Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Iron Potluck

Tomorrow night I am invited to a potluck in Berkeley.

Berkeley potlucks are unto themselves. Jello-molds, should they appear, are either sardonic (think acid green alternating with sickly yellow, set in skull molds) or highly alcoholic. No rice salads or packaged cookies dare show their plebian faces. Think instead heirloom tomato salads, tabbouleh, hand-rolled couscous, fine wines, Acme Sourdough baguettes. The host, a talented Ph.D., loves to cook in his Viking-applianced kitchen. Thus the matter of what to bring necessitated serious consideration. That I needed to create something that could travel with me to work and remain fresh all day either at room temp or refrigerated only added to the challenge.

After some consideration and a few fruitless attempts to locate a recipe on the interet (I was at work, far from my cookbooks), I came up with biscuits, split and filled with oven-roasted tomatoes and goat cheese. Yesterday at five I braved Berekley Bowl, buying buttermilk, a log of Laura Chenel Goat cheese, and a bag of small Roma tomatoes.

The idea with oven tomatoes is to slice them, remove the seeds, hit them with salt, sliced garlic, and olive oil, then leave them all day in an extremely low oven. My problem is my oven's lowest temperature is 170 degrees. I put the tomatoes in at six a.m. this morning, then left for work. When I got home at five, I had shriveled red chips. Pulverizing them in the blender only resulted in a slurry, unincorprorated mess.

Time for plan B.

I baked the biscuits using Laurie Colwin's recipe:

2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 stick butter
3/4 C buttermilk

Rub the butter into the flour and baking powder. Stir in the buttermilk. I stir until most of the flour is incorporated, then use my hands. Tip the dough onto a floured board, knead a bit, roll out, then either slice with a knife or cut it with cookie cutters or a glass. Bake for fifteen minutes at 400 degrees.

Colwin points out that nearly anything can be added to fancy these up--herbs, parmesan, sesame seeds. But because I clung to my goat cheese idea, I left them plain.

I pulled the goat cheese from the fridge, mushed a bit with basil, thyme, and a drop of olive oil. I sliced a biscuit and tucked a little of the cheese mix in. Very nice, even without the tomato.

Goat cheese, incidentally, is another of those foods that makes a terrible mess--it's impossible to extract neatly from its plastic roll, getting on your hands and the counter while you ponder how much of your seven dollar cheese is going to waste.

I rolled the herbs and remaining cheese together with more olive oil, which tamed the crumb problem somwhat. I formed a cylinder, wrapped it in foil, set the biscuits in foil lasagna trays, and packed a small knife in my purse. Tomorrow after work I'll duck into the office kitchen, assemble everything, then cart it off to Iron Potluck. Hopefully it'll be a contender.

The biscuit recipe comes from Laurie Colwin's More Home Cooking. My edition is the Harper Perennial paperback. The recipe can be found on page 57: About Biscuits. If you have never read Colwin's Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, go buy them this weekend, read them through in one sitting, then weep because she died in 1992 and these two wonderful books are all we're going to get.

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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

21st Century Schizoid (Wo)man

Hyperion Starts Imprint to Help Women Whittle the Book Choices

By Motoko Rich

All quotes are from the above article.

"Voice is specifically focusing on women from their mid-30’s and older and will have a resolutely anti-chick-lit bent, said its founders."

"Ms. Archer said she wanted to start Voice, in part, to publish books that addressed issues she felt were largely ignored by the news media. 'I felt that I, as a 44-year-old woman, working, married and a mother, did not see my life reflected in any of the media stories,' she said, referring to newspaper and magazine articles chronicling the battles between working and stay-at-home mothers and the choices that educated women were making to quit their careers to raise families. 'I wanted to create a demographic of women in their mid-30’s to later that could better illustrate the landscape of a woman’s life.'”

“'People are overwhelmed by choice, and what they want is someone who is self-selecting for them,' she said. 'We want to find people that they may not otherwise find and highlight them.'”

"To help Voice pinpoint what women want, Ms. Archer and Ms. Dorman have recruited a panel of 10 professional women to meet twice a year. Members include Subha Barry, a vice president in charge of global diversity for Merrill Lynch; Ellen Levine, editorial director of Hearst Magazines; and Candace Bushnell, a novelist. (Ms. Archer said Ms. Bushnell has evolved from writing chick lit.) Voice also plans to ask each of these women for the names of about 50 friends and colleagues to send copies of the books to help create buzz."

I'm so incensed at the above quotes, indeed at the entire idea of a publishing imprint devoted to people "like me" that I don't know where to begin. I suppose with Ms. Archer's statement. I will be 39 in two months. While working and married, I am childless. And as an educated, upper middle class woman falling (sort of) into the target demographic, I find the stay at home vs working mom wars a limited byproduct of a wealthy upper class. Most of the women I know--women like me, educated professionals with well-paying jobs, married to fellows equally educated and usually better paid--cannot afford to stop working. My colleagues with children ride a constant, harrowing merry-go-round of childcare, minimum school days, kid fevers, and frantic calls to husbands regarding who is driving junior where. These mothers are exhausted, overworked, and at day's end, after getting dinner on the table and helping with homework, the last thing they'll do is reach for a Voice book. They fall asleep in front of the television. Who can blame them?

So what about the women like me, "childess by choice"? Yes, we have more free time than our sisters with kids. And if we're serious readers, the last thing we want, or need, is somebody making our reading choices for us. The tide of unmitigated shit riding the bestseller lists is disheartening enough. For those of us who are passionate readers, much of the joy lies in the chase, the discovery of a fantastic book that will take us somewhere we might never else go. A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City gave me a view of German life during the war I would never have otherwise experienced. Nicole Mones' two fine novels, Lost in Translation and A Cup of Light, are both set in contemporary China, a place I am unlikely to visit any time soon. Yesterday I began Hayden Herrera's biography of Frida Kahlo. Not only am I learning about a fascinating woman, I am finally getting an education about Mexican political life during the 1920's.

All of these books "illustrate the landscape of a woman's life." None were preselected by a committee including Candace Bushnell, whom we are reassured is "evolved from writing chick lit". Really. Did she grow an intellect? Or just a conscience?

Ladies, when you see this imprint, run instead for the nearest copy of The Memory Room, an amazing novel by Mary Rakow. It is the story of Barbara, a teacher and musician who slowly overcomes the horrors of an abusive childhood. Much of the prose is written in poetic form, so beautifully rendered that the reader glides along rather than stopping to notice line breaks. Or grab a copy of Susan Straight's first novel, Aquaboogie. Straight, a white woman, grew up in Riverside, California, married a black man, and listened to the stories his family told over dinners and barbeques and parties. If her grueling evocation of the Black community doesn't leave you breathless, you are, perhaps, just the sort of reader Voice Books is looking for.

Authors, Books, Literature, Writing

Monday, August 28, 2006

A Discerning Eye (continued)

In the night I awaken. Beside me the bed is empty. I drift off, awaken again, but Daniel hasn't come back.

There's light coming from beneath the bathroom door. Adrenaline rushes through my body. Suddenly I am completely awake. "Daniel? Are you okay?"

"Anna? Did I wake you?" He sounds funny. Muffled.

"What's going on? Let me in!" I try the doorknob, expecting it to be locked. It isn't, and I nearly fall into the bathroom.

There's blood everywhere.


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The Lamb Lay Down Near Broadway

Most Americans living in urban metropoli can lay claim to living on or near a street named Broadway. I am no exception. I am also old enough to remember when Peter Gabriel sang lead in Genesis, but never mind that. Let's talk lamb.

I defrosted on of my unlabeled bags of lamb Saturday. Yesterday, after the kitchen volunteering stint, I came home to a bag containing an undefined hunk of meat (shoulder? leg?), and, strangely, two little chops. I put the chops back in the freezer and contemplated the roast. Or whatever it was. Hockeyman and I consulted a few cookbooks, running into the inevitable lamb-with-mint recipes. I loathe mint in food. It's right up there with fruit in the main course.

We pulled down Molly Stevens' All About Braising. There Hockeyman lit on Braised Lamb Shanks Provencal. Granted, we didn't have shanks, but we did have nearly everything else.

What the original recipe calls for:
six lamb shanks
flour for dregding
paprika, ditto
salt n' pepper
olive oil
two yellow onions
one pound plum tomatoes or one 14 oz can
four garlic cloves
one cup dry white wine or vermouth
chicken stock
bay leaves
black olives

I don't keep parsley in the house. Bunches wither and blacken before I can use them up. Freezing only creates a sodden mess.

The original recipe takes two days and three pages of exposition. We decided to make it, let it cool, then have it for dinner the next day--i.e.--tonight.

So while H-man chopped one onion, two being beyond his tolerance, I trimmed the meat of all visible fat, washed and dried it, dredged it in flour, paprika, salt, and pepper, and proceeded to brown it in my trusty Le Creuset braiser.

Once the meat was browned, I pulled it out and added the onion, tomato, and garlic to the pot, letting the ingredients, as Fergus Henderson says, get to know each other. Hockeyman took it upon himself to interpret the instructions for the lemons literally. He zested one, then meticulously peeled and sectioned the fruit. He is far more patient with such things than I. His cuts are always neater, his garlic microscopically minced. That's cooking with an engineer for you.

Added the wine. Let it boil down. Added the chicken broth. Let that boil down. Put the meat back into the pot, shook the lemon zest over all, slid it into a 325 degree oven for three hours, at which point I could shred it with a fork. I gave Hockeyman a taste. He said it was good but dry. Having just performed a major brace flossing, I wasn't about to sully my expensive dental work. I let the whole thing cool. Made room in my fridge (Which I must clean. Must. Add to the list of what my father used to call "winter projects."), and waited until today.

