Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Barbara Kingsolver Made Me Do It

The paperback of Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life has a blurb from Rick Bass on its cover that reads: “This book will change your life. . . . Perhaps never before has [food] been written about so passionately.” 

When I first saw that, I thought:
I guess Rick Bass has never read a book about food before. 

Then I read the book, which I absentmindedly picked up in a used bookstore on vacation at the end of August, where I ran into someone I went to grad school with, which was fun and small world-y but also, like, where else are you gonna find two writers but in the three-dollar bookstore thumbing through trade paperbacks and, in my case, tomes about
decorating loft apartments? 

After starting
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle to kill time while Samantha napped – and because I was not quite up to the copy of Moby Dick I also bought – I was quickly sucked into the world of Barbara Kingsolver, a writer I think of as, basically, vegetables for your life.  When I read High Tide in Tucson sometime in my pregnancy (or was it after Samantha was born?), I could not get out of my head Kingsolver’s moralizing, maternalistic tone: We are all connected.  Another person’s trash and/or bad ideas are your responsibility, too.  Do not turn your head, do not shirk your duties, think like a sane person and act like a kind one. 

The essays in
High Tide in Tucson range from ecology to sociology to Kingsolver’s childhood but, like everything else she writes, are crammed full of research which she deftly, and perhaps eternally, steers to moral issues. 

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a documentation of Kingsolver’s resolve, along with her family, to source all their food locally for one year, to examine what it would be like if we stop trucking fruits from California all over the country and stop raising animals in corporate-run slaughterhouses.  She and her husband and two daughters grow much of their own food, raise animals, go to farmer’s markets religiously and buy goods from farming friends (barring coffee which they purchase from fair trade venues, and cherished olive oil, made from olive trees not native to Virginia, where they live). 

The book is full of recipes, cheese-making tips, and canning summations.  It gives voice to Kingsolver’s longstanding gardening habit, introduces her animal husbandry forays, and somehow makes the thought of buying a food-dehydrator feel like a no-brainer.  It is also full of quiet, simmering humor, the kind that walks right beside a wide lens on the world. 

About mulching the garden she writes:

“My favored mulching method is to cover the ground between rows of plants with a year’s worth of our saved newspapers; the paper and soy-based ink will decompose by autumn.  Then we cover all that newsprint – comics, ax murderers, presidents, and all – with a deep layer of old straw.  It is grand to walk down the rows dumping armloads of moldy grass glop onto the faces of your less favorite heads of state: a year in review, already starting to compost.”

About the act of weeding, she writes:

“It is also noiseless in the garden: phoneless, meditative, and beautiful.  At the end of one of my more ragged afternoons of urgent faxes from magazine editors or translators, copy that must be turned around on a dime, incomprehensible contract questions, and baffling requests from the IRS that are all routine parts of my day job, I relish the short commute to my second shift.  Nothing is more therapeutic than to walk up there and disappear into the yellow-green smell of the tomato rows for an hour and to address the concerns of quieter, more manageable colleagues.”

I don’t know why this woman was getting urgent faxes in 2007, when her book was published, and not, say, urgent emails.  I also don’t know if anyone but close friends would ever call Kingsolver “a good time,” because she is so clear in her somewhat mansplain-y tone and unapologetic in her lecturing.  But after becoming a mother myself, and needing to step it up in somewhat matronly ways, I don’t always feel like “a good time” is what the world needs more of right now.  Instead, I rather enjoyed being chastened by Kingsolver about my food choices and being reminded just how far our country has gotten from being careful stewards of the land.  I was also more than happy to be inspired by her ideas about just how much my kitchen habits play a part in correcting that distance. 

