27 March 2009

Mercado Centrale, Las Ramblas

Oh oh oh. (sigh)

And Speaking of Italy Let's Talk About Rome.

Ah, Rome. I painted this out the window of our small hotel, when I was in Rome with Jim. Jim would go out and explore in the mornings--this day I think he'd discovered some faux-crypt, sculpted, perhaps, of real human remains...it was very luxurious sending him out to do all the church-looking while I took my time lounging by the window, and he would return with sfogliatelle and cannoli and other divine Italian pastries. While I waited, I painted. This. I'd boiled up a little water for tea, and continue to paint. It was April and it was beautiful every day. In a few days we would depart for Vietri, amazing ceramics, and more pastries.

Milan Canal

Did you know Milan has canals? Yup. Those wacky fascists paved them over so tanks could lumber down them during WW2. However, a few canals remain; perhaps all the better to schlep down munitions, who knows. This canal'd street was where my lovely Milanese friends Fiorella and her partner, Argentinian cartoonist Jose Muñoz, lived, where I stayed a couple of times, years ago. Where are you now Fiorella?

Urban Sketchers: I'm there!

What I've decided to do for awhile: post some paintings of urban landscapes. I've done these for years, on and off, and this site is very inspiring. So even though I am dead tired and should take a nap, I am going to upload an image or two. Urban Sketchers, wait up!

17 June 2008

It's Probably Nothing

I found out today that my friend Sue in England died.

The details are not yet in, but from what I know it goes something like this: It’s a Tuesday early in June, and at 6 AM the edges of the green green grassy hills of Kent are lit with chartreuse morning light. A big, old stone house sits in the middle of a pasture, in a little valley, and as we peer inside, a pleasant-looking fiftyish schoolteacher is just waking up. She’s wearing an oversized T-shirt with a red and blue media company logo on it, and tries to gather her wits about her. She winds bundles of mahogany hair around her fingertips as wakefulness takes hold, and then stretches as she yawns.

Her husband Ian snuggles up closer to her, snoring lightly. He has a great head of gray curls. She shoves him playfully and he rolls away. She tosses a pillow onto his head. He grabs the pillow and relishes the feeling of his head sandwiched between the crisp, cool linens. He’s a video engineer who works long shifts half the week and is off the other half, so Tuesday morning Sue lets him sleep.

She relaxes for awhile in her quiet married king-sized bed with a cup of coffee made fresh from a bedside alarm clock/coffee maker; there’s even a small fridge below, in the nightstand, so she’s got milk without going downstairs. Ian has always loved installing convenient gadgets and filling their house with comfortable toys. Wishing as always that she could go back to sleep, she suddenly remembers that a friend is coming to visit the school today with her daughter. That’s better, she thinks; something special to look forward to today.

Soon, Sue is up and dressed in a sleeveless red cotton frock with light blue flowers. Clip-clopping around the house in stylish, low-heeled gladiator sandals, she’s preparing her own children, Rupert, 13, and Phoebe, 10, for school. A flurry of clothes and books and cereal bowls later, they’re all outside, sliding open the squeaky doors of their navy blue Land Rover, then slamming them shut. She winds her way east down a country lane, and as they rise up out of the trees, the sun finally makes it over the horizon. Sue’s heavy-lidded brown eyes are squinting now; her unusually tapered, impeccably manicured fingers adjust the visor so she can see.

Sue teaches kindergarten in a nearby school. She’s always been energetic. Tall and tan, with a low center of gravity, she moves with a bounce that belies middle age. She’s got a classic adenoidal East End accent full of dropped aitches; final consonants all become effs, and she’s even prone to rhyming slang. She’s got big teeth and full lips and everything she says sounds like a joke, even if it’s not intended to. This imbues her with a misleading air of ditziness. She’s oddly demonstrative for an Englishwoman—this is why the kids love her. She also has a keen interest in sharing the physical properties of the world with little kids: how fast an “ice-lolly” stick hits the floor; what happens when you mix up a couple of household powders.

At around ten, Sue collapses in front of a classroom full of young children, just as she’s about to lead them out to the old slate courtyard for morning tea (or whatever they call their mid-morning snack). All the children are wriggling to the front to see what’s happened to Ms. Mullings, who seems to have fainted.

From what the email from Laura—Ian’s sister—said, Sue died soon after, and they still don’t know why, though heart trouble is suspected.

I was just gearing myself up to work on a couple of logos that are overdue; I have trouble keeping up some days, and it’s just been busy lately. People add on endless additional tasks, and it is up to me to schedule them somewhere. I have allowed one incredibly needy client to take up time that should have been spent on other jobs, and my other clients are starting to notice. I want very much to learn new ways to make my client’s websites, and there’s so much to see online. So I sign up for a new Adobe color service, Kuler, and try to figure out how it works. This will help me pick a palette for the next logo, I think, but it requires a newer version of Flash, of course. Doesn’t everything? How much newer a version of Flash can it require? My computer is only four months old.

In the middle of it I get an email from my sister in New York about how we need to talk about my parents’ finances. Then she says, and of course it was so awful to get that horrible email with the news from Laura. That’s all she said.

