Saturday, June 23, 2007

Take me out to the ball game.

My father is in town, and friends have invited us along to a baseball game. (Actually, they invited my father, and I tagged along). They have Diamond Club seats, behind home base. These seats entitle you to a) choice parking in the parking garage, b) buffet dinner in the club, and c) free snacks delivered to your seat during the game. Oh, and d) a really close-up view of the action. Invitations are rare, and enthusiastically accepted without hesitation. We get there around dinnertime, and head into the club to meet our friends for a somewhat indifferent dinner; stainless-steel chafing dishes filled with tired Chinese noodles and fried rice and cashew chicken and stir-fried prawns. (Sometimes there is prime rib or sushi, but not tonight). There are platters of canapés and salads and slices of fruit and cakes and pies and cookies. There are pretzels and popcorn and peanuts in their shells and sticks of cotton candy wrapped in plastic; a soft-serve ice cream machine dispenses vanilla ice cream into little plastic baseball caps emblazoned with the Mariners logo.

Silence falls over the bustling dining room: it's time for the national anthem, which causes everyone to stand up and listen to the music filling the room. Time for the game to begin. People begin to gather their belongings and head towards their seats in the rows behind home base. It is a beautiful day, the roof of the stadium is open to the blue sky. I think back to the old Kingdome and the memories there, of walking up the wide ramp that spiraled around the outside of that old concrete stadium with its blue-painted dome. (When we were very young our school choir once sang before a game; I remember walking up that ramp as M. told me how her fish-sandwich dinner had given her the strength to climb "the great Mt. Dome!"). In those days we used to go to Chinatown for a dinner of beef noodles before a game. Now there is a new stadium with a retractable roof, private suites, and a basement club for people who are willing to spend hundreds of dollars per game to sit behind home plate and drink free beer and eat free food.

But the game has begun, so I leave the past and the memories behind to sit back with my (free) popcorn and (free) bottled water, and I am happy. Happy that it is a beautiful day, that my father is in town for a short visit, that the Mariners are winning. Someone hits a grand slam and a roar of joy fills the stadium, and this is the beautiful thing about baseball. The crowd becomes as one giant, living, breathing organism; the sea of people that surrounds every side of the field becomes one great, collective mass of joy. This is what I love about baseball, this sensation of being swept along with everyone around me, across the field, up above, to every side, the feeling of being one of thousands. And there are hot dogs. It isn't a baseball game without a hot dog, and some time around the seventh inning I feel the pangs of longing for one, which appears quickly in a cardboard dish. And the happiness is complete: a beautiful day, a winning game, blue sky and popcorn, and a hot dog.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Eating out. Atlas.

It was again one of those endless days, the kind that sees me dropping my bags on the floor once I am home again, books scattered across the floor as I try not to curl up and fall asleep. But I need to be fed, and I want to go for a drive, so I climb into the electric-blue van my uncle bought several years ago (I believe it was my grandfather who chose the color) and lurch off unsteadily towards the freeway. I head towards the mall where I use to spend most of my free time; it has shops and bakeries and huge supermarket and drugstore and several restaurants, and it is filled with young families and students from the nearby university. When I first got my driver's license nearly ten years ago I was afraid of the freeway, and this was the only place I knew how to get to; I would follow the winding road along the lake, through the vast greenness of the Arboretum, cross the bridge over the cut that joins Lake Union to Lake Washington, past the university campus, until at last I reached my destination.

Ten years ago my friends and I would occasionally come here for dinner. We were teenagers on parental allowances, and back then it was a splurge to spend twenty or so dollars on dinner. (And we always had trouble figuring out tax and tip). One side of the menu had comfort food - burgers and fried chicken and fish-and-chips and that sort of thing - and the other side had a rotating selection of themed menus (mostly seafood). I probably tried everything on that menu. We would always share the hot berry cobbler that had to be pre-ordered because it took half an hour to bake; it came to the table bubbling hot, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream melting in the middle. The friends have changed, the shops that like the walkways have changed, I've changed, but most of the dishes on the left side of the menu - and that cobbler - have remained the same after all this time.

Now I am here alone. (No cobbler tonight; it needs one or two people to share with). I have a new book, Notes From a Small Island, by Bill Bryson, about the writer's years in England. Thinking of gray English days I order the fish and chips and sink into Bryson's stories of the cities and towns that I have never seen. (And probably never will). The fish and chips arrive, crisp and golden, with a wedge of lemon and a dish of tartar sauce alongside. (I must confess I think of fish'n'chips as merely an excuse to eat tartar sauce). I eat my dinner and think about how what we (Americans) call chips is different from what they (the British) call chips, as with biscuits and pants. It is the perfect end to the day, this book and this plate of fish and chips.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Eating. ice cream sandwiches.

I grew up on a tree-shaded street, along which children ran down the sidewalks or rode their bikes, and people took their dogs on daily walks. The seasons ran together, blurred, and years slid by, and I wonder, where did they all go? Fall came, and leaves carpeted the streets; winter came and rain pounded the dead leaves until they disintegrated and disappeared; spring raised a cloud of white blossoms and soft green leaves, and summer turned the lawns spotty brown from the heat (particularly if you forgot to water the grass). In the summer ice-cream trucks drove through the streets, tootling their irresistible song that drove my dog crazy (she would start barking when she heard that tinkling music; like doorbells and the Blue Angels during SeaFair it seemed to flick a switch in her brain permanently to ON). You would hear the music of the ice-cream truck coming ever closer, block by block, signaling the beginning of summer, the promise of sunny days and multicolored popsicles that left your tongue striped in reds and blues.