After running too many errands, I got home and pulled the meat from the fridge. I did my best to get the layer of congealed fat off the top, added black olives and Hockeyman's lemon wedges, and slid it into the oven to warm.

It was excellent, mild-tasting, lean. A day in the fridge helped redistribute the moisture; the meat wasn't a bit dry. The onions and canned tomato had cooked into a tasty sauce, which H-man picked apart in a fruitless effort to avoid the onion. The roast contained one large bone, which appeared to be a hip/femur. So it was either a small leg of lamb or a shoulder roast. I saved the bone for broth, which I'll use when the bag labeled "stew meat" comes out of the freezer.

Incidentally, Kitty loved it. I think he was a dog in another life.

Stevens, Molly. All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking. New York: Norton, 2004. 407-09.

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Sunday, August 27, 2006

An entire day cooking

I rose at 5:30 this morning with a migraine. After hurling the medicine chest down my throat, I staggered into the kitchen and baked squash bread.

As I measured out more cloves, ginger, and cinnamon than the Joy of Cooking recipe called for, I wondered why in hell I was up before the sun, cooking. Partly it was practical: the farm sent a Red Kuri Squash that must have weighed five pounds. Hockeyman and I like squash, but five pounds would simply spoil. So I made half into the bread, and now we have breakfast all week.

The other reason, though, is I could. Like many people, I spend the the better part of my days tapping into a computer. None of what I tap in will have any lasting impact; it's all just a sea of commentary. But cooking is visceral--flour gets everywhere, there are sounds and smells and heat. Afterward, along with the dirty dishes, there is the finished, hopefully edible product.

Following the theme of edible product, last night's confit was a raging success. Even Kitty gave it the big paw up. It's amazing that meat can sit in your fridge for six weeks and emerge tender and fresh-tasting. Hockeyman feels we must do this again, allowing the confit to mellow for even more time. Meanwhile, I have a enormous vat of duck fat left over, truly a lifetime's worth for making fried potatoes.


Following the squash bread, I showered and drove over to Three Stone Hearth, where I had volunteered to spend the day in their kitchen. While I am not a member of their Community Supported Kitchen, I do attend their feasts and like what they're doing. I had never spent time in a real professional kitchen and was eager to see if I'd hold up.

I was quickly put to work slicing and de-seeding tomatoes, which I then cut into small dice. I was competent if slow, and asked worriedly if Mario Batali would be along to smack me. I was kindly reasssured that quality was more important than speed.

Following tomatoes came several zillion cukes, also in need of seeding and dicing. Then separation and smashing of numerous garlic cloves. A large bowl of yogurt cheese was produced. I was instructed to fold the cucumbers and some of the garlic into it, along with fresh dill, lemon juice, and salt. The yogurt cheese had the consistency of thick cream; stirring it was quite the workout, amply rewarded with taste testing and a delicious lunch of lamb, rice, and salad.

Then, alas, it was time to leave. I was warmly invited to return and look forward to doing so.

Not until I was on the road, driving homeward, did I recall my earlier headache, which repaid the favor by returning. More drugs, but still, a sense of accomplishment. I'd never make it at Babbo, but here in Berkeley I did just fine.

Food, Cooking

A Discerning Eye (continued)

Astrid arrives in a pale pink sundress. Her face, washed of cosmetics, is childlike. I offer her tea, which she accepts, and together we climb up to the studio.

She walks around slowly, taking in the space. I've stored any evidence of the Humanity series; the noses and eyes and mouths are rolled up on closet shelves. Astrid pauses before one of the windows. It's foggy but bright, the kind of day where a sunburn is possible though the mist. The light shines through the thin fabric of her dress, outlining her narrow buttocks and slender legs, the kind of legs that run thigh to calf in one amazing line. Her figure is a confluence of genetic luck, kept deliberately underweight. She need not; hers in the sort of body that will maintain itself for a lifetime. Of course I say nothing of this. But I hope to paint it.

"What would you like me to do?"

"Perhaps move that chair closer to the window? I'd like to begin with some sketches."


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Saturday, August 26, 2006

Confit, lamb, and Costco

The confit I laboriously put up six weeks ago is out on the counter, coming to room temperature. Soon enough Hockeyman and I will know whether or not all that work, expense, and mess was a success. Because it is August, we will eat our confit with fresh corn and tomatoes. Somewhere a French farmwife is cursing my willful American idiocy (no cabbage??), but waste is a sin, non?

In other food notes, Nora arrived at the office with twenty-odd pounds of lamb, trimmed into what appear to be random pieces in freezer bags. One bag reads: stew 8/6; the others say nothing. I recognize ribs and chops, but the chops do not appear to be sliced. I don't have a bandsaw, so I'll have to roast them.

I slipped Nora some money and lugged it all home. The chops are defrosting. Everything else is in the freezer, waiting. The meat makes me think of something Anthony Bourdain says in Les Halles Cookbook:

"I urge you to buy the cheapest, toughest--but best quality--beef you can get. Then challenge yourself to make something delightful out of it. Experiment. Try. Fail. Try again." (121)

This meat isn't cheap, but the cuts are different and I am not expert with lamb, so, duly challenged.

Finally, I am no longer a Costco virgin. Yesterday I went to the Richmond Costco with a colleague to stock up for a work event. First impression: freezing cold. The store sits right on the Bay, where it benefits from the winds and fog sweeping in from San Francisco. Thus thoroughly chilled, we grabbed an enormous flat-bottomed cart, the kind construction workers use to move building materials, and proceeded to spend almost $500.

I realize I am probably one of the last Americans to visit the Costco behemoth, and will spare you the details, save my protracted stop in the book section, which consisted of two tables near the registers. There were numerous cookbooks of the Williams Sonoma entertaining variety, dull low fat books, and an untouched shipment of "La bonne cuisine de Madame E. Saint-Ange" for twenty bucks. I circled around to the "literature": the new Lolly Winston, lots of science fiction, lots of Nora Roberts. While my colleage ran around the store, I read the opening pages of Candace Bushnell's Lipstick Jungle. This is something I would only do in a warehouse, surrounded by families buying seventeen-packs of Kirkland hamburger buns and housewives loading their carts with enormous amounts of cheap liquor. Ms. Bushnell's writing is remarkably reminiscent of Judith Krantz's, whose ouevre I devoured between the ages of twelve and fourteen. Ms. Krantz has characters named Billie and Maxi and Daisy. (Scary, the things one remembers.) Ms. B. has Victory, Nico, and Wendy. Back in the day the setting was Rodeo Drive; now it's the Bryant Park Fashion shows.

My colleague, having found the soft drinks she wanted, interrupted me just as Wendy ran into a male fashion model whose name now eludes me. We paid and escaped. My final impressions? Costco is great if you have small children. And Ms. Bushnell will never go the route of her fellow writers Richard Brautigan and John Kennedy O'Toole, both of whom despaired over their lack of literary success, committed suicide, and never knew how much love and respect their work finally received. I am pleased to report this will never, ever happen to Candace Bushnell, who, unlike either man, has the good sense to write about clothing, wristwatches, and ridiculously expensive sandals.

Bourdain, Anthony, Jose De Mierells and Phillippe Lajaunie. Les Halles Cookbook. New York: Bloomsbury Books. 2004: 121.

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

A Discerning Eye (continued)

It is only when the doorbell rings on Thursday that I remember my promise to Astrid and David. I completely forgot to set up the paintings. They're in the third bedroom, where I store completed work. I'll bring the stuff downstairs now. They'll wait. Maybe they brought me polenta watercress confit in a doggie bag.

They have indeed brought me a doggie bag. It's a wicker picnic basket, the kind that French people keep in their basements and Americans try to buy at flea markets. They are smiling and look every inch the windblown happy couple.

I experience a moment of terrible jealousy.


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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Life during wartime

I am reading "A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City", an anonymous diary kept by a German journalist during Russia's 1945 occupation of Berlin.

The book was published in Germany during the 50's. It met with tremendous criticism: the author's unsparing account of mass rapes suffered at Russian hands was considered an insult to Germany's decorum. She withdrew the book, asking her publisher to wait until her death to release the it once more. He abided her wishes, and when he, too, died, his widow, Hannelore Marek, published the book in 2003. The English translation appeared in 2005.

In surfing the net I see reviews, all positive. The back of the book carries blurbs by Arundhati Roy, Entertainment Weekly (that bastion of lit crit), and the NYTBR. Yet the book is hardly the latest Harry Potter, nor even as popular as its thematic cousin, Suite Francaise. Why? Because it is impossible to read this book while mentally positing it as an improbable, long distant event. One doesn't read this book and think, this could never happen to me. Instead, you read it and realize it could indeed happen to you, is in fact currently happening all over the Middle East, often at the hands of United States military personnel.

The book is tightly written, the narrator dryly matter-of fact. She describes German citizens stolidly standing in food lines as bombs fall around them, the communities of apartment dwellers hiding in basements while their city is carpet-bombed (sound familiar?). She describes hunger, the hunt for edible weeds, parents burying their seventeen-year-old daughter in their garden. Then the Russians march in, and what couldn't possibly get worse does. The men drink and pillage; the narrator, raped multiple times, is shockingly dispassionate about her situtation. She wishes for a bath. Barring that, enough water to wash herself. She hopes she will not get pregnant. Her "roomate" a widow with whom she shares a bombed out apartment, promises to take to her friends who can perform abortions.