Oh my God, I think, what news? I think, oh God, something’s happened to one of Laura and Roger’s kids, or Ian and Sue’s kids. Or someone has cancer. It’s probably nothing, whispers the voice in my head that always says it’s probably nothing. I think, someone’s been in a terrible auto accident, or Laura’s got breast cancer. It’s probably nothing, goes the voice that always says that. Ian once had Guillaume-Barré Syndrome, I remember vaguely, and that was pretty weird, but it’s history now. Maybe it was really Lou Gherig’s Disease after all. Maybe it’s something that I have too. It’s probably nothing, goes the voice.

What does this remind me of? Well of course there was the morning of September 11th, when my sister called from New York to tell me the World Trade Center had fallen down. It’s probably nothing, said the voice that says, it’s probably nothing.

“It’s probably nothing.” I said, having just arisen on another peculiar Tuesday, at 8AM Pacific Time.
“No, I’m not kidding, the entire World Trade Center doesn’t exist any more…” said my sister, and so on.

You know the rest of that story, of course. I didn’t believe her; if I thought about all the awful things my sister tells me, I’d probably have to be hospitalized. She sees people get killed in the street; she steps on rusty nails and breaks her feet for no reason and has to go to weird emergency rooms. She sits in parking lots with my crazy 88-year-old parents in bad neighborhoods in Queens at 3AM while my parents are freaking out and explains to them that my mother’s pain medication won’t be ready for an hour. She is a bearer of bad tidings, and I hate her for it. My feet are planted over here, fresh mist curled around my ankles like I’m the Jolly Green Giant, surrounded by artichoke fields and brussels sprouts, redwoods and walnut orchards, leaning over the Pacific Ocean like italics, going, It’s probably nothing.

I did my job, I procreated. What more do they want from me? Now I have a son, who brings me and my family cute stories that entertain and enliven the party. Even September 11th brought fourth a cute story from California: After my sister called, I summoned my ex-husband to my apartment; I was shaking like a leaf, and completely unable to make Liam’s egg salad sandwich. When we finally sat Liam between us on the couch, it was obvious something was up. Then I said Honey, some people sometimes do bad things and blow things up; then his dad said, Sit still, Honey, you don’t need to get dressed, there’s no school today. My adorable son, who was eight and in the third week of third grade, looked from one to the other of us incredulously. “They blew up my school?” he asked, with a widening grin.

Always, with a story.

What email from Laura? Somehow I’d missed it.

I met Ian when I was 18 years old, and he was a counselor for a program called Camp America. He worked at the same summer camp as me, Camp Delaware. I remember little about it, except that I met Ian, who was the first real English Person I ever knew, and I thought he sounded like George Harrison, which was really naive because George was from Liverpool and Ian’s from Bexley. I felt like the coolest counselor at camp with my English boyfriend, though he acted inscrutably restrained. All summer long Ian kept reciting Monty Python routines: Nudge, nudge, wink wink, know what I mean? I didn’t, but I laughed anyway, as if I did.

The following year when my friend Wendy and I made our debut trip to Europe, we stayed with Ian and Laura’s family. Ian and Wendy and I were hippies, unlike Disco Queen Laura, who preferred the The Hughes Corporation to Joni Mitchell, out in the back garden in Bexley sunning herself on a chaise lounge with one of those metallic cardboard sun reflectors. We thought everything was terribly charming and their family was so nice to us; after that we sent people to them and they sent people to us on a regular basis.

Since that first visit, I visited many times, with my husband and subsequent boyfriend, and sometimes alone. Laura married Roger and Ian married Sue and we all had children and Laura grew out of her disco stage, though she’s still quite the party girl. I first met Sue in 1983 when she and Ian were living together with a house full of roommates in Chiswick. This time Ian was going on and on about The Young Ones, and I got it. I was there through Thanksgiving, and they’d requested Mexican food, so I looked all over London for tortillas to make turkey tostadas. I had to make do with papadams.

I’ve taken snapshots of them that I cherish, and I’ve done paintings and pastels from these pictures. They are my British family, and I will always be here to welcome them and their friends and family. This brings me a sense of peace and connection, and rounds out who I am. I am a person with just a few very special friends and relatives fanning out around the globe. I have fun with them when we’re together. They are gracious hosts. We will always be there for one another.

Until today, when I found out that Sue died.

I can’t concentrate on logos. I went into a vacuuming—Hoovering?—mania and ingeniously cleaned out the vacuum’s filter with a plastic fork; then I vacuumed my heart out, with my iPod on. When I heard “The Things We Do For Love” by 10cc, sobs burst out of me, like in a soap opera. I’d been thinking about how we all sent telegrams when Ian and Sue got married, because that’s what you did. For their wedding I sent a reproduction vegetable-serving dish from the Santa Fe Railway china that I love, very American. And when they had their babies, we sent baby clothes or fuzzy toys. They have sent us my favorite clock, Noddy, Postman Pat, Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush and Absolutely Fabulous. Now I guess I’m supposed to send flowers. Just like, that’s the next thing you do? Telegrams, baby clothes, cool media, flowers. Next! Is this just the first of a lengthening chain of funerals, now that I’m middle-aged? They’ll snowball for awhile, the chain of funerals, and then they’ll stop?

