Thursday, May 31, 2007

Reading. Kingsolver.

Probably some of my earliest memories are of hiking with my parents, trailing behind them as we went through what seemed like miles of forest and rocky trails and along streams and across roughly-hewn bridges. Across sun-burnt ridges, across glaciers, through damp, green rainforests. I remember so clearly a hike along the coast of Kaui - I was probably seven or eight - up and down, up and down, the trail occasionally obscured by lava rock that had once flowed, molten and liquid, down these slopes. And it rained. It rained so hard we were sloshing through rivers all the way back to the car, so muddy my white socks turned brown; they were never quite the same again after that.

I thought of that wet, muddy hike when I read Barbara Kingsolver's essay Infernal Paradise, from High Tide in Tuscon. Her description of her hike through the wilderness of Haleakala Crater, on the island of Maui, have haunted me since I first read them. Together with a companion Kingsolver makes her way into the crater (at dawn, after the tourist buses have come to gape at the sunrise and then return to their beachfront hotels and fruity drinks by the pool). Formed by lava rock, the crater is its own world, where a few endagered species of flora and fauna fight to survive. More species have now become extinct in Hawaii than in all of North America, Kingsolver tells us. What is left has become endangered, the silverswords that only grow in lava beds, or the nene geese, who are trying, with a little help from humans, to make a comeback. If [they] survive this century, Kingsolver writes, it will be by the skin of their teeth. It will only happen because we decided to notice, and hold on tight.

I have in my collection of postcards a photograph of a silversword in bloom. It is an unearthly and beautiful thing, and Kingsolver's words echo in my head when I look at it. I think of her when I go hiking, and find myself looking across mountains shaped by glaciers, great expanses of snow-covered ice fields, when I look at the bare tundra which will miraculously be covered in wildflowers in summer, flowers that grow nowhere else but in this high place. Our world is getting smaller, our resources dwindling. I look at a small baby in her mother's arms and wonder what the world will be like when she is old and my generation is gone, what world will greet her children in turn. And then I find myself someplace, some distant mountain looking over a valley, perhaps, where nothing has changed for hundreds of years, or has changed so slowly that even a few millenia will not harm those flowers that will continue to bloom, so long as we care.

The first tragedy I remember having understood in my life, said Kingsolver, was the extinction of the dodo...The idea that such a fabulous creature had existed, and then simply stopped being-this is the kind of bad news that children refuse to accept...if only I could see such a creature in my lifetime, I would throw myself in front of its demise. Haleakala Crater is such a creature in our lifetime...The memory of beautiful, strange things slips so far beyond reach, when it goes. If I hadn't seen it, I couldn't care half well enough. I think of these words whenever I see something strange and beautiful and endangered, and I feel my heart break over all we stand to lose.

Kingsolver, Barbara. High Tide in Tuscon. Perennial, 2003. pp 198-200, 205-206.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

memory exercise (after Calvino).

One of the books Italo Calvino was planning to write in 1985 (the year of his death), writes his widow, Esther, in her forward to The Road to San Giovanni, was to be composed of a series of what he called "memory exercises." The first of these, his memory of his childhood home, brought back to me memories of my own childhood home, and this is what I remember:

Our house, the house my parents bought when my father was a young biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, was a small brick ranch house, one of many that lined a quiet street in the suburb of Ladue. It was a sort of sub-division, where all the houses were about the same size, in appearance rather like each other, each on a similarly-sized plot of land. I seem to recall that a brick gate separated our street from the main road, but that could be some flight of fancy, a false trick of memory. Our house was the first on the right, the driveway at the far right of the house, curving around to the garage (we had two cars: a yellow Mercedes-Benz, originally owned by my grandfather, and a green Volvo that was forever breaking down and was later replaced by a small navy-blue BMW - this was before yuppies started driving them, because no one could be less of a yuppie than my father - with navy-blue velour upholstery. I remember the feeling of the tan leather seats of the Mercedes against the backs of my knees, how hot it would get in the summer, and the soft, nubbly texture of the navy-blue velour in the other car). A crab-apple tree hung over the driveway; in the spring it would be smothered in fragile, white blossoms and in the fall it would be heavy with small apples that I enjoyed jumping on when they fell on the ground. I loved feeling the squish of the tiny little apples beneath the soles of my feet.

The front door opened into the rarely-used living room and dining room, both filled with a matching suite of carved rosewood furniture. A swinging door opened into the kitchen; we ate at a round table in one corner. The kitchen led to an open room with beige velour furniture; this is where I watched tv, or exasperated the dog by trying to climb onto his back. A glass wall/sliding-door opened onto an enclosed porch with a tiled floor and swiveling cane basket chairs, looking onto the great expanse of the backyard. There was a huge tree in the middle of the yard to which we tethered the dog with a long rope; in my mind I can hear his joyous barks as he chased squirrels and rabbits. My father had a study with a blue loveseat that was patterned with gold-and-silver rectangles embroidered into the fabric and a wall of bookcases; it opened into the great-room and into the Jack-and-Jill bathroom that connected to the hallway on the other end. At the end of the hallway was my bedroom, with its high bed in one corner; actually in my earliest memory I am still in a crib, in the center of the room, waking to see a stripe of light falling across the floor from the slightly open door.

There are other things I remember, too, but I will revisit them another time.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Reading. Calvino.

I learned to drive on the winding road that twisted through the Arboretum, across the Madison Park neighborhood (past the restaurants and shops I have frequented since childhood) and down a hairpin switchback towards the lake, past grand houses with their manicured grounds and banks of rhodedendrons, along the lakeshore, dodging bicyclists on sunny days, past public parks and boathouses, until my heart gave a great leap because I knew I was almost home, almost to the turn-off that led up a steep hill, a left at a stop sign, up another, steeper hill and then another left (and another stop sign), and then into our driveway, curving beneath the dogwood tree that sent forth a white cloud of blossoms each spring, floating over our deck, dropping white petals across the ground. The last time I saw that house the dogwood tree was in bloom, the rooms empty of furniture and books and old rugs and art and all the debris of twenty years gathered in closets and under beds and in basement storage rooms. I stood in that empty living room where the dog used to pee on the rug and the piano filled the airy bay window and I wept. But that was only one short month ago, and that home was not my whole world but my anchor from which I could explore the world. I should go back even farther.

When I was very small, we lived in Ladue, Missouri, and I remember the house very clearly, and its address, One Kingston Manor, the first house to the right as you entered our street that ended in a cul-de-sac (as A. once put it, Kairu! That's not a cul-de-sac! We call those dead-ends! when I called her, desperately lost, from the car on my way to pick her up). Each house was situated at the front of a narrow but extremely long strip of land, leaving a smallish lawn on the street side and what seemed to be an absolutely enormous backyard behind. Between the ages of approximately two and five my world was contained by that strip of land at One Kingston Manor, interrupted by hours spent at preschool and visits to my father's office at the university, which I remember as being a tiny cubicle with only a small window set high in the wall for ventilation rather than view, and if it seemed rather cramped to my three-year-old eyes it must have seemed even smaller to an associate professor of biology who was only a little less than six feet tall.

I thought of that childhood home when I read the first essay contained in The Road to San Giovanni, in which Italo Calvino writes of how his father felt that the gate which led into the road that took you up into the country, into the hills behind their house, was where the world began. Whereas "the other part of the world below the house was a mere appendix, necessary sometimes when there were things to be done, but alien and insignificant, to be crossed in great strides;" on the other hand, Calvino felt that the world began "on the other side of the house and went was down in the town that the signs of the future were to be read." In this, the title essay of his collection of "memory exercises," Calvino recounts the clashing viewpoints of the world between his father and himself, and writes, in a breathless rush of words, his childhood days on the family farm, in the fields and the orchards. Memory pours over me in a wave, memories of jumping up and down on the fallen crab-apples in the driveway, of running my fingers through the feathery dill fronds that foamed up in green fountains, encircled by a wire fence that nonetheless failed to keep out the rabbits. I will not go back there, except for in my memory.

Calvino, Italo. The Road to San Giovanni. Vintage, 1994. p 4.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Reading. Kingsolver.

I finally gave up all hope of recovering my own copy of High Tide in Tuscon: Essays from Now or Never, and bought another one. (What the heck; the original cost 99¢ in the bargain section of my university bookstore). Now as I read it again for the first time in three or four years I wonder how I could have gone without it for so long. I have been reading Barbara Kingsolver for some fifteen years now, since I picked up The Bean Trees (it probably belonged to my mother) and followed the twenty-three-year-old Taylor Greer out of Kentucky and across America until a busted rocker arm landed her in Tuscon (it is strange to read The Bean Trees now that I am older than Taylor and can feel that prickly awareness that runs up your arms and down your spine when you realize that the characters you have loved all your life will never grow older than they are on the written page, that you run to catch up to and then realize you have surpassed them).

