Archive for October 2009

Food Is Stories

It has been, by most objective measures, a lousy week. It announced itself with a dog bite on my Monday morning run, developed with Eli’s fever, peaked the night Tony and I spent at Eli’s bedside, putting cold washcloths on his head and wondering whether to take him into Urgent Care, and has now moved into the quiet dull rhythm of boredom and cabin fever that settles on a house when a family member has been sick a while. I did finally make the ultimately ill-advised decision to leave the house, only to back our garage-parked car into our driveway-parked car (another reason I want to sell one of our cars; it might be a bit harder now, though). But I have to say that if my child was going to choose any week to be sick and keep me anchored on the couch, stroking his head while he watched endless episodes of Oswald and Peep in the Big World, at least he chose the week that the New York Times Magazine published the food issue.

Click on over to the other blog to read the rest…

Where the Wild Things Are

no spoilers, I promise…

A lifetime ago, when I lived in Manhattan, I worked for a literary agent who specialized in children’s book writers and illustrators; his clients’ books now fill my kids’ shelves. Initially, I was hired to read manuscripts that came in from potential clients, and to help the subsidiary rights agent handle the contracts for foreign publication of our clients’ books.

But the job I aspired to, and the job I eventually earned, was handling permissions. Anyone who wanted to use one of our client’s illustrations on a greeting card or a t-shirt, or wanted to quote some lines from their books in their newspaper article or dissertation, first had to call me, and I would work out the details with the writer or illustrator. It was fun to talk to our clients of course, but it was fun, too, to talk to folks who had interesting ideas about how to use their work, and I was always glad when I could help make an agreement.

Among the many artists we worked for, Maurice Sendak was the one whose work is in such high demand that I got to speak to him by phone every day. The office didn’t have email at the time, and we only used faxes for overseas communications. We all wished sometimes that there was a quicker way to conduct this business, some way that didn’t involve both parties being available at the same time, but I knew that I was really lucky to be making these phone calls to Mr. Sendak.

There was a prescribed time of day to make the call– just after lunch, as I recall, though I could be mistaken about that–and I always had my notes about each permission request typed up clearly so that I could be really efficient on the phone. I understood that he had more interesting things to do and I didn’t want to waste his time. There were some requests that never reached his ears; every month, it seemed, some fraternity would ask permission to make and sell “Delta Chi, Where the Wild Things Are!!!” t-shirts. I’m sure plenty of fraternities made such shirts anyway, but if they thought to ask permission, we had to turn them down.

I suppose he could have issued a blanket No for all uses of his work and never even bothered with us. But he didn’t do that. In those pre-caller ID days, he screened his calls, so I would begin talking, introducing myself and starting in with the first request, and hoping that he would pick up. One of the first times I called, I made the mistake of mentioning another artist who was going to be included in the project, one Sendak felt had copied his work, and he picked up the phone only to utter a short, withering “No” before hanging up. Or there was the time he commented, about a request that I have since blocked, “I would rather chew glass.” But most of the time, I had vetted the requests well enough that they interested him, and he’d ask probing questions about them and sometimes I’d be talking to him long enough that I could stop being distracted by the excited little voice in the back of my head that was always saying, “You’re talking to Maurice Sendak!”

So, all of this is a very lengthy preamble to the fact that when I first heard, years and years ago, that a movie was being made of Where the Wild Things Are, I didn’t believe it. I’d seen proposals come and go and although they very moved quickly off my desk and on to the desks of more important people, they never went very far beyond that. But I kept hearing about this movie. And then I heard that Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers were involved, and I began to believe it was really happening. Also, I knew it would be good. Not just because I think Jonze and Eggers are the right guys for the job (though I really, really do. I mean, come on; Spike Jonze made Adaptation. Obviously he was going to do something interesting with this book). No, mostly I knew it would be good because if Maurice Sendak was letting it happen, he clearly trusted that his book was in good hands.

I saw the movie early, as a benefit for Dave Eggers’ 826 Valencia, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it. It is not a kids’ movie, or at least not a movie for kids who are still reading the book; kids who have outgrown the book might think the movie is too young for them, but convince them that they are wrong and take them with you. I don’t want to give anything away here now, so will say only that they have expanded on the story in good and moving ways. The actors, from Max Records as Max to Catherine Keener as his mom, to the amazingly-cast actors who voice the Wild Things (Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Paul Dano, Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose and James Gandolfini) are all fabulous. I am planning to go back to see it a few more times, if only just to hear the heart-breakingly wistful note in James Gandolfini’s voice when he says to the other Wild Things that he just wants to sleep in a real pile.

But here, don’t take my word for it. Hear what Sendak himself has to say about the film.

