Saturday, March 31, 2007

Oh, the humanity.

Certain things just happen to me, especially when it comes to books. Take tonight, for example.

I was browsing the aisles at Barnes and Noble, flipping through a stack of Harlequin romance novels. (No, seriously. I got hooked on these when I was in college and found a huge collection of those romance novels from the 80's - these were published by Silhouette - in the basement stacks of my university library. They were hilarious. The novels are all the same, and they all take about ten or fifteen minutes to skim through. One doesn't live by Tolstoy alone). A voice comes from behind me. Excuse me! I jump, startled. A slim, tawny-haired woman (ok, I think I've read too many of these romance novels) wearing jeans and holding a stack of books is bearing down on me. She looks like any other Bellevue soccer mom. I was just wondering if you read those Harlequin books? I am blushing furiously at this point, but I tell her yes. I write them! she says, pointing happily to one of the books I'm holding. That's me! It was just one of those nights. I wanted to hide. But she is so happy to see someone reading one of her books it has totally made her night, she tells me, and I am glad to have given someone a little pleasure with a few words; it is the same feeling I have when someone posts a comment here. I think about buying the book and asking her to sign it, but the chance passes and I slip it back into the rack. I'm sure we'll meet again.

Even more embarrassing (aside from the time, at the age of eight, that is, old enough to read the signs but young enough to still do stupid things like this, I went to the men's bathroom in the basement of the Elliott Bay Bookstore by mistake) was something that happened in a movie theater some ten years ago. I had just turned sixteen, and had been wrestling with The Master and Margarita all summer. L. and I (and my mother, who was sitting behind us) went to see Emma at a small art-house theater not far from the University district. Cocooned in the semi-darkness of the theater I began telling L. about the book I had been reading. I wish I had learned Russian, so I could read it in the original, I tell her. A voice comes out from nowhere. I highly recommend it in the original Russian, says the man sitting in front of us. We jump. At sixteen I am much shyer than I am at twenty-six (which is not saying a whole lot, let me tell you) and can do little other than stammer and mumble a few words at intervals, because he will not stop talking. (Next to me, L. is giggling madly, if quietly, and my mother is silently going into convulsions at my distress). The man is probably at least twice my age; he has a devastatingly sexy accent which I find strangely attractive as he continues to discourse on various poets (whose names I could never remember) and other works by Bulgakov. But three years later I would study Russian, I would return to Bulgakov in his native language, I would fall in love more deeply than I ever though possible.

There are other embarrassing stories, but those I will save for another time.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Eating out. La Spiga.

I hate working on weekends. No, that's not true; I love the solitude, the quiet. (Not entirely alone. A co-worker is on hand as well). I have time to catch up on paperwork, to take care of all sorts of small tasks that I don't have time for during the week. And I treat myself by eating out. On Sundays I head to the pub down the street for a burger or spicy pork tacos or wiener schnitzel, and I spend Saturday thinking about what I will order for lunch the next day. But Saturday nights I often head to La Spiga, which I have written about before, many times, and will again, many times, because I try to eat there as often as possible. Like Vi Bacchus, the Japanese restaurant that now occupies the old La Spiga space (three blocks from my home), it has become a place I can stop on my way home from work (six blocks) for dinner before walking the rest of the way home.

It is only 5:30 but the tables are all booked for later in the evening, so I take a seat at the bar, so tired that I order mineral water instead of wine. The owner is sitting at the far end of the dark wooden bar, talking to some staff members before the evening rush begins. He is there every night; I have seen him sitting in the window before the restaurant opens (once, on a surprisingly warm day, the entire front window of the restaurant had been rolled up, like a garage door), and I have seen him chatting with customers or friends in one of the booths that line one side of the front room.

