Sunday, June 28, 2009


One man + one woman + one cat + one carload full of stuff, headed up north for ten days. See ya when I get back. (If I'm lucky, a blog post or two will publish itself while I'm gone, but I won't be monitoring comments, so you'll have to wait till I get home for that -- which does not mean I am encouraging you not to leave comments. I love to see what all of you have to say.)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Meet Emily (or Is It Max?)

I'm beginning to get my Facebook quiz addiction under control. Like all addictions seem to, it's getting a bit boring. However, some of them are still just too much fun to resist. Most recently, I took the "Which Classic Children's Literature Character Are You?" one and, worrying that I might end up being Pollyanna or some Struwwelpeter character who falls down a well and dies because she's too curious or something, I discovered (and was very gratified to find) that I am Max from Where the Wild Things Are. Well, as I said in my comments there, "Who wouldn't want to be Max?" Here's the description of what this apparently says about me:

You're adventurous and mischievous with a penchant for dressing up funny and dancing. You're a dreamer with your tendency to live in your own imaginary world...with your imaginary friends. Not that there's anything wrong with that! Now hurry home before your dinner gets cold.

I like it. No one can deny that I'm either adventurous or that I live in my own imaginary world. However, am I really such a mischievous person? I do love a good practical joke (even when played against me. In fact, especially when played against me), but I'm not sure "mischievous" is the best adjective for me. As I pondered this, though, I decided that, well, yes I can be quite mischievous. I thought I'd share a few examples.

1. My mother, being the sweet kind person that she is, has always been the sort to praise her children to the hilt. One day, she asked my sister Lindsay and me if we would make her a cup of tea. We knew when we presented it to her, she would proclaim it to be "delicious," so we decided to conduct a little experiment and proceeded to put about ten teaspoons of sugar in it. As predicted, she took her first sip, and when we asked how it was, she said, "delicious."

"Are you sure? You don't think it's maybe a bit sweet?" we wanted to know, but she assured us it was "delicious." Our giggles gave us away in the end, and we had to confess what we'd done. Luckily, my mother also has a very good sense of humor, and yes, we did go back and make her a "real" cup of tea, one that I am pretty sure really was "delicious."

2. I'm not the only one in my family who loved "all things horror" when we were growing up. My brother Ian was also a fan of "things that go bump in the night." One of my favorite primal fears is "something or someone under the bed." By the time Ian and I were teenagers, we of course, did not believe in the big, hairy monsters under our beds that I'm sure (wonderful big sister that I was) I'd described in great detail to him at just the right age to instill an awesome fear. However, the year we lived in England, we were feeding ourselves on a diet that consisted of such things as Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected (a BBC television production) and James Herbert's The Fog. So, one day, I got the bright idea of crawling under his bed and lying in wait (oh for those days when one had all the time in the world). Eventually, he came in and lay down to read. I waited a little while longer and then just slowly reached up a hand and rested it right beside him. The reaction I got when he looked down and saw the hand was exactly the one for which I had hoped, but he was, later, able to laugh about it.

3. During the first couple of years when I worked at the library, we were open until 9:00 p.m. on Friday nights. These were ridiculous hours, because we rarely saw a soul (except the poor homeless trying to keep warm in the winter) after 7:00. We had high school and college students we called "pages" who were hired to do things like retrieve and re-shelve periodicals. One Friday night, I was working the periodicals desk in the basement with one of these pages Alfred. We basically had nothing to do, having re-shelved all the books and magazines. We decided to make a bet as to how many periodical requests we'd get that night. I gave him my guess and then decided to up the ante a little, "And if we get more than that, I'll ride the dumbwaiter up to the fourth floor and back." We had a dumbwaiter used to send books, etc. back and forth among the five floors of the library. It was tall and wide enough to hold a couple of book carts but certainly wasn't big enough for an adult who was standing.

Needless to say, I lost the bet, which was fine by me. I'd always wanted an excuse to ride that dumbwaiter. Ten minutes before closing, I climbed into it, and Alfred pushed the buttons to send me up to the fourth floor and back. Boy, did that thing move slowly! Good thing it didn't break down. Good thing nobody tried to use it during those ten minutes. Good thing Alfred let me off when I got back to the basement. I still wonder how many other employees, if any, has ever ridden that thing.

4. At one of my other jobs, I had a boss who was of the "sky is falling" sort, often running around in a panic, ready to deliver bad news. He was an excellent problem-solver, always able to come out ahead, even when the sky really was falling, but this did not keep him from momentary tizzies when people did things that rocked the world he'd worked so hard to create, like announcing they were retiring or taking a job at another company.

Our department was in the habit of playing tricks on people when they went away on vacation, and he was not immune. One time, he'd come back from vacation to find we'd decorated his office to resemble a 1960s drug den -- beads hanging in the doorway, lava lamps, pillows on the floor instead of the table where he usually conducted meetings, etc. The next time he was away, our human resources director (who was often in on our fun and games) and I were contemplating what sort of trick we ought to play, and I said, "You know, I should pretend I've quit." She looked at me and said "Let's do it!" She then helped me compose a very vague email to her that wasn't exactly a letter of resignation but that said something about thinking it was probably best, after our little talk, for me to leave the company. She then forwarded it on to him, and I proceeded not to be in the office the day he came back from vacation.

There were some who thought this was an absolutely horrible thing to do. Needless to say, I would not have played such a trick on those people. His response when I told him about those people? "They have no sense of humor." To this day, he teases me about my "fake letter of resignation." Most recently, it was something like this, "I am sure if anyone calls me for a job reference for you what I have to say will be quite enlightening, especially when I show them that old letter of resignation."

Now, having verified that, yes, I can be quite mischievous, you'll have to excuse me. It's time to go dress up funny and dance.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Just Wondering

I'm just wondering: am I one of the few people left in the world who has an imagination? I can't believe this is so, because I seem to meet so many wonderfully imaginative people all the time (through blogs and books and articles and at teacher conferences and art galleries, etc.). However, I am beginning to think that perhaps we are an endangered species. Perhaps I'm just living on my own little island in the Galapagos, or something, and think that the whole world is full of giant tortoises when there are really less than 10,000 of us in the world.

Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I have been watching movies (having DVR-ed practically to the max while we take advantage of the free movie channels Bob managed to get for us for three months when he was negotiating with Direct TV). Glad you asked. Some of you may recall that I'm not a big fan of extraordinarily graphic movies. What's really annoying, though, is that so many movies I've seen that have come out in the past five years are ones that inspire "fan-dom" on my part, so then I end up being torn, having to say things like "Pan's Labyrinth was a brilliant movie. I loved it -- well, except for all that hideous violence." or "Well, Deception was just terrific, so much better than I expected. However, I couldn't have gone to see it alone. I needed someone who was willing to keep his eyes open throughout the whole thing, to let me know such minor things as who actually ended up dead."

And that's one of the major problems with all this violence, isn't it? The most recent "great but horrible" movie I've seen is Eastern Promises. It did not start off well, as a man gets killed in a hideously violent way in the very beginning, and I had to close my eyes. Not a great way to begin a film that is full of mystery and intrigue: not being sure yet who the "good guys" and "bad guys" are and whether or not this man you think is about to be killed is going to turn out to be a major character in the film. If you shut your eyes, you have no idea if he really did get his head cut off with a barber's razor or if he managed to escape and cut someone else's throat with it. Why would a director/producer want to do that to the viewer?