The book is simultaneously difficult to pick up and difficult to put down. I think our President might benefit from reading it.

Except I'm not sure he can read.

Non-fiction, Books, Book Reviews, War

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

A Discerning Eye (continued)

The next morning I receive a telephone call.

"Miss Anna Staski?"


"My name is Karen Phillips. Emily's therapist?"

I set the coffee cup down, hard. Warm liquid sloshes over my jeans.


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Monday, August 21, 2006

Elegy for an anonymous friend

The following essay is creative nonfiction: Identifying characteristics and events have been altered to protect people's privacy. I am reporting what remember, but all of this happened a long time ago, and memory, as we all know, is imperfect.

I am publishing this as one long blog. Breaking it up into dickensian installments seems a disservice to those in question.

Elegy for an anonymous friend

You died early and in summer.
--Tess Gallagher, from the poem “Sixteenth Anniversary”

I started writing a story about someone else. After 100 pages I realized I was writing about you. Okay, I thought, I’ll write about you. But the narrative failed. The characters were lifeless, the sentences collapsed. Instead, this. When there is so much I cannot say. There are people out there in the world, a very few left now, who must be considered. People who have suffered enough.

I was not there for your final sickness and dying. I was only there before, when you were well, then a bit in the initial stages of your illness. I did not understand what I was seeing. I do now.

In life we did not get along until you fell ill: the sarcastic armor you adorned yourself with fell away. Maybe you were too weak to carry it, or realized it put off the people you needed so desperately. Sickness made you kind.

You’ve been dead six years this month. I know neither the exact date of your death nor the circumstances.

Well. I know you were in a nursing home, and that you were forty-five years old. We are—were—a decade apart. I did not learn of your death until a year later, in roundabout circumstances. I wept but could not explain to my husband. There are vast expanses of my childhood I cannot explain to him.

The tray, for instance.

I’d brought my husband breakfast in bed, as I often do on weekends. I used the brown plastic tray, which my mother had somehow inherited, then given to me.

Where did that come from, anyway? He asked.

I explained that you’d stolen it from a fast food place.


And so I told him about the day we rode to the restaurant on your Honda 250 motorcycle, the way you slipped the tray into your brown leather jacket in one smooth movement. How you said it was good I was along, because nobody would suspect a person with a kid.

You used the trays to clean pot, separating seeds and stems.

Why was I with you that day? I don’t know. I must have been around ten. I ordered a fish sandwich. Even then I disliked fast food burgers.

I remember the way you took care adjusting the tray, resting it against the banded bottom of your jacket lest it fall out on the ride home.

Now, twenty-eight years and two thousand miles from that day, I wonder if you invited me along with the express intention of theft. Being asked to accompany you anywhere was rare. Special. Doubtless my siblings have equally vivid recollections of equally mundane errands.

Another memory, little more than a snapshot. You, dashing around the corner of the house, laughing. You were having a watergun fight with my mother. I don’t recall who else was involved, only that you held my brother’s yellow plastic watergun, and that my mother needed to change her soaked t-shirt afterward.

If I write out each memory, render, distill, alter crucial details, what then? Will the words resemble a Victorian butterfly collection, meticulously pinned under glass, perfectly preserved, lifeless?

You saved twelve years of Rolling Stone magazine. You decided to get rid of them, offering them to me. Twelve years of crumbling, fragile newsprint. I forget the exact years—around ’70-’82.

I carried them home to my damp-walled little bedroom and read each issue. In this manner I learned about Richard Nixon, Rod Stewart, Viet Nam, David Bowie, Watergate, and Alice Cooper. I read William Greider and Ben Fong-Torres and Mikal Gilmore’s harrowing story about his brother Gary. I read about a man called Governor Moonbeam and his girlfriend, Linda Ronstandt. In this manner I learned a great deal of recent American history not taught in school.

The magazines yellowed and deteriorated. They took up a great deal of space. I cut up several for wall art, then moved the entire lot with me when my family left the Midwest.

Finally, not without reservations, I threw them away.

You liked cats. You had a grey tabby named Nils, an easygoing feline who accompanied you on your many moves.

Then came a time when you were between places, and Nils could not live with you. Your friend X. agreed to board him. You took me along, again on the motorcycle, to visit the cat.

X. was not home. You walked around the side of the house and lifted out the bedroom screen. Slid open the window. Crawled in, the put out your hand to me.

I hesitated. We were in plain view of the neighbors. And wouldn’t X. object?

He won’t care, you said.

Inside it was dimly cool. Nils stood patiently as you scratched the sides of his face, just behind the whiskers. You told me cats liked that.

Not long after our visit, Nils was allowed outside to roam and vanished. There were other cats after that, but you never stopped talking about Nils.

I cleaned house today. I’d been ill, so for two weeks the dust and cat fur gathered. Now I am experiencing that wonderful just-cleaned moment before you begin living in a house, dirtying it again.

I was in two of your homes. In one apartment, in lieu of wallpaper, people wrote and drew messages on the walls. One girl wrote “I love you ______.”

The second place was a rental flat in a midsized Northeasten city. My father and I visited, riding out on my dad’s new touring bike. You borrowed it for a brief spin, returning shaken. There had been a mishap. You would not elaborate. Much later, when your illness was named and constant, you admitted to an episode of double vision.

The flat was large, rather bare. The kitchen was enormous, with a basement running beneath the length of the place.

I was less interested in you than I was in your girlfriend.

You had decided taste in women: tall, lissome, delicate. There was one significant variation, a small, dark woman who carried a copy of Atlas Shrugged. It was intimated that the relationship was tumultuous, the woman unstable. I know you were serious about her. Mention of her name upset your girlfriend, A.

You met A. at a record shop. She was nineteen, tall, slender, with pale red hair curling down her back. She possessed great style without being a fashion plate. I used to study her mannerisms, her clothing, wanting to emulate her cool beauty. I coveted a winter jacket she wore; it was navy blue and cropped at the waist. I saved my babysitting money until I could afford a similarly abbreviated down jacket. Mine was beige, and I was quite proud of it until I stood waiting for the bus one frigid morning, my blue-jeaned legs growing numb in the sub-zero wind.

Of course my longings to be like her were misplaced. At eleven I was commencing years of awkward uncertainty that persisted well into my twenties. I was short, busty, overweight. I did not know how to dress. I chewed my fingernails and cuticles compulsively; I got along better with adults than my peers.

A., who surely recognized all this, tolerated me with gentle good grace. When my father and I visited, she treated me like a trusted girlfriend. We went out together, just the two of us, to see a movie. When we emerged, it was late—around eleven—and raining hard. As we were driving home, two guys began following us in their car, honking and waving. I was terrified. But A. was enraged. She thumped the gas pedal, driving erratically in an attempt to lose them.

I asked whether we should drive to the police station.

No, no, she fumed.

Eventually they gave up and drove off. In retrospect I see such events were likely commonplace for her. But I was not so pretty that men openly chased me: it was the glow effect. That night, seated beside a beautiful woman, some of the glitter rubbed off, casting me in a flattering if transient light.

You worked, at best, intermittently. The field you chose was nearly impossible, like acting, and you lacked the necessary talents to pursue it. At the time I wondered how you could delude yourself into thinking you might ever become successful, let alone make a living. Now I understand. First there is the awful business of admitting to oneself that the necessary talent is absent. Beneath that is fear, for if one isn’t fit to pursue the desired field, then what? The humiliation of failure, the corroding jealousy of others’ successes. And the soul-killing grind of a hated, meaningless, essential day job.

When I was twelve I developed appendicitis and was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. Once the worst was over, I was happy, because it meant A. would come to visit. She appeared at the door wearing plastic Groucho Marx glasses. It was Halloween, and she wanted to make me laugh.

In 1980 the two of you married. I know she asked you, not vice versa, and that your agreement was grudging. You had what we now call fear of commitment. Back then we just said you were jittery.

But you did love her, and went along with the small diamond she bought herself. You did not recognize what you had, her goodness, until it was too late. By then you were too sick to do anything about it. Now she is lost to all of us. But back to the past.

A.’s family did not like you. They held themselves aloof at the reception, polite but chilly.

A photograph of the day: the two of you with my family, all of us dressed up, you looking quizically into the camera. A. looks dazed, perhaps the result of being photographed all day.

Afterward there was a party at your flat, the real party. I smoked a tremendous amount of pot. Then, realizing I was too high, I went outside and stood at the end of the driveway, where it was cool and quiet. A’s brother came out to check on me.

Then you appeared. Some folks are doing lines in the bedroom, you offered. I declined, trying to hide my shock. I was thirteen.

I met a woman at a rock concert. She was young, perhaps thirty, and had what you did. She was exceptionally beautiful, her hair and make-up perfect. Her husband was with her. He had the aspect of a biker, hulking in his black leather jacket. I imagined him readying her for the show, hooking her brassiere, tying her shoes. Unraveling the mystery of mascara and foundation and eyeshadow, his big hands moving delicately over her face. He wore an expression of sad bafflement.

You know what’s going to happen to me, she said in that same echo-delay voice you once had.

I looked her in the eye. Yes, I replied. I do.

After the wedding you drifted out of our lives. There were mitigating circumstances. I don’t know the details; of the concerned parties, two are dead. The others have likely forgotten the reasons for enmity. It was all so long ago.

My family left the rustbelt city we’d struggled in and moved to the western United States. Six years later, A. telephoned. We were in the middle of eating dinner. At first my mother didn’t realize who was calling. Once she did, there was no question of finishing the meal.

