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.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Catholic Boys: third installment

9. Interjection: The present day

I just spent half an hour on the internet. I found Amanda immediately. They did marry—she has his last name—yours, I mean—but it’s unclear whether they’re still together. She has a good job now, a serious job. There’s a headshot on the net: she must be forty-three, minimum, but looks good, even better than she did when I knew her. Her hair is dark, her skin dewy and unlined. Perfect teeth. I had forgotten her teeth, very straight and white. When you have bad teeth you notice things like that.

Anyway, beneath this head shot were accolades from customers, colleagues, and so forth. Maybe Mandy and Jay have children, medium-sized kids with terrific teeth and Jay’s squared-off nose and barking laugh. Maybe Mandy drives a van. Is a soccer mom.

I cannot find you on the internet. It’s as if you’ve fallen off the earth, or are dead, but I would know about that. If you were dead.

I am also on the internet. Because of my work. My name is, anyway. I did not take my husband’s name, though I keep thinking someday I will.
No photograph, though. It was suggested and I refused.

Maybe you’ve Googled me. The whole business is strange, people randomly searching each other out, making unwanted contact. Eventually I stopped looking for you. It felt too weird, like stalking. Writing about you is bad enough.

10. An honest way of life

I was attracted to what I perceived as your way of life. My classmates were attending B’Nai B’rith youth, making out their applications to the University of Michigan. Marcus read Guns and Ammo; it lay out on the table beside Mandy’s Glamour. Marcus liked guns, hunting. To my great relief, you did not. But your house lured me, a male enclave barely lightened by transient women and the few furnishings your parents left behind. An old couch with a torn rattan back, an ancient, rabbit-eared television. The Miller High Life mirror, which hung over the couch when not in use. Worn brown carpet. The kitchen filled with overflowing bags of empty beer bottles, saved for the 10-cent rebate. A dining room-cum-mudroom with a card table and chairs. Your bedroom, upstairs beneath the slanting roof. You had few personal possessions, stored in an old-fashioned armoire. A cheap digital watch. The leather jacket you wore in all weathers. Three pairs of shoes: sneakers, motorcycle boots, suede lace-ups with heavy rubber soles. The kind of shoe popular in the late seventies, worn into the eighties by a certain type of boy.

A certain type of boy: comb handles protruded from their back pockets; when these boys whipped them out, they stroked back their long feathered hair in rapid, I-am-not-vain strokes, one hand holding the comb handle, the other resting atop the comb’s spine, smoothing the freshly combed strands. You did not do these things, smoke or carry a comb for constant grooming. You were still one of those boys, though. You wore the shoes, the plaid flannel shirts. You managed to finish high school without any of your teachers noticing your intelligence. Nobody suggested college. Once upon a time boys like you went to work on the line. But now the line wasn’t at Ford or GM or Chrysler. Instead The line formed every second Thursday, spiraling out the Employment Development Department around the block.

I misinterpreted blue collar life as a finer, more honest reality. Such distinctions are important to sixteen-year-olds. Of course blue collar living was no more honest than any other kind of life. It took me years to understand this. I found you infinitely more appealing than the nicely groomed Jewish boys following in their parents’ well-heeled footsteps. I wanted Neil Young and long nights of coke-numbed fucking, not wait-till-we’re married-the first child will be named after dead grandfather Schmuel or matriarch Fruma.

You were smart. Have I said that? How smart you were? Just the other night I was on the telephone with my mother. Somehow the subject of your family came up. He was so smart, my mother said of you. I wonder if he ever finished college?

11. A Party.

A costume party. I rented a French Maid costume, a heavy black satin dress that fit amazingly well. With I wore a white apron and black flats. I carried a feather duster and my camera. I was quite the photographer in those days, eagerly shooting the monks and clowns and pirates. Later I stowed the camera in your bedroom and went to do lines with you and some of your buddies.

While we did up somebody went into your bedroom and opened the camera, destroying the film. I was lucky it wasn’t stolen. What was I thinking, leaving my precious camera unattended at a house party?

You were furious. We changed into street clothes and walked a few blocks; the bracing cold calmed you. We went home to bed. After love you drifted off, but I was too coked up for sleep. At six a.m. Billy Ocean’s “Caribbean Queen” drifted up the steps, playing on the radio that had been left on all night. I lay wide awake, sniffling with coke post-nasal drip, sandy eyed, listening.

12. Soundtrack.

The Yes Album, Yessongs. Neil Young. The Moody Blues. For a long time I could not listen to the Moody Blues at all: Ride My Seesaw was especially killing, as was I’m Just a Singer in a Rock and Roll band.

Now the Moody Blues are ancient: even the classic rock stations no longer play them. So their impact fades as newer, fresher pains replace the agony of Tuesday Afternoon. Though the rare hearing still evokes you. It always will.

I’m just beginning to see. Now I’m on my way.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Catholic Boys: continued

7. Cocaine

It played such a huge role. Not the white elephant on the couch. More like the white mountain we all happily climbed.

In 1983 a half gram cost fifty dollars. These half grams were sold in intricately folded pieces of magazine paper, usually Playboy. It was important that the coke be wrapped in a sex mag. I don’t know why. But they were, folded up in an origami borrowed from high school girls who sat in the back of class, passing folded bits of gossip.

An entire gram cost $100. You got it in the same folded square, only the paper was plumper. More promising.

An eight ball was an eighth of an ounce. I can’t remember how much they cost, though I recall one usually got a break, especially if you bought from the same dealer all the time. Eight balls came in baggies, like marijuana, rolled up and licked shut along the top.

At first we only bought half grams or the occasional whole ones, but then Jay started dealing and we could afford eight balls. He sold them to us cheap and uncut, no speed or Mannitol mixed in. Mannitol is an infant laxative. It gave us all the runs. We didn’t care, because we were high.

I used to be able to fold and unfold these squares expertly, spilling nothing. I carried my coke in a concert kit. That’s what people called them in the head shops. Concert kits. I still have mine: a blue leather wallet, about the size of a credit card. Here it is, taken from its hiding place for description purposes.

“What’re you doing with that?” My husband asked, seeing it on the kitchen table. He has a heart murmur. He’s never done coke.

“Just writing about it.”

He nodded, satisfied. Just writing about it covers a range of behaviors.

The concert kit. Parts of it are missing now: the brown glass vial capped with a black plastic lid, equipped with a tiny spoon. The cheap razor blade that came with the kit, long discarded for the real thing. Now only the slot remains, empty. There is still the implement with a spoon on one end and a surprisingly sharp edge on the other. A gold straw. There are proper names for these items. I no longer know what they are, if I ever knew. A thick square of mirror slid behind the tiny tools. I used to keep my envelopes of coke behind the mirror. For a long time I had an empty bit of paper there, folded up. Now that’s gone, too. I tilt the mirror to the light: it is unscratched. I didn’t use it much. I had a beauty mirror, white plastic, the kind with a magnifying side and a flat side. I used that, and standard blades, and dollar bills. I would use a spoon if I was out somewhere—a concert, in the car. But snorting through money was our preferred method. I was especially good at chopping rocky coke into powder and arranging lines. Everyone always let me do it. Now those same skills serve me well in the kitchen, mincing garlic. Dicing onions. Mundane, middle-aged behaviors.

I did cocaine only on weekends. During the week there was school, and my job, which was part of the school’s cooperative education program. I took my studies very seriously: my goal was to attend college. Nobody else in my family had. We suffered economically for this. I was certain a degree would be my meal ticket out of the lower class. In retrospect I was not wrong.

But coke snared you.

If I have it, I do it, you said. How can you have it and not do it?

You did it, your brother did, all the people flocking to your house did. Off a Miller High life mirror perpetually gritty with coke. I did it off that mirror, too. But only on weekends.

