Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Gluttony, many kinds

[links forthcoming]

I have been working toward Thanksgiving weekend for most of the fall. Busier than perhaps any other time in my life, I kept telling myself, "if you can just get to Thanksgiving, you can ..." sit down, do nothing, spend a whole day cooking, drink a lot and sleep in the next day, generally surrender to sloth and gluttony.

Not my beet salad, but something like it.

Thanksgiving finally arrived, and as it turned out, we took guests with us, and lots of produce from City Fresh, our CSA (radishes, beets, and cabbage. oh my!). My friend Jess and her family (including Z's old preschool gal pal, the divine Miss L) brought with them an astoundingly fine cheese plate, which even included fig jam and cornichons (you can see why I like this lady); a laudable apple pie, complete with impressive seasonal crust cut-outs; and a larger than average appreciation for the oddball, which I hoped would make them feel at home with my people.

Also joining us the day of the feast, was my mom's friend Pat, who furnished among other things, her family Thanksgiving specialty of chicken "pot pie" -- which is not a pie at all but a squishy comfort stew of shredded chicken and great, fat homemade noodles. She's from Alabama. A conversation with a barmaid at the Smiling Skull Saloon the next day reminded me that homemade noodles are an Appalachian/sometimes Southern thing for the holidays. (In the foothills of Southeastern Ohio, my grandmother reports, this has morphed into a festive dish of noodles OVER mashed potatoes.) If you have further information about the origins of this tradition, please post a comment.

My mother did the meat (turkey and ham, both!), dressing and gravy. My aunt provided pumpkin pies and cocktails. And I supplied the Beaujolais Nouveau and the veg. I set out wedges of red and white radishes with dishes of butter and sea salt for nibblies. They were good, but could not compete with the cheese plate. I was going to do a garlic braised squash dish, but it seemed too much, so I just mashed potatoes, improvised a creamy citrus cole slaw for counterpoint to all the rich and heavy, and made a salad of roasted beets tossed in balsamic vinegar on a bed of sauteed beet greens. There was a bit of goat cheese left on the cheese plate and some candied walnuts, so I tossed those in with the beets (did I mention how awesome the cheese plate was?). The beets were my triumph. 

When our guests left on Saturday, I had a little more than 24 hours to complete my next feat of consumption. I set out to read a complete issue of the New Yorker from cover to cover. A nearly unimaginable luxury! And not just any New Yorker, but the food issue. My hands were still stained red, when I read Alexander Hemon's ode to his family borscht.

No, I did not read all the listings, but I glanced through them. The high point there was the announcement for an improv cartooning event, exactly the kind of conceptual performance event I savor. Nor did I read all of the reviews … they don’t really apply to the food theme, so I figured they were negligible for this experience.

But the main contents of the issue, I … devoured. (Full disclosure: I didn’t get to finish the EL Doctorow short story, which is only culinary in the sense that it is set in a restaurant.) Chang Rae Lee’s memory piece about his Korean family’s assimilation and resistance through food was deft and lovely, its loose structure and tone of gentle self-recrimination both things that I would like to imitate. The article about the fermentation expert and the outlaw food movement was interesting, especially for its portrayal of a successful gay/faerie back-to-the-land commune (there are communes in my BiP, so I am always interested in non-cliche portrayals).

What really sticks with me, though, is the profile of April Bloomfield, the chef of the Spotted Pig. It was inspiring in its portrayal of someone so focused on her craft. It's a bit wonderful to contemplate the arc of someone’s life from Birmingham trade school to trendsetting New York restaurant. The aspect that makes me cringe with envy is the idea that such a person can afford to buy an apartment in Manhattan, something I fantasize about (pied a terre in the city, farm with goats and geese a train ride away ... sigh) and will likely never have. But putting my material jealousy to the side, I love that she has such a commitment to her own culinary aesthetic and yet maintains a humble curiosity about how other chefs run their kitchens and think about food. And I am instructed by the story of how she came to New York … all her talent still needed a businessman to decide to open a restaurant and hire her, backed by an armslength of tony investors to become a foodworld celebrity. Yes, it helped that she had established a respectable reputation among London kitchen workers, so that Jamie Oliver had her name at the ready when he had to turn down the job, but without her business partner and his celebrity friends’ money, she might still be sous chef on the Thames, with dreams of a pub of her own.