Now I come back to High Tide in Tuscon and see with surprise how much of herself Kingsolver puts into her fiction, how she left her own Kentucky hometown at the age of twenty-two, in the "shell of a tiny yellow Renault" and drove, with all her belongings, from Kentucky to Tuscon, like the heroine of her first novel, written, "conceived recklessly, in a closet late at night, when the restlessness of [her] insomniac pregnancy drove [her] to compulsive verbal intercourse with [her] own soul." Kingsolver is tall and lanky, an outsider like Codi Noline in Animal Dreams, stomping around in her cowboy boots. (Fact and fiction are different truths). I feel a shock of recognition when she tells us about how librarians and her school library saved her, guided her towards the writer she would become; I cannot pretend that I am anywhere close, or ever will be, to being a writer, but I have in my own past a trail of librarians and school libraries whose shelves led me to words that would change my life.

There are some words of Barbara Kingsolver's that have stayed clear in my mind since I first read them; I think she has used them in one of her novels as well, but whether fact or fiction there is no turning away from this simple truth: People will claim that having children is a ticket to immortality, but in fact it merely doubles your stakes in mortality. You labor and you love and there you are, suddenly, with twice as many eyes in your house that could be put out, hearts that could be broken, new lives dearer than your own that could be taken from you. And still we do it, have children, right and left. We love and we lose, get hurled across the universe, put on a new shell, listen to the seasons. I think of her words every time I see a mother with her child, every time I hold someone else's baby in my arms, every time I look at my own parents and think of our own mortality, of what Nabokov referred to as "the brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness" in his opening words of Speak, Memory. Kingsolver writes about everything she and the world around her stands to lose, but lives and writes as though she has nothing to lose, urging us all to do the same.

Kingsolver, Barbara. High Tide in Tuscon: Essays from Now or Never. Perennial, 2003. pp 6, 37, 270.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Eating. barbecue. (also known as setting food on fire).

I know it is spring, says Laurie Colwin, not by the first robin but by the first barbecue across the street on the seminary lawn [Colwin lived across the street from a theological seminary]. That first whiff of lighter fluid and smoke is my herald, and led one of my friends to ask: "What is it about Episcopalians, do you think? Is it in their genes to barbecue?" I am not sure if my neighbors are Episcopalians or not, but I know spring is here because when I open my windows I can smell smoke and grilling meats wafting up from somewhere in the neighborhood. Actually in Seattle the start of the barbecue season is marked by the Memorial Day weekend, as summer nears and you get a few days of sunny weather in a row, and the temperature makes a feeble break past the 70º mark and hovers there, indecisively, for another day or two before plummeting down again.

Ah, the barbecue, that grand old American tradition of setting a pile of charcoal briquettes on fire with a few artfully crumpled pieces of newspaper and a long match that kept your fingers at a safe distance from the flames (those long matches came in handy when lighting the Halloween pumpkins months later). Lighter fluid was unecessary, a barbaric habit. Actually for many years we had a big gas-fired barbecue on the back porch, fed by huge tanks of propane. Friends would come over to watch the SeaFair festivities (early August), as we had a good view of the lake; the children would swim in the pool or play basketball or lay on the grass and watch the Blue Angels fly overhead, low enough to set off the occasional car alarm, so loud the dog hid in the basement. There would be chicken wings and thighs marinated in soy sauce with scallions and garlic or rosemary and wine, hot dogs and hamburgers and vegetable kebabs and long slabs of salmon. Afterwards there would be ice cream and watermelon and bowls of cherries and strawberries and coolers full of root beer and beer beer and goodness knows what else.

All that is gone now, the house and the gas-fired barbecue that sat in the sun, gathering dust and pools of rainwater and dogwood petals on its black plastic cover. Our family is scattered on opposite sides of the ocean. Now I find myself in a friend's backyard, on Memorial Day or the 4th of July or Labor Day or just because they felt like a barbecue, felt like gathering together a large but tightly knit family for chicken wings drizzled with honey and steaks marinated in whiskey and hot sausages and giant prawns and scallops, all grilled over charcoal - no wussy gas grills here - either on the grill, or on long metal skewers held directly over the hot coals, what they call Hong-Kong-style barbecue (why I don't know). Then there will be s'mores, sticky-sweet, hot and melting, because it just wouldn't be a barbecue without s'mores. (Definitely a tradition I can live with).

But of course, the weather being fickle on a Sunday evening in May, it is gray and cold and raining just a little as we stand on the terrace. The lake spreads before us, the same flinty gray as the sky; behind us the house seems full of light and people and acres of polished marble. I stick a hot dog on my pronged fork, hold it over the coals, watch the skin blister and blacken before taking it out and sliding it into a waiting bun. And then into my waiting mouth. The first hot dog of the season, the first barbecue. Later I will set my first marshmallows on fire, and then start over with fresh ones, this time just toasting them a deep gold, the insides molten white. The first toasted marshmallows of the year, they tell me that summer is almost here.

Colwin, Laurie. Home Cooking. HarperPerennial, 1993. p. 103.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Reading. Hesser.

I found Cooking for Mr. Latte at a particularly difficult point in my life; everything was in limbo, and I didn't know what I was going to do next. I didn't know that soon I would find a job - actually, I begged for it - or that three years later I would be writing here. Actually I would say the genesis of this blog would be Hesser's book, a diary of the first year or so of her relationship with Tad Friend, the Mr. Latte of the title, later to be her husband. (I see from the first post in the present incarnation of "Conclusive Evidence" that I had originally started writing here in the summer of 2003, posted once, and then forgotten all about it). It is not so much about their relationship - although it is the main part of her story, the connecting thread that runs throughout the book - but about Hesser's relationship with food and how it permeates every part of her life, her work (as a food writer and critic for the New York Times), to her relationships with family and friends and the way she views the world.

...what I eat is inextricably tied to where I eat, when I eat, why I eat, and with whom I eat. Eating well, Hesser tells us in her introduction, is not as much about good food as it is about the people you share that food with, the room you dine in, what you talk about, and the emotional hungers that you bring to the table. M. F. K. Fisher wrote, "Our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. Four years on, and it has become more and more clear to me how important food is to me, how integral it is to the way I see the world, the way I write, the way I relate to the people close to me. At the time Cooking for Mr. Latte was incredibly important to me, in ways I can't begin to articulate. (And the recipes were fabulous, some of which became part of my own repertoire, oven-fried chicken and caesar salad, rigatoni with a white bolognese and vanilla bean loaves that drown the senses in a shockingly aromatic wave of vanilla).

Food is love. I have always known that, and because love in my family is something silent and unspoken of, but nevertheless felt, food has always been the means by which I express love, or accept it. At some point words become unecessary, inconsequential compared to a bowl of noodles or a fried-egg sandwich, or a freezer stocked with triple-chocolate Dove bars. Sometimes the silence as you sit around the table and eat your broiled fish and steamed rice and stir-fried vegetables is as comforting as the food in front of you, the sounds and scents of dinner cooking as you walk in the door wrapping around you as securely as a mother's arms.

Hesser, Amanda. Cooking for Mr. Latte. W. W. Norton & Company, 2003. p 13.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Reading. Weiner.

I grew up an only child, save for the five years my cousins lived with us, exposing me to the joys of brothers who teased you and farted in your face and taught you to curse and ruined any chance you had of getting your driver's permit at fifteen and your license at sixteen by being a psychotic driver and who once ate all the chocolate éclairs after which you sobbed the entire way home (for which I have never quite forgiven him). I know brothers. But sisters are a mystery to me, a foreign country I'll never explore, one I don't have a map for, or a passport. Perhaps this is why I feel a twist of longing when I see friends with their sisters, some older, some younger, all with some kind of mysterious bond that has its own unique chemistry, a completeness, a separate existence beyond what anyone else can experience. It lasts forever. (The other day I heard a sixty-one-year-old friend talk about how her sixty-three-year-old Big Sister prevented anyone from serving her too much food at dinner, much the way she must have banished the monsters under the bed nearly six decades ago).

In literature sisters lie in bed together, talking late into the night, share (willingly or otherwise) shoes and clothes; they fight over makeup and boys and who took whose sweater and who broke whose favorite mug. They are apart and then together, and when together become one indistinguishable whole, another separate world with its own language, its own air, impenetrable by anyone else. Or so literature would have us believe. I have no basis for comparison, and so must turn to the written word. I picked up In Her Shoes (I forget why, although I vaguely remember watching the film version on an airplane), flipped through the intertwining stories of Rose and Maggie and their grandmother Ella, as the threads of their life twisted together and apart and then together again. I read fast, in one gulp, racing through the pages to find out how all three women would find their way back to each other, Rose and Maggie after a terrible fight, the worst kind of betrayal, and Ella after a lifetime apart from her granddaughters, all she has left of her own daughter Caroline, long dead.

Rose is two years older than Maggie, the one who was a good student and went to law school and became a lawyer, who is always bailing her little sister out of everything, always loaning her money and letting her stay, always taking care of her. And then they are split apart, for months not speaking, not seeing each other, Rose not even knowing where Maggie is. They come back together in their grandmother's home in Florida, where Maggie has been living, still not speaking, still estranged, sharing a pull-out sofa bed in the guest room. And even not speaking, even still angry, some things don't change, will never change. Rose will still get out of bed to get her little sister a glass of water with one ice cube; she always got Maggie's water...since they were little...almost every night during Maggie's stint in her apartment. And, probably when they were in their eighties, after they'd out-lived husbands and left their jobs and moved to whatever the 2060's version of Golden Acres would be, she'd still be fetching her little sister glasses of water with one ice cube. (It's the one ice cube that always gets me). Can you imagine that kind of certainty? That kind of bond, that knowledge that no matter what, no matter how far you went, how much you hurt them, you had someone who would still bring you that glass of water with one ice cube?

