Sunday, January 27, 2013

Homestead Style

Alaska was a place where almost everybody grew up poor. Men made tiny fortunes fishing or working construction and then spent every cent of it to get through the winter. All of my friends grew up the way I did, usually the oldest of large families who shouldered more responsibility than almost any child would nowadays. We had to; we were needed. That was our pay-off.

Every mother had the same work load as mine; few women had small families. Only children were pitiable in everyone’s eyes because they had nobody to play with and never had to learn how to share. Families with two children were rarities; a little girl I knew once referred to them as “a rich man’s family.” Certainly two children siphoned off less income than five or six or eight, which was the maximum number of offspring in our community. Our number of five was average.

Billy and Martha’s mother had the time to make diamond-shaped sandwiches with the crusts cut off. My mother slapped out pans of biscuits at lunchtime and served them hot, slathered with margarine and strawberry jam. She could make them with the speed of a factory worker, often impatiently pulling them out of the oven when they were still slightly too soft in the middle. Two pans of biscuits served all of us, plus my father, for lunch, with a few left over, with minimal dishwashing afterwards.

Efficiency was the keynote here, as it was for most of the meals that my mother prepared. The food she served had the same quality of nourishment without flair that characterized offerings found in a school cafeteria, with lots of starch and little flavor. The cakes that she brought out for dessert were the rewards for chewing and swallowing the monotony of potatoes or macaroni, bland in spite of the dried spices that she used to give the meals an exotic cast.

At the end of every summer, my parents would put in an order to a wholesale grocery company and a month or so later my father would bring home the supplies that would get us through the winter. Fifty-pound bags of flour and sugar, a twenty-pound bag of salt, shortening in cans large enough to provide additional seating at the dinner table when company came, two-pound cans of ground coffee, ten-pound boxes of powdered milk, gallon glass jars of peanut butter and strawberry jam and many cans of vegetables. Canned fruit was a luxury, so was jello, but my father, whose metabolism was high, bought bulk lots of penny candy for quick energy bursts. Lollipops, licorice sticks, horehound drops, jawbreakers by the box enchanted our friends when they came over to play. “Your house is like living in a candy store,” one of them breathed when invited to choose a lollipop from a box, but I knew better. One of my aunts in the states owned a candy store and what she offered was candy that was often chocolate, not this hard, unyielding sugar,. What we had stored away was more like alcohol kept for medicinal purposes.

My parents were a lot like Muslims. They kept no alcohol in the house except for an occasional bottle of wine for holiday meals, but they were constantly wired on coffee.

. When I first learned to talk, one of my standard welcomes to guests was, “Come in sit down have a cup of coffee,” all in one exuberant burst of air. Coffee was always steeping in the percolator, strong, hot, and bitter No coffee in the pot was almost as bad as having no fire in the barrel stove. It meant disaster and one of the first things I ever learned to do in the kitchen was measure coffee into the percolator basket and position it on the stem that was almost submerged In the pot of water. The sound of perking was one of the most comforting sounds I knew; it meant everyone within earshot was going to sit down and take a break—free time for everybody.

Fresh was an adjective reserved for impertinent children, rarely applied to the food that we ate. Fruit came in cans, or as apples and oranges that were tasteless. Bananas were mottled, much more brown than yellow. Root vegetables were the only ones that didn’t require a can opener to prepare—potatoes, onions, turnips, and rutabagas.

Even the women who had gardens canned almost everything they grew. They canned fish too and moose meat, turning protein into mush for the winter. They picked blueberries and cranberries to make jam and jelly. To my mother, all that meant was a lot of labor for more monotony, along with the risk of botulism to liven things up. Our canned goods came from a federally-regulated food facility, food that had once been grown in warmer climates—tomatoes, corn, peas.

So much of the food that has become chic was food I craved when I was growing up. Sushi, ceviche, steak tartare—I knew them long before I encountered them in a restaurant. When I was small, I ate the fragments of partially frozen meat when my father butchered a haunch of moose on the kitchen table. I ate raw clams on the way home after a morning of digging them up on the beach. And although my mother never canned anything, she learned how to pickle salmon, which retained a large amount of texture while adding a sour zing to the chunks of fish. Uncooked, it still tasted fresh.

In the summer, we ate food that I can’t afford now and often disdain when it comes my way. Little of the fish and seafood I’ve had as an adult compares to what I ate as a poor kid in Alaska—king salmon, fried razor clams, steamed butter clams, mussels, king crab, none of it frozen, all of it only a couple of hours from having been alive.

One year a man who had been crossing the muskeg came to our house in a state of high excitement. He had just shot a bear. It was too early for the salmon run so my father knew the meat was probably edible, unlike the bear meat that he brought home to my mother early in their Alaskan years, that had tasted like fish after it was cooked. The neighbor only wanted the hide; my father brought home the butchered carcass. He hung it in a shed and built a fire from alder chunks, a slow-burning wood that smoked profusely. It was our job to keep that fire burning. Once the flies got to it, the meat would be spoiled.

It looked horribly like the body of a man as it hung in its perpetual cloud of smoke. In the end, nobody wanted to eat it and my father gave it away to someone who wanted it to feed to his dogs.

Moose was the staple of our lives, shot out of season when the world was frigid and the meat would keep. It was usually the only food on our plates that had texture, other than the ceremonial Thanksgiving turkey, and so lean that when we finally had beef, the fat coated our mouths and made us sick. “I want moose,” one of my little sistere repeatedly begged during the winter we spent in Manhattan, and cried when she was told that the beef on her plate was moose meat. We knew that difference; we were Alaskan children, carnivore connoisseurs of wild meat years before we ever went to school.


Thursday, January 24, 2013

Then I said to myself, "Self," I said...

It's tough being a grownup. There's nobody around to tell you what to do. So when I woke up on Tuesday in a bad mood, and when day finally broke to reveal more thick fog, and I was cold, and the memory of last week's gulps of pool water still made my stomach churn, I didn't want to get dressed, climb on a bus, and walk into a locker room where a bunch of naked women compete for shower space.

Alternating thoughts of You paid for this and I don't care thundered over and over as I drank my coffee, wrote for an hour, and ate a bagel. Just get on the damned bus was the predominant refrain so I did, feeling more nauseated and dismal by the second.