We Galapagos tortoises really just don't need that graphic detail, and there are some things in life we'd rather not see. All you need do is show me the razor poised at the man's throat. Then, you can show me a body posed face down by the barber's chair, those who weren't killed standing over it, so I know exactly what happened. I can fill in the slit throat, the blood, etc. myself (which is what I ended up doing anyway, since my eyes were shut).

Then there was the cutting off of the fingers scene. It seems no movie today is complete without either a hideous torture scene or someone losing fingers or both. (I'm waiting for Ratatouille II to come out with its scene in which the rat loses all his fingers.) One of the characters in the movie is told about the little operation that is about to be performed and is warned that he'd better leave the room. Couldn't the movie audience have been spared as well? Or couldn't we at least just have been shown the finger-cutting tool without having to see it in action?

As far as I'm concerned, all that graphic detail ruined an absolutely brilliant movie. It was: fantastic premise; lush cinematography; ironic juxtaposition, beautifully crafted; and superbly acted, not a weak character in the whole thing. I'm not even someone who considers myself to be extraordinarily squeamish. I've seen my fair share of brutal films in my life (like A Clockwork Orange and the original Mad Max. Remember that wonderful scene at the end, when Max throws the guy a saw -- I won't spoil it for those of you who haven't seen it? Well, that's the sort of "suggestion" that's now missing from movies. Today, we would have seen exactly what happened to that guy, leaving nothing up to the imagination), but movie-makers seem to be trying to outdo themselves with horrible gore. You know how bad Eastern Promises was, because even Bob, who will usually sit through anything and claim it wasn't as bad as I think it was, noted it was one of the most violent movies he's ever seen.

When I was a teen, I used to read books and be somewhat afraid to go see the movie, but that didn't stop me from heading out to the movie theater to see the likes of The Amityville Horror or The Shining. 99% of the time, I'd come away from the movie, saying to my friends "It wasn't as bad as I'd imagined it reading the book. They never show all the worst stuff." I don't think I could say that anymore. We've reached some turning point in which it seems the focus is often "the worst stuff." I'm convinced it's because we are no longer a society of readers. We spend our lives having everything laid out in plain view for us, and we've lost our ability to be shown a murder weapon, to see a victim, and to be able to put two and two together to figure out what happens. Yes, movie-makers are going for shock value, but I also think they feel it's necessary to portray exactly what happens, because either they don't have the imagination to do otherwise, or they don't believe their audience does. One more reason to forgo the movie for the book (as if I needed that).

Now, if you'll excuse me, it's time for this tortoise who could easily give a human child a ride on its hard, humped shell to head down to the water for a little deep sea diving. The water is crystal clear, and I'm lumbering through the sand to get there. (Apologies to all those of you who needed a video in order to picture that.)

Bob and Emily Talk V

Emily is watching Bob as he stands at the bathroom sink brushing his teeth before going to bed. (Okay, what she's really doing is staring at and admiring his butt and legs, something she still loves doing even after nearly fourteen years of marriage.) While doing so, she notices that the left side of his lower body seems to be slightly more muscular than the right side -- not in any sort of grotesque way, but there is definitely a difference if one looks with an observant eye. She wonders why she never before noticed this.

Emily: You know, your left leg is slightly more muscular than your right, which is odd, because I'd think you'd be right-legged.

Bob: No it isn't. [He knows because he's got such a good view of his back legs, standing in front of a sink with no full-length mirror in sight.] What are you talking about?

Emily: It is. Just slightly.

Bob: It's just the way I'm standing and the way the light's casting shadows or something.

This explanation does not satisfy Emily. She knows what she sees, and it has nothing to do with posture and lighting. However, she's been married long enough to know that the wise thing to do at this moment is to let the whole thing drop.

Emily: Oh yeah. Maybe you're right. [Yes, even ministers' wives are known to lie in order to keep the peace.]

Nevertheless, just before she falls asleep, she's thinking about this conversation again. Why would Bob's left leg be more muscular? Then she realizes: he's got plantar fasciitis (a runner's problem that basically affects the heel of the foot, sometimes causing great pain). She always forgets which foot it is, but she bets it's the right one, that through favoring it, he's giving his left leg a bit more of a workout when he runs and walks.

The next morning, Emily is busy writing. The phone rings. It's Bob.

Bob: You know, I've been thinking. Maybe my left leg is slightly more muscular than my right. My plantar fasciitis was bothering me this morning, and I realized I put less weight on it and more weight on the other leg when I'm walking around.

Emily: That's what I was thinking last night, too. The plantar fasciitis is in your right leg, right?

Bob: Yes. See what a good detective you are? This is why you ought to be keeping all your options open when you think about what your next career move is going to be.

Emily: Don't be ridiculous. I'm not suddenly going to become a detective.

Bob (the smile in his voice is obvious): Why not? I can just see your ad in the paper: Emily the Detective. You can pose with Francis [the cat] as your sidekick.

Detective? No. Writer of detective fiction? No, not that either. Wife who keeps her husband on his toes? Now, there's a career I'd consider if someone would offer to pay me good money...

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Things I've Learned Since Losing My Job

The first week after I lost my job, being the good little Puritan that I am, I was busy updating my resume, asking people for recommendations, thinking about who to contact to tell them I was looking, mapping out different ideas for starting my own business, and reading want ads. One of my authors, upon finding out what had happened to me, emailed me to say, "I've been around long enough to know that people like you don't sit idle for long." It was as if I had to prove her right or something.

Bob (before he came down with a kidney stone and staph infection) noticed what I was doing and basically said, "Stop." He told me not to apply for anything, to take time off. His idea was to take at least two months if not longer to "get to know myself" without any distractions, to figure out what I really wanted to do. After all, I'm 45. Whatever move I make now is probably going to be the last one I make career-wise. I, not being a good, obedient wife, didn't immediately follow his advice. I needed to do something to keep myself from wallowing in depression and self-pity. But then he got horribly, horribly sick, and I was forced to abandon everything while I took care of/worried about him. Talk about putting life into perspective. I decided heeding his advice might be a wise move after all, and I quit doing anything to try to get another job (you know me well enough that this does not mean I quit thinking about it, but I didn't actively do a damn thing).

It's now been three months since I lost my job, and I thought I'd share with all of you what I've learned during this time:

1. I used to think (and regret that I hadn't done so) that everyone should take a year off either before or during college to do something completely different (work, volunteer, travel, etc.). Everyone I've known in life who did that (including my own husband) grew by leaps and bounds compared to those of us who didn't. I now believe that everyone (especially those of us who have either had a part-time job and full-time school or full-time jobs since the age of sixteen and have never taken more than two weeks off at a time) ought to take at least two months off at some point during his or her career to figure out what really matters in life.

2. As much as I might want to deny it, I am more interested in publishing than any other industry. I still eagerly read Publisher's Weekly. I am like a moth to light when it comes to articles in the NYT that have to do with publishing. I am extremely excited about the fact that I think the publishing industry is standing on the brink of a very significant time in history, one that rivals the invention of the printing press, and am happy when I read about companies that seem to have a vision for the future instead of clinging to the past. I love to read about "the good old days of publishing" and imagine what the big names of those times would be doing now.

