Saturday, April 7, 2012

F is for Family (and Food)

Awesome parents via DiscoveryNews
Because I managed to completely forget the alphabet, and also because I was excited about my post for H, the fact that both F and G come first somehow slipped my mind. Um, oops. But F is an easy one: it's for family and food, two things that are inseparably linked in my mind and also major elements of my experience of joy. Instead of gushing a bunch about my folks, though, what I'd like to do is make a quick list of the things my family gave me that I am really grateful for. See, even if you really can't stand your family, chances are that somewhere along the line you did receive some form of gift from them. Whether it's your tenacity, your sense of humor, your love of Star Trek, your beautiful eyes, your favorite book, your amazing singing voice, or your unique ability to drink everyone else at the bar under the table, I would be shocked if your parents - biological or no - didn't pass on to you something that makes up a part of your identity you are proud of or a pastime that gives you great pleasure.

Because I could talk about this for days, I am going to judiciously pick only two: a feeling that's important to me, and a thing I love doing.

From my mother

From The Tailor of Gloucester
image via this cool essay on
I don't know exactly how this was transmitted, but I clearly feel that my mother is the one from whom I got a delicate, dreamy, childhood feeling I guess I'd call sentimentality for lack of a better word, but it's not really what I mean at all: a feeling lifted from the pages of the Narnia books, AA Milne, the Borrowers books, The Wind in the Willows, and Beatrix Potter, very much a part of a vanished, imaginary Britain of foxgloves in gardens and animals that speak. (My mother is British; I was born in England.) It's a feeling that has to do with the pleasure of the idea of a sandy nest, a miniature newspaper, a thistledown bed, mince pies, gooseberry patches, and rain-faded gardens, a particular kind of watercolored sweetness. Before you scoff at this twee universe where nothing bad could ever happen, let me point out that this is not a feeling of a longed-for reality but a sensation of a world to escape to, a secret garden, a refuge, a place of high tea and quiet safety. Although it comes from a Christian tradition and has its nicey-nice elements (the moralizing aspects of Beatrix Potter, for example, which my mother writes about beautifully) it's really not about anything but an imagined landscape that goes gently on the heart. It is populated pretty much exclusively with animals and children, things happen in a lovely kind of miniature, and it is full of snug cottages and warm burrows - this is a world that behaves very much like Gaston Bachelard's idea of the childhood house, a house, he posits, that each of us remembers whether or not it actually existed. It is an internal refuge, the home of a nostalgia for something we actually didn't have. Why is it so lovely and compelling to so many of us? (I know I'm not the only one who has this feeling, or a version of it.) Perhaps because it's simple, and the idea of Pooh meandering the meadows or mice in fancy waistcoats living out their lives in pale greens and earthy browns gives us a glimpse of a very ordinary, solid kind of peace. It's not a place we try to go - it's a place to visit, to dally, a kind of respite for the mind.

Then, too, on a totally different note,  I inherited my mother's love of critique and analysis. I don't mean being critical - I mean the finding of a special kind of satisfaction and pleasure in examining the reasons something works the way it does, and then articulating it, usually in writing but sometimes also in conversation. Especially this is true for writing, and for me examination of a piece of art comes a close second, but it also comes in when taking a look at emotions and the reasons people feel or behave the way they do. I also don't mean a dispassionate, cold analysis: both my mother and I are advocates for a way of looking (especially in literary criticism) that takes into account who we are, instead of pretending that our analysis is somehow "objective" (as if any critical examination of something could be free from the subjective view of the person examining! Even the desire to see something as empirically true is, itself, a form of perspective. I would love to argue with you about this.) Both of us love writing analytical essays for the moment in which the mind makes a kind of leap of association, suddenly seeing through into the hidden connections between things, and then the sensation of being able to express that connection eloquently, drawing it into the light where before it was invisible, only felt. There is, for both of us, a delight in this: a sense of discovery and almost wonder at suddenly seeing. (She has a fascinating essay about this in this book.)

