Where I'm Coming From

My Photo
Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Thursday, August 31, 2006


Today is my fifth wedding anniversary. I feel more sentimental about this one than all the others that came before. During the first three years of being married I mostly waited for the other shoe to drop; I was happier than I imagined I could be sharing my life with someone else, and in my heart I distrusted this happiness. I braced myself to have my first really bad argument with my husband and finally to look at him without being able to recognize the man I had wanted to marry. Hadn't I read about this in books a hundred times? I had read somewhere, too, that most divorces occur in the first three years of marriage; I kept this statistic like a weight inside me, to keep me grounded, to prepare me for the unhappiness to come.

But the unhappiness never came. The arguments we had never turned into bad arguments. I'm used to my parents' passionate, loud, no-holds-barred fights, and secretly I believed that a husband and wife couldn't live together for long without having them. It didn't matter, I thought, that you valued honesty and rationality above all else; the dam was going to break one day and all the honesty and goodwill and rationality in the world were not going to make any difference then. I was wrong; I was wrong, at least, about these five years. They've been the five best years of my life. And I'm shocked to find inside myself a strong, rock-solid confidence that the next five years will be just as good. I question and doubt everything, and especially my own convinctions. But this is the exception. My pessimism is forced to back down in the face of the evidence that these five years of marriage put before me. I can do it -- I can be a good wife, I can have a good marriage! It's a marvelous thing to have learned this about myself.

We were married early on a Friday morning at the courthouse in Old Town Orange. I sang "We're going to the chapel and we're gonna get married" on the way over to cheer myself up. I felt very alone, separate from my husband, but not in a negative way; I just had a stronger sense than usual of my own individuality. We said our vows in a very small dark room that smelled strongly of wood. I remember looking at the empty benches where family and friends are supposed to sit and feeling a mixture of relief and loneliness. I knew that it was the right thing to get married like this, just the two of us, to stay focused on the fact that this was a contract between me and my husband, that it was about us and anyone else was simply a distraction; but I also felt the need for encouragement, to see on my family's faces that I was doing the right thing. It is immensely important to me now that I got married without this encouragement; it impressed on me the seriousness of what was happening, the fact that I was entering this state of being married entirely by myself and had to deal with it entirely by myself.

I still get grief from my mom for not wearing a wedding dress and not having a proper wedding, with guests and cake and the giving away at the altar and the tears of happiness and the rest of that brouhaha. But I have no regrets. I didn't want any distractions from the reality of what was happening: that I was pledging myself to share the rest of my life with someone else. I was terrified of that. Five years later I'm much less afraid; it has even crossed my mind that in the years ahead I might enjoy myself even more than I already have. Imagine that.

I've made a chocolate cream pie and a blueberry-and-peach pie to celebrate. I'm going to light a candle and eat some blueberry pie (baked vegan just for me, by me) and marvel at how, some days, my life, in spite of myself, can be so thoroughly good.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Heads or Tails

"That title is kind of presumptuous, don't you think?" husband said smiling at me in the bright light blown off lake Huron by the wind, "on the road, Jack Kerouac and so on?" It nettled me although it was a joke. "Those words are everyday words and don't belong to Kerouac or anyone else," I said. But of course I was wrong. Because of course they do. And I thought, aware again of that sharp little seed lodged somewhere between my ribs, that seed of doubt about my way with words and my ability to discover and to express what is new, utterly new, that a certain naivete is required, a certain stupidity, to begin writing and to go on writing, to garden your own strip of thought and feeling, when so many before you have written so much and so much better than you can even wiht a hundred years of practice, so many who have taken over continents of language whereas you know that you will never be able to claim more than a square meter of ground. To hell with the feel-good notion that you are unique, that nobody else can see the world through your eyes, that your point of view and experience are worth mining, blah, blah. I want to quit writing. I want to go bake some bread. I want to make something that I can touch and taste and smell literally.