They used to only serve a limited menu at the bar, but now the full menu is available and I am dizzy with indecision. Should I order a starter? A pasta, or a main course, or both? A wild tangle of tagliatelle, or the lasagne I had last time, or a filetto of beef? I perch (ungracefully) on my stool and watch the two bartenders move around behind the bar, against the backdrop of a bank of gleaming espresso machines and an endless wall of wine bottles beyond that. There are bottles of whiskeys and scotches and vodkas and liquers and digestifs and aperitifs and rows of stemware, hanging from the rack above my head as well as along the shelves; the bartender moves away to mix drinks for someone else as I decide what I want for dinner.

Finally I choose the grilled sausage with polenta, and a side dish of braised escarole. The sausages arrive piping hot, sliced in half and crusty from the grill; the golden triangles of polenta are crisp on the outside and creamy inside. The braised escarole is so tender it seems to melt before I have a chance to chew on it; it is a meal of contrasts, salty and crunchy and soft and creamy and every-so-faintly bitter. It is the perfect end to a long day, a brief moment of respite before the long week to come. But to make it complete I need dessert. The other bartender recommends the rhubarb crostata, and I order it, the memory of Serious pie.'s rhubarb crostata lingering from that dinner a few weeks before. La Spiga's is different, more like a French tart than the homely turnover I'd had at Serious pie. It has a scoop of brown sugar gelato melting into the warm fruit, sweet and tart and with that slightly caramelized taste of brown sugar against the buttery crispness of the crust.

I'll be back, soon.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Reading. Dahl.

When I was in third or fourth grade our teacher would read Roald Dahl aloud to us as we sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor; I remember the tingly feeling from my feet going numb, the roughness of the carpet against my palms. And I remember entering Roald Dahl's world of friendly (and not-so-friendly) giants, of witches and poachers and animals adept at evading the aforementioned poachers, of small children who managed to outwit the grownups with their cleverness. Now I am nearly twenty years older than the first time I read Matilda, and I still revisit it now and again; I think it is my favorite of all of Dahl's books, not least because I feel a kinship with the five-and-a-half-year-old Matilda, who loves books.

I was not nearly as precocious as Matilda, but according to my mother I used to read the Sears catalogue when I was three, moving rapidly onto cereal boxes and ice-cream cartons. Unlike Matilda I was encouraged to read by my parents; when we packed up our home two months ago I found a box of learning-to-read booklets, their pages glittering with stick-on stars for every sentence I mastered. If I close my eyes I can remember sitting on floor of my mother's study/sewing room going over that week's lesson. It was clear from very early on that I would be a reader. (As I grew older my shelves would be filled with children's classic versions of Pride and Prejudice, Anne of Green Gables, The Wind in the Willows, and so forth, all illustrated with color plates and neatly covered in plastic jackets which have since been lost, although the books remain).

Treated by her parents as though she was a scab for whom they "looked forward enormously to the time when they could pick their little daughter off and flick her away, preferably into the next county or even further than that," Matilda makes her own way to the library where the helpful Mrs. Phelps introduces her to Dickens and Austen and Brönte and all the other classics which every small child should read before they enter kindergarten. (Kidding. Kidding!). We are introduced to Matilda's parents, a crooked used-car dealer and a bleached-blonde bingo-player, neither of them who had any interest in literature at all, on whom Matilda plays tricks as revenge for treating her as though she was ignorant and stupid when she was quite the opposite. There are a few hilarious victories as the clever little girl scores points against her idiotic parents, but then it is time for her to go to school, and then the real fun begins.

At school Matilda becomes friends with Lavendar, and they meet the lovely Miss Honey, their teacher, as well as the terrifying Miss Trunchbull, the headmistress, and as we find out later, Miss Honey's aunt. Miss Trunchbull is a bully who goes about torturing any hapless child who crosses her path, until Matilda finds a way to stop her. And stop her she does. This is what I love about Roald Dahl, how he sees children as people who are smart and funny and see through the grown-ups that think they know everything. There is something wonderful about the glee with which he writes of the bad-guy's comeuppance, how good triumphs over evil. I come back to his stories again and again, even now that I am all grown-up and my mind has turned to other writers for many years now, cheering on his small heroes in their feats of glory.