It was quickly determined that the two of you would fly out to visit.

None of us has seen you since you’d become ill. Your former catlike grace had vanished. You walked by standing behind A., leaning against her back, your arms draped over her shoulders. She held your forearms, acting as a sort of human walker. Mostly, though, you lay stretched in my father’s recliner, speaking non-stop to whoever was in the room. Your vision had deteriorated to near blindness; even then it was evident the disease had affected your thinking.

A. was restless. She had never been to our new state and wanted to see everything.

She also wanted to escape you.

You had no desire to leave the house. This distressed my family: we took it as a sign of your refusal to fight. There was much encouraging talk, lectures about attitude. You were cheerfully dismissive, even as we grew irritated. We did not understand. There is no comprehending degenerative disease unless you are the afflicted or an immediate relation whose life must also bear the illness’ impact. We were neither. We loved you, were aggrieved. We meant well.

You were sick for a while before you were diagnosed. Perhaps you fought, secretly, for years. Maybe by the time diagnosis was rendered you realized the futility of resistance.

Illness allowed you to do what you wanted, which was not much. You smoked dope and cigarettes and listened to the stereo. Watching you light cigarettes was alarming. You tremored so much you had trouble keeping your weight up. Thousands of calories wasted on involuntary movement.

A. was reeling. Only months earlier she was waging a steady, losing campaign to have a baby. Now you were incapacitated, nearly blind, at times raving. You tried to use the toilet and fell, landing in the bathtub. Amazingly, you were unhurt. I was one of the people who pulled you to your feet. You were light as a child.

A. ran into the hallway and sobbed.

The two of you flew home. You went into the hospital, where the doctors flooded your system with ACTH. A. was taught to give you injections. She told me she practiced on oranges.

You were discharged in a wheelchair. There was no more walking with your arms slung about A’s neck. You went home and began to die.

Unemployed, unable to see, your fragile grasp on reality soon evaporated. This was exacerbated by the long hours you spent alone. A’s job was the sole source of income. There was some medical insurance, but knowing what I do now of serious chronic illness, I am certain the bills were appalling. The wheelchair. The ACTH. The needles and catheters and diazepam. The bleach for disinfection, the canned protein drinks. The plastic dishes intended to withstand a tremoring eater.

God only know what else you needed. Occupational therapists are brimful of equipment suggestions, rubber squeeze balls and stretchy bits of elastic and plastic transfer boards, none of it, nothing, covered under the insurer’s formulary.

I have only one more memory to relate. The final time I saw you.

The circumstances were either amusing, or grim, or perhaps both, as I was with the man who briefly and disastrously became my first husband. He was moving west to live with me. We were traveling cross-country, his possessions loaded into a truck. On the way, we stopped to visit you.

You were living in a handicap apartment, which was a mess. My fiancé and I were put up in the second bedroom, wormed in among an accumulation of stuff piled along three walls and spilling out across the floor. The fourth wall was taken up by an overflowing closet. We spread the quilts A. gave us amidst the junk and went into the living room, where you sat in your wheelchair.

You latched onto us with naked desperation, talking, talking, talking. Your topics were your illness and the rock band you now listened to exclusively.

We went to dinner at a chain restaurant. Just before we left, A. gave you an injection of ACTH. She warned us this would make you hungry.

This was before ADA and mainstreaming and ramps, before the disabled were out in the community. People stared.

People gawked.

The hostess led us to the furthest corner of restaurant, seating us with your back to the starers. Then the ACTH hit. You asked for a chocolate milkshake, downed it, asked for another. The waitress was startled. So was I.

A. put up a good front. She was affectionate, clasping your shaking head between her palms and planting kisses on your face. My fiancé seemed unperturbed, but then, he had only just met you.

I took a few photos: one of you, obviously ill but smiling. A. and my fiancé playing with a kitten. Their smiles are strained, the expressions of people tap dancing through disaster.

We left. Once again we fell out of contact, this time permanently. I began adult life, marrying that wrong man, divorcing him, attending college. Meeting and marrying the right man. Moving again, and then once more, to where I am now.

Because I was not immediately informed of your death, I never saw the obituary. I do not know where, or whether, you are buried.

Sometimes I think knowing these details would help. I would not think of you so much; certain songs would not evoke you. The reality of your death would be—the word that comes to mind is natural. A more natural mourning process.

I also think about A. She is nearing fifty, remarried and moved far from the place you shared your lives. It is difficult to imagine her middle-aged, her face lined, her red hair faded. Though these things must be. After all, they are happening to me.

A conclusion, then, a final sewing up.

Each of us has a story we tell ourselves, the ongoing story of our lives. We are certain our version is the truest, the best, the most honest. You exist at the edge of my story, a loose collection of memories refusing to integrate, to settle into their appointed places. Words are my sole recourse, and do little. I can only hope they act like straight pins, holding memories of you down and back, in the past, where they belong.

Nothing changes the fact that your life was taken from you bit by bit in an awful way. That you and A. suffered. That I am unable to paste in some pretty words about God or Jesus or Heaven, because I cannot believe in them.

That I could have done nothing then, and cannot now.

So, belatedly and far too early, farewell. I miss you more than either of us would have ever thought possible.

NB: The poem “Sixteenth Anniversary” appears in Tess Gallagher’s Dear Ghosts, published by Graywolf Press.

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The easy way out

Today a colleague brought in a giant bag of peppers and a basket of fresh eggs from her tiny farm in the Central Valley. Tomorrow she promises fresh lamb, which I offered to pay her for. She looked at me as if I were nuts. She is Filipina, and by her own admission does not cook much lamb. She's happy to offload it on me.

"Nora" loves to cook. Few weekdays pass where she isn't bringing in some delectable tidbit or other--lumpia, empanadas (her husband is Mexican), moist cassava cake. Often she rises at five, before her small children wake, to cook for the office. She knows I like to cook, too, but our conversation is limited by differences in both culture and repertoire. She comes from an impoverished background and learned to make wonderful food out of limited choice. She is now well-off, but continues to cook the familiar foods of home. She shops Chinatown and the farmer's markets, but her favorite place is Costco. She goes every Sunday.

I have never been to Costco. In a family of two, there is little call for seven dozen rolls of toilet paper on sale or twelve pounds of chicken wings. Admittedly there is also the Berkeley-Bay-Area-shop-at-small-business attitude at work. I hear Costco treats its employees well, better than Walmart does. But just about anybody treats their employees better than Walmart does. I am told Costco has good meat. Being a food snob, though, I want to know where it's from and how it was treated. I am more interested in this than getting a deal on ribs.

Granted, I am not feeding a family, and can afford my snobbery. I recognize that.

Returning to Nora, though. When we talk about cooking, I am careful. I don't talk about my confit adventures, or the raspberries steeping in Armagnac up on the top shelf of the coat closet. Sourdough starters, quail, and rabbit are all verboten. Nora would simply stare at me. What's that? She's asked me more than once. What for?

Not that she's stupid--she isn't. But our experiences are polarized in nearly every regard; the only thing we have in common is our workplace. Far more separates us: birthplace, economics, religion, education, class. The big bad C word, so terribly politically incorrect. Food is supposed to unite us, bring us round the table together in a gustatory wash of fellow feeling. But it cannot when the those gathered stare at unfamiliar dishes, then turn up their noses, or worse, eye the preparer with a slightly malicious puzzlement. This has happened to me more than once at work gatherings. Recently, at Nora's prompting, there was a potluck. I brought in tapenade and a baguette, assuming them to be familiar, neutral foods. The tapenade went untouched. The hit of the party? Swedish meatballs with lingonberry jam from Ikea. Seriously.

And so I have learned to praise Nora's food--which I am happy to do--but keep my own culinary forays quiet. Just as I don't discuss what I am reading, my political views, or my secret life as a blogger. It's just easier that way.

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Sunday, August 20, 2006

A Discerning Eye (continued)

Tonight my lover is coming over. I shower, anoint myself with the rose oil, throw on an old dress of dark blue cotton. I prepare a platter of French bread, brie, olives. Daniel is incapable of large meals. Instead he eats selectively, less discerning than disinterested. His dislike of food annoys me. It's womanish, fussy, reminiscent of Victorian ladies stuffing themselves before a banquet. Though of course there's none of the effete in his lack of appetite, it only seems so. Ah, appearances.


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Varieties of Irreligious Experience III: Andre Dubus

Dubus was a lifelong Catholic whose faith deepened after a car accident left him wheelchair-bound. In both his essays and fiction following the accident--what he calls his crippling--he writes unsparingly about the physical and mental anguish of disability.

An immediate family member of mine is wheelchair-bound due to illness. In the initial worst days of getting accustomed to the chair and its attendant realities, I searched out any available writing on the subject. Much of it was contained homilies of the most enraging sort, all relating to finding comfort in Jesus, in God. Many, including a doctor, suggested we turn to the Church. One person told me I needed to come to term with my Jewish Feminist roots.

These were the words of people who did not know what to say, but felt they must say something. It is difficult for me to quantify how angry those thoughtless individuals made me. Dubus was the first writer I read who admitted that being in a wheelchair, not to put too fine a point on it, just plain sucks. That it's hell on families, wives, caretakers. That it robs people of their dignity, and often, their will to continue. Dubus, in his pain, turned to God. His writing on the sacraments is unaffected and moving; he takes comfort in God's presence, in taking communion.

I will never take communion, but I can understand the notion of sacrament: the trees at the end of our street are fully leaved and August-lush, nearly meeting overhead. The roses are in bloom everywhere. They are beautiful despite my continuous grief. This, to me, is what Dubus' sacraments must be like. Without his writing I would never have known this to be true.

