Jan. 16, 2011
she is working in the garden,
facing away from me,
trimming the bougainvillea,
still trim herself and youthful,
relaxed and free of cares,
doing something she enjoys,
something that she always has enjoyed,
and having lost all conception of
the passing of the hours,
and i feel a tenderness for her
that i may never have felt during
the selfish passion of young manhood,
and i wish the bitterness that
have more than merely punctuated
our thirty years together
could be magically obliterated
(which will never happen-let's
not kid ourselves-but perhaps for the
rest of this afternoon and evening
they will be.
i resolve to do and say
only kindnesses to her
over dinner and in front of
the pbs mystery that we've been following
and not to react to
any sarcasms or schemes
she may slip into out of habit, hunger,
merlot, tiredness, or contemplation of
the work week's rattling hours
of third graders, parents, colleagues,
homework, grades, and art projects,
lying once again in wait for her.
It's the birthday of food writer Ruth Reichl, (books by this author) born in New York City (1948). She grew up with a mother who loved to cook, but wasn't exactly good at it. In her best-selling memoir Tender at the Bone (1998), Reichl wrote about a typical childhood scene with her mother:
"'Your brother has decided to get married,' she said casually, as if I should have somehow intuited this in my sleep. 'And of course we're going to have a party to celebrate the engagement and meet Shelly's family!'
"My brother, I knew, would not welcome this news. He was 13 years older than I and considered it a minor miracle to have reached the age of 25. 'I don't know how I survived her cooking,' he said as he was telling me about the years when he and Mom were living alone, after she had divorced his father and was waiting to meet mine. 'She's a menace to society.'
"Bob went to live with his father in Pittsburgh right after I was born, but he always came home for holidays. When he was there he always helped me protect the guests, using tact to keep them from eating the more dangerous items.
"I took a more direct approach. 'Don't eat that,' I ordered my best friend Jeanie as her spoon dipped into one of Mom's more creative lunch dishes. My mother believed in celebrating every holiday: in honor of St. Patrick she was serving bananas with green sour cream.
"'I don't mind the color,' said Jeanie, a trusting soul whose own mother wouldn't dream of offering you an all-orange Halloween extravaganza complete with milk dyed the color of orange juice. Ida served the sort of perfect lunches that I longed for: neat squares of cream cheese and jelly on white bread, bologna sandwiches, Chef Boyardee straight from the can.
"'It's not just food coloring,' I said. 'The sour cream was green to begin with; the carton's been in the refrigerator for months.'
"Jeanie quickly put her spoon down and when Mom went into the other room to answer the phone we ducked into the bathroom and flushed our lunches down the toilet."
Ruth Reichl dealt with her mother by learning how to be a great cook herself. She went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, then moved to Berkeley, where she worked for a collectively owned restaurant called Swallow. She got a job as a food writer at New West magazine and then became the food critic for the Los Angeles Times. In 1993, she moved back to New York to work as the restaurant critic for The New York Times. As a critic, she went to extreme lengths to try and make sure the restaurant owners and chefs didn't recognize her. She made reservations under different names and switched credit cards regularly. She had 12 different personalities with full disguises for each. There was Molly, a retired public school teacher who had suddenly become wealthy from her husband's work in real estate. There was Betty, a frumpy old woman. And there was Chloe, a beautiful blond interior decorator. She said, "I did not know I had that person inside of me. Chloe can get a cab; stop traffic; doors are opened for you; everything changes for you. Not only that, Chloe knew how to flirt, something I didn't think I knew how to do." She wrote about how differently she was treated at classy restaurants depending on her disguise — Betty, especially, got treated poorly. And she would write about that in her reviews, exposing the snobbishness of fancy New York restaurants, and how they would suddenly fawn over her and offer to move her to a better table if they figured out who she was mid-meal.
In 1995, the director of a restaurant sent out a photocopied photo of Ruth Reichl and a memo about her to his staff. He wrote: "We understand that Ruth has very curly hair, shoulder length, that it usually looks rather uncombed, and that she pushes the hair in front of her face so people won't recognize her. Please watch for Ruth or anyone who fits this description, and make sure that everyone is informed if a person who looks like this is dining at Tavern on the Green. She will probably be writing about us." A follow-up memo sent a couple of months later advised making more than a hundred copies of the photo and memo to pass out to staff, and also said: "Another thing that may help you recognize her: I have been told that she's always smiling. She smiles a lot. Please watch for Ruth."
