Archive for January 2007

Writing & Memory

I was recently asked to write the story of Eli’s birth for my doula. She’s an accomplished photographer, assembling a book of birth photos and stories. It was a nice project for me; I’d written quite a bit in my journal about the day, but fleshing it out into an essay, with feedback from my writing class, was a terrific writing experience.

But after I wrote it, I thought, how much of this is true? What I remember of the day now is what I wrote in my journal a week or so after the fact, by which point some details were probably already lost. When did I start turning the day into a story? While it was still happening? I don’t think I had the wherewithal for that, actually. I do get through a lot of stuff by thinking about the story it will make later, but not labor! But it did start to become a story before I even started telling people about the day, while Tony and Britt and I were all still huddled around brand-new Eli, marveling about our experience. And then I started telling people about it, and then I wrote it down, and now I’ve written it again, and, and, and…

I thought about this particularly because after I wrote this latest version of Eli’s birthday, I gave it to Tony to read, and wondered how much of it he’d remember, or even agree with. But he’s an excellent partner to a writer, knowing that whatever I write is my truth. He can write his own version if he wants.

This is all a lengthy lead-in to a quote that struck me from Julian Barnes’ essay in a recent New Yorker:

My brother remembers a ritual—never witnessed by me—that he calls the Reading of the Diaries. According to him, Grandma and Grandpa each kept diaries, and in the evenings would sometimes read out loud to each other what they had recorded five years earlier. The entries were apparently of stunning banality but frequent disagreement. Grandpa would propose, “Friday. Fine day. Worked in garden. Planted potatoes.” Grandma would reply, “Nonsense,” and counter-cite, “Rained all day. Too wet to work in the garden.”

I just love this. Love picturing the old and crotchety pair reading to each other from their diaries (diaries like my father keeps, of weather and garden reports). Love that they both keep diaries. Love that they disagree! It just cracks me up.

Barnes goes on:

My brother also remembers that once, when he was very small, he went into Grandpa’s garden and pulled up all his onions. Grandpa beat him until he howled, then turned uncharacteristically white, confessed everything to our mother, and swore that he would never again raise his hand against a child. Actually, my brother doesn’t remember this, either the onions or the beating; he was just told the story repeatedly by our mother. And, indeed, if he were to remember it he might well be wary of it: he believes that many memories are false, “so much so that, on the Cartesian principle of the rotten apple, none is to be trusted unless it has some external support.” I am more trusting, or self-deluding, however, so shall continue as if all my memories were true.

And so this is how I write. No, I’m not presuming to claim I write like Julian Barnes, just that I’ll write as if all my memories are true, and go from there.

Seeing Dan Zanes

We took the boys to see Dan Zanes today. I love Dan Zanes – love the music, the politics, the raucous energy of his shows. We have several of his CD’s and a concert DVD. Ben has two guitars, a ukulele, a mandolin and assorted other musical instruments with which we have concerts at least once a day. “Concert in the living room!” Ben will shout, “Dan Zanes and friends!” And he assigns us all roles. He’s Dan, of course; Tony (who actually knows how to play guitar) plays the part of singer David Jones; I’m Cynthia Hopkins, the accordion player; and Eli is Baby Colin, the drummer. We make a joyful noise.

The first time we saw Dan Zanes perform, Ben was nearly three. He sat still for the hour-long show, shushing us when we tried to sing along, pulling us back down when we stood up to dance. He studied the show intently and then, when it was all over and we asked him what he thought, said only “They shined lights on Dan Zanes!” When we got home that day, he asked us to shine a flashlight on him as he strummed his ukulele on the hearth.

Eli was a baby for our second Dan Zanes show, so he mostly napped and nursed next to his quietly observant older brother. I was wondering how he’d react to the show today, given that he’s now at that exuberant toddler stage, running full-throttle into everything. But no, he was pretty bowled over by the experience, too. He moved from my lap to Tony’s, not objecting to our bouncing him or singing along, but not really grooving, either.

