Friday, December 16, 2011


Books are clearly awesome. There are many days where I spend more time with books than I do with people, and on most of those days I'm happy about that. I tend to go through genre phases: sometimes I'm all over non-fiction, or science writing, or short stories. Lately though, it's been a large and amorphous category titled "Books that will Mess You Up". It's been a long year and in all honesty I feel a little emotionally numb, and so my thinking goes something like this: what better way to break through that wall, the barrier that seems to be between me and what I want to be feeling, than words? The written word. At any rate, it seemed like an excellent opportunity to read a lot of really depressing stuff right before the holidays.

When my friend Anna, who is a real live writer living in San Francisco, asked me to write a short book review based around the theme of "devastation", I knew exactly what I had to write about. Of all the things that have come close to me these last few months, Dorothy Allison's first novel Bastard out of Carolina had clearly hit me the hardest. I stayed up late to finish it, cried myself to sleep, and had bad dreams all night, which makes that a hell of a book in my opinion. Anyway, here's my review. You can also read Anna's take here, with a much funnier introduction and contact information in case you feel like writing a short review yourself.

Um... Happy holidays?

I saw Dorothy Allison read recently, and while talking about the role of violence in her writing in the post-reading discussion she smiled at the audience widely, winningly, and told us this: “Ima fuck you up.” She smiled and we laughed and I wondered why, because is that actually funny? She was sincere, I was certain, but when she smiled at us so sweetly, just like her characters always do when they don’t trust the people they’re talking to, we still laughed. Maybe because it’s true; she does fuck you up, beautifully, terribly, magnificently, in a way that sticks with you long after the book is over. Somehow, it’s part of her appeal.

The plot of Bastard out of Carolina, her first book and yet still the one she chose to read from the day I saw her, is simple—it’s about a young girl growing up poor white trash as part of a large and publicly despised family in South Carolina, suffering through and surviving a childhood heaped with physical and sexual abuse. It sounds pretty run-of-the-mill in this age of disaster memoirs, but what sets Allison apart is her honesty, a truthfulness that transcends what we’re supposed to think about poor people, about abuse survivors, and about the people who love them. The characters are often hard to comprehend, hard to love, but sometimes also hard to hate; they are not always noble, or self-sacrificing, or even kind. They are true to their own natures, and that’s not always a pretty sight—it’s just an honest one. And honesty, for all its supposed beauty and simplicity, can also be as ugly as a bruise

Consider Bone, the titular bastard: I love her so much, for her strength and loyalty to her mother and her sheer stubbornness, but I’m also afraid of her. She’s hard, in the way you have to be to survive sometimes, but she’s only thirteen by the end of the book and she just scares the fuck out of me sometimes. Bone is driven by what we almost can’t see—as readers we witness the physical abuse she suffers from her stepfather, but other than an initial molestation scene there’s little direct description of sexual abuse. It exists in memories and hints, lingering around the edges of the more easily definable physical harm, without words to give it form but tainting everything—her worldview, her interpersonal relationships, her day-to-day actions—just the same.

It comes out in her intense hatred of those who mistreat her: her abusive stepfather, the Woolworth’s manager who belittles her, the doctors who try to help her. But it comes out most clearly in Bone’s masturbation fantasies; they sound like something a dominatrix would whisper in your ear, visions of strength through suffering and pride in pain, and when I suddenly considered that they belonged to an eleven-year-old it shocked me more than almost anything else in the entire book. The only people who offer a solution she can accept are her blood relatives, and because they solve violence with a violence that echoes her own desires their solutions are short-term ones. Bone doesn’t believe anybody can help her, because nobody does; she knows even as a child how people act towards a poor bastard with bruises on her legs, and she wants pity even less than help.

