn’t want a friend like that? I confided in her like no other, and she always took my side. I can hear her pithy, salty responses, always delivered in that memorable Baltimore accent. “Well, you know he’s an asshole, don’t you?” “That fucking bitch. I knew it the minute I laid eyes on her. You know she’s just jealous. Can’t stand in your light.” “I can’t stand to be in the same room with him. He makes my skin crawl. I’ll tell him. You want me to tell him? I will. He won’t know what hit him.”

It didn’t matter if it were an affair of the heart, a work issue, or an in-law kerfuffle. She was there, always, and always on my side. As I was for her, throughout her scrapes and tussles with life. She liked living on the edge, and would do what she could to make sure situations turned out that way. I was close, yet far away, enough to look at them with a wry and loving indulgence, and, most times, help her figure out a logical, reasoned exodus even if she seldom took it.

For so many years we lived far apart, as I moved to Chicago and then to North Carolina. We did manage to meet in between every year. Now I wonder why we didn’t do that more often. Our last time together, when she was who she was, we spent hours in a bookstore, going up and down the aisles pointing out books we had read, wanted to read, a reader’s frenzy. We laughed, and I wonder if she knew it would be our last time when we were really together.

She called me when she first received the diagnosis. She cried; this time I had no words or plans that could make it right. I continued to call, not often, but I kept in touch as she became more and more out of touch.

Until this weekend, when the recording said that her phone had been disconnected. I contacted her daughter. “Mom is in a nursing home. She’s happy, well fed. She doesn’t know where she is.”

But, for me, she will always be in my heart.

http://www.cynthiastrauff.com

On Schmierkase, Baltimore, and Mornings After….

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On Schmierkase, Baltimore, and Mornings After….

Last Sunday I baked a Schmierkase. Now for those of you who may not be from Baltimore, for those of you who may not be German, Schmierkase is a very special kind of cheesecake. It is first a cake, and secondarily a cake with cheese – sort of like a cheese Danish on steroids. I posted a picture on a Baltimore Facebook page (Baltimore Old Photos) and received hundreds of hits. Obviously, this is something that touched memories.

Now, I am not a good cook, and I am even less of a good baker. But something called me to research this and give it a try. I’m sure you could find a more authentic recipe, I’m sure that the bakeries that sell them present a more professional image, but I was delighted with how mine looked.

As with most endeavors, the proof is in the tasting. So, that night, we had it for dessert. Alas, a disappointment. A bit over-baked, and not-quite-sweet-enough, even for my most-things-are-too-sweet palate. Undeterred, I, now with one attempt under my belt so to speak, pledged to try again.

But the morning after – ah, how often can we savor this? – the morning after, I cut a square (for a Schmierkase is traditionally cut in a square or rectangle) to go with my cup of black coffee. And, eureka! What a difference. I don’t know if it was sitting overnight; I don’t know if it felt my disappointment with my efforts; I don’t know if a cleansed palate is what you need, but it was delicious. And what a great way to start a day. A culinary disappointment turned around.

And I thought about mornings-after, how so often they are filled with recriminations for folly. Maybe we need more folly in our lives. I intend to work on that one. And I will try another Schmierkase. (And thanks to the Facebook reader who gave me the correct spelling.)

Here’s the recipe if you’d like to try it (along with my observations, of course):

Ingredients:

For the cake:

2 c flour

2 tsp baking powder

¾ c sugar

½ c canola oil

2 eggs, room temperature

Pinch of salt

For the filling:

16 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature

(I know, real Schmierkase calls for cottage cheese, but try this – and use the brick kind, not the tub spread)

12 oz. evaporated milk

¾ c sugar

1 T flour

2 tsp vanilla

3 eggs, room temperature

For sprinkling:

Cinnamon

Directions:

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Mix all of cake ingredients together – it will look more like a dough than cake batter; press into a 13×9 baking dish, covering all the bottom and half-way up the sides.

In another bowl, mix all the filling ingredients until smooth – I used my immersion blender and this made it so much easier. The batter will be thin – pour over the cake and sprinkle with cinnamon.

Bake 60-70 minutes (when I do this again, I am taking it out at 60 minutes on the dot!) It should NOT be browned.