I never became addicted. Everyone else did. Now we understand addiction is a purely genetic business. That I get no gold stars for good behavior.

Returning to the cocaine. There were a couple close calls with it. The first time I was with you. We were going to see a movie. We arrived before the theatre opened. In the freezing car you produced a hand mirror and rapidly arranged four lines. I had the mirror in my right hand, a rolled dollar bill in my left, and was getting ready to snort when red light flooded our vision. A police cruiser, lights on, had pulled in behind us, blocking the car.

We were terrified. Dump it! You cried. I bent forward and slid the mirror, lines and all, beneath the seat.

We sat, hearts racing from coke and terror. Waiting to be arrested.

Then, abruptly, the car pulled away. The cop was not looking for us. We retrieved the mirror, did up, and went inside to buy tickets.

Another close call, this one without you. I drove to Jay’s apartment to pick up a gram.

It was noon, a freezing, snowy day. The apartment was large and windowed, with a long walkway to the front door. This walkway, indeed the entire apartment, faced the street.

Jay was not home, but Mandy, his girlfriend, invited me inside. The place was immaculate, freshly dusted. Mandy was still in her pajamas. An ironing board was set up in the kitchen; I had interrupted her doing laundry. A square table was set up in the tiny dining area. There was a mirror on that table with a pound of cocaine mounded on it, a pound of glistening cocaine facing all the windows, their curtains opened wide to admit the bright winter light.

Want some? Mandy asked. She gestured to a smaller mirror on a side table. It featured a smaller pile of coke, a gram or so, and a few lines. A razor blade, a silver straw.

I demurred, bought my gram, and hurried off, rattled. If the cops had come. That very very clean apartment. Coked up at noon. Coke, to me, was always a night drug. Doing coke in the daytime was like eating ice cream for breakfast or driving without shoes, behaviors signifying a serious collapse of daily reality. Mandy had recently been fired from her job at a banking firm. At the time I did not connect these events.

Much later, the police did come. Jay’s dealer was arrested. He was certain the dealer would talk to reduce his sentence. Jay and Mandy lit out. While they were gone, the police searched their apartment. They did not find the coke. It was hidden in a common place to stash drugs and either the police lied about finding it and took it home themselves or were amazingly inept.

Time passed. I don’t think Jay ever saw trouble over it. He did stop dealing.

The question is whether or not you all stopped doing coke.

8. Amanda

Jay’s girlfriend. Long before her there was a girl who shared my name, his great lost love. You told me she wasn’t especially pretty, but had lovely long hair. She was very smart, and you wanted Jay to marry her. I never learned why they split. I don’t think you knew.

I’ve never known a man not taken with long hair.

After the girl with my name came lots of other girls, then Mandy. Mandy told everybody she wanted to be an actress, but she never acted in anything. Instead she held secretarial jobs. She had missed pretty by a hair, and worked hard to fix herself up. Like me, she was slightly overweight. Unlike me, she was tall, taller than your brother. This did not stop her from wearing high-heeled pumps with her jeans, which made her tower over everybody. I had never seen any girl wear dress shoes with jeans; nobody in our town dressed like that. The weather was too bad: we wore hiking shoes, or fleece-lined boots. Indoors we stripped down to heavy socks; during the three months of humid summer we wore cheap sneakers. But Mandy always wore heels: she favored a pair of purple leather pumps. She also had a leather jacket with multiple zippers, the kind Michael Jackson popularized. Her nails were always carefully red. Once she left a bottle of nail enamel in your living room beside a thick copy of Glamour magazine. Both items struck me as unspeakably exotic. But you scoffed at her nail polish, poked fun at her magazine.

You disliked her, thought her shallow and stupid. She was those things, though she was always nice enough to me. She was older, in her mid-twenties. Our age gap was an excuse: we never had to try to be friends.

Jay gave her a diamond ring for Christmas.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Catholic Boys

NB: This is the second essay (See 8/21/06 for the first) in what may or may not become a series of open letters to people who were once in my life. Like many writers, I tried to distill these people into characters, hoping to expand upon actual events and create some decent fiction in the process.

I failed. Glossing these people into facsimiles was like stuffing a ball gown into a duffle bag: swags and frills and folds kept escaping; the entire mess refused to zip up neatly.

So, creative nonfiction.

Names, dates, physical identifers, and actual events have all been altered to protect privacy.

Because this is a long essay, I will post over several days.

1. Openers

This happened once before. I was writing about another person. I tried fiction, failed, ended up moving to non-fiction and writing an essay I loved, one that caught the necessary nuances. Maybe I can do this with you, and with the others. A bizarre collection. Or recollection: People I’ve Known. Of course some of you are still alive, requiring some alterations—fictionalizing—on my part. You did not ask to be written about.

You in particular asked for none of it. My memories of you are laced with stinging humiliation. But I will talk more about that later, in this non-fiction, altered-to-protect-your-privacy document.

I tried to write about you, many pages of an intended story: I could not get inside your head. The question is why I ever wanted to be there to begin with.

It’s twenty-two years since we were together. Next month you will turn forty-five. You were seventeen when I met you. I was thirteen. The year we were together you turned twenty-one; I, seventeen.

Your hair must be gone. It was thinning even then. Thick glasses: you had them then, so you must now. You are not the type to consider laser surgery. People don’t do that where we’re from. Vanity. Wasted expense.

By now you must be wearing bifocals.

Your face is the same. Wide nose, thin lips. Clean-shaven. A few more lines. That’s all.

And your body? Back then you had a lean, muscled build, a teenaged boy’s body. Now maybe you’re softer about the middle, with the beginnings of a beer gut. But not a huge belly. I don’t see that. You weren’t much of an eater. You were a drinker. I’m certain you’re more of one now. So am I. That would surprise you. Back then I had a prissy disapproval of alcohol. I hated beer. Now I drink nearly every night.

Sometimes I imagine you seeing me today. Your surprise. As a teenager I was overweight. I did not know how to dress, did not care for my fingernails, and had terrible teeth. I am not fashionable now, but possess style; I wear long skirts in dark colors with high boots. My ears are pierced. My nails are short and unpolished, my cuticles manicured. As for my teeth, the braces come off in three months. The extra twenty-five pounds you knew me with are gone. Recently, somebody at my office recently referred to me as “skinny.”

Skinny was important to you. You never asked me to lose weight, but let slip your disapproval. Your ideally pretty girl was your roommate’s girlfriend. She was tiny, blonde, hipless in a way Jewish girls can only dream about. You once told me you got hard just from watching her walk past you.

I never evoked that response. I wasn’t your type, even when we were together. There was just too much of me, those large breasts and wide hips, topped by that Semitic face. Which has only grown more Semitic with time.

But you were my type. You still are; you were a prototype, an imprint affecting my future dating choices, even the man I married. His eyes are the same color as yours; you are the same height and build. Both of you are shy with strangers.

Were you my type before I met you, an inborn inclination, or did I fall in love with you and then you became my type? Was I born to fall for blue-eyed Catholic boys?

2. A list:
--French maid costume
--Caribbean Queen at 6 a.m.
--Miller High Life mirror
--Mandy’s fingernails
--Glamour Magazine. Guns and Ammo.
--your parents
--old photos

I made this list one night. I was trying to capture the essence of that moment. I still thought I was using it for fiction. In the end I did not, but kept the list. It alone successfully evokes the feeling I am attempting to convey.

3. Chronology

The chronology is dull. A little over a year, an ecstatic beginning, a drawn-out, hideous ending. So overdone. So adolescent. I never ended a relationship that way again. Instead I snip them off neatly, as if the bonds of love or friendship can be severed simply by ceasing communications. Even my divorce hurt less. Of course I did not love him. He was rebound. From you.

