Saturday, December 28, 2013


The week has been busy, but good.  A chance to rest and relax.  There have been several really wonderful sunsets--it's nice when you have a chance to see and savor them.  And not from an office window.

I've been reading and knitting and taking long walks.  I've taken two, five-mile walks this week, in fact.  That will keep the holiday calories under control (more or less).

I stumbled upon an interesting find: the diaries of Emily Hawley Gillespie.  I found out about them because I was reading a book called Midnight Assassin (2005) by Patricia Bryan and Thomas Wolf.   It's about a murder that occurred in Iowa in 1900 that subsequently formed the basis for Susan Glaspell's play, "Trifles" (1916) and her short story, "A Jury of Her Peers" (1917).  Glaspell was one of the reporters assigned to cover the story.

In early December of 1900, an Iowa farmer, John Hossack, was bludgeoned with an ax while he lay sleeping in his bed.  He died several hours later of massive head-trauma.  

His children were asleep upstairs.  His wife, Margaret, was (allegedly) asleep next to him.  

Margaret was tried for murder.  She claimed the murderer must have been an intruder and that she had heard nothing.  The Hossacks had a history of quarrels and conflicts but, oddly enough, things had been quiet between them for over a year.  Family and neighbors reported that, although the Hossacks had once talked of separating, they seemed to have reconciled.

John Hossack was known as a strange and difficult man, although he was also a prominent member of the Iowa community in which they lived.  At several points, he had assaulted his wife Margaret and quarrelled extensively with their children.  More than once, Margaret had requested neighbors' assistance in dealing with John Hossack's violent rages.  There had been talk of having him committed to a mental institution.  But all of this seemed to have died down in the year prior to the murder.

While reading about the Hossack crime, I came across the diaries of Emily Hawley Gillespie.  Gillespie was the wife of an Iowa farmer: she moved to Iowa from Michigan when she married in 1862.  She kept a daily diary for--get this--30 years.  It's nearly 2500 pages long.  She began keeping it in 1858, when she was 19, and she only stopped writing in it shortly before she died, at age 49, in 1888.

It's not the kind of reading that most people would find interesting, I imagine, but I'm enjoying it.  No one has published her complete diary (obviously), but I'm reading "A Secret to Be Burried": The Diary and Life and Emily Hawley Gillespie, 1858-1888 (1989) by Judy Nolte Lensink.  

It's interesting to think about how much has changed and how different an American woman's sense of her own life and purpose would have been 125 years ago.  At age 19, Gillespie is relatively certain she won't marry; she marries five years later, and although all indications are that she loves her husband--at least initially--there are hints that she may realize her economic and social situation as a single woman simply isn't feasible anymore.  

It was particularly interesting to read Hawley's entries for Christmas at a time when American consumerism was running rampant all around me.  No gifts.  No cards.  No tree.  No decorations.  No celebration.  No huge meals of fat and and salt and sugar, washed down with booze (Gillespie was an advocate of temperance).  No nothing, really.  In some cases, Gillespie spent the day with family, but not always.  In most cases, she mused about where she might be a year later; often, she wondered if she would still be alive.

Which may sound rather morbid, but as you read her journal, you begin to realize that Gillespie was quite justified in her thinking.  In more than one case, young friends of Gillespie's, who seemed hale and hearty one day, suddenly died the next.  Gillespie regularly mentions sitting up at night to keep vigil over the corpses of friends or the children of friends.  Life was in no way guaranteed from one day to the next.

During the Civil War, more soldiers from Iowa died from disease than died in battle: many never saw combat.  A little over 13000 soldiers from Iowa died in the war, nearly 8500 of them from disease, 3540 from battle wounds (Lensink, 407).

What Gillespie had that we seem to have lost, however, is a penchant for dialogue and company and community.  As a single woman, she went out,  she "dated," and she enjoyed talking and interacting with friends of both sexes.  She wrote letters to friends; she kept an extensive journal.  She earned a teaching certificate and, after she married, she endured a difficult life, raising children and maintaining a (solvent) family farm, as her relationship with her husband deteriorated.

I think many people would read Gillespie's diary and think that her life was dull and difficult, and that we clearly have it better than she did.  And yes, in many ways, we do.  But I wonder whether we appreciate that fact for what it's worth, and whether, in the end, we squander many of the things that Gillespie and others of her time period would have cherished.

For all of our idealization of "the siimple life," Gillespie's diary made me very aware of the fact that such a life is often a very difficult one.  And yet, in its simplicity, there is much to be valued and respected, precisely because it is so hard-earned.

Sunday, December 22, 2013


It's done.  Barring any unforeseen occurrences (knock wood), I am all set for the holidays.

The Melville article is revised and in the mail.  The gifts are purchased (or made) and ready to be wrapped and given.

The food is cooked.  The house is (totally, amazingly) clean.  Thanks to the warm temperatures, I managed to get two small bits of yard work done that were still lingering.  The bags are packed.  The laundry is done.  I even found the socks I temporarily lost.

All I need to do is get my hair cut tomorrow, and I'm ready for two weeks of holiday fun.

I simply have remind myself that, "These are the holidays.  You are not supposed to pack all kinds of work."

Because, truth be told, I'm a creature of habit and so, yes, I've packed a little work.  Nothing dramatic.  Just a few things that, in case there's some down time, it would be totally cool of me to get done before January.

But no pressure.  I'm taking half of what I normally take because I've come to the realization that it is ridiculous to pack all kinds of work when you head out on vacation, "just in case."

In my defense, in the past, I've been stuck at airports for anywhere from 12-24 hours at a time, and when that happens, having more to do rather than less is really the way to go.  (So is carrying a toothbrush in your purse.  And not wearing makeup.  And having short hair.  That you never shampoo anyway.)

And thank god for the Kindle app.  Because this way, no one can tell them I'm packing 15 different books, several of them over 500 pages long.

Hey, it's how I roll.

Happy Holidays! 

Friday, December 20, 2013

"Almost Home"

As I've mentioned over the years, I'm a huge fan of Best Friends Animal Society and their No-Kill policy.  I adopted my two cats, Smokey & Freya, from a local shelter.  Smokey was nearly a year old, and Freya was about eight months old.

It was one of my best decisions EVER.

The artist, Moby, recently made a video promoting Best Friends and adoption.  Here it is.

Adopt.  "Save Them All."  Or, if you can't adopt right now, give a little something.

Or buy a little Christmas gift for someone (perhaps yourself?) from Best Friends' online store.  The t-shirt that Moby is wearing is smokin' hot.  I know, because I have one, and I look particularly, particularly good in it.

And no, it's not me, it's actually the t-shirt.  It's that good.


Wednesday, December 18, 2013


This is just a quick, 5-minute post, because that's how long the cake I have in the oven has left to bake.

Today has been a day of favorites.  I spent the morning and early afternoon writing--and it was a day when the writing went well, which is my favorite kind of day.  (Days when the writing isn't going well, on the other hand, leave a girl lying in a fetal position on the floor, whimpering things like, "I just don't know why.  I just can't.  That isn't what I wanted to say.  Why does it say that?")

I took a break mid-way through the writing session and went for a swim.  In a pool of course.  I'm not insane.  Or at least not in that particular way.

And I actually swam an extra quarter-mile, to make up for the fact that I didn't go swimming yesterday, because the weather-people kept insisting on using phrases like "treacherous conditions" and "hazardous roadways" and "visibility less than a quarter mile."  None of which proved to be true.  We got all of about an inch and a half of snow.

And they're still naming the storms.  I really don't know why.  I haven't met a single person who is happy about that development, but then again, there's a good chance that I implicitly screen for the type of people who don't want their storms named.

When I finished writing, I worked on my knitting and the sweater for my neighbor's grandson is washed and blocking even as we speak.  All I have to do is sew in the sleeves and sew on the buttons, and it will be done and good to go.

I then spent the remainder of the afternoon making the apple muffins that I love.  Only downside was, I forgot to spray the muffin papers with baking spray.  When I discovered this, I said, "SHEEEEyooooot."  And moved on with my life.

Because let's face it, plenty of people in the world live and eat muffins and don't have the luxury of baking spray, and if the muffins taste good, who cares, really?  And if I encounter someone who cares, well, they won't get another muffin from me and that's that.

The cake is out of the oven.  (Why do I feel like I just wrote the equivalent of, "The eagle has landed"?)  An evening of knitting and reading awaits.  And to kick it all off, some fun with Norah Jones and Dolly Parton.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Peace on Earth

I've been on call for jury duty all this week (Remember how I was summoned last June?  Well, I kept postponing it, until finally, it was time to pay the civic piper.)  All week I kept trying to remind myself that it wasn't like I was awaiting a draft notice for Vietnam, but I suspect I behaved as if I might as well have been.

