Thursday, August 27, 2009

WWJD or What Would Julia Do?

I'm not certain that WWJD ( What would Julia (Child) Do) would be as popular as the other acronym by the same name. Despite the fact that I claim Julia Child to be my personal saint in and out of the kitchen, I don't see France creating any sainted sculptures of her six foot frame with pearls around her neck by a fountain in Pairs; nor would we, in the US, start handing out plastic wristbands with WWJCD as reminders for patience with plucking, cleaning and preparing an entire chicken in less than twenty minutes. Probably not. As a poet, it's easy to over inflate the importance of another person, especially when they are dead and then played by Meryl Streep. Seriously, I could also include Meryl Steep to my personal muse list for who else can make Robert Redford swoon with a Danish accent, play a believable lesbian, sing ABBA in the Greek Isles and now take on the great cooking icon of Julia Child?

There are certain expected icons that you would expect a poet to hold with high regard such as John Keats, whose death mask still haunts me. Emily Dickinson, well, for obvious reasons, and of course my poet of highest regard, Jack Gilbert, the heartfelt recluse who seems to rise as some poetic phoenix genius with each book he publishes. But in regards to cooking, I have had few people affect me with the same sense of depth as Julia Child. Certainly, this is just as expected as me selecting Emily Dickinson; however, it wasn't until reading her book, My Life in France, did I have a new respect for her sense of humble curiosity and American determination to be more than just a housewife cook in post-war France. Yet she didn't start out wanting to be any sort of icon, all she wanted to do was feed her husband she loved so much while also learning to understand and appreciate the culture around her.

What struck me the most in the book came early on in a chapter titled, "Never Apologize." Again, growing up in the midwest, cooking and apologizing seem to go together as well as Campbell's mushroom soup and the word casserole. I cannot tell you how many houses I have been to when the person cooking placed a dish down and proceeded to tell everyone all that had gone wrong and then of course our response would usually began with, "It could be worse, we could not be eating... etc." But here's what Julia Child states in regard to this lack of cooking etiquette:

I don't believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations over the food you make. When's ones hostess starts with self-deprecations such as, "Oh, I don't how to cook" is so dreadful to have to reassure her that everything is delicious and fine, whether it is or not. Besides, such admissions only draw attention to one's shortcomings (or self-perceived shortcomings), and make the other person think, "Yes, you are right, this really is an awful meal! ...Usually one's cooking is better than one thinks it is. And if the food is truly vile, as my ersatz eggs Florentine surely were, then the cook must simply grit her teeth and bear it with a smile---and learn from her mistakes. (pg. 77)

This was so enlightening for me to read. Finally, I had a reason to understand why a litany of apologies is so gauche after you have served another even if it is your husband who you know would truly would be happy if you just served him toast. But there is more to this paragraph that spoke to me. The end of this passage speaks to the responsibility of the cook to learn from their mistakes and not accept others to cover them with inflated comments to cover up the fact even if the food is truly vile. For me, this passage states the importance of three things, be accountable for your actions, don't apologize for being human, and above all smile. As if we can understand that if something is truly bad that we've made, we can keep it to ourselves and learn from it and above all, keep smiling. In other words, we need to not only find our inner Julia Child but also inner Sisyphus in the kitchen, Camus' version that is.

For me, I feel I was born apologizing. No, my first word wasn't sorry or forgive me, but "hot". I cannot deconstruct any greater meaning than I am sensitive to temperatures. But as for the apologizing, I am guilty of wanting to learn sorry first in every language I have learned to speak to ensure the fact that in case I blundered, I could gracefully and correctly apologize. Frankly, sorry seems to be something I have trained myself to believe I almost always am, so reading this passage about one of my favorite passions, cooking, as well as one of my not so favorite habits, apologizing, I somehow felt absolved. Reading Julia Child's honest and ego-less diary of her own transformation helped me to start to rid myself of my midwest guilt in cooking but also just for sometimes, just being born. But more importantly, Child states the need to move on and correctly learn whatever you've blundered for next time.

This approach to life, not to apologize, choose to laugh and keep smiling wasn't first introduced via Julia Child, but from my aunt Carol. My aunt Carol could have been European or Europeanly influenced for she wasn't afraid to wear fur, have a year round sun tan and would at most family gatherings laugh in her tall slim frame drowning out the heaviness of our grandparents' expectations. My aunt Carol also did something that I would like to think Julia Child did well, listen intently. Each visit to our house in the North aunt Carol would bring each of us three kids a book always wrapped in purple paper from the bookstore where she worked. Also with each visit, Carol would sit with each of us, individually, and ask us about our lives, our thoughts and always what we were reading.