Actually, I preferred ice-cream sandwiches to any kind of popsicle. (Although a friend's mother would give us the kind that came as a solid tube of ice encased in plastic; it was pinched in the middle, like two linked sausages, and you broke it in half like an old-fashioned ampoule of medicine and sucked the melting ice from the hole. And sometimes you just need a popsicle, although I can't remember the last time I had one). No, I preferred the ice-cream sandwich, an oblong block of vanilla ice cream between two chocolate cookies, wrapped in paper-lined foil. I loved that minimalism of it, white ice cream, dark brown - almost black - cookies. As in an ice-box cake of wafers and cream, the ice-cream softened the cookies, and the sandwich became one smooth whole as you ate it, bite by bite, melting slowly. (Or quickly, if the day was hot).

Like barbecues and s'mores and watermelon and the first handful of Rainier cherries of the season, ice cream sandwiches are for summer. Not like regular ice cream, which can be eaten even in the dead of winter, and I do. Somehow ice cream sandwiches belong to summer, to the little white trucks with their tinkling melodies, even if you buy them in boxes of six or eight from the supermarket freezer and not from the ice cream truck, one by one. And summer has come, or is almost here, the sun shining; it is time for barbecues and s'mores and watermelon. And ice cream sandwiches. On an impulse I buy some at the supermarket, I curl up on my sofa and watch the sunset change the colors of the sky outside the windows. Peel away the paper, take the first bite, soft chocolate biscuits, cool, creamy vanilla ice cream. As it happens whenever I eat something I associate with my childhood, I feel the years fall away, then flash forward to this moment again. Summer is here.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Reading. Gaiman.

It took me longer to finish Stardust than it usually does to finish a new book, days instead of hours. It was a slow journey through a magical woods, not a quick free-fall into another world and back out into my own. Each night I would read one chapter before curling up and falling asleep each night, following the young Dunstan Thorn through the stalls at the fair, leaving his son Tristran Thorne as he crossed the meadow "beyond the fields we know," leaving a mysterious female voice after some unseen being has fallen from the sky into a glade of elm trees and hazel bushes, leaving me wondering whether Tristran will find that fallen star again once she has run away from him. (Perhaps the sound of rustling trees and the silver glow of moonlight filled my dreams after I wandered through Gaiman's fictional woods). Reading a book slowly gave me more time to think about the story, to care more deeply about the characters.

Dunstan Thorne has been granted his heart's desire by a mysterious man he meets before the fair, and his first-born child (and that first-born child's first-born child) in turn. Dunstan's desire is Daisy Hempstock (or so he thinks); Tristran's desire is to find the fallen star in order to win the hand of (or a kiss from) Victoria Forester. But strange things happen, and the path to what they desire - or even what they ultimately desire - is not what they expect to find. Which is as it is in real life. Somehow the journey towards what you want most changes as you get closer; detours and roadblocks sometimes appear. Or when you find your heart's desire it turns out to be in a different form, as Tristran reaches his fallen star and finds her a young girl, with hair so pale it seems almost light, her leg broken in her fall to earth. (Or is it earth when she has landed in Faerie?).

In the end Tristran and the star - Yvaine is her name - find their way back to Wall, remaining on the side of Faerie (for if Yvaine crosses the wall into Wall she will become a lump of cold stone, for that is the form a fallen star would take on Earth). But Tristran has walked through fire and through distant lands and floated across the sky in a flying ship and taken the form of a dormouse in order to pass on in safety. When he returns to Wall he is no longer the same, just as we are never the same after a journey. And his heart's desire is not Victoria Forester, but Yvaine, with whom he spends the rest of his life, most of it happy. "Not foreverafter, for Time, the thief, eventually takes all things into his dusty storehouse." But then that is how life flows past us all, leaving us happy for a time, if not forever. It is enough to have it for a little while.

Gaiman, Neil. Stardust. HarperPerennial, 2006. p 247.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Reading. Maguire.

For many years I would, from time to time, come across a book among other books neatly boxed up in the basement. It was called Lights on the Lake, and I could imagine the cover as clearly in my mind as though I were holding it in my hands, although I never read it. (The title and author - Gregory Maguire - in neat calligraphy across the cover and along the spine, with a colored drawing of a black crow and a young boy flying through the night sky, over a town with a lake in the distance). The dust-jacket is only very slightly worn; once white, a faintly yellowed stripe borders one edge of the back. But otherwise it seems that it has never been read; the published date is 1981, and it is hardbound, so I could not have been more than two when it was purchased. There are no price stickers, no inscriptions inside (unlike the copies of My First Book About Computers and My First Book About Basic, which have, in neat blue writing, 塏如, Merry X'mas 1986 written on the fly-leaf. Why anyone would give a six-year-old books about computers and their language remains a mystery to me).

I doubt my parents would remember why they chose Lights on the Lake for me, or how indeed they chose any of the every-growing pile of books they bought me (many of them with my name written on the cover, or inside, in my mother's narrow, loopy handwriting). I owe much of my love for literature to my parents and all the books they bought me until I was old enough to choose my own. Years passed, and much later Gregory Maguire became rather well-known for Wicked (which then became a hit musical), and subsequent similarly-themed novels. I never read them, either, but his name remained at the back of my mind. And then quite suddenly I found myself in a new home, with space to spread out my belongings, organize my books in new ways, unlike the reckless hodge-podge of before. But it was not until we returned to our old home for its final purge that Lights on the Lake emerged from the darkness of the basement to land on my bedroom bookshelf, like sunken treasure lifted by some mysterious current that pulls it to shore, floating above all the flotsam and jetsam of previous lives.