But today, good news: my term of service has officially ended.  And no, I wasn't called up, so I didn't have to report.  (Note the "draft" language.  This is what I've been like all week.  Ask my best friend.)

I've tried to make the best of it by taking it all "one day at a time," because really, that's what you have to do.  You can't really plan anything until 5:00 p.m. each day, at which point you find out what you'll be doing the next day: living a rich, full, happy life or sitting in the county courthouse wearing a badge and earning $5. a day praying you don't have to return to do it all again the next day.

So that's over.  And I can actually plan on finishing the revisions to one of my articles this week, and maybe even make it to the library to get the books I'll need to finish up another one before I start my round of holiday visits and celebrations next week.

Right now, it's snowing.  And I'm looking forward to a night in front of the fireplace with good food, good books, and this: 

Peace on Earth.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

"The Book of Salt"

A decade ago, a colleague told me about Monique Truong's The Book of Salt (2003).  It's a novel told from the perspective of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas' Vietnamese cook.

So of course I wanted to read it.

I started the novel this summer, and for some reason, I couldn't get into it.  I'm not sure why, because last weekend, I picked it up and read it in about 3 days.  I thought it was an interesting and beautifully written novel, actually.

I should have blogged about it last weekend, though, because now I'm struggling to figure out how to put into words exactly what it is that I enjoyed about this novel. 

Truong interweaves the ideas of writing, cooking, sexuality and identity: the narrator, Binh, was employed as a "garde-manger" in a French Governor-General's house in Saigon; Binh's older brother was employed as the sous-chef who hoped to one day be installed as the chef de cuisine.  He is passed over, however, when the Governor-General insists on bringing a chef from Paris--the implication is that no Vietnamese chef could ever hope to prepare French food the way a Frenchman would.

Binh is eventually forced to leave the Governor-General's home and, when he is disowned by his father, he boards a ship and travels extensively, eventually arriving in Paris in 1929.  He answers an ad for a cook and is installed at 27 Rue de Fleurus, the famous home of Modernist writer Gertrude Stein and her lover, Alice B. Toklas.

Binh reflects extensively on what it means to speak a language not one's own and what it means to be forced into silence; to be exiled from a home to which one never fully belonged and identified with the very things from which one is ostracized.

I can't help but think that one of the reasons I enjoyed the novel more when I restarted it last weekend is because the food imagery resonated more fully with me, given the season (excuse the pun).  But also, as Truong's novel unfolds, additional layers of complexity are revealed and part of the enjoyment of the novel--for me, at least--eventually lay in watching how those layers overlapped and interconnected.

Truong's dialogue with Modernism is extremely interesting.  She plays with the tensions between French, American and Vietnamese culture--Stein is an American expatriate living in Paris; she is frequently identified as one of the key writers of the Modernist literary movement.  The reader can't help but notice the essential silence and invisibility of Binh's presence in the Stein-Toklas home and reflect on how quickly the world will change.

In the ensuing decades, the French will be forced to abandon their colonial holdings in Indochina and Americans will quickly become aware of the existence of Vietnam in ways they could never have foreseen.

Truong's novel is extremely lyrical.  The novel revels in the idea of language and translation: Binh frequently remarks on the fact that his own native language is essentially incomprehensible and unpronounceable to the French colonialists who govern Vietnam, and yet, despite his increasing facility with French, he is permanently identified as culturally and linguistically inferior.

Truong employs the motif of linguistic nuance--the idea that context and significance can be lost in a literal translation of one's words--to good effect.  In one particularly humorous instance, Binh reflects on the undercurrents of deceit and sexual jealousy that run rife in the Governor-General's house in Saigon.  He remarks,
Given her French father, we in the household staff felt that Madame's secretary should have been more beautiful, but she was not. ... I suspect that her beauty or what passed for it ... was her father's French.  She spoke it from birth and it showed.  There were rumors that she wrote it beautifully as well, and that it was she who composed Madame's more delicate rejections and affecting apologies.  Madame's secretary, according to the chauffeur, on occasion also wrote speeches for the Governor-General.  We in the household staff did not know what to make of this boast, uncertain whether we were dealing with a French expression that had lost itself in translation.  We thought that, maybe, "writing speeches" for the Governor-General was just another way of saying that Madame's secretary was graciously offering her services to him as well.  What kind of services these were would depend on the kind of woman Madame's secretary wanted to be. (124-125)
I've quoted this passage at length because I think it's typical of the complex progression of Truong's narrative.  Each sentence adds a layer to the emerging sexual, cultural and linguistic situations, both past and present, that Binh faces.  By moving the reader through each of these layers and unearthing their simultaneous moments of sadness and humor, Truong complicates our perspective on the identity politics of exile.

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Aix-les-Bains, France, c. 1927;

Truong's novel is probably not for everyone: I think most people who enjoy and study literature will enjoy the novels (often humorous) reflections on Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas.  For me, though, these were the less interesting moments of the novel, actually, and one of the reasons it may not have immediately jelled with me the first time I tried to read it.

Because quite frankly, I'm not a fan of Gertrude Stein.  I think she's vastly overrated as a writer, and I tend to find her "experimental" writing downright annoying.  I remember sitting through more than one literature class on Modernism in which we were assigned to read Three Lives and staring at Stein's "Melanctha" and thinking, "How is this good?  Or interesting?"

All this to say, I've had the "literary genius" of Gertrude Stein pointed out and explained to me over and over and over again, and all I can say is... I'll take Woolf or Joyce or Eliot (or pretty much anyone else) any day of the week.  But that's just me.

But with regards to Truong's novel, I would say that if you start it and don't immediately like it, keep going or put it down for a bit and try again later.  It's definitely worth a second chance.

Friday, December 13, 2013


I've been reading Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (2004).  It's about the history of the founding of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), better known to most of us as the Mormons.

Okay, a few things.  First, thank god Mitt Romney didn't get elected president.  Seriously. 

Secondly, well... wow.  I'm a bit speechless.  I try really hard to keep an open mind about people's faith and their expressions of religious belief, but I gotta tell you, this one... Let's just say, I hear the hinges of my mind creaking shut.

Krakauer focuses on a particularly heinous crime committed in 1984 by Ron and Dan Lafferty, two Mormon Fundamentalists.  The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints--"FLDS"--is separate from the LDS, although they both trace their origins to the same founder, Joseph Smith.

One morning in late July, the Lafferty brothers arrived at the home of their brother, Allen.  They proceeded to assault and brutally murder his wife, Brenda, and Allen and Brenda's 15-month-old daughter, Erica. 

Brenda had been outspoken in her opposition to the Lafferty brothers' growing influence on her husband.  In particular, she refused to subscribe to the increasingly oppressive rules and limitations the brothers tried to impose upon their wives and children.  She had advised Ron's wife, Dianna, to obtain a divorce and leave him, taking her children with her. 

Ron and Dan claimed that they had received a revelation from God that required them to murder their sister-in-law and their niece, as well as two other individuals who had been instrumental in Dianna's decision to leave her husband (one potential victim wasn't home, the other was, but the killers missed the turn and never reached the house). 

To this day, Dan, who is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, is unremorseful.  He insists that he did nothing wrong.  Ron Lafferty was convicted of the murders and sentenced to die in 1985.  The sentence was overturned in 1991, and Ron Lafferty was retried.  In 1996, he was once again convicted of the murders and given a death sentence.  He remains on death row, awaiting execution.

Obviously, the Lafferty brothers and their deeds were in no way sanctioned by or typical of the LDS or the Mormon faith in general.  And yet, as Krakauer points out, a significant current of Fundamentalist violence and oppression has always been threaded through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  In particular, Krakauer looks at the history of violence directed against the Mormons, first in Missouri and later in Illinois, in the early decades of the 19th century.

The founder of the Mormon faith, Joseph Smith, was brutally murdered by an angry mob in 1844.  Smith was a highly charismatic leader who also had a history of arrest for various and sundry frauds and cons.  He got his start in life as a diviner or "crystal gazer"--someone who claimed to be able to find buried treasure using a "peep stone."

And then he got religion.

I think this is why I have a hard time with this manifestation of faith.  I can look at many religious traditions and while I don't subscribe to their beliefs or values, I can see why they may have arisen in the way that they did, given the cultures and time periods in which they developed.