Weiner, Jennifer. In Her Shoes. Washington Square Press, 2005. p 388.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Eating/drinking. floats and other things.

The other night I found myself lounging on the sofa, hot and thirsty, and decided to try for the first time something called a Boston Cooler, a formerly unheard-of concoction of ginger ale and vanilla ice cream. Concidentally I had all the ingredients in the fridge; some remnants of vanilla ice cream that had been in my freezer for months, gathering shards of frost, and one lone bottle of ginger ale, a new brand I had not tried before and wasn't entirely sure if I liked. Together they were like magic. The fizzy bite of the ginger was softened by the sweetness of the ice cream, the whole thing cool and creamy and frothy and as instantly refreshing as diving into a pool. I foresee a long summer ahead, of drinking Boston Coolers at the end of a hot day, with the windows open or on the roof terrace or downstairs in the courtyard by the tinkling fountain.

Summer and hot weather calls for cold soda and ice cream, or even better, together, Sprite or 7-Up or root beer or coke or cream soda. I have made ice cream floats with all of these, with vanilla ice cream (the classic) or chocolate ice cream or mint chocolate chip or strawberry, or even Rocky Road or other ice creams that have chunks of chocolate or nuts that had to be eaten with a spoon after the last drop of soda has been noisily sucked up through a straw. The soda always fizzes madly, foaming over the lip of my glass and dripping down the sides and onto the counter as I scramble to drink some of it before it all puddles onto the floor. Someone tells me that if I pour the soda into the glass before adding the ice cream, it will make less of a mess. (Genius!). Now I have pint glasses that are narrower at the base, widening upwards and then curving in slightly at the lip - tulip-shaped, they're called; it helps to contain the foam (they're meant for beer). But I have lost the iced-tea spoons - I think my mother has them packed away somewhere - that were so perfect for stirring the melting ice cream into the rapidly flattening soda, the two melding into a cool, smooth drink. Never mind, a large tablespoon will do. I have everything I need.

The days have grown warm and sunny as we head towards summer and yesterday K. decreed that today we would have fried chicken (with all the necessary sides) and root-beer floats for lunch. She had gone to the supermarket to buy root beer and ice cream and dispatched her personal assistant (her eldest niece) to pick up fried chicken (plus hot rolls, mashed potatoes and gravy, coleslaw, baked beans, and fried gizzards and livers, which we kept referring to as 'lizards,' and which are, let me tell you, the food of the gods). After lunch, stuffed and sated and still root-beer-float-less - we were all too full - everyone stumbled back to work as if we were sleepwalking (at least I was), and it was not until later that I headed back for a root beer float, the first of the season, sweet and fizzy and creamy-smooth all at once, with the deep, dark taste of root beer and the cool warmth of vanilla ice cream. Summer's here. Almost.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Reading. Greenman.

There are a lot of books I bought simply because I loved the title, books I have loved for the title alone, even though I would find that loved what I found inside as well (for that part comes later, after the book is bought, taken home in its plastic bag, the receipt tucked inside, left abandoned in the front hallway or on the windowsill or under the couch until it is rediscovered hours or days or months later, and you fall in love with the title all over again, open the cover and slide inside). Sometimes you find a title that leaps out at you, dazzles your eyes so you have to blink and look again, make sure that you are really seeing what you think you see, feel your heart give a quick leap, your pulse quicken, your fingers eager to reach out and grasp what your eyes already have.

A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both: stories about human love caught my eye at the bookstore the other day, a promise of something, perhaps, a reminder that love makes us feel both that we are floating in air (the balloon) and that we are finding our way with a certainty that we had never known before (the compass). Or most simply that love might both set us free and guide us. The introduction by Marie Palermo, who taught Ben Greenman art when he was in second grade and was his substitute teacher when he was in tenth grade, tells us that the title "holds together the opposites of orientation (the compass) and escape (the balloon), not to mention the way the title conflates the zero of nullity and the O of orgasm." (Taking my own interpretation of the title one step further).

(She also tells us that the reason why we create is "to keep our demons down without banishing them entirely," something that will now stay with me for the rest of my life).

Included in the introduction is a short story that Greenman wrote for Marie Palermo as a tenth grader, in response to an assignment where they were not justifying "one choice or another, but the process of choosing," revived and revised after a distance of twenty years. A man - or perhaps a boy; he is simply referred to as "he," - lives his life on a platform that contains everything he needs, "a phone, food, companionship. He was happy." And then he looks to one side and sees another platform, higher than his own, that contains everything he has, only he convinces himself that everything there is better than what he has - the phone, the food, the companion.

This man - perhaps it is the teenage Ben himself - keeps thinking about this higher platform, persuading himself that if he makes that leap to that other platform his life will be better, that he will be happier, the way we all look at something we don't have and think that it will make our lives somehow better. Finally one day, he makes that leap, up to that higher platform, and sees that everything is the same - the food, the phone, the companion. But at least, he thinks, he is higher up, until suddenly he realizes that he is sinking, and the previous platform is rising; "he had forgotten to figure in the effect of his own weight." And then he looks at everything around him, a phone, food, a companion, all he needs to be happy.

Greenman, Ben. A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both: stories about human love. MacAdam Cage, 2007. pp ix-xii.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Drinking. ginger ale.

When I was a child ginger ale was something you drank when you had a cold or the flu and got to spend the day at home in your parents' bed watching The Love Boat re-runs instead of going to school. It was sweet and faintly flavored with ginger and fizzy, pale gold in your glass. Ordinarily I would never be drawn to the green plastic bottles or aluminum cans, stamped with Canada Dry or Schweppes, skipping over to the other soft drinks. (Actually when I was a child the closest I usually got to soda were the flats of variously flavored sparkling water my mother would buy at Costco, lemon-lime or mixed berry or mandarin orange; for parties there would be the sparkling apple cider which came in dark green glass bottles that looked like champagne, and as we got older there would be the kind of root beer that came in brown glass bottles and looked like beer).

Much later - by now I was grown-up and had a job - I found that the pub not far from work brewed its own ginger ale. S. and I would go down there and beg them to sell us some to take back to work; they didn't have take-out cups and so they would give me the ginger beer in cardboard tubs meant for soup. On hot days or just busy days when the afternoon dragged on and we needed something to cheer us up I would run down to the pub, clamber up (ungracefully) onto a stool, ask the bartender for some ginger beer to go. Sometimes they would only charge me for one ginger beer, and I would tip lavishly (relatively speaking) in return, hurrying back to work, eager to pop the vented cardboard lid off that squat little container and take a long swallow of the icy-cold ginger ale. It was not as sweet as the bottled stuff, with a slow burn, the intense aroma of fresh ginger. We were crushed when they stopped making ginger beer (something about needing the taps for real beer, although why they felt the need for that sacrifice remains a mystery to me). Lunches of burgers and fries or fish and chips or shredded pork tacos seemed so sad without a tall, sweating glass of ginger ale at my side.

Time passed, and the quest for ginger ale continued. Out of nostalgia I still turn to the Schweppes/Canada Dry of my childhood during airplane flights; in supermarkets I try all the different brands that come in green glass bottles with brightly colored labels, hoping that my tastebuds will find some gingery nirvana. It hasn't happened yet. Some taste slightly medicinal, others are too syrupy sweet, still others make me sneeze with a burst of ginger as I try to drink it. I wonder if I could persuade my favorite pub to resume brewing their own ginger beer again, or if my quest will continue in vain. But I am sure I will find something, someday.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Reading. Yevtushenko.

According to Czeslaw Milosz, Joseph Brodsky resigned from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in protest when his compatriot Yevgeny Yevtushenko was inducted into the same Academy in 1987. (When I read this, I began to read Brodsky and fell immediately in love, but that is another story). It seems rather an extreme reaction, and I confess that I still do not know why, but it was enough to send me back to Yevtushenko, who I have not read in many years, and who I first discovered in his preface to Alexander Solzhenitysn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I loved the sound of his name said aloud, Yev-ge-ny Yev-tu-shen-ko, a long drawn-out caress, the way Russian names always are. (Which is what I love most about that language, why I studied it, why I read aloud to myself in the quiet of my room, those words written across centuries and continents by the great masters).

I found a slim volume of his selected poems in some used bookstore near my home, a tiny storefront with one wall lined floor-to-ceiling with books, more bookcases against the other walls, books stacked on a table in the middle of the room and on the floor, with a tiny spiraling staircase leading to a sort of mezzanine level (about the size of a playpen) crammed with even more books. (In another year or two my apartment will look like that bookshop, or perhaps it already does). The book is yellowed with age, the cover smooth and cool in my hands; the poems within were chosen, so the notes tell us, because they were favorites of the translators.