One moment can irrevocably break your life into two pieces, the before and after, and a lot of books are about that. This one is too, but in a deeper way it’s also about the slow relentless grind, of the damage that comes from a life consisting of tiny, mostly terrible moments, one after another with no hope of escape. Bastard out of Carolina is a shattering book because it’s about violence, the violence of abuse and bodily harm but also the ongoing violence of poverty and shame and hunger, of stretched-thin food and frayed clothing and sneering looks and how all of these small pieces add up into something that can eat you alive, if not bodily than spiritually.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

the turning worm

I got a new computer recently, or rather, an old computer that had been wiped clean and essentially restored to the capabilities of a computer from 2004, which means it was unable to do more than stare at the internet blankly and spin that damn rainbow wheel around endlessly. It’s a mac, and I’m very up front about the fact that I bought it purely for its customer service potential. I don’t really give much of a damn if it’s faster or “easier” or “more intuitive”—the first is nice but not much more than a perk unless we’re talking seriously slow as the alternative, and the last two are purely arbitrary. No, all I wanted from my shiny silver mac was to be able to not get treated like a dumbass when I needed something fixed. I am, technically, a dumbass when it comes to computers, but I at least like to be given the benefit of the doubt before someone talks down to me. Oddly, my male friends never seem to have this problem in computer stores, but as a girl-type person I decided to give the reputably touchy-feely techies of the Apple world a shot.

So I went to the Apple store, and it was so sleek and things were moving fast and blinking on the televisions set into all of the walls and I suddenly felt like a caveman in the middle of a freeway, or like my poor old computer must have felt when faced with the brave new internet that had sprung up since 2004. My god, I’d only just stopped owning a flip phone! I kept my head down and headed straight for the repair center, aptly titled the Genius Bar, where I had an appointment with, well… a Genius. That’s how they referred to them when I called later that afternoon to check on my dinosaur—they told me they were having a hard time reaching the Geniuses and they’d call me right back. It’s nice to know even Geniuses have problems with their phones sometimes.

But anyway, I went to the Genius Bar and told a person with an iPad (no clipboards here, naturally) that I was there, and then I sat down, and I pulled out my book and read maybe one sentence before I realized I was doing maybe the oddest thing I could be doing in that particular place. I was surrounded by technology that should be making me drool, and instead I was reading a paperback about parasites that I’d bought at a thrift store for a dollar. I felt like putting my book away would somehow count as ceding a point to Technology, so I pretended to read while I pondered. Had anybody ever read a book in this store before? Surely I couldn’t be the only one who eschewed e-readers because they don’t smell like paper and glue and because I like turning pages? Didn’t I want to examine some of the things on the shelves more than I wanted to read about liver flukes?

Well, no, actually. It’s not that I’m a total Luddite; I own a cell phone, and after all, a computer is what had brought me to this bastion of technology. What was perhaps spawning the discomfort I felt as I bent over my book was that I, unlike seemingly most of the other people there (judging by their lit-up faces, anyway), I’m not all that sanguine about technology. I’m wary of it, and I’m not sure I like all of the things it’s brought us, or at least me. I don’t want to spend an entire paycheck on a fancy touchpad; I don’t want to carry the internet around in my pocket. And Apple was the one--were the ones? Is Apple many, or singular? That could be both a linguistic and moral dilemma--who had put it there, at least for those who wanted it.

I’ve had a number of “friendly discussions” about smart phones in the past few months, and while I’m always forced to concede that yes, it would sometimes be handy to be able to look up directions while I’m en route somewhere, and yes, if I had a smart phone I could still check my email when my computer broke, I still have one major and unswerving complaint: as my friend Jim says, those motherfuckers are a killjoy. Imagine: you’re with a group of friends and somebody asks a question that nobody knows the answer to, and instead of debating the possibilities and going off on tangents and meandering around without conclusion, somebody pulls out a phone and bam! Question answered. Clearly, we as a species are still capable of the fine art of conversational meandering, but for how much longer? We have all the answers. They’re in our pockets. Or at least, in some of our pockets.