So the book did change my life in certain ways (you were right, Rick Bass!) because it forced me to pay attention to how I am using my money right now
to vote for food systems in our country.  Do I make it a point to buy from the farmer’s market, where food is so abundant and cheap it feels criminal not to support the people bringing it to me in bulk?  Do I drag myself there on Saturday mornings and talk to real live people selling beautiful fresh food instead of putting up with the zombie apocalypse that is my local grocery store?  Do I use all the canned goods gifted to me by industrious friends and family members, valuing the work and photosynthesis packed in those hard-eared rows?  Am I embracing food as a way of life, or merely scrambling to survive one hurried meal at a time?

I’ve thought about all this before, of course.  I noticed how utterly uninspired the people who work at our grocery store are and despaired when my interactions with them were beyond lackluster.  Then I kept going in the same circles, putting up with sub-par food and outlandishly absent customer service because I was lazy, and I’m an introvert, and because the farmer’s market is so intensely crowded and overwhelming with quality choices that every week, about seven minutes in, Samantha pulls me down to her level and whispers in my ear: “I’m ready to go now.”

Hey Kids!  Free activity offered by the CHILD EVANGELISM FELLOWSHIP.  Run, run, run.

I get it.  It isn’t always easy to do the right thing, and the right thing can also be a rapidly moving mark.  But something about Barbara Kingsolver’s tone and wisdom and, I don’t know, gall, is like a coach in the back of my spine right now, pushing me forward to keep exploring food choices and believing in a better way for our country, our bodies, our communities, our local economies.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
also got me into weeding, which I consider the real miracle being referred to in the book’s title.  We don’t have a garden but we do have a beautiful yard that I have no idea how to care for, a fact that gives me no shame.  After reading about Kingsolver’s enthusiastic plunges into canning and chopping and making dinner with her family night after night, rolling up her sleeves again and again to accomplish what she’s set out to do, I’m basically unafraid to make mistakes right now: in the dirt or in the kitchen.  Traditionally, if I don’t know what I’m doing, then I simply don’t do.  But lately, when Samantha drags me out to the yard, instead of insisting we change out of our pajamas first or, I don’t know, do something besides sweep the patio for fun, now I’m all for it.  Big honking clippers in hand, dirt under my nails, I suss out what belongs and what doesn’t, enjoying the sun and fresh air as Samantha sits sans trepidation in patches of ivy I’m certain host a few unseen garter snakes and frogs: the id of the world doing its work.  Suddenly I am willing to be part of this messy, fertile place.

There are a few books on my desk that I've dog-eared in and out, but I sort of want to break up these mega posts I’ve been writing lately.  The ruminative, examining spirit I try to set on SNB is often at odds with the world of giving Samantha breakfast, tap-dancing one step ahead of her toddler-y suggestions, squeezing in runs before dinner, and pretending to give myself some sleep.  Lately I’ve been staying up late reading, which is nothing new for me exactly, but I’m sort of amazed by the long stretches of nights I keep doing it.  I am a night owl, at heart, but having to be up in the morning for the girl means learning to put myself to bed so I can avoid being an ogre the next day.  I’ve been casting my vote for literature the past two weeks, ogre-ness be damned, and while it’s sort of dreamy, it’s also a little strange.  After a long, active summer full of sunshine and crisp, wet foods, I think some part of me is so happy to sit for a spell, and that part of me isn’t about to give up the soft throws I wrap myself in, or the stacks of un-read books climbing the tables beside me.  That part of me is like: I hope you went to the bathroom before you sat down because it is ON, lady.

This bird is dead.  For an hour-long presentation I thought it was alive and just intent on studying the audience.

This is all to say: I’d like start posting more frequently, maybe sharing a quote or two from the books I’m reading, sharing a few thoughts and photos and then calling it good. I’m so invested in sharing something of quality, though.  So I guess we’ll see.   

And now.  Let the pumpkin fetish and apple eating begin. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Tail of the Dragon

This is a pitiful way to begin anything, but I've been meaning to write for weeks.  It's almost the end of August, a new season is on its way, and I do not know which end is up.  We visited friends in Pennsylvania, family in Ohio, had family visit us in Michigan and other friends come to town.  We've basically had so many adventures in such a short spurt of time that Samantha doesn't know which baby goes with which adult anymore or whether anyone lives five minutes or five hours away. 

