The non-dream Alex, last September, with Jeremy and Claire:
The non-dream Alex, last September, with Jeremy and Claire:
Got home from university tired, hungry and sweaty, the cotton strap of my Army Surplus backpack digging into my shoulder. Bag full of books on Cycladean figures and Geometric votives for my Greek art essay, due Monday. An unseasonably hot day in May. Mum was in the kitchen, methodically bread-crumbing veal cutlets. Alex was in the family room inspecting Mum’s African violets, which sat on a planter just inside the plate glass windows looking onto the weedy patio.
“Hey Mum, hey Al,” I said as I headed past them to my bedroom. Then I stopped, backed up, and looked Alex full in the face. He blinked.
“I like your hair,” I said.
“Just had it cut,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck.
“Aren’t you going to introduce me?” asked Mum.
“Err – sure. Mum, this is Alex, a friend of mine from… Ireland…”
“Nice to meet you, Mrs Chalmers,” said Alex.
“You’ve never been to Ireland,” said Mum.
“No, but I will,” I said. “Alex – what are you doing here? I’m not even going to meet you for another, what, three, four years? Is it 1989 or 90?”
“Ninety, I think. I’m at Bull Alley. Have you seen these plants? They have fur on the leaves.”
“I just thought I’d come and see if your childhood really was as 70s-grotesque as you always said.”
“I beg your pardon?” said Mum.
“He’s joking,” I said, grabbed Alex’s arm and dragged him past the unicorn poster and into my room.
We sat awkwardly side by side on my single bed, facing the mountain of old computer printouts on my desk – Dad brought them home from work so I could write abysmal poetry on the back – and the dusty fantasy novels and china horses crammed onto my bookshelves. There was a dead fly on the black window-sill.
“This house is very…” said Alex. He picked up my poem about Yuri Gagarin:
(Y) The stars are shining where you left them
(U) One hundred miles above the ground
(R) No one goes out there to disturb them
(I) The skies are empty that you found…
“Yeah, the house,” I said, gently retrieving the poem. “Do you like my Hollie Hobbie wallpaper?”
“It’s not quite as spectacular as the lime-and-orange paisley in the kitchen.”
“Jesus. To be fair, Mum’ll replace it with fake red brick in a year or two, when she pulls up the wall-to-wall flokati in the front room… I can’t believe you came.”
“Hey,” said Alex with a grin. “What are friends for?”
…and yet when all is said
It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.
Players and painted stage took all my love
And not those things that they were emblems of.
Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street
Old kettles, old bottles and a broken can
Old iron, old bones, old rags, the raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
“I thought of a name for my biography.”
“Heh. Not bad.”
“Jan, what shall we call your biography? The Matriarch? Now Listen Everyone?”
“No, none of that! Oh, wait. None Of That is pretty good. Yes, None Of That.”
“That’s great. Richard?”
“A Draft of a Life.”
“Ooh, nice. Or Compiler, or Virtual Machine.”
Endless anxiety dreams about waking up too late for a call this morning. Made it to work on time, checked email, found that I’d mixed up time zones and missed the call.
Airports are no place for infants. I can still feel the marks of Claire’s fangs on my collarbone. The computers in immigration went down on Friday and it took over an hour for the blicket’s abuelo and abuela to emerge from the bowels of the airport. Under the circumstances I think Claire’s attempts to rip my throat out were a pretty restrained response.
Claire’s grandmother is a formidable cook, and I am an exceedingly competitive woman, so we’ve all been eating very well. On Friday we had roast chicken with a pear, blue cheese and baby spinach salad, and amazing blueberries to follow. Saturday morning was our inaugural trip to the Ferry Building farmer’s market, so on Saturday night we had Byran, Shannon and Cian over for roast salmon with red, white and purple potatoes, freshly shelled peas and a salad of arugula and dandelion. Bryan liked the peas better than anything else I think I’ve ever cooked for him, funny daft Irishman that he is.
Last night we had Jamey and Carole and Rowan to dinner. I made a big lemon, chicken and zucchini pilaf, with a bread-and-butter pudding for dessert. In your face, Dr Atkins! Cafe Rach serves all carbs, all the time.
It’s Jan’s turn to cook tonight, and I’m all, Top that, lady, but she’s all, I have thirty years on you child, and I’m all, Yeah, well Nyerr.
Also yesterday we took Claire to the Asian Art Museum. She likes museums for their acoustics, which greatly amplify her cheery hoots. I’m given to bitter complaints over the fact that the powers-that-be threw the SF Public Library out of this building into the somewhat less beautiful building next door, but the Asian Art Museum gradually won me over with a combination of astounding jades and a very enlightened area equipped with markers and crayons for bored kids. Claire made her first pictures, which to my completely unprejudiced eye display astonishing talent and precocity. My daughter, vampire or fine artist? Time will tell.