But after six years of that, she realized that she was missing out on something she really cared about: cooking for her own family. So she quit her job as a restaurant critic and signed on as the editor of Gourmet magazine, which she headed up for 10 years. In 2009, Condé Nast announced that because of the recession, it would be shutting down Gourmet, the nation's oldest food magazine, founded in 1941. Besides Tender at the Bone, she has written several best-selling books, including the memoirs Comfort Me with Apples (2001) and Garlic and Sapphires (2005). After Gourmet folded, she decided to focus on writing — she is working on two new books. One is The Tao of Ruth, a cookbook and memoir, and the other is a novel called Delicious! On top of the book deals, Random House offered her a position as an editor-at-large, and in that capacity she wants to explore the future of food writing in a digital form.
She said, "My idea of good living is not about eating high on the hog. Rather, to me good living means understanding how food connects us to the earth."
It's the birthday of writer Susan Sontag, (books by this author) born Susan Rosenblatt in New York City (1933). She said, "Childhood was a terrible waste of time." Her own childhood was often lonely. Her parents were wealthy — her father owned a fur trading business called the Kung Chen Fur Corporation, and they lived in China. They also kept an apartment on the Upper West Side of New York City, so before Susan was born her mother started to worry about giving birth in a foreign country and went to New York for her daughter's birth; but shortly afterwards she returned to China, leaving Susan in the care of relatives. Her mother came back a few years later to give birth to a second daughter, Judith, then left again. In 1938, their father died of tuberculosis when he was 34. Their mother, who was even younger, moved back from China, and instructed the girls not to call her "mother" in public so that no one would know she was old enough to have children.
The family moved to Miami, then Tucson, then Los Angeles. Susan was a very smart young woman, bored by most of her classmates and the Southern California culture around her. After her first semester of her sophomore year of high school, the principal of the school informed her that the school had nothing more to offer her and offered to let her graduate then. So she spent a semester at the University of California, Berkeley, and then transferred to the University of Chicago. When she was 17, she went to a class taught by a 28-year-old sociology professor and they hit it off. About two weeks later, they got married. She got two master's degrees from Harvard, studied at Oxford and the Sorbonne, had a son, and got divorced, all by the age of 26.
She said that she arrived in New York in 1959 with "70 dollars, two suitcases, and a seven-year-old." Growing up, her dream was to write for the Partisan Review. In New York, she marched up to the editor at a cocktail party and asked if she could write for the magazine. In 1964, in the Partisan Review, she published the essay that made her famous: "Notes On 'Camp.'" She discussed what made something "campy," why camp is a phenomenon, what separates camp from just plain bad, and why camp should be taken seriously. She wrote: "The experiences of Camp are based on the great discovery that the sensibility of high culture has no monopoly upon refinement. Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste. (Genet talks about this in Our Lady of the Flowers.) The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating. The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the constant exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself out of the market, so to speak. Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion. Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation, — not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it's not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Camp taste doesn't propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn't sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures."
It's the birthday of poet Mary Karr, (books by this author) born in Groves, Texas (1955). For years she worked as a poet, and she had published two books, Abacus (1987) and The Devil's Tour (1993), when she decided to try writing a memoir. She had a tough life as a kid, growing up in an East Texas oil town. Her mother was an artist who had been married seven different times, and her father was a champion storyteller who worked at the oil refinery. Both of them drank a lot. Karr wrote about herself: "I was small-boned and skinny, but more than able to make up for that with sheer meanness." She would fight and bite and shoot BB guns at people.
Her memoir was The Liars' Club (1995), and it stayed on the New York Times best-seller charts for more than a year. She said, "When I set out on a book tour to promote the memoir about my less than perfect Texas clan, I did so with soul-sucking dread. Surely we'd be held up as grotesques, my beloveds and I, real moral circus freaks. Instead I shoved into bookstores where sometimes hundreds of people stood claiming to identify with my story, which fact stunned me. Maybe these people's family lives differed in terms of surface pyrotechnics — houses set fire to and fortunes squandered. But the feelings didn't. After eight weeks of travel, I ginned up this working definition for a dysfunctional family: any family with more than one person in it."
She followed up The Liars' Club with two more memoirs, Cherry (2000) and Lit (2009), and two books of poetry, Viper Rum (1998) and Sinners Welcome (2006).
She said, "I'd spent way more years worrying about how to look like a poet — buying black clothes, smearing on scarlet lipstick, languidly draping myself over thrift-store furniture — than I had learning how to assemble words in some discernible order."
She said: "When you grow up someplace like where I grew up, people are not resentful about being written about in a book — they are kind of happy to have somebody write about them. I turned out to read, or to sign books, near my hometown at a library and there were like 500 people there. It was 102 degrees or something. I was very moved by it. Obviously that's the most gratifying thing for anybody — to go home and have done good. The guy who I stole watermelons with when I was a kid, who is now the sheriff of this town, was there. People from my neighborhood, guys who drank with my father. It's moving."
And, "Memoir is not an act of history but an act of memory, which is innately corrupt."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®