I haven't written because...I have no idea what I'm doing.  I've been in a dry patch as far as reading goes, and I'm not really out of the woods yet.  I keep picking up short stories and reading one and then moving onto another collection, wedging essays and spiritual books into the middle of those, punctuated occasionally by full-length works. 

I did settle into Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs, by Dave Holmes, which is amazing and hilarious. It gets everything right about being young and clueless in New York City while also being touching and wise about finally learning to be yourself.  On top of all this, its descriptions of popular culture and music are absolutely brilliant, which is sort of unfair.  Why does one person get to be funny and wise AND brilliant?  Gah.

On going to a conservative, preppy college when it wasn't a great fit for him--a young gay person obsessed with pop culture--Holmes writes: "I was probably supposed to be going to a school where people had open meltdowns, and went through bisexual phases, and broke their legs jumping out of trees while on mushrooms, but I was determined to make my relationship with this very normal, practical place work this time.  [He got kicked out for bad grades his first year at college.] As a compromise, I turned off everything that was unique about myself.  I was still manically social, but I wasn't dealing with what was happening in my mind or soul or crotch."

Later, he writes: "As graduation loomed, I decided that I needed to escape the Holy Cross of my mind [he went to Holy Cross, get it?].  Enough of small places where everyone knows one another, enough of homogeneity.  I was going to move to the biggest, greatest city in the world: I was starting over in New York City.  I had enthusiasm, a poor understanding of how the world worked, a 2.4 GPA, and no job skills.  I couldn't fail."    

In one of the "interludes" that are basically genius cultural analysis, Holmes breaks down songs from the 90's that got him through his lovelorn times including "The Freshman" by The Verve Pipe, "I'd Die Without You" by PM Dawn, and "literally anything by Toad the Wet Sprocket."  Of Toad he writes:

"Were these guys ever happy?  I picture them all in windbreakers, on a late autumn afternoon, just having finished crying." 

Several times while reading Party of One, I broke into the sort of whimpering, weepy laughter that builds on itself until I just had to curl up and breathe until I recovered, the sort of uncontrollable laughter to which my mother is especially susceptible late at night after eating too much sugar.

In my spate of vacuuming up pieces of literature around the house, I finally read Pulphead, John Jeremiah Sullivan's collection of essays, which I highly recommend if you want to bathe your brain in flawless prose or send it off to pyrotechnic tumbling class.  Sullivan taught at my graduate school and lived in Wilmington, NC when I was there. I occasionally served him cups of coffee at the coffee shop where I worked but never introduced myself because I hide from heroes.  Sometimes, I creepily but innocently watched him from my spot behind the counter and thought, so that's how it's done, as if I could glean anything from watching someone sit at a computer and bounce their leg or chew on a hangnail and squint at a screen.

Sullivan looms large in our household, his name like others kept alive through mutual fascination or appreciation or Tim simply talking about a book enough so that when I finally get around to reading it, it feels tackling a classic (see also: Jonathan Franzen's Freedom).  Sometimes, it's an actual classic I tackle, like the summer I worked at the coffee shop more than usual because it had air conditioning and our apartment did not.  That summer I spent mornings doing yoga and reading Anna Karenina, cooling off with forward folds and images of winter wheat fields before running off to work and embracing the cold carrots I was tasked with washing and cutting for the pain-in-the-rear juicer, itself loud as a chainsaw.

Speaking of Franzen (which I'm always doing, according to Amelia), my worlds collided this month when Brad Listi interviewed Franzen for his Otherppl podcast, which remains one of my favorite podcasts around.  And while I didn't exactly learn anything new about the guy (Franzen, I mean.  I always learn something new about Listi, whom I submit as one of the most compassionate and kindhearted people on the internet today and also very funny, in an understated sort of way), I appreciated Franzen's gloss when he said (something like): I see the world through the lens of family, because I love that element in all his writing.  He appears to think deeply about what it means to be part of a family--all of a its benefits and complications--and I love hearing him think about that subject through all his work.  