Were Tony and I like this as children, I wonder?! Our boys were the only two kids in the theater who didn’t get their wiggle on. But we all had a great time, and I’m sure Ben’s going to bust out a few new moves and a bit more patter for tomorrow’s concert.

On Revising

This is from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, a wonderful book that I recently re-read:

Several delusions weaken the writer’s resolve to throw away work. If he has read his pages too often, those pages will have a necessary quality, the ring of the inevitable, like poetry known by heart; they will perfectly answer their own familiar rhythms. He will retain them. He may retain those pages if they possess some virtues, such as power in themselves, through they lack the cardinal virtue, which is pertinence to, and unity with, the book’s thrust. Sometimes the writer leaves his early chapters in place from gratitude; he cannot contemplate them or read them without feeling again the blessed relief that exalted him when the words first appeared—relief that he was writing anything at all. That beginning served to get him where he was going, after all; surely the reader needs it, too, as groundwork. But no.

Every year the aspiring photographer brought a stack of his best prints to an old, honored photographer, seeking his judgment. Every year the old man studied the prints and painstakingly ordered them into two piles, bad and good. Every year the old man moved a certain landscape print into the bad stack. At length he turned to the young man: “You submit this same landscape every year, and every year I put it on the bad stack. Why do you like it so much?” The young photographer said, “because I had to climb a mountain to get it.”

There’s an essay I’ve been writing, off and on, for about three years now. I realize that I’m hanging on to sections of it just because I’m used to them, they have Dillard’s “ring of the inevitable.” I’m not sure they have much place in the essay anymore. They served a useful purpose for me–they got me to the more interesting place in the essay that I am now–but I don’t think the reader needs them. Time to set them aside and dive back in.

Yeasted Sugar Cake

How could I not make this cake? It has 3 of my Top 5 Favorite Food Words in its name! (The other two, for the record, are glazed and chocolate.) And I’m sorry I didn’t think to take a picture before we’d eaten half, but here it is anyway, in all its crackling-sugar-crusted glory. Yum.

I thought to make this after last week’s olive oil cake, the recipe I could have (but didn’t) find in Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone; I was reminded that she’s got some nice looking cake recipes in that cookbook. Which I’ve never tried! So now I’m going to try them all (there are only five, so it’s a much easier project than baking one’s way through Nigella’s chocolate cake hall of fame, a chocolate-y journey in which I am stalled, because of the chocolate fruit cake, half way through…)

Anyway, this is a very nice cake. It’s really not terribly sweet, and because of the yeast and eggs, it turns out tasting rather breakfasty, which is to my mind an excellent quality in a cake. I think maybe next time I’ll stir it together in the evening, let it do the first rise in the fridge over night, and then bake it in the morning. It is the kind of cake you want to serve with something, though. I made an orange compote, which was good but would have been better if I hadn’t been so lazy about cutting away all the pith. Warmed-up raspberry or blueberry jam would make a fine sauce for this, and a dollop of whipped cream wouldn’t hurt, either.

The Cake
2 1/4 t yeast (1 envelope)
1/4 c sugar
2 c flour
1/2 t salt
1/2 c warm milk
2 eggs room temperature
4 T butter, at room temperature

other nice additions to stir in with the eggs: 1 tsp lemon or orange zest and 1/2 t vanilla; or 1/2 t crushed anise; or 1/2 c ground almonds and/or a drop of almond extract

The Topping
2 T butter, softened
1/4 c light brown sugar

Stir the yeast and 1 t of the sugar into 1/4 c warm water and let stand until foamy (about 10 minutes). Whisk together the flour, remaining sugar, and salt in a mixing bowl. Add the yeast, milk, and eggs and beat until smooth. Add the butter and beat vigorously until the batter is silky. Scrape down the sides, cover, and let rise till doubled, about 45 minutes.

Lightly butter a 9″ tart or cake pan. Stir down the dough. Now Deborah Madison tells you to turn the dough out onto a floured counter, shape it into a disk, and place it in the pan. My dough was, well, it was batter — way too runny to handle like that. So I just poured it into the pan and it was fine. Either way, once the dough/batter is in the pan, dot or spread the top with the softened butter, sprinkle the whole with the brown sugar, and then let rise for 30 minutes. During the last 15 minutes, preheat oven to 400.