The twelve-year-old Daniel has just said good-bye to his friend Father August, and he is still hanging around the Myer House rectory when a young man is left by his sister, pale and thin and listless, on the front porch. The man is Nikos Griskas, a young poet who is haunted by the death of his friend during a camping trip a month before; locked in his grief he seems to be slipping from life with each passing day. He seems to live - if you could call it living - with his eyes open but not seeing, like a sleepwalker, seeing his dead friend everywhere, unable to live because he believes that everything comes to death, that the world is only...a reminder...that time rolls on like a monster, eating everything up, swallowing everything up with its bleeding mouth, and we get swallowed up too...Even a feather, even a bird's feather comes shimmering with beauty deserving of salvation, and of salvation there is none. It all comes down to dying. Locked in his despair Nikos is slowly dying, and Daniel is the only one who can save him, who can bring him to the kind of peace and forgiveness he needs, to banish the ghosts, the reminder that he wanted that camping trip that ended with his friend's death. His agony is almost unbearable to read, because we have all experienced that feeling, that belief that if we had not done one thing, not made a suggestion, or a choice, or if we had done something differently, that we could have changed something terrible. As in life, Nikos cannot go back in time, cannot bring his friend back, but he can forgive himself, as we all can, and live.

Maguire, Gregory. Lights on the Lake. Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1981. p. 108.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

eating. sack lunch.

Some time ago B. mentioned a nearby café which made egg-salad sandwiches, the best she had ever tasted. I am very fond of an egg-salad sandwich, either plain, or with a little curry. Y. taught me to put finely chopped dill into the egg-salad when she brought an enormous pile of sandwiches sliced into perfect triangles and neatly arranged on a platter to one of our infamous lunch parties. I don't slice my sandwiches into perfect triangles, but then Y. is the sort of person who frosts her cupcakes with pink frosting and then pipes white flowers on top (or perhaps it is the other way around). Still, I had been thinking of those egg-salad sandwiches that B. mentioned for weeks now, but somehow had never made time to stop by and buy one, until I found myself with a little extra time in the morning and took the rather more circuitous route to work. This took me past the aforementioned café, a tiny place with a few tables and a very small counter from behind which two women made espresso drinks and handed out packets of cereal and scones.

The café is the sort of place where the same neighborhood people come in every day and order the same thing; the barista seems to know everyone who walks in and has their drink going even before they reach the counter. While eyeing the small cooler filled with cans of Pellegrino and bottles of BibiCaffé (my favorite thing in the world) I notice a small blackboard propped up against a stool proclaiming "SACK LUNCH." (Includes sandwich - tuna or egg salad, a cookie, and a piece of fruit). With my brown bag in one hand (BibiCaffé - an espresso soda - in the other) I continue on my way to work; waiting for the light on the corner I stop to open my bag and peek at its contents, and I am swamped by a wave of nostalgia.

I can't remember the last time I had a lunch packed in a brown paper bag. Sure, I usually bring lunch to work, a plastic box of leftovers, a sandwich (or the ingredients for one), or packets of instant noodles, carried in paper tote bags emblazoned with the logos of various shops (the more expensive the shop, the fancier the bag). I feel curiously young as I look at my plastic-wrapped sandwich and cookie, a ripe banana lounging insouciantly on top. It brings to mind school trips, lunches of ham or turkey sandwiches, with a bag of chips and an apple, perhaps a cookie or two. How many of those lunches have I eaten in this lifetime? Hundreds? Thousands? Would those bags stretch around the world? (Later, the sandwich eaten, every last cookie crumb devoured, the empty banana skin disposed of, I would smooth the brown paper bag flat, remember how I would sometimes reuse them until the sharp creases of each corner would relax into a rumpled softeness).

The egg salad is made with almonds, a sweet crunch with every bite; the multi-grain bread is spread with more mayonnaise before the sandwich is assembled, which I try not to think about too much. It is everything B. mentioned, and better. I eat my sandwich and drink my BibiCaffé and think about past brown-bag lunches eaten on a grassy lawn instead of at my desk in front of the computer. But instead of memories there is egg salad with almonds, and it is enough to make me happy, and I am.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Reading. Dunsany.

I came to the Irish writer Lord Dunsany several months ago because of a friend, who often tells me about what he is reading, which, in turn, sends me back towards a writer I have long loved or a new one whom I had not heard of before. In this way I get to remember what I love most about writers I have read for years or perhaps experience something new that I never expected, and fall in love with someone new, which is the exciting thing about literature. In short order I found myself with an interesting collection of stories and plays written by Lord Dunsany (who would have a profound effect on Tolkien and other writers of fantasy some decades later), published in the late 1910's or early 1920's, their leather bindings worn in places, some clad in clear plastic covers cracked with time. Some of the books have the names of previous owners written inside or emblazoned on nameplates; sometimes I run my fingers over the faded ink or engraved nameplates and wonder about those people who once held these books in their hands, flipped through the pages, lined their bookshelves with volumes of plays and fantastical stories in their gold-stamped covers.

However, my copy of The King of Elfland's Daughter is from the late 1960's or early 1970's, and therefore has a slightly psychedelic cover, bright colors illustrating various scenes from the novel, which I believe was the style of the times. (Lord Dunsany, otherwise known as Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron Dunsany, was then enjoying rather a bit of a renaissance due to the popularity of J. R. R. Tolkien and his stories). I read it in a haze some time during the winter and come back to it now because of Neil Gaiman, who owes much to Lord Dunsany (which he acknowledges) in his writing, particularly Stardust, when the young Tristran Thorne heads off "beyond the fields we know," a direct homage to The King of Elfland's Daughter and its repeated refrain.

The young Alveric, eldest son of the Lord of Erl, is summoned by his father and commanded to cross into the lands of faery in order to wed the King of Elfland's daughter, Lirazel. In Elfland Alveric finds the beautiful Lirazel, and they flee through her lands back into earth, where one day in Elfland finds some ten or twelve years have passed in Erl, the old Lord long dead. And so they are married (all this in Dunsany's clear prose which makes the most fantastical lands and happenings seem possible), and the years pass. They have a child, but the pull of Elfland and the rune sent by her father the King finally loosen the strings that bind Lirazel to her life on earth and sweep her back to the lands of her childhood, far from the fields we know. For happiness between men and those who belong to faery is fleeting, as they are drawn apart by their worlds and their own people.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Reading. Gaiman.