I must call Ian tomorrow and break the chain. I must bring meaning to the chain; I must honor Sue by making the rest of my life count, and do all my logos on time so I can make my life better, and go to England and cheer up my friends and not just send flowers.

I ended up digging out a digital file of an old pastel painting I did of Sue and me in their garden when they lived in Greenwich, and fixing it up. The original is huge, like a mural; pastel dust caked on brown paper, rolled up in my closet. I’m wondering if it’d be okay to send the digital image to England, since it’s not really that flattering, and doesn’t really resemble her. But it reflects, to me, the sunniness of Sue’s personality. All day I can hear her distinctive voice clanging “don’t get your knickers in a twist,” followed by her nasal, maniacal laugh, as if, somehow, if I fill my head up with all of her chattering, it will somehow balance out the horrible silence of her absence.

02 November 2007

Very Not in England

I keep putting off writing about my recent trip to Far Eastern Queens to take care of my parents. I'm not sure why this is: I think mostly it's because I have so many thoughts about it that I think it could really be a novel. Of course, it's a lot easier to think about how something could really be a novel than to sit down and really write that novel, or even to sit down and rant about some of the major points.

Which I am going to try to do here.

I have always had trouble just writing down major points because to me every point is major. I start feeling sorry for the slightly non-major points, and then sorry for the sort of wanna-be-major points, and so all the points get written about equally. It sometimes takes literally a year for me to look at something I've written and ask myself "what on earth made me think that was important enough to write about?" Maybe that's why I've been blogging at the rate of about once a year.

About the trip, yes. I recently returned from New York where I was trying to help out my parents, who have been married for 63 years are both pushing 88. They still live in the apartment I grew up in, in Bell Park, which is a post-war (that would be World War Two) housing development of approximately one square mile, encompassing about 1000 "garden apartments." The apartments are what I think are now referred to as "town homes," and many of them (like my parents') have front and back doors and a little postage stamp of grass in front and back. Most of them have red brick on the bottom and white clapboard on the top, or just red brick all over, with traditional grey tar-shingled roofs and lots of fenced-in "drying areas," playgrounds, benches and laundry rooms scattered about. And trees, lots and lots of trees. This one used to be a tree nursery before it was built around 1950, so it's full of perfect lollypop maples and less refined, scraggly old oaks and aloof birches and weeping willows and fat, jolly old chestnut trees.

The first time I went to Liverpool and saw Paul McCartney's house I was astounded to see how much Abbey Road was like Union Turnpike, and Paul's house in Allerton is a garden apartment — just like the house I grew up in! We thought the Beatles were so exotic; no one in Bell Park wore Beatle boots until the Beatles actually wore them. I often wonder if this is why I've always identified more with working-class British movies and novels than the [Fun with] Dick and Jane and Baby Sally of traditional America. My grandmother didn't live on a farm with cute baby chicks; she lived in an apartment building in Brooklyn that reeked of a thousand pots of chicken soup.

Anyway, my mother came down with shingles, not the tar kind, and she really sounded horrible. Now, she's not exactly the type to suffer in silence, but really, everyone says shingles is unbearably painful, and the more I heard from my sister and my dad the more concerned I got.

For those of you not hanging with the Swinging Shingles crowd, shingles is a kind of Second Coming of chicken pox, speaking of chickens, and it's caused by a crappy immune system. The kind you might have, say, if you were almost 88 and kind of depressed, and all your friends and contemporaries were dying or dead, and you were obsessed with your bowels and your aches and your pains, and grieving because your husband who used to run a restaurant and build furniture and totally took care of you your whole life is no longer smart enough to make dinner or even figure out the remote control.

Being Little Sister, they usually try to protect me from such unpleasantries, and treat me like I'm about six years old and will only get in the way. That's why I was surprised when my mother actually welcomed the idea of my coming out to help. She welcomed it almost as a little girl would, too: "Really?' she said. "You'd come? That would be so nice." I was honored she was going to let me take care of her. Well, I thought, I have a fourteen-year-old, maybe she finally trusts me.

She's obviously not in her right mind, thought I, because usually she gets all stressed out about how she's going to have enough in the Meat Tray, and where I'm going to sleep and whether she'll be able to make it to the beauty parlor in time. But this time she seemed like she wanted me to come. In a way, I was moved.

I waited a few days to make sure she was serious, and my sister, who is eight years older than me, agreed that it would be helpful, especially because we'd been trying to get my mother to take an anti-depressant for about ten years and it seemed like finally she was ready. Besides, nortryptaline, the one I thought she should take, happened to be listed as one of the things people take for something icky called Pain After Shingles. So we could actually tell her it was for pain, as opposed to just her being unbelievably annoying, which she probably knows is why we wanted her to take antidepressants all along.