I have, admittedly, raged against the travesty of translating poetry; I feel some justification when I see the translators feel that "some of [Yevtushenko's] finest poems would have lost so much of their meaning or vitality that it would have been hopeless to attempt any English versions." In my mind reading poetry in translation is like trying to drink Champagne through the tiny holes of a sippy cup, the plastic cap leaving you unable to smell the sparkling fragrance of the wine, unable to feel the effervescent bubbles against your lips, giving you just a dribble of taste. Enough to make you want more.

But after all, translated poetry is better than no poetry at all, and the collection gathered in this selection of poems begins with Zima Junction, written after Yevtushenko's return to his hometown at the age of twenty, having spent the previous several years in Moscow. It reminds me of how I feel upon returning to a place after a distance of many years, measuring the changes in a place I loved once against the changes I could see in myself. If the way I see you now is not the way/in which we saw you once, if in you/what I see now is new/it was by self discovery I found it, the poet tells us, and how true it is.

Yevtushenko, Yevgeny. Selected Poems: Yevtushenko. Penguin Books, 1966. p 87, 19.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Sunday. bakery day.

On Sundays I like to head down to some bakery - the Columbia City bakery, near my old home, Le Panier, in the Pike Place Market, the Macrina Bakery, in the Belltown neighborhood just north of the market, or the Essential Baking Company, in Madison Park - for bread and pastries and perhaps a sandwich or a slice of quiche for lunch later on. It is a ritual, not a weekly one - though I wish it were - but it gives me a chance to buy bread somewhere besides the supermarket, to figure out which place has the best éclairs (Le Panier), the best baguettes (Columbia City), the best croissants (again, Columbia City), the best quiche (hard to say), and so forth. Macrina has wonderful brunches; the Essential Baking Company has savory or sweet crêpes. What should I have today?

While drinking my morning tea and eating buttered English muffins (the food of the gods) over the Sunday paper I find myself thinking of a savory crêpe, filled with ham and cheese or mushrooms and herbs or smoked salmon and crème fraîche. I have to go to work later; provisions must be made for the day that stretches ahead. And so I find myself driving through the rain towards Madison Park. Luck is with me; a parking space is open directly in front of the bakery, which only happens when you come early enough to beat the lunchtime hordes.

Even though it is gray and wet outside the bakery seems to be full of light; as with most bakeries there are large windows and fake-stone-topped tables and chairs made of pale wood and menus written on blackboards and a bank of espresso machines hissing away. One glass display case is filled with baskets of croissants and scones and slices of pound cake and coffee cake; another has perfectly glazed chocolate tortes - the kind that are dense and rich, all chocolate and no flour - and fruit tarts, chocolate pyramids, slices of opera cake arranged on white doilies, and small quiches like golden suns. There is no line to wait for service; only half the tables are occupied. (The last time we came here we had to wait for a table, and the line stretched back to the door). The only bad thing about not having to wait is that I have no time to decide what I want. I ask for a ham-and-cheese crêpe, a small round quiche Lorraine, several croissants filled with a) raspberry jam, b) chocolate, c) spinach and feta, and d) ham and gruyére, which I will reheat for lunch in the toaster oven at work.

There are couples talking and drinking coffee, parents with small toddlers feeding their children bits of chocolate croissants. I drink my cappuccino - it is one of the best cappuccinos I have ever had, capped with the thickest, creamiest foam imaginable - and watch one determined toddler take off at a run, disappearing around the partition that conceals the entrance to the bathrooms and the kitchen. My crêpe arrives, an enormous thin round filled with equally thin layers of Black Forest ham and Swiss cheese, folded neatly in quarters, the only garnish a sprinkling of chives. The crêpe is eggy and has that faintly caramelized taste of lightly browned batter, savory with the warm melted cheese and the rich taste of ham. I sit at my table and read my book and eat my crêpe and drink the remains of my cappuccino, a moment of quiet before heading off to work.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Reading. Forster.


I have probably mentioned a few (hundred) times already that A Room With a View is one of my favorite books, that Italy is one of my favorite places, and that Florence is one of my favorite cities. I have been there twice, and each time have left wanting more; I have read Forster's words so many times that they are inextricably intertwined with my own memories, which is the way literature works. Twice now I have stood before the church of Santa Croce and thought of Lucy and Miss Lavish making their way through the streets of Florence - without a Baedeker, because he "does but touch the surface of things," and Miss Lavish has taken it away - until they reach the large piazza, "on the farther side of which rose a black-and-white façade of unsurpassing ugliness."

The description gives pause until you remember that the façade of Sante Croce was not finished until the mid-nineteenth century; in Forster's time it would have been relatively new, whereas nearly a century later the ravages of time and the elements have softened the black-and-white stone. Inside, it is somewhat like a barn, as Lucy thinks to herself, and rather cold (which is a relief in the summer). Even now knots of tourists are guided from chapel to chapel, stopping at the more famous tombs that line the walls, only they are not led by stern English clergymen, and I am not moved by the frescoes because I feel I ought to, but because they are extraordinary.

What I remember most - and perhaps I have mentioned this once or twice or a dozen times already - is the scene where Lucy witnesses a murder in the Piazza Signoria. The Piazza Signoria is abutted on one side by the Palazzo Vecchio, with the fountain of Neptune splashing away to the left. To the right you can see the Galleria degli Uffizi stretching away from the square towards the Arno; perpendicular to the Palazzo Vecchio is the Loggia dei Lanzi, filled with statues and tourists eating gelato. (Perhaps tourists are not allowed inside the loggia, but I can't remember). Now when I stand next to the fountain of Neptune and looked up at the palace tower, and then over to the Loggia, I imagine Lucy fainting in George's arms, even though it is bright daylight, instead of twilight, and the square is filled with tourists in their sensible shorts and sneakers and baseball caps in all colors, fancy cameras slung about their neck, gabbling away in a dozen languages. I look towards the Uffizi Arcade, where Lucy finds herself upon recovering from her swoon (it is not far, but still it must be quite a haul with an unconscious woman in your arms). On those same steps we will wait in line to enter the museum.

Remember the mountains over Florence and the view, says Mr. Emerson to Lucy. She does. And so do I.

Forster. E. M. A Room With a View. Vintage International, 1989. pp 20-21, 230.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Reading. Levi. (Carlo).

(last one).

Our hotel in Rome was situated in the heart of the city, in the Piazza Barberini; in the center of the piazza was the Triton fountain sculpted by Bernini, the great artist from whom the hotel took its name. The Via Veneto began at one corner of the square (actually, it was rather triangular) and wound its way up towards the gardens of the Villa Medici and the Villa Borghese beyond, the snaking curves of the tree-shaded boulevard at least equal to those of Anita Ekberg as immortalized in the film La Dolce Vita more than forty years ago. There were grand hotels and restaurants (with faded photographs of movie stars from the 60's and 70's behind glass next to their doors) all along that winding street, and glass-enclosed sidewalk cafés that provided a cool oasis during the heat of the day. (On our last night I ate pasta carbonara in one of those air-conditioned mini-restaurants - the food would be brought in from the main restaurant - as we watched people pose with the dazzlingly expensive sports car in the seductively lit window of the Lambourghini dealership across the street, their digital cameras flashing in the dim light).

My Rome is some four decades older than Levi's Rome, and I came to it as a tourist instead of a resident, a foreigner instead of a native. I wish I had more time to explore, more time to wander the streets, to gaze at monuments that have stood there for a few millennia. There was just enough time for a taste, for us to walk for hours, down the twisting cobblestone streets that joined together the archipelago of piazzas and cathedrals and pockets of shaded gardens, turning the city into an intricate puzzle. Now I read about how "beneath the blazing sun, the lawns of the Villa Borghese wilt, as the green fades away; the soil turns to dust: scattered across...the jaundiced blades of grass are the paper wrappings of yesterday's picnic the shade of mighty plane trees lie human bodies, like so many forgotten corpses; inevitably, a newspaper covers their face," and I remember walking through those same lawns, in the shade of those same trees, down into the Piazza del Popolo, following the via del Babuino back towards the Piazza di Spagna and those eternal steps, gazing into the expensive shops along the way, with finely made shoes and handbags displayed behind gleaming plate-glass as though they were jewels.

Part of what I love about Rome is that althought I didn't realize it at the time, those days marked a turning point in my life. I didn't know that a year later I would find myself writing with a kind of explosive joy, and that it would change my life. Levi brings that time back to me, and reminds me all over again how far I have come, and how far I have yet to go. And I cannot wait to see what will happen next.

Levi, Carlo. Fleeting Rome: In Search of la Dolce Vita. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2005. p. 139.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Reading. Levi. (Carlo).

I found Carlo Levi and his Christ Stopped at Eboli in a dusty little used bookstore, hidden in the back of an old building that housed vegetable stalls and bakeries and butcher-shops and fish markets, across the street from the main complex of the Pike Place Market. I was swept away by his story of that year spent in the far reaches of civilization, in exile at a small town that seemed untouched by time, by culture, by progress, by Christ. His Fleeting Rome is another creature altogether, some thirty-three essays linked together by one thing: the city of Rome. I reflected that the title seemed all wrong, that Rome is anything but fleeting, that the city itself would endure, immortal, eternal, beyond the end of time. Or so we are told.