3. That being said, I have come to the conclusion that I have 3 big passions in life: writing, cooking, and keeping progressive Christianity (of the "Jesus was the world's best psychologist, and this is an extraordinarily radical religion formed by extraordinarily radical people who would be no more accepted in American society today than they were in Roman society" sort) alive and well.

4. None of my passions is the sort from which one can easily make a living. Being intimately familiar with the publishing industry, I know how absurd it is to think a decent living can be made as a writer. Even if one decides, "Oh, I'll just sell out and become another Danielle Steele." It isn't as though no one else has ever had that thought. I am also (through family members) intimately familiar with the restaurant business and know that, despite the fact I am an insomniac who is constantly described by others as "energetic" and who'd probably do well with a 95-hour work week, it is not the life for me. And, well, when it comes to progressive churches, they're dying all around us, while those who would be the first to crucify Christ all over again were he to show up in Dallas, TX tomorrow are thriving.

5. No matter how stunningly beautiful that board of round holes at Company with Next Great Job Opportunity is, and no matter how drawn I am to the challenge of getting a square peg to fit into one of those holes, unless I see evidence of tremendous progress being made on the new board of equally stunning beauty that is full of square holes, and that will be finished shortly after I arrive, I am better off walking away from that company. I do not have what it takes to keep fighting for something that nobody else cares about.

6. A job does not have to be all about one's passion. A job can be a way to earn money in order to be able to pursue one's passions. (I know, that seems obvious, but for the longest time I've been confused, because I thought publishing was a passion. Now, I realize, it's an interest, not a passion.)

7. I need these things in order to be as sane as possible:
a. Time to write every single day
b. Sleep
c. Exercise
d. A healthy diet

8. Even though I have much more time for it now, I still despise housekeeping, but I want a tidy and clean house. I just want someone else to get it that way for me (to my standards).

It's been quite a learning experience thus far.

Monday, June 22, 2009

An ABC Meme

Looks like Monday has morphed from "Music Monday" to "Music or Meme Monday." Today, it's a meme. My nieces (from whom I get most of these things) tagged me for this one on Facebook. It's kind of fun, so I thought I'd bring it over here.

You've been tagged; you are supposed to write a note with the ABCs of YOU. (I'm then supposed to tag 26 people, but I'm not going to do that -- way too much work. Just consider yourself tagged if you'd like to do this one.)

A - An advantage that you have: I'm an educated WASP living in America. Need I say more?

B - Blue or brown eyes: I don't really understand the question. Does it mean do I have blue or brown eyes? (The answer is neither. My eyes are gray), or does it mean do I like blue or brown eyes? (The answer is both. I like expressive eyes, no matter what the color.)

C - Chore you hate: I hate just about anything that has to do with housework, except cooking, which I don't consider a chore.

D - Dad's name: Hewson, but he goes by the nickname he's had since he was a child, which is Wukka (don't ask. We're Southern).

E - Essential start of your day: First, I have to manage to drag myself out of bed, and then it's coffee time.

F - Favorite color: Everyone knows it's green, right?

G - Greatest thing you've ever done that made you feel really good: Believe it or not, it's probably giving up smoking, which was one of the hardest things I've ever done, but has made me feel good both mentally and physically.

H - Habit you have: I leave my shoes all over the house, and then can't find them when I want them. Even though I love shoes, I most like not wearing them, and I take them off at every opportunity.

I - Issue you hate that the world tries to make you pursue: No one is supposed to age. We're all supposed to look and act like we're 25 until when? The day we die?

J - Job title: I don't have a job right now, but my last job title was Executive Editor, Math and Science.

K - Khols or Target: I've never been to Khols, so I guess it's Target by default (but I don't go there much either. I shop at local businesses whenever possible).

L - Living arrangements: I live in the manse that is part of my husband's salary, provided by his church. Oh, and he lives here, too, as does our cat Francis.

M - Music you like: The better question is what I don't like, which is basically rap and heavy metal.

N - Nicknames: I have many. Here are a few: Bleep (family only), Bing (Bob only), Em (friends), Mouse (friends who knew me when my last name was Michie, because it's pronounced like Mickey Mouse)

O - Overnight hospital stay other than birth: I had an ovarian cyst removed when I was 18 and was in the hospital for a week. These days, I think that's day surgery.

P - Pet Peeve: I hate all the grammatical/spelling errors that abound on Facebook, and I've edited this meme in the hopes that I've managed to get rid of all the ones it had (need someone to edit my answers for me, though, because I'm sure I've missed my own errors).

Q - Quote that you like most: "It's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all," and I also like this variation on it, "It's better to have loved and lost than to have been stuck with a real loser for the rest of your miserable existence." (That was on a mug a friend of mine gave me when one of my exes broke up with me. I passed it on to a friend of mine when she was going through her divorce.)

R - Right or left handed: I'm hopelessly right-handed, although, when I broke my left wrist, after years of thinking that my left hand was basically pretty useless, I discovered that my left hand/arm come in awfully handy.

S - Siblings: Forsyth, Lindsay, and Ian, and I'd link to all their blogs, but none of them ever posts anything, so you've probably already read their last posts.

T - Time you wake up: Are we talking about time I wake up when I'm suffering from insomnia (between 1:00 and 2:00 a.m.), or time I wake up when I get up for the day (between 5:00 and 7:00, depending on when I've gone to bed and whether or not it's been a night I've suffered from insomnia)?

U - Underwear: I have absolutely no idea how I am supposed to answer this "question." What the hell?

V - Vegetable you dislike: I've learned to eat them if I disguise them enough, but I'm still not a huge fan of Brussels sprouts.

W - What makes you run late: If I'm late, you can guarantee Bob's at fault :-)!

X-rays you've had: I've had tons of X-rays.

Y - Yummy food you make: I make all kinds of yummy food. Today I'm thinking about the yummy cream of asparagus soup I ate up yesterday and wishing I had some more.

Z- Zoo Animal- I love pandas, but they're pretty scarce, even in zoos. Good thing I also love elephants.

Friday, June 19, 2009

You've GOT to Read This I: Firmin by Sam Savage

(Note that the title is labeled "I." I've decided to start another ongoing mini-series on this blog for all those of you whose TBR lists and piles are looking a little sickly and emaciated these days. It's for books that I've found out about via word of mouth and that -- determined solely by me -- need further spreading via word of mouth -- or blog post, as the case may be.)

You've got to read:
Savage, Sam. Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2006.

One of the great things about working in the publishing industry (the library world, too) is that you are guaranteed to work side-by-side with colleagues who love to read as much as you do. If you are really lucky (as I was), you come into work in the morning to find books these colleagues have left on your chair with yellow stickies that say things like, "This is the one I mentioned at lunch yesterday," or "This seems like the sort of thing you'd like," or with no sticky at all, the assumption being you will know exactly who is proffering the gift. Then, if you are extremely fortunate, these colleagues become friends, people with whom you stay in touch even when you are no longer working together, and you continue to share book titles with each other. That's how I found out about this little gem of a book, from my former colleague and friend Bob, whose take on it you can find here. This is what he had to say about it in an email to me:

You would love it. It’s about “Firmin, a debonair soul trapped in a rat’s body” who lives in the basement of a bookstore in Boston. It’s a wonderful book about books and their impact on the life of a rat and his attempt to reach out to humans. It’s metaphorically meaningful and a fast read and at times a SOL (smile out loud). Recommend it highly if you haven’t already read it!
He was absolutely right. I loved this little book from the moment I picked it up at the library (so much so, that I have to buy my own copy of it now. Does anyone else do that: check a book out of the library, read it, and then decide to own it?). The cover of the version I read is fabulous, made to resemble an old book from a used bookstore whose dust jacket is worn and ripping, with a terrific illustration of an angst-ridden rat scratching his head. What a beautiful design, inside and out, one that has drawn me to the publisher.