And to some extent, I can see that in Mormonism as well.  It arose in the early 19th century, when Spiritualism was exerting a particularly strong influence on American culture--an influence we've never really lost, quite frankly.  People were--and are--looking for signs of life, indications that death is not the ultimate end.

Enter Joseph Smith.  He claimed to have discovered golden tablets that had been buried for over 1400 years (somewhere outside of Palmyra, NY, of all places), courtesy of the assistance of an angel named Moroni.  (Yes, that was his name.)  Smith was given a set of interpreters--that is, a pair of "magic glasses" (no, I'm not kidding)-- by Moroni, so that he could read these tablets, which he proceeded to dictate to his neighbor.

After a couple of months, the guys decided to take a break, the neighbor wanted to show the pages they'd written to his wife, Smith said okay and... the pages went missing.

But never fear!  Smith prayed and prayed and so Moroni gave him back the plates.  Smith's wife Emma took over the transcription process.  Smith no longer had the magic glasses, though, so he had to use one of his peep stones.
"Day after day, utilizing the technique he had learned... Joseph would place the magic rock in an upturned hat, bury his face in it with the stack of gold plates sitting nearby, and dictate the lines of scripture that appeared to him out of the blackness."
(Really, I can't imagine why I'm skeptical of all this.)

My favorite moment of Smith's history comes when he decides that his penchant for sleeping with numerous women other than his wife is actually a divinely-sanctioned duty.  As many people know, the early Mormons were notorious for their advocacy of polygamy--a practice that not all early Mormons condoned, actually.

One such naysayer was Emma, Joseph Smith's wife.  Smith and his brother Hyrum tried to convince her by means of a divine revelation.  In the revelation, God actually mentions Emma by name.

It seems that, as Emma got increasingly tired of her husband's "celestial marriages," she told him if he didn't knock it off, she might go and get herself a few "husbands" of her own and see how he liked it.  But according to a subsequent divine revelation, God apparently did not condone this for Emma--or for any of the other wives, for that matter.  Verse 54 of Section 132, transcribed by Smith and his brother states,
"And I command mine handmaid, Emma Smith, to abide and cleave unto my servant Joseph, and to none else.  But if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord; for I am the Lord thy God, and will destroy her if she abide not in my law."
Hyrum felt this was all pretty clear, so he gave the document to Emma as proof of the divine revelation of plural marriages (for men only, of course).  According to Hyrum, "he had never received a more severe talking to in his life" than he did on the day he presented this divine revelation to Emma Smith.

They didn't stop sleeping with other women and advocating "celestial marriages," but they did stop trying to convince Emma.

In the end, I think this is why this faith fills me with profound skepticism: it reeks of a nineteenth-century con artist's scam.  It encompasses all that is racist and sexist in the history of American culture, and presents it all as if it's somehow divinely sanctioned.  As Krakauer points out, because the Mormon faith is so grounded in an us-versus-them mentality (something that is by no means uncommon in other religious faiths as well, of course), it often operates outside the law, and insists that it has the right to do so: divine law trumps secular legislation.

Fundamentalist Mormon groups in the West still practice polygamy--men in their 30's and 40's marry 13- and 14-year-old girls and have multiple wives--and they have an astronomical birth rate (according to Krakauer, it's currently higher than that of Bangladesh).  How are these children all supported?  Through the states' various welfare systems: because these state agencies are ungodly manifestations of Satan, Mormon Fundamentalists feel that it is their holy duty to "bleed the beast."
Investigators from the Utah attorney general's office have documented that between 1989 and 1999, Tom Green and his dependents received more than $647,000 in state and federal assistance, including $203,000 in food stamps and nearly $300,000 in medical and dental expenses.  These same investigators estimate that had they been granted complete access to pertinent government files as far back as 1985, when Green began his polygamous lifestyle, they would have been able to show that Green received well over $1 million in welfare.
Ironically, Utah is one of the most predominantly Republican states in the United States.  So maybe this is why Republicans have voted to cut funding for Food Stamps.  We can always hope.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


Several years ago, I was watching an episode of Oprah.  She had a guest on who had been a cop for years.  He offered all kinds of advice for women about how to avoid con men and scams.

The former cop pointed out that, culturally, we tend to value people who are "charming."  We treat it like it's an implicitly good thing.

But, as he pointed out, anyone--male or female--who is attempting to "charm" another person is, in fact, deceiving that person.  S/he is trying to get the person to voluntarily agree to do something that they would not otherwise be inclined to do.

It's a trick.  That's why it's linked to a "charm."  It's grounded in absolutely nothing.  It's an act of pure deceit.

His advice: when someone tries to charm you, be on your guard.  They want you to do something they know you wouldn't otherwise to agree to do, if they simply asked you outright.

"Hey, would you give me $1000.?  Noooo... actually, I'm not going to pay you back.  Ever.  I don't pay people back when I borrow money from them--ask any one of my former friends.  They'll tell you."

"Babe, I would love it if you would sleep with me tonight.  I know I'd have a great time. Oh, and just so we're clear-- I'm totally not going to call you tomorrow."

A very wise friend of mine once said, "I'm always wary of anyone who's got a lot of charm."  I pointed out to her that it's because, two hours later, you're sitting on your couch eating Cheez-its and you suddenly realize, "Hey.  Hold on a second.  I think that person told me to ram it up my ass... how did I not see that?!'"

And you realize that there's nothing you can do about it.  You sat and laughed and joked and willingly agreed to let the person pork you.  Because you were charmed by them.

I think of a person who once told me, "Honey, that's too much sugar for my dime."  At the time I thought, "Oh, yes, of course, who'd want more sugar than what they actually paid for?"

An hour later, on the drive home, I thought, "Hey.  Wait a minute... ".

But all too often, when I've questioned my friends on the topic, they're unwilling to discount the intrinsic value of charm.  They typically say, "Oh, but charming... that's a good thing.  I like that.  I can't help it--I love someone who's, you know, charming.  It means they're ... interesting... And I'm sure they mean it, on some level."

Yeah.  Sure.  In an identity-theft, I-may-prosecuted-for-this-and-I'm-too-stupid-to-live kinda way.

Another friend of mine observed to me, many, many years ago: "I'm afraid you like guys who have a bit of mystery to them.  But bear in mind: guys who are mysterious often have something to hide."

I think that's the difference between old and young.  Or at least one of the key differences.  When you're young, "complicated" and "mysterious" is "interesting."

When you're old(er), "complicated" is annoying and "mysterious" is downright "deceitful."

And honesty (note the absence of scare quotes) is oh-so-very charming.  Really.

Monday, December 9, 2013

A Little Icing

We got a tiny taste of winter this morning.

I'll admit, I spent the day yesterday looking forward to it.  It was cold again, but I piled on the woolens and went for a walk.  I was feeling pretty pleased with myself until I saw the ads for a bike race--and all the racers getting ready.

Now that would be cold, a bike race when it's only 30 degrees out.  Nothin' doin'.

I'm pleased to have my winter walks back.  Last year, I skipped them, for the most part, because I was too busy and too stressed out to breathe, and because the places where I used to walk had become a bit undesirable to me.

There were people I didn't want to risk running into when I was simply out for an innocent--and peaceful--walk.

But that's the good thing about time.  It passes, and I no longer care about things that once seemed troublesome and depressing.  I've bumped into people I didn't want to see and not only held my own: I actually walked away feeling kind and strong and happy and generally pretty good about myself, so... the winter walks are back on.

Memory is a funny thing.  While I was cooking yesterday (more about that in a minute), I was reminded of another time when I was cooking--I was making pancakes, to be precise.  At that time, I had been thinking about how people I thought were my friends were making me feel.

Unpretty.  That was it, exactly.  At the time, I wished I could tie them up in my shoes, make them feel unpretty too.  Because they were oblivious, and nothing I said seemed to make the slightest bit of difference.

Looking back, I realize that I was being used, plain and simple.  At the time, it didn't seem simple at all.  I kept thinking it was a situation that I was responsible for and that I had to try to work out.  I know better now.

My dad used to say that some people can never feel big and important unless they're busy making someone else feel small.  I spent months upon months been told I was wrong and that I always misinterpreted everything.  I was constantly dealing with "misunderstandings."  I'd just start to think it was all behind me and we were all moving forward and things would be better again someday soon and all of a sudden... another bullshit email to deal with.  Another drama.  Another dinner-party invitation that was really just about getting the gossip and making me clear about the fact that, whatever I had said or done, it was... wrong. 