I actually used to wish my mother was an alcoholic like my ex-boyfriend Jim's bitter, sarcastic-but-adorable mother Dotty, because Dotty was Catholic and Suffered in Silence while she smoked cigarettes and knocked back Manhattans. But then Dotty only lived 'til she was about 74.

So off I went. To treat myself, I made a reservation on Virgin America. I thought I could pretend I was going to England. Anglophile that I am, I actually checked to see if I could extend my trip to England for a few days; what the hell, I'll be halfway to England anyway, and I have friends there. But apparently Virgin America only identifies itself with Virgin Atlantic to get you interested in flying on it. As soon as you book the reservation the mystique disappears. I got a little suspicious, actually, when I watched the fancy Flash movie, and a fridge full of glossy bottles of spring water was the only image accompanying the word "snacks."

"I was wondering," I inquired, by telephone, "If there was some way of extending this trip to include a little side trip to England? Maybe make New York a kind of stopover?"
"I'm sorry, ma'am" said the customer service representative. "Wha-ir not really associated with Virgin Atlantic in any way."
"You mean, I can't tack this mileage onto my Virgin Atlantic miles?" I asked, horrified.
"No ahm afraid you cain't" she said, in a very distinctly non-English accent. I was a little crushed.
"I'm surprised. I mean, it's Virgin and everything."
"Yes, ma'am, many people make that mistake, but ah don't know wha-ir they get that ah-dea," said the CSR.

Maybe because of the advertising, I thought. Maybe using the same logo? Maybe that it's owned by the same company?

It reminded me of when in the old days we used to get our photos on paper from the drugstore, and they had finally put a "24 Hour Photo" sign in Walgreens' window, and when I brought my pictures in, the guy said, "That'll be ready Wednesday" and it was Monday.
"I thought it was 24 Hours? " I said, with obvious disappointment.
"That's just a logo," said the clerk, the one with the bushy eyebrows who always looks at me like he remembers the nude pictures of me from when I was pregnant. Probably because they decorate his bedroom mirror.

It was just a logo.

Well, I knew I wasn't going to get fed, and I knew I wasn't going to England, but Virgin Atlantic gave out cool yellow cotton eyeshades with provocative little words printed on them, and made playful references to the Mile High Club in their onboard magazine. As soon as you were on the plane you knew you were in swingin' England. As soon as I was booked on this plane I knew I was, uh, not in England. Very not.

Incidentally, I had actually thought I might be going to England this fall, when for about an instant I thought I had a little extra cashflow, the instant right before I found out that the high-pitched screech coming from my front left wheel meant I needed a new hub. A hub! Not a hubcap, a hub. I had no idea you could actually mess up your hub. I thought the most expensive thing your car could need was a new clutch. Turns out, a hub costs just as much. So much for the extra cashflow; a bientot, Angleterre.

So one of my wacky but lovable clients gave me a ride to the airport, and I boarded the plane, knowing that probably the most fun part of my trip was going to actually be the plane itself, which is a pretty depressing thought, but sleeping on my parents' couch wearing my old Virgin Atlantic eyeshades and earplugs and having to face the fact that my mother really was miserably sick and that they were so damned old and would never be the way I think of them in my head didn't sound like all that much fun. I closed my eyes and tried to think about sex.

[to be continued]

03 September 2006

The Last Divorced Lady on Earth

I love Burning Man.

The best thing about it is that there are so many parking spaces in my neighborhood this weekend.

As my son Liam and I were returning from a party this evening, a charming couple of women from Canada and London happened by, and we chatted in front of my building in the misty San Francisco night air.

"Oh, there are plenty of spaces this weekend on my block," I gushed. "It's Burning Man."

I babbled on. "Actually you can block that driveway across the street, as my neighbor isn't there on weekends, and there are only workmen during the week." I was divulging classified information I wouldn't share with my grandmother. "The City lot's on 21st Street, Gramma," I'd say. "Vat?" she'd answer, if she were alive and didn't live on Ocean Parkway and drove a car. "You vant I should park dare? In dat doity LOT? Oy, Jul-is, vere goink."

Well, back to the party I was returning from. Instead of Burning Man, I went to Burning Chicken Thighs, but unfortunately, when I requested a breast, I was given one with yellow, goose-pimply flesh. The Burning Thighs looked much better. When they make a movie of this post, the chicken thigh shot will symbolize guileless yet wanton lust. There were also Burning Sausages, and some Burning Corn-on-the-Cob, which I saw birthed from the grill and swaddled in aluminum foil, but they were whisked away like they were struggling for life and I never saw them again.

The best thing was this salad that had Wasabi peas (is Wasabi an ethnicity? a geographic location in Japan?) and fresh white corn and limp lettuce leaves and mozzerella cubes we mistook for jicama until we realized they weren't crunchy. The salad was provided by an elegantly-dressed German woman who I noticed immediately looked sort of like me: tall, blonde, she wore big white sunglasses like mine, the kind that should be worn under a silk scarf knotted at the chin and over a 1964 Peugeot convertible. I wondered if I was as scary-looking as she was. She looked so sophisticated, in that Eurohip kind of way, like a woman who designed BMWs or curated for the Secession Gallery in Vienna. I thought about getting a haircut like hers. My hair was flying all over the place like when I was 14. I needed a silk scarf knotted at the chin. I ate a little Burning Tri-Tip.