Usually I read books in one long breathless gulp, straight through dinnertime or late into the night, unable to stop until I come to the end of the story. Stardust is different, something I have been reading little by little, one or two chapters a night, nibbling away at Gaiman's words the way Charlie Bucket nibbles away at his precious chocolate bars to make them last longer. For me it is a new way to experience literature, a slow falling in love instead of a headlong free-fall, like inching my way step by step into the sea instead of diving in straight off, an extraordinary sensation, one I ordinarily don't have the patience to make time for. I want to know how the story ends, whether the hero wins his heart's desire, whether the heroine finds true love, whether the villain meets his or her rightful end, and often I can't sleep until I find the answers, such as who poured the hemlock into the unfaithful painter's beer.

I am not sure how I discovered Neil Gaiman, or what first drew me to Stardust, but I came to the end of the second chapter, and gave a little jump of surprise. But I will come back to that later. It begins with the town of Wall, in the earlier years of Queen Victoria, and with the young Dunstan Thorn. The town of Wall takes its name from a high wall of grey rock, which has a single opening that looks onto a meadow and beyond that a stream and trees among which shapes and figures can sometimes be seen; guards prevent people from passing through tha opening in the wall, except for "every nine years, on May Day, when a fair comes to the meadow." It is during this fair that the eighteen-year-old Dunstan Thorn meets a mysterious stranger who promises him his heart's desire, and at the fair he meets a young faerie, bound to slavery by a stall-owner, who steals his heart and leaves him, several months later (during which he has married Daisy Hempstock) with a baby son, Tristran.

Time passes, and the young Tristran is seventeen years old and madly in love with Victoria Forester, the most beautiful girl in town. He asks for a kiss, and for her hand in marriage, but is refused on both counts, even after promising to go to far-off places in order to bring back anything he can think of, gold and rubies and diamonds and opals and elephant tusks. But it is in exchange for a fallen star that she promises him anything he desires, and so he sets off with a bag of apples and bread and cheese and heads off through that gap in the wall, where he is given admission for being his father's son, and the son of that young faerie Dunstan Thorn met at the fair all those years ago. And, too ignorant to be scared, too young to be awed, Tristran Thorn passed beyond the fields we know...and into Faerie.

Gaiman, Neil. Stardust. HarperPerennial, 2006. pp 5

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Eating. sweet potatoes. (fries).

Usually I only have sweet potatoes (or yams) at Thanksgiving, or at Christmas, baked until the skins droop and the flesh softens, eaten as is or mashed into a creamy mass with a little butter, drizzled with honey or topped with marshmallows and baked until its white surface caramelizes in the heat. Or perhaps made into a pie, a golden crust filled with a dense cloud of burnt-orange sweetness. (I can't remember the last time I had a sweet-potato pie; it makes me thing of Southern novels about people sitting on their back porch drinking sweet iced tea while talking about their past, of fried-chicken dinners with all the fixings, and like English afternoon teas with scones and clotted cream it is like a dream of a life I don't have). But my favorite diner has sweet potato fries on the menu, and at dinner I order some along with my burger.

It feels a little strange to come here, to this neighborhood not far from where I used to live. Actually I rarely ate here when I lived nearby, at this bright and cheerful diner with its large windows and minimalist plywood chairs and its local regulars who are greeted like old friends when they come in. (It opened not too long before I moved; it belongs to the new generation of people who live here). Now I come here after scooping up an armload of books at the used bookstore a few doors away, sometimes after a day of work, sometimes after a day of lazing around. Sometimes I come early in the morning for bread and croissants and pastries at the bakery across the street, or go to the pizzeria a block away for lunch. Other times we go to the Caribbean-Creole place around the corner for jerk chicken and macaroni pie. But I want a cheeseburger, so I find myself on one of those minimalist plywood chairs with the slender metal legs that look like butterflies hovering above the tiled floor, at a table by the window. (When I walked past a little while earlier, a little baby was standing on a table by the window, smiling as though she was so happy to see me, I had to smile back).

I curl up with my bag of books, flipping through today's haul, thinking about what I should read as I wait for my dinner. I ask for a lemon soda, a cheeseburger with cheddar, sweet potato fries instead of the usual French fries. A vanilla cream soda arrives instead of the lemon, leading me to wonder whether my hamburger will be medium-rare instead of medium, with blue cheese instead of cheddar, no onions, and regular fries. To my relief, what arrives is what I ordered, perfect. I look at the cheeseburger slathered with caramelized onions, the bun spread with mayonnaise, layered with fresh lettuce and tomato, and think of an old Gourmet article where the author, who had grown up in some posh New York City hotel (where his father was manager), had written that hamburgers with mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, and onion used to be called California-style hamburgers. I wonder when that changed. And then I start eating my sweet potato fries, salty-sweet, crisp and tender all at once, and forget about everything else.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Reading. Perrotta.

I passed by Little Children the first time I saw it in the bookstore. It had recently been made into a film,which I had not seen, but I already knew that it was about parents of small children, dissatisfied with their lives, drifting into an affair. I found the subject matter uninspiring; I set the book back on its shelf and walked away. I don't know what brought me back, weeks or months later, but I found myself reading it one night, falling deeper and deeper in the story. Once I began reading I had to keep going until I had reached the end, the way I used to draw one deep breath and then swim from one end of the pool to the other in one long, smooth, glide. Through Perrotta's words I fell into that hot summer, that summer when Sarah and Brad's lives intersect at the playground where they take their children, beginning with that first kiss in front of the other mothers, the beginning of their affair during an afternoon thundershower. (Affairs always seem to begin during or after a storm, when everyone gets wet and has to change out of their damp clothes, somehow never quite making it into dry ones).