Some good books by Dubus...

Meditations from a Movable Chair

Broken Vessels

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One man's ceiling

Hockeyman and I rose at five and lugged out to Lake Chabot, a state park about fifteen miles from us. By the time we arrived, the place was filling with walkers and boaters and families seeking inexpensive entertainment for their children. The family fishing beside us on the dock was one of these; they had three small children.

It was foggy and freezing, maybe 48 degrees. Nobody was catching anything. Suddenly one of the little boys gave a shout: his toy pole with its SpongeBob Squarepants bobber was bending alarmingly. His parents grabbed the pole and proceeded to reel in a four-pound carp. The fish wasn't much smaller than the child, who shouted with happy amazement. Fish and child were duly photographed, the golden fish gasping on the dock. Then the parents sighed. Too bad there were no Asians around to give the fish to. Asians love carp! They said. But it isn't bass or trout.

Toss it back, the mother said, before it dies.

And so the beautiful fish went back into the water, avoiding sashimi or gefilte fates.

As Paul Simon says, one man's ceiling is another man's floor.


Saturday, August 19, 2006

the fish report

Ah, the late, great, KMET.....

I do not come from a fishing people. The sentence below, for example, appears nowhere in the Old Testament:

And the Jews were cast out, again, and fled once more, whence they came to river, and fished, and thought it good.

I do, however, know plenty of stories about my people going to the fishmarket, loudly demanding and inspecting numerous fish, and finally choosing one to take home and mince into gefilte fish.

This is not the case for the gentiles. Gentiles are outdoorsy: they camp and backpack. They voluntarily choose to sleep in places without indoor plumbing. They also fish.

When I moved in with Hockeyman, I also moved in with a motley assortment of rods, reels, and a collection plastic worms bearing an alarming resemblance to gummy candies. There were also tackle boxes and creels, which smelled like they'd been soaking in a lagoon.

Soon enough, in the spirit of being a good girlfriend and later, wife, I accompanied him on day trips to various spots, where he endlessly cast while I read on a rock, getting sunburned. Occasionally he caught something. I was generally not impressed, until we moved up north and he went out with a friend to Ruth Lake. He returned with a three-pound bass and a couple trout. Those fish were wonderful. Our kitty, then five months old, helped us eat every last morsel.

Here in the Bay Area our fishing is limited to a couple local parks, where the lakes are manmade and stocked with farm fish. Farm fish taste like mud. When Hockeyman catches them, he and kitty eat more enthusiastically than I.

Lately H-man has discovered pier fishing. Skilled fisherpeople (lots of women participate here) who are willing to stand on a freezing pier at four a.m. are rewarded with enormous halibut. The few times we've gone out (not at four a.m.) , Hockeyman has caught perch, which are far tastier than their farmed brethern. But being me, I've fallen seasick each time. On a stationary pier.

I feel very Woody Allen.

This year's weather has done its bit to wreck normal fishing patterns. Pier web sites report minimal fish; the stocked lakes are now filled with catfish. Still, H-man wants to get one more day in before summer is officially over. So tomorrow morning, far too early, we will rise, schlep out his ungainly equipment, and head out. He's thinking Lake Chabot. I am thinking the latest issue of Gourmet and a book called Eight Weeks in Berlin, an anonymous account of life there during World War II. I will pack sunblock, a hat, water, cheese, and salami. I will hope he catches something, because if not, he acts like a goalie who let the winning shot in during overtime.

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

A Discerning Eye (continued)

It's 2am and I'm watching Daniel inhale a line of heroin off my bathroom counter.


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Salads vs Desserts

There are two kinds of eaters in the realm of food snobbery: the salad eaters and the dessert eaters.

Here is what Alice Waters has to say about salads:

"A sense of renewal comes upon me each time I work with incredibly fresh and sweetly scented ingredients for a salad. In fact, I would rather make salads than any other dish." (163)

Her words on dessert:

"I have often found...that I really did not wish to have a dessert at the meal's end...Too often dessert is a sugar fix rather than a touch of sweetness as a change from the the savory, the salty, or the piquant." (11)

In The Savory Way, Deborah Madison devotes forty pages to salad. While the dessert section is equally generous, she begins the section saying:

"Well-grown fruit, cultivated for taste and truly the ideal dessert." (345)

But Judy Rodgers, in her peerless Zuni Cafe Cookbook, makes the most damning statement about a salad of Bosc Pears with Fennel, Fresh Walnuts, Parmigano-Reggiano, and Balsamic Vinegar:

"This salad has a primitive sweetness that is as elegant as any refined sugar dessert I know." (107)


I ALWAYS want dessert.

I never want it to involve fruit, nuts (with the exception of ground almonds), or greens.

To me the best desserts involve sugar, preferably as a component of chocolate. Specfically, chocolate ice cream. Organic, superpremium, expensive, artery clogging. Sometimes, if I am at a restaurant, I will break with personal tradition for a nice piece of flourless chocolate cake or a slab of tiramisu.

Gelato? Pass the container and a spoon. No bowl necessary.

I do not like chunks in my ice cream. I have never visited Coldstone Creamery, where you may pick from a cornucopia of additions that are then mushed into your ice cream on a marble slab. No chocolate chips, jujubes, nuts, sprinkles. No syrup or even whipped cream to interrupt that cold smoothness.

Obviously I am not the food sophisticate you folks out in bloggerland thought me to be. If I were, I would be indifferent to sweets, as Alice, Judy, and Deborah profess to be. Instead, I would go into raptures about mesclun.

I think mesclun tastes like green mess. I find lettuce, even the fresh stuff from the farm, lacking. Greens-based salads, i.e. the lettuce/tomato/cucumber and whatever else with vinaigrette, are akin to the bad movie previews you must sit through before the movie starts. Don't get me wrong--I love vegetables. One of my favorite solitary meals is an artichoke with garlic mayonnaise. Tomato salad--summer tomatoes with basil and mozzarella, or just thickly sliced tomatoes all by themselves--should not be called salad. It's unfair: all that wondrous sweet/tart flavor, jammed ino the lettuce category. Ditto potato salad, the antithesis of green lightness.


I understand and accept those who aren't into dessert; I am married to one of this odd tribe. What bothers me is the smugness of some. They parade their mesclun-loving superiority. Their dessert sections are presented grudgingly: I don't eat dessert, but you, the fat middle-American cookbook buyer, demand it. So here it is.

Invariably there is a recipe for olive oil cake.

I think it is possible to have a sweet tooth and appreciate fine food. I realize sugar in quantity is not health food; I curb my craving for ice cream. I don't eat trash sugar--cheap candy or Hostess Boxed Cakes. I am indifferent to soda, which to me will always be pop. But I reserve the right to be a food snob and eat my cake, too.

Besides, I don't care how careful you are with a green salad--the oil and the vinegar are going to puddle at the bottom of the dish. Stray bit of scallion swim there, sliding off your fork. Shreds of lettuce get stuck in your dental work. And if you are trying to be a thin person by making a meal of your lettuce and tomato, God help you. You're gonna be hungry real soon.

Unless you eat dessert.

Cookbooks cited:

Madison, Deborah: The Savory Way: New York: Boradway Books, 1990.

Rodgers, Judy: The Zuni Cafe Cookbook. New York: Norton, 2002

Waters, Alice: Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook. New York: Random House, 1982

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Varieties of Irreligious Experience II: Jane Kenyon

Certainly an argument can be made suggesting Lamott, Dubus, and Kenyon all found religion after tragedy: Lamott, the deaths of her father and best friend, Dubus, the car accident that cost him his legs, Kenyon, her lifelong battle with clinical depression.

Interesingly, though, each claims a prior investment in belief, and in Lamott's and Kenyon's cases, an uneasy acknowledgement of God.

For Jane Kenyon, early experiences with a staunchly Christian Grandmother who pressed the notion of sin into her led to terror, and later, disdain:

"By the time I was in high school I grew contemptuous of religion and the people I knew who practiced it...I announced to my parents that one could not be a Christian and an intellectual, and that I would no longer attend church." (66 Hundred)

When she moves with husband Donald Hall (currently our United States Poet Laureate) to his hometown in New Hampshire, church suddenly looms again, for attendance is a family--and community--affair. There, in her late twenties, she is drawn in.

I don't know how anyone could read Kenyon without loving her. Her brutal frankness, her delights in her garden, Gus the dog, and her marriage all make the reader wish she were a close friend; she certainly feels like one, and to read of her terrible death from cancer in Hall's works "Without" and "The Best Day the Worst Day" is endure a sense of personal loss.

Much of Kenyon's poetry is religious, but so often the words are colored by her ever-hovering depression that they do not offend the agnostic reader. Poems like "Who" or "Briefly it enters, and Speaks" strike one more as a struggle against crushing sadness: winter will end, summer will arrive with its peonies and tomatoes. In an interview with Bill Moyers, reprinted in "A Hundred White Daffodils", Kenyon states her belief in God kept her from harming herself (161). We, her readers, were thus given more of her terribly short life--she was only forty-seven when leukemia killer her--than we might have had. More of her wonderful work.

Kenyon was much attached to the liturgical calendar; Advent brought happiness during winter's cold, dark hours. If there were any person whose faith I might wish most for, it would be hers, with its ordering, its loving acceptance.

One of her most famous poems is "Having it out with Melancholy". Find it in The Collected Poems, or the wonderful posthumous collection of her writings, "A Hundred White Daffodils".