"How did you think to put Wasabi peas in there? I asked, eloquently. "What a fantastic combination of flavors!" She looked at me like I was an idiot. "I don't know, I was looking around the kitchen for some nuts, and all I had was Wasabi peas." Sure, I know the feeling, I thought. I like to put 'em on my Cheerios. They're awesome on pizza. It's fusion-style cooking, yes? My friend Marty recently told me he made Potato Salad Mole. I thought that was more like confusion-style cooking. Do they have mayonnaise in Mexico? You never see it in your burrito. Marty's very friendly; he could've loosened up Fraulein Wasabi Peas considerably. We could've shaken her down about whatever else she liked to throw into her eclectic salads: scarlet Italian anchovies, Eritrian sourdough starter, grubs.

I was looking for Intelligent Life at the 50th birthday party of a pleasant-looking stranger named Matt. But most of the Intelligent Life there was married. If they weren't married, they were 13 and playing video games. I love married people. Married people are great—hey, I was married for a couple of decades myself. But why do I often feel these days like the only divorced person on earth? All these married people look so goddamned happy. A few years ago, when I had a boyfriend, the Universe was full of divorced people. Divorced men. A few straight men, even. And now I'm the Last Divorced Lady on Earth.

One guy made eye-contact with me as soon as I arrived. Then he stood next to me and I just knew I wasn't very excited about it. His eyebrows were knitting furiously, as if he was suffering from intestinal pain. He told me he met all his dates at AA meetings. This made me want to drink. I was more excited about wooing the Wasabi Pea lady.

Then I spotted him: a guy who looked just like my cute ex-boyfriend, One-eff Geof, but not as crazy-looking. I walked up to him and said, "You look just like my ex-boyfriend, One-eff Geof." He was very pleasant, an architect, friendly, and even laughed at my jokes, and then he introduced me to his brilliant gorgeous daughter who is just graduating from Lowell (San Francisco's version of the Bronx High School of Science) and his good-looking wife, and left. I started worrying about whether or not I should be worrying about whether or not Liam will get into Lowell.

Finally I relaxed a little. I ate some cake. Then I ate some more cake. I talked to a couple who knew my friend Lisa. (Everyone knows my friend Lisa. Haven't you ever heard of the game, "Six Degrees from Lisa Gross?") The female half of the couple liked my button jewelry. We talked about having pubescent children. She was a Corporate Executive and Baby Masseuse, and he was a Landscaper. She made Martha Stewart seem a little lazy. They'd brought some drink involving vodka and cucumber slices; a recipe she'd found on the Schweppes website. OK, hands up— who has time to be a corporate executive, massage babies professionally and surf soft drink websites? I gave this perfect, gorgeous couple my card in case they wanted to buy any button jewelry. Then, just as Walk This Way by Aerosmith and Run DMC came on, we had to go home.

I thought about last year, when the people in New Orleans were suffering so, and the people at Burning Man had no idea about that until they came home. I thought about how, as each year passes, I become less and less interested in Burning Man. I still don't get it; it still doesn't get me. If I had all the time and money and energy it would take me to go to Burning Man, I thought, I'd go to Paris, or Prague. I'd rather go to the fucking moon. I'd rather sit in my car in a great big parking space right here on my block in a silk scarf and white sunglasses and just savor the experience.

03 December 2005

Middle School Dèja Vû, All Over Again

For ten years I've been a member of a group of women — 1/5th of them men — that are involved in some way with the Web. It began as "webgrrls SF," but within a couple of years became San Francisco Women on the Web. I am on a few professional lists from which I get a ton of email, but this list is the one I've been on the longest, and in many ways it is closest to my heart. I even attend a live event once in a while. A fellow early participant in these events was this sweet, nutty guy named Craig who had this weird idea about doing some kind of web listings bulletin board. As the Web has grown up, so has Craig's list, and so has Women on the Web San Francisco. There are writers, coders and other technical geeks, designers, marketing people, project managers, photographers, filmmmakers, musicians, caterers and many many more talented people on this list. I know that if I need something: advice on who should host my blog, suggestions for a spa to take my squeamish East Coast relatives, or just to process an unpleasant business experience I can write to sfWoW and get what I need. I give back to it too, when I can. For example, I happen to have the address of the very best inexpensive but very comfortable small hotel in Paris. And, no, I'm not telling just anybody. But I owe it to sfWoW, because they' ve always been there for me.

So recently there have been some sfWoW postings about blogs, and I wrote that it was hard to keep up with because, aside from my business, I had middle school homework to do. Then a couple of very nice, well-meaning fellow "Wowsers" who do not currently have middle-schoolers under their roofs wrote in wondering why that was, and whether it was the right thing to do or not. "No one ever helped me do my homework in middle school!" they claimed, in that "When I was a boy..." tone, you know, like Michael Palin going "We dreamed of living in a cor-ri-dor!"

Which forced me to write a Middle School Parent Rant. I started a riff which got into a groove which took me on a trajectory that went off like, like something that takes off really really fast.