4. A beginning

I met your oldest brother first—Jay. I was eleven. I wore a long-sleeved blue t-shirt and jeans. Isn’t it funny what one remembers? I remember that blue t-shirt, its heaviness and drape. I sat quietly, listening to him talk. I liked him a great deal: he was warm and funny, he a great honking laugh that made everybody want to crack him up, just for the joy of hearing him.

Later I met Ryan, your favorite brother, and Marcus, a roommate. Ironically, I don’t remember meeting you. I know I was thirteen and passionately attracted: I don’t know why. It was random, inexplicable, there from the moment we met. You were not handsome. Pleasant-looking, slightly built, shy. You had little to say for yourself. Yet I found you immensely attractive. Looking at the photos, I still do. And I still have no idea why.

5. First dates

Over the next three years our circles touched through drug dealing, parties, the occasional home repair: you or Jay or Ryan, turning up to fix the roof or get under one of the cars. I made a point of being wherever you were, coasting on those small exchanges for weeks. I spent hours daydreaming about you, vast amounts of mental time I no longer have. Well. Here I am, daydreaming about you once more. God help me. This at least is aimed daydreaming, daydreaming with intent. Writing is a wonderful excuse to exhume, revisit, embroider.

To daydream and convince yourself you are acting with intent.

I knew you would never ask me out. There was your shyness. Our four year age difference. The real reason, which I did not see then: it never occurred to you to be interested in me. So I called you. Suggested a movie. You agreed.

6. A present interjection

This morning, while I was driving to work, AC/DC came on the radio. Bon Scott screaming at seven thirty on a Tuesday morning as I sped to the office. I do not like my job. It is the near-meaningless employment of an upper-middle class, middle-aged liberal. So there I was, listening to Bon Scott, twenty-seven years dead, screaming about shoving your nine to five living and your collar and your tie, and sticking your moral standards, which were all a dirty lie, and agreeing wholeheartedly. Around me were dozens of unhappy drivers in an identical state. When did we lose our ground? Become middle-aged? When did our music go out of style? All of these things have happened since we knew each other, since our skins were fresh and unlined and we hoped for better lives than the ones we live.

But I project. Perhaps you like your work. Your life. Accept the creeping indignities of middle age. You did not yearn the way I did. That is, you did not yearn for the same things. What did you yearn for? I never looked past my image of you long enough to find out.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Emperor's Children

I was prepared to dislike this book, perhaps because of its echt-New Yorkiness: New York being the center of the universe, the universe outside New York being too pathetic to contemplate. But once into the book, I realized that while the characters may feel this way, their creator, author Claire Messud, does not.

Therein lies one the book's finest traits: Messud's gift for characterization. While Marina Thwaite, her parents Murray and Annabel, and their assorted satellites are not wholly loveable, nor are they--save Ludovic Seeley--completely despicable. You even come to like them, despite their pronounced flaws.

Well, maybe not Murray Thwaite, a eminent journalist whose massive ego holds Marina, Annabel, and Marina's best friend Danielle Minkoff in heady sway. Accustomed to his high position, certain of his worthiness, Murray is a monster, a taker, a liar and a charmer. Enter Ludovic Seeley, a young Australian, come to New York City to start the Monitor, a magazine looking to debunk accepted truths, particularly those uttered or written by Murray Thwaite. Introduced to Danielle, Ludovic worms himself into the family Thwaite via Marina's affections.

Ludo is interested in revolution in the most "po-mo" sense--that is, postmodernist. He urges frankness at all costs:

"That's what I hold against Thwaite--he's a sentimentalist. There's nothing clear-eyed about his analyses...And people buy them because they subscribe to some antiquated notion that a passionate reporter is more valuable than a dispassionate one. Bollocks....What could be rarer, more precious, more compelling than unmasking these hacks for what they are?" (111)

His goal: to prove the Emperor has no clothes. His unlikely ally in this enterprise is Frederick "Bootie" Tubb, Murray's nephew, a fat college droupout who flees Watertown and his overbearing mother, Murray's sister Judy, appearing on the Thwaite's finely appointed doorstep. Murray, ever the generous uncle, hires Bootie in a secretarial capacity.

We are ready to dislike Bootie, or at least be annoyed by his youthful arrogance, his slovenliness, his social clumsiness. But as the novel progresses, showing everyone to be hopelessly self-involved and, in some cases, amazingly immature, we come to admire Bootie's tenacity. He knows he's a fat slob, a bright boy with little to offer. He realizes he must better himself, and is willing to risk a great deal in the effort. Not so Danielle or Marina, or their college friend Julius, a talented writer who trades on his sexual prowess until events conspire to halt him.

Sepetember 11th happens in this book, and while everything has been said, seen, and written about that day, Messud's careful setup of the characters and their lives beforehand render the devastation newly stark without devolving into Ludo's despised sentimentalism.

Messud's eye for domestic detail lends heft : Murray and Annabel's sumptuous apartment, overlooking Central Park, features a sisal rug that "glows as if gilded" (39) from the frosted sconce lighting. A sideboard is "miraculously...suspended or cantilevered in such a way that it had no legs.." (39) There rooms are large, culminating in Murray's study, a sanctum of papers and piles possible only for the wealthiest of New Yorkers. Food indicates status: Danielle, at lunch with awful Ludovic, eats poussin. Murray drinks Lagavulin; cavair blinis are consumed at a wedding. This in contrast to Bootie's atrocious lodgings, a dark, hot, roach-ridden studio barren of furnishings and Judy's crumbling home and frozen dinners.

One wonders how a book like this will hold up; it is so indicative of its era. Will we look back at thirtyish people, still adrift post-college, and marvel? Smile, amused at our innocence? Will 9/11's horror fade in the face of new atrocities? Will sconce lighting and poussin strike us the way the '80's do now--scoffworthy? Or will we find deeper truths beneath the careful notations of this shallow milieu?

Claire Messud: The Emperor's Children. New York: Knopf, 2006.

Friday, February 23, 2007

On being an unsuccessful writer: part three


This week's Sunday NYTBR features a fine review: Kathryn Harrison writing about Joan Acocella's latest essay collection.

Harrison writes of Acoccella:

"She is a celebrant of art, not blind to the flaws of what she admires nor so inclusive in her praise that she fails to discriminate between the lesser and greater novels of, for example, Saul Bellow, but a critic whose enthusiasm is infectious. Clearly, she reviews only what she finds worth her time to review — work she loves.

Particularly, Acocella is interested in artistic careers that include break and recovery, and how the work changes in the wake of trauma, including the chronic, compounding trauma of rejection. She is a keen and sympathetic observer of the ways in which corrosive disappointment can strip away the veneer of culture and refinement that an immature artist typically acquires, revealing the more genuine sensitivity, the art, beneath."

Imagine--writing about art you love, rather than finding work to eviscerate. Imagine being the sort of writer Accocella celebrates, one who writes despite, or because of, instead of attending panels on the horrors of the writing life. Imagine that.

Back to the salt mines.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Hairball of the week (or why I can't get published)

In fairness and a failed attempt at objectivity I admit here a hatred of romance novels. I wish the entire genre were extinct. Instead, like mold spores, it flourishes, and in the worst places. (That would be anywhere)

Lest you think I cast stones, I have actually read two whole romance novels. The first was a Danielle Steel, passed covertly around my sixth grade class. It was, I think, her first novel. It was about a girl who loses her face in a car accident, or something like that, and gets it rebuilt to look like the MAN's lost love, or some such. Suffice to say I was ten years old at the time and thought the whole thing idiotic.

More recently, around six years ago, I read a Nora Roberts paperback. I was curious to see what all the fuss was about. I forget the title; it was about a sexy violinist and incredibly predictable, but well written and paced to keep them pages turning. For all my revulsion, I had to admit Roberts was a master at the formula.


A mometary digression, before diving into sex among the racecars. Hockeyman and I occasionally take in the live hockey game.