Cool, then cut into squares – or rectangles as the Schmierkase experts say!

Enjoy – and do let me know how it goes for you.

And if you like novels set in historic Baltimore, please visit my webpage and check out Another Sunday and Echoes from the Alum Chine.

http://www.cynthiastrauff.com

 

 

 

 

On The Keepers, Catholics, and Complicity

Image result for image the keepers sister cathy

On The Keepers, Catholics, and Complicity

The Netflix documentary, The Keepers, has floored me. For those of you who may not be familiar with it, it is the story of two women, Abby Fitzgerald Schaub and Gemma Hoskins, who have taken as their focus in life to bring to justice the murderer of a Baltimore nun, Sister Cathy Cesnik. It is a story of courage, of perseverance in the face of what could easily be considered insurmountable odds. It is an account of sexual abuse by Catholic priests; it is a story of power, of continued denial in the face of indisputable facts, of cover-up by a church body whose political power and experience in denial and smokescreen are unsurpassed. But these women have not given up. Nor have the brave women who were abused. They have stepped up to the plate as well. More power to them.

Since the documentary’s airing, scores of others have come forward. The response of the Archdiocese of Baltimore has been flat-out denials that they knew any of what was happening. While giving lip service to their care and concern for victims of abuse, their actions speak their values. The intrigue goes even deeper, with heinous links to police concealment and collusion rampant.

Spin-meisters and lawyers cannot solve this one for them. And one must ask the question – is there no priest, bishop, any of the (male) hierarchy of the church that will actually have the decency to tell the truth, to admit the duplicity of the church and offer a genuine, honest apology. Or is the church essentially a business – one that must protect its assets, its real estate holdings, and its pension program? It looks as if we have our answer.

I went to a Catholic grade school and high school. When I rejected Catholicism, it was because of my opposition to philosophy and teachings, not because of any negative interaction with the clergy. I was fortunate to have a humble, caring priest in grade school – he was a “monsignor,” though he preferred that people call him “father.” He was honest and without pretention. It was not until I was older that I became acquainted with the arrogance of the priesthood. Male power and female subservience. I knew that was not in the cards for me.

I look back on my high school days with fondness, for I found a cadre of colleagues I am still proud to call friends, and, while critical thinking was not encouraged, the nuns did not force-feed dogma. I was fortunate. I was not accosted by a priest, or priests, as were the girls in The Keepers, though I realize that it could have been me. It could have been any of us. And I know, just as the girls in the documentary, had something “untoward” happened, that I would never have come forward about it. I would not have told my parents, though they were not bound by religion; I would not have told the nuns; I would not have told my best friends – and I told them just about everything. No, I know that this would have been such a shameful occurrence, and, as in the case of most victims of abuse, I would have felt that, somehow, it was my fault, that I was to blame. I watched the victims, now in their 60s and 70s, speak of their ordeals, and I was right there with them. I cried with them, and even now, a week later, tears are ever-close to the surface.

Courage, perseverance. To Abby and Gemma, to the victims – you are amazing. At the end of the series, one of the participants listens to the patronizing cant from the Archdiocese.  “Those fuckers,” she says. And with that, I heard and felt the voices of hundreds, perhaps thousands of women echoing her sentiments.

Perhaps the Catholic Church needs a primer on truth. If they want to know what it looks like, they need to watch The Keepers.

http://www.cynthiastrauff.com

 

 

On The Keepers, Catholics, and Complicity

Image result for image the keepers sister cathy

On The Keepers, Catholics, and Complicity

The Netflix documentary, The Keepers, has floored me. For those of you who may not be familiar with it, it is the story of two women, Abby Fitzgerald Schaub and Gemma Hoskins, who have taken as their focus in life to bring to justice the murderer of a Baltimore nun, Sister Cathy Cesnik. It is a story of courage, of perseverance in the face of what could easily be considered insurmountable odds. It is an account of sexual abuse by Catholic priests; it is a story of power, of continued denial in the face of indisputable facts, of cover-up by a church body whose political power and experience in denial and smokescreen are unsurpassed. But these women have not given up. Nor have the brave women who were abused. They have stepped up to the plate as well. More power to them.