Bake the cake in the center of the oven for 20-25 minutes; the surface should be covered with cracks. Let cool briefly, then unmold and serve, still a bit warm, with fruit and ice or whipped cream.

Fried Egg Pasta

Tony and I found this recipe in the Sunday Times magazine a few years ago; the first time we made it, we realized halfway through that neither of us really knew how to fry eggs! A quick consult with Irma rectified that situation, and now this is a standard part of the dinner repertoire. It’s particularly quick if you happen to have roasted red peppers and capers in your pantry.

2 red bell peppers
1 tbsp capers, rinsed
1 or 2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped fine
1/4 c finely chopped parsley
3 tbsp bread crumbs
1 lb spaghetti
5 tbsp olive oil
2 eggs
grated parmesan

Roast the peppers, peel and slice into thin strips.

In a small baking dish, combine peppers, capers, garlic and parsley. Season with salt &pepper.; Sprinkle the bread crumbs on top. Set aside until you’re ready to finish the dish (ie, this can sit all day…)

Bring pasta water to boil and preheat oven to 350.

Drizzle pepper mixture with 2tbsp olive oil and bake 10 minutes, while pasta cooks.

While pasta’s boiling and pepper mixture is heating, fry 2 eggs, sunny side up, until whites are set but yolks are still runny.

Drain pasta and pour it into large serving bowl. Toss in baked peppers & eggs, using a couple forks to break up the egg.

Mama at the Movies

It didn’t hit me when, after seventeen hours of mostly calm and gentle labor, my baby, the child I was thinking of as Charlotte (or maybe Josephine), burst out with a splash, my waters breaking with the head’s emergence. I heard my doula exclaim, “Look at him!”

It didn’t hit me when Ben came to visit us in the hospital the next morning. I couldn’t take my eyes off my first born, so suddenly grown-up next to his baby brother, so proud in the button-down shirt Tony had chosen for the occasion. Ben didn’t even glance my way; he went straight for the plastic terrarium and hovered his hand over Elijah’s soft head, unsure about touching this unfamiliar creature.

It didn’t even hit me the day I was changing Eli’s diaper on the bathroom floor while Ben was sitting on the toilet, and Eli took advantage of the diaperless moment to shoot a pale fountain in the air, and Ben started laughing so hard he missed the bowl and oh, it all hit me. But it didn’t hit me.

It didn’t hit me until Tony and I went to see The Squid and The Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005), several weeks after Eli’s birth. Watching the film’s mom talking to her boys, calling one Pickle and the other one Chicken, I leaned over to Tony and whispered, “Hey! I’m the mother of sons.” And Tony gave me a look that said, “Well, duh!” and ate another piece of popcorn.

Read more about The Squid and The Whale in my column at Literary Mama.

Banana Bread Now

Banana bread is just one of those things… I’m always making it (there’s just not much else to do with an overripe banana), but I’m always looking for a new recipe. On our first, blind, date (a hike on Mt Tamalpais), I impressed Tony with an orange-flavored banana bread. Then for a while I was making it with mini chocolate chips. Recently, I spotted a recipe in The Baker’s Dozen cookbook and had to give it a try. It’s good, although I knew that with all that butter and sugar, it wouldn’t make it into the repertoire without some changes. So I give you the original (very decadent and delicious), and my revised version (just as delicious, slightly less decadent). The recipe makes 2 loaves, but is easily halved.

Kona Inn Banana Bread

4-6 ripe bananas (about 2 cups, mashed)
2 1/2 c flour (I used 1 c white, 1 c whole wheat, and 1/2 c wheat germ)
2 t baking soda
1 t salt
2 c sugar (I used 1 1/2 c brown sugar
1 c shortening (I used butter, and will try reducing that next)
4 eggs
1 c chopped walnuts (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 and grease 2 8″ x 4″ loaf pans.