My transfer point is perilously near the acres of remainder tables at the University Bookstore and I was too early for my next bus. When I left with my purchases, I saw my bus on the opposite side of the street, pulling away. By the time the next one arrived, I was close to hypothermia and only the thought of a hot shower pulled me toward the pool.

I entered the locker room, stripped off my clothes, and turned to find every shower spot occupied by the small children whose class came just before mine. Clad only in goosebumps and shivering, I tried not to glare at them as they savored every second of hot water, then hit their spigots for one more turn. Their mothers smiled benignly when I whimpered as pathetically as only a 64-year-old women in the nude is capable of, "But I'm late for my class."

In the pool with 15 minutes of my time already gone, I decided I'd spill it all when the instructor breezily asked me "How's it going?" He listened, watched, and then made a suggestion--and by god it worked.

Head in water, exhale through nose, head out of water tilted to the side, inhale quickly, don't worry if feet go down--over and over again up until the last minute, which is when I finally choked on a bit of pool water--perhaps a tablespoon as opposed to the quarter-cup I ingested the week before.

When I left, I know I swaggered just a little. It was still a bad day and by the time I got home, all I wanted to do was take a nap. But at the bottom of the misery that engulfed me was a tiny sparkle of happiness. Painfully and awkwardly and at my own glacial pace, I'm learning how to swim.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Be Careful of What You Wish For...

My father built a house for us after the fire. It was surrounded by trees  on a bluff with a view of the river and the uninhabited hills that lay on the opposite side. The living room had big windowa that framed that same view and stairs led to the bedrooms above. When we went out to play, we were in the woods, with odd little paths that led nowhere and hillocks of bouncy green moss. Growths of fungus with  flat, smooth and slimy fronts protruded from the trunks of spruce trees, looking like something dinosaurs would have snacked on. We found we could easily tear them from their trees and began to collect them in different sizes, some smaller than my littlest sister’s hand, others the size of dinner plates. There was no use for them that we could discover. Although some women in our town dried them and painted little landscapes on their flat sides, my mother put those creative efforts in the same category as earrings made from dried moose droppings. “Basket weaving,” she sniffed.

My father had recently read Tom Sawyer aloud and my deepest ambition was to find a cave. There were burrows in the moss hills and I had hopes that someday there would be one large enough for me to enter. I never did, but that was enough to keep me exploring for weeks.

We ran barefoot from the minute the ground thawed until the first frost hit a few months later. Warm dirt under my feet meant summer; the priest who visited once a month to say Mass in our living room told us that his mother made them run barefoot in the first snow to keep them from having sore throats in the winter and we tried it once, It didn’t work in Alaska.

We were happy in that house. My mother wasn’t. One winter when my father still had the dog team, he took us to a neighbor for the day and put my mother in the sled. They rode for hours, down a road, across the frozen swampland that we called muskeg, and up a long hill. “Don’t look behind until I tell you,” my father ordered.

At the top of the hill, he called "Whoa." The dogs stopped and my mother was told to get out and turn around. It was a clear day and when she did as she was told, my mother saw below her the land they had just traveled through bordered by miles of coastline. Beyond the water was a long range of mountains; several were dormant volcanoes and one of them was smoking. She was in love immediately; it was the best present her husband ever gave her.

He had stopped the sled  in an open sweep of grassland with two giant spruce trees nearby, which my mother promptly named the Sentinels. It was all grassland, dotted with belts of trees. When my mother first saw it, it was a dazzling whiteness that stretched before her, all twinkling with tiny colored lights if she stared at it long enough. The wind had had blown the snow into dunes and hardened its surface so she could walk on top of  it without falling through. She stood in the middle of a cold and glittering desert. “I want my house here,” she said.

There was no road to this place, only a hunting trail that snaked through trees and bogs. In the winter, after freeze-up, vehicles could drive through the muskeg but once the ground thawed, it turned to mush where even horses could sink right up to their bellies. My father had to bring in building materials in the winter and then work through the summer to buy more. It was at least a year before my mother could move us to the spot she loved with a wild and truly unreasoning passion.

When the house was ready, it was exactly where she wanted it, in the middle of an unending stretch of meadow with that regal view. It was two storeys high, with a bank of windows running along the front of the house to capture the mountains, and it faced west so the sunsets were magnificent. In the summer the grass grew higher than my father’s head; except for groves of alders and an occasional well-placed birch tree, we were surrounded by an unbroken ripple of green. In the winter it was a windblown, pristine desert.

My mother named her place Windswept after a favorite novel about a house on the coast of Maine; she was romantic that way. It was actually wind-rocked. It was too far from any trees to be given protection from the gale-force winds that came in from the coast and pummeled the house. It rocked like a ship when there was a good storm, creaking and swaying upstairs where our bedrooms were.

The windows that my mother insisted upon were clear plastic when we moved in, not the glass that my father would earn on his next construction job the following summer. The plastic wasn’t drawn taut, it billowed, and inside the house, each plastic sheet that would eventually become a front window was buttressed by crosses of lath. Without that, which was extremely ugly, the plastic would have blown out in the first storm. Upstairs where the windows were smaller, but still quite large, they frequently did burst.

The wind would howl into a bedroom, we would shriek helpfully, and my parents would rush to the rescue with blankets, nails, and a hammer. Wind would whistle through the blankets that shielded the open window, the house would shake under its force, and we burrowed deeper into our sleeping bags, rocked to sleep in a home that was out of place but refused to be blown away.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Animal Farm Alaskan Style

Our household was eccentric. We never had running water, sporadically had electricity, but we always had a matched pair of Seal Point Siamese cats, who were always named Daphne and Gilmore. My mother had christened the first pair and their successors always bore the same name. Although she was a demon for shortening Christian names, rather like her Maine forbears who would give a daughter a name like Prosperine and then call her Prossy, Daphne and Gilmore were always addressed formally by their full names.

They were all descended from Anna Fisheye, who unfortunately had been named by me. An imperious kitten with a commanding language of meows and purrs, she had ridden in on the shoulder of one of the bachelors, when he moved to our little Alaskan town from Chicago. We all were enchanted by her at first sight and my mother told her owner that when Anna was old enough to have kittens, we would take two of them, male and female.

I don’t know if Anna’s owner had thought about breeding her. She was still very little, and I suppose that they were both recovering from her arduous journey north. But Joe was in love with my mother, and somehow when Anna was old enough, a purebred Seal Point Siamese male came to call upon her on an extended visit.