Dahl, Roald. Matilda. Puffin Books, 1988. p10.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Reading. Forster.

I come back to A Room with a View at least once a year, usually when I am traveling; I never get on a plane without my battered (it's the second one; the first copy which saw twelve countries in eight years was lost on a campus quad my sophmore year of college) paperback. I have read it so many times that I know entire passages by heart, can imagine in my mind the city of Florence as Forster writes it (and as I would see it nearly a century later), and the lush expanse of the Sussex Weald when our characters return to England. In its simplest form I suppose you would call it a love story, between a young woman and a young man, but it is something beyond that, a love story between a young man who knows who he is and what he wants and a young woman who has to learn the same, and along the way, finds love.

The young Lucy Honeychurch goes to Italy with her cousin Charlotte Bartlett, and there in the Pensione Bertolini she meets the Emersons, George and his father, the novelist Eleanor Lavish, and the elderly Miss Alans, people whose lives would not have intersected with hers at home in England. If she had stayed back in England, Lucy might have become another narrow-minded upper-middle-class wife and mother like her own - or worse, like her future mother-in-law, Mrs. Vyse - the only clue to something deeper in her soul being her music - but she is transfigured by Italy.

Back in England, Lucy becomes engaged to the arrogant, stuffy, extremely proper Cecil Vyse, who has seen some transformation worked in her by Italy; he thinks that he can marry, elevate her, form her into his idea of the ideal wife. But he is all wrong for her, because he doesn't really see Lucy for who she is, or more importantly, who she is capable of becoming. As George tells her, "[Cecil]'s the type who's kept Europe back for a thousand years. Every moment of his life he's forming you, telling you what's charming or ladylike, telling you what a man thinks womanly; and you, you of all women, listen to his voice instead of your own."

It is the young George Emerson, who caught Lucy in his arms as she fainted at the sight of a man being murdered in the Piazza Signoria, George who kissed her in a field of violets that carpeted the Italian countryside, who tells her that, unlike Cecil, he wants to have her own thoughts even when he holds her in his arms, who loves her in a better way than Cecil ever could. But Lucy is not ready to understand that deep down, she loves George, and that with him, she will achieve a kind of freedom of the soul that she found in Italy, that he will be her 'room with a view,' so she plans to travel abroad again, hoping to find peace in the far distant point of Constantinople. But it is old Mr. Emerson who at last makes her understand that in loving George, she will find herself, and fleeing across the world will not accomplish anything.

On the surface it is a love story, but it is something beyond that. I always feel as though I see my own soul more clearly when I read it, that I know myself a little more deeply when I look up and realize the hours have slipped by, that Lucy and George have at last found their way back to each other, and are back in Florence once more, whispering to one another in the window of their room with a view.

Forster, E. M. A Room With a View. Vintage International, 1989. pp 191-192.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Reading. Levi. (Carlo).

I randomly stumbled (as it so often happens) across Christ Stopped at Eboli in a tiny used bookstore crammed with books (as used bookstores often are), tucked away at the back of the Pike Place Market. It was the title that caught my eye; I had never heard of it or of its writer, Carlo Levi, and I couldn't tell whether it was fiction or nonfiction. Yet I bought it anyway, knowing that somehow I would lose myself in the story. The title, as the preface tells us, comes from a saying of the people of Eboli, that "Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli," and therefore they had been "bypassed by Christianity, by morality, by history itself - that they have somehow been excluded from the human experience."

Levi had been sent to the village of Gagliano (actually Aliano) because of his opposition to Mussolini; he had been imprisoned and then exiled for a year before being freed. His Christ Stopped at Eboli is a chronicle of that year, of his life in that distant town where it seemed that "Christ never came this far, nor did time, nor the individual soul, nor hope...Christ never came, just as the Romans never came, content to garrison the highways without penetrating the mountains and forests, nor the Greeks, who flourished beside the Gulf of Taranto...No one has come to this land except as an enemy, a conqueror, or a visitor devoid of understanding." (It's strange, but no one goes into exile in a bustling metropolis; they find themselves in remote islands or towns that seem untouched by time or civilization or indeed even human existence).

