nonBlog — January 2010

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Skin: Thin? Thick? Nonexistent?—Thursday, January 14, 2010

For an entire bloody year I’ve been embarrassed about becoming emotional in front of a large group of strangers during a “Six-Word Memoir” reading last January, yet it just got me discussed on Northern California Public Radio’s morning show, “Forum with Michael Krasny.” I give up. Clearly I have no sense at all about which things I say or write will connect in just the right way with an audience.
But really, who could? How do you calibrate your response to something as unnatural as public exposure? Especially when some degree of disclosure is a career prerequisite?

The radio mention (start listening at about the 32-minute mark) took place the other day when Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser appeared on Forum to promote their new book, It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure. Krasny was asking about the back stories people tell during the six-word memoir readings, and Larry talked about that night last year when I made the audience cry.
Well, I never knew I had made the audience cry until Larry Smith said so to half of California. At the bookstore that night I read my six words, “He’s less tall but more sane,” and explained that even when you write just six words, you don’t always know what you are expressing until after you’ve published it. I said that I had originally thought I was comparing my husband to my previous boyfriends. But when I came to think of it, I hadn’t dated anyone exceptionally tall, and I hadn’t dated anyone exceptionally crazy. But my dad, I told them, was a real heartbreaker. Then I put my hand well above my head and looked up to where I used to eyeball my 6-foot 2 ½-inch father. I said, “He was as tall as a tree—“ now my voice was breaking, “—and he was suicidal for the last 25 or 30 years of his life. He died in February at the age of 69. So it turns out that my husband Tom is actually less tall, but more sane, than my father.” My voice cracked again.
I couldn’t even look at the audience. There was some kind of noise I didn’t identify. I walked to my seat, and I shook in my chair for a solid minute, feeling like I had ripped off my own skin in front of several dozen strangers. Why in the world had I done that? A number of people came up to me after the reading to thank me and tell me how much my story affected them, but their kindness couldn’t touch my utter mortification at what I had done. I’ve felt that way ever since.
This Monday, the night before Larry Smith was a guest on Forum, I had put myself through almost the same miserable exercise for my new six-worder, which appears in the book Larry is currently promoting. During the submission process I had made another skin-off decision (because the last one was so much fun?—we just don’t know), which was to engage in some much-needed pro-choice activism. When I had been notified which of my memoirs the editors had chosen for the new book, I was shocked. Yes, I had written it. Yes, I had put the (other) A word in it. But now my heart was banging with worry about what the other moms at school and my mid-Atlantic relatives would think of me. All of this even though I had already written about my choice in an article about Sarah Palin in The Huffington Post over a year earlier and hardly sweated it.
First I decided I would say nothing about the new book. Then I decided I would put the book on my website, but not the memoir itself. (If my six fans wanted to know what I said they could go to the bookstore and buy the book, I figured. Harper Perennial would thank me.) Then I was invited to the reading, but I wasn’t going to attend. Then I was going to go, but I wasn’t going to read. Then I was going to read, but I wasn’t going to tell the back story. It was like starting a fight in an empty room.
I poked my head out of my neurotic shell long enough to post the reading on Facebook, but I refused to quote the memoir. My old colleague Heather Myers, a journalist I worked with when we edited The Dartmouth daily newspaper, sent me a private message asking what the phrase was, and when I told her, she said it was a hoot. A hoot? Now I couldn’t figure out where my judgment was off. My pro-choice statement was a hoot?
Heather Myers is deeply normal, so I screwed up my courage and read the memoir at Booksmith on Haight. I got a big laugh. Then I told the back story in a few words. I got another big laugh. I sat down, again feeling skinned, again shaking, but less than the year before. The next day I found out on Forum that the sound I had heard at the previous year’s reading was that of people crying. I received emails from what seemed like half the people I’ve met since I moved here. I went to lunch at the Writers’ Grotto with Larry Smith, who hugged me and thanked me for being at both readings. I asked him to sign my copy of the book, and he wrote: “Stephanie, your stories make our readings sing. Thank you.” And then, as if the Giant Hand wanted to make absolutely sure that I never second-guess my impulse to go skinless again, I was offered my first magazine assignment since all my editors were laid off from the publications I usually write for.
I’m not wrong to worry about what people think of the things I write or say; two of my aunts recently unsubscribed from my blog within twelve hours of each other. I don’t know what I had posted on that day that I hadn’t said before. (Was it the part about how I’ve never knowingly slept with a Republican? I’m paid to be affronted by Republicans. If I merely disagreed with them, I wouldn’t have a career.) And I think it’s pretty clear that the dissonance between the way I was raised and the career I have chosen is what causes so much of this psychic suffering. But I am coming to the conclusion that it is exactly this feeling I have to overcome in order to write the book I’m meant to write. Each year the unwrittenness of this book bothers me. Now that it’s 2010 and I’m turning mid-forties, it has become mortifying. Moreso, maybe, than the feeling of walking around with no carapace. One word at a time, I’ll have to find out.