So during my vacation I tried simply and only to experience -- not under any circumstances to think about the words that would describe my experience. I ran with a brisk cold wind against my face, smelled the trees in a summer storm. I took photographs. That's a kind of storytelling, but of an innocent kind: observation without interference. I took photos of the sky, obsessively. Of a dark-skinned man sweeping horse manure off the strees of Mackinac Island. Of lighthouses, of water and promontories. Of a screaming baby. Of waves crashing into a cement-and-rocks wave breaker. And yet only now, only after I've put these things into words does the experience of them feel complete. It's not enough to have paddled into the middle of a lake rimmed with water lilies. I have to tell myself: Here I am paddling into the middle of a lake rimmed with water lilies. I am ashamed to admit how exhilarating those words feel, even before they are written down. I remember Flaubert who wrote himself maniacally out of his novels, yet said, mockingly or not it doesn't matter, Madame Bovary, c'est moi. What an existence this is, between monstrous selfishness and monstrous absence of the self.

I come back to this over and over again: who is the self behind the words and what does that self signify? Who is the storyteller, and who the storyteller behind the storyteller? I think too hard about it, and not hard enough. Sometimes I feel like the ass who starved because he couldn't decide which pile of hay to dig into first. Sometimes you have to pick, heads or tails, and go with it. Write if you must and stop asking yourself why and wherefore. Or else hang up your pencil, or keyboard, and go out into the world of physical things, unambiguous things, of yeses and nos and really, it's as simple as that.

And it is, no matter what else your word-hungry heart tells you, as simple as that.

Monday, August 21, 2006

On the Road

It is a quintessentially American experience, isn’t it, the many-days-long road trip, and I’m sitting here in the back seat of my parents-in-law’s minivan, watching the immense Michigan sky above my head, the soft layers of purple and pale blue and flaky white of the clouds -- sitting here and thinking that whether I like it or not I’m becoming a little more of an American than I was. This tiredness from getting up at four in the morning for several days in a row in order to make good time on the road, and this stiffness in the joints, this waiting and sense of distance that grows as much as it diminishes with every mile covered – all this sticks to me like bits of varnish and make me feel and look (to myself only, I suppose) somewhat different.

What I see as we go north along the eastern shore of lake Michigan is sky and trees and more sky, houses whose porches are draped with Old Glory, an ice creamery called Cap’n Frosty, small town barbershops and bakeries, Skinny Bridge Road and Cross Street Street, brick houses with maroon awnings tucked away behind silver pines. I look up from my tattered yellowing copy of Middlemarch, which I’m reading now for the second time and which seems, nine years after my first reading, like a completely different book – have I at last stumbled upon the true definition of a great book: the one that changes with you, that speaks to you as you are at the moment of reading it, spills its treasures to the parts of your self that can appreciate them and withholds them from the parts of you that aren’t mature enough to understand them yet? What surprises me the most, rereading Middlemarch, is Eliot’s sense of humor; there were many reasons why I loved Middlemarch when I was nineteen, but none of them was its humor and sense of the ridiculous and exceptional wit. I had the same experience with Jane Austen’s novels – perhaps this is a sign that I’m learning, as I grow older, to laugh at myself, to be a little amused at the human condition rather than simply be mortified by its absurdities and difficulties.

I held my little nephew for the first time yesterday. It was an anti-climactic experience; I was awkward, fearful, and spent most of my energy trying not to think of the many ways I could hurt him. He is two months old and has learned to smile this crooked toothless smile that is sweet and also kind of puzzling and that saddens me a bit. I held him in the football grip, as my brother-in-law likes to call it, with my arm across my nephew’s chest and my hand cradling his hip joint, his little warm bald head pressed against my forearm. He wriggles and kicks with his legs and reaches out his perfect little fists, and then out of the blue falls asleep. It is so peaceful to feel this little animal breathing very gently against your own body and watch the curve of his puffy cheek or the fuzz on his head or his tiny fingernails and wonder how it’s possible for something like this to exist, though it is not much more extraordinary than for all the other baby creatures, from bugs to pigs, to exist.