I'd never heard of Coffee House Press, but I am impressed. Apparently, they are a nonprofit literary house, one that produces "...books that present the dreams and ambitions of people who have been underrepresented in published literature, books that shape our national consciousness while strengthening a larger sense of community." How can an aspiring writer not feel an affinity for such a place? I plan to read more of their books.

Anyway, back to the book (since this isn't called, "You've GOT to Get to Know This Publisher, although that's not such a bad idea for a mini-series, either, is it?). If this book had not been recommended to me by someone whose recommendations I highly trust, I never would have read it. Although I love animals and have been known to appreciate some allegorical works as an adult, even as a child, I was pretty picky about the books I read that featured animals as main characters -- just way too many tricky questions to pull it off successfully, as far as I was concerned. They pretty much had to exist in nonexistent realms, where it was okay for them to do things like talk or accomplish tasks that require opposable thumbs, or they had to exist without humans. Well, this little novella pulls it off swimmingly, humans and real world, and all.

The book may have a picture of a rat on the cover, but don't let it fool you. It isn't about a rat at all (except in the way all we humans are rats), but rather, it's about a reader, a reader who also had a fondness for the piano and the likes of Cole Porter and George Gershwin (such good taste!). Oh, and he liked to watch old movies, too. So why have you got to read this book, which sounds so implausible, and besides, you've got Edgar Sawtelle and Jeffrey Lent and Nick Hornby piled up for this summer, not to mention books for book discussion groups? Because it is all about you, the book addict (I dare you to read it and not to be able to recognize yourself at least somewhere, if not everywhere), and the writing is beautiful, and you will smile, and you might find a tear or two in your eye (or at least a lump in your throat) when you reach the inevitable but oh-so-well portrayed heartbreaking ending (and even a time or two before it ends).

In case you're still not convinced, let me share with you a few places where I recognized myself:

If there is one thing a literary education is good for it is to fill you with a sense of doom. There is nothing quite like a vivid imagination for sapping a person's courage. I read the diary of Anne Frank. I became Anne Frank. As for the others, they could feel plenty of terror, cringe in corners, sweat with fear, but as soon as the danger had passed it was as if it had never happened, and they trotted cheerfully on. Cheerfully on through life till they were flattened or poisoned or had their necks cracked by an iron bar. As for me, I have outlived them all and in exchange I have died a thousand deaths. I have moved through life trailing a glistening film of fear like a snail. When I actually die it will be an anticlimax. (p. 33)

Oh, me too, me too. I've been through so many divorces, lost so many spouses and children to disease or psychological dysfunction, and yes, died all those deaths with so many characters. Of course, sometimes, it was the characters themselves who led me there by trotting cheerfully on even while I was screaming at them, "No! No! Don't do that!" How can anyone not love that final line, "When I actually die it will be an anticlimax?"

You laugh. You are right to laugh. I was once -- despite my unpleasant mien -- a hopeless romantic, that most ridiculous of creatures. And a humanist, too, equally
hopeless. (p. 37)
That one doesn't even need explaining, does it? Did I ever start life as a hopeless romantic! Then I read and read and read and read. Now I cling to my romanticism with a tenacity that would probably thrill the Arthurians, but it's pretty hopeless. The cynicism has crept in, fed on a huge diet of hopeless humanism.

I loved Jerry, but I feared that what he loved in return was not me but a figment of his imagination. I knew all about being in love with figments. And in my heart I always knew, though I liked to pretend otherwise, that during our evenings together, when he would drink and talk, he was really just talking to himself. (p. 117)

That could be a lonely spouse or lover pondering the nature of his or her relationship (it isn't, but it could be). It could be a happy spouse or lover, pondering the need for imagination in order to carry on this impossible set of feelings we call "love," fearing that a partner might not be able to keep on doing so once the "real me" is discovered (it isn't, but it could be). What it is is a quote from a rat that leads into an incredibly poignant section in the book about the masks we wear as well as those forced upon us by others. When we don our own masks, we find freedom. When masks are forced upon us, we find ourselves imprisoned. Ever thought of that? I hadn't. Not so eloquently as this little rat does, anyway.

My brain was like a gigantic warehouse -- you could get lost in it, lose track of time peeking into boxes and cases, wandering knee-deep in dust, and not find your way out for days. (p. 133)
Wait a minute. Firmin wasn't born in that bookstore after all. He was born somewhere in a corner of my head and has found his way to the tunnels that lead to my brain, right? You've all seen me describe my brain in this way, haven't you?

There you have it, all the reasons to race out and buy this book now (or at least visit your local library to pick up a copy, so you can then decide to race out and buy it). As for me? It's too bad I no longer live in New York. I think I'd be far more tolerant next time I saw a feisty little rat burrowing around in a city trashcan. Maybe he's not looking for food. Maybe he's reading that discarded issue of The New York Times. Or maybe it's not too bad. Maybe it's a good thing, because my heart won't crack a little as I see him trot cheerfully on across the street to disappear into the bushes somewhere in Riverside Park, while I scream "No! No! Don't do that!"

Monday, June 15, 2009

Music Monday, Lyric Lundi

When I was growing up, when we went to church (which basically stopped happening except on Christmas and Easter when the Episcopal Church changed its prayer book, and my father couldn't stand the way they'd ruined the poetry of the old one), the only thing I liked about the services were the hymns. I used to wish we would cut out some of those prayers (I actually liked that new prayer book my father so hated, because it did) and just sing more hymns. Oh, and that sermon could definitely go, too. I suppose what I really wanted was just a good old-fashioned hymn sing with everyone calling out his or her favorite hymns to be sung.

I now get to attend one of those. On the first Sunday of every month from May through September, our church holds a hymn sing at the Old Church down the road. I love it, even if we do sing a bunch of old-timey hymns that are not the ones I sang in church as a child, the sorts I tend to associate with Baptists and gospel choirs, not Episcopalians and chamber singers. I never seem to be quick enough to call out any of my favorite hymns to sing, though.

I have many favorite hymns, but one of them is one that I did not actually grow up singing in my church. I sang a version of it at the Lutheran elementary school I attended where we knew it as "I Danced in the Morning." It's a song written to an American Shaker melody, and it's the melody that I really love. When I started attending Presbyterian churches as an adult, I came to find that they often sang not only "I Danced in the Morning," but also the original Shaker version "Simple Gifts." This version is beautiful, much more so than the one I learned as a child, its philosophy being one that all people would do well to embrace, so it's the one I'm giving you today. (Go find the music, though. That's the best part of it.)

Simple Gifts
by Joseph Brackett, Jr.

'Tis the gift to be simple,
'tis the gift to be free,
'tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
It will be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed.
To turn, turn will be our delight,
'Til by turning, turning we come round right.

'Tis the gift to be loved and that love to return,
'Tis the gift to be taught and a richer gift to learn,
And when we expect of others what we try to live each day,
Then we'll all live together and we'll all learn to say,


'Tis the gift to have friends and a true friend to be,
'Tis the gift to think of others not to only think of "me",
And when we hear what others really think and really feel,
Then we'll all live together with a love that is real.