Heaven only knows how Joe had found Anna’s mate in 1950’s territorial Alaska. It was a rough country then and most people kept cats as mousers and dogs as transportation. Sleds pulled by eight huskies were a common sight in winter; Joe soon had a dog sled and team himself. But before that he found the father of Anna’s kittens and brought him home.

That alone must have been quite the little odyssey. This cat would have turned Joe into a hunchback if he had perched on the man’s shoulders and his personality was far from cuddly. Before his mission was accomplished, he would stalk the woods at night near our house and scream at our window for food. He was massive with a baleful stare ; my mother called him Mephistocles.

I wanted to keep him but once his job was completed, he vanished. After beginning his dynasty, he was never needed again. Anna Fisheye obliging produced both male and female kittens, and two of them became the first of the Daphnes and Gilmores.

I think Mother had vague dreams of making some pin money by raising Siamese cats. Other women might choose chickens as a way to supplement their household money but not my mother. She was a woman of original ideas that were never accompanied by a marketing plan.

Anna Fisheye had produced six kittens. It was reasonable to assume that her daughter would do the same. We lived in a village of 98 people, which at best meant 25 families. Even if each of them were willing to purchase a purebred Siamese kitten, which was doubtful since barn cats could be had for free, that market would be saturated after three litters. Nevertheless, Daphne and Gilmore grew up, vigorously and regularly reproduced, and the kittens moved on. We never asked where they went.

The Siamese cats were a much more durable enterprise than the Flemish Giant rabbits that my father bought, built hutches for, and bred. They were intended for food, not profit but the first time we sat down for supper, asked what was on our plates, and were foolishly told “Rabbit,” all three of us burst into wild sobs. We were never served rabbit again but that winter we ate quite a bit of “chicken.” Then the rabbits all died and my father’s next foray into the realm of useful animals was a team of sled dogs.

There were eight of them, and each came with his own doghouse. They set up camp far behind where we played outdoors and we were sternly forbidden to go anywhere near them. It was a fairly routine occurrence for children to be mauled by sled dogs, my father told us. They were dangerous and shouldn’t be thought of as pets.

What my father hadn’t been told was that one of them actually had been someone’s pet, even if he’d never achieved the honor of coming in the house. I was convinced he liked me and often assured my father that Sitka was a good guy, not a mauler, which produced more horrific tales of children who were hideously deformed by scars from dog bites.

My father practiced his dogmushing skills until finally he agreed that it was the time to take his three little girls for a sled ride. Bundled up like small Siberian peasants, we were placed in the sled, my father shouted “Mush” and we began to move. The runners squeaked in the new snow, the dogs panted happily and all three of us began to sing “Jingle Bells.” We were living the dream until somehow the long harness that linked all of the dogs became tangled, the sled stopped, and my father waded into the canine confusion to put things to rights.

Sitka was the wheel dog, the last in line and the closest to us. Finding that he was the only dog not in the tangled mess, he seized his chance. He rushed toward us and happily began to nose our faces with obvious affection. We responded with pats and endearments until my father looked up. “I saw him near your faces and I was sure the next thing I saw would be three little girls without noses,” he told us later.

We were desolate when he put Sitka back to work and we cried all the way home.

Sitka loves us,” I argued, “Why can’t he be my dog?”

“We already have a dog,” my mother replied, “Nushnik would kill Sitka if you brought him in the house. What’s wrong with you? Don’t you love Nushnik anymore?”

That was a low blow. We all adored Nushnik, a huge mixture of German Shepherd, Siberian Husky, and Saint Bernard. He had been my best friend since I was three; by the time he was six months old, he was taller than I when he was in a sitting position, and I thought of him as my big brother. He was so gentle that even Daphne and Gilmore’s kittens played with him but he was savagely territorial. Other dogs quickly learned to stay off his turf and away from his children. He would have killed Sitka; I knew that, but I still felt the bitter injustice of Nushnik receiving all of our affection while Sitka was heartbroken in his miserable dog house.

I couldn’t do anything about this until break-up, when the snow melted and it was warm enough to sit outdoors. Then I’d take my copy of White Fang to a tree near the doghouses and read aloud until my voice got tired. They all watched me attentively, not only Sitka but even the ones that I never approached, and when I would turn to leave, they’d remain in sitting position. Usually I went back to them for one more chapter.

It was the best I could do. They seemed to enjoy it and I hoped they didn’t miss it too much when my father decided that dogmushing was too much work and sold them all.

They were followed by goats because one of my sisters was allergic to cow’s milk, but they were never truly attractive pets, although we tried to love them. They smelled and they were stupid animals. We never asked if we could bring them in the house.

In this wild whirl of animal inconstancy, the Daphnes and Gimores were fixed points. They loved us, slept with us, had adorable babies, and when they passed on, were replaced by another Daphne, another Gilmore. To hell with rabbits, goats, even sled dogs—Nushnik of course didn’t count. He wasn’t a pet; he was one of the kids and of all of us, I knew he was my mother’s favorite. And why not? He adored her, he obeyed her, and he never talked back. His life was enviable, we all knew, because he was good. Sitka, I sometimes thought, should have been so lucky.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Fun and Games

My mother cared for us with a benign but unimaginative neglect that could only be practiced by a woman with urban sensibilities. We were surrounded by hazards so far from her purview that for her they didn’t exist. She was a woman whose idea of roughing it for most of her life had been living with a bathtub in the kitchen of a Manhattan walk-up. How could she be expected to understand the perils that lurked in wait for small children in an outdoor privy?

Once when we were visiting a gigantic bachelor who had an outhouse large enough to accommodate his bulk, one of my little sisters almost plunged to a fate worse than death. I ran into our host’s cabin shrieking “Hurry! Hurry! She’s falling down the outhouse hole!” My father and his friend tore off to the rescue, finding my youngest sister desperately clinging to the victim’s hands as she slid inch by inch toward her doom.

Shortly after her narrow escape, my sister created a character named Georgie Pewstinker who lived at the bottom of an outhouse hole, Her portraits of this creature would make her a prime candidate for a child therapist nowadays. In our time, my parents found this spurt of imagination in a hitherto stolid daughter rather encouraging and completely amusing. A visitor from the states put Georgie Pewstinker into a poem and he became one of the family. My sister frequently channeled him. He spoke in a bloodcurdling yodel with long drawn-out syllables, which was probably cathartic.