My Genius was very nice. When I confessed while he was unscrewing a panel on the back of my mac that I don’t know much of anything about computers, he laughed and told me that was why he was working there instead of starving to death as a stand-up comic. He told me they could update my operating systems from “snowshoe hare” to “jaguar” (or something) for free, and that they’d call me in a few hours when it was done. When I came back that night my computer was returned to me with a note taped to the front stating “Attention: this computer is Vintage”. I brought it home, and it’s faster than anything I’ve ever owned before. Not that it matters, because I’ll probably just check my email and make PDFs for work and write essays about technology in Word, but still, I guess it’s nice. At any rate, it does the trick, and it sits on my desk, not in my pocket. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll close this and go drink tea and read about parasitic co-evolution and then go to bed happy and sleep the sleep of the technologically inept. Which is, truthfully, just the way I like it.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

what was

I remember hearing from adults when I was a kid that they would never forget what they were doing when they heard that JFK had been shot. That was ancient history by the time I was born, so it was hard for young me to understand what that moment felt like for those who lived through it--there simply hadn't been any national tragedies of that statue and media coverage and collective standstill within my lifetime. Tragedies are ongoing, regretfully but seemingly inevitably, but it takes a special sort of awful to freeze an entire country in its tracks and cause such a dramatic rupture between now and ten minutes ago, before and after you heard the news.

Now, of course, we seem to have found my generation's equivalent in the events of September 11, 2001, ten years ago this Sunday. I know where I was, of course: in Tucson, taking a symphony audition and hearing increasingly outlandish and hard-to-believe (but, as it turned out, mostly true) rumors between audition rounds. I didn't find out what had actually happened until that afternoon, when I went to my job at a bagel shop in the student union and finally heard the radio. I remember a nearly hysterical vocal major who I barely knew telling me that the president of my university was probably going to cancel classes (he didn't). "Why?", I asked, wondering why a tragedy thousands of miles away would allow me to not go to orchestra--the extent of what had happened hadn't penetrated yet. We were so far away. I didn't have the vocabulary or the scope of imagination for an honest-to-god national emergency.

In the past ten years I've been with many groups of people who almost obsessively detailed where they had been when they heard, but because of where I come from--not New York--most of the experiences have been like mine, memories of news reports and missing school and general confusion. We watched our televisions and listened to our radios. (I don't remember any of us using the internet, but I remember radios being on in public places for days.) I bought a newspaper, vaguely thinking that this was one of those times when you should buy something printed and save it in mint condition so that your descendants could live the good life because you had a newspaper from September 13th, 2001--such an anachronistic thought, I know. My paper sat on the bottom of my orchestra locker for months, reminding me that New York City had had to ask for 3,000 body bags, until I couldn't stand the rage and sorrow and voyeurism I felt every time I pulled my viola out and I threw it away.

I was at a party recently in an empty apartment--the couple who lived there had moved recently, and threw a chair-less shindig to say goodbye. There were only a few people there, and we sat in a circle on the living room floor drinking celebratory sparkling wine out of plastic cups and talking as the sun went down and the corners filled with shadows. It was nearly dark inside when we started talking about September 11th, although nobody stood to pull the cord to turn on the overhead lamp--I could see silhouettes around me, but the faces were blank. It turned out that several people there had been in New York City when it happened, which (somewhat astonishingly, perhaps) had never been the case when I'd taken part in such circles before. Most of the us had the same types of stories I was used to hearing--classes cancelled, huddling with families and friends around televisions crying, the immediate aftermath--but one woman was nine months pregnant and working in finance in downtown Manhattan. She was whisked up by an ambulance, thank god, and her daughter wasn't born until several weeks after she was supposed to make an appearance, probably because of the drugs they gave her to stopped the shocked labor she entered into in transit.

I had never before considered being nine months pregnant and close to Ground Zero. Even though nobody shared anything too horrific, even though nobody had been injured or lost a loved one, just reconsidering the events from a personal standpoint made my awareness of what had happened become more human. It was not an entirely pleasant experience. I remember ten years ago, even as removed as I was, feeling like something had entered my heart forcefully; I remember crying every time I thought too hard about people jumping from falling buildings, what that implied about faith and hope and fear. I had to distance myself, stop watching television and think about the politics instead of the lost humanity, because otherwise I wasn't sure what to do with what I was feeling. Hearing my friend's experience--delivered with a certain degree of nonchalance because jesus, what else could you do with a story like that?--brought me back to that place, the feeling of being entered against my will by emotions that I wasn't sure I was prepared to have.