Friday, June 12, 2009

But If We Started Dating...

A friend of mine on Facebook pointed me in the direction of this hilarious article from The Onion (which I have cut and pasted below). I laughed, the sort of laugh that comes from being all-too-familiar with a certain situation. I had to go back in time to remember exactly what it felt like to be in that situation, though, because, of course, I'm married now and, thank God, no longer have to deal with such sticky predicaments (just a whole bunch of different sticky predicaments). While traveling back to those pre-Bob days, I passed the other side of this story, sitting at a bar with a group of gorgeous women, and decided it needed to be told, too. I dragged it back with me to tell it here (it follows the cut-and-pasted story below).

But If We Started Dating It Would Ruin Our Friendship Where I Ask You To Do Things And You Do Them

By Kimberly Pruitt
June 9, 2009 | Issue 45•24

I really like you. I do. You're so nice, and sweet, and you listen to all my problems and respond with the appropriate compliments. But, well, I don't really see a relationship in our future. It would be terrible if we let sex destroy this great friendship we have where I get everything I want and you get nothing you want. Don't you think?

I knew you would understand. You always do.

We're so perfect as friends, you know? I can tell you anything, and you know you can always come to me anytime you need to hear me bitch about work or how ugly I feel. You wouldn't want to ruin a friendship like that just so you could be my boyfriend, and have me look at you with desire and longing in my eyes, if only once—would you? Of course not. Well, if we started dating, it would only complicate this wonderful setup I've got going here.

It's just…you're like my best friend, and I would hate for something you desperately want to change that. I mean, sure, we could go on some dates, maybe mess around a little and finally validate the six years you've spent languishing in this platonic nightmare, but then what? How could we ever go back to the way we were, where I take advantage of your clear attraction to me so I can have someone at my beck and call? That part of our friendship means so much to me.

No. We are just destined to be really, really good friends who only hang out when I don't have a boyfriend, but still need male attention to boost my fragile and all-consuming ego.

Anything can happen once you bring romance in. Think about how awful my last relationship was at the end, remember? The guy I'd call you crying about at 3 a.m. because he wouldn't answer my texts? The guy I met at the birthday party you threw me? I had insanely passionate sex with him for four months and now we don't even talk anymore. God, I would die if something like that happened to us.

Plus, ick, can you even imagine getting naked in front of each other? I've known you so long, you're more like a brother that I've drunkenly made out with twice and never mentioned again. It'd be way too weird. And if we did, then whenever you'd come shopping with me, or go to one of my performances or charity events, or take me for ice cream when I've had a bad day at work, you'd be looking at me like, "I've seen her breasts." God, I can't think of anything more awkward that that.

Oh, before I forget, my mom says hi.

Anyway, you would totally hate me as your girlfriend. I'd be all needy and dramatic and slowly growing to love you. If I was your girlfriend, I would never be able to tell you all about the other asshole guys I date and pretend I don't see how much it crushes you. Let's never lose that. That's what makes us us.

Don't worry. You're so funny and smart and amazing, any girl but me would be lucky to date you. You'll find someone, I know it. And when you do, I'll be right by your side to suddenly become all flirty and affectionate with you in front of her, until she grows jealous and won't believe it when you say we're just friends. But when she dumps you, that's just what we'll be.

Best friends. Friends forever.

But If We Started Dating It Would Ruin My Chances of Screwing Real Hot Babes

by Emily Barton
June 12, 2009|Post #494

I like you. I really do. You know I like you because we've wound up in bed a few times now over the past couple of months. But I really hope you're not reading anything into this. No, it's not that I don't think you're attractive. You are plenty attractive. Obviously, it's not that. I wouldn't wind up in bed with you if you weren't attractive. I mean, you know me, I like pretty girls. Well, yes, you do happen to know about that one time when I was so wasted I woke up next to "Gertrude Gorilla," and called her that because I couldn't remember her name, but you know, you're not supposed to hold that against me. That's our funny story, a secret between you and me. That's why we're such good friends. We tell each other things like that. I would never call you "Gertrude Gorilla." Anyway, please don't get clingy or possessive with me or anything now. We're just "friendly friends," you know.

We've had sex. It's no big deal, and it only happened because none of the hot babes who really interest me will return my calls. And, you know, well, a guy has needs. Oh, there you go with that you're not hot enough for me stuff again. Will you cut it out? You're very cute in a sort of, girl-next-door kind of way. And, you know, I've always thought you have a fine ass.

Don't you ever get a little embarrassed by all those not-so-subtle hints our friends throw out at us about making such a great couple and knowing we'll get married one day? Well, sure we get along better than all the "coupled" couples we know, but that's no reason to think we ought to start getting serious, tying ourselves down. I did hear your sister when she said we seemed like a happily married couple, but I'm not into that "happily married" stuff. You know, I'd much prefer to wait around for someone who makes me absolutely miserable, and besides, I'm not sure I ever want to be tied down. I just want a hot babe -- or two -- or three, babes I can show off to all my friends, especially those who are tied down, to make them jealous.

Besides, you of all people, know that I'm still not really over Karen, the woman who did nothing but criticize me, walk all over me, make me feel like a complete shit, and then up and moved to Hawaii, taking both our cats with her. I know it's been three years, but it's just so hard to get over a woman like that. And God, you know, I really, really do think you're great, but you and I just don't have what Karen and I had, you know? I need that if I'm going to commit myself to someone, and I miss it -- miss her -- terribly.

Of course I love you. Of course you're my best friend. I just don't love you like that. You are probably the most fabulous woman on the planet, and some guy is going to be extremely lucky to meet you one day. Remember, though, you're not allowed to find him without my help. We all know what a cretin magnet you are and that you can't be trusted to find your own boyfriends. Don't worry, as soon as I find Mr.-Right-For-You, I will bring him around, introduce you to him. In the meantime, do you mind if we still, you know, wake up in the same bed naked together, on occasion, when I'm really horny and can't find someone hotter than you to wake up with me instead?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

More on The Writer's Life

One of the key components necessary for being a fiction writer is, of course, an imagination. I suppose one could write fiction without one. I've encountered a few authors in my lifetime of reading who might fit that description. However, it's pretty darn difficult, and I am not one to choose such difficult paths, so I am very happy to have been blessed with this imagination of mine.

The only thing is (and I know I shouldn't be such a whiner, be so picky, so you don't need to remind me), I'm pretty sure I would have been perfectly content with a mere active imagination as opposed to this overactive one that I've got. "Active" is good. "Overactive" is not. "Active" is what drives plots, what makes writing fun, what encourages a writer to consider various options and scenarios, what allows a writer to see other worlds so clearly. "Overactive" is what can paralyze a writer, because, you see, what creates that Wonderful World full of characters, the world that draws in the reader -- a fully-imagined, believable one -- is also what makes a Not-So-Wonderful World, one that co-exists (and sometimes seems to have its mind on conquering it) with Wonderful World in this universe known as The Writer's Brain. Here's a glimpse of Not-So-Wonderful World:

The Writer has just finished chapter three of The Novel, and chapter four is well on its way. She is busy fixing lunch, content in the fact that the writing is coming along well. She is busy composing a cover letter in her head. The cover letter is being written to Dream Publisher (she has already looked up submission guidelines online, despite the fact she will have nothing to submit before next year).