Hockey draws what might politely be called a crowd with more dollars than class. They behave tribally, dressing in team jerseys, painting their faces team colors, wearing silly hats. Drinking way too much and shouting themselves hoarse at the players, who are likely immune to the phenomenal din a bunch of drunken sports fans can make.

Hockey draws a lot of single women. Sure, a few are looking to meet men in the audience, but more are into the players themselves. Hockey players are manly men, big rawboned boys who could just as soon throw a gal over one wide shoulder as smash an opposing player into the boards. They are not a handsome lot: many have varying degrees of dental deformity, noses permanently listing sideways, and slightly, ah, impaired IQ's. With a few notable exceptions, smart men do not play pro hockey. And the pretty ones usually don't stay that way for very long.

But the female fans are undeterred. Many are more than a little frightening. Somehow it seems we are always seated near a few, enormously obese ladies who shout down to their fave players at alarming volume. They always stand to sing both anthems, Canadian and US, and eat their way through the game: shiny plates of plastic nachos, cones of garlic fries, thirty-two ounce diet cokes.

It was these women who came to mind when I read of the wonderful new relationship NASCAR has forged with Harlequin.


Check it out:

"Last year, with Nascar’s approval, Harlequin successfully published three Nascar-theme books, including one in which the heroine, an ex-kindergarten teacher, falls in love with a Nascar driver after first being hit by his car and then driving his enormous motor coach from race to race."

Let's see...he began by hitting her car...then got her to drive his trailer?


"Booksellers and other publishers are following the Nascar-Harlequin hookup with interest, because romances are a hugely important genre, accounting for some 55 percent of all popular, mass-market fiction sold every year"

Fifty-five percent.

In interests strictly literary, a speed dating event was organized around the NASCAR/Harlequin hookup, but...

"It was not clear whether any of these participants experienced the same life-changing emotions felt by Kendall Clarke, the mousy-seeming heroine of the first novel in the new series, perhaps not coincidentally called “Speed Dating.” Clad only in a demi-bra, high-cut panties and a slip, she finds herself sitting in a sports car next to the fictional Nascar driver Dylan Hargreave on the night when she is supposed to receive the Sharpened Pencil Award given to Actuary of the Year. “She’d never done anything this wild in her life,” she thinks. “Oh, it felt good.'"

Mousy-seeming...until the glasses come off, the hair (dyed) comes down, and somebody takes her shopping at La Perla. And she's willing to sit half-naked in Dylan's car.

Right. Yep. I am so believing this. And secretly so wishing I were Kendall instead of my middle-aged, hanes-wearing, sharpened pencil self.

Harlequin spokeswoman Michelle Renaud is jubilant. After all, “Harlequin has a book for every woman’s mood.”

Michelle, darling, Harlequin doesn't have book for my mood, which is currently suicidal-but-sedated-by-beer-and-valium.

So many hairballs the racetrack needs to be hosed down.

On being an unsuccessful writer: part two

Eight months into this, I have what I always wanted as a writer: readers. Only it took some time to realize that readers were what I wanted. When I envisioned myself as a successful writer, it was a Didion-esque daydream leavened with a good deal of Berkeley Academia: a house in Oakland's Rockridge neighborhood, a quaint bungalow (costing $700,000) furnished with fine wooden chairs and dark corduroy couches. All those bookshelves. The red Le Creuset atop the Viking stove, cassoulet bubbling within. And my writing room a raft of papers, books, and phone messages from Barbara Epstein, begging for an essay. And me, Sontag-like, silver earrings dangling, long cotton skirt swirling round my legs. I did not imagine money. Rather, I dreamed about the things it would get me--that house, those earrings, the laden bookshelves.

Now Joan Didion has lost not only her husband but her daughter. Susan Sontag and Barbara Epstein are dead. And I still cannot afford a house in Rockridge.

I do, however, have all those bookshelves, the Le Creu if not the Viking, and enough silver earrings and long skirts to last a lifetime. I have a day job that eats precious writing time. But it pays well, and I will never have to worry about health insurance.

And, best of all, I have readers. People who read. And sometimes respond. A world has opened to me, one that will be here whether or not my fiction ever sees the printed page.

One reader called me one of his favorite bloggers. I did not pay him, either. We've never met.

This is success. Not the kind I expected. Not the kind I thought I wanted. But undisputed success.

Do I still want my Didion daydream? Sure. Only now I know I can be a happy writer without it.

This brings me to Caitlin O'Neal's article in the March/April issue of Poets and Writers: "The Writer's Triangle: Balancing Writing with Living."

O'Neal was invited to participate in a panel discussion on "the toxic triangle," in her words, "the metaphorical vortex writers get pulled into while trying to balance making a living, being committed to their literary lives, and staying connected to the world around them." (21) Evidently those of us caught up in said triangle must work full time, use up our tiny amounts of "free" time writing, thus cutting us off from other people, thus depressing us.

The panel, held in Boston, received overwhelming response not only from those asked to participate but from the audience. Everyone who isn't Jane Smiley or Margaret Atwood, it seems, is miserably battling the various nasty realites of writerdom: poverty, the need to work, time constraints, rejection, loneliness, etc, etc.

Pursuing writing is like being a working mother: there is never enough time to do everything that must be done. So one of three things happens:

--things don't get done


--things get done, but incompletely


--a combination of the above.

Our society's view of art means government support is unthinkable. If we can't get the feds to recognize that children and the elderly deserve our tax dollars, we cannot expect writers, dancers, or musicians to be deemed worthy of attention.

I don't see a ready solution to the "toxic triangle", though pathologizing the wish to make art might be a good place to start. Nobody is forcing us to write. Lonely? Depressed? Missing out on life?

Stop writing.

Can't stop? Don't want to? Then something's gotta give.

In my case, outside life gives. I cannot remember the last time I saw a movie in an actual movie theatre. Movie rentals? I must have. Can't recall. I last went to a rock concert in July '06. I never watch televsion. In July, we finally caved, replacing our ancient set with a new flat screen TV. Hockeyman now

I don't know how to turn the tv on. It has four remote controls. Four! Why? Who cares? Who has the time?

Neither of us are social butterflies. We have acquaintances that could be cultivated into friends. Which would be very nice, only it would take time from writing.

Lest I sound like a total isolate, let me point out that I do socialize a lot at work. I have a broad circle of people I lunch with weekly and enjoy their company enormously. So I am not a total freak. My primary recreation is reading, which does keep me in reality to some extent. It's difficult to read something like Suite Francaise and live in la-la land.

Still, my choice means isolation. I don't mind that; I don't miss people. I get plenty of them at the office. I do wish I had more time to see movies, attend concerts, explore the city. But my life is a constant balancing act between the laundry and the groceries and the house, work and squeezing in that trip to the recycling center that will take our old television and the call to the electrician. Not to mention the orthodonture rounds and all the other garbage life throws at us that takes time from writing.

Right now--now being an indeterminate amount of time--I have dedicated myself to writing. Even with the blog, this is risky: will I look back at this time of life, this final flush of youthful energy, and regret my singlemindedness? Or will I feel I acted rightly?

Monday, February 19, 2007

On Being an unsuccessful writer: part one

(A blog entry divided into three parts.)
(Because H-man said so)

Unsucessful meaning I earn no money from writing and must work full-time doing something else. Unsuccessful meaning nobody in New York wanted my book. That after an initial bout of publishing essays, poems, and stories in my late twenties and early thirties, I have since published nearly nothing. Not for lack of trying: like every other would-be literary sort, I sent out dozens of queries to agents, short stories to various journals. Lots of agents bit, asking for partials and even full manuscripts; one picked me up, sent my book round, then decided she needed to do something else and left the business. The journals all rejected my work.