He also said he always wanted to be a comedic novelist, and that because he's famous, people miss that element in his work.  They take him too seriously.  I have problems with some of his novels (I can barely think about The Corrections without cringing about every character except the mother, who is so uniformly unlikeable she is almost admirable), but I do find him deeply funny. 

I read a book called Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words, which is a transcription of interviews between Mitchell and fellow musician and Canadian broadcaster, Malka Marom, over a series of decades.  When I was growing up, Mitchell seemed to me someone who knew what she was about and didn't pull punches.  I appreciated how she seemed able to be herself and fully feminine while being recognized among a bunch of male musicians.

Reading In Her Own Words sort of flipped things around for me an extra spin, because she really throws the covers off some of her male companions' bad behavior.  She is forthcoming about her disappointment when Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen lifted lyrics without crediting sources, and about the infuriating misogyny of the music business.  She tells about a time when Dylan told her to "say something sexy" into the camera for a documentary they were making, something I had a lot of trouble picturing until I realized if I had been given even a little bit of power in my twenties, I surely would have misused it.  (But still.  Kinda gross, Dylan!)  And I took a weird delight in her account of David Crosby trying to credit his band for inspiring her song, "Woodstock," when she says they had nothing to do with the writing of it at all.  Funny how history looks a little different now that we're hearing from the women, eh?

Mitchell can be caustic and shockingly ungrateful sometimes, but she is also honest, and the overall effect to me is tonic.  The book is an education about her life as an artist, from her training as a painter through the hardship of giving a baby up for adoption when she was very young, through her evolution as a musician and her fierce allegiance to artistic exploration throughout her career.  At one point she calls her collaboration with Charles Mingus "steak and potatoes jazz" and pretty much says she had to trick him into letting her have a little fun with the project, which made my jaw drop. Did you just call Mingus old hat? 

I have a hard time relating to Mitchell's desire to outgrow expectations constantly, because I am someone who lives about sixty-five beats behind every one else. But I loved hearing about the different choices she made musically and imagining her devoting all of her time to whatever project called to her in the moment. 

Of Wayne Shorter, one of the musicians in her jazz band, Mitchell says: "A genius like Wayne is always exploring, so he's gonna be more inconsistent.  He's gonna be all over the place.  Because he's going into new territory.  The great things nearly always come on the edge of an error.  What comes after the error is spectacular.  So if you are hung up on the error, you missed the magic." 

That's a pretty amazing indictment of perfectionism, right?  "If you are hung up on the error, you missed the magic."  I like that. 

There's a mini stack of food memoirs on my desk and a short list of home repairs I have avoided all summer.  With two weeks left to September, can you guess which one I'm eyeing?


Tuesday, July 5, 2016


A weird thing is starting to happen.  I'm not going to say I'm turning into a summer girl, because in my mind that requires rollerblading in a bikini while listening to Van Halen's California Girls.  But I am truly enjoying eating lemons by the handful and putting cilantro on everything I touch.  In my own turtle-on-a-rock kind of way, you might say I'm soaking up summer.   

In the spirit of pink drinks and sitting in a hammock, I give you the following three thoughts: 

1. I recommend this episode of World Cafe featuring Mudcrutch, Tom Petty's first band which he got back together for an album in 2007, and which just released a second album. The interview alone is worth a listen because there's nothing as freaky or pleasant as Tom Petty's speaking voice, IMHO, but the music is great, too. 

I read Warren Zanes' Petty: The Biography when it came out last year.  If you ignore the unfortunate use of the word "girls" to mean "women"
by most everyone involved, it's an enjoyable read.  I could not stop thinking about what a load of work biographies are while reading it: interviewing, transcribing, writing, fact checking.  Wowzahs.  Whatever work ethic made that book possible kinda blows my mind.  On the other hand, I guess it's worth it because I probably muse on one anecdote or another from its files weekly.