I will not quote the entire poem, only a bit here:

from Section Four: Often

Often I go to bed as soon as dinner
as seems adult
(I mean I try to wait for dark)
in order to push away
from the massive pain in sleep's
frail wicker coracle

Who would not, beneath such pain, seek refuge in God? How lucky to find it.


Kenyon, Jane: A Hundred White Daffodils. Minnesota: Graywolf Press. 1999: 66, 155-6, 161.

Hall, Donald: The Best Day the Worst Day. New York: Houghten Mifflin, 2005.

____________ Without. New York: Mariner Books, 1999.

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Monday, August 14, 2006

A Discerning Eye (continued)

I returned to school in the middle of September, shaky but able to grasp a pencil. At the end of the year the administration excused me from participating in the annual show. The media, blessedly fickle, forgot me.


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Sunday, August 13, 2006

Varieties of Irreligious Experience

One litmus test of a great writer is whether or not he or she can entice you into reading work on a topic you have no interest in. Take Ernest Hemingway on fishing. At fifteen I had no more interest in fly-fishing than I did in space travel, but his descriptions of Nick Adams catching grasshoppers held me spellbound. Jane Smiley and Maxine Kumin on their horse obsession. John McPhee on long distance truckers.

Anne Lamott, Andre Dubus, and Jane Kenyon on their religious faith. This was a stretch for me. I was not only disinterested but hostile.

My relationship to organized religion is not a warm one. I am Jewish, and grew up in a predominately Jewish neighborhood. Most of the community was wealthy, using religion as indicator of status: who belonged to which synagogue, who had given the most to various Jewish charities, thus getting their names printed at the top of long donor lists. It was snobby, exclusive, rude. The rich Jews looked down on the poor ones. Eyebrows were raised at families who did not attend synagogue or keep kosher. None of this had anything to do with genuine generousity or doing good in the world.

Not, of course, that any of this happened to me or my family.

There was a smaller community of Hasids, a sect of Orthodox Jews who had too many children and walked to Shul on Saturdays, black-clad father in front, overburdened wife one step behind, flocks of children following in a ragged line. They held themselves apart from the of the community, viewing the rest of us sinners with contempt.

When I was eleven, I told my mother I planned to marry a non-Jew. I'm telling you now, I said with pre-adolescent contempt, so you can get used to the idea.

My mother, to her credit, never cared whether I married a Jewish man or not, which is a good thing. Hockeyman comes from a Canadian family whose roots are firmly sunk in Irish Catholicism.

When I was seventeen we moved to Southern California, where I enrolled in college and began studying American Sign Language Interpretation. Because interpreting is by definition a helping profession, it attracted a lot of women. It also attracted a large number of born-again Christians. Some of these people were fine. Others represented everything awful about extreme faith: they were strident, doctrinaire, constantly trying to convert others. A colleague, assigned to interpret a science class, arrived early and left religious tracts on each chair.

This was well before our current Administration, which has pushed aside separation of Church and State for such a narrowly-intepreted view of religious correctness that other Christians are indignant. For example, Anne Lamott, who has written two books about religion, Traveling Mercies: Some thoughts on Faith, and Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith.

It's hard to dislike a person who writes things like "Everyone I know had been devastated by Bush's presidency," (4) then spends the better part of a book purporting to be musings on faith talking about how much she despises Bush and his policies. Her relationship to faith is passionate yet bemused; she understands the Godless among us shake our heads at her beliefs. And she is self-aware enough to mock herself. On attempting forgiveness:

"I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would want Jesus to drink gin straight out of the cat dish." (131)

In Plan B, she's still trying to forgive--her mother, George Bush, Rumsfeld--but she isn't getting far. This is a relief for those of us who really wonder about those sweetly smiling wingnuts standing outside City Hall holding signs reading "God Hates Fags."

Lamott's real gift is showing us her struggle, her imperfections, her often ragged relationship to her God. When a friend's daughter is diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis, she looks up and asks "What on earth are you thinking?" (150). She's also one of the funniest writers around, in a David Sedaris laugh-out-loud way. When asked to join a prayer vigil outside Berkeley's left-wing radio station, she demurs. "I am just not a pray- at -KPFA kind of girl" (207). On her mother:

"She was a mix of wrathful Old Testament opinion, terrified politeness and befuddled English arrogance...And God, she was annoying. I mean this objectively. " (231)

I can understand that a lot better than blandishments about God's Will or the hidden gifts of suffering. I can even work my brain around to understanding Lamott's point of view, even if I find it impossible to share. The skies above, when not clouded by pollutants, are indeed lovely, but I cannot see a God, or any kind of Prime Mover, up there either benignly watching, or, even better, somehow orchestrating this whole mess. As I get older and so many things seem to be worsening, I often wish I could.

Next time...Jane Kenyon.

Quotes from:

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, New York: Anchor Books, 2000. pp131, 150.

Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005. pp 4, 207, 231.

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Eight ears of corn

This week's farm box reflected our recent global warming weather: three large tomatoes, a bag of grapes, a canteloupe, and a melon. One long cucumber. A few small heads of garlic. And eight ears of poorly pollinated corn. This is the farm's descriptor, not mine. The heatwave that baked California in July shriveled the corn silk, causing erratically pollinated ears. The farm doled them out to us, apologetic, suggesting we try them anyway. I ate one last night. It looked awful, the silks sticky, going every which way, the kernels small and irregular. But it did indeed taste fine.

So tonight's dinner will reflect the need to use up the corn before its sweetness turns to starch. We are also in possession of three large zucchini, those bland, inescapable summer veggies.

I am not an adventurous zucchini cooker. I slice them, toss them in a pan with butter and garlic, and let them carmelize. At this time of year, when we are lucky enough to be glutted with corn and tomatoes, I slice everything up and cook it all together into summer vegetable stew. Sometimes I add a little white wine or a couple cubes of the chicken broth I keep frozen in ice cube trays.

Tonight's meal, then, will be the innocent corn, reflecting so much that is wrong with global environmental policy, zucchini, tomato, and garlic stewed in wine, broth, and butter. Braised duck legs with potatoes. Sourdough scones, leftover from last week's sourdough starter resurrection. Muga Rioja, a light Spanish rose that pairs well with poultry and game.

And then it's back to the work week.


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Saturday, August 12, 2006

A Discerning Eye (latest installment)

In case you've been missing the continuing story (some of the previous updates can be found on the sidebar) ...


"I'm making an engagement party the third weekend in September." Emily says. This is something between an invitation and a demand. "Nothing fancy. A patio party."

An image of Emily's Sherman Oaks patio, festooned with white lanterns and pots of pink roses, swims into focus. The caterers setting out trays of tiny, elaborate hors d'oeuvres, bartenders mixing pitchers of sangria, Emily swirling about in a spaghetti strap dress. The groom should be in this picture, but my imagination refuses to conjure him.

"I don't know, Em. I have a lot of work to do." A small piece of truth chipped from the larger one: I don't want to go.


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Friday, August 11, 2006

Bare Trees

I am going to paraphrase Anne Lamott out of context here, because I can't find the quote.

In one of her books she talks about visiting a nursing home; I believe it's with her church. The experience was grim. Lamott visted them anyway, because her friend Margaret told her the old are like bare trees, and must be loved unconditionally.

Well. I live in a building that went condo back in 1976, at which point many of the renters bought their units cheaply and stayed on. Now some are quite elderly, including the man who lives across from us.

This man is loathed by many of the long-term denizens. He had appointed himself a sort of ruling overlord, screeching at those who dared move in and out using the stairs instead of the elevator, posting nasty notes on the community board about who should be watering the plants, that sort of thing. If he thought people were making too much noise, he threw stunningly loud tantrums.

I learned much of this from neighbors, who stopped me in the laundry room or in the garage to share their "Bill" stories. Soon enough I grew to dislike him, too. The way he got his newspaper partly undressed, left his front door open all day and evening, made the occasional inappropriate sexual remark, and stank up our hallway with the smell of unwashed old man and even more unwashed apartment. In recent years his hearing has declined, so the open door is joined by the blaring television. Still, Hockeyman and I feel much of this behavior is aimed at getting attention, so we ignore him. Our efforts have paid off. While he continues to behave atrociously, he never bothers us.

Last night I was trying to get some sleep--a precious commodity I've lacked all week. The family in the building next door decided they needed to be out on their patio, talking at top volume. The toddler they claim does not live there but seems to be around continuously squealed and shrieked. This child is awake until eleven at night.

Harboring murderous thoughts, I stuffed my ears with earplugs and took refuge on the couch.

I have exceptional hearing. I can identify all seven my of co-workers footsteps on carpet. I hear telephones ringing in the building next to ours. I can pick out the hum of my husband's van as he drives up our street, a major thoroughfare adjoining a freeway.

My hearing can make urban living nightmarish, especially during summertime, when everyone opens their windows.

At about eleven Hockeyman woke me, saying the neighbors had quieted, and suggested I move back to bed.

I was awakened at two by what I thought was a deranged homeless person outside, mumbling and cursing. I put on my glasses, peered outside, saw nothing. I got back into bed. The noise resumed, accompanied by thrashing sounds. It was Bill, on the other side of the wall. He was incoherent. Was he dreaming? Having some kind of sundowner episode? Had somebody broken in?

Then he started groaning. I leaped from bed and called 911. Threw on some clothes and met the police outside.

Fortunately Bill had left his door unlocked. The officers found him on the bedroom floor, where he'd fallen. An ambulance was summoned. The officer thanked me for calling. "It's a good thing you heard him," he said. "who knows how he long might have lain there if it weren't for you?"