In this Not-So-Wonderful World that The Writer is visiting while spreading mayonnaise on whole wheat toast and topping it with avocado and onion slices, Dream Publisher, the very first one she approaches, loves her novel (or maybe it's just the brilliant cover letter she's written. No problem. Whatever works). Not only does she get a contract for it, but she also gets a contract for the next novel in the series, which she has already begun to write.

All this is fine and dandy until the critics come marching into Not-So-Wonderful World. The Writer finds herself reading the first reviewer's disparaging remarks:

"The author may have been under the impression that she was creating a hilarious cast of characters, but with so many of them and with such poor characterization, this reader at least, found it difficult to distinguish one from the other, even the males from the females. Spend your money elsewhere this summer."

That's just the beginning. Review after review follows (this book receives more reviews than any other in the history of publishing). Dream Publisher begins to wonder how to get out of that second contract as everyone reads on:

"The author seems to be striving to be the new Armistead Maupin. I've got news for her: Armistead Maupin she ain't."

"The author seems to be confused as to whether or not she is writing farce or tragedy. You may find yourself confused as well, alternately laughing out loud and weeping, but only over the sentence construction that rivals your favorite third-grader's." (This from an author The Writer has never thought could write his way out of third grade.)

"Let us take a little tour of Laurel Ridge, VA, an unbelievable town full of unbelievable, stereotypical characters engaging in antics that even such characters as these just, well, wouldn't. On second thought, let's go elsewhere this year."

"This reader was appalled and offended by the sexualization of a fourteen-year-old child. As if we don't see enough of this trash on television every day. What's next: the sexual lives of toddlers?" (Yes, it's in Ladies Home Journal, and the reviewer is completely misguided, but still...)

As you can see, this is not exactly a pleasant visit for The Writer. She's wondering if she might not encourage Wonderful World to engage in a little invasion (has she heard rumors about WMDs in Not-So-Wonderful World?) possibly resulting in annihilation of the place. I've got another idea, though, a peaceful solution. Dear gods, goddesses, saints, and anyone else who can help, please send me The World's Best Editor.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Ross Macdonald's The Underground Man

Macdonald, Ross. The Underground Man. New York: Knopf, 1971.

(This, chosen by me, was this month's read for the mystery book discussion group, and, hey, look at that: I actually got a picture of the edition I read.)

I walked toward him, into the skeletal shadow of the sycamore. The smoky moon was lodged in its top, segmented by small black branches. (p. 40)
He was a short heavy-bodied man with iron gray hair and sideburns which seemed to pincer his slightly crumpled face and hold it out for inspection. (p. 102)
I got my binoculars out of the trunk of my car and focused them on the sloop. She was dismasted, and her rigging hung overside like a torn net. Her hull appeared to be sprung and heavy with water. She rose up sluggishly when the long surge lifted her, then fell back clumsily on her side. My breathing labored as if in empathy. (p. 174)
I hadn't quite forgotten that I so love Macdonald because he writes like this, but I haven't read him in a while, so let's just say it was about time I read him again. It's given me the opportunity, next time I'm raving about him to refer to him as "he of the smoky moons lodged in tree tops." Who says writing can't be stark and beautiful while still being chock full of wonderful simile and metaphor, not to mention adjectives and adverbs? Oh, I see. You, dear Hemingway-wannabe writing instructor, were talking about "manly man" writing, not all writing. Well, I beg to differ. You've obviously never read any Ross Macdonald (probably because genre fiction is beneath you, not being "real" literature).

What's wonderful about Ross Macdonald, and he proves it yet again with this book, is that he can give us that hard-boiled feel of Hammett and Chandler while also giving us a little more heart. We don't really know Lew Archer that much more than we know other detectives of his ilk; however, Macdonald has made us think we do. Meanwhile, Macdonald's exploring dysfunctional families and really thinking about what makes people -- all kinds of people -- tick, and he's doing so by adopting a genre not typically used for that purpose (at least, not in his day). Murder mysteries are supposed to be formulaic, cut-and-dry, easy reads. They are not supposed to explore the human psyche. That's the domain of real literature. But what better venue for dysfunctional families than a murder mystery? After all, dysfunction taken to its extreme typically leads to abuse and murder. Macdonald hasn't always exactly been applauded by high-brow critics for this literary feat of elevating the murder mystery into something more, but happily, more and more are beginning to disagree with those naysayers, to argue that what Macdonald wrote can be described as, if not exactly "literature," then at least "literary."

I had a hard time approaching this book without being influenced by the Ross Macdonald biography I read last year. My memory is quite fuzzy on some of the details of that book, but I do know that Kenneth Millar's (Ross Macdonald's) own daughter, a very troubled teen, disappeared at one point, and Millar had to hire a private detective to go in search of her. She was eventually found.

That part of the biography was quite poignant, as Millar's real life came to imitate his fiction, and I couldn't help thinking about it as I read this story (written years after his daughter's disappearance) of a young woman in her late teens who had disappeared with another woman's little boy, giving Lew Archer two lost children to find. As someone who dabbles in writing fiction, I had to wonder what, if any, details from Millar's own life were included in this book. These musings became a part of the mystery and intrigue for me.

I know real life events and observances show up in my own stories. Sometimes they are changed so much that they're barely recognizable. Other times, they're barely changed at all. Most often, pieces have been moved around a bit -- and names and places have been changed to protect the innocent -- to make room for a couple of pieces that weren't in the original. Exactly what Millar was doing with his own story is a mystery that will never be solved (although, if only I could remember, I'm pretty sure the biography provides some illumination).

The psychologist (and he was there) in Millar might argue that he was giving us a story both about his daughter and himself: the two lost children. His childhood was not a happy one. He was one of those children often used by the bitter adults in his life to fight their battles, often lost in different worlds. (Then again, he might be very annoyed with me for "psychologizing" when I know nothing about him, so let's get back to the book itself.)

It's funny. We chose the last book we read for the mystery book club (P.D. James's Cover Her Face) in part because we were looking for a book that was representative of the 1960s. As decades will do, that one, written in 1962, seems to have been far less representative of the era as we tend to think of it now than this one, written in 1971. Here we have the "long-hairs," the teens running away from home, the teens dropping acid, etc.

I found all this to be fascinating, both as a period piece, as well as an example of how Macdonald kept up with the times. The others of his books I've read were all basically representative of the 1950s. This book was less violent than those (and much, much less violent than the Hammett we read last year). That could be an indication of Macdonald growing more into his role of a serious, literary writer. However, it could also be an indication of a time when violence was "out," peace was "in."

As I've come to expect with Macdonald, California was very much a "character" in this book. This time, we had a raging wildfire as Lew traveled around the state, so California could remind us she has special issues that need attention. Then she drenched everyone with rain and threatened mudslides, upset that no one was psychoanalyzing her.

Who could blame us for not focusing all our attention on California? We were too busy trying to find a way out of this masterful web that Macdonald wove. We not only had missing children, but we also had missing parents, overbearing parents, sordid love affairs, loving parents (or were they?), oh yeah, and dead bodies. In other words, classic Macdonald. Only, it was somehow better, even though I keep thinking he can't possibly get any better. And that's a trait that separates him from some of today's mystery writers that I enjoy reading. They seem to hit their peaks early and then to go slowly downhill. Macdonald? He just kept climbing. Who knows where he might have ended up had Alzheimer's not claimed him?