I realized quite suddenly that I understood Sarah better than I thought I would, as soon as I read the first page, and how she thought, I'm a researcher studying the behavior of boring suburban women. I am not a boring suburban woman myself. I am a long way from being any kind of mother, let alone a suburban one, but I recognize Sarah's fear that she would become one of those woman, the ones who schedule time each week to have sex with their husbands, who spend their days at the playground with their children and the other mothers, who can't remember the titles of movies they'd seen or praise everything as being "cute." It sent a shiver of awareness to see that she was the kind of mother I can imagine becoming, the one who forgets her daughter's snacks, the one who felt that at twenty-six that she was a failure, a "painfully ordinary person...destined to live a painfully ordinary life." I have that fear, too, and I am twenty-six (for just one more month).

Now I can feel a sort of sadness for Sarah, "plain and frazzled-looking," in sharp contrast to her lover's wife, tall and thin and glamorous in her jean shorts and bikini top, "one of those girls, the ones from high school who made you stick your finger down your throat after lunch, the ones who made you look in the mirror and cry." I can't understand feeling that way, but I can understand that feeling that Sarah has stumbled into the monotony of her life, almost as though she had been sleepwalking into marriage with Richard, sleepwalking into motherhood, that her life has just happened to her without her actually living it. And when she woke up she realizes that this is not the life she wanted, but she doesn't know how to make it any other way, until the end, when she realizes that a life with just her and her daughter can be something real, more real than her fantasy of having a new life with her lover, which will never happen.

Perrotta, Tom. Little Children. St. Martin's Griffin, 2004. pp 3, 12, 257, 187.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Eating. pudding.

When I was small pudding came in plastic tubs, butterscotch or vanilla or chocolate, or multilayered chocolate and vanilla. They came in packs of six, held together by a cardboard holder. At lunch I would peel back the foil cover, lick the bit of pudding off the lid, eat the rest bit by bit, enjoying the smooth coolness of each spoonful. I am not sure which I loved most, the caramel sweetness of butterscotch, the soft blandness of vanilla, the darkness of chocolate, or the latter two swirled together, light and dark. Sometimes in the school cafeteria there would be pudding for dessert, dolloped in shallow beige plastic dishes, still tasting the same as the kind that came in plastic tubs. Instant pudding, always the same, which is part of its charm.

Much later, I found a recipe for chocolate cream pie in Gourmet magazine, with a crust of crushed chocolate wafers and a drift of softly whipped cream on top. Ignoring the crust and the whipped cream topping, I had all the ingredients for the pudding - there was bittersweet chocolate in the pantry and eggs and milk in the fridge and cornstarch in the spice drawer. Egg yolks were beaten with sugar and cornstarch and milk, the mixture all brought to a simmer and cooked over a low flame; once it thickened the melted chocolate would be mixed in, and everything gently pushed through a sieve to make sure that there were no lumps. Easy as falling off a chair.

I would make the pudding whenever I had a craving for something chocolate but didn't feel like baking - it was merely a few ingredients stirred together and cooked on the stove and left to cool and thicken in the fridge. I experimented with different brands of chocolate and varying percentages of cocoa content, from 100% Scharffen Berger to 61% Valhrona and just about everything in between. The recipe was easy to halve, so if I happened to have one small bar lying around it was enough to knock up a bit of pudding to eat with my elbows on the kitchen table while watching tv after dinner.

It is the Thursday of a long week, my throat is sore and I am in need of comfort. Time for chocolate pudding. There are bittersweet chocolate chips in the cupboard; no need to chop up a bar of chocolate with a serrated knife. I have, as usual, eggs and milk; it is the work of a few minutes to stir everything together in a small pan on the stove, to measure out chocolate chips in a bowl, to splash a bit of Grand Marnier into the pudding and whisk it in, a hint of orange perfuming the dark chocolate. The recipe is for a pudding filling, as for pie, so it is stiffer than pudding for eating, so I cut back on the cornstarch, trying something different. (Which is what cooking is all about).

Unlike the pudding that comes from a plastic tub at the supermarket or from a box mix, my chocolate pudding is never the same. It changes depending on the kind of chocolate I use, whether I have cut back on sugar or not, whether I have cut back on cornstarch or not, whether I have splashed in a bit of rum or Grand Marnier or perhaps Amaretto. Once I put too little cornstarch in and it became like a thick chocolate soup; another time I turned my attention away for a bit too long and it became a trifle lumpy. Never mind. I'll get it right, someday.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Memory exercise. (part three).

Another one of my earliest memories is from when I was perhaps three years old and my parents took me to Xi'an. I remember walking up a long, dusty hill that sloped gently up towards a tomb of some empress or emperor; I remember dragging my feet in the dirt and looking up at the ancient stone statues of horses and camels and soldiers that guarded the wide path. Sometimes in my dreams I would remember those statues, that dusty path. Nearly twenty years later I found myself there again, only that wide path had been neatly paved with stone and borders of greenery and flowers ran alongside those same ancient guardians. Tourists gathered from all over the world; more tombs had been unearthed, and new museums were built over the newer excavations. The main tomb is the one I remember, my three-year-old self hanging over the iron railing, looking down at the rows and rows of terra-cotta soldiers that had been uncovered after centuries of darkness. Centuries had changed them, worn the paint from their immortal faces, but twenty years had not dimmed my memory of them, although now I lean my elbows on the top of the railings and not the bottom rung.