I do. Until about eleven a.m, when his caretaker arrives.

I thanked the officer and returned to bed, where I did not sleep.

Bill is still in the hospital. Eventually somebody will come to feed his cats and I will learn whether or not he'll return. Until then, his apartment door is closed. No television. No drunken ranting.

I cannot bring myself to love this particular bare tree. Perhaps this is evidence of my own shortcomings, my lack of what Californians like to call spiritual evolution. But I also cannot clear my mind of the terror and confusion he was obviously experiencing, and feel a horrified pity.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Tess Gallagher

Yesterday I was in Black Oak Books. Frankly, I was there killing time, but what better place? It's not like I can go to Cody's anymore. There's a big industrial "Available" sign out on the store's former front window.

Today's vocabulary word? Blight.

Anyway, back to Black Oak, located in an area we Bay Area types call "The North Side", which is code for the wealthy part of Berkeley. Black Oak is near the fabled Gourmet Ghetto; Chez Panisse and the Cheese Board are steps away, as are a variety of boutiques selling $400 shoes.

So there I was, in my $30 shoes, cruising the store. I found Tess Gallagher's newest book of poetry, Dear Ghosts, (the comma is hers).

I read a bit of poetry, but I'm hardly Helen Vendler. I learned about Tess Gallagher in 1989, when she came to give a reading at California State University, Northridge. This was immediately following her husband Raymond Carver's death. Apart from reading Cathedral in high school, I knew little of either writer.

So there I was in the Little Theatre, surrounded by all these older cultured types, the sort of people who go in for large handmade brooches and shawls. The men wore tweed; a few even had those little driving caps that aren't quite berets. I had no idea what I was in for.

Tess Gallagher wore a bright red suit and red suede pumps. She had a sweep of dark hair to her waist.

Then she opened her mouth, and out came the poems from Portable Kisses, which are about losing Raymond Carver.

I don't know how the shawls and tweeds held it together. By the end of the reading, I was snuffling, wiping my eyes, and pretending not to be weeping.

Afterward I read my way through her work and his, learning the myth of their literary couplehood. Later I attended Humboldt State University, where Carver had briefly lived and studied. His tenure there was during some of his worst drinking years, but the school faculty and some of the community still made much of his transient presence. A few of them liked to say unkind things about Tess, much of it along the lines of the Yoko Ono effect.

Carver called the final ten years of his life "gravy."

So much for the naysayers.


Dear Ghosts, is one of those books that is also a beautiful object, with a gorgeous cover by Alfredo Arrequin. As always, I first read the acknowledgments, learning that Gallagher is either suffering or recovering from cancer. Then I flipped to the back inside cover, where the author photo is.

Gallagher's gorgeous hair is gone. As in cancer-bald. Her face is still beautiful, though older. There amidst the snooty Berkeley literati I was transported back to the Little Theater, wanting to cry all over again at the singular unfairness leveled at this woman.

Today--Friday--I began reading the poems. "Sixteenth Anniversary". "Black Beauty". More Ray poems, a lot more political work, poems to friends and relatives. I'm only partway in. Reading poety is like drinking cognac--you can't just guzzle it. The words are joined so finely I want to be fresh enough to appreciate them fully, meaning I will read more come morning, when I am rested.

This is my favorite Tess Gallagher poem:

Elegy with a Blue Pony

It is said one-third of China
is a cemetary: "But what
a cemetary!" Henri Michaux exclaimed.
Somewhere a cemetary exists
For all the kisses I was going to
give you. Multitudes of butterflies
like to sleep there in that third
of my heart's country. Their wings
open and shut pensively, as if
the lips of the sky had come down
to announce the end of a journey,
to ruffle the meadow grass
with the azure breeze of the moment.

If, in your travels in the spirit world,
you suddenly recall those kisses you
might have had, you won't have to
live again to enjoy them.
They are waiting. You will always
be expected by my kisses.
Lie down. Let the nose
of my blue pony brush your neck.
Don't be sad I'm not with her, or
that the butterflies rise as a body
to let her pass. Don't be sad.
I'm still alive and have to follow
my kisses around. But you, you can
lie down and be enlivened, kissed
in yet another imperishable
collaboration on the way to me.

Tess Gallager, Portable Kisses, Expanded. Capra Press, Santa Barbara, 1994: 99.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Meg Wolitzer, underestimated writer

I just finished re-reading The Wife and The Position. The Wife was a New York Times Notable Book, but good old Michiko dissed The Position. I remember reading that review and wanting to write Meg Wolitzer immediately, in all caps: SHE'S WRONG! SHE'S WRONG!

The Wife is the story of Joan Ames Castleman, spouse of eminent writer Joe. Without giving away the book's central secret, I can say Joan gives us a withering assessment of the state of women's rights, married life, and her own culpability. Wolitzer's charactization is enviable--you cannot help but root for Joan, even as she offers of guided tour of her own misdeeds, and her dead-on take of academia, writers, and their foibles will make you laugh aloud. All of this delivered in lovely, smooth prose, the kind that vanishes so you can see through into the story.

The Position is the story of the Mellow family. Parents Roz and Paul decide the write a book about sex, Pleasuring, complete with illustrations of themselves. The fame and fallout are played out against the past--the seventies--and the present, where the adult Mellow children, Claudia, Dashiell, Michael, and Holly, try (and sometimes fail) to find their respective ways. Wolitzer manages to work in details about the seventies you forgot--the huge station wagons, Carvel Ice Cream shops, sideburns, Yes albums, whilst neatly skewering the Republican party and the Iraq war. The ending, which I will not divulge, will make you cry.

After reading the above for the first time, I sought out Wolitzer's earlier novels. I didn't like them nearly as much; a few, through no fault of her own, are dated. But they show us a writer's evolution, how raw talent becomes honed by years of hard work. In this, Wolitzer reminds me of Margaret Atwood--the earlier work is good, but the later stuff is incredible.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

A little more on fat....

Long ago, in the hazy mists of the past, which some of us recall as the seventies, I was a Pop-Tart-eating child. I especially liked the chocolate ones, their insides burning hot from the toaster, the white sprinkles ( sugar? plastic? ) strewn over the top, little boiling bits I would pick off and eat as the interior cooled to a chocoately sludge. One day, for no apparent reason, I began wondering about the origin of toaster pastries. They did not grow on trees, sprout from the ground, or come from herds of pop tart animals grazing alongside the cows. Depending on how you look at it, this was either my first brush with agribusiness or the beginnings of food snobbery. A snobbery that today manifests as a refusal to eat anything I cannot pronounce while reading a frozen foods box whose ingredients are listed in English. A refusal to eat anything labeled "low-fat". What's in there instead of the fat? And is it good for me? After all these years of being told to eat margarine, now we're being told it's the source of all evil.

As if anything that tasted so awful could ever be good for us.

Increasingly I am beginning to think the whole low-fat business is bull. Is Enova better for us than Plugra? Does Enova grow in the ground? Graze with the cows?

Plugra? Moo.

I know, I know--I'm a California food crank. Guilty as charged. Please pass the duck fat.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The three letter F word


It's surprising to me how few food blogs take up this topic. It's certainly an outcome from cooking that must be guarded against, no?

The discussion of fat is two pronged: the fat one finds in food, and the fat one finds on oneself. Or, increasingly, on everyone around us. I work on a college campus and am constantly amazed by how heavy the student body (no pun intended) has become. When I was in college, kids were skinny. The girls, in particular, were fanatic about looking perfect. Granted, I did my undergraduate work in Los Angeles. When Hockeyman and I moved to Northern California to undertake graduate study, people weren't as appearance-oriented, but overall health was prized. Healthy food was easy to find. It's certainly easy to find here; my workplace boasts an organic cafe offering excellent sandwhiches and salads. Still, the kids are overweight. Girls wear midriff- baring shirts and low-rise jeans, displaying that peculiar roll of fat that comes from overconsumption of junk food.

Like almost every other American female, I am a scarred veteran of the body wars. As an adolescent I stood 5'3 and weighed 140. Although mildly overweight, I studied dance and was extremely fit. Certainly I was never obese. Of course I hated my body with a passion and longed to lose the weight, but never quite could.

During my turbulent twenties, my weight plummented to an anorexic 110, back up to 140, then down to 120, a weight I have managed to maintain for over a decade. I attribute this in part to Hockeyman, who assured me he loved me at whatever weight, and to the realization that I was allowed to eat. Allowing myself ice cream removed the weirdness. I ate some. I was done. The next night, I ate a little more. Just allowing myself to have it was enough.

Of course nobody can look like Pamela Anderson or Jennifer Aniston unless they have professional handlers--people who exercise them, feed them diet food, and do all their housework. I myself find housework is ill-performed on an empty stomach, and I am not talking raw vegetables coated in lowfat dressing. Also, both these women, when you think about it, are a little scary looking. I once saw a photograph of Pamela Anderson before all her cosmetic surgery. I didn't recognize the brown-haired woman in the photo. No huge hair, talon nails, or pneumatic boobs. And you know what? She was gorgeous. A naturally beautiful girl. It made me sad.

As for Ms. Aniston, she gets the Kate Moss award. Honey, eat something!

I love to cook, and I love to eat. As I inch toward forty, I try to eat reasonably. I will always want ice cream and short ribs and refuse to eat anything masquerading as butter. But I don't have to eat the cakes and cookies people are constantly bringing to the office. Most of it is garbage from Costco, not worth my calories. Straus Organic Dutch Chocolate Ice Cream? Totally worth my calories, enough so that I will take a walk at lunchtime to earn them.