My only disappointment here was that, unlike many of his other books, I did begin to suspect the killer early on and pretty much pegged that person well before I got to the end. However, I did not have all the twists and turns figured into the equation, the ones that kept me flipping pages. And you know, "whodunit" doesn't really matter when we're talking about a classic.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Answers to the All About Mememememe Meme

So, here are the answers from the Queen. Thank you to all those of you who participated.

1. The Queen was born and raised in:
a. North Carolina

She has also lived in:
b. Virginia (where she went to college)
c. Connecticut (almost her entire adult life with an idyllic period for three years in which it was both CT and NYC)
d. Pennsylvania (where she never, ever imagined living)

2. The Queen's favorite book is:
a. She's told you a hundred times that she doesn't have one

This really was a trick question, though, so she's giving credit to those who said:
b. Don Quixote -- Miguel de Cervantes

After all, she technically hasn't said anything 100 times on this blog (except maybe "Bob." She hasn't counted). However, she goes on and on and on about Don Quixote, and it always comes up as that "desert island" book, so she can see why some might think it's her favorite.

She has been known to be rather disdainful, at times, of:
c. Harry Potter -- J.K. Rowling (but that has not kept her from reading half the books, and she does plan to get around to reading all of them at some point).

She struggled pitifully with:
d. Friends and Relations -- Elizabeth Bowens.

3. It's Friday night, and if the Queen is watching a movie (and has not been influenced by the extremely influential Bob), that movie is:
b. Some, any, "sappy" musical. It is not sappy, thank you very much.

She's not watching:
a. Clint Eastwood, because The Queen is not a huge fan of Clint Eastwood movies and only watches them with those with whom she is in love. (She is alone. I suppose you could claim she is in love with herself, but "herself" likes musicals.)

Some might be inclined to think the Queen is watching:
c. Titanic
because, well, they've come to think of the Queen as being rather romantic, and this movie is acclaimed to be one of the most romantic of all time. The Queen's thoughts on that: greatest love story with only one night of "love"? It was more like "greatest and longest one-night stand ever." (She did, however, very much enjoy those beginning scenes when the submersible went down and explored the real wreckage of the Titanic. She so, so wants to do that!)

And, well, she already told you how she feels about Catherine Zeta-Jones.

4. The Queen met her husband
c. At the library. You can read about that here.

She and he did work together at the same publishing company, but she was there first.
The other choices were how the poor Queen met many Mr. Wrongs before meeting her Mr. Right.

5. c. Hot dogs (especially "all the way," Southern style) are definitely the reason the Queen could never be a vegetarian.

No way does she:
a. think all vegetarians are wimps. Are you kidding? Those who have the willpower to live without hot dogs and sushi? They deserve gold medals.

And I don't think someone who drives around saying things like "Hello goats and horses" to the goats and horses out grazing in the fields could possibly be someone who
b. doesn't like animals and couldn't care less if we kill them

d. She hates vegetables and never cooks with them? Well, that's just plain absurd (right, Ms. Musing?).

6. In the Queen's nightmare in which she is stranded downtown doing something she hates, she is:
a. Shopping for clothes (but, true, Ms. Musing, she has never done so with you. Nor has she done so with ZM or Courtney, all of whom have volunteered, at some point, to take her. I'm sure the nightmare would be more pleasant with such company).

It's not:
b. Eating sushi. (See the question above about being a vegetarian.)

Nor is it:
c. Spending six hours in a used bookstore (but every single one of you knew that).

It actually could be:
d. Drinking martinis with a group of friends, if she's made the mistake of drinking more than one in an hour (or more than two period). However, we are choosing to believe she's just having a lovely martini and laughing and living it up with friends and is not falling down on the pavement or making a complete fool of herself in some other way.

7. The Queen would be lost without:
b. Her kitchen

There's no way she could climb up into a:
a. Ford Expedition, let alone drive it. And she would never own such a gas-guzzler anyway.

Sadly, she is way too uncoordinated to get the hand of:
c. Texting, and why pay for something that is just a constant reminder of how uncoordinated she is?

She happens to think that:
d. Rachael Ray is one of the most annoying women on the planet.

8. Of course the Queen has patience for people who say:
a. "I just read the best book."

Or, even better:
b. "I love math!"

And she's looking for the friend who will come forward and say:
c. "I've got a little apartment on the Upper West Side where you can stay any time you'd like." (Did someone just say that? The Queen is all ears...)

But she wants to smack all those who say:
d. "I support women's rights, but I'm not a feminist."

9. The Queen is in the Caribbean. She most definitely is not:
a. Working on her gorgeous tan. Those of you who know the pasty-white, remark-that-it's-sunny-out-and-burn Queen, who is always talking about investing in a sunscreen company, know how laughable this is.

Nor is the uncoordinated Queen:
c. Playing volleyball

And the Queen just cannot bring herself to be:
d. Eating goat

What is she doing?
b. She's about forty feet under the sea, looking for turtles and puffer fish

10. And if the queen's laughing out loud while reading, she really does not need to tell you she's reading:
d. Three Men in a Boat -- Jerome K. Jerome, does she?

It's a lovely book, but there is nothing laugh-out-loud funny at all about
a. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn -- Betty Smith, although you might see the tears rolling down her face if you catch her reading that one.

People have told her that
b. Moby Dick -- Herman Melville is funny, but it also is probably more likely to cause tears -- of frustration over not being able to get into it -- than guffaws.

And she recently informed everyone that she's glad Shakespeare wrote many plays other than
c. King Lear -- William Shakespeare, or she'd have no idea what all the fuss is about.


And The Queen was so dubbed by:
b. The Hobgoblin

Although she gets many of her memes from:
a. Charlotte

And the one who is most likely to have read every single one of her memes is:
c. Mandarine

And no:
d. I did not (I'm not as creative as The Hobgoblin or either of the others).

Every single one of you did a superb job (especially given that there were two answers to #2). I guess you know me pretty well.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Food Funnies

So, you hate to cook. As a matter of fact, you're tired of this whole "foodie" fad. You love your friends, but you really do wish you could go out to dinner with them and just enjoy the food without having to put up with this sort of conversation,

"Mmmm...that's so good! What do you think is in that? I'm pretty sure it's got some cardamom in it, but what's that slightly sour aftertaste that seems to be knocking at the roof of my mouth?"

"Cardamom? Are you sure? I'm not getting any cardamom. There's definitely some coconut milk in this, though, and I think the 'sour' you taste is lemon grass. It's awesome. I'm gonna remember this and try to make it next weekend when Frank and Helen are in town. They'd love it."

All you know is it's good, and you'll have some more please. You couldn't care less how it was made, and if you want it again, why bother trying to make it? You can just come back here (in fact, bring Frank and Helen), and chances are, it will taste exactly the way it's supposed to taste, as it won't be missing its cardamom. Or was it cumin?

I know, because I used to be exactly like you. I didn't start getting into cooking until I was in my late twenties, and, until then, I didn't understand the appeal at all. Sure I loved food, but why waste time making it when I could get others to make it for me? Even when I began to see the appeal, I only liked to cook on occasion. It took getting married to a willing guinea pig who seemed to rave about everything I made to get me truly into it. I've decided those of you who still aren't into cooking might enjoy a few food funnies of mine, so if you ever find yourself stuck in a restaurant with me, obnoxiously complaining because I could have made this much better myself, you can smugly respond, "Oh yeah, Ms. Where-Are-the-Pineapples? Shut up, and eat."