I've been thinking about this for several days now (and the description of Bloomfield's ricotta, butter, sage gnudi). What is the moral? That it’s important to have friends in high places? That success in the larger world is as much about luck as it is about talent? That I tend to be naive about how careers are built? Or more optimistically, that the truly important thing is to stay true to one's own passion and artistic vision? I have a feeling April Bloomfield would be content on the Thames, so long as she got to create her own dishes part of the time, but it didn't hurt that she had some charcuterie up her sleeve when Jamie Oliver called.

Last night, I was awake in the middle of the night, fretting about not having finished this post, and fretting about all the things I have yet to accomplish in my life, all the calls from Jamie Oliver I have not received, worrying that who I am now is who I will always be, feeling sorry for myself that I have no Spotted Pig of my own. There are many kinds gluttony. In the morning light, this one looks less appetizing.

Onward to the solstice, another feast ... with gingerbread cookies.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sick Days

I'm on day 2 of being sick, after spending a day with a sick O, and I am fighting terrible feelings of self-doubt and lurking failure. This is a normal way to be when sick, I suppose, but it comes at a time when I was already struggling against despair.

Why despair?

Because I am genetically predisposed? Because I am working too much and I'm worn out? Hormones?

Yes. Yes. Probably.

Because the BiP is more a fantasy than a reality at this point? (For those keeping track, NaNoWriMo feels to me more like NoNeGoWriMo ~ Not Never Gonna Write More.)

The last is probably the clincher. Whenever I lose track of my writing I get desperate. This is an ongoing dance I do with myself. Commit to the writing ~ do the writing ~ neglect the writing ~ hear the writing whispering recriminations ~ avoid the writing ~ loathe self and others ~ eventually get back to the writing (repeat). Wouldn't it be nice if we could lose steps 3, 4, & 5?

Hope in a Prison of Despair, pre-raphaelite painting by Evelyn De Morgan

My friend Paula has taken recently to calling this sort of reflexive negativity "lazy," and to a certain extent I think she is right. For someone like me the pose of despair is an easy, familiar place to land, but is it real or even in any way useful? How do I get back to committing to the writing, and to myself?

When I am avoiding my writing, I also lose the ability to focus in a lot of other ways. My mind is too antsy to settle down to read. If there isn't a task directly in front of me, I don't know what to do with myself.

O has recently developed a habit of asking plaintively, "Mama, what can I do-oo?"

It's really like he is voicing my internal state. What can I do? I have to DO something! Heavens forfend that I sit here and just be with myself. Thus, I have made myself so busy I am on the edge of exhaustion.

What am I avoiding? Is it something in the writing or is it something in me and the writing is just a casualty?

A week and a half ago I went to NYC to see a rock concert (my "Girlie for the Modfather" post has been in the works far too long ... another casualty of my current funk, I guess.) and I visited the World Trade Center site for the first time since 9/11. 

I went to "ground zero" because one of my characters, Lee, works in the financial district and the daily  presence of that place must mean something to him. Plus, and, my book is of a world populated by ghosts ... and there must be ghosts down there, right?

I finally got to see, and touch, the eerie eye mosaics in the Chambers Street station, which I had written about but not witnessed. They were installed in the late 90s, but take on more resonance in the wake of the towers falling.

Read more about the Chambers Street "Oculus" here.

Coming up to street level, I joined the crowds of tourists and gawked at the hole in the ground (the ever-present sounds of construction make a paradoxical soundtrack), I walked around, I took notes, I had a hot dog on Wall Street and watch a Dutch tour guide cracking up his tour group, I heard a chamber orchestra rehearsal in Trinity Church, and I concluded the St. Paul's churchyard is still the most haunted place down there. 
St. Paul's: maybe this is where all the WTC ghosts hang out?

I should write about it ... for real, not just in blogland. But just putting down these notes feels better. So, in the interest of admitting Hope into the prison of Despair, I commit to two things:

1. To make time, real quality time for the BiP.
2. To use this blog to catch shiny things, in other words to stop for a moment, to stop DOing and to sort, capture, and focus on my daily life and observations. 

Dear reader, help keep me honest.

I need more tea ...

Friday, November 12, 2010

AIKSGNP ep. 346 Postscript

O is pictured here enjoying the shirt in question.

To answer a question from Mati re burning the shirt upon arrival: The short answer is that it seems well proven that prohibition breeds desire. So, while I don't have to buy Barbie t-shirts, I am not going deny the ones that come in with other juicy hand-me-downs. Plus, and, I think this way is ultimately more subversive.