The phone rings. It’s the CEO, who’s been working from our office all week.
“I know you’re tearing your hair out on the report and I respect your time,” he begins, and my heart sinks, “but Tim has someone here he’d like you to meet. Is that okay?”
“Yes absolutely,” I say stoically.
They’re up in a minute, the CEO, Tim, and Tim’s new puppy Josie, a Burmese Mountain Dog-border collie cross puppy who gallops around the newsroom before bouncing into my lap and licking my chin. (She’s called Josie because Tim also has two pussycats.)
“Here’s the client…” says the CEO, grinning.
Everybody gets a cuddle of the sweet-smelling, blue-eyed pup. She’s delighted with everything. We return to work feeling much cheerier.
“Thanks for setting up that meeting, I got a lot of value out of it,” I call to the CEO as he leaves.
The puppy doesn’t want to go downstairs to the sales department.
“Dogs have a lot of integrity,” I tell Tim. “I think she’s more comfortable in editorial.”
“Then I watched the sky. I discovered near Deneb there is one more star. I check the star charts. No star there. So I determine this is a nova. This nova can be seen for four days naked eye and then it disappeared. It was independently confirmed by National Observatory. This was my biggest discovery in life as amateur astronomer.
“In 1054 AD there was a supernova, so bright, in Taurus. In Chinese a supernova is called a guest star. This supernova is the Guest Star of the Heavenly Palace.”
Naishi Min was for many years the director of the planetarium at the Shenyang Science Palace in Shanghai. He explained that Chinese philosophy specifies five elements: metal, wood, water, fire and soil. These are associated with five kinds of organism: fish and dragons, beasts, birds, shells and humans.
In the spring sky are five constellations, associated with the five organisms, colours and cardinal points: the blue dragon in the east (our Scorpio), the white tiger in the west (Orion), the red phoenix in the south (Hydra) and the black tortoise in the north (parts of Pegasus and Aquarius). The fifth cardinal point is the center, and its constellation is the Yellow Dragon, the Emperor Xuan Yuan. It’s our Big Dipper.
I asked whether the constellations were associated with the elements. Naishi thought for a minute and said firmly: “No.” Everyone chuckled. The elements are associated instead with the five naked-eye planets: Mercury is water, Venus metal, Mars fire, Jupiter wood and Saturn soil.
He showed us an ancient carving (first century AD)? of the Yellow Emperor in his chariot, clearly recognizeable as the Big Dipper. The Emperor holds a fireball with a tail in his hands. Naishi cross-referenced this with contemporary astronomical records, and sure enough: “Halley’s Comet,” he said proudly, and the audience sighed happily.
Western constellations are stars joined by lines – individual actors connected by stories, all jumbled up together. Chinese constellations are areas of sky separated by walls. The Emperor rules from his heavenly palace. The order and hierarchy in the sky reflects the order and hierarchy ordained here on earth.
The traditional Chinese name of Sirius is Heavenly Wolf(!); Canopus is Old Man of the South; Vega is Weaving Princess; Altair is the Cowboy. The Princess and the Cowboy were in love, but the Princess’ cruel mother separated them by creating the Silvery River (the Milky Way). All the magpies in the world took pity on the lovers. On the seventh day of the seventh month they create a bridge over the river so the Cowboy and the Princess can be together.
Lots and lots more: the 28 lunar mansions, twelve of which define the Chinese zodiac (Claire’s a horse, Jeremy’s a dog, I’m a pig – “I know”, said Ian). Naishi himself, his daughter and brand new grandson are all monkeys. “I’m the monkey king!” he said. He makes wonderful popup books of constellations and rocket ships and telescopes and armillery spheres. In the sun there is a crow with three feet – the ancient Chinese interpretation of sunspots. In the moon there’s a rabbit.
The moon goddess’ husband had two pills for longevity. He gave them both to her. The first made her immortal, and the second made her so light she floated up into the moon.
As we drove home:
Ian: What did he call the supernova? The gayest star?
Kat: The gassed star?
R: The guest star!
Kat: The guessed star?
Starting July at the Chabot Space & Science Center: Dragon Skies: Astronomy of Imperial China.
She wakes promptly at eight and hoots to be fetched. One of us pads barefoot into her bedroom, where she’ll be sitting alertly in the crib. When she sees us she holds up her arms imperiously. She is scooped and brought into our bed for a morning drink of water from her spillproof cup. If we’re lucky she’ll doze for a while, as the sunlight tracks across the bed and the cat rolls onto her back and purrs and kneads the empty air.
