Things that have not changed:
Things that have not changed:
I'm vacuuming the inside of the car at one of those coin-operated car wash places, and I only had enough quarters for one cycle, so I really have to be efficient if I want to get all the pet hair and crumbs out of the car before I go to pick up this person I want to impress, and it's a two-door car so the back seat is tricky; I'm banging my head in the door frame, and the suction is inconsistent so sometimes it adheres so tightly to the back seat that I have to throw my whole body backwards to rip it loose, and sometimes the hose tangles so that there's no suction at all, and I'm waving the nozzle ineffectively over a chunk of old...something, and the noise is awful, and I don't know how much time I have left, and I should have started with the passenger seat obviously, but now I'm wedged in the backseat so I feel like I should finish here first, the stress of how I should have planned this better is layering itself over the stress of running late, and the stress of knowing that the only way to get done is to focus on what I'm doing right now and not on what I should have done then or even much on what I will do next, and the noise is reverberating and deafening in the cramped space.
I'm running so hard and I'm faster than whatever is chasing me, I was running and their breath was on my neck and I was so scared but now I am arms and legs unified in a dance of escape and freedom and poetry, I am so nearly out of danger, I know they're behind me but I'm sure it's far, I'm a machine of nature, I'm power and flight, I'm not even out of breath, I'm past breath, I'm just running and running, my hair is spectacular ribbons in the wind, and I turn around to see how far behind me it is and I trip over the thing I forgot to see.
I'm so tired and I need to take a nap, but there's construction next door and I think I won't sleep through the banging hammers and the chalkboard scratch of the drill. Suddenly I realize that the noise has stopped. Are they taking a break or are they gone for the day? I give it fifteen minutes, twenty. It's still quiet. They must have stopped. I could have already been napping, what was I waiting for. I get into bed, I'm shivering with how tired I am, I'm asleep even before I get the blankets arranged perfectly around me, I need this so much. And suddenly the cat is crying outside the door, hungry even though I just fed her, and it wakes me up from my five minute nap and I don't like her in the room when I'm sleeping because she always knocks something over but the crying is so insistent and I can't think straight, so I get out of bed, the floor cold on my feet and it shocks me fully awake, I put more food in the bowl and I'm trying not to curse her because she's just a tiny old lady animal. I get back into bed but she's still crying so I get up and let her in and dive back into bed, the covers are a mess and I have to get up and straighten them so I can sleep, and I snuggle under the blankets which are still a little warm from my five minutes, I do the breathing that always helps me sleep, let go of the stress of the day, let go of the stress of the construction, the stress of the cat, let it go, let it go. The cat knocks the ukulele off the shelf and I want to get up and kick her out but I can see it's not broken and maybe that's her knocking things down and now I can sleep. Let the fear of her waking me up go. Part of my brain is waiting for my nap to be ruined by something but I'm really trying to just fall asleep, I'm so tired I can't think, I need to sleep. The hammering shatters through the shimmer of the dream that was starting.
Three parts: the ingredients, the kitchen, the chef.
We like the ingredients to be fresh, seasonal, familiar to the chef.
We like the kitchen to be clean, well-lit, stocked with all the gadgets that are necessary and none of the ones that are not.
We like the chef to be capable, adaptable, knowledgeable, creative. And it does come down to the chef; I mean they don't make reality shows where the kitchens or the ingredients compete. It is the chef's ability that determines the quality of the meal, ultimately. You can't entirely blame the chef for coming up with a sub-par meal with ingredients purchased entirely from gas station vending machines, but it's definitely the chef's fault if the meal is burned or unpalatable.
I have no idea why this metaphor, which was so brilliant after a few glasses of crisp white wine the other night, is so hard to shape into words now.
What I want to say is that YES the ingredients matter, YES the kitchen matters, I don't think they don't, but I'm looking at the chef, and my judgement of the meal is there. Because that's the person who combined raw elements and environment and their own personality to make something that worked. Or that's the person who failed to. And anyway that's where the narrative is: how the chef read every cookbook available, how they tried different spices, temperatures, cookware, ways of pressing garlic, whatever. Some chefs go into the kitchen and flip a switch and don't care, and it shows. Sometimes the ingredients are so fresh they can't be ruined by such a lazy approach, but when the ingredients are ruined... well, you get my point.