Writing about a certain period of time in your life from across the distance of time or another shore is different from writing as your life is happening around you; that era has passed, and there is nothing left from that time except your memory of it. Many years have gone by, begins Levi, years of war and of what men call History. Buffeted here and there at random I have not been able to return to my peasants as I promised when I left them, and I do not know when, if ever, I can keep my promise. But closed in one room, in a world apart, I am glad to travel in my memory to that other world, hedged in by custom and sorrow, cut off from History and the State, eternally patient, to that land without comfort or solace, where the peasant lives out his motionless civilization on barren ground in remote poverty, and in the presence of death.

Written in the Pitti Palace, in Florence, after eight years abroad and then again in prison, Levi goes back to his peasants, to that remote town that seemed completely cut off from the rest of the world, untouched by time or what we call civilization. He remembers how he came to this town where the earth was of white clay, so that it seemed like "a landscape on the moon," where black banners hung from every doorway, some new, some faded. The town has heard that a doctor (Levi had trained as a doctor) would be arriving, and upon arrival he is called to the home of a man ill with malaria, and in this far place where Christ never came he is unable to do anything except watch the man die, and so his year of exile begins.

Levi, Carlo. Christ Stopped at Eboli. Time Inc., 1964. pp viii, 2, 1, 6.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Reading. Montale.

The Nobel Laureate Eugenio Montale is another poet I discovered by chance, from a passing mention by Primo Levi, when he named three of the great Italian poets - Giuseppe Ungaretti, Eugenio Montale, and Salvatore Quasimodo - of the twentieth century, in The Voice of Memory (I have, of course, already forgotten the context of that conversation). Naturally, I had to read him immediately. And there I found something different, not the slow fluid music that I loved so completely in the words of Giuseppe Ungaretti, those quietly roiling waters of his soul. Montale moves more swiftly across the page and through the mind; there is a certain quickness to him. It is extraordinary how the two poets use one language so differently - but then, that is the beauty of language, and therefore the beauty of poetry.

Where Ungaretti's words seem born out of a desire to remember his past, to remember how he felt at a certain place and time, a witness to the world around him (which he does with extraordinary beauty and simplicity), Montale's poetry seems to come out of the desire to let go of the past. There is a spareness and dryness to his words, a weightlessness that comes from the way he uses language, and a weightlessness in the way he casts off the notion of sentiment and memory - and yet there is a sense that poetry and memory are equals, that the lack of sentiment does not diminish the desire for memory.

When I published "Buffalo" and "Keepsake"
an eminent critic and friend
gave them thumbs down and decreed
that they were lacking in sentiment almost
as if sentiment and memory were incompatible.
In fact I have very few keepsakes
in the literal sense of the word.
I have no miniature leaning towers,
no mini-gondolas or other trifles;
but I have flashlights that light up and go out.
This is all the baggage I have.
The trouble is that memory is not hierarchical,
it ignores what precedes and follows
and obscures what's important, or
what seemed so to us. Memory
is a wick, the only one left to us.
It might possibly detach itself
and live on its own. What was not
illumined was corporeal, not living.
We have the Gods or even a god within reach
without knowing anything about it.
Only the insane snatch at some breeze.
It is a mistake to be on earth
and they pay for it.

Montale, Eugenio. It Depends: A Poet's Notebook. New Directions, 1980. p 75.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

on literature.