A few years later we were back, in some seaside university town (the name of which I can't remember), of which I remember only that I was allowed to drink Coca-cola for the first time in the university dining hall, that the beds were shrouded in misty white veils of mosquito netting, which I thought was the coolest thing ever, and that I collected rocks on the beach, and slender, conical shells shaped like icicles, or unicorn horns. I wonder if we still have those rocks, or if they were discarded during the recent purge and subsequent sale of our family home. But then the rocks themselves are not important, only the memory of collecting them is.

On that same trip - or perhaps it was a year or so later - we made a trip to Shanghai to visit my mother's grandmother; I wouldn't know that it would be the last time I saw my great-grandmother, or that I would not return to Shanghai for another sixteen years. By then she already spent all her time in bed, or so it seemed to me, and all the family were crowded in the room to visit. She must have been close to ninety, but when I was a baby I had been in her care, with the help of my great-aunts, my mother's aunts. There are photographs of that visit, of me in my white t-shirt with its bright appliqué of an ice-cream cone, playing with my cousins (the children of my mother's cousins, I suppose) and with the pigeon that was soon to be killed and made into soup for our meal. Which gives new meaning to the term "playing with your food." I don't think I have eaten pigeon since that time, although I have eaten many a pan-roasted squab (baby pigeon) in Chinese restaurants here and there (halved and lacquered with some salty-sweet glaze). The meat was sweet and tender, falling off the bone into the hot broth.

When my father asks me what I remember of my childhood, this is what I tell him.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Memory excercise. (after Calvino, again).

One of my earliest memories of St. Louis (and of my life, for that is where memory begins for me) is when my parents made a snowman for me. I was two or three years old, and I couldn't go outside to play in the snow because I had a cold, so my parents built a snowman for me, with eyes and a nose and perhaps a hat and buttons. I remember being wrapped up and carried outside to see this snowman, twice my height, round and jolly and white. I loved the snow, which covered our garden and turned the back lawn into an endless smooth whiteness that stretched as far as the eye could see, interrupted by paw prints and blotches of dog pee. After we moved to Seattle it would be years before I saw that kind of snow again, after I went to university in upstate New York, and learned how to live with snow once more.

Then came spring, cherry blossoms on the university campus and crab-apple blossoms over the driveway, the back yard a green carpet stretching far into the distance (or so it seemed to my eyes). Rabbits lived in our herb garden, and one day, Megan, the golden retriever next door brought a baby rabbit to my mother, holding the shivering little ball of fur in her mouth, but gently. It spent the day in a shoebox in my father's study, resting on a little bed of socks or rags or something, and when I came home from preschool my mother set it free again in the garden. It was so tiny, smaller than my three-year-old (or perhaps I was four) hand, so fragile and soft when I touched it.

Summer was hot, the sun blazing down and baking the lawn into golden straw. We would go canoeing on the river (there is a photograph of me, aged three or thereabouts, sitting on a watermelon left to keep cool in the stream), hiking in mountains (which ones, I cannot remember) with picnic lunches of baguettes and slices of salami and prosciutto wrapped in brown paper from the delicatessen. The basement was a cool refuge with its cement floors and walls (although perhaps I have imagined all that); it seemed huge and dark and only faintly lit by bare bulbs dangling from the ceilings. I am not sure how much of this is my own memory or my imagining of how things might have been. Such is the way of memories.

One thing I do remember with absolute certainty is the fourth of July fireworks at the Arch, of sitting on a blanket between my parents - they tell me that I always had to be in the middle, and that even if they were holding hands I had to slip in between and take their hands in my small grasp - and putting those earplugs that are a little like miniature marshmallows in my ears to deafen the boom of the fireworks. That is one of my earliest memories of my childhood, of the darkness lit up briefly by the bright sparks of the fireworks exploding over our heads, of the noise muffled by those squishy little earplugs, of sitting between my parents, my arms around my knees or my hands in theirs. I think of that time whenever I watch fireworks now.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Reading. Konigsberg.

My childhood holidays were often spent in New York, where my grandfather spent most of his time, or in Taipei, where he spent the rest of the time. When I think of New York I always think of wintertime, of bare trees along the avenues wrapped in twinkling lights, of the Russian Tea Room and ice skaters on the rink in the shadow of that giant Christmas tree of Rockefeller Center. I remember the living room of my grandfather's apartment, with its leather couches and marble-topped table, the mirrored wall that reflected my five-year-old self and the lights outside the windows. And I remember visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I have spent so many hours wandering through the halls. (Even now, after all these years, I still get lost in those endless rooms, one opening into another, and then another, drifting from the Dutch masters, past the musical instruments, into the annex of modern art).

I can't remember when I first read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, but I have loved it for a long, long, time, and I think of it when I find myself in rooms full of centuries-old furniture arranged behind velvet ropes with little plaques telling us which famous king or queen or statesman slept beneath those elaborately carved canopies and brocade draperies. I feel a sneaking sense of envy for Claudia and Jamie, who run away to New York City and spend a week living in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sleeping in a sixteenth-century bed that had been the "scene of the alleged murder of Amy Robsart, first wife of Lord Robert Dudley, later Earl of..." (Leicester). I remember eating lunch in the palm-shaded restaurant by the fountain where Claudia and Jamie took their baths (and collected spare change for food and other necessities of life). I remember those galleries of Egyptian treasures unearthed from ancient tombs where the children joined another school trip to learn about mummies.

My New York is a decade older than the one the Kincaids ran away to; the automat where they ate cereal and cheese sandwiches had disappeared, and my allowance was somewhat more generous than fifty cents a week. (Now, of course, fifty cents wouldn't buy a bottle of water). And I was an only child; who could I take with me when I ran away from home, beside my stuffed animals? The story isn't so much about the running away as it is about Claudia's need for something that is entirely her own, that isn't about her role in the family as the eldest, the straight-A student, the good girl. She needs, as Mrs. Frankweiler sees, to have a secret. In order to return home to Greenwich she has to be able to return a different person. But she brings her brother Jamie with her; she shares her secret with him. They become a team, sharing money, sharing a bed, sharing the search for the truth about the angel statue that leads them to Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and her secret that becomes theirs.