Along the way the internet spread its tentacles, giving rise to blogs and online publishing and the current publishing morass we find ourselves in. To pursue the old-fashioned way of New York Agent/big house/hire publicist/hope against hope? Self-publish? Take up blogging? Hang it all up in favor of something less demeaning, like auto detailing?

My experience with the agent knocked me on my ass. I lost confidence--not in my ability, but the possibility of ever seeing the novel in print. Subscriptions to Poets and Writers and blogs like Miss Snark's only worsen things. There are so many people out there who Want To Write. The stats, when not numbing, are depressing.

Another thing happened along with the internet: literary tastes changed. Postmodern fiction is all the rage; experimental novels are popular. Memoirs are flooding bookshops: suddenly, eveyone has an amazing, unique story, lost siblings or parents who lived whole lives never disclosed to spouses or children, who, invariably, write it all up. Chick Lit is followed by Mommy Lit which is now leading us to the fresh hell of Daddy lit.

All of this a fancy way of saying the playing field narrowed for writers like me. There are still wonderful books out there, but everywhere you look, another bookstore is closing or another article is pointing to fiction's demise.

For a long time I bargained with myself: I would publish one thing before turning thirty-eight. Before turning thirty-nine. If all else failed, I would quit writing by forty, a milestone less than a year off.

Forty loomed (it still does). Much gnashing of teeth and wailing. Poor Hockeyman bore the brunt of it.

"Start blogging." he said.

I complained and whined a little more.

That was last summer. My elderly MacIntosh conveniently chose this time of troubles to die. Hockeyman made me a list: a MacBook. Something called an Airport Extreme. A few other equally inscrutable items. I took them to the computer store, handing the kid behind the counter the list and my credit card.

"Don't you want to try out a few different things?" He asked.

This was like asking me which spaceship I cared to fly. Just give me one of everything on the list, I said.

He gave me a look that said dumb middle-aged broad, ran my card, bagged my purchases. I took it all home to Hockeyman, who set everything up. Here I am. Blogging.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

A final word on Pym

I spent this week trying to read Barbara Pym's A Very Private Eye, a collection of her letters, notes, and journal entries. I got about halfway through before giving up. Unless one is an academic or a fanatic (notice how I kindly separate the two), about all one can glean is the feeling that Pym in life was a lovesick teenager. All her journals and letters focus on men, boys, and romantic love, reading like adolescent pinings. Major events like her writing, publication, and participation in the WRNS during World War II are subsumed by her yearnings for various clearly unavailable men. While she cried after tea, Virginia Woolf was struggling with mental illness and writing terrified dispatches about being bombed. Anais Nin, ever self-preserving, had fled to New York, where she dallied with Otto Rank and tried to decide what to do about Henry Miller. Simone de Beauvior, like Woolf, was relatively nearby, hiding out with Olga Koskiewicz and worrying about Sartre, who, amazingly enough, had been called to serve. She was also cooking up a little novel called The Mandarins.

I realize that only two posts ago I was discussing my aversion to including politics in my work. But I am not in the WRNS. I am not--and I know how fortunate I am--being bombed. The people I love are not being called into military action; my stockings and foodstuffs are not rationed. How can one live in the midst of something like that and be crying over men who comes across as frankly unappealing?

I kept reading, thinking Barbara would grow older, her jottings more mature. By the time I gave up, the war had ended and Pym was in her mid-thirties. In fairness, perhaps middle age brought a more adult view of things. And her books are nothing like her journals; maybe the best of her thinking went into them?

I don't know. But I couldn't read any more about the Gordons and Friedberts and Johns. So, I gave up. Started The Emperor's Children anew. Pretty wrenching to be tossed into the present, amidst a bunch of acidic New Yorkers in carefully fashionable surroundings:

"Marina stood and proceeded to turn on the large beaten-copper lamps around the living room, revealing suddenly a bath of color, of pinks and oranges and terracotta, the burnt umber of the sofa...supposedly Mediterranean in atmosphere, it did seem to make the room warmer...." (22)

God help us. I'm on page 51, and the descriptions of housing and meals alone are making me slightly much worried arrangement, so much anxiety over objects whilst the characters fuss about. We'll see.

The quotation comes from Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children: Knopf, New York, 2006.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Hairball of the week

I have to tweak the hairball meter. If everything is five hairballs, five loses meaning, right? But this article really pissed me off.

Look at that picture of Andrew Goldman, scowling at fiance Robin Henry. Robin, stupid girl, run! Run!

But first, bash his smirking face with that grater, will ya?

And how about Matthew Hranek's comment about his wife, Yolanda?

Yolanda wouldn’t know a corked bottle of wine if you put it in front of her.

Yolanda is an magazine editor. From this we may extrapolate she is a reasonably high-functioning adult. Who married an asshole. Hranek felt it perfectly fine to insult his wife publlicly. Evidently Yolanda had no problem with it, either.

Yolanda, meet Robin. Ladies, where is your self-esteem?

How about this gem:

"I can’t watch her cook,” Mr. LaVallee said. “I’d say things like, ‘I can’t believe you’re julienning the carrots that way!’ And then I’d think, ‘Did that really just come out of your mouth?’"

Next question: did you apologize?

Here is Alan Richman, discussing his alpha cooking style with former partner Lettie McTeague:

"Long-term problems are caused by money and things like that,” Mr. Richman said. “Fights over cooking only cause loathing between couples for two to four days."

I disagree. Long, long ago, before I knew how to boil water, I lived with a man who fancied himself a gourmet cook. He had a set of impossibly heavy, hard-to-scrub Calphalon pots he treated like frail children. He was utterly rigid in his tastes, cooking only five or six variants of overly spiced, meat-heavy dishes. He loathed vegetables, reducing me to buying small packages of frozen carrots or spinach. He would eat in few restaurants, and once in those he invariably ordered the same dishes. He loved sweet liqueuers. I detested them.

The idea that I might cook crossed neither of our minds. He had me cowed, though I did balk when he decided to get a layout of the supermarket aisles and computerize it to create a more efficient list. What for? He bought the same things every week!

Given Robin Henry's idea that Andrew's kitchen behavior is "part of his charm," one wonders what he's like outside the kitchen. Does that judgemental mein cross his face when she dresses? Gains five pounds? Cleans? Folds his shirts (and she does, trust me)? Richman is correct that couples break up over the big stuff. But show me a person who's nasty to their loved one in the kitchen and I'll show you a jerk elsewhere. My fellow's scrutiny of my Calphalon-cleaning skills and frozen veggies represented larger behaviors ranging from annoying to frighteningly abusive. Fortunately, I rapidly came to my senses. After seven months of hell, I called my parents and asked to come home.


When Hockeyman and I moved in together years later, I was still a novice cook, but he was even more so. I could prepare a few basic dishes; he could make spaghetti sauce. Without any discussion I assumed all kitchen duties. We were both amazed to discover I could cook. A routine chore rapidly deepened into a serious interest. Meanwhile, Hockeyman took on the bills, the insurance, the mortgage, the 401K. He is very good with numbers. I am hopeless. He also handles the technical end: cell phones (I can barely operate mine. Basically, if it rings, I know he's looking for me and I need to call him), the new television, hooking up the stereo and computers.

Neither of us finds our arrangement inequitable.

Then, about two years ago, Hockeyman asked me to teach him to cook. I found myself groping for explanations: what did I mean by "some?" How much is a pinch of something? How should he chop the carrots?

Initally I was too fast. That is, we'd plan out some menu, delegate prep tasks, and I'd find myself standing around with a hot pan of olive oil and the chicken diced, waiting for him to painstakingly dice each bit of onion. And though in most of life I am an impatient person, I shut up and waited. Hockeyman is a measured, precise person. Knife skills would not make him any faster with a clove of garlic. Yelling would only ruin the evening; besides, the heat could be turned down. The chicken could wait five minutes.