The nearness and farness of events shifts whenever I move my head, it seems. Ten years ago today, September 10th, the world was a different place. Tomorrow, back then, it changed. (Although not all of it, it seems.) Ten years ago I was young and scared and not certain of anything, although I tried very hard to act like I was certain of everything; standing here, with my adult life as evidence, I don't try to pretend I know anything anymore. It's taken a decade, but September 11th has become a human event for me again, even if I don't understand what that means exactly. I'm more willing to cry for what happened and is still happening, and it's clear to me that this past decade has turned me into an adult and that September 11th is a part of that. I am both farther away from what happened and closer. Understanding still eludes.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


Well, this week has been truly too challenging to allow me to write like a motherfucker. Alas. Instead, I've been writing emails and long, long journal entries, and listening to early music. Alex Ross, the music critic for the New York Times, got me started with this absolutely gorgeous piece by Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez. It has done me good to listen to such beauty, this piece of mourning and remembrance for another composer. It is worth five minutes of your life.

(Also, check out this shoutout for a concert poster masterminded by my friends, the Spektral Quartet, on the same blog. I know neat people.)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

it was already late enough, and a wild night

Well, hello.

It's been a few months, yes? I could say I've been busy. It wouldn't be a lie. I've been dealing with heartbreak, talking to people, reading, making too much food, traveling, moving furniture around endlessly, adjusting to living alone again. I could use those things as an excuse but it would ring false--I did those things before. I've always done those things. So why?

I'm not sure. Five months ago, when my relationships ended, I was so tired and heartsick and worn to the bone by despair that writing was completely out of the question--I couldn't stand to bare my heart anymore than I already had, as it were. To do so felt perilous. Dangerous. Because if I let go of those last bits, what would I have left? An empty studio apartment and an air mattress, or so I felt. I've always written more and better things when I was happy, and there seemed to be so little to say. For months I've wandered around, thinking about writing, waiting to start seeing the world with the eyes of somebody who intends to tell other people about it, but I just couldn't. The days, even the good ones, were passing me by, unmarked.

The one place I've been writing is my journal. Pages upon pages upon pages: something like three hundred to three hundred fifty in the past four months alone, a mind-boggling number for somebody claiming writers block. I can only talk, it seems, to myself. Almost every single night I sit down, drink about four cups of tea, making faces at my inspirational tea bag sayings (they aren't even as fun as fortune cookies: "Wherever you go, go with all your heart." In bed! "Empty yourself and let the universe fill you." In bed! Eep.) and write letters to myself about what happens next for an hour before I fall asleep. It's deeply therapeutic, but still, it misses the mark.

I've also been reading Dear Sugar, advice columns by an anonymous writer that nearly always make me cry and absolutely always make me seethe with my desire to write. One of her mottoes is "Write like a motherfucker" (In bed! Well, maybe), and tonight I read the column that inspired it. And you know what? I haven't been doing the work. I've been waiting for some switch inside my head to flip back to "on" so that I can magically start feeling words gush out of me again and feel incredible and elated and so fucking high on joy I can't sleep, but I haven't been doing anything to make it happen. Waiting is a passive act; writing is an active one. As Sugar says, "Do you think [coal] miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig."

I never needed to be a writer, as we say when we discuss things we do for a living; I have many other things that I already am that are heart-filling and life-affirming. But do I need to write? That is a different question. Maybe yes, maybe no. All I know is that I miss feeling like I'm telling the honest-to-god truth about my own singular life when I write something down, be that writing personal or not, an epiphany or the grown-up version of a book report. And yet, I have been lazy. When I realized this finally, I got out of bed and now here we are, too late in more ways than just the time on my watch. It's time to write like a motherfucker.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

you taught me the names of the stars overhead that I wrote down in my ledger

Spring in Chicago is always an uncertain affair, but this year warmth seems especially reluctant to show up, much less stick around. When I moved here almost seven long years ago—and how did it get to be that many years? Most of my adult life?—I was sort of fascinated by how apparent the seasons were. There is such a distinct difference between not only fall and winter but early fall, late fall, midwinter, early spring… It’s part temperature, part quality of light, part the way the air feels against your skin. And while a day in February feels incredibly different than a day in late December, once spring rolls around I begin to chart things in terms of what’s blooming around me.