The sky has clouded over, and I feel like I want to reach up and lick it; it looks smeared with whipped cream. Instead I’m going to eat my vegan sandwich and gaze out the window and think about how far away I am from home – we just passed a sign that said that we are halfway between the Equator and the North Pole – and also remind myself when feeling like a stranger gets too much to bear, that home can be wherever I am at the moment, in this body, in this mind, among these words.

Monday, August 14, 2006

The Dancing Pastry Chef

If there is one wrong question to ask in a pastry class, it's whether you can replace butter in pastry dough recipes with a non-dairy substitute. I asked that question Saturday morning during a cooking class at Sur La Table in Newport Beach -- I asked it blithely, unsuspecting, of the effervescent pastry chef who was teaching us about summer fruit desserts. The chef looked at me in silence for a few moments, measuring up her opponent, then proceeded to drill me about the ethics of being a vegan. She was fierce. She didn't pause long enough for me to answer her questions; she expostulated on the marvelous conditions cows are raised in at dairy farms, which she knows about, because she grew up on a dairy farm where cows were treated to music -- jazz, blues, classical, whatever stimulated milk production the most. When I managed to slip in an answer, I stuttered. At last the chef said, "If you have to, if you absolutely have to, you can use olive oil instead of butter." My face burned. I cursed myself silently for my penchant to ask questions, too many, the wrong kind, and of the wrong people. I smiled at the chef and prayed that she would move on to the next topic, the next recipe. When she did, I felt I could breathe again.

Chef Diane is a force of nature. Opinionated, hilarious, sarcastic, fiercely articulate, she taught the class with inexhaustible energy and palpable passion for her craft. She said the best tools a chef has are her eyes, nose and hands; she knows when a tart shell has finished baking by the way it looks and smells. She interrupted herself in the middle of an explanation to turn to the oven where a tart shell was baking and said, "She's ready, she's talking to me," and instructed her sous-chef to take the shell out of the oven. Her hands were lively, the nails cut very short. She wore no make-up, and her blond, curly hair was combed tightly away from her forehead. Her chef's jacket was white with black buttons and black trim around the collar and cuffs; with it she wore a pair of black and brown pajama-looking pants that looked insanely comfortable. She laughed with ease more than once at her chubbiness. She seemed genuinely pleased to be alive, to be at Sur La Table on a Saturday morning teaching a cooking class. It started me wondering when was the last time I felt as happy in my own skin as she seemed to be in hers.

We made a berry crisp, a strawberry-rhubarb tart, grilled peaches, and a coffee and cinnamon chocolate sauce. I ate a little of everything, unrepentant about breaking my vegan eating rules. For one thing, I didn't want the chef to notice I wasn't eating and berate me about my butter-hate (I do not hate butter but there was no convincing the chef of this after that most terrible question about butter substitutes came out of my mouth); and for another, I didn't think I could resist for long enough the deliciousness spread before me. So I nibbled and munched, trying not to grin too wildly, while Chef Diane warned us that she would come to our house and hurt us if she found out we bought fake vanilla extract, and raved about organic farming and the Santa Monica farmers' market. I think I have a crush on Chef Diane. I think I want to go to culinary school to become a pastry chef.