H-man is now an accomplished sous chef with a broad palate. I still have the larger duties, but we're both okay with that. He, after all, is the engine behind this blog, the person who keeps me from spending every dime we take in, the guy who mercilessly edits my work and listens to me complain about writing.

We do not fight about "the larger issues."


In Cooking for Mr. Latte, Amanda Hesser devotes an entire chapter to letting husband Tad Friend into the kitchen with her. She admits she is kitchen nazi, cringing at his dishwashing style:

"On the surface, it's a painfully trivial difference of opinion...But it's not about washing dishes. The real issue is trust...letting him more deeply into my life." (87)

Admitting her fears, and flaws, she resolves to change. Her marriage to Friend has a far better chance for survival than Henry's and Goldman's, or Edwards' and Hranek's. After all, if you cannot trust your loved one with a chef's knife, how can your trust them with your body? Your soul? Your children?

I think you get my point.

How many hairballs?

Four, sliced however Robin Henry wants them.

The Hesser quote comes from Cooking for Mr. Latte, Norton Books, 2003.

(Creating) Political Fictions

BDR has an interesting comment regarding my last post:

How does one confront what's happening in this country, in one's fiction (or in my case poetry) w/o what one's writing being (de)formed by the immediacy of one's anger/fear/foreboding/prophesy?

Head-on, of course, but aware - speaking only for me - that something in the negotiation between message and art has been violently compromised and boundaries have been erased.

And then the reader or critic, with their own anger/fear/foreboding, comes to your fiction ...

He goes on to mention in this post, that the political situation is affecting his poetry--he's writing well. He is--dare I say?--inspired.

These are excellent questions. Questions I evade in my writing outside this blog. My essays and fiction, thus far, operate entirely outside the realm of politics; I struggle even to set them in anything other than an amorphous "present." And while it's convenient to excuse myself by saying I write "domestic" (wince) fiction, the truth is I have zero interest in bringing the political into my work. Is my writing angry and pessimistic? You betcha--A Discerning Eye came back from New York marked Just Too Downer to sell. If one wants to stretch the definition of political, the book was about a woman operating outside society. But nowhere are the Republicans mentioned.

As a citizen of this wayward nation, I have a responsibility to vote, to sign petitions, even to hand over money now and again. But the thing that drives me to write does not encompass the our beyond-fucked-up state of affairs. Other people--like BDR--are moved to write, or make music (Neil Young, anybody? How about them Dixie Chicks?), or paint Guernica. For my part, by the time I sit down with the hope of creating something worthwhile, I am so fed with reading about Iraq, hearing it on NPR, and listening to that blithering idiot in the White House that I don't want anything to do with it. I can't make something blistering and meaningful from it. That doesn't mean I should stop reading the newspapers. But let the others have their political fictions, and gain relief from creating--or reading--them. Not me.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Worrying about Jane Smiley

Well, Ten Days in the Hills is out, meaning I need to run and fetch it. I've been on this Barbara Pym kick lately, restricting my reading, which in turn has made me worry about blogging. My readers (all nine zilllion of you) will surely be bored by yet another happy post about people with names like Prudence and Candida taking high tea in the shire. So I'll read Claire Messud, beind the times as always, then get on over to Jane.

But I'm worried.

Like many readers, I came to Smiley via A Thousand Acres. Also like many readers, I did not realize the King Lear association until grad school. By then I had read all her previously published work, save for Catskill Crafts, which is incredibly difficult to find in the real world. (Powell's Online has ONE copy).

Smiley loves to try different authorial hats: Lear in a A Thousand Acres, Nordic Saga in The Greenlanders, mystery in Duplicate Keys. Moo is academic satire; Ordinary Love and Goodwill novellas. Ten Days is a mere riff on Boccacio's Decameron, surely on every serious reader's bookshelf. In short, the lady can do it all.

I couldn't get through Lidie Newton, and though I read Horse Heaven and A Year At the Races, nothing will make me a horse person. In fact, for a long time I worried Jane Smiley would become the next Maxine Kumin, a really fantastic writer completely consumed by horse weirdness. When I heard Ten Days in the Hills was NOT about horses, I was happy the way only book geeks can be happy.

Then I read Updike's review in the New Yorker. Now, this guy totally dissed Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, a review we may all agree defined plain jealousy. But we may all also agree Updike is far from the village idiot (that's the guy from Crawford, Texas ...). And his complaints about Ten Days were, to me, legit. He quotes liberally from the many, many graphic sex scenes in the novel, something I will spare your delicate selves (haven't you all had enough yuck from me lately?) . This might lead to a lively discussion about the boundaries of sex in literature, but not tonight. I have a headache. Suffice to say I was dismayed. Even what Updike quoted made me wince.

But I was still game ... even tho the book is partly about Iraq, and if I read one more thing about Iraq I may jump off Sather Tower (not really, Mom) ... but it's Jane Smiley.

Now we have Michiko Kakutani weighing in, and oy vey, she has the very same criticisms as Updike.

Not that I am a Michi-lover. But when two well-read critics have the same criticisms--and I don't think John and Michi took tea in the shire together before writing their respective reveiws ... well, that's cause for worry in my narrow little world.

A bad Jane Smiley book. Let's hope the big important critics are wrong. Let us hope for the best while expecting the worst ... rather like our views of the Iraq war, no?

Sunday, February 11, 2007


Ed has a fascinating post called "The Dangers of Confessional Writing." After a stalker turned up on his doorstep, he writes:

"I eventually decided to reveal aspects of myself only when I felt sufficiently informed or wise enough to translate my character into essays."

Privacy is oft on my mind, not only in the blogosphere but in my "real" life was well. A few years ago I experienced credit card fraud. I was forced to hire a lawyer to get the creditors off my back. It worked, but left me deeply frightened.

I have a few publishing credits on the internet using my real name. At the time I thought nothing of it--in fact I was pleased, thinking it might attract agent interest or somesuch (I was sooo naive...). And while I had lots of nice readers, I also received a couple of creepy emails. One was from a person who claimed to have attended high school with me. His questions indicated he did indeed know me. Only I'd never heard of him. Then came an email from a person who did not give a name, asking was I such and such from such and such high school? Maybe, I thought. But who the hell are you? I did not reply to either. To my relief, neither contacted me again.

When I decided to blog I could think of a few people I had no interest in hearing from. I also thought about all the crazies out there. Why tempt them? Hence Barking Kitten and her sidekick, Hockeyman.


I have a few readers (thank you, kind, wonderful people for reading my blog) who know me. My name, where I live, where I work. But they knew those things before I began blogging. They are trusted friends, colleagues, family members. My mother is one of my biggest fans (thanks, Mom!) and claims I reveal more than I realize. Maybe I do, but she arguably has unique knowledge. I mean, she's my mother, right?

Which leads me to privacy. I give a good deal of thought to what I will divulge. One of the reasons I waited to write about the drug Alli going over the counter was I knew I could not discuss it without revealing more about my health problems. After much thought, I decided to go ahead with the piece. I rather doubt fellow sufferers are going to turn up at my door wanting to share gut stories. Nor is it information harboring damage potential. It will not shock my employers, attract legal attention, or hurt others. If anything, it might help other people, if only to let them know they are not alone in their suffering.

In terms of waiting until one is "sufficiently informed" or "wise enough," yes, sometimes, but check out Jade Park's blog. She is writing even as she recovers from a stroke. And the posts are stunning: lucid, cogent writing from a place most of us are fortunate enough never to inhabit. Those of us reading her work are the richer for it--coming away awed at her sheer guts, her talent, which the stroke left unharmed, and newly grateful for our own agile minds, which we so often take for granted.

Interestingly, just last night I read this article, by Emily Nussbaum, in New York Magazine.