He begins with the people of Rome, referring to "an odd little quatrain about the people of Rome" which runs as follows:

The People of Rome are a Populusque
with family ties to Senate and Curia
and will endure for centuries, quousque
the last drop has been drained.

That last drop, Levi tells us, refers to the wine of the Castelli; unless the poet was alluding, metaphysically, to the last drop of time, the end of the ages, which the Romans, with agreeable nonchalance, would thus polish off, like a bottle of wine...the Romans alone know how to withstand, with the same unshakeable equilibrium, both the deceitful and oppresive venom of their wine and the no less burdensome and venemous deceptions of time...accustomed as they are to that wine from time immemorial, they have adapted to it, developing an immunity, blunting its sting through the passage of time, just as they have employed the virtues of that wine to blunt time's sting.

Rome is a city like no other because its people are like no other, from the beginning of time fastened, as Levi claims, "inseperably to something else: the senate, the government, and the church." The people of Rome see Rome only from within, treat Rome without formality, wear Rome like a comfortable suit of old clothes...the common people of Rome feel at home in that Dea Roma, Rome the goddess. They stroll across her skin, eat and sleep among her tresses, enjoy the cool evening breezes upon her back. They are her tenant, her subtenant, and her landlord as well...they are, we might say, a part of her.

I think if I were to head back to Rome (this time avoiding the crooked cab drivers) I would slip into the city, feel it as comfortable and familiar as an old suit of clothes, walk through the streets and find that the smells and sights and textures become a part of me, a part of my skin that I would have to shed when I left but would find waiting the next time I returned. Rome is one of those cities I have loved once and will always love thereafter, whose memories I wear like a cloak.

(to be continued).

Levi, Carlo. Fleeting Rome. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2005. pp 3-4.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Reading. Levi. (Carlo).

I fell in love with Italy long before I found myself climbing up the endless steps to the top of the Duomo in Florence, before I walked through the dusty, ancient ruins of Pompeii, before I sat, cross-legged, on a bench on the deck of the hydrofoil that ran between Capri and Naples, ate sun-warmed figs and breathed in the salty air as the sun beat down on our heads. (I was then fourteen years old). This is what literature does for us, illuminating a time and a place so vividly that when, at last, we find ourselves crossing the piazza where Lucy Honeychurch fainted in George Emerson's arms (in A Room with a View) or looking across a garden filled with blooming oleanders (which brings to mind the castle gardens of The Enchanted April), it is as though those luminous words written nearly a century ago have come alive in front of our eyes.

But Rome was another story, something I knew only from films and history texts. More than a decade would pass before I would return to Italy, a decade in which I spent more time in Asia than I did in Europe, a decade in which art meant more than literature. (And in the end it would be literature that would endure beyond all else, to my surprise). I had just turned twenty-five when my parents and I spent two weeks traveling through Italy, my father driving recklessly in our tiny rented car, me trying (and often failing) to navigate, clutching an assortment of guidebooks, shedding ticket stubs from various museums and parking garages and carelessly folded maps in every direction. We made our way across the Abruzzi, through Tuscany and the Cinque Terre, before my mother and I left my father in Lucca (he had a conference) and headed to Rome, city of crooked cab drivers (one of whom cheated me out of more euros than I care to remember) and la dolce vita, now sleepy in the hazy heat of early August.

Those August days are now somewhat blurred in my memory, a haze of ancient monuments and prosciutto for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and granita di caffé at a coffehouse that looked like it had been there for at least a couple hundred years. One night we had dinner at a restaurant that has been known for its seafood for forty years, just the two of us making our way through four courses spread over three hours, and a half-bottle of white wine that tasted like the late afternoon sunlight. Into the falling night people would still be strolling through the streets and piazzas, sitting at outdoor café tables or on the edges of fountains, eating gelato or having drinks. It is different from Florence, whose cathedrals and distant hills I have loved for most of my life; what I feel for Rome is something else, part of that time and place. But those days and nights in that ancient, eternal city came alive again in the words of Carlo Levi, in his essays that make up Fleeting Rome, which I came across after discovering his Christ Stopped at Eboli.

(to be continued).

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Reading. Montale.

When I began reading Eugenio Montale (beginning, as is my habit, with the later works) I found that I could not fall in love with his words with the same heartbreaking, shattering swiftness as I had with his compatriot Giuseppe Ungaretti (some eight years older than Montale) a short time before. They had in common a language but their way of using it was altogether different, which is as it should be in all things. It would take a little while for Montale to draw me in, for his words to grip something deep and hidden in my consciousness, which is sometimes how literature works for me. I made my way slowly through the volume of works published after his death, some other things from the early 1970's, and then, at last, arrived at La Bufera e Altro (The Storm & Other Poems). And fell headlong into some darkness.

Montale himself, we are told, regarded La Bufera e Altro as his finest work; I have not read everything of his so I cannot judge that for myself. Everything I have read about Montale (in truth, not much) sees that this volume, published in 1956, marked the end of his first era of writing poetry, the years between 1925 (when his first work, Ossi de Seppia, or Cuttlefish Bones, was published), and 1956, when he was about sixty years old. There is a sense - and I refer to the last sentence of the title poem - of entering the dark. There is something beautiful and haunting of the images he evokes, the language referencing the words of Dante Alighieri (some six centuries before). (The word bufera was first introduced "into the literary idiom" by Dante in his Inferno; it "signifies a high wind with precipitation...suggests upheaval and is frequently used to suggest the effects of passion...much like 'tempest' in Canto V:31 of the Inferno, Dante uses 'la bufera infernal' to describe the winds that perpetually drive flocks of lovers."

Here, then, is the first poem of this volume, The Storm.

Les princes n'ont point d'yeux pour voir ces grand's merveilles,
Leurs mains ne servent plus qu'à nous persécuter...
(Agrippa D'Aubigné: `A Dieu)

The storm that trickles its long March
thunderclaps, its hail, onto the stiff
leaves of the magnolia tree;

(sounds of shaking crystal which startle you
in your nest of sleep; and the gold
snuffed on the mahogany, on the backs
of the bound books, flares again
like a grain of sugar in the shell
of your eyelids)

the lightning that blanches
the trees and walls, freezing them
like images on a negative (a benediction
and destruction you carry carved
within you, a condemnation that binds you
stronger to me than any love, my strange sister);
and then the tearing crash, the jangling sistrums, the
of tambourines in the dark ditch of the night,
the tramp, scrape, jump of the fandango...and
some gesture that blinding is groping...

as when

turning around, and, sweeping clear your forehead
of its cloud of hair,

you waved to me - and entered the dark.

Montale, Eugenio. trans. Wright, Charles. The Storm & Other Poems. Oberlin College, 1978. pp 18-19, 23-24.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Reading. Grossman.

I was unfamiliar with the work of the Israeli writer David Grossman, but I encountered his work in the New York Times Magazine, my eye caught by a full-page photograph of the author, blue eyes, blue shirt, blue background, looking through wire-framed glasses down at something the rest of us cannot see. (Some memory, perhaps, or his own sorrow). The essay, translated from the Hebrew, is adapted from a lecture he gave at PEN's World Voices Festival a few weeks ago. As always, it is a few sentences excerpted from the article, running in large font across the top of the page, that draw me in: Many times every day, he says, as I sit at my desk, I touch on grief and loss like one touching electricity with his bare hands, and yet I do not die. I cannot grasp how this miracle works.

I have - so far - escaped the loss of a parent, the loss of a spouse or child (the latter because I have no spouse or child to lose). I live in anticipation that the day will come, and for now I have no concept of what that might do to me or how I could live through it. I have watched others move through their lives after loss, wounded and numb, and I have wept for them, and for the knowledge that one day I will weep for myself. And now I weep for David Grossman as I read his words and look upon the face of his second-eldest son, Uri, who was killed last year in the war between Israel and Lebanon. (In a snapshot, wearing his army uniform, he looks younger than I am, his eyes like his father's, behind similar wire-framed glasses; if he had lived perhaps thirty years from now he might have looked much like his father does now).

The writer experiences grief by writing (what Kingsolver described, borrowing from Adrienne Rich, as "diving through the wreck"), much as the artist does through art. I am reminded of an Agatha Christie novel, where the murdered man's lover remember how he, early in the novel, angrily tells her that if he were dead, the first thing she would do, "with the tears streaming down [her] face, would be to start modelling some damned mourning woman or some figure of grief..." (and which, in the end, she does). I write, Grossman tells us, and feel how the correct and precise use of words is sometimes like a remedy to an illness. Like a contraption for purifying the air...

At one point in my life I had disappointed everyone in my life, including myself, and I felt paralyzed by fear. I have never quite moved on from that failure; it is still with me, even though I do not often think of that time, or the people I associate with those days. But I remember writing to one of the people that I had let down, and telling them I regretted the choices I had made (or did not make), but that if I kept looking back, I would forget how to move on, and to live. And now I look at these words said by this man who lives daily with the death of his son and the turmoil of his country, how the power of memory is indeed enormous and heavy, and at times has a paralyzing quality to it...[but] when we write, we feel the world move; it is flexible, crammed with possibilities...Wherever human existence permeates, there is no freezing and no paralysis...