A faithful reader (that would be you, Juanita) left a comment on an earlier post about Tolstoy and how she was afraid to try because she might give up. I have already confessed that I tried to read Anna Karenina once before, over a decade ago, and had given up in despair because I found myself mired in the weight of the language, with the intertwining characters and stories, with the constant tangle of Russian names that are sometimes given in diminutive form, other times in formal address (given name and patronymic), and occasionally by surname. You need a flow chart to keep track of everyone. Tolstoy is difficult. Henry James (himself a notoriously difficult old bugger) referred to War and Peace as a "loose, baggy monster," and I must say Anna Karenina is not much better. (I am sorry if I have made things worse by putting you all off Tolstoy completely).

But if I were to be completely truthful, there are very few novels, or writers, whom I have loved immediately, that I did not find difficult at first, that I did not give up on in the beginning. Some of the books which I now love more than anything took years to read, years to fall in love with. Part of the pleasure is untangling the thread of the story with your mind, no matter how slowly, no matter if you have to put it aside and go read some trashy romance novels or Agatha Christie mysteries to rest your brain for a little while. I have piles and piles of books I haven't gotten around to yet, and even more that I have begun reading but haven't quite managed to finish (The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which began so promisingly, is lying abandoned somewhere). To make matters worse, Barnes and Noble had a terrific post-Christmas sale that lead to the acquisition of so many $2 books that I had to buy a new bookcase. And that was back in January. I will probably catch up on all my reading when I catch up on this blog, which at the moment seems to be some distant horizon that recedes farther with every step I take closer.

After all, a great novel will always be waiting for you to come back to it. I have said this before; love is all a matter of timing (so says Chow Mo-Wan in the film 2046, as he moves from woman to woman, unable to forget the one woman he loved and lost). But the beauty of literature is that you can put it aside if you aren't ready for it, and return to it when you are. It isn't like real life, where you're lucky to get a second chance; literature is about an infinity of chances. Manuscripts don't burn, wrote Bulgakov. Literature is eternal, and the desire to read, at least for me, far outweighs the fear that I will give up, and I know that I will never give up, because that desire is always there. I will finish Tristram Shandy, I will reread Dostoevsky and Gogol and the great classics that huddle on my shelves gathering dust. Someday.

(This started out as a little reply to a comment. Obviously, I got rather carried away).

Monday, March 05, 2007

Eating. cookies.

When I growing up, my mother would buy cookies from Pepperidge Farm or LU at the grocery store. I would sneak a few for my lunch or as an afternoon snack, with a glass of milk. From Pepperidge Farm, there would be those mint or orange Milano ones, or the lacy Brussels cookies that had chocolate sandwiched between two fragile rounds, or those big chocolate-chunk cookies, almost equal parts chocolate and nuts and cookie. Sometimes there would be biscuits from LU, those plain biscuits topped with chocolate that had a schoolboy imprinted on their glossy dark surface, or those multi-layered chocolate wafers, with or without a sleek coating of chocolate that melted all over your fingers, or the Pim's that had an orange-flavored jelly center covered with chocolate. (I swear I remember a soft round biscuit filled with honey and capped with chocolate, but these have vanished off the face of the earth and now I wonder if perhaps I imagined them).

But any of those can be bought anywhere, anytime. (Now I only buy them during late-night supermarket raids when I see them on sale, otherwise I would be living on cookies). Girl Scout cookies are something else. Part of their allure is that they, like the holidays, only come around once a year. When I see little girls in front of grocery stores with their cases and cases of cookies I know, just as I know when I see the plum trees blossoming along the avenues, that spring is here. It used to be that the doorbell would ring and some little girl scout (or a group of them) would be standing there with a stack of order forms. Or a friend was a girl scout, or the daughter or niece of a friend. Now I live in a high-rise condominium, not a house in a neighborhood full of young children (some of them, of course, Girl Scouts). So I have to search for them like one of those knights on a quest for the Holy Grail.