I loved it when it was my turn on the couch. Perhaps if you are born with an innate sense of being sorry, therapy comes easily. But Carol didn't analyze us or evaluate us, no, she just listened. Sure, she had traveled to distant cities and seemed more stylish and younger with each visit. But I don't think I could tell you all where she has been because she didn't waltz into our home listing all the fabulousness of her life. No, Carol wanted to know what I thought about the The Island of Blue Dolphins, asked me about my thoughts on Holden Caulfield and what I got out of Steinbeck at age 13. Sure, again, I can glorify someone in memory, but really for me, Carol was one of the first women I knew who decided to choose joy in the face of adversity, and also prefered to listen to children and think we had something worthy of saying. Also, I saw Carol as someone who regardless of mistakes or blunders, could chose joy. Carol, despite divorce and adversity, still chooses joy. And finally, I don't recall ever hearing her apologize either.

Besides being my aunt who really listened, she is also a very good cook. There are numerous recipes I could choose from to show my gratitude, but this berry bread recipe seems to say it all. It is comfort Carol food. It's bread that seems to listen to you and your stomach's need to be fed. It's bread you want to eat while you have your morning coffee or make it for a friend who you want to sit and chat with, take it to a book club or just make it for your husband and watch him eat the entire loaf with a whole stick of butter in one sitting. Again, I am lucky that my husband is happy even if I make him toast, but here's a type of toast you can make and never find yourself apologizing over. Ever. Enjoy.

Carol usually makes this with strawberries, but any berry at the moment would do such as huckleberries, thimbleberries or blueberries.

Carol Murray's Berry Bread

1 stick butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
2 eggs, separate yolks and whites
1 cup of berries, fresh
2 cups of flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
2. Grease a 9" by 12" bread loaf pan.
3. Mix butter and sugar and blend until creamed.
4. Add almond extract and egg yolks, one at a time, blend.
5. In a separate bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
6. Add half flour mixture and half of strawberries to cream mixture and mix well.
7. Add the rest of flour and then strawberries and mix well again.
8. In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until stiff and then blend in berry cream mixture.
9. Place in bread loaf pan and bake for one hour.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Even Virgil Slam Dances, Sometimes.

Slam dancing has been a family affair. Seriously. I don't recall the first time I slam danced with my brother or if I just watched for years and then followed suit, bouncing up to his armpit while London Calling was playing, slamming to the line, "should I stay or should I go now." Call it the myth of the older brother, call it growing up in the early eighties or just call it what happens when sensitive people are tired of being so sensitive and they need a release. Really, slam dancing is perhaps some poets' favorite secret pastime from all those, well, from all those feelings.

I remember once someone telling my husband after they heard I was a poet, "wow, I bet she has a lot of feelings." And I do. Thankfully for me though, I grew up with men who do also. My father once told me, "Emily if you feel like crying, cry because well, not crying gives you headaches." My brother, a mechanical engineer, also has a very pragmatic approach to emotions. He just has them openly and we, my brother and I, have always shown them openly to each other. I cannot tell you how many phone calls I have made to my brother from where ever I have lived and while I ranted on, he would listen, be patient and always say something far more insightful than my winded over-talked analysis. We've been close growing up and even now as adults, so he knows talking to me can take some time. And thankfully he always seems to have time. Thankfully too, I've grown up a bit and hopefully listen more. Now, we mostly find hours to chat on Sunday mornings via the phone and during the week we send each other random videos of music we love or you tube clips we cannot stop laughing from.

Yet when my brother was in high school, I was in elementary school and he seemed, well, old. But during the summers, we were friends again. Growing up surrounded by cherry orchards, every summer brought two harvests: tarts and sweets. If you wanted to go to college or be able to buy records and maybe even a bike, most kids worked their summer away to the odd hours of cherry harvesting. There were usually two shifts, midnight to noon or noon to midnight. My brother started pulling tarp and then graduated to tractor driving and when he'd come home he'd fill the house with the scent of sulfur and sweat, never sweet hints of cherries, just labor. In between harvests, the crew would usually have time off to just chill and thankfully, for my brother, the harvest crew consisted of most of his friends. When it was down time for them, it was for me, fun time.

My brother is seven years older and could seriously be claimed the greatest influence in my life in regards to music, and for kids growing up in the middle of nowhere, music made you feel somewhere. The summer when my brother was 16, my cousin Eric came out from Baltimore to work cherries and being nine years old and held up at home with books and an occasional sleep over, summers felt long. But not that summer. That summer my brother let me tag along everywhere with him. One night we loaded up in the Horizon (my brother, Eric, me and my friend, Erin Sweeny) headed in to Suttons Bay to eat pizza at the Hose House. My brother drove and the radio blared, "I'm your Venus" by Bananarama while we all misquoted the lyrics, yelling out the windows to nothing but rows of trees and humid summer skies. I recall while we were driving along the road, my brother, without hesitation just drove off into an orchard and he took that horizon through the rows of cherries and then down onto a tractor road and then back onto the pavement without even blinking. Erin and I, seat belted in the back, laughed while being slightly afraid all at the same time.