More usually she’ll raid my bedside drawer for the Bonjela, an anaesthetic ointment for her gums, sweetened with purest saccharine. This is her preferred breakfast food. Denied this delicacy, she will roar her grief. At this point Jeremy and I argue about who gets up to give her breakfast. I generally win. Jeremy takes her away for muesli and organic yogurt, some of which she eats, the rest of which is daubed fetchingly on her face, torso and immediate vicinity.
I curl up with the cat and read a chapter of my book or snooze, unless Bebe is out of kibble, in which case she will pounce and attack my hands, and I’ll catch her and cuddle her until her growls subside into a grudging purr, and then I’ll feed her, because if I don’t she’ll just wait till I’m asleep and then rip out my throat. So cute!
It’s been a good week foodwise. My secret stash of cassoulet has been replenished, and my copies of Julia Child and Nigella Lawson have arrived. Julia looks pretty intimidating but Nigella is far better than I imagined, since she shares my taste in staple foods: eggs, cream, butter, custard, trifle and roast chicken “with half a lemon shoved up its bottom”. Most of her book How to Eat is aimed at the very specific demographic of tired working-mother journalists of English heritage who need to cook simply but deliciously for their families. That, in case you are wondering, would be me.
The cooking in this marriage reflects many other aspects of the menage. Jeremy cooks steadily and extremely well. I’ll idle around for months at a time then hit the organic grocery store with furious vengeance and try out twenty recipes in ten days. Many will fail but maybe three will go on permanent rotation, meaning Jeremy will add them to his repertoire. Well, it works for me.
This week I started with a couple of hardy perennials – potato and leek soup, plus a zucchini risotto that I’ve taken to making with orzo instead of rice. Mmm. Last night, though, I hadn’t had time to go shopping and the house was swarming with kids, as Cian and Rowan had come to play. I inspected the cupboard and The Joy of Cooking and made rice with coconut milk to serve with sweet corn and peas. It was beyond delicious.
There was enough left at the end that I went a bit mad and stir-fried it in the cast-iron skillet with fresh peaches and raspberries, cinnamon and a dash of Grand Marnier. The raspberries mostly dissolved into the al dente, coconut-scented rice, leaving the golden cubes of peach for extra texture. Served with a blob of vanilla Haagen-Dasz, it was easily the best dessert I’ve ever concocted.
Tonight I stared in even greater horror at a still more depleted fridge and pantry. I had potatoes, sweet corn, eggs, cream, milk and nutmeg, which turned out to be the makings of my first souffle. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was good enough that Claire sang a song of souffle, and we ate every scrap. I called Jeremy to gloat and he was despondant. “I’d love some lentil soup,” he said sadly.
I hunted through Nigella until I found a lentil soup I could cobble together. I had no leeks, celery or water chestnuts but I did have one potato. I diced it instead of mincing it, added an onion and two carrots, sweated them in butter, threw in a cup of red lentils and added four cups of stock. Turned right down low it bubbled away like lava, only fragrant.
Then Steve Pi turned up, hungry and unable to wait for soup. I threw a frozen baguette in the oven to warm and served it to him with pecorino romano, gruyere, olives and a peach. He devoured with relish everything but a stick of the bread, which I gave to Jeremy on his arrival, along with a bowl of tasty soup. I am a minor kitchen deity: fear me.
Jim: So how’re things?
R: Bad. I just don’t think there’s been enough coverage of the Reagan funeral.
Jim: I understand. You want live streaming media, 24/7.
R: Exactly. I need to know where the coffin is right now.
Jim: Did you see the interview with his embalmer? The guy’s been living on Krispy Kreme donuts for a week.
R: Yeah, did you like how he said it was the highlight of his life? The disturbing thing is that he’s been planning this for twenty years. Twenty years ago, Reagan was president…
Jim: I’m worried about the whole embalming thing, what with the coffin flying to and from DC. It gets steamy in Washington.
R: Mmm, and people are going to be taking their kids and all. Fun day out for the family! Dead president, lying in state!
Jim (snif-snif): ‘Hey, what’s that smell?’
Jim: Well, I’m off. I hope the report doesn’t crush your spirit.
R: It’s not the report. It’s losing Reagan. I’m a broken woman.
Jim: It’s not an easy time.
R: Giant among men. Defeated communism, world hunger, invasion from Mars. Slew dragons! Saved puppies!
Jim: Struck down the sodomites with genetically engineered AIDS!