Since the documentary’s airing, scores of others have come forward. The response of the Archdiocese of Baltimore has been flat-out denials that they knew any of what was happening. While giving lip service to their care and concern for victims of abuse, their actions speak their values. The intrigue goes even deeper, with heinous links to police concealment and collusion rampant.

Spin-meisters and lawyers cannot solve this one for them. And one must ask the question – is there no priest, bishop, any of the (male) hierarchy of the church that will actually have the decency to tell the truth, to admit the duplicity of the church and offer a genuine, honest apology. Or is the church essentially a business – one that must protect its assets, its real estate holdings, and its pension program? It looks as if we have our answer.

I went to a Catholic grade school and high school. When I rejected Catholicism, it was because of my opposition to philosophy and teachings, not because of any negative interaction with the clergy. I was fortunate to have a humble, caring priest in grade school – he was a “monsignor,” though he preferred that people call him “father.” He was honest and without pretention. It was not until I was older that I became acquainted with the arrogance of the priesthood. Male power and female subservience. I knew that was not in the cards for me.

I look back on my high school days with fondness, for I found a cadre of colleagues I am still proud to call friends, and, while critical thinking was not encouraged, the nuns did not force-feed dogma. I was fortunate. I was not accosted by a priest, or priests, as were the girls in The Keepers, though I realize that it could have been me. It could have been any of us. And I know, just as the girls in the documentary, had something “untoward” happened, that I would never have come forward about it. I would not have told my parents, though they were not bound by religion; I would not have told the nuns; I would not have told my best friends – and I told them just about everything. No, I know that this would have been such a shameful occurrence, and, as in the case of most victims of abuse, I would have felt that, somehow, it was my fault, that I was to blame. I watched the victims, now in their 60s and 70s, speak of their ordeals, and I was right there with them. I cried with them, and even now, a week later, tears are ever-close to the surface.

Courage, perseverance. To Abby and Gemma, to the victims – you are amazing. At the end of the series, one of the participants listens to the patronizing cant from the Archdiocese.  “Those fuckers,” she says. And with that, I heard and felt the voices of hundreds, perhaps thousands of women echoing her sentiments.

Perhaps the Catholic Church needs a primer on truth. If they want to know what it looks like, they need to watch The Keepers.

http://www.cynthiastrauff.com

 

 

On Baltimore and Book Launches

On Baltimore and Book Launches

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Yes, it happened, and I am delighted and humbled. Echoes of the Alum Chine, officially launched in the city of its setting, if not the period. Baltimore in the early 20th Century. Not a time without problems, without societal ills, to be sure, yet a time that I view through a sepia lens.

Aware of that as I drove through the neighborhoods cited in the book – Hollins Street, Union Square – well past its prime, though struggling to maintain some semblance of urban pioneer moments. I read that the local market and adjacent properties had been bought by a relative of Under Armour’s CEO, but, to my untrained eye, I could see no evidence to transformation – yet, at least.

And I ponder my reaction to any such transformation – when I big spender comes in to “revitalize” an area – to my mind, significantly different than the grass roots struggles of individuals who come to save a neighborhood from a sense of loyalty and love, rather than as an investment. I was part of such a merry band many years ago, when the area of Seton Hill began to take shape. A labor of love and money, to be sure – and I am hoping for a resurgence for this lovely area of alley houses.

And now, back to me!  It was such an enchantment to read passages of both Echoes from the Alum Chine and Another Sunday to groups who understood the historical context, who understood exactly what it meant when Celeste, the heroine of Another Sunday, ends her days at the Congress Hotel, a Baltimore landmark that at one time signified the height of sophistication and prosperity, but, by the time Celeste lived there, had devolved into what could only be called a flea-bag hotel for transients. I felt their tears and sadness for her. And they came right along with me as I recounted her 1967 cab ride through Mt. Vernon Place, North Avenue, Baltimore Cemetery and Green Mount Cemetery, with a final stop at Stewart’s Department Store at Howard and Lexington Streets. A visit remembering what had been, and the sadness of facing what was and is.