And so I can tell you: crocuses are so last month, daffodils are toast, tulips are on the way out. The acacias are blooming, and I saw my first tiny open bud of lilac last week. (They’re going crazy now, scenting the air and so full that the tips of the branches are solid petal.) The dandelions have been blooming merrily for some time. Crabapple and redbud trees are so densely packed with blooms that you can’t even see the branches and forsythia was blazing yellow but now its flowers are littering the sidewalks. spent. Magnolias are hanging on, but the hyacinth were long ago broken under their own weight. And I never realized before that we grow forget-me-not here, but there are clouds of them blooming in people’s yards, blue and tiny and evocative of both simplicity and loss.

For once, my lack of blogging has been less about an inability to write than about a complete lack of the time or energy required to complete a thought. Seriously, April and May have been full-on, balls-to-the-wall insane. I went from working barely part-time to working full time and sometimes a little more; I performed in two concerts, did publicity for five, and attended at least that many; I moved. Again. It’s been a whirlwind, and I feel like I haven’t drawn a full breath in at least four weeks. What this month has pounded into my head is this: I’m very serious about the things I do for a living. This sounds sort of silly, given that I’ve been a florist for more than three years now and I’ve been playing music since I was about eleven, but in retrospect I’ve been treating these things more as happy accidents than as intentional and evolving parts of my life, serious endeavors that deserve my fullest attention.

It’s not that I took these things non-seriously before, I guess. Especially with music, it would have been impossible for me to do what I do without some pretty major effort happening. But there’s been some sort of shift lately—I think it’s that these things have gone from being part-time jobs, hobbies, to being constants. I chart the seasons, not just spring but all of them, in terms of what flowers I’m seeing in my shop and in the streets and gardens; I thought to myself today that I need to spend some time practicing scales this summer, something I haven’t done since finishing grad school five years ago. (Ouch, say both my fingers and my ears.) This is some serious business, in other words. And as such, it behooves me to know my shit, to know what I’m talking about, to execute things well. Which is super awesome, but is also part of why I feel so tired this month. Doing things well is hard. Worth it, but hard.

But it’s good, and I’m just going to keep on keepin’ on, as they say. Practice my scales, and read books about roses. Water my plants. Watch the season’s progression, and dream about next year’s music. And good god, sleep, once May ends.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

back to the start

I have a friend who is truly, deeply devoted to young adult fiction. It’s a genre I don’t spend much time with anymore, but I do have a section on one of my favorite bookshelves that contains some of the literature that I read as a child, books that I now turn to for comfort when life shakes me up and tosses me down. Very little is more soothing to me than revisiting these old friends, these chapters from a distant past before I knew heartbreak and other adult pains, these books that I have read so many times that I literally know every word, every turn of phrase and cadence of sentence. They don’t ask me to analyze them or apply them to my own life, because they’re about a part of me that was dissolved into my present self nearly two decades ago, but sometimes I end up applying them anyway. Sometimes I learn a lot more than I expect from them.

Right now, my life is in transition. My relationship has ended, sadly and painfully, and in the wake of its passing I’m being forced to confront myself again as a person alone. While I know that this re-centering is part of the natural course of recovery, it is also undeniably painful and difficult. As I huddle around myself, quiet and contemplative and careful and mostly patient, I’m revisiting some of these old and beloved volumes to see what they have to offer to the me of now. Some of these books have been a part of me for so long that reading them feels like a warm blanket drawn around me, a cocoon where I can rest, a place where no surprises are in the offing. It is deeply comforting. I bought The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt, a young adult novel by Patricia MacLachlan (also the author of the vastly more famous Sarah Plain and Tall) when I was probably twelve or thirteen, just slightly older than Minna herself, and my copy is now so old that the pages are a brownish yellow. In content it’s a simple book: Minna, an eleven-year-old cellist playing in a local music school’s chamber group, struggles with the first pangs of love while also navigating the difficulties of playing a Mozart string quartet. I myself began playing chamber music when I was about sixteen, probably in part because of Minna, and my first clear quartet memory is of the piece that she learns with her group, Mozart’s K. 157. The slow movement that is Minna’s nemesis is one of my favorites, a slow melancholy moment set in the middle of two effusively joyous movements.