So last night while I was cooking, I remembered that one morning, while all of this was ongoing.  I was listening to TLC and making pancakes.

"If you can't look inside you,
Find out who am I to
Be in a position to make me feel so...
damn unpretty."

Although it would take me nearly two years to finally get away from it all, I remember reaching a mental turning point in that moment.  Nothing was ever quite the same afterward.

I started not telling these people when I was around, not making an effort to hang out with them, and no longer keeping in touch with them regularly, so that I could see how I felt in their absence.  (Pretty good, as it turned out.)   Did I actually miss them? (No, not really.)  It was a relief, not having to worry about seeing them and--more importantly--not having to always worry about the fact that they would make me feel bad (it had become inevitable).  It was a relief not having to expend time and energy getting over how they made me feel.

The odd irony was, they never even noticed that my attitude toward them was changing.  They misread me. 

I slowly started moving them out of my life, with a whole bunch of small-scale decisions, that were easier for me to make than simply cutting them out all at once.

"Never insecure until I met you,
Now I'm being stupid...
Why do I look to all these things,
To keep you happy?
Maybe get rid of you and then I'll get back to me..."

It took time, but that's what I did: I got back to me.  And in the end, I got rid of them.   By the time it came down to that point, it seemed silly to even consider them "friends."   I couldn't remember the last time I talked to one of them and felt good about myself and I couldn't remember the last time I looked forward to actually seeing them.

Anyway, in the spirit of getting back to me, this weekend was another occasion for it.  When the cold weather hits, cooking dinner takes on a new dimension.  

There's no better feeling than walking into a warm house after a cold day outside and being overwhelmed by the smell of dinner cooking on the stove.  It tells you that you're loved and wanted.  That you're where you belong.  It makes you feel safe and happy.

I got creative last night, to celebrate the upcoming holiday season, and made a pasta sauce with the tomatoes I canned this summer.  I added a length of fresh local sausage and some baby spinach.

I had some leftover whole wheat pasta (store bought) that I wanted to use up.  (It will give me an excuse to make my own sometime soon.)

So that's what I did.

It was a perfect way to take the chill off and to remind myself that, the times in life when we're made to feel "unpretty" will eventually fade away.

And the people who make us feel that way will fade away too.

If we let them.

Saturday, December 7, 2013


There are times of the year when it's actually advantageous to be an unwed, childless orphan.  The Holiday Season in Consumer-Driven America is definitely one of those times.

Don't hate me, but I've finished my holiday shopping.  It took all of an hour and an internet connection.  So now I can enjoy the holidays and behave as if they are, actually, you know, holidays.

But not quite yet.  I had a ton of yard work to do first, to make my yard tidy for the winter, so I did that today, after I finished my online shopping spree.

Time is a funny thing.  I was quite certain I spent approximately 4-5 hours outside doing yard work, but when I came inside, exhausted and spent, I turns out I had consumed all of ... 2 hours.  Or so.

I decided that if you added to this amount of time the amount of time I spent stacking wood this morning (1 hour) (I had to stack wood again because one of my woodpiles tipped over) (it's okay, I kind of thought it might), you would get a number somewhat closer to the number of hours I thought I spent working.


When I came inside, I entered the zone and began to cook.  I made Italian wedding soup and a Moroccan yogurt cake.  It sounds somewhat exotic, but it isn't.  It is, however, quite tasty.

At this point, though, I have to say something unpleasant.  I have resisted coming to this conclusion with all my might, but I can deny it no longer and I simply have to say it.

The manufacturers of "non-stick" bundt cake pans are liars.  Cakes that you make in these pans will stick to the pan.  They always do.  It is simply a question of how much.  If you trust in the pan, you will be deceived.  I wish I didn't have to tell you this, but I can't let you go through life thinking it will be okay, when it won't.

You need to grease and flour the non-stick bundt pan as if it isn't non-stick.  I'm sorry, but it's the only way.

And if, like me, you have the sad misfortune of also owning a truly spectacular bundt pan that is not even non-stick, well, then, you need to know that you will need to grease, flour, and then spray it with baking spray.

Put non-stick on top of non-stick or you will be... stuck.

I kid you not.  I don't know why the makers of such things do this to innocent people like myself, but they do.

My cake didn't stick terribly to the pan (I've had worse experiences on that front), but it did stick somewhat.  I decided that the best way to resolve this problem and move forward in my life would be to begin rapidly eating the cake.

So that's what I did.

While I'm at it, I'm also going to write something here that will hopefully serve to remind me of something else that is a source of drama and trauma for me.  For certain periods of time, I don't have internet access on my laptop.

Yes, I realize this sounds bizarre and that this means I'm about to describe a problem that is probably limited to myself.  Even so.

Because I don't have my laptop connected to the internet for a week or two at a time, when I reconnect it, it begins furiously trying to download every conceivable "update" it has missed during its quiet time away.

When this happens, my laptop essentially grinds to a halt.  And I immediately begin freaking out, thinking that my beloved computer of 7+ years is dying, slowly and painfully, because of these... blessed (I used another word)... "updates" that pepper my poor little laptop.

Don't you kind of wonder whether these "updates" are real?  Because sometimes, I'll get an update and then the very next day, I'll get another update.  Why not just give me one at the end of the week, covering all of it?

And don't get me started on iTunes.  I actually took it off my laptop, because my laptop and iTunes worked perfectly fine together for years and years and then one day, it was all "updated."

It never worked right again.  I called Apple.   They tried to say that it was my antivirus software, that it was my computer, that it was me... you name it.  After several fruitless hours of debate, I hung up and uninstalled iTunes and life returned to normal.

And my laptop was fine.  And has been for the last 3 years.  Despite the fact that the nice man working for Apple told me I should think about buying a new laptop, because mine was obviously "the problem."  Go figure.

I knew when I saw the hundreds of complaints on the Apple message boards that I wasn't the only one suffering.  I really don't know why they felt the need to "fix" things, when so many of us were perfectly content with what we had.

Luckily, I have the advantage of having an office computer and a personal computer, so if something crashes my personal computer, I take it off and just put it on my office computer.  Because my office computer isn't 7+ years old.  It's maintained by people who stay current and who care deeply about such things.  So they cover for me.

Anyway, the point of writing all of this is, I'm hoping that the next time I reconnect my laptop to the internet after a period of time away from it, I won't be driven into an obscenity-laced tirade.  I'm hoping I'll remember that this is what happens when those updates all descend upon me all at once like that.

I'm hoping I'll remember that I wrote this and pause and remind myself that this too shall pass.

Sunday, December 1, 2013


I started out my Thanksgiving weekend a little bummed out, because I had originally planned to visit with family on Thursday, and then fly the coop for the weekend.  Along about Wednesday, I had to face the fact that flying to coop wasn't going to be an option: I was grounded for the weekend.

After grumbling mightily, complaining to my cats, and flinging myself on the couch in various attitudes of anguish, anger, or despair, I decided to make a virtue of necessity.  Because after all, I'd still be able to go away next weekend, so it wasn't like it was all a total loss.

Several weeks ago, I read Anne Lamott's new book, Stitches.  In it, she claims, "We live stitch by stitch, when we're lucky.  If you fixate on the big picture, the whole shebang, the overview, you miss the stitching."

So I decided to spend the weekend living stitch by stich: instead of worrying about what hadn't come to pass, I'd just work my way through it, little by little, and savor what the weekend had to offer.

I got through a pile of grading; still a small stack left to go, but... it's manageable.  

I decided this was a perfect time to get all the little odds and ends of cleaning done that I never have time to do when I'm working, so now I have that odd sense of self-respect and satisfaction that comes from knowing, "My space is clean and neat and organized.  I'm ready."

I cooked.  Not for Thanksgiving (thankfully, because that's stressful), but in the aftermath.  I'm making beef stew and lemon yogurt cake.  I took a walk (to offset the cake), and I ran errands on Saturday morning before all the crazy shoppers took to the streets and made shopping a living hell.

Really, people.   Is any of it worth that kind of emotional investment?

Speaking of which, I did a bunch of knitting.  I made pairs of fingerless mitts for my best friend's little people a few weeks ago, and I had the yarn so I decided, "What the hell..." and I made a pair for myself.  This was a huge step for me, psychologically, because I love mittens and I used to be somewhat vehemently opposed to the idea of "fingerless mitts."

I felt that they were a nonsensical (and pretentious) phenomenon, because mittens by definition don't have fingers, and really, from a knitter's perspective these are simply "unfinished" mittens.  Which makes them actually quite easy to knit, thank you very much.