Konigsberg, E. L. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Dell, 1977. pp 38, 149.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Eating. olives.

I think it was Johnny Carson who said that "happiness is finding two olives in your martini when you're hungry." (Even if he didn't say it, it sounds like something he would have said). I have never quite gotten the hang of martinis (or pimento-stuffed green olives) but I am never happier than when I have a little bowl of olives in front of me to nibble on as I putter around the kitchen or wait for my meal to arrive while out for dinner. I have been known to eat an entire can of olives by myself and was once severely chastised for eating nearly all the olives on the table at lunch by my host, who was perhaps hoping to snag at least a few for herself. When I was quite small I would stick those jumbo black olives, with their neat little holes, on each of my fingers and eat them slowly, one by one, thinking of that scene in Beverly Cleary's The Luckiest Girl when Shelly, just arrived in California from Portland, is given a fresh olive just off the tree by Katie, and excitedly bites into it, only to find that uncured olives are bitter and inedible. (Who was the first person to think that something so bitterly unappealing could be turned into something so addictively delicious?).

As a child, lunch was often a tuna-salad sandwich made with sliced olives, cans of which were always on hand in the pantry. These were still those salty yet bland California olives from the supermarket. Later I would discover the saltier, more intense Italian olives that came scattered across rumpled sheets of foccacia at the Italian restaurant we often went to. Those same olives - Kalamata or Niçoise or Ligurian, dark and intense, with a faint bitterness that made them absolutely addictive - would turn up in pasta Puttanesca or swirled through those rough-hewn loaves of bread (Alan Richman wrote that he would complain to waiters at so-called Mediterranean restaurants whenever he found olives in the bread, which he found tiresome) which have become so ubiquitous throughout the past decade or so (even during the low-carb rage that swept the nation). Personally I rather liked the excitement of finding olives in my bread, but then, I love them; they add flavor and depth to whatever dish they grace, a pasta salad or a plate of Chicken Marbella, where the bright spark of olives contrasts with the soft sweetness of prunes.

In the end olives need nothing but themselves, a small handful in a bowl, next to the bread and butter, perhaps with some pickled onions and mushrooms or a plate of radishes. In Europe the guidebooks tell you to refuse this small offering (generally it comes as a small cover charge), but I could never refuse those crisp rolls or roughly-crusted bread, the sweet butter, the tiny dark olives marinated with herbs or the large, smooth green olives with their faintly briney perfume. It awakened the appetite, left you hungering for the meal to come.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Eating out. Lark.

Another Saturday at work, another chance to have dinner at Lark, alone. I am early, as usual, and because it is a warm and sunny June day the shades are drawn and the door closed against the bright light. When I step inside at first it seems the room is empty, and then K. (one of the owners) appears from behind one of the long curtains that curve along the length of the restaurant. In the quiet before the dinner rush I am given my choice of tables along the banquette that stretches down one wall, and I move farther into the coolness of the room. Slip onto the hard wooden bench, flip through the menu with all its enticements. The cheeses and charcuterie need a party of friends to share with; so does the carpaccio of yellowtail, one of my favorite dishes. I ponder the salads, and then the waitress arrives to tell me about the two specials of the night, the second of which is a flatiron steak. Ooh! Sold.

Some bread-and-butter comes as I wait, and a tall glass of soda tasting faintly of lemongrass. A cold soup of ajo verde arrives in a Staub soup plate, the heavy black cast-iron cold to the touch. Ajo verde is a green garlic; in Spain they make a cold soup of garlic and almonds, and this seems like it might be the chef's reinterpretation of it. It is smooth and creamy - very creamy - and cold; it tastes green without being grassy, not like garlic at all, and that green smoothness is interrupted by the textures of blanched almonds and the sweetness of (I think) spot prawns. As I eat my soup I trace the letters that run around the rim of the plate - S T A U B - like the hours of a five-hour clock and feel as though summer has arrived. I eat my bread and my cool soup and watch the table in front of me - two couples of a certain age - as they mutter their way through the wine list and the menu and converse easily with K., one of the three owners, who oversees the dining room (the chef and his wife are the other owners), and three waitresses. One of the men is the sort of diner who talks to everyone, introducing himself to the waitress, to the owner, asking questions about various dishes on the menu. It is like watching a show, dinner theater.

My steak arrives, perfectly grilled and sliced. It occurs to me that I ought to have asked for the pommes de terre Robuchon, so K. glides off to get me some. It might take a little while, she warns me. It's ok. I'll eat slowly, I tell her. Which is hard, because the beef is juicy and flavorful, rich and tasting the way you think beef should taste, and I want to eat it all right away. I distract myself with a tangle of wild asparagus, each stalk no thicker than a strand of spaghetti; I wonder how such a frail stalk could hold the weight of the feathery tip. (The waitress tells me that they come from Provence, and I have a sudden mental image of some farmer flying first-class, a basket of those fine green wild asparagus bundled into the overhead bin). The green strands are slippery and sweet, electrified by the crunch of sea salt. A few porcini mushrooms huddle to one side, quartered and sautéed until golden around the edges, each one as savory and intensely flavored as the steak. The potatoes come in a black cast-iron cocotte, and they are like whipped butter flavored with a little potato. According to Jeffrey Steingarten, Joël Robuchon (for whom these potatoes are named) runs his potatoes through a food mill and then rubs the puree through a sieve; these potatoes have that same smoothness.