The Mudcrutch interview also contains a strange moment where Tom Leadon, one of the original members of Mudcrutch who did not go on to be in the Heartbreakers, laments the fact that he stayed behind when the rest of the band went to L.A. Tom Petty breaks in by saying something like, "But we're all together now!  Let's not focus on that." It reminds of Zanes' allusion to Petty feeling guilty about the way things did and did not turn out for his bandmates.  I could be reading too much into that on-air moment, but it struck me as a weird thing to say, essentially cutting off someone who was just sharing thoughts about the way his life turned out. 

2. On the recommendation of a friend I checked out the HBO mini-series Olive Kitteridge, based on Elizabeth Strout's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and was glued to my couch for two nights.  As we somewhat foolishly bought a wool couch and it's been above 80 degrees lately, that's really saying something.  I absolutely could not stop watching it and wanted to live forever in its bracing world of cold water, dark interiors, stiff clothing, and strained relationships. 

3. By some miracle of Twitter, I came across a newly released memoir called Boy Erased, written by Garrard Conley.  The book's pretty turquoise cover won me over right away, but I was moved by its interior pages, as well.   

The book tells the story of an "ex-gay" therapy program Conley attended, with the support of his parents who believed it was the right thing, so he might be "cured" of being gay.  It's hard to believe something like this could have happened so recently (he started the program in 2004), but I know Conley's story is one of many, and there's a long way to go before our country and small towns in particular support true diversity. 

I'm not just talking about the diversity you learn to pay lip service to if you go to a liberal enough college.  Really embracing people for who they are, despite our differences, and maintaining relationships with them across those divides is, to me, one of the hardest but also powerful things to do in this world.  I'm struck most by Conley's willingness to discuss growing up gay in a religious family in a southern town while also working to understand his parents' perspective.  That willingness is something to behold, and it made me wonder at all the work that went into crafting this book, as well.

Here is Conley on what it means to be an intellectual from a less-than-cosmopolitan hometown: 

"Sitting there in the midst of my professor's intelligent conversations, I had felt like both an impostor and a traitor.  I smiled at the appropriate moments, made droll comments about my upbringing, mocked the politics of almost everyone in my hometown.  Yet it was also true that coming home often made me feel, if not proud of my heritage, then at least grateful for its familiarity."

I loved Conley's sheer intelligence, and the bookish musings he weaves throughout his narrative:

"I stared into the gaps between the pads of his fingers, thinking about how people were never really touching even when they thought they were touching, how it was really our electrons doing the touching, a fact that made me feel slightly less guilty about the one major transgression I'd written about in that morning's MI - kissing an art student named Caleb - but also a little sadder about living in a world where one illusion could so stubbornly dictate the way I saw every interaction with the people around me.  It was a concept I'd encountered in one of my all-night reading marathons, its words sharp and satisfying as I'd silently mouthed it.  'Osculation': two curves touching but not intersecting, never intersecting.  From the Latin osculationem: a kiss.  Intimacy as a parlor trick, an illusion.  But what was one more illusion when it seemed the whole world operated on so many of them?  With each passing day at the facility, it seemed as though becoming straight was simply a matter of good lighting, of ignoring what you didn't want to see."

And finally, in this book I felt a wonderful closeness to the practice of writing itself, in ways I found endearing and perhaps even inspiring:

"I turned off the faucet and listened to the quiet in its wake.  In my pocket was a kind of charm against whatever might happen today: A number I could dial, and even if I didn't plan on doing anything with this mysterious Mark, the act of dialing would be my secret, something no one else would know.  It felt good to have a secret again...almost as good as it would have felt getting my Moleskin back and entering the secret world of stories that belonged only to me."

So there you have it, folks.  Music, film, books (and more books).  Does a person really need anything else in life?