The Boys Are Back

Why would I spend an evening at a movie about a dad who’s left to raise his two sons alone after his wife dies of cancer? I’ve written before about absent-mother movies; it’s not that I have some morbid curiosity about families without mothers or expect that these movies are going to show me what might be (I certainly hope not!) I love movies about family relationships, I love quiet, talky movies, and I have to admit I love a chance to attend a free press screening. So I went to The Boys Are Back with a friend (whose own two boys are old enough to be left alone for a couple hours while she goes to an early evening movie). I thought, based on what I knew of the plot, that it might be a bit sappy. But we were both very pleasantly surprised, because The Boys Are Back is a really lovely film about a man learning how to father after his wife passes away.

The film is based on Simon Carr’s memoir of the same name. Carr is a columnist for The Independent, though in the film’s one significant, and perfectly reasonable, deviation from the memoir, Clive Owen plays him as a sportswriter named Joe. It makes his job look a bit more glamorous (we see him writing coverage of Michael Phelps at the Sydney Olympics), though my friend and I did wonder exactly how this dad was supporting his family’s very comfortable lifestyle on a newspaper writer’s salary. We should be so lucky. But that’s a tiny quibble in what’s otherwise a very realistic, human, and beautifully-told story about a little family struggling to regain its equilibrium after a devastating loss.

The film opens with Joe driving a jeep along the beach. Water is spraying past, and we begin to see that people are shouting at him, presumably just because he is driving on the beach. But then the camera pulls back and we see a little boy perched on the hood of the car, griping the windshield wipers behind him, screaming with delight. This is our first clue that this family is different. The film flashes back briefly then, to tell the story of the mother’s cancer diagnosis and death, and the moment I knew this was a film that understands a bit about children and families was when Joe tells his son, Artie (a sweet and impish Nicholas McAnulty) that his mom is ill. The four year-old has good questions: “Is Mummy going to die? When? Will she die by dinner time? Will she die by bedtime? Will she die by breakfast?” And Joe understands that these are reasonable questions from a kid, and answers honestly, “I don’t know.”

Most of the film then narrates the life Joe builds with little Artie and his son from his first marriage, Harry, a young teen who comes to live with them some months after the death of Artie’s mom. “The fact is,” explains Joe to Harry, “I run a pretty loose ship. . . . We found that the more rules we had the more crimes were created; petty prosecutions started to clog up the machinery of life. Conversely, the fewer the rules we had, the nicer we were to each other.” It’s not all indoor water balloon fights and bike-riding in the kitchen (though there is that); the silly, like in real life, is tempered by the serious, and it all adds up to a fine film about ordinary life.

Losing Gourmet

cross-posted from the other blog

It’s not like I grew up with it. My mom learned to cook mostly from her own mom (though luckily got an excellent pie crust education from her mother-in-law). When we moved to the US in the early 70s, I remember seeing The Galloping Gourmet and The French Chef occasionally on our black & white kitchen television, but I think they were on more for entertainment than education. Mom subscribed to the Time-Life series of international cookbooks (the hardcovers now live in my house; the paperbacks, with more recipes, continue to get a workout in her kitchen) but never a cooking magazine, that I recall.

It was after college that I started to pick up Gourmet occasionally. It was a glimpse into another world. It was like a travel magazine to me, so glossy and beautiful. I tore out the occasional recipe – and if it looked good on the page, it always turned out well– but at the time mostly just dreamed over the beautiful pictures. And that’s one small reason I’m sad about losing Gourmet; for someone who doesn’t subscribe to fashion magazines or anything else with beautiful photography, and whose nightly dinner table can get a little dull with plates of pasta, every month Gourmet showed me lovely tables I could aspire to, and reminded me to set out a vase of flowers or put the vegetables in a pretty bowl.

When I moved to California, I had more time for cooking, and although I didn’t have much money, I saved a few dollars every month to pick up Gourmet. It was always fun reading, a perfect escape from my dense graduate school reading lists. When I broke up with my boyfriend and moved into a place without a kitchen, I would amuse myself trying to make some of Gourmet’s recipes with just a toaster oven, hot pot, rice cooker and electric skillet. I made great stir fries, a fabulous (small) lasagne, and baked cookies by the half dozen. When I moved in with a roommate (partly, to be sure, because of the kitchen) we shared a subscription to Gourmet, and celebrated when she passed her oral exams with a cocktail party fueled by the magazine’s recipes. Whether for a single woman without a kitchen, or two budget-conscious grad students who wanted to eat well, those recipes always worked. And that’s another reason I’m sad about losing Gourmet.