I suppose this was a weekend of the senses, of the body; I don't have very many of these because I live in my head most of the time. On Saturday morning I dug my fingers into a stick of butter and crumbled it into flour and sugar to make streusel; on Friday night I sat entranced in the dark watching and listening to Rafaela Carrasco's flamenco troupe dance on the stage of the Barclay theater. Behind me sat a woman who had drunk too much champagne, and the fumes of her breath mixed with the smell of dust rising from the stage as the dancers pounded it with their almost inhumanly nimble feet. The first dance started in complete darkness; there were no lights on the stage, all the senses quieted except for hearing, because in this dark, against the background of softly shuffling bodies, the rhythmic pounding of steps exploded like gunshots. The things one can do and feel with the body... The dancers were extraordinary. I had never seen flamenco dancing before and I was exhilarated. My sister, who was with me, said that the dancers didn't dance traditional flamenco but introduced elements of modern dance and ballet in the choreography; she was slightly disappointed. My sister has spent several months in Spain, so she knows what she's talking about. I didn't know any better, so I drank in all the beauty of the dance without reservations. For a fraction of a second it occurred to me to wonder why I was so excited, so entranced; why is homo sapiens capable of such a visceral and rapturous response to art? The question slipped out of my mind; there was too much in the moment to pay attention to. But I don't know that I want to explore it even now. I have this suspicion that there is no adequate answer. If there is one, it will come more readily from the experience of beauty rather than the rational analysis of it. Oh but Kant and Burke and Schlegel would beg to differ. Well, I say let them beg. At least for now.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Gods and Sims

I hadn't meant it to happen that way. Ezra and Webb were raising a daughter together -- Webb stayed at home with the little girl and cooked delicious dinners in his pink kitchen; Ezra focused on his career. I wanted the two of them to fall in love and get married; I wanted them to adopt another baby. But Webb fell in love with Rhona the overachiever from across the street and asked her to move in. I don't like Rhona very much; she's partial to red tailor suits and aspires to marry rich. I don't like that Webb has fallen for her. But that's what happens when you let your Sims have free will: they ruin your plans. They also make the game tons of fun to play. Or I should say, to watch -- I prefer to let my Sims do their own thing, see what they come up with. I bought The Sims 2 a few weeks ago and have not tired of watching the characters I made up manage and mess up their lives. Rhona the overachiever lost her daughter to social services; my gay couple disbanded; Max the computer game addict loves the green diamond-patterned wallpaper I put in his hexagonal room and has made a bunch of friends. Go figure.

You wouldn't think computer games could start philosophical discussions. But I ended up having a long conversation with Husband about freewill and determinism, and about the kind of God that can exist within the parameters of this very old dilemma. H.'s position is that you still have free will even if God (if God exists) knows what you are going to do; the only thing that matters, and what gives you your freedom, is that you don't know what you're going to do. I struggled to articulate my position and failed; I realized, with dismay but also with relief, that I don't have a position.

The idea of a God (major or minor, well-intentioned or malicious) interested in my life, in the ephemeral thread woven by my specific moral decisions, is becoming more and more implausible to me. Why should this God care to map out a life for me before I've lived it, thus predetermining all my decisions? Why should I care one way or the other -- if this same God were granting me free will and watching me to find out what I'm going to do with it, the way I watch the Sims?

I love playing the Sims because they don't know that I'm there. My existence has no relevance to them. Once in a while when their social or hygiene needs get really low they turn to face my computer screen and raise their fists at me to do something about their predicament. Often I give in and intervene; I like an orderly and happy universe. I have only a few Sims to watch over, a little over a handful, and it gives me pleasure to see their lives humming along nicely. But in some ways my pleasure and my good intentions are detrimental to them, oversimplify their lives, shift the focus from what really matters to them to what matters to me. For me, this is a good reason not to trouble myself with the question of God's existence, or whether I have free will or not. I want my life to stay complicated, even though sometimes that is too much to bear. I want to be in charge of the creative act of giving meaning to my life, though this is an excrutiating process and one that often fails.

This is the kind of stuff that playing The Sims makes me think -- sometimes obsess -- about. And it's the reason why I cannot scoff as I used to at people who play videogames. These games don't serve up only junk food for thought. I know that it's not entirely logical to extrapolate what God is like from what I'm like when I play The Sims. The Sims, after all, is just a game. But I think that a God whose qualities cannot be connected in any way to what it means to be human does not deserve to be a God for/of/to human beings. And I also think -- passionately -- that a really good game is never just a game.