R: Yeah, and no more films with Reagan and a chimpanzee!
Jim: How will we go on?
R: I guess we could make films with Dubya and a chimpanzee.
Jim: ‘They’re twins! Only their mother can tell them apart!’
(Thank you very much! We’ll be here all week!)
John Updike’s Rabbit, Run: I liked Chicken Run better. There’s something wrong with me: I just don’t get the grand old men of American letters. The Sinclairs Upton and Lewis are okay, but Bellow, Mailer and their ilk leave me stone cold. Edith Wharton, on the other hand – I’m rereading The Children – is hilarious, warm and wise.
Bobos in Paradise and Shoes Outside the Door: matched books about the war between money and principles, which overlap explicitly in discussions of the Smith & Hawken catalog, oddly enough. Bobos was okay when it took itself least seriously, as in a 30-page instruction manual on how to become a pundit. Mostly, though, it was godawful, intentionally tweaking the reader’s class anxiety (never difficult with me) while always congratulating the author on his superior discrimination and wit. Imagine if Bill Bryson were a pretentious wanker with a mile-wide mean streak. Ick.
Shoes tells the story of Baker-roshi, the first Western abbot of Zen Center. He bought Green Gulch Farm and Tassajara, wooed huge donations from the likes of Jerry Brown and the Grateful Dead, founded the spectacular Greens restaurant, ran Zen Center like his private fiefdom, spent Zen Center money on renovating his house and buying priceless antiques and a BMW, treated his students as slaves and eventually had a wildly indiscreet affair with Anna Hawken, wife of the Hawken of Smith & Hawken, and so the circle is complete. All hell, rather predictably, broke loose. There’s a great scene when Baker-roshi is given the details of his severance package: “I won’t have health insurance!” he mourns. No one else in Zen Center had health insurance. They took their kids to clinics for the poor. At one point the budget for the abbot’s expenses topped $215,000. Students’ stipends, including those for the founders of Greens, came to about $2.89/hour.
You’d think it was a standard vile-priest story and Christ knows I’ve read (and written, and lived through) enough of those, but it’s nicely told. The author, Downing, talked to eighty people and weaves their voices into a complicated, non-linear narrative that teases out the deeper questions: What does it mean to just sit? What is this spiritual authority thing, anyway? How is it conferred and by whom? And my old favorite: how are we supposed to live? There’s the tantalizing implication that Suzuki-roshi knew Dick Baker was just the kind of guy to fuck up on a cosmic scale, and that he planned the whole thing as a lesson to the silly Americans in practising a little self-reliance. A performance koan?
Chatting to Jack on the weekend we came up with a rough guide to class in America: the rich feed hummingbirds; the poor feed chickens; the really poor feed pigeons.
1. thursday night, 14 mission
“I’m moving to Florida tomorrow. Miami. I’m going to make music again. When I was in high school I made the most beautiful record-album-CDs. I wrote my own songs: ‘Waiting for my lover to come.’ ‘Walking in the rain.’ ‘Look at all the pretty flowers.’ God has given me the gift!”
The speaker was a black trannie, who seemed to be in her twenties except that her face looked much older. She had her hair in braids and she wore a pink shirt, a black miniskirt, torn fishnets and platform heels. The avid listener had wonderful blowaway silver hair and a beard; he looked like a mad professor. The trannie got off the bus at Sixteenth and Mission and the professor waved a fond goodbye.
2. sunday afternoon, geranium place
Claire toddles directly to the cabinet piano and hoots to be lifted to the keyboard. Morrisa puts Miranda down next to us. Claire starts playing the tonic and fifth of an E flat chord. She touches them softly, over and over.
Miranda looks interested. Claire grabs her finger and puts it on the keys. Miranda, aged four months, plays the piano.
“E flat, huh?” says nj. He goes to the grand piano and starts improvising around the girls’ notes.
3. sunday night, eugenia avenue
R & J (unison): Old Macdonald had a farm!
C: Yi yi yo!
R & J (joyously): And on that farm he had a Claire!
C: Yi yi yo!
We call everyone we can think of and get Claire to sing to their voicemail.
Speaking of perspective, can I just say how grateful I am for the rule of law and for Claire and Jeremy just being alive? What’s happening in Darfur in Western Sudan is not scattered violence by Arab nomads. The Janjaweed are on government salaries. They drive army Land Cruisers and carry government-issue Thuraya satellite phones. Their wounded are treated in government hospitals. The Janjaweed are carrying out systematic killing raids on Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa villages. Ethnically Arab, their stated intention is to drive African tribespeople out of Darfur.