Chefs that interest me: they love food. They care about how the food is received, and they think about the guests as much as they think about their own tastes, not because they want the guests to love THEM, the chefs, but they want the guests to love THE FOOD; they want the food to be as delicious as it can be. I like chefs who can adapt, I like the ones that say, "Gas station vending machines? That sounds interesting!" I like chefs who take what they learned at home and keep what works and don't hesitate to throw out what didn't. I like the ones who care so much about what they do that you can see it in the way they hold a knife, the way they put the plate in front of you.
Chefs that don't interest me: the ones who want to talk about how much they love food; the ones who want to discuss their preparation process with anybody other than other chefs unless they are asked; the ones who praise their own cooking instead of letting the food do the talking. The ones who consider gadgets necessary, rather than just helpful; especially especially the ones who want to talk about the gadgets more than they talk about the ingredients themselves. Too much ego in the game. I know I've said the chef is the interesting part of the narrative and the most responsible for the outcome, but I like the ones who pretend that's not true, who let the ingredients speak for themselves.
Maybe this doesn't work because it's not just one thing, it's everything. I see the assignment, the software available, and I'm interested in who does the work; I see the characters and the plot but I'm interested in how you write it; I see your children and the environment but I'm interested in how you parent. The question maybe is: if you don't see it this way, why don't you?
There's this old woman who lives in my neighborhood, across the street. She has to be in her eighties, maybe older. I see her almost every day, usually doing the shopping. She is tiny and frail and a sharp dresser, often with heels. Sometimes she doesn't wear make up, and some days she wears more than I do in a year; I get the feeling that she's doing her best but going blind, so to her the giant clown circles of rouge and the smear of bright red in the general area of her mouth probably look just about right. Her hair is a crazy mop of gray, usually styled up quite deliberately in the front and then basically like a windstorm hit it in the back. What you can't see can't hurt you.
We often see her with a man, I assume her husband, even more frail than she is. They hobble around the block together. Lately he's been using a walker. When they get to the door, he opens it for her, but he's so weak it takes a really long time, because he has trouble holding the weight of the door and moving forward at the same time. Sometimes Squire wants to run across the street and help; sometimes we just stare out the window and admire them. The determination, the eventual success. It's hard to not think about aging.
I do not want to be old and frail, though as long as I can still toddle down the hill to the store and back, I won't feel frail. Or even if I am frail, I expect as long as my mind keeps working I won't be too bothered. I don't imagine I'll make it as far as these two, anyway. Into my eighties? It seems unlikely. The thought of thirtyplus more years seems kind of exhausting. I mean, I like my life very much now, but what would I do with thirty more years of it? Would I, in thirty years, finally master the art of applying lipstick? Or would I finally have given up? Would I still suck at the ukulele? Would it make a difference if there were somebody to hold the door open for me? Would the teenage boy across the street come running, if I baked him cookies? Should I learn how to bake, sometime in the next thirty years?