1. The first time I ever had cilantro was shortly after I'd moved to Connecticut. Some of my colleagues and I decided to go to this fancy Mexican restaurant in Greenwich, where we discovered cactus salsa on the menu. None of us had ever eaten cactus, so we thought we'd try it. It turned out that cactus had a very distinctive flavor that I loved. It also turned out that every Mexican restaurant I went to thereafter seemed to cook liberally with cactus. Indians seemed to be fond of cactus in their dishes, too, and I soon found myself eating cactus at a Thai restaurant. Like a child learning to talk who focuses on the blueberries when told he is eating a muffin and then proceeds to call blueberries "muffins" every time he sees them, I was mistaking cilantro for cactus. I don't know when I finally figured out my mistake, but I'm glad I did. I love cilantro more than ever, and I don't remember ever seeing any cacti for sale in the grocery stores I frequent.

2. Not only am I a self-taught cook, but I also hate to ask for any help anywhere. Despite the fact I have no problem (and certainly think nothing of it, except maybe how brave they are to talk to strangers like this) when a woman in the produce section asks me if a green onion is the same thing as a scallion or a guy standing in line behind me sees I've got corn and asks me how long he should cook the corn he's buying, I refuse to ask such questions myself. Thus, for years, I wouldn't make anything if a recipe called for cream of tartar. Cookbooks ought to come with guides for the beginner who reads "cream" and automatically thinks dairy. Doesn't this sound like something that belongs right next to the sour cream? It most definitely does not sound like a white, powdery substance found with the spices. Is it any wonder it took me so long to happen upon it accidentally (probably while looking for dried cilantro when I should have been looking for coriander) one day? And, yes, I was thrilled when I did.

3. This one is almost too embarrassing to admit, but Bob was as clueless as I, so I don't feel so bad. There we were on our honeymoon in Hawai'i, where we'd been for well over a week, enjoying deliciously fresh fruits, most especially the pineapple. We'd both read Michener's Hawaii as a prelude to the trip so were well aware of the pineapple industry and how pineapples grew all over those islands. However, we had yet to see any growing anywhere. Where were they? Well, you know, we might have found them much more quickly if we'd paid attention to all those fields all around us, tops of pineapples sticking up in nice neat rows, instead of looking around at all the trees, trying to figure out if any of them were "pineapple trees." Yes, two people, both over the age of 30, each with a post-graduate degree, and we hadn't a clue that pineapples didn't grow on trees like coconuts. I will never make fun of someone who comes to Lancaster County thinking corn grows underground or something while corn stalks tower over their heads all around them.

Anyone else care to share any food funnies?

Monday, June 01, 2009

Music Monday/Lyric Lundi

Is it possible to have grown up a child of the seventies and not to have a certain (I'd say it's an 8-track tape, but that's such a cliché at this point), background soundtrack that includes the likes of Elton John, James Taylor, Carol King, Joan Baez, and Jim Croce? Even if you didn't happen to like them (which I did, the way most of us love the foods we were given at a young age, so that this music has become "comfort music" to me at this point in my life), they were just there. Another one was Cat Stevens.

I was madly in love with Cat Stevens, or at least madly in love with his lyrical genius, his voice, and those pictures of a dark-haired, gentle-eyed, "goatee-ed" man who graced the covers of his albums. My eleven-year-old heart skipped a beat or two every time I sneaked one of his albums out of my sisters' collections to listen to when they weren't around. Probably, my rapid heartbeat was due more to my fear that I was going to get caught and reamed out by one of them (which, because I hadn't quite grasped the concept yet that if I didn't want to get caught, it just might be a good idea to put the album back where I'd found it instead of leaving it on the turntable), but I chose to interpret it as my heart beating rapidly for this man who most definitely was singing to me.

Of course he was singing to me, because I so understood the magic and mysticism of his words in ways that no other girl possibly could. He wanted a hard-headed woman, and well, you know, I was hard-headed enough to keep listening to my sisters' albums without their permission, willing to risk consequences for the man I loved. But then he broke my heart. He decided to run off and join some cult (okay, so I happened to confuse a major world religion with a cult. Many still do). He quit making his beautiful music for me. How could he do this to me? He'd told me what to do, how to feel if I ever lost my mouth or if I ever lost my legs, but he had not given me any instructions if I lost my heart. He'd just stolen it and left me with nothing.

Fickle woman that I am, I had forgotten all about my former flame until I was recently looking through our CD collection and came across his Greatest Hits. It seemed like a good thing to take along in the car with me when I was running errands that day. I grabbed it, stuck it in the CD player, and was immediately swept back to the 1970s and that converted old farm house I called "home" until I was 22.

When I talk about my favorite Cat Stevens song, it is very easy for me to confuse my own favorite with my father's favorite, "Oh Very Young." I can still remember my father listening to that song -- and it's a beautiful song -- when I was about thirteen or so, being so into it, and telling me that I was the "oh very young." Now that I'm about the age he was when he said that, I understand it far better than I did when I was a dismissive teenager, embarrassed by my father's outburst of emotion. Until then, I don't think I understood why that song hit home with him. And as much as I'd like to say that "Moonshadow" is my favorite, if I am completely honest, I have to admit that my real favorite, the song for which the young me would gladly risk my sister's ire, is not a song about romantic love, but, rather a very different kind of love, "Father and Son."

I don't know why this song grabbed me so much, being neither a father nor a son. Some of it was probably just natural pre-teen and teen rebellion, what all children feel about their parents. However, I can't help thinking that maybe it was an early influence on a theory I've adopted over the years, based on personal observation, one vociferously argued against by some of my female friends, by the way, but unanimously supported by my male friends. This is that the single most difficult human relationship is that between fathers and sons. This song encapsulates the struggle, so often addressed in much longer works of art, so well. Stevens did a wonderful job in singing it in such a way that he captured the father's "bland" advice as interpreted by the angry son. The lyrics don't do it justice. You have to listen to the song to hear it.

Funny, isn't it? When I was younger, I so empathized with the son. Now, I have far more empathy for the father. That last parenthetical line from the father is so poignant, no?

Father and Son
By Cat Stevens

It's not time to make a change,
Just relax, take it easy.
You're still young, that's your fault,
There's so much you have to know.
Find a girl, settle down,
If you want you can marry.
Look at me, I am old, but I'm happy.

I was once like you are now, and I know that it's not easy,
To be calm when you've found something going on.
But take your time, think a lot,
Why, think of everything you've got.
For you will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not.

How can I try to explain, when I do he turns away again.
Its always been the same, same old story.
From the moment I could talk I was ordered to listen.
Now there's a way and I know that I have to go away.
I know I have to go.

It's not time to make a change,
Just sit down, take it slowly.
You're still young, that's your fault,
There's so much you have to go through.
Find a girl, settle down,
If you want you can marry.
Look at me, I am old, but Im happy.

(Son-- away away away, I know I have to
Make this decision alone - no)

All the times that I cried, keeping all the things I knew inside,
It's hard, but it's harder to ignore it.
If they were right, I'd agree, but it's them they know not me.
Now there's a way and I know that I have to go away.
I know I have to go.

(Father-- stay stay stay, why must you go and
Make this decision alone? )