I don't mean to sound like a moralistic prude--God knows I'm not, and refraining from sweets is always a challenge for me. So is resisting the media's promulagtion of impossible body types. Even at 120, a respectable size six, I am pretty damned far from the perfect body. And I'm never going to have it--all those years of ballet took their toll on my knees and hips. The vigorous exercise required to look like Demi Moore in Charlie's Angels is no longer possible. Still, it's hard not to look in the mirror and sigh. But I'm working on it.

Stay tuned for tomorrow night's rant: why I think low fat food products are a joke.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

It's Alive!

Relatives in town this weekend.

Friday, before arrival of said relatives, I guiltily took my jar of sourdough starter from the fridge. Guilty, because I had been a bad caretaker, forgetting to feed it for two weeks. The spongy mess inside the jar had darkened on top, and looked rather malevolent.

I dumped the dark yuck into the garbage, leaving about a tablespoon's worth of tan sludge from the bottom of the jar. I put that into a bowl with a cup of fresh flour and nice cool water. I apologized for my neglect. The stuff in the bowl was unresponsive.

I got my starter from Bay Area chef Jessica Prentice when I took a weekend-intensive bread baking class from her last December. This starter had been passed on to her from the French baker she apprenticed with. It's at least twenty years old.

A quick plug--if you live in the Bay Area, Jessica offers cooking classes and recently began a community kitchen called Three Stone Hearth with some like-minded pros. These are good people who make wonderful food. Also check out Jessica's book: Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection.

(Links provided later. My technical assistant is asleep.)

A little about sourdough starter: the basic idea is allowing flour and water to ferment, either from wild yeasts in the air or via a starter like grape skins (Acme Baking's Steve Sullivan started his with grape skins.) You then allow this mess to sit at room temp for some time, until it begins fermenting. That is, it begins to smells sour--nicely so--and bubbles. You have to continue feeding it flour and adding water, or it will die off. You now have the basis for artisanal fancy bread.

Starters can be divided and given to others. When Jessica gave me mine, it was a tablespoon of hers with flour and water. I have nursed it along from there. Rather than go into detail about feeding amounts, times, etc, I suggest you check out Paul Bertolli's Chez Panisse Cooking, which has an excellent section on sourdough starters, or Elizabeth David's peerless Bread and Yeast Cookery. Their explanations are much clearer than mine.

The truth is baking from starters is a world unto itself, far more complex that buying a nice little packet of yeast and mixing it up with some flour. The other truth, the one I discovered when I attempted to bake sourdough bread with starter, is you need the right equipment. A wood-fired oven is helpful. So is a baker's peel. Barring these, a gas oven and baking tiles. Oh, and a cloche. Also those cute little baskets lined with muslin the French use to proof loaves. I forget what they're called.

I have my tiny Sears electric apartment "drop-in" style oven. No peel. No cloche. No cute baskets. I tried anyway, using flooring tiles the previous owner left behind in a box. (He retiled the bathrooms and kitchen himself.) My bread had a lot of hard, dark crust and was flat. After a day it hardened into a useful weapon. Even worse, the recipe was large, and I had two weapons masquerading as artisanal loaves.

Fortunately, Jessica provided the class with a few recipes designed to use up sourdough starter without baking loaves of weapon-like bread. One of these is for sourdough scones:

Jessica Prentice's Sourdough Cheese Herb Scones
Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection
Chelsea Green Press, 2005 p.300-01

1 cup sourdough starter
1/4 cup flour (you may need a little more) She calls for sprouted spelt or wheat flour, or a combination unbleached white. I use King Arthur unbleached white flour only.
1/4 tsp salt (I have another version of this recipe from her galley copy and use 1/2 tsp to no ill effect)
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 C lard or butter (I use butter)
1 tbsp arrowroot powder (I never use this)
1 tsp dried herbs such as sage, oregano, thyme, and marjoram, or one tbsp minced fresh herbs (I use fresh thyme and basil)
1/4 C packed grated cheddar cheese, preferaby sharp (I use all sort of cheeses--parmesano reggiano, cheddar, white cheddar)

--Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
--Grease a cast iron skillet with lard or butter and put in the oven to heat.
(repeat the following mantra: oven mitt, oven mitt, oven mitt)
--Put the butter or lard into a bowl with the starter and cut together with two knives, a fork, or a pastry cutter.
--In a second bowl, mix the remaining ingredients. If using dried herbs, rub them between your palms to release their oils.
--Add the dry mixture to the sourdough. Mix thoroughly. I usually start with a spoon and then use my hands. If the mixture seems too wet, add a bit of flour. It should be malleable but not sticky.
--Remove skilet from oven (Oven mitt mantra!)
--Jessica calls for mounding the dough in a 1/4 c measure and adding it to the skillet. I use my hands to form fist-sized balls of dough.
--Bake 25-30 minutes.

You should have 4 to 7 scones, depending on how much dough you began with and how large your scones are.

Jesscia eats these with eggs. I tend to serve them either as breakfast--they are wonderful with smoked salmon--or with savory dishes like stews. However you serve them, they are fast, easy, and delicious.

My starter was sullen all morning. I was sure I'd killed it. Periodically I added more flour and water. I kept apologizing. I promised it lots of King Arthur Wheat flour and days sitting out on the stove in the heat instead of confinement in the cold, microbe-retarding fridge. Finally it relented and began bubbling. I was forgiven.

Friday, August 04, 2006

When dinner is a disaster

Maybe not a complete disaster. Just not very good.

I had some lovely short ribs. I salted them ahead of time like a good girl. Then I set out to prepare Molly Stevens' Short Ribs braised in porter ale with maple-rosemary glaze. Being me, the person who does not like sweet things with her savory dishes, I did not prepare the maple glaze, which called for maple syrup.

The dish called for preliminary browning, followed by 2 1/2 hours in a 300 degree oven. I followed the recipe exactly and came out with undercooked meat. It was easily cut with a knife, but certainly not fork tender. Even if it were, the braising juices--a bottle of Guiness and a cup of chicken broth--were pretty lifeless.

This was the first (and probably last) time I've prepared short ribs without some kind of tomato--ususally Muir Glen whole romas with their juices. This dish wouldn've benefited from some kind of acidic oopmh. This must be where the glaze comes in, though I 've seen lots of recipes for short ribs braised in ale without anything acidic or sugary.

I think I'll go back to short ribs in the crock pot....dump one 28 oz can Muir Glen whole tomatoes with juices over as many short ribs as you need. Add some red wine. Garlic, salt, pepper, bay leaf. Onion or potato if so inclined. Go to work. Come home. Eat.

A nice variation, courtesy of Gourmet's Five Ingredients Cookbook: add shallots and mustard to the above. Sublime.

On a brighter note, the tomatoes from the farm are wonderful. We ate them caprese-style.

My new braces are a hassle. More places for food to lodge. I did this voluntarily? What was I thinking?

Thursday, August 03, 2006

More on Laurie Colwin

Over the past two days I have read two reviews of Marisha Pessl's "Special Topics in Calamity Physics". Both reviews--one in People (I was in the orthodontist's office. Sue me.), the other here, in the NYT, are accomplanied by photos of the limpid and lovely Ms. Pessl, whose novel is favorably gushed over. The book, which I have not read, is filled with both real and false literary citations and built around a "core curriculum." It also contains drawings courtesy of the author.

I have no doubt the novel is as learned and clever as its reviewers claim. But this sort of book also depresses the hell out of me. Not because it exists--that's fine, I ain't the final arbiter--but I do think this kind of writing is pushing the Laurie Colwins of the world out of the big publishing houses.

(Pause as Barking Kitten waits for a lightning bolt to strike her.)

Colwin's short fiction was published in the New Yorker, Antaeus, Cosmopolitan (!), Redbook, and Mademoiselle. I frankly cannot see any of these periodicals publishing her work today. Yes, tastes change. I am not arguing that we return to the past. Well, maybe a bit, Colwin wrote domestic fiction. Hers was the telling detail--china, an omelet, down quilts. Such objects told of their owners, regular people finding their way through adulthood, meaning, for a great lot of us, a series of embarassing, heartbreaking affairs, a few lousy jobs, a few good ones. Luck, or not, in love. Adultery. Children. Her work, even when covering darker subjects like widowhood or marital difficulty, is relentlessly upbeat. Her work argues for the possibility of happiness.

The possibility of domestic happiness, despite the world's woes. The lack of fancy overlay--no drawings, no blank pages, no visitations from characters named Laurie Colwin. Perfect, elegant sentences, often funny:

"'Very nice!' said Dr. Frechtvogel. "'A Shakette. What is this?"
"It's not the sort of thing you might put on your resume," I said, although I had no resume.
"This is not an office," said Dr. Frechtvogel. "It is a lunatic asylum. You will see. Dancing experience may come in handy."
(Goodbye without Leaving, p 178)

Colwin died in 1992, at forty-eight. Many of us found this proof of a godless existence. Others were simply anguished, and remain so, for the Marisha Pessls and Jonathan Safran Foers of the world will never give us another Family Happiness. They cannot write books like Happy all the Time, where the most important changes are wrought without the benefit of intricately scaffolded plots or footnotes. They are instead immersed in the clever. We marvel at their ability to make constructs, but their characters will never inhabit us. Their books will not comfort. They do not promuglate happiness; it never occurs to them to try.

Colwin, Laurie: Goodbye Without Leaving. New York, Harper Perennial, 1990.