Ten thousand people are dead. A million people have been displaced. Darfur is empty.
It’s genocide. Remember how after Rwanda and Bosnia everyone said it would never happen again? It’s happening again.
Human Rights Watch: Darfur destroyed
Doctors Without Borders: statement to the UN Security Council
I used to have a morbidly vivid imagination for worst case scenarios, but not any more. I try to think about how it would feel if armed men came and shot Jeremy, if Claire and I lost our home, if she didn’t have enough to eat, but I can’t.
Claire speaks Spanglish, but mostly in Spanish. We’re trying to teach her the Queen’s English, with limited success. We lie abed of a morning having full and frank exchanges of views on linguistics:
R (pointing at one of Claire’s huge blue eyes): Eye!
C (firmly, pointing a fat finger at own eye): Ojo!
R: Well, yes, and you are beyond adorable when you correct me like that, but… humour me? Eye? It’s like “bye” without the b… Eye?
Jeremy (arriving damply from the shower): Yes, ojo!
R: Very good, but we’re trying for English.
J: Oh. Eye!
C (overjoyed): Pappy!
C (wiggling towards father, source of all joy): Pappy!
C (pointing at eye): Eyee! Eyee! Eyee!
R&J (thrilled): That’s right! Eye! Yes!
C: Eyee! Eyee, Pappy! Eyee!
R: Do you need further proof that you’re her favourite?
J (complacently): Am not.
Sometime last week the virus morphed from GI to respiratory. My sinuses are overflowing with sulfurous molten goo and I’ve lost my voice. (“About time!” says my internal Jonathan.) I spent Saturday asleep again and had to blow off dinner at De Haro on Sunday, because I was only parsing about one word in three of the prevailing conversation. When everyone had gone to the party I made myself sardines on toast and junket: Northern English comfort food for the regressing colonial girl. I’ve been craving trifle lately, too. Curled up in my comfy chair, I read.
Tim Ferris is too hard to comprehend when I’m feeling this unwell, so The Whole Shebang is on the back burner for a while. Meanwhile I slummed with Candace Bushnell, Armistead Maupin and Barbara Pym. I also enjoyed both The Corrections and The Elementary Particles far more than I expected to.
“She didn’t care so much, after all, about being liked. She found herself liking.”
I loved the Rashomony structure of The Corrections, the use of the fucked-up family as a lens, Enid’s appalling Midwestern cooking and the idea of a drug that suppresses shame. Called Aslan. Ha! The first ten pages made me laugh out loud every paragraph, like the first time I read Bill Bryson, all of which just goes to show what a sad nerd I really am. Chip was certainly an improvement on horrible Ray from Mortals and on the protagonist of The History Man, whatever his name was, but I still couldn’t quite see why everyone in the book found him so adorable. Always a problem with a thinly veiled author-avatar. The characters did shade off into Dickensian cliche at the edges (note to self – jokey names get really old after a while), and the scenes in Philadelphia and Lithuania lacked the ring of truth, but in general it’s just as good a book as everyone says it is.
I couldn’t decide until close to the end whether The Elementary Particles was brilliant or awful. I settled for brilliant, largely because of an extraordinary passage which is one of the best things I’ve ever read on modern Ireland. In any case, how am I supposed to resist a book which identifies Esalen and The Book of Kells as critical turning-points in human history? Some of the sex scenes were genuinely hot, leading to the same kinds of wacky fun I had while reading Nicholson Baker’s The Fermata on the bus many years ago, blushing all the while, except that this time a sleazy old guy reading over my shoulder on the 14 Mission started actually touching my thigh, which harshed my mellow somewhat. The end of The Elementary Particles is weird, but good.
Both writers, and Pym, too, do lovely lyrical prose. They’re all more or less high-realist, except that Franzen and Houellebecq seem to have been keeping up with their hard-SF: Banks, Gibson and Womack, at a rough guess. There’s a case to be made for The Corrections and The Elementary Particles being two versions of the same book, but as with the argument that American Sweethearts and Laurel Canyon are really the same film (Hollywood self-loathing, semi-incestuous hijinks), it’s extremely silly.
Everyone, me included, is obsessed with gender at the moment. I am no sort of girl. I’ve never had a pedicure and I loathe shopping. I wore a skirt to work last week, to universal acclaim. “You should wear skirts more often!” exclaimed my lovely copyeditor Fred, to which I snapped: “Why?” I didn’t mean to be bitchy but my feet hurt from clopping around in high heels. Poor Claire, who already loves bright colours and pretty flowers, is going to have to get her hair and makeup advice from somebody else.