There is a child who has been learning to swim and is actually getting pretty good at it. The water an unfamiliar thing for so long, and the child still doesn't much like getting her face wet. She swims chin up, eyes determinedly fixed ahead, legs pumping, arms swooping in mostly graceful arcs, in small and certain bursts. Every few minutes she drops a foot down to touch the bottom of the pool, just to touch it, not because she needs to stand but because she needs to know she could, at any moment. Swoosh, swoosh, foot tap. Swoosh swoosh, foot tap. You're in the ocean now, beside her, beyond the soft sandy beach that slopes gently down into waves. Just out past the waves, where the water is about waist high, you start swimming together, parallel to the shore. You're not, honestly, a much better swimmer, and you also hate getting your face wet, and you both sputter and laugh whenever a little wave splashes up your noses, but the salt water is so much nicer than the pool and the buoyancy is incredible and you feel, oddly, safer. Suddenly the child's head dips under the water, just for a second. You realize you've drifted a bit out, and the water is now over your heads. But it's so easy to move back, it's just a few feet, it's not like you're in a riptide, but oh, she's panicking. She's flailing and splashing, too afraid to cry out. It's hard to reach her and pull her back when she's striking out like this; her fear infects you, because on the one hand you want to smile and calm her but also she has to stop hitting you or you won't be able to pull her back to where she feels safe. It's not like you can sit down and rationally explain to her that she WAS swimming, that she CAN swim, that she hasn't needed to touch the bottom for a while; there's no time to explain anything. The water is frothing around her, you've finally caught hold of one hand and you're tugging her towards you but she treats you like a sea monster intent on her destruction. The blue, blue water. Her terror. Your knowledge that all that will save you both is staying calm, even while you feel your own feet checking, reflexively, to see if you're back to where she can feel safe. The small part of your brain that wants to think about that, how we're actually both always safe and never safe. The white sand of the shore only just out of reach. The sting of the salt in your eyes.
The sea is never the same twice. Today
the waves open their lions-mouths hungry
for the shore and I feel the earth helpless.
Some days their foamy edges are lace
at my feet, the sea a sheet of green silk.
Sometimes the shore brings souvenirs
from a storm, I sift spoils of sea grass:
find a broken finger of coral, a torn fan,
examine a sponge's hollow throat, watch
a man-of-war die a sapphire in the sand.
Some days there's nothing but sand
quiet as snow, I walk, eyes on the wind
sometimes laden with silver tasting salt,
sometimes still as the sun. Some days
the sun is a dollop of honey and raining
light on the sea glinting diamond dust,
sometimes there are only clouds, clouds—
sometimes solid as continents drifting
across the sky, other times wispy, white
roses that swirl into tigers, into cathedrals,
into hands, and I remember some days
I'm still a boy on this beach, wanting
to catch a seagull, cup a tiny silver fish,
build a perfect sand castle. Some days I am
a teenager blind to death even as I watch
waves seep into nothingness. Most days
I'm a man tired of being a man, sleeping
in the care of dusk's slanted light, or a man
scared of being a man, seeing some god
in the moonlight streaming over the sea.
Some days I imagine myself walking
this shore with feet as worn as driftwood,
old and afraid of my body. Someday,
I suppose I'll return someplace like waves
trickling through the sand, back to sea
without any memory of being, but if
I could choose eternity, it would be here
aging with the moon, enduring in the space
between every grain of sand, in the cusp
of every wave, and every seashell's hollow.
There are some faces that I love to look at, have loved to look at, even when my love for the person has so completely evaporated that I barely trust my memory, I still feel such pleasure in the tilt of their eyes, curve of lip, chicken pox scar, whatever. There is still, in their faces, something of what initially pulled me to them. Other faces as my love faded the veil slipped and they became unattractive on the outside as from the inside, until they are just faces, flowers of no particular interest.
And then there are faces I almost can't bear to look at.
What I am wondering this month, as I fail to watch another political debate partly on aesthetic grounds, is whether these people were born with terrible faces and then gradually developed personalities to match them, or whether their faces reflect their personalities. This one constantly surrounded by every stale fart in the world, judging from the curled lip and the pinched nose. This one with his lips pursed tighter than any sphincter needs to be. These faces physically repulse me, and yet other people must find them attractive. What is that about?
I walk down the street and look at faces and think about chickens and eggs. Is this the face you would have chosen, if you had a choice? Were you born looking like the world had failed to meet your expectations; arms crossed disdainfully already on the playground, a bossy dissatisfied child; does the thin upper lip reflect a disappointment you were born with? Were you born this way and your personality grew into it, or did your looks grow this way because of how you lived? The result is the same, I guess, so maybe it doesn't matter, but I have a half smile, slightly widened eyes, and I'm asking.