I had something to say to those non-middle-school-parents who think it's wrong for parents to help kids do their homework. I didn't think it was right either, when my kid was little, attending the smallest alternative public elementary school in the SF school district, in the sprouty old Haight District, with about 15 kids per class. Back then, I also had a boyfriend with a daughter who was in middle school, a daughter who I thought should be allowed to sink or swim on her own, too, and I complained often that he was doing too much of her homework. But now I know why.

Now my son goes to the second-highest ranking Middle School in the SF School District. I am glad he didn't end up going to the number one Middle School because I hear they give "too much homework." I can't even imagine what that's like. I was initially all for it, but now I know what "too much homework" really means.

There are 38 kids in each of Liam's classes. This means that each teacher cannot make sure each kid understands the homework assignment, or even what is going on in class from minute to minute. One of Liam's teachers is is rather soft-spoken and likes things done a very particular way — not that there's anything wrong with that — but Liam was spacing out on him totally from day one, from the first row. So, being in Early Seventh Grade and still a little Unclear on the Concept of homework generally, he gave up paying attention to Social Studies homework for several weeks, because he kind of felt it was hopeless. My 12-year-old son didn't know what to do and just decided to pretend Social Studies didn't exist, something I remember doing in college when...well, all of college, one particularly hazy semester. So being that Liam couldn't drop out of Seventh Grade like I dropped out of Junior Year, he sort of shoved it under the table.

Then his Social Studies teacher called me, which was considerate of him. I had trouble hearing him on the cell, and I was also in the doctor's office doing something demeaning, like begging for an extra month of pills in case of a natural disaster while wearing a backless paper dress. Liam was terrified when I found out about the Social Studies problem. But I know I have a good kid, and my first response was, what on earth is going on that would freak him out so much that he would do this? Liam is by nature a rule-follower; I knew he must be pretty freaked out. He was having a little Management Skills problem.

In Middle School, boys have a lot going on: they're growing like weeds, their bodies are doing weird things, their friends are forming rock bands, their voices are changing. They are being flirted with by cute girls from all over the globe and don't know how to feel or act, they're really, really disorganized, and their #1 priority is not to look like a dweeb. Boys generally are a couple of years (like, 25) behind girls in maturity. Girls tend to be more organized. And somewhat artsy boys with some attention issues (like my son) zone out easily: he didn't have strong enough glasses and he was living in a fuzzy world and he liked it that way. During Fourth Period, Liam liked being an impressionist. Social Studies was situated between Gym and Lunch and it's hard to focus right after working out, when you're hungry. He was granted permission to eat a piece of fruit or liquid yogurt in Social Studies, but this offer was recently rescinded by his teacher, who said he was abusing the privelege by moving on to his whole sandwich and even dessert. I personally think he was trying to work up the nerve to order a pizza to be delivered to his desk like Spiccoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Liam also lives in two households that are sometimes not communicating optimally.

So Liam's parents were told by his teachers to keep track of his notebooks and his papers and his projects and especially to keep on top of what he needs to do for homework. This is the first time he's got all different teachers for different subjects, and it's a challenge; it's not like he needs to sink or swim just yet. For heaven's sake, he's twelve. He gets to wear training wheels. He's a baby adult.

Another reason kids need help with their homework is all those "cool" teachers who like "creative" ( 3D or Powerpoint presentations or audio-enhanced) assignments/projects, for which they are so busy being creative they often underestimate the time required for kids to do them. There is no law that says they need to test-drive these on real 12-year-olds. They just get a bee in their bonnet, and Assign!

Recently Liam was asked to do a 6-panel comic for Social Studies about the Muslim faith. The teacher told me we'd love this assignment because he knows I am a cartoonist. Initially I was enthusiastic, but I was appalled soon enough, as he gave only 3 days to pencil, ink, write, and letter a 6-panel comic. I am a professional and this process takes me a week! I suggested Liam use stick-figures due to the time-crunch, and they looked kind of tribally postmodern. All the figures were men anyway. But it was rejected because Mr. K said it was "offensive to Muslims." None of us has been able to figure out why it was offensive, but he was asked to do the whole thing all over again. Perhaps I'll post the original here if anyone is interested in seeing it and you can tell ME how it was offensive. I'm still trying to figure it out.

I called the teacher and said that professional cartoonists need to edit sometimes, but you are permitted to do your edits over the art by whiting it out or pasting paper over the original, so Liam shouldn't have to do the whole thing over. This of course leads to another much more interesting topic, which was whether it's okay for a teacher to "reject" an assignment because he disagrees with a student's point of view, and this is indeed an issue. Had I gone down that path I would still be in the Principal's Office arguing about the First Amendment, which reminds me of the Billy Bragg album called Talking to the Taxman about Poetry. It just seemed futile. So I decided to pretend Mr. K was Liam's finicky editor and to have him make the changes and hand the damned thing in and get it over with.