Chamber music, in contrast to the bombast that surrounds an orchestral musician, is a quiet discussion in the corner of a room, a dedicated expression of individual but congruent thought. Part of why I love this book is because the writing is like that, a quiet conversation where simple gestures are imbued with great meaning and value—much like Mozart’s music, in fact. When I read it I’m carried back to my own adolescence when so much of what was happening to me was happening for the first time, shiny and alien, simple but oh so complicated. At the time it was confusing and sometimes terrifying, but now I wish that I could have better savored the freshness of those moments, the newness of what I was feeling. The first time somebody took my hand, the first time I felt my heart tighten at the appearance of another, the first time I fell under the thrall of art or beauty or love: these things are so simple and yet even now, when I’ve experienced them often enough that I sometimes think I should feel more jaded, they astonish.

Minna’s beloved is Lucas, the violist in her quartet. (Of course…) The slow journey they take from first meeting to final page is familiar, but their perspectives from within what is so brand new casts me back into my younger self. When Lucas rests his hand on the back of Minna’s neck three-quarters of the way through the book, nearly the only physical contact they share—no description of a first kiss or even handholding, really—my breath catches. (The contact is barely acknowledged in the text, which somehow makes it seem even more perfect.) Is anything like that, the first touch of a beloved’s hand? Not just the first time with a specific beloved, but the first time with any beloved? Is there anything that will ever feel again like my first brush with Mozart, when I understood so little of what was going on beyond the joy of crescendoing through a series of rising notes in perfect unison with the cellist sitting beside me? Can I see these things again without looking out from beneath the collective weight of all their predecessors?

But now feels like the time for seeing old things as new again. In very tangible ways I’m starting over, and what I want is to see things in connection to their past incarnations but also as singular moments, as containing individuality as well as referential meaning. I need my present self to have an identity beyond my past self, even if they are working together to make me who I am. I want a new day, and I’m waiting patiently until it appears.

Monday, January 24, 2011

the past, via split peas

After a lengthy hiatus, my friend Rose-Anne and I have tentatively resurrected our tandem posting project this week. We’re starting off easy, with recipes that remind us of people.

For me, there are a few dishes that sum up how I feel about cooking, about food, about what qualities—nutrition, comfort, deliciousness—I want the things that go into my body to have. Actually, they aren’t even dishes, they’re categories: bread and cheese (this can range from pizza to grilled cheese to cheese and crackers), beans and rice (a similarly diverse group), and soup. I could live from these three types of food for the rest of my life, I sometimes think, and die happy and well-fed and content.

It’s no surprise, perhaps, that in the wintertime soup is the clear winner, and oh boy, do I make a lot of it. Potato leek, potato and butter bean, pumpkin and black bean, lentil; creamy garlic—with five heads of roasted garlic, people—cream of broccoli, creamy garlic chickpea kale, sweet potato and chorizo: the list goes on and on. In other words, I love me a good bowl of soup, in no small part because on a chilly grey winter day it makes me feel like at least something good is coming from all that darkness outside.

The thing is, my thing for soup far predates my experience with Midwestern winters, and even my experience with knowing how to cook. In middle school and high school I was a highly OCD-style eater; I would eat exactly the same thing every day, and I had a number of regular foods ranging from specific flavors of ice cream to popcorn to Schwann’s apple flautas. (Good god, my parents loved the Schwann’s truck.) These were all foods I could make in the microwave, and I ate most of them on a daily basis. But aside from these snack foods, one of the things I loved the best was Campbell’s soup; I ate so many bowls of things like Chicken Mushroom Chowder and Steak and Potato Soup that sometimes I’m amazed that I survived into adulthood.

Now, of course, those soups are long gone for me; aside from the fact that I make my own, they virtually all have meat in them. (As recently as a few years ago I was devastated to find out that Golden Mushroom, a soup I loved as an adolescent and which I’d innocently believed to be vegetarian, was in fact full of beef fat. Blech.) But sometimes I get, well, nostalgic for those ready-made soups of my childhood. Recently I was dwelling on one soup in particular, Split Pea and Ham, and thinking to myself that when I made split pea soup it just never has the same clout; it always seemed a little bland, a little too gloppy and nutritious and...pea-y for true enjoyment. It didn’t have any depth and it always left me mildly disappointed, to the point where I just stopped making it. This winter, however, I had a moment of cooking inspiration that has moved split pea right back up to the top of my soup rotation.