A year or two later, quite early in my academic career, I was dressed, brushed, and ready for school, a one-room affair a few steps down the road that ran in front of our house. It was a gorgeous day with a fresh snowfall and I decided I wasn’t in the mood to waste all of this in a classroom, which was beginning to be a little dull. I launched myself into one of the silent scenarios that I could role play for hours—Anne Bonney the pirate was a particular favorite.

My little sisters must have been sick that day or else they would have noticed me floating about in the snow, stick sword in hand, quietly dueling with an invisible opponent. But nobody saw me, until my teacher walked past our house on her way to her own at lunch time.

“What are you doing? Go to school right now,” she demanded and I pulled myself out of my buccaneer existence. I had almost emptied my lunch box by then but I was in time for recess.

My mother never knew about my truancy but my teacher began to invite me to her house on Saturday to spend the afternoon and make doughnuts with her. I loved the attention and she seemed to think that I needed it.

When we moved back to the hills, our lives became rather isolated from the rest of the world and slowly we began to recreate a life that I’d later recognize in Lord of the Flies and A High Wind in Jamaica, a society of semi-feral children. Because we had been imbued with a rigorous infusion of “company manners,” we behaved well enough in our rare social encounters but in daily living we were savages.

One summer, a boy we knew came to stay for a month. This was a common custom in our culture; I’d been farmed out to friends of my parents from the time I was two when my mother had begun to have more children.

We didn’t really like Martin. He was a spoiled brat with a mean streak but he had a rebellious joie de vivre that eventually won us over. He had useful talents that we hadn’t acquired; he was good with a knife and he had brought his own little hatchet.

There was a huge thicket of alder bushes quite close to our house and we found that once we were inside that enclosure, we were invisible. The branches were so dense around and above us that we could see nothing but green. Even when it rained, the canopy of bushes kept us from getting soaked. It was the perfect place to do whatever we wanted, whenever we wished.

 “Let’s make a city.” I suggested. “We can each have our own chamber.”

For weeks, we worked at clearing small spaces within the jungle. Martin hacked away vigorously with his hatchet and I found that if I stripped the butchered alder branches of bark and leaves, they became whips. My sisters and I made many of them which we stacked neatly in our chambers.

Martin’s father knew a man who had undergone the Bataan Death March, a story that might not be every child’s idea of an adventure worth having but it appealed to Martin. Once we heard it, we realized it had possibilities, but we identified with the captors, not the war heroes. Slowly a plan took shape.

There was a group of children whom we detested who lived down the hill. They were slow of speech and had no spark. We were convinced they were of another species, definitely lower than animals. We would never have done to animals what we intended to do with the Smith children.

Whips weren’t enough. Martin chopped down thorny stalks of devil’s club and we put on our winter mittens to carry them to our torture chambers. When we had enough, we knew it was time to begin our march.

“Come and play with us,” we invited the Smiths, “It’s such an exciting game—you’ll see.” They willingly tagged after us as we left their yard and as soon as all adults were out of sight, we sternly put our captives in marching formation.”Get in a straight line,” I barked and Martin flourished his hatchet. The two of us led the way, my sisters bringing up the rear, and shouts of “March!” rang through the wilderness.

The Smiths looked worried and the smallest began to cry. “What is this game?” one of them asked and Martin replied, “This is a Death March.”

“Yes,” my youngest sister said, “We’re going to torture you in the alder patch.” I glared at her. “We told you not to tell them that. It’s a surprise.”

The oldest Smith broke ranks and began to sprint with the speed spawned by adrenaline and terror. Martin and I were reluctant to abandon our remaining prisoners and sent my sisters in pursuit, but it was too late. Before they caught her, Mildred Smith made it into our house, shrieking “Help, help! They’re going to kill us.”

“Of course we didn’t say that,” we all lied repeatedly, “It’s just a game.”

The Smiths went home. The chambers in the alder thicket slowly disappeared. Before Martin left us, he managed to split his forehead open with a vigorous swing of his hatchet and sported a rakish bandage for the rest of his stay. In a burst of the rivalry that existed between us, I sliced my foot rather deeply with an axe while trying to chop wood one dull afternoon.

It was undoubtedly karmic retribution for the devil’s club, but we failed to absorb the moral lesson conveyed by the bloodshed. Even without Martin, our amusements were unconventional and creative.

Once my foot healed, my sisters and I engaged two neat and prissy visitors in a spirited battle that owed quite a bit to a snowball fight, although it took place in June. We were all feeling bored and even Billy and Martha agreed that a spot of combat would liven things up. It had been raining so mud was plentiful and we made many, many gooey projectiles, took up our attack positions and fired.

Our resourcefulness won no plaudits when our parents had finished visiting. Neither our household nor that of our guests had running water and five children dripping with mud weren’t what any adult would care to find at the end of the day.   

After that we all played at Billy and Martha’s house, where their mother cut our sandwiches into neat triangles and we were encouraged to stay indoors. We busied ourselves in one of the bedrooms with Martha’s dolls, all of us amused for hours, even Billy. Their mother was pleased until the day she asked “Why are you playing in the dark?” and learned that we were playing Murder.

The plot that we related to her was much too grisly for her tastes and Martha and Billy learned to live without our company. Somehow we bore up under that deprivation. We were too busy to care; we had just learned to play cards. I'd recently read about Las Vegas and gambling for a penny a point was taking up all of our attention. With a little practice, I told my sisters, we could start a kid's casino...

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Joe Sent Me

On my last night in Hong Kong William held a dinner party at a peculiarly Hong Kong institution, a “private kitchen.” I had been charmed by the phrase when he first mentioned it; it conjured up a meal that was cooked in someone’s home with strangers paying to eat it.

“Can you choose what you want to eat and they will cook it for you?” I asked.

“No, you pay in advance and they cook what they choose.”

Now it sounded more like gustatory Russian roulette, or an abbreviated homestay.

“Do you go to somebody’s house?” I asked with a bit of trepidation, envisioning the hideously enforced coziness and false community of a B&B.

“Not usually. It can be in a very nice space or in a dive. They aren’t really restaurants and they aren’t clubs. In Hong Kong space for entrepreneurs is limited and expensive, so chefs find unconventional venues, set up a kitchen, and depend on word of mouth for their clientele. Some of them have become quite famous. The New York Times did an article about them not too long ago.”