Since Liam's stepmom (let's call her "Martha") and I are both artists and of course wildly creative, and his dad's also a writer, we all work together on ideas for these "creative projects" and help bring Liam the materials to build stuff. One project that worked out very well was his Labor Day project for English. I suggested Liam research the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire on the internet which is gory and fascinating and great Labor History and my grandmother's friends died in it, and I didn't even know about it 'til Ken Burns' documentary on New York City, in my forties, which is ridiculous since I grew up there. Liam learned all about Labor Day in a very riveting, memorable way. (This Cornell Web Exhibit is fascinating). I did go from store to store on 24th Street to buy a bunch of those tiny Guatamalan dolls to use as people to jump out the windows, because none of us — even ambitious Martha — had the time to make them. (Here is a photo of Liam's project. I am particularly fond of the squished shopgirls on the map of NYC. They are made of Halloween blood.)

The point of school is LEARNING about the world, and I had to ask myself: did Liam learn from this? Of course he did. I don't want it to be about learning that you are bad if you want to spend the evening talking with amusing houseguests or shelling peas or snuggling with mom reading a book rather than doing oodles of homework. Homework should be manageable: it should fit into an ordinary workday, i.e. there shouldn't be more than 2 hours of homework a night. Generally. With a few book reports and tests to study for, this should be enough. Some kids are set up better to do homework than others: they are genetically predisposed to doing things more efficiently, or have faster web connections, or have a nicer space to do homework, more or fewer siblings, fewer chores, or don't have to worry about which house they left which books in. I try to do my best.

I object to the fact that it is quality family time that is impinged upon by the school system's inability to take proper care of our kids' education during the time allotted. I think a GOOD school that is run well doesn't have to have so much homework, as the children are working hard and are focussed during the school day.

I don't DO his homework, but I make sure he knows what he's supposed to do, and listen to him say "Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom..." every 5 minutes while he's doing it, because he's excited about what he's doing and wants to show me. It's hard for ME to focus on MY work or write my blog while this is going on. And, being a City parent, I want him to do well enough so that he goes to a decent high school and not the one in my neighborhood, which I hear isn't very good, and if he winds up there I'll have to shoo away visions of Columbine and worry that kids he plays with after school might have guns in their houses. [I am exercising enormous restraint here because I would like to fly off into a tangent about how if all our neighborhood schools were good, and government subsidies were going to public schools rather than K-Mart, children would be able to walk to school, and not have to have their moms or dads waste petroleum products and precious blogging time by driving across town twice a day to drop them off and pick them up.]

Still, there is nothing like The Arts to get across the essence of the thing, so at the risk of having written the world's longest sfWoW post I wrote a short playlet of what life is like here at home between 5:30 and 7 PM on a typical weekday middle-school family night. I don't think the folks at sfWoW liked it much because, so far, almost everyone's ignored it, but maybe since you already like my writing you'll enjoy it. It may sound familliar to you, and I would love to learn how you manage this delicate time. In any case, thank you for reading this.


Liam (doing English homework at diningroom table): Mom, how do you spell "interspersed?"
Mom (trying to work on other side of room while burning dinner): Look it up, honey, the dictionary's right over here.
Liam: But it's not IN the dictionary, I tried looking it up in class. Just tell me how to spell it.
Mom: No, Liam, it is in the dictionary and you just have to walk across the room and get the dictionary, which is next to my desk under the little green table, and look it up yourself.
Liam: Is it i-n-t-e-r-s-p-i-r-s-e-d?
Mom: No, Liam I don't think so. Go get the dictionary.
Liam: Is it i-n-t-e-r-s-p-e-r-s-e-d?
Mom: Yes, ok, yes, I think so. Liam will you check on that rice over there please?
Liam: What does it mean? I have to write the definition.
Mom: Get the dictionary.
Liam: Does it mean, like, spread out all over the place?
Mom: (sigh) Yes, Liam, that's what it means!
Liam: OK, I'll put that.
Mom: Are you supposed to write the dictionary definition or define it in your own words?
Liam: Um...The dictionary...no, in my own words is ok....uh... (trailing off)
Mom: Are you sure? What is the assignment? [Mom gets up from desk, sniffs, goes over and sees that the bottom half of the Trad'r Joe's Instant Risotto has become a black frisbee stuck to the bottom of the pan] Oh shit, I have to deal with this...
Liam: I have to use it in a sentence.
Mom: So use it in a sen---wait! OW! Ow! WAIT LIAM! I JUST BURNT MY — [phone rings, it's a client who owes me $1500] A sentence, yeah. Liam, I have to get this [puts up special hand-signal we have for when Liam shouldn't talk to me because it's a business call.]
Liam: I can't use it in a sentence. I don't know what to write.
Mom: [hanging up] What have you written so far? [goes over to table which is near the kitchen, sees Liam's loose-leaf page with some sloppy scribbling-out and several Manga-style pictures of warriors and various Japanese instruments of torture drawn around it] Liam! This is a mess! You can't turn this in!
Liam: Oh, she said it's ok.
Mom: No, it's not ok, I want you to do that page over. Where's your sentence?
Liam: Well, I couldn't really think of anything so...
Mom: Well, think of something.
Liam: I need HELLLLPPPP!!!
Mom: [trying to figure out whether Blackened Risotto might not be all that bad...] Interspersed. Think of a sentence using interspersed.
Liam: Mom---!
Mom: Liam! I am not speaking to you any more. You do your own homework, and if you can't, fine. Suffer the consequences. I don't care if you flunk out of middle school. But let me tell you, if you do really badly they'll kick you out of the GATE (gifted) program, and you'll have to go to a crappy high school, and crappy high schools have tough kids that often aren't very nice to skinny kids with glasses, and they'll eat you for breakfast. So if you don't want your life to totally, totally suck, I would (comes over and lovingly pulls Liam's head and neck out of the socket between his shoulders, pushes his shoulders down off his ears, straightens his chair) SIT UP STRAIGHT AND TAKE A DEEP BREATH AND START A NEW PAGE AND GET THIS STUPID THING OVER WITH! YOU'RE UP TO THE JOB!! Sit up! Put your butt in the chair!! Face forward!!
Liam: (whining) I'm hungry. Is dinner ready yet? (pauses; looks wryly at the contents of the pot in Mom's hand; smirks) How about "There are a few little yellow grains of rice interspersed between the burnt ones?"
Mom: Yes, Liam, that's excellent. Among the burnt ones. That's fine.