One comes away with the feeling that younger people--ranging from thirteen to thirty--have entirely different perceptions of privacy and its importance, or lack thereof. Many are nude on the net and happy about it. Or, like Anais Nin, do not feel they have experienced an event until it is documented. Unlike Anais, their document of choice is rapidly accessible to millions.

This leaves the Eds of the world on one pole, with people like me and Jade Park (both pseudonymous writers) clustering round him, with a long, long line stretching to the opposite end, inhabited by Ayelet Waldman and today's technolgically suave, fame-hungry children. Privacy is ultimately a personal decision, tied to personal dignity and self-respect for myself, my family, my husband, and my readers.

And what of John Freeman, the writer who sparked Ed's post? I read his Babble essay. I didn't find it overly personal or offensive. Insightful, sad, rueful. A hideous exposure? Nope. I could not access the Believer essays, as I am not a subscriber. The Islamic dustup? Shit, all one has to do these days is utter the word "muslim" and watch everybody freak out.

In then end, we all draw our lines in the sand, hoping we've used a sharp enough stick and the tide will stay out.

Saturday, February 10, 2007


Yes, I've been away from the blogosphere for a few days. Real life has such an annoying way of interferring with our preferred pastimes, doesn't it? For example, disssecting hairballs.

I've been toting this article about for a few days in my notebook.

Alli, a lower-dose version of the prescription weight loss drug Xenical, will soon be available in a drugstore near you. In the aforementioned article we are told by Drs. Rosebraugh and Frank that Alli has "a safe track record," and that we know "what the safety profile is."

Alli and Xenical work by halting the absoprtion and breakdown of fats in the intestine. Meaning you "pass" the fats--resulting in the common side effects of flatulence, oily stools, diarrhea, and loss of bowel control. Patients able to tolerate Xenical's side effects lose much weight, and become averse to fatty foods much as Pavlov's dogs were trained to salivate at bells.

The folks at GlaxoSmithKline must be jubilant, despite the Public Citizens Health Research Group's protests, citing the drug's potential for pre-cancerous symptoms in the colon. But Dr. Arthur Frank, who served on the Glaxo advisory panel, says "the product has a good safety record."

Over how much time? And how large was the sample population tested?

I will make every attempt to write this gracefully. In a recent blogpost I mentioned my lifelong struggle with digestive tract disease. My problems include severe heartburn, stomach pain, gas pain, and barely controlled diarrhea. In my late twenties I became too ill to work: I was unable to leave the house. I was prescribed Prednisone, Amitryptiline, tincture of opium (talk about stoned...), Lotronex (in its early incarnation, when it killed four women and was yanked off the market), Immuran, an immune system suppressant, and 6MP, a drug used to treat cancer. All to no avail. My doctors were considering feeding me via TPN--tube feeding through the kidneys. Barring that, a full colectomy and a colostomy bag were under serious consideration.

Constant diarrhea irritates your insides--you feel like you've been pipecleanered. All the time. That constant irritation to the colon can lead to abnornal cell proliferation--cancer.

At my sickest I suffered from continuous dehydration and daily episodes of acidosis, a condition where your eletrolytes are out of whack, causing rapid heart rate and panting. I endured this for three years before finding a workable med regime. As you might imagine, I was quite trim.

I share this unpleasant information not to elicit pity or disgust, but by way of illuminating what will happen to millions of citizens once this drug goes over the counter. Even worse, though selling to children is "prohibited," how in hell will anybody be able to stop kids (read: teenage girls) from buying or stealing Alli from stores or parents?

Americans are fat. This is not news. But diet drugs are not the answer; they never have been. Alli will not teach people how to eat properly. It will not prevent people from eating at McDonalds. It will not stop the proliferation of impossible media images. If anything, I can see people looking to Alli as an excuse to gorge, the way bulimics look to vomiting as the perfect way to purge.

And though this will sound insufferably priggish, there is something so damned lazy about turning to drugs to deal with overeating. Yes, there are people who are dangerously obese and need immediate help. There are people who have real health conditions that lead to being overweight. I am not talking about them. I am talking about you and me--the people who nosh chips at work 'cause we're bored, or make three or four coffee-cookie runs from work for the same reason, or sit in front of the television eating pizza and drinking beer because life is difficult and food tastes good.

Our laziness has one benefit: Dr. Arthur Frank and his friends at GlaxoSmithKine are laughing at our appetites all the way to the bank.

Five hairballs.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

More Barbara Pym

I began Claire Messud's All the Emperor's Children, then put it down. I'd just finished Excellent Women, and somehow all the bitchy New York irony Messud was offering didn't cut it. Not to say the book is bad, or I won't read it. I will. But I had two more Pyms in the pile, and I longed to be back in the English vicarage. So Claire's perfectly New York Hip People will have to wait a little longer.

I picked up Jane and Prudence, a crumbling paperback copy. It's amazing how much books have changed. This paperback edition is from a 1981 print run. There are no acknowledgements, sharp jackets designs by Chip Kidd or Carole Devine Carson, author photos by Brigitte Lacombe or Marion Ettlinger. No "about the author" or discussions of the obscure Dutchman who invented the typeface. Instead there's a cover featuring two women rendered in profile, black, cameo style, against a prim, wallpaperish background. In other words, one is supposed to be interested in the content. What a concept.

Like Excellent Women, Jane and Prudence takes place in London and a nearby village. Jane and Prudence, though about ten years apart, are old school friends. Jane is married to Clergyman Nicholas. They have one daughter, eighteen-year-old Flora. Prudence, nearing the awfully spinsterish age of thirty, lives and works in London, where she carries on numerous unsatisfactory love affairs. Jane, newly installed in an unnamed English village, decides she must introduce Prudence to Fabian Driver, a handsome widow cultivating his reputation as a lonely fellow. He is, in truth, a cad who messed around on his poor wife Constance. Jane sees fit to overlook this as nasty gossip.

Nasty gossip is where Pym flourishes. Her eye for human misbehavior is sharp, yet so well-masked in humor that it's easy to see why people always found her work so twee. It's not--Pym misses nothing. Her description of the ladies in Prudence's office could hold its own with the masterful movie Office Space:

"'Well of couse I have been sitting here since a quarter to ten, ' said Miss Clothier. 'So perhaps I have got cold sitting.'
'Ah, yes; you may have got cold sitting,' agreed Miss Trapnell. 'I have only been here since five to ten.'
Prudence, who had arrived at ten past ten, made no comment and indeed none seemed necessary. The hours of work were offically ten till six, but Prudence considered herself too highly educated to be bound by them." (36)

The goings on about tea are hilarious: who shall make it? The lowly typists, of course. But what if they forget? And what about Mr. Manifold's penchant for Nescafe? Who will pour? It's all very foreign to the American reader until one considers the antics that commence about 11:30 in offices nationwide:

What are you having for lunch?
Let's order pizza!!!
I can't eat that. I'm on Jenny Craig.
I brought mine from home.
Let's order from Generic Chinese!
We can't. They're closed on Tuesdays.
They are NOT!

Tell me this doesn't happen where you work.

Jane's matchmaking skills are, alas, little better than her housekeeping. By her own admission, she cannot so much as open a tin, and is relieved by the ministrations of Mrs. Glaze, whose butcher nephew keeps them in livers and joints as the country slowly emerges from rationing.

Pym's description of Jane's inadequate housekeeping is masterful: the food, as Laurie Colwin noted, is wonderfully described. Even better, it tells us much about Jane's character. On Mrs. Glaze's day off (which Jane has forgotten about), she nervously announces to Nicholas than lunch out is a good idea. Is there not Spam? Nicholas inquires.

Not since the war, says Jane.

Why not open a tin of something, then?