The soup that I conceived of and later executed is so far above my previous split peas that they aren’t even in the same ballpark, and I owe it all to Rose-Anne. Last year she posted a recipe for Pasta Carbonara, and because she’s a vegetarian and an innovative cook she replaced the bacon that usually goes into the recipe with caramelized red onion coated in smoked paprika. Smoked paprika is not hard to get--you can probably buy it from your local grocery store if they carry McCormick spices--but it seems to be not often used, and I rarely see it called for in recipes. She and I discovered this spice together a few years ago during a series of dinner parties we used to put together, and I still remember the first time she opened the bottle for me, the intense whiff of smoke, rich and dark, that made me immediately want to put it in everything I ate. I think of her curiosity and excitement in that moment every time I use this particular spice. What, I thought to myself, if I transferred this bacon-esque onion idea to something else, like a soup? And so, Smoky Split Pea Soup was born.

This soup, then, is riddled with nostalgia: memories of good friend, cooking parties past, and gawky adolescents eating bowls of microwaved soup. It warms me to the core.

Smoky Split Pea Soup

Olive oil
1 large red onion, thinly chopped
2-3 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
1 1/2 -2 tsps smoked paprika
4-5 peeled carrots, sliced into coins (approximately ¼ inch thick)
2-3 large or 5-6 small red-skinned potatoes, washed well and chopped into bite-sized pieces (no need to peel unless you want to)
6 cups vegetable broth
6 cups water
2 cups dried split green peas
1 tsp thyme (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large soup pot on low to medium-low heat, use enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pot (2-3 tbs, perhaps more—you may need more than you expect in order to coat the onion) until it shimmers. Add the onion and sauté, stirring occasionally, until the onion begins to brown. Add the garlic, sauté for a minute longer, and then add the smoked paprika. Stir to coat the onion evenly, and let sit for one additional minute. Add the carrots and potatoes and cover, letting them “sweat” for three or four minutes, and then add the vegetable broth, water, and split peas. Turn the heat up to high, give it a good stir, and cover the pot again. Once you hear it start to bubble, you can turn the heat back down to low. Let it simmer for about one hour, stirring occasionally, until the peas have begun to dissolve and the potatoes and carrots are very tender. Add the thyme, salt and pepper, and let bubble for five more minutes. Enjoy.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

lovecraft in tucson

I don't live in Arizona, and I haven't since 2004. My parents and my sister have left the state in the last few months, after roughly twenty years of residency, and I have one truly close friend left there. She's down in Tucson, and her facebook feed was how I heard about the shootings there yesterday.

I've been trying to figure out why I feel so upset. It's an upsetting situation, of course: many people, including a person who sounds decent and forward-thinking and is trying to better peoples' lives, are shot in an act of sudden violence. A child is killed, a federal judge, others as well. These are terrible things. But because of where it happened, I feel my heart twist in an entirely different way.

I love where I am from. I've been in Chicago for six and a half years, but I still have an Arizona drivers license. When I was stranded in a doorway in Germany at midnight this past summer, a stranger paused to ask me if I was okay. When he asked me where I came from, there was no hesitation, although I had flown directly from Chicago: "Arizona." (In one of the more surreal moments from that evening, it turned out he was from Lake Havasu City. Small goddamn world.) But it's been increasingly hard for me this year to reconcile the politics of my state with the people I knew there, the people I lived and worked and hiked with, loved and drank coffee with. How can a place where all these lovely people come from, where I come from, vote to essentially legalize racism, to cut multicultural educational programs, to re-elect the governor responsible for these bills who literally believes that God chose her for this purpose? How is that even possible? It creates cognitive dissonance, because the Arizona I hold in my mind is so completely at odds with the Arizona I read about in the news, again and again and again.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, of course. Arizona has always been a conservative state; I just happened to grow up in a smallish hippie liberal bastion and to go to college in a sprawling desert city with an active radical liberal element. I happened to grow up white and middle-class and well-educated. I was sheltered, in large part, from the actual impacts of the whack-jobbery that was certainly going on when I lived there, by who I was and because, frankly, I never made the time to come far enough out of my bubble to clearly see the other Arizona, the one that confuses me so much now. I remember it dimly, but as more and more years pass the Arizona in my mind is winnowed down to what I loved, not what I--even then--didn't.