Ah, Girl Scout cookies. Which do you choose? Those plain shortbread ones, or those peanut-butter-filled ones, either plain (Do-Si-Does) or topped with chocolate (Tagalongs), or those addictive Samoas, all coconut and chocolate, chewy and sweet and the perfect accompaniment to a tall glass of milk. But there is nothing better than the Thin Mint. Oh, the Thin Mint. I buy these every year, boxes of them, and I am so afraid that I will run out that I keep a few spare boxes in the freezer just to make sure I'll have enough to last me until spring comes around and there are little girls with cases of cookies outside Whole Foods again. There is nothing like the taste of a Thin Mint, the sharp coolness of mint against the dark sweetness of chocolate, your teeth biting through the thin layer of chocolate to the crunchy cookie within. This year it was a young blonde girl with a sparkly tiara that was selling Girl Scout cookies outside the grocery store, and although I have ordered several boxes from a co-worker's niece, I cannot wait another two weeks and give in to the desire for some Thin Mints. It's springtime again.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Eating. Pirate's booty. (and other snacks).

When I was a kid lunch meant tuna-fish or turkey sandwiches on whole-wheat bread, maybe with sprouts if I remembered to toss them in the cart at the supermarket. If I were lucky, my mother would have bought a flat of mixed snacks from Costco - a sort of variety pack of potato chips, Doritos (original flavor and Cool Ranch), Fritos, or Cheetos. Now too many years have passed and I cannot remember which was my favorite (probably the Cool Ranch Doritos, which I have not eaten since those schoolyard days), but I remember the thrill of tearing open the slippery plastic pouch, hear it give that little exhale of air as it came open along the crimped seam, diving into the salty crunchiness of its contents, eating the intact chips at the top of the pile, pouring the last crumbs straight into my open, waiting mouth.

Later I bought my lunch at the school cafeteria and I would snag a bag of Sun Chips from the wire rack next to the cash register, those square, ruffled chips that had the color and texture of shredded wheat. They were supposed to be healthier than potato or corn chips, and I ate them as I drank lemon-lime Shasta, in defiance of the parental embargo on soda at home. (In an attempt to ease my conscience, I would buy an apple or a navel orange, or perhaps a banana, as well). Or perhaps I would buy a bag of pretzels, which I never would have at home.

Now I sometimes bring sandwiches to work for lunch, only now they are made with crusty artisanal loaves from Le Panier or Macrina or the Columbia City Bakery; I buy smoked turkey or ham from the deli counter at Whole Foods, or I make egg salad with a little fresh dill. I buy those Kettle chips that emerge wrinkly and irregularly shaped from the bag, unlike the Lay's chips of my childhood, and I pack them in plastic boxes so they don't get crushed. I am always looking for a new snack to pack along with my sandwich and yogurt and fruit, and then I spy a towering display of Pirate's Booty.

Any blog written by the parent of a small child (usually toddler-size) involves at least one story regarding the aforementioned child and a constant supply of Pirate's Booty, which often finds itself packed into every crevice of the family car. Bonus points given if there is also a dog, which, as the parent notes, is an excellent cleaner-upper of any spilled Pirate's Booty. But I had never tried it, even though they have it at Jamba Juice. I didn't know what it was, but there it was, at Whole Foods, enticingly arranged so as to catch my eye, and on sale, to boot, so I threw a bag into my cart. At the register, a small boy (two or three, I would guess) noticed the bag on top of the pile of groceries and said in a loud voice (surprising in one so small, or perhaps not, since the smaller the child, the louder the voice), "LOOK! Daddy! She has PIRATE'S BOOTY!" I am pretty sure I giggled all the way to the car.

Not having a child or a dog to clean up the mess, I manage not to open the Pirate's Booty in the car. But when I arrive home, I dive into the crunch of corn-and-rice puffs that taste of cheese. I am reminded a little of the Cheetos of my childhood, those crunchy squiggles covered in orange powder that sticks to everything it touches. It is a little like falling into the past, without the orange powder, a feeling both strange and wonderful at once. But I think I will wait until I have a small person in my cart yelling "MORE BOOTY!!!!" before I buy it again.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Reading. Tolstoy.