Private kitchens are neither down-home amateur cooks trying out different dishes on paying guests nor are they in the Chungking Mansions mode, where unlicensed restaurants are tucked away in dark corners of the building, posing as clubs. Here touts line the ground floor around dinnertime every night, handing out “member cards” to passersby. The words “club” or “mess” are always part of the restaurant’s name and they are always in the darkest and dingiest hallways, surrounded by entrances to guesthouses. Inside they’re usually quite conventional, sometimes with a full bar. There is table service and menus and food that is without fail from the subcontinent. Hong Kong people come as a daring foray into what they regard as the underworld, where they eat food that they regard as good. It isn’t. It’s the experience that sharpens their appetite and blunts their tastebuds.

Private kitchens were a lot like speakeasies when they first sprang up in the 90’s. They often were unlicensed venues that appeared in apartments or were tucked away in an artist’s loft. Now the more famous have become elegant restaurants that are tucked away in residential or commercial buildings. Reservations are hard to come by and meals are usually the chef’s choice. Meals can be over one hundred US dollars per person, plus wine.

William chose a night and invited his guests, with a strict RSVP. He would be charged in advance per head, so acceptance meant mandatory attendance. He emailed an address, phone number and door code to a place called TBLS, that was on an upper floor of a building in Central, not too far from the Travelator.

It was extremely close to my friend Madeline’s bookshop and  I met her ahead of time so we could go to dinner together. The building we were looking for was in the middle of an over-crowded block. The doorway was narrow, gated, and locked. A keypad had been installed; TBLS was nowhere on the directory. We called the number we’d been given and a voice rather tersely gave us the code.

We entered the same sort of hallway that led to offices and warehouse space all over the city. There was a freight elevator; it let us out before another door which opened into a Gershwin fantasy of a Manhattan boite of the 1930’s.

There was a bar, a few candle-lit tables, soft jazz in the background and then a large terrace with more tables and a view of Hong Kong’s thick forest of buildings, glamorous and twinkling in the black night sky.

The space was intimate and spellbinding, in a way that a more conventional venue would have failed to achieve. Suddenly we were all the direct of descendants of Cole Porter, sipping good wine in an Eastside nightclub. I began to look for Mabel Mercer.

We were led to a long table, its white linen gleaming in the darkness. Our party was large yet none of us felt cramped. Already we were given one of Hong Kong’s rarest commodities, space.

A small glass canning jar was placed in front of each of us and a white-garbed man appeared at the head of the table and announced that the theme of our meal was pork. And so it was, from the dashing little amuse bouche in a humble kitchen jar, the tiny soup and sandwich, the delicate serving of meat and veg, the miniscule version of risotto—or was it a very creamy congee?—the velvet touch of a fish chowder heavily laced with chunks of cured pig. The performance ended with a salted caramel version of crème brulee and the world’s smallest ice cream sandwich made of a sliced macaroon.

It was all theatre, the courses presented with such fanfare that I can’t remember exactly what they were. But the content wasn’t the point; it was the medium, not the message. This was a meal designed to make the diners feel privileged, and surprised. It was food for jaded people who live in one of the best food cities in the world. To me, it was reliving the decline and fall of the Roman Empire—interesting but I wouldn’t do it again.

“She’s very divey,” William described me to one of his friends, and perhaps that’s true. Of the meals he’s taken me to, my favorites have been in steamy little diners and in the upper floors of food markets, where the surprises are equally dazzling but the food is designed to nourish. To my peasant way of thinking, that’s what food is for.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Horses

When I was ten, a man named Stinky Jones sold my father two horses, Rondo and Ranger. They were of no determinate breed; they were pack horses, sturdy and graceless, but they were the granting of a wish I’d had since my father read me Black Beauty. I loved everything about them,; their warm, grassy smell, the smooth lap of their tongues when I put sugar on my outstretched palm, their beautiful kind eyes. I loved the tack that came with them, bridles, horse collars, an old McClellan saddle that dated back to the days when some of our army was still truly cavalry.

A neighbor gave me an old saddle he had lying around, a child-sized saddle, and I polished it with saddle soap and learned how to cinch it tight—horses had the cool joke of inflating their bellies with air when they were being saddled, then releasing it later so the whole thing would slip sideways. I always tapped Ranger’s belly with my bony little knee as a matter of form; he never seemed to notice. He had another joke in store for me, which was to head for the nearest tree branch that hung low enough to scrape me off his back.

He probably had never been ridden as much as I demanded of him. He was a horse that was used during moose hunting season to carry gear into the back country. He’d been forced to walk a trail without deviation and now he had a lighter load on his back than he’d probably ever had before, with no trail to follow. When the tree-scraping trick no longer worked, he began to crow-hop when I got on his back. This delighted me no end—“Look, he’s bucking!” Finally we settled in together and I at least was in heaven.

The horses? Not so much. They had an uncanny way of knowing when they would be needed and on that morning they would disappear. It was my job to go out with a halter, a rope, and a can of oats, on a sort of Easter egg hunt, searching for the horses. They were good at hiding but one of them would make that odd little burbling sound with his lips or a flicker of Rondo’s blonde hide would shimmer from a patch of trees. One of them would always succumb to the sound of swishing oats and he would be the one who’d wear the halter. The other, with a distinct air of reluctant disgust, would follow behind. They were a matched set, those boys.

They hated being useful. Quickly they became part of the animal tribe, with the dogs and the Siamese cat couple and their batches of kittens. They received the same affection and attention and it didn’t take long for them to notice that they were the only animals who actually worked once in a while. They resented that as much as they did that they couldn’t come in the house and in the summer it was a common sight to see one of them with his head and shoulders inside the kitchen door, watching my mother work.

Rondo was there when she put a pumpkin pie on the counter to cool and he discovered that if he craned his neck far enough, he could reach it. And he did, with immense enjoyment. My mother turned to find my little brother paralytic with laughter and most of the pie gone. She swatted Rondo away with a broom and he looked at her benignly as he retreated. He knew she really wasn’t angry; none of us were ever angry with the horses.