I felt a sense of electricity when I read these words, not in the sense that Grossman experiences grief and loss, but in the sense that I have come one step closer in understanding the million reasons why literature matters.

Grossman, David. "Writing in the Dark." The New York Times Magazine, May 13, 2007. pp 28-31.

Christie, Agatha.
The Hollow. Berkeley Books, New York, 1984. p 40.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Eating. Trader Joe's.

I went to work with the firm idea of what I would have for lunch (crazy, I know, given the dinner I had last night): a burger and fries from my favorite pub down the street, accompanied by iced tea or a root beer. Or perhaps I would have fish and chips, squeezing some lemon juice over the fish, dipping each bite into the creamy tartar sauce. Maybe I'd have the shredded pork tacos, which came with some peanut sauce and sour cream, which cooled the spicy pork. But none of that happened. I walked in the door to find K., who, when I told her of my lunch plans, firmly squashed any idea I had about going down to the pub. You don't want to eat that kind of junk, I am told. (It is a familiar refrain). Let's go to Trader Joe's!

Trader Joe's is not a grocery store. It is a lifestyle. Their produce section is meagre, as is their selection of meats and seafoods. Whenever I go there I only find half the things I need and come home instead with bags of things I don't need. In the days when our house was a sort of compound for occasional visits from my parents and my uncle, I would find bottles of vinagers and oils, packets of crackers and nuts and chocolates, bags of frozen dumplings or boxes of veggie biryanis, all with the Trader Joe's logo. They have $8 potted orchids, chocolate-covered pretzels, frozen quiches and quesedillas (the latter is today's special, with free samples at the booth that stands at one end of the store).

Whenever I am here I run around like a three-year-old, touching everything, wanting to buy everything I see. It is like being in a candy store for grown-ups. (Not that I'm a grown-up, or anything). It is hard not to be tempted by cartons of granola, bags of tortilla chips, ice-cream bars and chocolate-covered nuts. But we are on a mission: lunch. There are bowls of tomatoes back at work; K. has her mind firmly fixed on an insalata caprese, and heads straight for the cheese as I linger behind, grab a loaf of bread, the rosemary diamanté loaf from the Essential Baking Company. (A round, rosemary-speckled loaf, with a criss-cross design marked on the top, sprinkled with coarse salt that crunches with every bite).

Fresh mozzarella, floating in their little plastic tubs, go into the cart. I run back to grab some basil, but - and this is the bad thing about Trader Joe's, the lack of variety - they seem to have a profusion of every other herb except for basil. We try a couple of different brands of mozzarella, then add a few cartons of Greek yogurt. I am distracted by the scent of strawberries, and turn to see shelves and shelves of strawberries next to the cheeses (along with Bing cherries, the first of the season). The scent wraps itself around me, and I practically climb on top of the guy stocking the shelves to grab a few boxes. We wander around the store for a little longer, looking for cocoa powder - which they don't have - before heading out, and I notice that a few bars of chocolate have made their way into the cart as well.

Once we are outside again I feel the anticipation rising as we walk back down hill, laden with our bags of food. (Stopping at another nearby market for basil, because you can't have insalata caprese without basil). Back in the kitchen I slice bread while K. slices the cheese and tomatoes, layering them with the bright green basil leaves. I find some olive oil in the back of a cupboard, drizzle some of the green-gold oil on my plate, sit down to eat my lunch. It is the first insalata caprese of the season, reminding me that summer and other such salads are ahead. But there is nothing better than the first one, the first taste of fresh tomatoes and sweet basil and creamy, soft cheese that drips on your napkin.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Eating out. Lark.

Tonight I leave work at 5; the question looms, where will I have dinner tonight? There is La Spiga, where I usually go on Saturdays when I have to work. There is the little café next door, which I have often wanted to try. There is 1200 Bistro, around the corner and down the street from the lab, whose menu I stop and read whenever I am waiting for a light to change so I can cross the street. And there is Lark. Ordinarily I avoid Lark, unless I am with my parents and they are paying. It is a simple restaurant with small plates and even smaller portions, and ordering with reckless abandon from each page of the menu (it is four narrow pages long - perhaps five, not counting dessert - with a dozen or so choices on each page, cheese, vegetables/grains, charcuterie, seafood, and meats) is a dangerous exercise. But it has been a long week, and I feel deserving of something a little different, so I find myself inside the door, asking for a table.

It is early, and only a few of the booths that line one wall, or the small tables against the banquettes that run along the opposite wall (more tables run the length of the room, in the middle), are occupied. The manager - I think she is one of the owners, with a beautiful, open smile and easy manner - shows me to one of the banquette tables, where I settle in and think about the menu. The good thing about eating here alone is that I don't have to share anything with anyone else. The bad thing is that I am limited to no more than two dishes. I am in an agony of indecision - salad? No. Pork belly, perhaps? Sounds good, but I've had it before. Foie gras? No. Carpaccio of yellowtail or striped sea bass? I spy a rabbit salad, think that perhaps I will have the sea bass and the rabbit salad. And then of course, the waiter comes to tell me about tonight's special: roast rabbit loin, wrapped in bacon. And I am sold.

With the rabbit I order a dish of farro, that chewy grain that has become popular, like rhubarb and pork belly, in the past few years. When we had dinner here last summer A. had given me a bite of hers, the earthy nuttiness of the grains sweet against the almost floral taste of chanterelles; I think there were some greens in there but I can't remember what. I am too tired for wine, and ask for a kumquat soda, which actually tastes a little like Fanta, only not as sweet. (And not bright orange). The bread arrives, some slices of baguette and what looks like pain au levain, which has a dark sourness to it. (Why is it that bread-and-butter always tastes so much better in restaurants? Especially the butter, which always seems to have a freshness that I have never quite found in supermarket butters, although the organic cultured stuff is mighty tasty, I must admit). I prefer the baguette, which is about as perfect as a baguette gets, sweet and golden with an interior that has some stretch to it and a crisp crust that crackles most satisfyingly when I eat it.

And then my meal arrives and I forget everything else. The rabbit loin is wrapped in bacon so finely sliced that it hugs the meat like a crisp, savory skin; the rabbit meat is tender and juicy, both the loin and the tiny rack that sprouts wee little bones. My brain had stopped listening as soon as I heard the words "rabbit" and "bacon," so I am surprised by the salad of shaved asparagus and what looks like arugula, on top of a sort of buckwheat cake, rather like a blini, which I find delightful. It takes a few bites before I realize that the heady perfume lingering over my plate is the truffles in the sauce. The farro comes in a black cast-iron dish, the coarse grains in a buttery, creamy sauce, with the ruffly dark morels and the green astrigency of ramps (at least I think they are ramps; something green, anyway). I sit and eat my dinner and listen to the threads of conversations that become more and more complicated as the tables fill with diners. Some people have dined here before, like me; they are familiar with the menu and order quickly. The young couple next to me are here for the first time; I can't resist leaning over and telling them that they are right to order the yellowtail carpaccio, which comes with preserved lemon rind and green olives, a scattering of black pepper. I tell them to order the duck leg, to try the sea bass. I wish I had room to order the burrata, which the couple to my left are having, that white, mozzarella-like cheese that has a softer, creamier texture even more addictive than your traditional fresh, milky mozzarella. But I want dessert.

The first time I came here I eyed S.'s tarte tatin with envy; each time since I have had to order the same. The fruits change with the seasons, and tonight it is pineapple, sweet and acidic and unctuous with caramel. The pastry is perfect, crisp and buttery, like the best croissant, only with fruit and the cold shock of vanilla ice cream melting on top. I have not drunk any wine, but I feel flushed, flushed with good food and happiness and the sensation of having the weight of the day slip away...

Friday, May 11, 2007

Thinking. mojitos.

My first experience with a mixed drink was a frozen strawberry daiquiri, fruity and sweet and slushy and icy cold, the rum leaving a warm trail down my throat. Never mind how old I was (very young) but I was in Mazatlán, and a group of us (very young) students were at Señor Frog's, where some of us (not me) went every night. Drinking and eating chips and bobbing along to the loud music. (It was happy hour, and the waiter presented me with two strawberry daiquiries, one of which I handed over to a helpful classmate because I couldn't manage two drinks). I went home feeling warm and happy in the night air, full of chips and salsa, riding home in one of those pulmonias, which are little open taxis that look a bit like golf carts. That was the last time I had a daiquiri.

Years went by, years during which I drank the good wine my dad collected in the cellar but nothing else, none of those parties where underage kids drank beer and whatever liquor they could get their hands on. College brought margaritas and piña coladas, dinners with my friends in chain restaurants with frosty blue drinks garnished with slices of pineapple and strawberries. (Aside from those years I studied Russian and occasionally downed a shot or two of ice-cold vodka along with a bowl of sour-cream-laced pelmeni or a plate of blini, but that is another story that I have told before). I grew up, continued to drink good wine, later discovered single-malt scotches, learned to avoid fruity mixed drinks, except for the Red Roosters D. always made for parties, a slushy combination of cranberry and orange juices and vodka, or the margaritas we made for lunch parties. And then I discovered mojitos, and nothing was ever the same again.