So here tis.  I'm posting a picture of the finished one--I haven't finished knitting the thumb on the second one. I haven't blocked them yet.  And the picture is crappy, as my pictures so often are, so it doesn't do justice to how pretty the yarn itself is: it's a handpainted merino.

I decided these will come in handy on the chilly mornings when I have to drive, because my car is always parked outside, and gloves on a steering wheel... not so much.

I also read up a storm.  I'm teaching Susanna Kaysen's Girl Interrupted (1991), which I much prefer over the movie version.  I also started an interesting book by Primo Levi, called The Periodic Table (1975). The basic concept is, Levi (who was a chemist) used the Periodic Table as an organizing framework for telling episodes of his autobiography in the years leading up to his imprisonment in Auschwitz.

A couple of the tales are actually fictional--stories that he wrote during the period of life that he is describing.  In 2006, Levi's The Periodic Table was named the Best Science Book of All Time by the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

It's a fascinating concept, linking the material of one's life to the elemental structure of the universe.  And at times, Levi's prose is quite beautiful.  For example, the story "Iron" describes Levi's hiking expeditions with his friend, Sandro, who was eventually killed "with a tommygun burst in the back of the neck by a monstrous child-executioner, one of those wretched murderers of fifteen whom Mussolini's Republic of Salo recruited in the reformatories" (48).

The story, "Zinc," describes how Levi got up the nerve to talk to a girl in his chemistry class.

I've also used the weekend to make some headway on my writing: it's been an incredibly productive year for me.  I currently have 4 articles circulating, 2 of which I co-wrote.  One of the co-written articles has been accepted for publication, and we're waiting to hear about the second.

Meanwhile, I decided to recirculate an article that received a "revise and resubmit" recommendation several years ago.  I've been meaning to "revise and resubmit" it, but I just haven't had the time and at this point, the momentum has passed, so I decided to just send it elsewhere.

The last of the articles I've sent out this year has also received a "revise and resubmit," but with a generally positive review.  So I've been working on that, and feeling good about how it's shaping up.

And the beauty of all of this is, the more stitching I accomplish now, the better the big picture looks for next weekend.  And for that, I'm truly thankful.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Naming Names

Two good things happened this week: I got the news that one portion of the collaborative project I worked on this summer on Shalamov's Kolyma Tales will be published next fall.  (In one of the most prestigious journals of Slavic Studies in the US--The Slavic and East European Journal.)

I also read a good book.  Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake (2003).

I actually didn't realize until I began reading it that Lahiri is originally from Rhode Island.  Much of the novel takes place in the suburbs of Boston and in the cities of New Haven and New York, and key scenes take place on the Metro North train that runs the I-95 corridor between NY and Boston.

So that was a fun feeling for me: having a kind of personal connection to the places and sites mentioned.

But that certainly wasn't the sole reason I liked Lahiri's novel.  I think she is a beautiful writer: as I mentioned in a previous post, I read her short-story collection The Interpreter of Maladies, several years ago, and although it wasn't an all-time favorite, I did like it and I wanted to read more of her work.

The Namesake traces several decades in the life of Gogol--later "Nikhil"--Ganguli, the son of Bengali parents who emigrate to the United States in the 1960's.  It examines issues of acculturation and identity, using the motifs of travel, relationships, and loss.

In particular, Lahiri highlights the drama of Gogol's name: his parents give him the name of his father's favorite 19th-century Russian author, in an act that simultaneously invokes a very specific episode of his father's past in Calcutta (sorry, no spoilers in my blog posts!) and compensates for a coincidental gap that occurs in the family's transition from Bengali culture to the United States.

She thus situates her protagonist's name--and his identity--on a complex intersection of "East" and "West" and uses this as a way of organizing her novel's plot and characterization.  Unlike many novels that depict different generations of a family coping with the facts of emigration and transitioning between cultures, Lahiri doesn't simply focus on the tensions and psychological conflicts--she considers the compromises and resolutions as well.

The question of what a name means, what it signifies both to the individual him- or herself, what it invokes, and how it connects a person to the world around him or her--both the world that exists today and the world of the past, that may or may not be in the process of disappearing completely--offers a really interesting way of thinking about social and individual identity and the role that memory plays in each.

And, as I said, Lahiri is a wonderful writer.  In one of my favorite scenes of the novel, father and son are on the beach in Cape Cod in early winter.  The father walks farther and farther out, across the breakwater to "the narrow, final inward crescent of sand" and the lighthouse.  Although he is still quite little, his son Gogol follows him. 

When they reach the end, they realize they forgot to bring the camera.

The father says, "We will have to remember it, then."
"They look around, at the gray and white town that glowed across the harbor. Then they started back again, for a while trying not to make an extra set of footsteps, inserting their shoes into the ones they had just made. A wind had picked up, so strong that it forced them to stop now and then. 
"Will you remember this day, Gogol?" his father had asked, turning back to look at him, his hands pressed like earmuffs to either side of his head. 
"How long do I have to remember it?" 
Over the rise and fall of the wind, he could hear his father's laughter. He was standing there, waiting for Gogol to catch up, putting out a hand as Gogol drew near. 
"Try to remember it always, he said once Gogol had reached him, leading him slowly back across the breakwater ... "Remember that you and I made this journey, that we went together to a place where there was nowhere left to go."

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Beautiful Truths?

I've recently been reading Ann Patchett's Truth and Beauty (2004).  It's a memoir about her friendship with Lucy Grealy, the poet and author of Autobiography of a Face (1994).  I blogged about Grealy's book this time last year ("Worlds of Unknowing")--it's a really interesting (but intense) memoir.

Patchett's memoir is a book a colleague recently mentioned to me.  I won't say she "recommended" it, because quite frankly, she didn't.  I told her I was teaching Grealy's memoir in a class this semester, and she asked me if I had read Patchett's book.  I hadn't.

What I did know was that Grealy's family was extremely angry when Patchett's book was released, and I had read Suellen Grealy's expression of this anger and grief.  When I mentioned that to my colleague, she said, "They were angry with good reason.  That book did unnecessary things."

Patchett wrote the book quickly, after Lucy Grealy died of a heroin overdose in 2002.  As Suellen Grealy points out, in order to do this, she had to obtain the rights to publish Lucy's letters.  Patchett did this in the immediate aftermath of her friend's funeral, a move that many would attribute to a writer's need to cope with grief via art, but that others (including the Grealy family) would eventually come to see as ambitious and self-serving on Patchett's part.

In addition to feeling that Patchett's account of their sister's life did Lucy Grealy a serious disservice, members of the Grealy family felt that their grief was overlooked in a rush to capitalize on Lucy Grealy's life and tragic death.  They are largely absent from Patchett's account of Grealy's life; Patchett's own family, however, is mentioned in connection with Grealy and her friendship on multiple occasions--it is Patchett's mother, for example, who tells her to save all of Lucy's letters, because the two of them will be famous someday.

Patchett's book makes me uncomfortable.  That's the only way I can express it.  It seems to me to be in somewhat poor taste, given the speed with which it was written and the timing of its publication, but it's more than that.

It reminds me of Hemingway's account of his "friendship" with Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast and of Truman Capote's literary manuevers with his own "friends."

My mom used to remind me, when I was growing up, of a social convention that has apparently fallen by the wayside in contemporary American culture, "Don't speak ill of the dead."  She wouldn't tolerate gossip or snarky comments about the deceased, and if someone seemed to be about to stray  into that dangerous discursive territory (or if she was at risk of doing it herself), she'd quietly taper off and leave it alone.

My dad behaved very similarly: the sense seemed to be, the person had had a life, and s/he may not have lived or behaved in a way that the rest of us approved of, but given that the person had died, it was no longer fair to comment on or criticize the terms on which the person had lived that life.  The implication was, it was disrespectful to only savor the bad memories, and I think, that it was dirty pool.

Perhaps the person might have changed, might have done things to redeem him- or herself, had s/he lived.  My mom would say, "Would you want to be remembered for the bad things you'd done?  No.  Of course not."

In this age of the tell-all book and the made-for-TV movie, such comments seem naive, I know.

Patchett's memoir doesn't simply remember the bad moments of Grealy's life.  I think it does a more insidious thing: it purports to memorialize Lucy Grealy's strength and her personality, but it does so by means of what used to be known as "left-handed compliments" (my apologies to the lefties out there).