Friday, August 04, 2006

What I'm Reading

One Writer's Beginnings, by Eudora Welty. What fresh bread is to a hungry stomach -- so simply and wonderfully delicious that it's hard to believe that just flour and water is all it takes to make it -- this book is to my hungry brain. There are very few writers who, when waxing poetic, don't lose their heads in the clouds; Welty is one of them. In her writing, passionate feeling is not an escape, but a sign that she is present fully in the thought she's expressing. She begins this book with a description of the clocks in her childhood house and ends it with train trips taken from home out into the wide world -- both real trips, which she took with her father to visit her grandparents, or by herself when she went to New York to show her stories and photographs to publishers, as well as a fictional one taken by one of her characters in The Optimist's Daughter. These are wonderful ways to begin and to end, sweet and proper. I am astonished by her generosity and thoughtfulness as she puts together the stories of her parents' lives, surprised by her humor, heartened by her confidence and the clarity with which she sees her life purpose. She was in her seventies when she gave the lectures that became this book, and as I was reading my fear of growing old diminished, because if growing old can be this, this understanding and sharpness of vision that Welty shows on these pages, then it is something worth waiting and living for.

I have a habit of buying discounted books on subjects that intrigue me -- knots, the relationships between maids and their mistresses in eighteenth century England, the history of Russian literature -- and not reading them. This book, Going with the Grain: A Wandering Bread Lover Takes a Bite out of Life, by Susan Seligson is the exception. I picked it up from my book shelves in an idle moment and was hooked from the first few pages. The writing is whimsical without being sloppy; the author's approach is one of intense curiosity but also common sense. You need common sense when you talk with bakers who speak of making bread like this: "[You have to use] only certified biodynamically grown wheat the cultivation and harvesting of which ensures not only the health of the soil but the 'creative shaping forces of the cosmos on the plant.'" The author quips: "I half expect London [the baker who said the above] to boast that the grain is irrigated with the tears of angels and the harvest cosummated by virgins under a full moon." She travels to Jordan and Ireland, to the Wonderbread factory in Maine, to New York and Alabama, India and France to watch how bread is baked and eaten; at the end of each chapter are recipes for traditional breads from all these places. It is fascinating to see how many variations on flour and water and salt (and only occasionally, to my surprise, yeast) there are in the world, and how these variations have sprung up from necessities imposed by geography and the spiritual lives of the peoples who prepare them. I'm inspired now to bake my own batch of homemade bread.

In the wrong mood, Nothing by Henry Green is torturous to read. It contains, at most, two or three pages of expository writing; the rest of the pages, nearly two hundred, is dialogue punctuated very sparsely by tag lines (often, these taglines pack such a punch they stopped me in my tracks). Green repeatedly introduces the dialogue with only a sentence or two, permutations of "Mr./Mrs./Miss X invited Mr./Mrs./Miss Y for drinks/lunch/dinner at his/her flat/restaurant/favorite pub in Knightsbridge" -- this to me is wildly courageous thing for a writer to do. After such unassuming preambles, the Mr.'s and Mrs.'s and Misses talk and talk and talk, page after glorious page, about everything and nothing, mostly the latter. In the process they weave a most astonishing web of meanings, of relationships and personalities, of strong and weak wills battling each other with the grace of walruses, of cunning and naivete. And at the center of the web is this: "Oh but we shall never get at the whole truth. I often think we're not here below to find that out ever, till I believe the truth's even stopped having importance for me in the least. Which is not to say I go about all day telling lies myself, you're my witness! No I meant generally. But Philip darling do promise..." (I have not missed any commas in my copying; this is how the dialogue reads. I don't know whether to love it or hate it.) These are the words of the formidable Mrs. Weatherby whose special talent is that she always gets what she wants by convincing other people, who suspect nothing of her ploys, to give it to her of their own volition. It seems strange that a book like this, whose characters talk utterly mundane things (the quote above is one of two of their kind in the whole book), should be driven by truth, an investigation of what truth is and isn't, can be and can't be. I fail to understand how this dialogue pulls me in with the vehemence it does. Well no, not really. Truth is the fuel that burns in this book's engine room, and that heat attracts me the way honey attracts flies.