"'A tin of what? That's the point.'
...'Then there isn't anything to eat in the house? Is that what you're trying to tell me?'
...'Yes, that is the position.'" (48-9)

The entire truth is Jane forgot to go to the butcher's. Nor is she any better shelving the many books or ensuring Nicholas has a clean shirt. She is intelligent, well-meaning, and so reminiscent of a close relative of mine (NOT my mother, a great cook and house-manager) that I had difficulty tolerating her kindly dithering. One of the closing scenes in the novel, a dinner party consisting of Flora, her beau Paul, Nicholas, Jane, Prudence, and Fabian is a set piece wherein all assembled manage to display their best and worst. The men then excuse themselved from the washing up, to the women's dismay. Not, notes Prudence, that Jane is any better, halfheartedly sloshing wine glasses about in dirty water.

For all this, Jane is well-read. She gave up literary studies to marry Nicholas; we learn in passing she once published a book of essays. So even in 1953 the finest of ladies knew themselves stuck between lives of the intellect and those of old-fashioned wifery.

Mildred Lathbury, heroine of Excellent Women, appears briefly, in one of the ever-diverting alumni bulletins; we readers learn her life continues most felicitously.

As in Excellent Women, all's well that end's well, and readers come away smiling, if shaking their heads at human folly.

My paperback edition is from Harper Perennial, dated 1981.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Rice in its natural state

"'I am always sad that we do not eat the leafy part of the carrot, as the tops are so nice to look at. I often long to see rice growing in its natural state. Have you seen this?'"

Polly said she had not, and a silence fell between them."

Laurie Colwin, Family Happiness, 31.

The speaker is Andreya, Polly's Czechoslovakian sister-in-law, whose vegetarianism and generally mute demeanor offer great amusement in an otherwise sad novel.

It turns out I have seen rice growing in its natural state, but never realized it until a few days ago, when I acquired Seductions of Rice at Pegasus (this time I went there to get a book for Hockeyman. So there!)

Seductions of Rice come to us from cookbook-writing-traveling-photographing duo Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. Being very hip types, they have their own snazzy website, which may be accessed here.

Alford and Duguid's books are all glossy coffee-table porn numbers that save themselves via informative writing, lush photos, and terrific recipes. Some of the photos in question are of Sacramento rice fields, which yours truly has passed any number of times, seeing only dry-looking weeds. This is what happens when you show a Detroiter farmland. Now I know I was seeing rice growing in its natural state.

I read Hot Sour Salty Sweet, but it was a library book. I loved it too much to really read it thoroughly, for I had to return it. But now I have Seductions as consolation. Somebody saw fit to sell this book. I got it, hardly used, for twelve dollars. I really wonder what people are thinking when they sell books like this. Was it a Christmas gift to a non-cook? A person who committed himself/herself to the Atkins regime? Post-divorce leavings? An estate sale? Who, who, who sells a book like this?

Never mind. I have it now. Mine! All mine! And I'm cooking from it.

Take last night. I was making H-man strip steak. He loves steak. But I had just been to the orthodontist, and of course Dr. Gadget was on duty. There are five doctors in this practice, but I always get Gadget. He loves to put metallic thingmabobs in my mouth, wire configurations that seemingly do nothing save snagging my tongue and/or bits of food. Thursday it was "lace." This is a wire, woven triangular fashion round my top four teeth. The bottom teeth have a "chain." Lace and chains. Who names this stuff? Somebody who demands you call her Mistress?

Thanks to Mistress Lace, I could not chew. I look forward to using my teeth again one day. Meanwhile...

I marinated H-man's steak in my recently acquired mushroom soy sauce and some sesame oil. Boiled some rice. Stir fried Chinese radishes (gorgeous pink interiors, lots of sugars), fresh farm garlic, ginger, greens, and a carrot in more mushroom soy sauce, peanut oil, a splosh of sherry, and a fingerful of Thai Red Curry paste, which I bought in a jar and died a thousand deaths opening. I served the whole mess to H-man and wondered what he would say: steak, to him, means potatoes, some inconsequential vegetable, and a glass of scotch.

"What is this?" He gasped.

"Is it ok?"

"It's wonderful. What did you do?"

I should mention here that H-man loves salt and mushrooms, so I really couldn't lose.

On tomorrow's menu:

Yunnanese spicy ground pork sauce with Quick and easy Chinese greens.

Ironically, I am out of white rice and will open my new box of Thai Red rice. Stay tuned.

Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid: Seductions of Rice. New York: Artisan Publishing. 1998.

Laurie Colwin: Family Happiness. Knopf, New York, 1892.

Hairball of the week

For the record, let it be known I am not a girly girl. I have had two manicures in my entire life. Both were for weddings that ended in divorce. (Only one was mine.) When Hockeyman and I made it official, I wore a blue minidress, black suede pumps, and surgical steel hoop earrings. At age 29, I'd finally decided to have my ears pierced. They were still healing when we married. Our wedding bands came from a mall kiosk. (We've upgraded: I wear my mother's band. No diamond. He wears a Celtic wedding band.)

I think I put some stuff in my hair. One of my houseguests brought it, and since her hair looked good, I thought mine would, too. I did not do my nails or wear make-up.

I now take basic care of my nails, which are short and unpolished. I don't like the idea of strangers manipulating my extremities with sharp implements. As for facials, why waste your time and money? Massages are great, especially when you suffer from migraines and carpal tunnel. No scented oils from distant islands or Enya tapes are necessary. Just a strong pair of hands.

But here is Fran Glennon on taking nine-year-old Emma along to the spa:

“Between her activities, my work, you end up trying to fit it all in,” said Ms. Glennon, a nurse, as she and Emma sat in the spa’s cafe. “We’re all so busy. Here you’re out of the house so you really can focus on each other. You’re spending time together.”

Emma was 3 when Ms. Glennon first took her along to her nail salon because she thought it would be silly to pay for a baby sitter. Now she takes Emma to the spa for the occasional treat."

Say what? First off, why is it necessary to be out of the house to spend time together? What's grabbing Fran's attention? The nanny? the cleaning lady? Kids are generally want attention from their parents: what you're doing is less important. I used to help my mom sort laundry. When her mother grew frail, the two of us spent Saturday afternoons in the supermarket, each of us pushing a cart, consulting a list: one for our family, one for my grandmother. We then dropped the groceries at home, where my siblings put them away, and continued to my grandmother's apartment, where we put her groceries away ... and, incidentally, got to spend some "quality time" (God, I hate that expression) with her. Yeah, we were "out of the house," but nobody was rubbing Belgian oils into my unlined forehead. There was the added benefit of helping both my mother and grandmother.

Consider the costs associated with this quality time:

"But to bond at these places requires disposable income. At Sothys, the mini-facial for children is $75 (a deep-cleansing facial with exfoliation for adults is $110), and a package that includes a children’s facial, manicure and pedicure can cost $127. (Still, it is possible to get a $10 manicure at a corner salon.)"

Experts note this emphasis on beauty procedures may send the wrong message to impressionable girls; notably, that to be pretty one must expend much time, energy, and money on activities that ultimately do little to improve on nature. Yeah, it might send the wrong message... if all those billboards and magazines touting emaciation don't get 'em first.

I understand parents are crunched for time. But $75 buys a lot of books...or groceries for kids in for $127, why not just open the window of your classic six and toss the bills down the folks sleeping in the streets? Further, what will these girls come to expect as teenagers? Canyon Ranch Weekends? Prada handbags? Will their fiscal realities match their desires? Will they seek mates capable of providing these frivolities? Or find high-paying, time consuming work, bear children in their forties, and take them along for kiddie facials, as their mothers did?

Will the Emmas of the world notice we are about to engage in yet another war in the Middle East? That we're wrecking the planet? That the Acrtic was once covered in ice caps? Will they care? Or will they be too worried about their toenail polish?

Three hairballs.