When Patchett seems to be praising Grealy, a closer look reveals that her compliments aren't necessarily flattering--in many cases, they're definitely double-sided (at best).  The memoir is subtitled "A Friendship," but I don't think it actually is the memoir of a friendship: instead, it memorializes what a good friend Ann Patchett (allegedly) was to Lucy Grealy.

That distinction is key, in my opinion.  Much of Patchett's account seems designed to cause the reader to sigh and marvel at Ann's devotion, Ann's patience, Ann's understanding.  Because Lucy is represented as narcissistic and overwhelmingly needy, insensitive and insecure.

And maybe she was all of those things.  And maybe Patchett has earned her crown in heaven for putting up with all of that.  But I think that, if that's the case, Patchett made her own choices and glorifying that aspect of their "friendship" does a serious disservice to Grealy's memory.

Grealy can't tell her side of the story.  Patchett seems to suggest that, even if she were alive, Grealy wouldn't tell it--she'd be too self-involved with her own life and artistry to consider it worth telling.

As I said, it reminds me of Hemingway's depictions of F. Scott Fitzgerald: near the end of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway recounts an elliptical conversation that he and Scott Fitzgerald (allegedly) had about... the size of their penises.

What better testimony to the bond of male friendship, right?  Except that Hemingway depicts Scott Fitzgerald as extremely worried: his wife, Zelda, had recently had an affair (according to Hemingway) and allegedly dropped hints that Scott Fitzgerald might not measure up.  So of course, Fitzgerald asks his good buddy "Hem," for his advice.

Hemingway checks and reassures Fitzgerald he has nothing to worry about, then gives him some advice about pillow-usage and other manly strategies for self-aggrandizement.

Hemingway similarly represents a scene in which he overhears Gertrude Stein (who was a lesbian) begging another woman for... we never know what, exactly.  Or do we?

For me, this is the mark of a tacky tell-all and the mark of a bad friend.  If these episodes really occurred (and I'm by no means convinced that they did), why would a friend feel compelled to recount them to the public at large?

Patchett does similar things--insinuations are made about Grealy's sex life (in particular, her promiscuity) and its motivations, episodes of sobbing self-doubt are recounted in unnecessary detail and at some length.

Why?  To publish what you think you know about another person's sex life and to do so after that person has died, is 1) to invade a region of intimacy that you have no business invading (and that you may not know as well as you think you do), and 2) to violate the terms of friendship itself.

If Grealy wanted to broadcast details--even if she did so throughout her entire life--that was her prerogative.  It is not, in my opinion, Patchett's, and to presume to do so in the wake of her friend's death is not at all beautiful, even if it all just happens to be true.

Sunday, November 17, 2013


I'd say that it's been a busy week, but given that this is the umpteenth time I've disappeared from my blog for a week over the past several months, you already know that.

But it was a good week.  Lots of meetings to go to, which are never my favorite thing, but I also gave a little lecture on Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and a colleague gave me some suggested reading: Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

I'm always happy when people give me more reading to do.  At this moment, however, my fear is that I'm going to commit myself to giving another conference presentation and that I'll foolishly choose to talk about Gabriel Garcia Marquez, about whom I know next to nothing, except that I really, really did not like Love in the Time of Cholera, and that, at the time when it was popular, I seemed to be the only one who felt that way.

Speaking of being the only one who feels a certain way about certain things, I've recently begun to notice the absurdity of... perfume.  

Don't get me wrong, I like nice smells and I like to smell nice (although I haven't actually worn perfume in quite a few years at this point).

But what has recently struck me is how perfume is no longer really about smell, actually.  Case in point: I was walking to Target this morning and had to pass a Bath and Body Shop.  I haven't been in a Bath and Body Shop in about a decade, and I must say, it's unlikely I'll enter one again anytime soon.

There was a huge ad for "Forever Midnight."  I guess it's some body fragrance based on the Twilight series--it had a picture of Bella in her wedding dress and that good-looking young man whose name I can never remember--not the werewolf-guy, the vampire-guy that she went to high school with...  wait, EDWARD!  That's it.  I remember now.  Edward.  Him.

Anyway, I looked at this poster for a long minute and began to chuckle.  Because all I could think was, "What do vampires in heat smell like?  Do I want to smell like that?"

I quickly reprimanded myself for being disrespectful to the great love of Bella and Edward: they're vampires in LOVE, of course.  Because Bella and Edward waited until they were married before they had sex and she became a vampire (which is really not at all typical for vampires, actually).

In retrospect, it's a wonder I survived the whole Twilight phenomenon.  I truly thought they were joking sometimes, and I kept waiting for it to be revealed that yes, in fact, it was all a satire of something.  (I was never sure what it could be satirizing, but I was willing to learn.)  

I saw the first film in the series and then I also saw the second one, but I dozed a bit during the second one (I saw both on DVD).  The person I saw them with fell totally asleep during the second one and then asked me what it was about, so I summarized:

"That girl, Bella, started hanging out with that guy--the one who doesn't ever wear a shirt--and they were, like, fixing dirt-bikes together because the other guy, whatshisname, Edward, kind of disappeared, and then they got the dirt-bikes fixed so they rode them a lot, and there was all kinds of sexual tension because that guy really doesn't wear a shirt EVER, if he can help it, and he's got a nice chest, and Bella couldn't help but notice that--and he likes her too, of course.  So anyway, that happened or was "in the air" between them, but then they didn't really do anything, because she loves Edward, and then things happened and there were a lot of people literally flying through the air in a field--I think during a vampire baseball-game, actually--and then there were a lot of people wearing red (this was the point at which I intermittently dozed off).  Anyway, some of the people in red seemed really angry about something that I wasn't quite clear about, but apparently it had been "going on for centuries" and Edward was not comfortable with it, but he acknowledged that it was a tradition and all, and then there was some kind of ritual or something and then it was over and Bella and Edward were together again, but they agreed that they'd hold off on having sex and transforming her into a vampire until after she finished high school because otherwise her mom and dad would get upset.  So they aren't going to have sex for at least another year or so, because she's a junior, I think."

He laughed and told me how "clever and funny" I was.  I told him, "No, you don't understand.  THAT WAS ACTUALLY THE MOVIE."

So I thought about that on my walk, and it was all kind of bittersweet, because I saw both of those movies with a guy I briefly dated that I'm not even friends with anymore, and that's always kind of a downer, when you see something that reminds you of someone you once liked who wasn't very nice to you in the end.

You wonder how you're even supposed to feel about the memory now, and you're a little bit pissed off that 1) you remember it and it was funny, and 2) the person ruined it all for you, lock, stock, and barrel, by being a jerk.  It seems like you aren't even supposed to remember it anymore, much less chuckle about it, but you do, and then you feel conflicted, like you're betraying yourself and in the end, you're just kind of annoyed that they made a Twilight perfume when all of that crap was over with years ago.

Anyway, reeling from this perfume ad and all it wrought in my life, I nevertheless actually made it into Target and shifted gears, mentally, or so I thought, until I walked past another perfume ad.

This one was for "Justin Bieber's Girlfriend."

I confess, I once again chuckled.  Because I really don't know what Justin Bieber's girlfriend smells like, and I couldn't quite imagine ever wanting to describe myself as smelling like "Justin Bieber's Girlfriend."  (I guess it would be worse if I smelled like his mom?)  

Anyway, the point I reached in all of my musings about this is that it is truly absurd.  We're being sold things that make NO sense and that we can't possibly need, and being forced to watch movies that aren't really that intelligent or good because no one will make anything worth watching anymore.  It's as simple as that.  We have perfumes based on bad-- but popular--movies and we have perfumes based on the hypothetical girlfriends of bad--but popular--teen-idols.  Because this is how we want to smell, apparently.

Why?  I don't know.  No walk will ever be long enough for me to figure that one out.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Getting Comfortable

There's something about settling in for the winter.

Don't get me wrong: I love spring and fall and the warmer weather.  Nothing beats being able to head outside without a jacket and go for a bike ride or a swim.

But once you face facts and realize, you live on the East Coast and winter will come, it really can be an enjoyable time.

So that's what this past week has been all about: getting settled for the winter.

The week actually didn't start off all that promisingly.  I started to feel a bit under the weather on Saturday night, and (foolishly) took an OTC decongestant.  It kept me up ALL night, in one of those medicine-head fitful states of non-sleep.

Guess it was the "non-drowsy" kind.  Because the non-non-drowsy kind puts me out cold for 12-14 hours, typically.  (This is what I was shooting for.)