And my brother was like that. He would be so mellow and calm and then suddenly some surge of energy would come over him and he'd do something so reckless and wild, which is probably why slam dancing made so much sense to him. Maybe it isn't the aggression as much as it is the music that makes my brother so amped up. Maybe growing up on Donnybrook (our road my parents still live on) has something to do with it too. Or maybe if you're sensitive, this world seems to understand bold acts of energy more so than quiet displays of introspection.

My brother would get quiet, really quiet. I'd sometimes find him in his room, all dark and a slight volume of Morrissey playing in the distance. Sometimes, I knocked on his door, and always he'd let me in. We'd listen for hours together and ask each other questions about lyrics from U2 or Peter Gabriel and he'd say, "listen to this Emily, what do you think it means?" And he already had an idea, but he'd ask me and would really listen to what I thought. I recall feeling nervous sometimes as if I might not fully understand or be able to analyze some lyric, but Chris would keep asking me questions, keep helping me feel more like an intelligent equal, than some tag along. Sometimes we'd talk about life on Donnybrook, our family, our grandparents or aunts or uncles as if we would have each other as witnesses to make sense of our experience all while Sinead O'Connor would sing in the background from "The Lion and the Cobra".

Other times we would talk about depression. One time my brother told me about being young and feeling the weight of depression come over him and the odd fact he told me, "I remember liking it Emily and liking the darkness was what scared me the most." Sure, we both love Harold and Maude, The Smiths, we would share novels like The Brothers K and The River Why and sometimes find ourselves on the phone asking each other questions again, about the odd loneliness of being in a crowd, our love of traveling and searching instead of being still. But through time, experience and probably each of us growing up, we can now return to music again. We can share soundtracks from our individual lives and remind each other to not be afraid of the darkness. We both know it is there, but we don't have to be dark, anymore. We can walk away from all the weight of our past or who we once were and remind each other we will always be there in music even in a quiet dark house. There is always sound and light, somewhere.

And really, I like to think of my brother as my Virgil, a slightly taller and smarter version of myself who has been a voice and hand of reason for me. Sure, there are a lot of terms for big brothers, like bully or being over-protective and, don't get me wrong, my brother has been both. From dislocating my arm twice from politely shunning me from bad boys, my brother has been the typical older brother, but what I feel grateful for is that he has been an atypical guide and role model. It's as if my brother decided to close the door on all that Morrissey and The Smiths of our youth and has moved beyond the darkness and to listen more to Talking Head's "Pulled Up" but he knows when to pull out Leonard Cohen when needed.

This past week I was in Michigan visiting family, my sister's family and my brother and his wife's new baby girl, Wren. While we were all home, we (the three siblings and spouses) went to the Traverse City Film Festival and watched "Winnebago Man." While The Dead Kennedys were singing "Winnebago Warriors" in the beginning of the film my brother shouted out the lyrics. People turned around slowly and stared. But my brother just keep singing along as if he were slam dancing in the dark against people seated comfortably eating popcorn. I loved it. I loved hearing him and his earnest energy of angst come alive again. I felt oddly proud of my brother not to lose that gift of making people feel awkward by someone simply expressing themselves and sure enough, that was what the movie was about. Winnebago Man is about how a man spent one summer making Winnebago ads in the muggy heat of Iowa and how the camera caught him swearing on all of the out takes, which later become a Youtube craze where people find pleasure in someone else's anger. But it was about a lot more than that.

And so is my brother--a lot more than just someone who likes to slam dance and take his shirt off and mow the yard while listening to Van Halen. He's a lot more than just an engineer, a big brother, a mountain biker, a son. He's now a husband and father and he will always be the one who first taught me to really listen to lyrics and to try and make sense of them. Really, he taught me to be a poet. But to be a poet not attracted to or in love with darkness only, but to recognize that it is there, but to believe in light. The lightness of being in all of us and that we all have music. So we can sing, our "bittersweet symphony" (The Verve) to get close enough to "sound and vision" (David Bowie). To get close, enough.

Scrabble in the Hospital

Jet or zip will give you a higher score
than death or meadow. Even zoo
is greater than grief. Axe on a double word
will always be more points than embrace.
Our language in tiles can be separated
by vowels, but our bodies cannot speak
the sounds of the word for a baby born
without breath. There aren’t enough letters
for this loss. There are no words
for this color. And when they told me
of how you held your baby girl,
Ariel, I didn’t think of the sprite
on an island or the book of poems
which rests on my night stand.
I thought of your hands
around a blanket of a body
born cold in a room shaded pink.
The same pink of your cheeks in February
on frozen lakes when you’d tell of trout
in their slow sleep. And now your slow voice
staticed and wintered in a phone line
tells me of joy, the stubborn happiness
in loving what cannot live. Knowing
we couldn’t ever spell or keep score
of the light of each star, but we have the word
sky, elephant, and hope . To get close