And then just as I was finishing graduate school, I met Tony, and we bonded over food. I discovered, at his mom Nancy’s house, a veritable library of cooking magazines, refreshed with new issues every month: Fine Cooking, Food and Wine, Saveur, Cooks Illustrated, Gourmet. Ruth Reichl was the editor of Gourmet by then and it was becoming a home for writers, terrific writers like Laura Shapiro and Michael Lewis and Anthony Bourdain and Jane and Michael Stern. We would hang out at Nancy’s house leafing through all the magazines and tearing out the recipes, but Gourmet was the one to read and we would talk about the essays over dinner and long Scrabble games. I remember in particular an essay by Michael Lewis that came out the month Ben was born, in which Lewis describes a trip to Masa’s for dinner with his wife and toddler. For ages afterward, I paraphrased a line from the piece (which sadly I can’t find online), “If you won’t [fill in the blank with whatever I wanted Ben to do] we’ll just have to stay at home and eat broccoli.”

The magazine was always smart, relevant, and delicious, and I routinely incorporated its recipes into our life, from cookies or savory biscotti for our annual New Year’s Day party to banana muffins for preschool bake sales. Gourmet’s vodka-spiked tomatoes came camping with us this summer, and the magazine’s roasted potato and kale salad is now one of my favorite ways to eat those two favorite vegetables. Flipping through my messy binder of saved recipes tonight, I see that over half of them come from Gourmet. Without their monthly infusion of fresh recipes, the binders will stop bursting from their seams, which is probably a good thing, but it’s another reason I’m sad about losing Gourmet.

After Nancy passed away, we had her mail forwarded to our house and that meant two copies of Gourmet each month. I called the customer service people, who were happy to consolidate her subscription and mine, but there was a little confusion over the name and so it has come to me each month with her name on it. If Nancy liked something, she put her money on it, so the subscription was supposed to go deep into 2012. It was a monthly reminder of the meals and conversations we shared, and that’s the last, biggest, reason I’m sad about losing Gourmet.

Math Games to Amuse and Confound

Here I am, solidly in my fifth decade of life and it has never occurred to me to play, let alone invent, a math game (in fact, I started to write fourth decade, then corrected myself and still had to doublecheck with my husband. That’ll tell you something about the distribution of mathematical abilities in this house). My children, however, have inherited math genes from their dad and so driving home from school we have conversations like this:

Ben: Think of a number less than 100 but an even ten (ie, ten, twenty, thirty, etc). Don’t tell me.
Me: Got it.
Ben: Multiply that number by two.
Me: OK.
Ben: Add your original number.
Me: Done.
Ben: Now subtract your original number.
Me: OK.
Ben: Divide that by your original number.
Me (starting to lose track): OK…
Ben: Did you get two?
Me, surprised and impressed: Yes, I did!

So, obviously the “add your original number” and “subtract your original number” is a bit of fill, but I’m still kind of impressed that the boy is inventing number games like this since the trick would never even occur to me.

It was inevitable that Eli would want to get in on the act. Here’s how the math games go when Eli invents them:

Eli: Think of a number. Don’t tell me!
Me: OK.
Eli: Equals.
Me: Honey, equals doesn’t change a single number.
Eli: I know! I like equals, it’s so simple! So, come on, equals. Don’t tell me!
Me: OK, equals.
Eli (demonstrating): Now, with your left hand, hold up your pink and ring finger. And with your right hand, put up your pink and your ring finger. And your thumb. Your thumb!
Me (grateful I’m not driving): OK.
Eli: Add the numbers to the number in your head.
Me: Add five?
Eli: Don’t tell me!
Me: I won’t, I’m just checking which numbers to add; my fingers?
Eli: Yeah, add your fingers.
Me: OK.
Eli (losing interest): Now… what happens?

Maybe Eli will be a little bit more like me after all.

Who Does She Think She Is? DVD discount!

Who Does She Think She Is?, the terrific documentary about women trying to combine motherhood and artistic work, is coming out on DVD! I wrote about the film last year in my Mama at the Movies column. Here’s an excerpt:

I hadn’t really thought about the constraints of space and materials that visual artists work with until I watched Pamela Tanner Boll’s moving new documentary Who Does She Think She Is? (2008), which introduces us to several mother-artists and asks why, when making art and raising children are both crucial for our culture, it is so hard to do both. The film wants us to know about these mothers making art, and it puts their stories in the larger context of all women artists. Like all women, women artists find their work less well-known and less well-compensated than the work of their male contemporaries. Like all mothers, mother artists endure isolation from their peers, sleep deprivation, and myriad claims on their time which make it difficult to continue their careers. But they do.

The filmmakers are celebrating the DVD release by organizing house parties around the country on November 8th. Want to join them? You can buy the DVD at a 10% discount with a special promotional code for Literary Mama and Food for Thought readers; just go the DVD online store and enter the promo code LitMama.

There’s more info about the house party idea here and here. Check it out, and then gather your friends for a screening!