My plates are whisked away as I lean back on the banquette and think about dessert. A different waiter stops by - the adorable one, who wears glasses and has a little bit of an accent which I have yet to identify - and suggests the Meyer lemon parfait instead of the rhubarb crisp. It's perfect for this weather! he tells me, and I watch the next table ooh and ah over a succession of dishes - fresh oysters, the yellowtail carpaccio, a beet salad, the burrata which I love but certainly can't contemplate eating alone - while waiting for my parfait. And then I see it, almost floating through the air towards me, a round of frozen lemon mousse capped with a drift of whipped cream, topped with an enormous tuile, the most perfect, most delicate tuile I have ever seen. The parfait is not too sweet, but at the same time not too tart; the creaminess of the mousse tempers the tartness of lemon, without being too creamy. It is like diving into cool water, and I drive home in a lemon-scented haze.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Reading. Yevtushenko.

I came home, late, to find a carton of books waiting for me at the front desk. Suddenly, the cares and exhaustions and pains of the day fell away; I bounded into the elevator with my brown cardboard box. It felt light in my hands, surprisingly, and soon I found myself sitting on the cool marble of my front hallway, the books piled around me. This is my favorite part of the day, when I come home to find a package and a slightly bemused phone message from the morning concierge. Miss Yao, I have...[slight pause]...a couple of packages for you here. This is the latest haul, the latest binge from one of my favorite bookstores, all smelling of aged paper the way used books smelled of old paper and glue, other peoples' names scribbled inside the covers. I have some volumes by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, whom I have lately been reading with an unexpected fervor; I turn to Almost at the End (a first edition, it is signed by the auther, a scrawled Yevtushenko on the fly-leaf, with a sickle, a man, and a cross - or is it a star? - beneath the name).

The first poem, I Would Like, gives me the feeling of an electric shock (I regret that I cannot reproduce the spacing of his words; they move in a jagged line across and down the page):

I would like
to be born
in every country,
have a passport
for them all
to throw
all foreign offices
into panic,
be every fish
in every ocean
and every dog
in the streets of the world.
I don�t want to bow down
before any idols
or play at being
a Russian Orthodox church hippie,
but I would like to plunge
deep into Lake Baikal
and surface snorting
why not in the Mississippi?
In my damned beloved universe
I would like
to be a lonely weed,
but not a delicate Narcissus
kissing his own mug
in the mirror.
I would like to be
any of God�s creatures
right down to the last mangy hyena--
but never a tyrant
or even the cat of a tyrant.
I would like to be
reincarnated as a man
in any image:
a victim of prison tortures,
a homeless child in the slums of Hong Kong,
a living skeleton in Bangladesh,
a holy beggar in Tibet,
a black in Cape Town,
but never
in the image of Rambo.
The only people whom I hate
are the hypocrites--
pickled hyenas
in heavy syrup.
I would like to lie
under the knives of all the surgeons in the world,
be hunchbacked, blind,
suffer all kinds of diseases,
wounds and scars,
be a victim of war,
or a sweeper of cigarette butts,
just so a filthy microbe of superiority
doesn�t creep inside.
I would not like to be in the elite,
nor, of course,
in the cowardly herd,
nor be a guard dog of that herd,
nor a shepherd,
sheltered by that herd.
And I would like happiness,
but not at the expense of the unhappy,
and I would like freedom,
but not at the expense of the unfree.
I would like to love
all the women in the world,
and I would like to be a woman, too--
just once...
Men have been diminished
by Mother Nature.
Why couldn�t we give motherhood
to men?
If an innocent child
below his heart,
man would probably
not be so cruel.
I would like to be man�s daily bread--
a cup of rice
for a Vietnamese woman in mourning,
cheap wine
in a Neapolitan workers� trattoria,
or a tiny tube of cheese
in orbit round the moon.
Let them eat me,
let them drink me,
only let my death
be of some use.
I would like to belong to all times,
shock all history so much
that it would be amazed
what a smart aleck I was.
I would like to bring Nefertiti
to Pushkin in a troika.
I would like to increase
the space of a moment
a hundredfold,
so that in the same moment
I could drink vodka with fishermen in Siberia
and sit together with Homer,
and Tolstoy,
drinking anything,
except, of course,
--dance to the tom-toms in the Congo,
--strike at Renault,
--chase a ball with Brazilian boys
at Copacabana Beach.
I would like to know every language,
like the secret waters under the earth,
and do all kinds of work at once.
I would make sure
that one Yevtushenko was merely a poet,
the second--an underground fighter
I couldn�t say where
for security reasons,
the third--a student at Berkeley,
the fourth--a jolly Georgian drinker,
and the fifth--
maybe a teacher of Eskimo children in Alaska,
the sixth--
a young president,
somewhere, say, modestly speaking, in Sierra Leone,
the seventh--
would still be shaking a rattle in his stroller,
and the tenth...
the hundredth...
the millionth...
For me it�s not enough to be myself,
let me be everyone!
Every creature
usually has a double,
but God was stingy
with the carbon paper,
and in his Paradise Publishing Corporation
made a unique copy of me.
But I shall muddle up
all God�s cards--
I shall confound God!
I shall be in a thousand copies to the end of my days,
so that the earth buzzes with me,
and computers go berserk
in the world census of me.
I would like to fight on all your barricades,
dying each night
like an exhausted moon,
and resurrecting each morning
like a newborn sun,
with an immortal soft spot--fontanel--
on my head.
And when I die,
a smart-aleck Siberian Francois Villon,
do not lay me in the earth
of France
or Italy,
but in our Russian, Siberian earth,
on a still-green hill,
where I first felt
that I was

Yevtushenko, Yevgeny. Almost at the End. Henry Holt and Company, 1987. pp 1-5.