Memory: the most unreliable durable refrigerator

My friend Sam sent this story to me today, about how experiences are worthwhile investments because they can be considered “durable consumer goods”.  Like refrigerators and stoves. Things that last more than three years.

It got me thinking about the nature of memory.

Earlier this month I visited D.C., stayed with my old friends Doran and Tina and their adorable kids, and helped out at my old nonprofit job. These were such lovely things, and if I were better at being a blogger of everyday fun, I’d list out the whole itinerary and post photos from Instagram or something. Onward.

Point being. I left my job and life there in something of a rush; packed it all into a borrowed sedan and headed west. I was reeling from a college-boyfriend-heartbreak (everybody now: “awwww….”) and just had to get the hell out of dodge. I’d never take that decision back. Chicago has been everything.

But searching through old writings today (a couple of weeks after my visit)  I found this passage. It’s so strange. I recall that entire city laced with woe-is-me and the alienation of being too young for one’s own high heels, but I must’ve been having something of a good time:

…a beautiful dinner with doran, him hobbling around on his broken leg, where we conspiratorially made fun of the restaurant’s pretensions and drank the best wine, then stopped afterward for ice cream. it seemed like he really understood. or wandering around the sun-soaked botanic gardens with josh, like children fascinated by mysterious misters and textured foliage. or making spaghetti with sarah, meatballs falling as casualties to the kitchen floor. or the feeling of having a going-away dinner that felt crowded, hot, burbling like the spaghetti sauce with love, love, love. or crying at the supply cabinet in my office as i put back the paperclips i never used, and the staples, and feeling a co-worker put his hand in the small of my back as an it-will-be-ok. or lunch with a friend from a museum we often worked with, where she gave me mementos from her colleagues of the museum’s art. or the presents i got from the teachers — pencil holder, sweatshirt, good-luck card, wild flowers that stuck out in all directions and reminded me of the teacher herself, the one from south africa who told the most articulate narratives of growing up. cramming things in — dinner parties, improv shows, nights out out out and hard-working days, each one feeling like a marathon, only to see another marathon right around the corner. and then it was done.

— Sept. 2004

How not to make a pie, and then make a pie, the hard way

I love pie. Wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth — more like, a wooden spoonful of pie filling. When I lived with my family for a couple of months this fall, I’d drive to the grocery store, pick up six Granny Smith apples, and then drive to my grandmother’s house. She’d make me a pie.

So, I’ve never learned to make one myself. And when my sister Christina came to visit last weekend, we realized that none of us Muscato girls had baked a successful pie from scratch.

There are many ways to make a pie. Butter crust vs. shortening. Lattice top? Brush with milk? Sure. But we hear less about how NOT to make a pie. And that is what we did.

How Not to Make a Pie and then Make a Pie, in 27 Easy Steps

1) Decide to open a pie shop. (No one can accuse you of thinking small!!)

2) Realize that first you should probably make a pie. Any pie. Choose apple.

3) Determine in quick succession that you are missing a) a rolling pin; b) wax paper for rolling the dough and c) the knob to the oven. Disregard obstacles.

4) Use a recipe transcribed from your grandmother’s memory.

5) Wonder what’s going on when the dough is way too sticky.

6) Make the recipe a second time. The dough is way too sticky.

7) Forge ahead; roll the dough using a bottle of “Menage a Trois” red wine, on a piece of aluminum foil.

8) Pause and stare quizzically when the dough is stuck to the bottle in a bajillion places.

9) Forge ahead. Flour it up. Finally get the dough flat. Transfer to pie pan.

10) Pause and stare quizzically when the dough splits like a map of the world going through a very terrible earthquake.

11) Start eating the dough.

12) Drink the red wine. …Drink more.

13) Pay no attention when one of your team members, perhaps the eldest sister, dashes to the store for a rolling pin and wax paper. In fact, don’t notice that she’s left.

14) While she’s gone, start jamming the dough into cupcake tins. These will be “tarts” you tell yourselves. Dream of your tart shop.

15) When your eldest sibling returns, try to explain the DisasterTarts. Then, just stop talking as your arguments peter out. As a trio, briefly consider deep-frying the dough. Realize you have no deep-fryer.

16) Make a new batch of dough using a recipe from the internet and an off-brand of butter named “Challenge Butter”. Feel that this is appropriate.

17) Snack on sugary sliced apples. Drink more wine.

18) Roll the new Challenge Butter dough using a rolling pin and wax paper. It’s so easy! Transfer to pie plate without incident. Marvel and congratulate selves.

19) Try to set the oven to the appropriate temperature using a pliers. See also: missing oven knob. Set your timer for forty minutes.

20) Note that the pie is not cooking fast enough. And not cooking. Now it is midnight. It is not cooking.

21) Call your grandmother, even though it is midnight and two of your team members are fast asleep in the living room, one curled up in an armchair. Your grandmother answers, because she is always awake at all hours. Her main comment is: No, a pie should not take an hour and a half to cook.

22) The top is not browning. Glaze it in honey. Glaze it in leftover cinnamon butter from yesterday’s biscuits!! STAY AWAKE! STAY AWAKE!

23) Finally remove pie from oven. Go to sleep at 2am.

24) Wake up after four hours of sleep.

25) Bleary-eyed, watch your sisters wake up, parade into the kitchen  and peek under the foil approvingly. It looks delicious, they say.

26) Pie for breakfast. Send celebratory text messages all day remarking on the fabulousness of your pie.