The other night I read Anna Karenina as if a fever had taken over my body and my mind, in one breathless gulp because I could not bear to put it down. It seemed as though I had temporarily gone mad, with that same madness that led the beautiful Anna to abandon her husband and son, that led her to that fateful moment where, unable to bear her life, the torments of her mind, her very existence, to throw herself before a train. If I were to be truthful, I read very quickly, skimming across passages that I felt were dull, slowing down when I came across the parts that transfixed me. (When you read Turgenev, wrote Vladimir Nabokov, you know you are reading Turgenev. When you read Tolstoy, you read just because you cannot stop, and it is true, because once you begin, it is impossible to stop). It was a strange sensation, as though my own time had slowed to match the pace of the intertwined lives that galloped across the pages, and it was with a shock that I came to the end.

[Tolstoy] discovered, wrote Nabokov, a method of picturing life which most pleasingly and exactly corresponds to our idea of time...what seduces [the reader] in Tolstoy is the absolute reality of his novels, the sensation of meeting old friends and seeing familiar places...what really seduces the average reader is the gift Tolstoy had of endowing his fiction with such time-values as correspond exactly to our sense of time...actually [he] was rather careless when dealing with the objective idea of time...readers have found children who grow too fast or not fast enough...In Anna Karenin, as we shall see, there are terrific skiddings on the frozen road of time...Readers call Tolstoy a giant not because other writers are dwarfs but because he remains always of exactly our own stature, exactly keeping pace with us instead of passing by in the distance.

I felt a shiver up when I read Nabokov's words, because it put into words what went through my mind as I sank into the confusion of the Obolensky house in the opening pages and stayed with me all the way to the end when Levin at last understands that his life has some meaning. Tolstoy has this ability to use language - whether it be French, Russian, German - to convey with perfect clarity the emotions of his characters, as when Karenin writes a letter to his unfaithful wife, using French instead of Russian, and with the "plural pronoun 'you,' which does not have that character of coldness which it has in Russian." Indeed, the French vous is formal yet tender, without the coldness of the Russian vas (вас), as Pushkin demonstrates with his poem which begins Я вас любил, or I loved you once (although the English does not quite convey the cold finality of the Russian). You feel as though their feelings are your own.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lectures on Russian Literature. Harcourt Books, 1981. pp 141-142.
Tolstoy, Leo.
Anna Karenina. Penguin Books, 2000. pp 283.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Eating. just the two of us.

When my parents are here the burden of decision-making is lifted; I still do most of the cooking, but I am not responsible for the shopping, which is my least favorite part. Well, aside from the cleanup. Instead my mother goes to the supermarket and comes home with bags full of vegetables, styrofoam trays of fish, cuts of pork not ordinarily found in your nearest grocery store, and at least six kinds of tofu. I come home and open the fridge and a white limb of daikon radish falls out at my feet, followed by a bag of fried tofu puffs. One drawer - which was, I believe, originally intended for fruit - is packed with dried...things. Honestly, I don't know what they are, except for the bag of (easily identifiable) dried shrimp. There are knobs of ginger and bundles of scallions and bulbs of garlic shedding its papery skins across the countertops.

And then my mother returned to Taipei, leaving my father and I to our own devices for another ten days. There is something admittedly furtive about the way we eat when my mother is not here; let's just say our meat consumption rises rapidly, and our vegetable consumption decreases sharply. We used to go out for a steak dinner with another friend of ours, L., whenever the respective wives were out of town. L.'s wife, J., like my mother, is an excellent cook but leans towards the slightly more vegetarian lifestyle, although she is well-known for her braised pork belly (and my mother is not too shabby either). But it is not too comfortable, sometimes, eating meat under someone's piercingly disapproving eye, even if they did cook it just for you.