They were the kindest animals who ever lived with us, even if their senses of humor occasionally left something to be desired. Their hiding was a game; they never went very far from home and they always let me find them. It wasn’t their fault that they concealed themselves near meadows where the grass grew higher than my head and soaked through my underwear on rainy days. As I shivered my way back to the house, horses in tow, I was often nudged by big, velvet noses. “You win this time,” their soft eyes seemed to say. The horses were very good sports.

When Ranger died, Rondo in many ways crossed over. He was less a horse and more one of the dogs, who accepted him without reservation. My little brother and sister rarely rode him, and I think he liked them best because of that. With them he was what he wanted to be, a large friendly animal who didn’t have to be useful. He’d move toward them, with the dogs and the cats, never stepping on the kittens, looking for food and attention and love.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Other Janet

My mother never learned to swim, or ride a bicycle. She probably would never have learned to drive, if my father hadn’t gone blind. I am, as a friend recently pointed out, my mother’s daughter in many ways. Because he is a friend, he pointed out the good things I share with my mother. There are other shared qualities that I have spent time trying to uproot and still others that are embedded so deep that it would take years of therapy and a case of dynamite to dislodge them.

I never wanted to be like her, even when I most loved her. Physically we are so dissimilar that until I was shown a picture of my grandmother as a child, I was positive I was adopted. My mother was taller than most of the women we knew and she was black Irish, with fair skin, hazel eyes, and hair that was far beyond dark brown. Against her skin, it looked like ebony to me. I was olive-skinned, brown-eyed—a dark little gypsy. When my grandmother first saw me, her reaction was “She looks just like Santa.” Santa was my parent’s ice-man and my father wasn’t charmed by that observation.

My mother had five children in eight years. After the birth of her last baby, she became a woman obsessed with her weight, one of the first people in our little Alaskan town to use MetraCal. Her body seemed ludicrous to me when I was small, always ripening and bulging and then healing, sagging and flopping after yet another Caesarian birth. Puberty felt like a death sentence when I began to lose my little child’s body. For me it meant the battle had begun-- to keep from turning into my mother.

She was a woman who seemed shackled when I was young, although she would hate that description. We had two horses that she never rode, we lived near a beach that she went to once a year, when we moved to the unsettled area that she loved, it was a rare day that she said that she was going for a walk by herself. Except for her car, she was a house-bound person with three indulgences, her coffee that she drank black by the quart, her phonograph records, and her books. Every night, after supper was over, my mother fell into a book and went away.

She puzzled me when I was little. I had no idea of who my mother was. I used to lie awake at night, listening to my parents talk in the adjoining room, greedily trying to piece together what she liked, what she did when I wasn’t around, what feelings she had other than her volatile temper. Tantalizing pieces of information floated past, eluding my comprehension but filed away in my memory. One night I heard a neighbor tell my father that he loved my mother and sometimes I heard her laugh.

I used to think she was beautiful and told her so at random moments, when she was brushing her hair, when she crooned endearments to our dog, on the very few times that she would dress up and go out with my father. A true New York girl, she always wore black, with a dash of turquoise, even if it was only her eyeshadow. She claimed not to care about her looks; vanity wasn’t encouraged in our household. But she had a drawer that we called “the makeup drawer,” cluttered with lipsticks in varying shades of red, mascara that came in a solid form with a little brush, and a tiny pot of eyeshadow, applied once a year at best. And when I showed a friend a photo of my family when I was four, she zeroed in on my mother immediately. “What a coquette,” she said.

And she was indeed--a natural flirt who never admitted to it. Perhaps she never knew. She often told me “I don’t like women,” and the people who came to visit her were always “the bachelors.” In 1950’s Alaska, the number of unmarried men was staggering and the ones in our tiny community gravitated to my mother. They’d sit and drink coffee and talk for hours while my father was gone on one of his summer construction jobs. One of them, a short, jolly, and rather religious Aleut, sent her a box of Whitman’s Samplers for Christmas every year. We never knew why.

Mother enjoyed the company of men; she came from a family of three children—twin boys and their older sister. Her father had left them in favor of a mistress; in those days divorce was a blazing scandal but a discreet mistress was socially accepted. Her mother was perhaps the worst woman in the world to be a single parent, a “University Woman” whose father allowed her to attend a post-graduation acting school with the provision that once she had completed her training, she would never go on stage again. David Belasco saw my grandmother perform in her last role, before she abandoned acting forever. He was impressed, but she had a promise to keep. That she did was probably a tragedy for everyone. She would have been a fine actress; she was a horrible mother.

Trickles of her legacy were evident in her only daughter, who was a mixture of New England restraint that had been hardened over three centuries in a small town in Maine, and an Irish temper that was much in evidence when I was a child. “Please come in,” I said graciously to one of “the bachelors” when he appeared at our door one day, “Mommy and Daddy are fighting.” Nobody could say “You swine” quite as terribly as my mother, she seldom used a stronger epithet but this one was blood-curdling. I still can’t say it.

“If we were twenty at the same time, we would never be friends,” I told my mother the year before I was married at twenty-one. “Why do you say that?” she asked and it was one of the few times that I heard her sound hurt, without the usual accompanying rage. When I married, she was horrified but I was only several years younger than she had been when she was wedded to my father. I sometimes wonder if her nuptials had made her mother take to her bed; mine did when she was told I had a husband.

My marriage was nothing like hers. My life has been as little like hers as I could make it. Now that she is old, she still provides an anti-model for me. That may be the greatest gift my mother has ever given me.

“Where did you come from?” she has asked me more than once during our life together. The question never offended me. Even as an adult, I took it as my own personal report card. It measured my progress in my life-long work of not being my mother.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Learning to Float

Today I begin to learn to swim. I’m looking forward to being in the water and achieving a feeling of weightlessness. I imagine this as the closest I’ll ever get to learning how to fly. I think it will be a form of exercise that I’ll look forward to doing and that someday I’ll snorkel in Thailand, watching brightly colored fish dart past me like moving flowers.

Thirty minutes for three months—six hours of lessons—once I learn to float, I’ll have crossed a huge barrier. If it takes me the entire three months, I will learn to trust that the water will hold me. It’s a cradle, not a trap.

But this morning, I can’t think about that. All I want to keep in mind is that I’m going to a pool where I’ll put on my swim suit and let my body be bathed in water for half an hour. I want that on this dark and damp morning.