Mash the bananas in a medium bowl until pretty smooth.

Whisk the flour(s), baking soda, and salt into another bowl.

Using the flat whisk in a stand mixer, mix the sugar and butter well to make a stiff paste (you can also do this by hand, of course). Beat in the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Mix in the mashed banana. Stir in the walnuts, if using (don’t worry if the batter looks curdled). Now add the flour mixture and stir until just blended (don’t overmix or worry about a few lumps). Spread the batter evenly in the prepared pans.

Bake until a skewer comes out clean, about 45 minutes to an hour. Cool on racks in the baking pans for 10 minutes, then remove from the pans and cool completely.

I Should Really Know Better By Now

Tony and I were talking about morning duty, that is, who rises with the boys and who gets to sleep in. Normally, we take turns, but after both of us being sick so much, the “schedule,” such as it was, had gotten out of whack.

“I’ll get up tomorrow, ” I said blithely. “Getting out of bed when it’s still dark is rough, but once I’m up, it’s fine. Eli’s so sweet and cuddly in the morning, he and Ben play really well together. It’s just about keeping the cereal bowls full and playing a lot of play kitchen.”

I had it coming to me, really.

I mean, I know by now to preface any statement about their good sleep with “Well, right now…” and to conclude with “It’s sheer good luck, truly.” I know not to tempt fate with foolish claims like, “The boys haven’t been sick in ages,” “Ben treats Eli well,” or “The guys are easy travelers.”

I don’t know what I was thinking.

Eli and I got up at 6:30. Ben got up at 7:00. It was all good.

And from some perspectives, the fact that within the hour Eli was bathed and a load of laundry in the washer looks good, too.

But without getting deeply into the very messy, diapery details, it was, briefly, not very good at all. It was, as we’ve been known to say sometimes, a bit of a haz-mat situation.

We’re all good now, thanks. But tomorrow I’m sleeping in.

Lemon Olive Oil Cake

Every month, I read through the new Gourmet, tearing out recipes that look appealing. I even have a couple of binders (a recent improvement over my ratty blue 2-pocket folder) that I slip the recipes into: one binder for sweets, one for savories.

The problem is, they tend to sit in those folders a long time, sometimes so long that by the time I look back at the recipe, I can’t remember what ever seemed so appealing about it in the first place.

So this year, I’m resolving to make the recipes I tear out within a month of when I do. Now this is going to be a fair challenge, especially given that Ben lately only wants to eat penne with olives, but I’m going to try. It’ll probably involve feeding our friends more often (and you know how I feel about that). Tonight, in fact, friends were planning to come over, but a big accident on the Bay Bridge interfered with those plans; we had to eat our lovely dinner all by ourselves. Tony made puttanesca, and I’d made a nice lemon-olive oil cake. The cake is lovely, fragrant with lemon and lighter than a pound cake. I made a quick blueberry sauce to go with it, but it really doesn’t need anything.

Meanwhile, we’ve rescheduled with our friends for next week, so I’ll start flipping through the binders soon to see what new thing to try next!

Just Write It

I’m taking a writing class this winter (an on-line writing class for parents! the perfect thing!), and have rediscovered the joys of freewriting. I used to make my composition students freewrite all the time, and I’d use the time to prep class, often finding something new to say myself. But freewriting for my own writing… somehow I never took the time for it before. Lo and behold (several freewrites into this thing), I find the seeds of several new essays.

I’m also, inspired by my classmates, trying to keep better track of what I read about writing. Here’s a quote I pulled from a recent New Yorker profile of Jasper Johns. He’s talking about painting, of course, but it still applies: you can always find reasons not to work, you can sit and plan and think for ages and never set pen to paper (or in Johns’ case, brush to canvas). But see what happens when you turn the internal editor off and just set to work.

Part of working, for me, involves anxiety. A certain amount of anxiety, or hesitation, or boredom. Frequently, I think for a long time before I do something, even though I’ve decided over the years that this is absolutely pointless. Actually, when one works, one comes to a solution much more quickly than when one sits and thinks.

So now I’m off to work.