There is a small but perfectly tuned repertoire for when it is just my father and I (although we often make some of these dishes even when my mother is here): roast chicken, rack of lamb seasoned simply with rosemary, salt, pepper, and lemon, pan-seared steak, pasta (usually linguine) with mushrooms, caramelized onions, zucchini, and steak, all sautéed together and simmered at the end with a little red wine, and broiled salmon with parsley and dill, and shrimp cooked in white wine with scallions and ginger. When I was growing up my parents were seldom apart; it is hard to remember really being with one parent or the other except for in the car going to and from school or soccer practices and games. Now I am grown, and our schedules and lives split us so that you have to catch at moments together whenever you can, wherever you can.

Today my father has gone down to the Pike Place Market and come home with a piece of wild white salmon, which I season with salt and pepper and parsley and dill and a squeeze of lemon juice before broiling it, as we have been doing for some twenty years. There are sausages from DeLaurenti, the Italian deli/yuppie specialty store where we have bought pâté and other bits of charcuterie and pasta and fancy olive oils and imported chocolates for those same twenty years. I've sautéed diagonally sliced asparagus spears with green peas and warmed a loaf of crusty rosemary bread in the oven. This is our last meal together for a while, after weeks of meals at home or in restaurants, with friends or just the three, and finally just the two of us. Tomorrow I will go back to eating on the couch in front of the tv, hunched over a plate while typing away at the computer, back to letting the rice cooker gather dust and half-empty boxes of pasta falling out of every cupboard. That other life will have to wait until summer comes, bringing my parents with it.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Dinner. Nishino.

I only come to Nishino when my parents are in town, and while they are here I try to persuade them to eat there at least once, twice if I am lucky. Tomorrow my father returns to Taipei; it is my last chance for sushi, perhaps until summer comes and they are here again. We were just here a few weeks ago for dinner with friends, but that was different, a long meal of varied dishes and many courses, a chance to catch up with friends we don't see often. Now it is just my father and I, popping in for a quick bite after work. Our timing is perfect; there are several seats open at the bar, which fill up not five minutes after we sit down, and we congratulate ourself on our good luck. There are younger couples, a trio of older guys who have probably just come from work, and a father with two young children, an increasingly familiar sight here. It's always a father with the kids at the sushi bar; the mom is always off playing tennis or just not in the mood for sushi. They're regulars; they drink 7-up and eat shrimp tempura with their tuna rolls, and politely ask the sushi chef for another order of maguro.

Nishino, as I've said many times before, is one of my favorite restaurants, and sushi is one of my favorite foods, something I can eat and eat and never tire of, unlike, say, foie gras or or even pizza. It is located in a small strip mall off a busy intersection in the Madison Park neighborhood of Seattle. Across the street is another strip mall and a video store we used to frequent, back when Nishino was an Italian restaurant called Trattoria Carmine. Now when you walk into the restaurant there is a small waiting area, cushioned benches arranged around one of those Zen gardens that is really just a shallow box of sand and a handful of stones. The walls are a pale peach, hung with large modern paintings, a bit like Matisse, a bit like Chagall, not quite what you would expect in a Japanese restaurant. As you walk in you are immediately hailed by the sushi chefs, behind the counter to your right; they nod and call out a greeting that I have never actually been able to understand.

There is something strange and wonderful about eating at a sushi bar. That long counter of pale wood, polished smooth, the gleaming fresh fish behind glass. Feet braced against the rungs of your stool, chopsticks at the ready, a steaming earthenware cup of tea or glass of saké at your side. Your sushi chef greets you as you sit down, waits for you to decide what you'd like. (There are two or three sushi chefs at Nishino, standing at the sushi bar, while further back in the kitchen another battalion of chefs handles the cooked foods). We order toro, as always, and unagi, and various other old favorites. The white tuna is never quite as good as we think it will be, and the white salmon is what we actually meant to order, and the toro is absolute perfection, as it always is. The kids next to us are debating over what kind of ice cream to order as we finish our sushi. It's time to go home, time for my father to resume his life on the other side of the world, time for me to return to my solitary life. But for now there is one more bite of sushi, one more sip of tea.