I love the water. Watching it, being on it in a boat, walking beside it—now I’ll learn to stretch that affinity so I can love being in it, moving through it. I don’t care if I ever learn to dive. All I want is to get in the water, poise myself to float, and then push my way into it. And I want to enjoy doing that. I don’t want it to be a survival skill only. I want to be a swimmer; I just don’t care if I’m a good one.

I’m fatter than I was when I tried this at sixteen, so I should be more buoyant. And I’ve learned to trust situations that I never dreamed of when I was a teenager. If I measure getting on a plane alone to work in a country I’d never been before, for a man I’d never met, floating is no more difficult than that. I did that. I can do this.

When I was six, I was given a bicycle for my birthday. A boy I knew had just learned to ride by using training wheels and I was positive that I would have them too. My father was adamant that I would learn without them; I wobbled and fell a few times and then I became adamant that I would never learn to ride a bicycle. Neighborhood children came to ride my bike while I was more than content to let it rust in the backyard. I suppose eventually it did.

Then I was hit with the dream of going to England, bicycling down country lanes, but of course there was an obvious flaw in that plan. My little brother was ten and he took matters firmly in hand.

Our house was at the top of a high hill and the first slope was all meadow, soft and forgiving. He perched me on his bicycle and sent me down the hill, hollering, “Pedal! Pedal!”  The law of inertia took hold; in motion, I stayed that way and my body took over. Without my thinking about it, I found that I could balance on two wheels. I was elated; my little brother shrugged. “Anybody can ride a bike,” he said, “Even you—see?”

I wish he were here to help me learn to swim.

The lesson he taught me is still clear, perhaps even more than it was when I first learned it. My body isn’t special. It abides by the same rules and has the same abilities as any other, just so long as my mind doesn’t get in the way. This is something to hold in every cell of my skin when I get in the water. Today I want to be out of my mind for half an hour.

So as I sit and drink my coffee, I think of water touching me and soothing sore muscles. I think of water in my ears as being a superior form of the earplugs I turn to every night before I go to sleep. I think of the youtube clip of one of my dearest friends teaching his small daughter to swim.

I think of him swimming in the Andaman Sea and finding dolphins, who stayed by his side. I think of coral trees that he saw growing beneath the water. I want that too.

So many things that we all do unthinkingly are acts of faith—falling in love, marrying, having a baby, riding in a car, getting on a plane—perilous acts, every last one of them. There is nothing perilous about learning to float. It was after all the natural state of every human being for nine months. We were all small anemones, suspended in water, depending on a tube that allowed us to grow. Probably the most difficult thing that any of us has ever done is learning to breathe oxygen after being forced out of the water.

Today I'm going to go back.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Finding Stories

My mother has left her home. Age first took her balance  then her appetite, then her ability to walk, When a person can no longer go to the toilet alone, that’s a sentencing. My mother was luckier than most. The daughter who has always loved her best took her to a house owned by a woman who cares, and who will care for our mother.

Early on, I saw her teeter and fall. She was still walking then, but her balance could fail her without warning. That was four years ago. It was an omen that was as decisive as breaking a hip. Gradually, but not slowly, her balance deteriorated, and with it went her confidence and her independence.

Mother would probably claim that her independence began to wither when she could no longer drive. For decades she had been used to hopping into her car at will and taking off on tiny adventures—going to the movies, or to buy groceries. The distance traveled was unimportant; it was the choice that mattered, and the spontaneity. When she gave up her driver’s license, her world began to shrink and “I wish I could still drive,” was a keynote of her conversations.

My mother had been a woman with a drive-by life. She loved fleeting encounters with random people, anecdotes that always concluded with her hopping in her car and driving away. She was nourished by these meetings and when she no longer could go out to find them, I think she began to starve a little. Slowly she began to shut down.

She lived in a lovely little apartment that I coveted—an open room with large windows overlooking a riverbank, and leading into a dark, cozy little bedroom. It was compact and “just right,” like Goldilock’s porridge. There was room for everything my mother loved to do—cook, read, listen to music, and watch movies. But it was out in the country. The bus that took aging people into town didn’t come as far as my mother’s house and taxis made a whopping hole in her budget. To go anywhere, she had to be driven by her family.

She was surrounded by an enclave of family. Her son-in-law had built her apartment specifically for her, and it was two steps through a covered garage from my sister’s house. His mother and father lived across the yard and two other households were within walking distance. At first there was a pool of transportation possibilities for my mother; eventually there was only my sister, and her husband when he was home.

Mother went to Weight Watchers and Curves, went to my sister’s Toastmaster meetings, went to the library—but it wasn’t the same for her. This was all scheduled, not spur of the moment, and it was someone else’s schedule. For her much of the fun was fading from her excursions, even though they were not much different from what she would do on her own.

When I was little, I would go out to our car, sit in it, and pretend to drive. I had noticed the sense of joy and freedom that my mother found behind the steering wheel and I wanted that for myself. Mother learned to drive when she was pregnant with her fourth child; for years she went nowhere without a cluster of children in the back seat of her car. But she was in another world when she drove; it was a socially sanctioned way to escape the housekeeping she detested and the cooking that consumed her life—three meals a day for five children and a husband. There were no demands when she drove; her children knew better than to break her concentration upon the road. Her happiness was palpable; it was what I tried to feel as I imagined that control of the car was mine.

As soon as she could, when I was old enough to be left in charge of my brother and sisters, my mother made her escape even more private. She’d put on a fresh coat of red lipstick and blot it by kissing us all goodbye, jump in the car and go to pick up the mail and buy groceries. It was a trip that took several hours, all of them hers. She’d return with stories of who she saw, what they chatted about. Her car was her sanctuary and her lifeline. Mother took to driving the way other women took to  drink.

And now that was gone. She did her best to substitute the telephone, using it for long visits with her daughters, her nephew, a cousin by marriage. She became the conduit of information between all of us, but that lacked the savor of finding her own stories. Then her hearing began to fade away.

Mother had a bulging bank account of stories from her seventy years of life by that time and she had always dreamed of being a writer. This would have been the time for her to pin her stories to a page but she didn’t do it. For her, the pleasure was in the attention, immediate and gratifying, that she received when she told them. She was a storyteller in the oral tradition, not a writer. She should have followed my sister into Toastmasters. She would have been a star.