Going back to Baltimore always fills me with mixed emotions – I love seeing old friends, this time from high school and from my Roland Park days. But I am always struck by a sense of sadness, for the tone of the city has changed, so many of the landmarks that were and remain meaningful to me derelict and forgotten. I’m not so impressed with the tarted-up, pseudo-chic, multi-million-dollar condos that have replaced those earthy, drunken sailors on Pratt Street.

I know I’m in the minority – it doesn’t bother me. Someone asked me if I remembered the movie Avalon. I sure do – and salute Barry Levinson – another Baltimorean who remembers the substance of Baltimore. I think there are a lot of us out there.

http://www.cynthiastrauff.com

 

On a Book Launch, Baltimore, and Echoes from the Alum Chine —

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On a Book Launch, Baltimore, and the Alum Chine –

I’m heading to Baltimore this week to formally launch my second historical novel, Echoes from the Alum Chine. It’s another journey back in time for me –to my favorite era, the 1910s. It’s where I live when I’m writing, or thinking about writing. This period calls to me, resonates in a way that I must heed. I’m not sure why; perhaps I had another life then. And if I did, it was definitely in Baltimore. This was the time of a city that was real – complete with watermelon rinds floating in the Pratt Street harbor, and Norwegian sailors, arm in arm, drunkenly wending their way back to their ships after a night carousing. A time before multi-million dollar condos and pretentious restaurants and bars catering to the pseudo-glamourous.

Okay, rant over – and who can stop progress, and it is tax-base, after all, and all those factory jobs and work at Bethlehem Steel are not going to return. I get that – but still, one can remember, even if those memories are tinted sepia.

Now for the commercial – The Baltimore launch of Echoes from the Alum Chine will be held on Saturday, April 22, at 1:00 p.m. at the Irish Railroad Workers’ Museum, 918 Lemmon Street. The museum is in the heart of SoWeBo, just south of Hollins Street and Union Square, an area, I might add, that has kept its authenticity without succumbing to pretention. If you are nearby, I do hope that you will consider attending.

Echoes from the Alum Chine draws on Baltimore history – specifically, the aftermath of the 1913 explosion of the steamer ship Alum Chine in Baltimore harbor – to share the tale of three families who persevere to transform tragedy into triumph during the early 1900s. The novel explores the complexities of class and race that have challenged Baltimore for centuries, as well as the intricacies of family dynamics.

I’ll also be presenting “Writing the Historical Novel:  Fact, Fancy, and Research” at the Irish Railroad Workers’ Museum on Lemmon Street at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, April 22, and again at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, April 23 at the Baltimore County Historical Society, 9811 Van Buren Lane, Cockeysville.

Dear readers, thank you for allowing this bit of blatant self-promotion, and I do hope that you will read, and enjoy, the book.

www.cynthiastrauff.com Echoes from the Alum Chine

 

Almost here — Echoes from the Alum Chine….

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Oh, yes. It’s almost here, and I am so in love with this book. Excuse the hubris, but what mother doesn’t love her child?

Echoes from the Alum Chine is not available quite yet, but meanwhile I had to share this wonderful cover. Photograph by the iconic photographer of Baltimore, A. Aubrey Bodine. I think that it conveys the melancholy overtone of the story that follows three families in the aftermath of the 1913  explosion in the Baltimore Harbor of 300 tons of dynamite being loaded onto the steamer Alum Chine:  the Aylesforths, who live in the big house on Hollins Street; the Corporals, in the alley behind, and the Sherwoods, whose company insures the cargo.The story is told by the shy, forgotten Lillian Gish Corporal, who stands by and observes.

The Baltimore book launch is set for Saturday, April 22, at the Irish Railroad Workers’ Museum, 920 Lemmon Street in the heart of Hollins Street and Union Square (SoWeBo to those hipster Baltimoreans in the know).  I’ll be speaking to the group on “The Historical Novel: Fact, Fancy and Research,” at 11:30 a.m. The launch and book-signing will follow at 1 p.m.

I do hope that my Baltimore friends will be able to attend – as well as anyone (isn’t that a bit overconfident?) interested in Baltimore history.

The Greensboro launch will be later this spring.

So, it’s here – or almost here. And, after such a winter of political dread, I am ecstatic.

http://www.cynthiastrauff.com Author of Another Sunday and Echoes from the Alum Chine