The longer answer is much more complicated, as is this whole dance of living within and even enjoying a culture with which I want my children to learn to engage critically. I will continue addressing this in dribs and drabs. (Stay tuned for "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Princesses.")

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Adventures in kinda sorta gender neutralish parenting, episode 346

Getting dressed this morning Z was trying to decide between the brown BFF t-shirt she inherited, I think, from Lily or maybe Makayla, or the pink super-80s (or is it 90s?) Barbie t-shirt that came in the great stream of hand-me-downs from Rachel C., one of my grad school profs. Z looked at them and realized the Barbie shirt is at long last too small. She handed it to me to put in the give-away bag.

Oh so pretty ... but in an 80s way or 90s? (answer revealed below)

But wait, I thought ... Z's too-smalls always get offered to O. This is why my boy proudly sports striped purple leggings, and it makes me happy. It helps that he has a strong sense of personal style (Michael C. was his fave on PR8, he would want you to know).

We have a saying in this house that "There aren't girl things or boy things. There are just people things." Of course, the rest of the world doesn't really get this concept ... those pure-pink and black & red battle-game-du-jour aisles at the toy store are hard to argue against, but I try.

This is partly an ideological decision. But it springs from my own experiences as a child. My best friend was a boy. We played football and Barbie together, watched Charlie's Angels and Battlestar Galactica. A man outside the A&P once asked long-haired Tim, "What's your name, little girl?" then took a look at me - grubby, chop-haired and shirtless - and told me "to be a good boy." We laughed about that for days.

I got older and girlier, but I have always retained a basic sense of androgyny. I wish to pass this on to my kids, because I want them to know it is OK to be whoever they are, however they are, in whatever clothes they like best. (We are after all, Free to Be ... You and Me ... bald as ping pong balls, knowing its all right to cry, with our dolls, and our people mommies, and all.)

So, I dithered for a moment ... O isn't going to want this t-shirt; it's too-too girlie, for real ... wait a second, shouldn't he make that decision? ... and back and forth.

Finally I walked into his room with the shirt. "Do you want this shirt?" I asked.

"Mmmmm," he considered it with his head tilted and his face scrunched up. "Well, I don't want to wear it as an outside shirt ... "

"OK," I said, and started to back out of the room.

"But I do like it," he added emphatically.

"Should we just keep it for a pj shirt?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said, nodding. "Yeah, yeah. Put it in my pj drawer."

So I did.

I wonder, what is the perceived moral of this story? It's OK to be girlie, as long as you keep it, you know ... in a drawer ... or some other closed, dark clothes-storage area? Or, more hopefully ...  It is important to dress appropriately for the occasion, and sometimes the relaxing occasion is going to call for a pink Barbie T, so it's good to have one on hand?


OMG! This shirt is 20 years old!

In other news, I heard Loretta Lynn tell Terry Gross last night that she is still, after a stellar 50-year career, not really sure if she is a good singer. This made me sad and hopeful all at one time. #neuroticartistsunite

Friday, November 5, 2010

trinket box

Not a particularly shiny week in America, if I do say so myself, still a few things have inspired me. (I don't have time to go into detail. My friend Cara says "the novel always wins," which means I need to be over there instead of over here.)

+ First, Franzen ... I have a big chip on my shoulder when it comes to Jonathan Franzen. Read The Corrections, found it wanting, resented the hype. What does the hype have to do with me, you ask? Nothing. But I guess I need something on which to focus my writerly longing, envy, and bitterness. (I used to feel this way about Joyce Carol Oates, but I've mellowed on her.) Not particularly productive, but there you have it. So I've walked around for 9 years hating Jonathan Franzen, so much so that knowing he was friends with David Foster Wallace tainted my devoted, frustrated adoration for the latter.Have I written a novel in the last 9 years to counter Franzen? No. Cara is right. That is where I need to be, in the novel writing room.

Yet, I heard a snippet of an interview with him on the radio this week, and before I knew it was him I found myself nodding in agreement at the steering wheel. My friend Halle said he as so depressive, and maybe in the larger interview he is, but I like what he had to say about writing from what is hot in him, the issues he still needs to figure out, and about trying to write the unsayable. The full interview is on the WCPN site here.

