Jan. 16, 2014

The Fight

by Gregory Djanikian

It was over a girl,
One boy had spoken to her,
Had asked her out, the other
Had been feeling with her
The twitches of something serious.
It was a misunderstanding,
Something that might have been fixed,
Talked out or around,
But the whole school had turned out
To watch them settle it.
It was too late for talk,
It was no longer just their fight,
Something irrelevant and impure
Had entered it, honor, looking
More upright than the other,
Things which had nothing to do
With the girl, or desire,
Or what she had whispered to one of them
One night in a car.
So they faced each other,
Bringing their anger up
By saying what finally did not matter
But loudly enough so their bodies believed it.
There was a sudden coming together,
There were fists flailing
While everybody, hundreds, watched.
One was cut above the eye, the other's
Knuckles were bloodied against teeth.
It lasted half a minute until
One of them pulled back and said
Something like "This is stupid"
And the other dropped his fists
And watched him walk away

"The Fight" by Gregory Djanikian, from Falling Deeply into America. © Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1989. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

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 and memoirist Mary Karr (books by this author), born in Groves, Texas (1955). She had a rough childhood: Her parents were both heavy drinkers. Her dad worked at an oil refinery and told a good story. Her mom was an artist, mentally unstable, and she'd been married seven times. But her mom was a voracious reader, about the only real escapism that the small town offered. As Karr told the Paris Review: "[R]eading is socially accepted disassociation. You flip a switch and you're not there anymore. It's better than heroin. More effective and cheaper and legal."

Though she's always thought of herself as a poet, and has published four volumes of poetry, she became famous as a memoirist. She wrote her first memoir, The Liars' Club (1995), because she needed the money. It took two and a half years, because she only worked on it every other weekend, when her son was with his father. It was on the New York Times' best-seller list for more than a year; she followed it up with two more memoirs: Cherry (2000) and Lit (2009).

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