Along about 3 a.m., however, I decided to make a virtue of necessity.  (Remember, it was daylight savings time, so this meant I got an extra hour of non-sleep that night.)  I decided that, if I couldn't sleep, I would doze and compose.  So I mentally thought through the sentences of the abstract I needed to write for an upcoming conference paper, until I dozed off again.  The abstract only had to be 100 words, so it was the perfect length to work on.  And at a few points, when I was just flat-out awake, I opened the iPad and read.

The next morning, I got up and wrote the abstract in an hour, and submitted it.  So, one job done.  With a little luck, I'll be heading to NYU next spring for a few days to present my ideas.  We'll see.

I didn't feel all that great on Sunday, what with the not-sleeping-thing, so I decided it was time to make some comfort food and get comfortable.

Several years ago, when I was on sabbatical and living in RI, I had a dinner party for my 40th birthday.  I've had various dinner parties over the years.  Some went quite well, some went less well, but I do enjoy giving them and I think most people enjoyed attending them (even the less successful ones).

Because, truth be told, I love to cook for people.  I don't know why.  I just do.  (Unless you're a jerk to me, of course, in which case I'll happily advise you of the location of the nearest Denny's and leave it at that.) 

This dinner party was one of my successes.  All kinds of good food and good conversation and just a generally enjoyable evening all around.  A perfect way to ring in my fourth decade.  It was during a tough time in my life in general (two years after my dad had died, two years before my mom died), so I savor my memory of that time, because it was a little emotional oasis in a sea of turmoil.

I made an apple-cake for that occasion that has since become one of my favorite cake recipes of all time.  Last week I decided, I had the fresh-picked apples, so what better way to use the Granny Smiths than by taking a little cake-walk down memory lane?

I probably should have taken a picture of the cake, but I didn't.  I just baked it and started eating.  I'm still enjoying it.  The temptation to eat it all in one sitting was nearly overwhelming, but I resisted.

I decided to continue the comfort-food theme on Sunday.  I have a recipe for homemade chicken pot pie that is beyond good, but it is also beyond time-consuming to make.  It consists of about 18 steps and until you get the hang of it, it can very well seem to involve the simultaneous use of absolutely every single pot and pan that you possess. 

But god is it good.  The best.  (Again, my apologies to the vegetarians.  I know.  I know.  But... it really is good.  I'm sorry.  It just is.)

So, about every year or two, I saddle up and make it.  And then I spend a week or so eating it.  Needless to say, this is the kind of week that will require regular trips to the gym and the pool, but it's soooo worth it.

The filling.

The filling, topped with crust and brushed with egg.  Ready to bake.

The end result: pure comfort.

While making the pot pie, I once again made a virtue of necessity.  Since you have to poach the chicken in vegetables and then use only the meat, I took the opportunity of putting the bones and vegetables in a pot with herbs and water and boiled it all for the remainder of the day.  So I  now have homemade chicken broth, ready to use for my next batch of Italian wedding soup.

And of course, all of this did the trick, and I felt much better.  The remainder of the week was spent getting the odds and ends done before the holiday busy-season hits.  I graded a small stack of papers.  I vacuumed.  I did laundry.  I caught up on various reading and writing projects for school.  I mulched leaves like a madwoman.

And I started to think about Christmas gifts.  My neighbors have been such great neighbors: she helps me with gardening advice, invites me to incredible dinners (she's a good cook), he helped me clean up my yard one winter after a major storm, the list just goes on and on.

Her daughter had a baby this year, so I'm thinking of a knitted sweater for the little grandson, to say "thank you!!!" for all of their kindness and help.

I started working on that this week, and although it's not in a condition to be photographed (if you saw it right now, you might wonder how it will ever turn out to be a sweater), I can't resist a little teaser.

These are the buttons I'll be using.  I'm not usually a sucker for cutesy-kid-things, but I do like these little buttons.  They're cute, but in a very understated way (like me! LOL).  And I think they'll look really good on the sweater itself.

So I'm enjoying that knitting project a great deal.  And, in an odd twist of fate, after all of the problems and struggles I had with the garden this year, even now, as I spend time mulching leaves all over the yard and covering plants and generally getting ready for winter, this is what greets me when I come inside:

Yup.  That's right.  I brought in a TON of green tomatoes that just wouldn't ripen and wouldn't ripen and WOULDN'T RIPEN out in the yard.

Finally, they were predicting a frost.  My neighbor (see above) advised me to bring them in.  She told me that if I did, and put them someplace warm but not in the sun, they would ripen.

Well, I tried that last year, and it was a bust.  But for some reason, this year, it's working.  (I think because I put them in a place that gets more light, but still isn't in the sun.  That may be key to this whole process.)  Anyway, they're ripening little by little, and it's actually working out really well for me, because instead of having a ton of them all at once, I'm getting a manageable batch every week that I can use in salads and on pasta and in omelettes.

So yes, it's November, and I'm eating fresh tomatoes from the garden.  Still.  Just goes to show: you never can tell what the future will hold.

"We will only understand the miracle of life fully when we allow the unexpected to happen."
--Paulo Coelho

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Light in the Leaves

I just watched the sunset.  I love an autumn sunset, because of the way the sunlight plays on the leaves.

If there had to be a day extended by an hour, today was the day.  I did all kinds of yard work, followed by a bike ride made all the more glorious by the fact that it's probably the last bike ride I'll be able to take in a tank-top for some time to come.

I savored every moment.  I imagined what it will feel like to do it again in the spring, after a cold winter.  I guess you could say I enjoyed it in both the present and the future.

I made my favorite apple cake, with the fresh-picked apples I got the other day.  It was my belated treat for my own birthday, and a treat for the birthdays of others in my life.  Today would have been my mom's 79th birthday, and it's my best friend's daughter's 8th birthday.  So it's been a good day, all around.

I've been downloading a ton of French novels.  I have an idea for a comparative lit. course on the 19th-century novel in France and Russia that I'm beginning to contemplate.  It would be a blast to teach, and an even greater blast to prepare for.

I'm working on my article on Moby-Dick, and feeling pretty good about how it's shaping up.  I need to revise and resubmit it, and I'd really like to have that done before the holidays.

Because believe it or not, I'm already thinking about my plans for the holidays: where I'll be, what I'll be up to.

I don't have a lot to say tonight, actually.  I'm just in a good mood, and  I've just been basking in the day, and now I'm looking forward to spending the evening in peace and love.  As it should be.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Point: Break

It's been a wonderful weekend.

I got up on Saturday morning and went to Newport, RI.  Took a nice walk from Easton's Beach down Memorial Drive and did some shopping downtown.  Yes, it was chilly at first: the wind kind of caught you by surprise.

But totally worth it.

Only down side: I forgot my camera.  I always do.

I got back and did some yard work.  Call it a minor victory, but I'm always quite pleased with myself when the leaves are manageable enough that I can mow them and use them to mulch the lawn.  Raking leaves seems like such a ... pointless... task otherwise.

And given that some creature is apparently using a small section of my lawn as his/her own private port-a-potty, the lawn-mower mulching is very much preferable.

I've been knitting.  I'd show you what I've been working on, but it's a gift and a surprise, so... sorry.  No go.

What I can show you is what I did this morning.  I headed out to North Scituate and picked up these little beauties:

I ate two on the walk back to the car.  Yes, they are quite good.  Add a gallon of cider, which is right now mulling away on the stove with a couple of cloves and a cinnamon stick, and it was a morning well spent.

This is what I love about Rhode Island.  You can be on the beach one day, and in the woods the next.  Locals who complain constantly don't realize how good they have it, in my opinion.

After I got back from Newport on Saturday, I decided to make an Italian wedding soup.  It's a perfect way to ring in the newly-arrived autumn.  I found really good ground chicken and ground chicken sausage (apologies to the vegetarians), and the resulting meatballs were good enough to eat on their own.

But I refrained.  Sort of.

Okay, I ate a few.  But I saved the bulk of them for the soup.

Because the soup had all kinds of good things in it, including chopped spinach:
And the last of the fresh carrots from the garden.  I also used whole-grain pasta in the soup itself, so it isn't terribly unhealthy, per se.

It's just rather yummy is all.  A comfort food par excellence, if I do say so myself.  Here are the carrots from the garden (which is basically history, as of this weekend):

Yes, I know they're funny shapes.  That's the beauty of carrots fresh from the garden.

At least, that's what I tell myself.  Anyway, they taste good, and as my mom used to say, "that's all that matters."

The soup turned out great.  I used homemade chicken broth that I made last winter, so it ended up really hearty and full of flavor--although admittedly, not very photogenic.  It totally tastes better than it looks, in my opinion.