Peppercorns—Monday, January 4, 2010

It’s funny the things you notice in the ever-widening space between you and a deceased parent. There are so many milestones the first year, each inexpressibly painful: the first holiday you don’t spend together; the birthday that no longer ages them; the anniversary of their death. After the first year the markers are fewer and more idiosyncratic—exclusive to the personalities involved. I just had one, and it’s hit me unexpectedly hard: I used up the last of my dad’s peppercorns.
My father loved to cook. His mother had taught him how and, to his detriment, he decided that cooking well and enthusiastically is how the woman of his dreams would demonstrate her love for him. Unfortunately, the woman of my dad’s dreams hated cooking as much as Peg Bracken, the patron saint of untraditional housewives everywhere. It would seem there should be no conflict—my father was a gourmet cook; my mother hated cooking; everyone loved to eat—where’s the conflict? But my father refused to be the family chef and the two of them hotly debated the issue right up until their divorce.
I decided that my mother’s stance was delightfully feminist and appropriated it. I had won baking awards as a child, but I never learned how to sauté chicken or roast a leg of lamb or even make spaghetti sauce. When Tom was in law school I was so helpless that I would buy a skinny baguette every day after work to nibble on until he could come home and feed my starving, marathon-running self.
They say the path to self-knowledge is littered with moments when you notice yourself repeatedly taking actions that don’t square with your history. For me it was my enthusiasm for ripping recipes out of magazines and The New York Times and saving them. Why was I hoarding recipes when I didn’t know how to cook? One day when I was about 34 it occurred to me that I was doing it because I wanted to learn. Who’d a thunk it? I hate to admit it was Martha who taught me. A friend gave me “Martha’s Quick Healthy Cook” book for Christmas that year and I made every recipe until I had mastered all of her ridiculously overwrought techniques.
My dad reacted as if I had given him a shiny new toy. He bought me gadgets and taught me how to make his famous corned beef and cabbage and gave me Grandma’s old recipe box, which remains one of my prized possessions. And one day, when he was visiting us in San Francisco, he took me to Home Chef and bought me a pepper grinder and a large glass jar filled with red, yellow, brown and black peppercorns. I had a moment of old-behavior rebellion.
“What is it with you and grinding salt and pepper? Why don’t you just use a shaker like a normal person?” I said unhelpfully.
“Because it tastes better this way,” he said.
“It makes chunks that are too big,” I protested.
“You have to adjust it,” he replied. “I’ll show you how.”
And with his curling, crippled fingers he deftly loaded the salt and pepper grinders. I still don’t understand quite how these gizmos work. He bought me sea salt for good measure, and then he insisted I use them when I cooked for him that night. (And since I keep a record of every meal I’ve ever cooked for a guest, I could probably tell you what the dish was.) I was converted.
So it went for three or four years. I’m not even close to using up all of the sea salt—it was a huge bag Dad bought that day. But the jar of colored peppercorns was smaller, and now it’s empty. I can’t even go back to Home Chef for a refill; like Dad, the store is gone, and there isn’t another one like it anywhere.

New, or Practically New

  • Fame and Fortune: Currently working on, and shocked to find I’m making headway with, the latter. Partly because of a bit of movement on the former. Perhaps endurance is the key to everything after all.