Last night an angry bee was bothering me as I took a leisurely stroll down a narrow path that seemed mostly like a grocery aisle. Flapping my hands in front of me to get rid of it. I don't know why I didn't just turn and walk the other way; this fuzzy yellow creature was obviously intent on stopping me. Fwap fwap fwap with my hands at it, effectively blowing it out of my way on puffs of agitated air until finally it landed on my hand and I couldn't shake it off, and I felt the stinger go in. A mixture of pain and... relief, then, because now the thing I had been dreading happened, and now the bee would die so I could proceed unhindered. Except it kept coming at me. A wasp? Is it bees that die and wasps that don't? And which are hornets? I could feel my hand starting to swell. I just wanted to get to the end of the path, where it opened out again; also, I wanted to find tweezers to get the stinger out, and they're on another aisle. I am, even now, confused about why I didn't turn around. Instead waving my hands, sometimes brushing against the fur of a very determined and angry hornet, the buzzing, the pain in my hand. I put a scarf over my head, tenting it over my face so the hornet couldn't sting through it, then wondered where the scarf had come from and why it was so heavy and finally woke, buried under the blankets, sweating and frightened and very confused. I still need tweezers.
There is one piece of playground equipment in particular. I think it's called the spinner? It's hard to find any more, as they're clearly death traps. When I was little, the spinner was a large round platform about a foot off the ground with several metal rails on it that you were supposed to hold onto for balance. The less popular kids (I think this is how it was decided?) had to hold the outer legs of the metal rails and run in the inevitable mud around the spinner until it got some good momentum going, and then jump on and enjoy the vertigo-inducing spin, holding on tight or risking being flung right back off, as the outer edge was the riskiest place to be but the momentum made it hard to move inward once the spinner was in motion. If you were already on the spinner as it was being spun faster and faster, your job was to stay on and not vomit, which was easier if you were towards the center of the thing, and had not just drunk your chocolate milk ration too quickly. Ah, childhood.
There's a modern version of the spinner now, a one-person deal, which I find excellent as I do not and never have played well with most others. This version is a pole in the ground, slightly tilted with a one-person platform for standing. It involves just one good kick off the ground to get it started, since you're only pushing for one person. It starts to whirl pretty fast and all you have is the one pole to hang on to. The instinct is to hold on really, really tightly, because it feels like everything about this innocent-looking playground thing wants to hurl you directly off of it.
But here's what's funny: if you almost let go, if you open yourself to the wind whipping at you, if you go so far as to fling out your arm and leg, counting on just one hand to hold you in place ... it slows down. It stops feeling so damn scary. The magic that made the inner circle feel safe on the spinner of your childhood is the same magic physics that makes it such that when you are alone, the best way to stay upright is to spread out, open yourself up, even though it really feels like the safest thing to do is shrink and cling.
Which is not a metaphor for anything.
When I was young I loved red wine, a good in-your-face red that stained my teeth and shriveled my tongue, I sat in the bar I could walk to from my hovel in south San Francisco and wrote to him on the back of a paper placemat: "cheap red wine will always have a place in my heart" and I thought it would be true for ever but then one day it wasn't. One day the taste was bile and tears; I, who will still drink vinegar mixed with salt water for the sheer joy of it can no longer stomach the sour retch of red wine; even the smell turns me.
When I was young I loved beer, I loved the ritual of popping off the top or of finding someone who knew how to tap it right and swearing feudal loyalty, I loved collecting beer mats, the toasting rituals of different cultures, information about the breweries. And I loved the beer itself, the slight bitterness, the way I felt full and refreshed in equal measure, a warm slice of bread in liquid form. And then one day it wasn't good any more. I told her: "this is one of the greatest tragedies of my life" and she said my life must not be that bad, but it was a loss. One day I couldn't stand it: the smell, the taste, the fermented sick of it.
When I was young I will not say that I loved this thing but I tolerated it in people I loved. But can you blame me now, now that I am older, for pushing myself back from the table and saying: I have had my fill. My body soft at the edges as if blurred, my mind though now so sharply honed on the whetstone of enough. Enough. I am not critical if other people like it but please understand that for me this is like an allergy for which there is no treatment: I simply cannot take it, the dark green yellow of this particular behavior; the cocked head, the pointed finger, the backpack of your privilege, the litany of your knowledge. Enough, thanks.