From my father:

I share a kind of dream vocabulary with my father, a feeling of mystical cities and alchemical diagrams and the potential of strange adventures on rainy nights, a love of storytelling and wandering, of sudden dance and lights in the darkness. I've written about this feeling, which he tends to call the numinal, in some detail, but less about the deep way I share it with my father: all the long walks in the tiny jeweled streets of the Berkeley hills, the late-night bookstore trips, the discussions of memory and music and Henry Miller and the great books and loneliness and longing, the Friday nights lighting the candles together, the small weird gifts, old dictionaries, radio shows, they've all aggregated into a kind of kaleidoscope of feeling. Each little gem in the glass window of the kaleidoscope is one of these strange, beautiful, resonant things I've shared with my father, and I see the whole world through its shifting patterns of yearning, candlelight, rainstorm. And here's a piece of music he gave me, which gives me yes that feeling when I listen to it:

And here is another way of expressing the ways our minds seem to work, in the form of the bizarre and marvelous Betty Boop cartoon Snow White, which features Cab Calloway rotoscoped into the form of Koko the Clown singing "St James Infirmary Blues" against a backdrop of stalactites that look like the world's most lunatic skeletons:

Forget what you think you know about Betty Boop - this is a gem of weirdness and delight. (The actual Youtube page for this video has some neat info about the cartoon, check it out!)

As far as things I love, well, my dad's given me plenty, but my total exultant delirium about the awesomeness that is food is the one that comes most immediately to mind. This is because food accompanied all the most fun things we ever did: from packing charcoal and fresh steaks up to the backpack-only campgrounds in Point Reyes to morning buns and Peet's coffee to sustain us on our wandering through the backwoods of Berkeley to Friday night dinners, a special evening of feasting in our house every week, my parents discovered early on that I could be satisfied for hours (maybe days) by a good snack, and my father proceeded to act accordingly. He taught me to cook, and we had dinner as a family almost every night the whole time I was growing up - a time for raucous conversation, serious discussion, and the noshing of unobtrusively healthy and delicious food that ranged from Moroccan couscous to homemade sushi.

My father and my boyfriend arm wrestling to see who gets
the last piece of brie. I am actually not kidding about this.
My father is not a foody, in that people who talk about prosciutto-wrapped whatevers or their foofy new cutting boards give him hives; he likes food that is simple and spectacularly delicious. If he eats something he likes, he'll try to make it, which is how we got to grow up eating everything from seared tuna to the world's best shish kebab. Without saying a word, he taught me that the cooking, eating, and sharing of food is good for the soul as much as for the body, and the joys I have had of sharing meals since have been many. (His example also led me to discover that it is almost infinitely cheaper to buy the ingredients for an extravagant dinner than it is to eat out on even cheap and gunky food as long as one can make the time to cook, which is why I live substantially under the poverty line but still manage to eat smoked salmon omelets and really nice olives on a regular basis.)

But there's also a gift that both my parents gave me, which might be most important of all: the two of them have very unconventional lives, not to prove a point, but just because it didn't occur to them that they needed to do things like other people. It wasn't until I was in high school that I realized that other people's parents worked 9-5 jobs and didn't spend hours talking to their kids about baby owls or chaos theory. I don't remember being told at any point that I could do anything I set my mind to, or to dream big, or anything like that; it was simply a given that I'd be supported in pursuing whatever weird and wonderful endeavors I thought sounded nifty, and if I needed help all I had to do was ask.  Well, friends, here I am, taking the long road to building a mildly impossible museum. And they think that's just peachy, and for that I will be eternally grateful.


  1. Your family sounds fabulous. I'm a firm believer in eating together and cooking food at home. That was easy when I lived in a small town in Colorado, but since we've moved to Texas, it was initially tempting to eat out. Now we're back to home cooking. I'm trying to increase my food repertoire so I don't bore everyone to tears.

  2. My trick? Cookbooks with pictures. Really mouthwatering pictures. You don't even need to cook the recipes they depict -- it'll just inspire you to make delicious things.

  3. Okay, well, you suck. Not really, but there's just too much here to comment on and not time for me to do it. (I'm busy trying to catch up on things this morning before we head out for the day. Not really gonna happen, but I thought, maybe, I could catch up on the blogs I need to read while drinking cocoa.)
    I will say one thing:
    I think any piece of literature had to be interpreted three times:
    1. Objectively -- The piece needs to be looked at as if it was something that existed apart. An empirical measurement to ascertain a quality of sorts. (At least as closely to this as it's possible for someone to do.)

    2. How it affects you as the audience regardless of quality or anything else. Do you -like- it? Even if it is a piece of trash or junk, how do you respond to it?

    3. What did the author mean by it? Trying to view the work through the creator's eyes. What was his/her goal? Was that goal achieved?

    I am able to more fully appreciate anything I read/watch when I look at it like this.

    1. Andrew, I'm totally with you on this! That's a very eloquent way of stating what I try and do - I never thought of breaking it down into three simple steps, but that's basically my process. Lovely, will be using this :)

  4. The alphabet can be so difficult! Great post, though. Good luck with the challenge!

    Dianna Fielding

    1. Ha, it's true. I'm sure I'm not alone in still needing to sing myself the alphabet song when I get mixed up...right, guys? guys??


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