She lives now in a house where she isn't the only old person. There are four other people who are cared for in this place. Some are older than she is, some have more pronounced limitations of age. All of them value their privacy and their dignity as much as my mother does. She will be part of a small community again, and not dependent upon her children for phone calls, conversation, trips. When my sister found this new home for my mother, she also found a new source of stories. As Joan Didion said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I hope that’s true. I hope my mother begins to find fresh stories.

Saturday, January 5, 2013


I went to see The Impossible yesterday at its first showing on its first day in Seattle. I had a reason to be there, rather than waiting for it to be available on Netflix as I usually do. I had a very dear friend who was caught in that wave and survived it. When I saw him three months later, the wounds on his body were turning to scars, he was moving through life in his usual fashion, but he was still in shock.

I've been obsessed with the tsunami of 2004. I've wanted to know in some small way what my friend had gone through. The Impossible showed me--not everything but more than enough.

My friend was Thai. His experience was illustrated by the experience of a blonde, white woman. Does that make a difference? Hell, no. The replication of the terrible sound of the wave, the horror of being wrapped in water, knowing that death is certain, the objects being hurled against flesh by the force of the wave, coming out of that envelope of ocean to find survival, pain, devastation, death, dying, injured--in a place that had been idyllic minutes before--this movie added a hideous reality to the story that was told to me and that I've retold many times. Whether the story is told by a western woman or a Thai man, it is still the same sound, the same terror, the same pain. It is not, as the movie reviewer said in the Seattle Times, "a very, very bad vacation." The "verisimilitude to actual disaster" in The Impossible is not, as another Seattle reviewer said, "a feat of dubious distinction."

Nearly 300,000 people died in that tsunami; the number of survivors is uncountable. In Thailand, much of the coast that was struck is prime resort territory which is heavily populated by Europeans during the holiday season. The death toll in the Kingdom consisted of many, many bodies. The skin color of corpses, if it matters at all, was often white. The body bags shown in the movie were filled with dead skin waiting to go home--does it matter where that was?

For the survivors the aftermath that a Seattle reviewer writes off as "a surfeit of sentiment" was very real. Ewan McGregor's search for his wife and son was mirrored by the same search conducted by my friend's mother, when she went to Phuket to find her son and bring him home. She had never flown in her life but Thai Airways gave free flights for people looking for their surviving family and brought her from Bangkok to Phuket. She searched hospital beds until she found her son. The only difference is she had language to help her in her search. Many people who looked for their families didn't speak Thai, were in a country where they knew nobody, and were in shock themselves. Is this, as the reviewer said, "the wrong story well told?"

If I hadn't known and loved someone who had the story that's told in The Impossible, I would never have gone to it. I don't suggest that anyone else does, unless they have some sort of link to the 2004 tsunami. But if you do go, look beyond skin color or "privilege." Salute the people of Thailand who went to the coast and volunteered to help survivors, take care of the wounded, and identify bodies. This isn't just one family's story; open your eyes and ears.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Memories and Grief on the Information Highway

A year ago I found out that one of my dearest friends in the world was dying; less than two weeks later he was dead. As soon as I was able to, I wrote about that and posted it here. I told nobody that I had done that; some of my friends found it. It was an entry in a notebook, written to help me make my way through very profound sadness.

Right around a year to the day that I found out that he was dying, people whom I do not know came to that post and read it. The coincidence was eerie and I put my friend's name into a google search to see if that is what brought strangers to my post. And up it came.

Someone in Tucuman, Argentina, someone in Thessaloniki, has Worasak Jongthirawong in their minds, as he  has been on mine. Strangers mourn together on a day that will always presage loss for us.

And yet, I think of Sak--his eyebrows quirked, his sardonic smile--as he said to me once, "You don't have to think of it that way." I think he's saying it now, and I know I don't have to. We don't, all of us who love him and always will.

Gratitude, not grief, is what I hope to learn to feel in the first fifteen days of January--gratitude for a friend who is loved all over the world. In places that he never went, Sak lives on in the hearts and memories of his friends.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Why Not?

I just finished eating breakfast, a whole new concept for me. Usually I have coffee until my stomach rebels around 11 am and then I eat whatever might be in my refrigerator. Since that is rarely well stocked, my first food of the day could never be called a meal--plain yogurt or a chunk of lean roasted pork--just something to calm my overly caffeinated digestive system.

On New Year's Eve, I was wandering down an aisle of my neighborhood supermarket, which is highly Japanese with dashes of other Asian countries, staring listlessly at the shelves. Suddenly some brightly colored boxes caught my eye, bearing names like Bisibele Bhath and Sambar. Ready to Eat, the boxes promised, no artificial ingredients, no preparation required; whole dried red chilis were prominently displayed in photos of many of the dishes. I bought one, feeling skeptical. After eating the Bisibele Bhath for my first meal of the year, I went back and bought fifteen of those boxes. Yes, these meals really are that good.

It's January 3rd and so far I've eaten five of the fifteen meals. Each comes in a foil pouch which I heat in boiling water for five minutes. They contain no preservatives. They have flavor; the use of chili is judicious but clearly present as is coriander and tamarind and ginger. They are vegetarian and the most highly caloric of the bunch weighs in at around 350 calories. Dal Fry, Sambar, Khadi Pakora are household staples for me now.

I've always hated prepared food, be it canned, frozen, or in a box. Why was I captured by these boxes? Because they contain satisfying, appetizing, real meals--no freeze-dried chunks of unidentifiable origins or ingredients that I can't pronounce, let alone recognize. Whoever manufactures these dishes in a box clearly cares about eating.

MTR Foods PVT. LTD. is imported from Bangalore, India by a New York firm called AMTRADE. By the time the boxes reach me in Seattle, their carbon footprint is large. But these flat little boxes are less environmentally intrusive than cans from Taiwan and garlic from China--and their contents tastes much better than their equivalent made in my own country. Why?

I've bought organic soups in boxes that are made in my part of the world. They taste a lot like baby food--sugar, salt, organic vegetables--no flavor that lingers happily on my tongue. The Indian packaged food does--while it doesn't measure up to subcontinental dishes that I've enjoyed in Bangkok or Hong Kong, they taste every bit as good as similar dishes that I've eaten in stalls and restaurants at Chungking Mansions. And they are reasonably priced--each is well under three dollars.

Economical, delicious,healthy, and effortless--these choices have me outsourcing my cooking. And who knows? Maybe I'll move on to cooking from scratch--naan baked on a pizza stone? Freshly prepared black dal? Could be...