The mojito is somewhat similar to the mint julep; the former is made with rum, and the latter with bourbon. Having never acquired a taste for bourbon, I have never had any desire to try a mint julep, but when the weather is hot and I am tired and I want something that will send a wave of coolness down my body from the top of my head to the very tip of my toes, I want a mojito. I want to sit at a bar, in a cool, dark cave of a room, my bottom firmly on the stool, crushing the mint in my glass with my straw, listening to the ice cubes go clink clink clink as I take a sip, no, not a sip, but a long swallow that sends a tingle down my spine and wipes away all the exhaustions of the day. I want to finish my drink and eat my dinner and talk with my friends about 'shoes and ships and sealing-wax, and cabbages, and kings,' as night falls and the darkness blots away the cares that knot my shoulders and twist my soul.

But tonight I have none of that, no time for drinks and friends and cold frosted glasses of mojitos. Instead I come home and find a box - actually several boxes - and when I peel away the tape and open one the scent of limes and mint and rum comes to greet me, the scent of a mojito-scented candle made by Malin + Goetz, which I unwrap and light, setting it on one of the small tables in my living room. I start a movie, catch up on my reading, let the smell of mojitos fill the open rooms of my apartment, and it is almost as good as drinking one. Almost.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Reading. Kingsolver.

I found Barbara Kingsolver when I was in middle school, beginning with The Bean Trees and moving on to Animal Dreams and Pigs in Heaven (the sequel to the first novel), then working my way backwards through her short stories collected in Homeland and Other Stories. The thread that connected all her stories was the idea of home, of finding your place in the world and in your family, whether it was the family you were born with, the family you chose, or the family that chose you. There are other more complicated things, darker things, love and loss and deep political beliefs that burned through the pages, that belief that someone felt that they were doing the right thing, that they had found some purpose in their life that they had to pursue, even if it cost everything they had to lose. And then I found her High Tide in Tuscon, and fell into something else.

Some time ago I lost my copy of High Tide in Tuscon - somebody borrowed it and never returned it, which is the way of books - but there are some things I remember about that collection of essays. About how she had thought, "love it or leave it" about America during the first Gulf war, and her subsequent decision to move to the Canary Islands with her young daughter for a year. About her experience hiking through one of the national parks in Hawaii with the man who would later become her second husband, a park filled with strange and rare flora and fauna. It left me with a sense of guilt about how little I know about the horrors we visit on our planet, a sense of wonder (as Kingsolver's writing often gives me) that there are still places left that we can treasure. She wrote about writing her first novel in a closet - I think at that time she had a tiny baby and her first marriage was coming to an end - and raising a daughter alone, and finally, about that "triumph of hope over experience" that is the second marriage. I read it all and then pushed Kingsolver to one corner of my mind. Years passed. In a bookstore while searching for something else I found Small Wonder, another book of essays begun, without the author realizing it, the day after September 11, 2001.

I learned a surprising thing in writing this book, she begins. It is possible to move away from a vast, unbearable pain by delving into it deeper and deeper - by "diving into the wreck," to borrow the perfect words from Adrienne Rich. You can look at all the parts of a terrible thing until you see that they're assemblies of smaller parts, all of which you can name, and some of which you can heal or alter, and finally the terror that seemed unbearable becomes managable. I suppose what I am describing is the process of grief. Kingsolver had been asked to write about her feelings regarding the terrorist attacks of September 11, (when tragedy strikes we turn to our writers so they may help us understand our own agony, and so that they may give us hope), and what ensued was a series of essays that turned into a book, which as a whole has the sense of unbearable grief turning into hope and what we might make of ourselves in the life to come. It is a way of writing that you see in her novels, but in her essays becomes something rather more forthright, more immediate, a clear voice in your mind that shows you everything you could be if only you had the courage to try.

Kingsolver, Barbara. Small Wonder. Perennial, 2003. p xiii.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Reading. MacLachlan.

I probably still read The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt about once a year, even though it is a children's book and I first read it when I was ten. Now I am more than fifteen years older than the eleven-year-old Minna, who "eases into love as she eases into a Bach cello suite, slowly and carefully, frowning all the while." (What does an eleven-year-old know about love? What did I understand when I was eleven that I have since forgotten?). It is one of those books that is so burnt into my memory that I know it by heart; its words and nuances are part of my brain, my vocabulary, my thoughts, like A Room With A View or The Master and Margarita, as important a part of me as any of those books I have loved all my life. Now I am older I read it and think of my own eleventh year, my own childhood practicing the piano and falling in love, but I also look at Minna's mother and wonder, will I have a daughter someday, a daughter I know as well as Mrs. Pratt knows her typewriter with a crooked r as well as she knows Minna, as well as my own mother knows me?

When I see the reflection of my own face in a window, pale face against the dark glass, I think of the first page of this novel, which introduces us to Minna, wearing only one sock and her mother's jean jacket, on the way to her cello lesson. Whenever I am in the car, driving past shops and houses and tree-fringed parks, and I see myself reflected, here and there against the window I think of Minna, with "two dark eyes in a face as pale as a winter dawn." When I hear the words "The opera's not over until the fat lady sings," I think of Minna's brother McGrew, and his friend Emily Parmalee, with her feathered earrings and baseball cleats and the note they slip in Minna's hand, to be read by her and Lucas before they go onstage for a competition for young musicians, how they walk onstage smiling, instruments on hand.

What has stayed with me most, though, is a whispered conversation between Minna and Lucas, as they are waiting in the wings for their moment onstage at the competition, thunder and lightning and rain crashing outside. It comes back to me again and again, as I wonder why I have recently come back to the piano after a distance of some ten years, why I find myself slipping back on that familiar old bench, the keys strange and awkward under my fingers, the notes mysterious and incomprehensible. I cannot remember the sharps and flats and what key I am playing in. But I think of Minna saying to Lucas, "Why are we doing this?," and his response, simply, "Because we love it." ("Have we always known that?," she whispers in reply). And I remember that all those years ago I played Bach, (practicing reluctantly, and as little as I could get away with), simply because I loved it, and I have always known that. And it is time to return.

MacLachlan, Patricia. The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt. Harper Trophy, 1990. pp 11, 1, 129, 128.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Eating. borsch. (take two).

I can never chop an onion without reflecting that I learned how to chop onions from Encyclopedia Brown Takes the Cake!, one of a series of books about Leroy "Encyclopedia" Brown, the smartest kid in Idaville. (And you thought I learned how to cook from the Food Network. Not so). His father is the town's police chief; the mysteries (each a short chapter) are divided between cases his father puzzles over at the dinner table and cases Encyclopedia takes on for his clients, who come to his garage-detective agency needing his help in finding stolen property or solving some mystery. Cake! is full of food-related mysteries, and each story comes with a menu and recipes, easy enough for Encyclopedia, his friends, and the curious reader to make in their own kitchen (with the occasional adult supervision). As I peel my onion, slice it in half lengthwise, lay each half flat side down on the cutting board, making parallel slices (again, lengthwise) through the onion without cutting through the root end, and then slicing crosswise perpendicular to the first series of cuts, watching the onion fall away in a perfectly even (well, almost) dice, I say a small thanks to Encyclopedia Brown as I gather everything together for tonight's borsch.

Usually the week after my parents leave town I find myself making borsch; it has become something of a routine, I don't know why. Perhaps because, like macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes it is never something we never ate as a family, something that I pursued on my own when I had left home. (Although we sometimes went to Russian restaurants for the occasional dinner; there used to be one near the Pike Place Market that had good Beef Stroganoff and stuffed cabbage rolls and pelmeni, everything lavished with sour cream). I remember the first time I made borsch; my parents had gone out of town and left me home alone for the first time ever, with a family friend to supervise and make sure I didn't stay out all night or burn the house down. (I was fifteen or sixteen years old). Mrs. R. (my best friend's mother and carpool driver) kindly stopped at the grocery store on the way home from school so I could gather the ingredients together, beef stew meat and beets and other vegetables; dill and sour cream for the garnish. I don't remember how it turned out, but it must have been good, because I have been making it every since. (Then again, it is hard to make a truly terrible soup).

Time brought refinements; beef short ribs that stayed rich and tender instead of stew meat, which tended to become dry, gray, and flavorless. There were occasional flirtations with a food processor to shred the beets instead of an ordinary grater. (Now the old Cuisinart has met its end I have fallen back on a fearsomely shiny new six-sided stainless-steel grater, a Christmas present from a friend who looked at me as if I had gone insane when I said all I wanted for Christmas was a new cheese grater, the previous one having fallen apart in the dishwasher some months before). Tonight all I have to do is toss the vegetables I chopped this morning into the broth I made last night, neatly dice the meat (with which I made the broth) and grate the beets (which had been roasted the night before). As always I make a fuschia mess that runs the full length of my kitchen; as usual the smell of soup, warm soup, tasty soup, fills the air as I watch a movie, catch up on the day's news. And then it is ready, ready to season and taste, add lemon juice to sharpen the flavors, ready to sprinkle with fresh dill and dollop with sour cream and curl up with a hot bowl of soup. And then another.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Eating. fried-egg sandwiches.