+ Another moment of radio inspiration was listening to a story about the singer Buika. She grew up in Mallorca, the daughter of African immigrants. 1. Her voice is amazing. Listen:

2. She talks so eloquently about owning her voice. "'They kicked me out of the church when I'm a little girl because they said I'm singing like a dog,' she says. 'They didn't want me to sing there anymore. Because you hear my voice, obviously it's not very clean. But watch out what happened with me then later.' .... 'what I feel like when I'm singing, we don't need the hope anymore. Hope is for people who wait. And I don't want to wait no more. I'm not scared anymore. I'm not scared of myself. Of my things. Of my fear. Of absolutely nothing. And that's music.'" Full story on NPR site here.

+ In other realms this week ... The less said about the election the better. However, one shiny thing: GOOD.is reports 2010 Elections Gayer Than Ever: Most Gay Candidates Elected in Nation's History.

+And in an email exchange with my friend Julie, I happened upon this snippet of e.e. cummings, which I like even if I am the eternal agnostic: 
i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes (cont'd)

This weekend, I'm taking a whirlwind trip to NYC see the Paul Weller, and visit some of my favorite places. Should be shiny.

I won't be back here until I spend some time with the novel, which must win. (PS, my friend Cara happens to have a winning novel herself, out soon from Simon & Schuster. You might like to buy it.)

Happy Friday.

Monday, November 1, 2010

If you don't know me by now ...

Shiny eyed greetings from the other side.

There are a lot of important holidays in this house. Birthdays (of the living and the dead) celebrate the individual. Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrate togetherness and plenitude. Halloween and New Year's are my favorite, though. They are both topsy-turvy days, Saturnalian. And they both celebrate transitions, shadows, the edges of things.

Halloween/Day of the Dead/Samhain. It is the day when the barrier between the world of the living and the world of the dead is thinnest, they say. Or maybe it is the day when the impending darkness of winter really begins to settle onto us. If we were more agrarian it would be the time of year when the bounty of the harvest and the barrenness of the fields stand in sobering contrast.

Detail of our altar this year, with photo of Meinhardt Raabe, the Munchkin coroner (RIP).

I think we've been celebrating the Day of the Dead in earnest for 9 years. Always a festival I liked the idea of, it became relevant when I had my own dead to commemorate. When death felt so much like a part of my life. Calvin was stillborn in March. The towers fell in September. In October is was important to leave offerings. Each year since we have decorated the mantel, festooning it with flowers, candles, cut paper, and an ever growing collection of skulls and skeletons. (Our first Day of the Dead figurine was given to us as a wedding present.)

We put our altar up on the mantel Saturday night and will leave it up until Tuesday. It bears traditional offerings like almonds, oranges, salt, candy, and water. I wish we had marigolds, which are the traditional flower to include. (Every year at this time, I promise myself that I will grow some next year. Maybe next year I really will. Last night I was at my friend AK's house for a party and she had some out on the table. I think I neglected to praise her.) Instead, I have yellow mums and dark blood red carnations ... if you squint at them the right way maybe they will merge into marigolds. 

Some years we've made sugar skulls. Once our friend Donna brought pan de muerto. This year we are so busy we are lucky we even got the thing up at all.

Calvin and our old cats always have a special place on the mantel. I hope other family members in the beyond know that they are welcome to drop by for a KitKat bar, too. We also include remembrances of people who have died in the past year, people close to us or close to people close to us - a friend's mother, my mother's friend. We give a lot of space to writers and performers and artists and other public figures. I don't think this is part of the Mexican tradition, and honestly sometimes I wonder if these people need an extra dish of almonds. Are we making too much of celebrity? But the ones we include are people whose work has touched us, who have helped shaped our world. Putting them on the mantel for these three days is as much a way of acknowledging the selves they have helped us to become. Tradition says their spirits are close to us now, but really a small part of their spirits are in us always.

This year Louise Bourgeois is featured prominently, along with Howard Zinn, J.D. Salinger and of course, Harvey Pekar. (Robert B. Parker is another writer who died this year, whose books meant a lot to me at one point in time, but I don't have any copies on hand. I remember him here.) Also, Lena Horne, Teddy Pendergrass, Solomon Burke, Alex Chilton, and Ari Up. Dorothy Height, Miep Gies, and Robert Byrd (how's that for a trio?). Dennis Hopper and Tony Curtis and Lynn Redgrave (who I got to see on stage once). Benoit Mandelbrot, Art Clokey, Arthur Penn, and Alaina Reed Hall (she was on Sesame Street when I was small.) My apologies to anyone I have neglected. RIP.

I hope their spirits will stop by for some salt and water, maybe a nibble of pomegranate.

Sing it, Teddy ...