27) Decide to never, ever open a pie shop.

Why my fiction-writing efforts have gone nowhere

I have a special wariness of people who write opening sentences with nothing in mind, and then try to create a story around them. These sentences, usually easy to detect, go like this: “Mrs. Ponsonby had never put the dog in the oven before,” “‘I have a wine tree, if you would care to see it,’ said Mr. Dillingworth,” and “Jackson decided suddenly, for no reason, really, to buy his wife a tricycle.” I have never traced the fortunes of such characters in the stories I receive beyond the opening sentence, but, like you, I have a fair notion of what happens, or doesn’t happen, in “The Barking Oven,” “The Burgundy Tree,” and “A Tricycle for Mama.”

James Thurber

Drink me through this hatch in the orange

Right now I live in a big, old house behind one of my favorite cafes on a quiet block in Chicago. My roommates and I cook for each other most nights of the week. Sam makes me mojitos and plays Chopin on the piano. Julia is unafraid to do an open-mouthed, point-and-laugh at me when my Sunday pancakes turn into a hash of semi-raw batter. Last night we played shuffleboard for about a million hours and noshed on truffle fries at the bar. Usually light-hearted days and nights.

On Friday, though, a few of us saw a play that obliterated us. We left the theater in silence; a reverent, stunned and full-headed hush. High school kids from Albany Park Theatre Project had interviewed dozens of community members about their stories and assembled them into a performance called Home/Land. True stories, told in words but also motion and rhythmn, color and light. About inustice and intolerance and irrational hate and unspeakable resilience. Transforming a tiny black box space in a utilitarian park district building with some of the most powerful performances I’ve ever seen on a stage, let alone from a group of kids.

I’ve been thinking a lot about telling stories; how we transmit our personal experience and knowledge to others. I’ve always revered English. Though I break its rules for kicks and for joy, I can easily default to its formalities, the way my fingers still know what to do with a rosary. But last year I learned of English’s slippery places. How other languages tick and translate, from speakers with other native tongues. In candlelit cafes we’d compare idioms for hours, passing a notebook back and forth. Swapping words and turns of phrase like kids sharing sticky sections of peeled orange — valencia, clementine, blood.

In French there’s l’esprit d’escalier — “the spirit of the staircase” — to describe that feeling of leaving the room only to suddenly realize all you wished you’d said. There’s also coup de coeur — one of my very favorites. It means something like “I heart that”. Your passion of the moment.

The play brought immigration issues to life; discrimination, neon orange jumpsuits for fathers who tried to get work, elderly nuns who fought to legalize prayer in deportation centers, traffic stops that turned to panic and kids who couldn’t say their parents’ real names in public.

Even on the bus ride home, we still didn’t really talk.

Non-fiction theater about social justice has been in the news. You know, the Mike Daisey/This American Life thing. His play, and that original radio episode, hit people hard, too. What’s the word for how we felt as audience members, listening for the first time to stories of hardship and injustice? It’s not guilt or sympathy or even empathy.

When we got home from the play, I paced the house. Grilled my roommates. Googled. Tip of my tongue. Like schadenfreude, but in reverse? Maybe that hippie word, “grok”, one of them said. The difference between knowing something in your heart instead of just your head.

Today I came across the word somehow, not even looking for it, clicked on through
and there it was. Oh, the Germans. I should have guessed it’d be you guys. A squiggly, innocent-looking word that sums up entire sentences of English thought.

Weltschmerz. World pain. Wikipedia tells us, the modern meaning of Weltschmerz in the German language is the psychological pain caused by sadness that can occur when realizing that someone’s own weaknesses are caused by the inappropriateness and cruelty of the world and (physical and social) circumstances.

In a physical sense, the only thing I can compare it to is the pain of breaking a bone. It’s not that the pain itself is worse than a sprain, it’s the slight grinding of bone on bone that’s sickening, because that’s how you know something’s really fucked up and will take forever to mend.

Our best shot is through stories. We need human bridges to these big issues, of
course. This is not a revelation to any journalist. But my new vocab word might help explain the tenor of the backlash against Daisey. People felt so betrayed over a selection of facts in a play and a radio program. Things that usually merit little attention at all. Why did this sting so badly?

I propose it’s because he’d made us feel that particular, rare flavor of world-pain — and for what? For nothing? There is plenty of truth to his words. But it is so much easier to push it far away, fast and hard and angry. We can forget it. It wasn’t real. Thank god. It was just a sprain. We got hurt for nothing and now it’s over.

Theater is particularly effective at spreading this feeling because of its inherent intimacy and immediacy.

On the bus after the play we didn’t talk but then on the walk from the bus stop to the
house we did. The night opened up with rattling el trains and light spilling from dive
bar doors and on all the trees, new green leaves shuddered under a near-frost but
held steady.

I still don’t have words for everything.

Simone de Beauvoir wrote: “Each one (of us) has the incomparable taste in his
mouth of his own life, and yet each feels himself more insignificant than an insect
within the immense collectivity whose limits are one with the earth’s.”

I just know that in Phnom Penh, a little French girl taught me a new
way to eat an orange. We were at the rum bar late at night and she came over to our table. Maybe four years old. Long brown curls, a white pinafore and a bow-tie mouth. She reached up to me and offered the fruit, so of course I took it. And she showed me how you can make a little hatch in the top — take off just a circlet of peel. Then squeeze it a bit until the golden juice starts flowing free, and put it to your lips and drink. I think it’s an analogy for something, and someday I’ll find out which one.