So this has been the break.

I've also done a fair amount of reading, and I've stumbled upon a novel that I'm liking a lot, Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake (2004).

I read her collection of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies (1999), and I thought it was probably pretty good, but I couldn't really tell.

I read it while my godson was having an MRI after his round of chemotherapy, so in all fairness, there isn't a work of literature on the planet that would have absorbed my interest, under the circumstances.

But I do remember thinking that Lahiri is a good writer, and I'd have to check out something else that she's written, to do her justice.

So in the grand scheme of things, the break has been a success.  Here's wishing it didn't have to end.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Real and the Fake, Revisited

Back when I was in college and graduate school, the Asian-American writers Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan were all the rage.

No one mentioned Frank Chin all that much, although Chin had been writing short stories throughout the 1970's.  He was one of the first Asian American playwrights to have a major New York production.

Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976), on the other hand, was immediately and enormously popular (a chapter of my dissertation is on Hong Kingston's work).  Her next memoir, China Men (1980), appeared a few years later, to somewhat less popular acclaim (although quite frankly, I think it's a somewhat stronger work).

Amy Tan arrived on the scene a few years later with The Joy Luck Club (1989), and helped fan the flames of interest in Asian-American literature.  In 1993, her novel was made into what is, in my opinion, a truly cheesy and terrible movie.  Tan wrote a few more popular novels in rapid succession, including The Kitchen God's Wife and The Hundred Secret Senses.  I read the former and didn't like it at all--to such an extent that this ended my little run of reading Amy Tan.

In 1991, Fran Chin wrote an article entitled, “Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake," angrily blasting Hong Kingston, Tan, and David Henry Hwang (the author of M. Butterfly) for writing works of Asian American literature that perpetuate racist stereotypes.

Chin was irate about the extent to which these works achieved instant and seemingly everlasting popularity with an American audience.  In his opinion, they do a serious disservice to "authentic" representations of the Asian experience in America by tapping into the very stereotypes that Asians have been trying to combat for centuries.

Specifically, Chin charges, "Kingston, Hwang, and Tan are the first writers of any race, and certainly the first writers of Asian ancestry, to so boldly fake the best-known works from the most universally known body of Asian American lore in history."

From a literary standpoint, what is at issue in Chin's charge is the way in which Hong Kingston and others revise (in Chin's words, "boldly fake") the stories told in ancient Chinese legends and novels.  For example, The Woman Warrior retells the legend of Fa Mu Lan, the medieval story of a girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to go to war and spare her father.  She goes in place of the son the family does not have.

Have you seen the Disney movie Mulan?  If so, this is precisely Frank Chin's point.

The legend of Hua Mulan is a story that is potentially appealing to an American audience, in a way that other Chinese legends might not be.  Quite frankly, there are a TON of Chinese legends about the heroic deeds of male warriors who sacrifice themselves in acts of honor, loyalty and duty, out of a love for family and community. 

And why, really, does someone need to retell the story of Madama Butterfly, of all things?  This is also Chin's point: given the vast array of ancient and classical materials from the Chinese and Japanese literary traditions, readily available for Asian American artists to work with, why choose these particular texts as the organizing framework for a literary intervention in contemporary American literature and culture?

Chin's charge is that these retellings are "fake," that they pander to racist stereotypes of Asians and of Asian Americans, and that, as such, they lack "authenticity."

For her part, Hong Kingston countered that she never claimed to be writing "history," that The Woman Warrior and China Men are "memoirs," and that as such, she never intended them to be "representative" of the experience of "being Asian American."  They represent her experience, which is also, simultaneously, that of a Chinese-American woman.

And yet, I can't simply dismiss Chin's point, because I think he does have a point, and I think literary history may bear him out.

There was a time in the early 1990s when I suspect that a serious subset of the white female population strongly wished that their moms and grandmoms met for stories of wisdom, love, and laughter over games of mah-jong, a la Tan's "Joy Luck Club."  And while Hwang's retelling of the Puccini opera is interesting and compelling, in its depiction of Song Liling, it could very well be seen as drawing on racist stereotypes that have traditionally served to emasculate Asian-American men.

All of this to say that I have always been curious about Frank Chin's work, but I was initially turned off from it largely because of the tone he adopted and the terms on which he waged war with other Asian American writers.

Back in the late '80s and early 90's, it seemed relatively clear that, whatever the validity of Chin's claims about the preferences of the American literary audience regarding depictions of Asian Americans and writers of Asian American literature (and the test of time has shown that they may well have a great deal of validity), they paled alongside the notion that his own allegations were fueled by a measure of professional envy--and streaked with more than a hint of misogyny.

The terms upon which Chin staged the debate--my Asian-American texts are "real" examples of Asian-American realities, whereas yours are "fake"--is fraught with problems and even a bit odd, given that we're all talking about fiction here.

Or are we?  Ultimately, Chin's attack raises an excellent point: legends and stories, like stereotypes, are fictions that take hold of our world and shape how we perceive both ourselves and others.  They determine how we perceive experience--both our own, and that of others--and who and what we identify with, culturally, politically, and morally.

So if there's such a thing as a literary bucket-list, Frank Chin has always been on mine.  I have always wanted to read his work, and I knew that once I got over my initial annoyance at his mode of expressing his literary politics and found some time on my hands, I would.

I finally picked up Chin's 1991 novel, Donald Duk the other day.  And I must say, it was worth the wait and a very enjoyable read.  Chin's story of an almost twelve-year-old boy who is navigating the terms of his Chinese-American identity in the first days of the Chinese New Year is quite fascinating.

Chin draws upon American iconography--Donald is well aware that his name is shared by a cartoon character (and he hates this fact).  His mother's name is actually "Daisy Duk."  He longs to be "the Chinese Fred Astaire."

In short, Donald initially seems to participate in some of the most prominent stereotypes that have dogged the representation of Chinese-Americans in the United States: Timidity.  Passivity.  Internal self-hatred.

And then, slowly and systematically--and above all, artistically--Chin's novel undoes all of them.  Donald Duk confronts the stereotypes in clever, funny and original ways, and uses literary tradition to rethink how and why they have functioned in the way that they have.

As the novel unfolds, Donald begins to learn about the 108 heroes of the Chinese epic, The Water Margin.  Representations of these heroes begin to visit him in his dreams and offer a framework within which he begins to rethink the history of the Chinese who, along with a contingent of equally-shunned and similarly sterotyped Irish workers--built the Central Pacific railroad through the Sierra Nevada in the 19th century.

Chin's representation of the merging of Chinese and American culture is far more complex and literary than Tan's or Hong Kingston's.  I have to give him that.  I suspect I'll return to Donald Duk far more often than I have returned to Hong Kingston's narratives.

At the same time, I really like Hong Kingston's China Men, and it was particularly interesting to see how each of these gifted writers reflect on the role of their Chinese ancestors in the building of the American railroad.

Ultimately, Chin's criticism of other Asian American writers raises a point that I can't quite answer.  Is it dangerous to write for an audience that typically knows nothing about Chinese literature and to then impose significant changes on traditional Chinese materials?  Or to select only traditions that seem to fit more readily with what an American audience might want to believe--or think that it sees--when it looks at "what it means to be Chinese in America"?

Or do texts and traditions belong to the writers and readers who use them?  Are they always open to change?

I often think I'm in an odd position as a reader of Asian American literature: I've read several of the (very long, but very, very interesting) Chinese novels that form the basis of their literary tradition: The Journey to the West, The Dream of the Red Chamber, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and The Water Margin.

In fact, the only one I haven't read, is the one Chin draws on: The Water Margin.  So now it's on my list.  Chin's novel has piqued my interest.  I actually have the novel, in all 4 volumes, sitting on a shelf in my office.  Time to dust them off and get cracking.

These works form the basis of Chinese culture.  If you mention any one of them, a Chinese listener will know exactly what you are referencing.  But readers and listeners in an American audience have usually never even heard of them.

Ultimately, this is the issue confronting Donald Duk: on the eve of his twelfth birthday and at the start of the Chinese New Year, he is poised to turn his back on Chinese culture as a whole.  He doesn't want to know about it, because he thinks there's nothing to know.  He thinks he hates everything "Chinese".  He thinks the traditions of Chinese culture have nothing to offer him.  He wants to be an "American" (whatever that might mean).

Whatever you might think of his literary politics, as a work of literary art, Chin's Donald Duk is the real deal.  It is a funny, clever and richly interesting novel about the dynamics of authenticity, identity and assimilation.  I highly recommend it.