There are other reasons why the shooting yesterday was so upsetting, of course. Rep. Giffords sounds like exactly the type of person Arizona needs right now, like somebody I would vote for, and those are few and far between there. But then there's also Sarah Palin with her abhorrent gun sight metaphors--Giffords was, of course, one of her "targets"--the feeling that finally, the crazy is going too far. We never seem to realize that until people start dying, and usually not even then.

I'd like to leave with a quote from my friend Erica, about the ways we use metaphor and the dangers of our careless treatment. Much love to those involved in yesterday's shooting, those in Tucson, in Arizona, my friends elsewhere who are mirroring my shock and horror and shame. I wish for better things in the future.

‎"What troubles me most, however, is that such oversimplifications cavalierly assume that when we use metaphor, we do not really mean what we say...metaphors do, indeed, mean a great deal and may, in fact, serve as intersecting points for the various components of experience and action." -A. Kolodny

Saturday, January 01, 2011

morning finds you

New Year’s Eve in Chicago was unseasonably, freakishly warm. When we left the apartment at 9 PM to go to a friend’s house, the outside temperature was fifty-seven degrees, like a day in late April had somehow been transplanted to the end of December. When we left the party at about 1:30, the temperature had dropped and the wind was up and I shivered all the way home, cursing myself for wearing a dress outside in December, and by this morning we were firmly back in the grips of January. Although I can’t say I was exactly happy to learn that it was twenty-four degrees outside (feels like nine! woo) I did feel considerably less disoriented. After all, it’s supposed to be cold.

New Year’s has never been my favorite holiday. I feel like I already spend a great deal of time—too much, too often—lost in introspection, so I don’t really need a holiday to remind me that oh shit, it’s been another year. Also, New Year’s in Chicago is cold (usually) and it’s often felt odd to celebrate rebirth when everything is frozen.

I read a book recently, though, about the absolutely astonishing ways that animals survive winter and extreme cold. Some of it was fairly straightforward, or at least involved concepts I knew of or could guess at—constant foraging, torpor and hibernation—and some was not. Frogs and some insects, for instance, are capable in the right circumstances of freezing solid and then reviving when spring comes. (Just think about that for a minute, seriously.) But what really astonished me was that even the behavior I knew about was positively miraculous. Have you stopped to think about bears’ winter torpor recently? It’s something I learned about as a child in mundane terms, but as an adult it becomes something like magic. Bears, according to what we know about bodies and waste disposal and atrophy, should not survive the winter in good health, but clearly they manage somehow.

That’s what I love the most when I read about biology: real life is freaking magical. The ways that animals wait out the storm of bitter seasons defy my imagination and require biological technology that humans don’t really understand, but they exist and furthermore, they work. Magic. There’s something to be said for the ability to hold the fort, but there’s perhaps even more worth in the ability to wake up, to take back up with the world when conditions allow.

I also feel ambivalent about New Year’s because I don’t necessarily like thinking about the new calendar year as a blank slate, a clean start. Last year was hard in some ways but it’s still part of right now, even though I’m going to be screwing up every time I write the date for the next month or so, and I’m bumbling along just the same way I was yesterday. Sometimes I feel like life is really all bumbling, or maybe bumbling mixed with dancing when we manage to be mindful of the magic of everyday life. But regardless of the date, and even though it’s the middle of winter right now, I feel like I’m actually waking up from my torpor, and last night’s April weather backed me up. It may be winter in Chicago, but it’s also spring. Who says I can’t have both? So hey 2011, nice to see you, but I’ll just be on my way now; there’s soup to make and people to love and cats to pet, and I don’t have time to flip the calendar page just yet.