Whenever I eat fried-egg sandwiches I think of the scene in The Inn at Lake Devine when Natalie storms out after an argument with her parents and returns home to go, "in the manner of distressed daughters...directly and noisily to [her] room." Her mother comes to the door with a fried-egg sandwich, the egg "cooked up with lacy gold edges...on toasted pumpernickel," seasoned with white pepper. As if family arguments could be solved by a sandwich. (You think this is all it takes? says Natalie to her mother. Room service?). It is highly unlikely that my mother ever brought me food after an argument (because, of course, she is never wrong), but I remember her making fried-egg sandwiches on weekends, a single fried egg between two pieces of lightly toasted whole-wheat bread.

The fried-egg sandwiches we had at home were different from the ham-and-egg sandwiches I remember from Taipei convenience stores of my childhood, a thin sheet of fried egg and even thinner slice of ham between the sweet softness of white bread, the kind that is finely textured and tastes of milk and egg, but more substantial than American white bread. (Sometimes, when I am back in Taipei, I go down to the 7-Eleven for one of those sandwiches, packaged in triangular plastic boxes, and those sweet yogurt drinks that comes in little foil-capped plastic bottles. I miss the sandwiches more than anything, more than beef noodles at the corner stand and xiao lung bao. Well, maybe not more than xiao lung bao. Almost).

A fried-egg sandwich needs toast. It doesn't need salt - although you could sprinkle a little seasoned salt and perhaps some black or white pepper if you like - because of the mayonnaise or Miracle Whip that is spread on both slices of toast gives you all the flavor you need. And the toast should be lightly toasted, just to give some strength to the bread but still remain pliable enough so you can spread the mayonnaise evenly, not so crisp that the toast shatters as you eat your sandwich. I heat a little butter in a small skillet (now I use a non-stick omelet pan, the perfect size for one or two fried eggs), break the egg and gently slide it into the sizzling butter. (Sometimes I use olive oil). As I toast the bread I pierce the yolk with a spatula so it runs out over the white as it quickly becomes opaque; the edges turn, as Lipman describes it, lacy and golden, and the fried egg forms itself into a slightly irregularly oval, yellow-and-white sheet. If I have judged things right, it is exactly the right size for my toast, which is done just as I flip the egg to brown slightly on the other side.

I remember reading what Amanda Hesser had written about eating fried-egg sandwiches in Cooking For Mr. Latte, during a visit to her mother: ...she made us fried egg sandwiches for lunch. They were my father's specialty. Whenever my mother was away, he'd make us fried egg sandwiches. He was particular about every step, and usually did it while singing and humming and doing a shuffly dance to Bonnie Raitt or Ray Charles. He would toast the bread and fry up bacon. He'd thinly slice a tomato and an onion. He would spread Miracle Whip on the toast, and sometimes, for himself, add a dash of horseradish. The egg would be laid across first, then the bacon, tomato, and lettuce. I hadn't had one in years, perhaps since my father had died. It was just as I had remembered it and this made my heart ache.

Reading that made my heart ache, too, and I think about Hesser's words as I spread mayonnaise on my toast - not too much, just a thin layer - slip the fried egg onto one slice of bread, centering it carefully before putting the other on top, slicing the finished sandwich in half. It needs nothing else, no ham, or bacon, or lettuce and tomato. Just egg, mayonnaise, toast. I pour myself a glass of orange juice, as I have since childhood, sit down to eat my dinner. It is perfect, as I knew it would be.

Lipman, Elinor. The Inn at Lake Devine. Vintage Contemporaries, 1998. p 140.

Hesser, Amanda.
Cooking for Mr. Latte. W. W. Norton & Company, 2003. p 260.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

lazy Sunday.

I woke, very late, to bright sunshine, the Sunday Times outside my door. Curled up with the paper and a cup of tea I forget that I am hungry, until a friend calls and I realize that we are fast passing the brunching hour. There is nothing to be done except head off to Volterra. Again. At this point perhaps I should reiterate that I am notorious for having absolutely no sense of direction, none at all, which has caused everyone who has either driven with me or been navigated by me endless frustration. In this case I am unfamiliar with the Ballard neighborhood where the restaurant nestles in the shade of the trees that line the streets, despite the fact that I have eaten there twice in the past week. A record; I cannot think of any restaurant where I have eaten three times in a month, let alone in a week, but here we are, fighting our way through traffic and the general uncertainty of trying to find someplace when you can't quite remember where it is.

But after some confusion and various turns down one-way streets that lead us to our destination in a ridiculously roundabout manner we find our way there, and I am mocked for my dramatic three-point-turn into a street-side parking space, when I could very well have pulled in easily (though facing the wrong direction) or made a U-turn at the end of the street (I have never been any good at U-turns, having learned to drive in a large army-green monster of a Range Rover as a teenager). The Sunday market, which takes up an entire block, the street barricaded at both ends and presided over by bored-looking traffic supervisors, is in full swing, as couples and young families and other shoppers make there way down the long double line of tents. There are stalls selling jewelry and art and clothes and handmade bags that seem to be made of scraps of hemp, breads and baked goods from local bakeries, jams and fruits and vegetables and herbs and alternative medicines. At the far end there is a hot-dog stand that sends forth enticing odors, but I have brunch fixed firmly in my sights and we walk on.

The restaurant is quiet as we are seated in the dining room; I tell C. about the photographs on the wall, the hand-carved alabaster lamps that hang from the ceiling. We order thyme-scented Bellinis; I couldn't decide whether I wanted lunch food - pappardelle with wild boar ragú, or a burger with roasted fingerling potatoes - or breakfast food - the same Eggs Benedict I had last weekend, or the scrambled with sausage and vegetables, or French toast. The French toast wins out, with its caramelized bananas and chewy, airy, egginess. I ask for a side order of hash browns, because brunch without hash browns is not brunch. The Bellinis are fizzy with Prosecco and fragrant with thyme (a sprig of which adorns each glass). It is the perfect island of calm before the week ahead, the frenzy of work during the day and the whirl of writing late into the night as I struggle to gather my thoughts into some semblance of coherency. But for now there is French toast, and a fizzy drink that tastes of fresh peaches and thyme, and a lazy afternoon ahead...

Saturday, May 05, 2007

reading. Mayle.

Some free Saturdays when I have nothing else to do I like to head downtown and have lunch by myself at Palomino. I go early, before the noon rush, and take a book so I can lean back against the leather banquette and fall into other places as I wait for my food to arrive, reaching one languid hand for some bread and tomato salsa as I lose myself in different worlds. I might bring an Agatha Christie that I haven't read for a while, or something new I have just discovered, or an old favorite like The Enchanted April if the day is grey and damp and I want to dream of warm holidays abroad. Most often I bring something by Peter Mayle, who is like a holiday, a week of sunshine and good food and wine and leisurely days in the countryside, packed into one hour of reading. So today I order a cool mojito (with raspberry syrup instead of rum) along with my lunch and settle in with A Good Year.

Max Skinner finds himself escaping the rat race of a thankless job, leaving behind the career and the company car and the bonus and consigned to the inhumanity of public transport, surrounded by a new generation of wildly pierced and tattooed passengers against whom the older passengers seemed like "relics from a distant, unadorned age." As he is wondering what to do next, with no job and no money and no idea of what to do with his messy flat and his equally messy life, a letter arrives from a French notaire, informing him of his Uncle Henry's death and his subsequent inheritance of his uncle's estate, encompassing the eighteenth-century bastide and twenty hectares of vines. Grape vines.

Over dinner with his best friend Charlie, Max - with the help of a generous loan from his friend - finds himself dreaming of taking over his uncle's vineyard, or at least taking a holiday to see if Le Griffon is the same as he remembered, "if the rooms still had the dry, pungent smell of herbs and lavender; if the sounds of a summer afternoon were the same; if the girls in the village were still as pretty." Before long he is in the village of Saint-Pons, of which he has so many childhood memories, sitting in a café drinking pastis, which tastes better than it ever did in London, because it "was at its best when you could hear the click of boules and the sound of French voices." There is nothing back in London except an empty apartment and an answering machine with the message I've gone to France. Back in six months. Perhaps. (Haven't you always wanted to be able to take off for six months, leave that kind of message on your answering machine, bring your life to a momentary halt while you hare off to some new adventure?).

And adventure is what Max finds, as he falls in love with the beautiful Fanny, who runs the local restaurant, and becomes entangled in a shady wine business that seems to have grown from a certain part of his uncle's vineyard that has been replanted with new and better vines. (Mayle's novels are always about hapless Englishman who come to France and somehow become entangled in something shady; it is his trademark). Meanwhile, a young American who most likely is his cousin arrives, to further complicate things (not to mention bringing up the question of just exactly who is entitled to the estate of Le Griffon).

Against all this mayhem is the glorious Luberon in the brilliant light, artist's light, Mayle calls it, the avenues of plane trees, the endless landscapes of grapevines running in parallel lines as far as the eye can see. I can taste the pastis, imagine the civet of wild boar, "almost black with wine and blood-thickened gravy," the smell of the earth on a hot summer day. It is with a bit of a shock that I finish my mushroom soup, my hot crab-and-artichoke sandwich on toast, and emerge from the Luberon countryside into a bright Spring day...

Mayle, Peter. A Good Year. Vintage Books, 2004. pp 21, 35, 45.