01 December 2005

The Carefuls

An early gig at the famous Mather Club, right.

My girlfriend Catherine and I have started a rock band. It's all pinched-looking moms with glasses — well, so far we've been lucky — and we're called The Carefuls. True, we don't have as many lower-back tattoos as some other girl bands, but we make up for it with our vast experience doing middle-school homework. Having a kid in middle school isn't absolutely required — but it helps.

Our first release will be two songs (we just can't get over that old-fashioned "A" side "B" side thing). The "A" side is "You'll Put Your Eye Out With That," and side "B" is "When Peter Gets a Job." We have a few other songs in the works: a spirited cover of the Kinks' "Tired of Waiting," and others: "I Ovulate for Tim Robbins," "Ask Me if I Give a Shit" and "I Googled your Mom for her Cranberry Mold Recipe."

We're looking for gigs — after the holidays, of course, when we have a little extra time, all those pesky crafts projects are off the dining-room table, and the kids are back in middle school. Anyone interested in talking to us, especially on the air, especially Terry Gross, can contact us here.

27 October 2005

Will Write for Food

Yes, I admit it. I write for money. Sometimes I have to write a certain way, and when I do this, it's usually for money. For instance, I liked this restaurant a lot — but there are less than flattering things I could have said also. I just left them out. I still want to go there again, especially for their "Chef's Night," and the people there were quite charming. But, truth be told, it was a little hokey on the artsy-squiggles-from-mustard-squeezebottles side. And some of the food was just plain...silly. But, hey, I'm a professional.

So I am posting this piece as a sample food review. If anyone reading this wants me to write about their restaurant or travel business, please feel free to contact me. Oh, and yeah, I apologize for the punny title. I couldn't help it.

Nouvelle Comfort Food: The Beet Generation
by Violetta Dei'Contorni

"It's like...a work of art...but it also tastes delicious, like someone was really paying attention, orchestrating the flavors."

"Yes" said my equally-satisfied dining companion. "It's like...you know, Nouvelle Comfort Food."

She'd nailed it. That was exactly what it was. I was dreading knocking back another disappointing, bland Stacked Food Extravaganza, and this was precisely NOT what Rogue Chefs was. It was different. Like everything had been newly conceptualized not only from the plate upwards, but from the back door to the table.

We oriented ourselves in their beautiful new digs, ordered the special wine-tasting sampler, sat back and sharpened our palettes.

Rogue Chefs is part of an expanding culinary movement in the food service business that supports what is increasingly being referred to as a "sustainable lifestyle." Think seasonally-appropriate, local, organic hand-picked fruits and vegetables — from the neighborhood if possible (and in Half Moon Bay, that's very possible) — in concert with hormone-free and antibiotic-free meats, and seafood from local fishermen. Heirloom varieties of produce are nurtured back into the food supply, and food that is locally grown is always favored over food that requires petroleum products to show up on your table. Cumbersome packaging is also no longer necessary, and the food industry's tendency to breed crops for easy shipping and storage rather than flavor and texture is eschewed. This is all good news, and the good news is Rogue Chefs does it beautifully.

In addition, Rogue Chefs has re-conceptualized the whole idea of a restaurant; this isn't just a restaurant: it's a "culinary." According to founder Kevin Koebel, the Rogue Chefs seed was planted in his head while enjoying farmer-to-farmtable home cooking in his native British Columbia. This seed kept germinating throughout a successful international chef's career in North America and Europe, where he repeatedly was dismayed by the widening gap between fresh, just-plucked treasures from the orchard or garden and star-counting restaurant patrons. According to their website:

"The Rogue Chefs Culinary is a place where chefs can cook with fresh product [pulled] directly from the dirt for the person standing right in front of them. There are no buffers. There are no recipes. There are only classically trained chefs who use their five senses every day with ... passion and inspiration..."

The night we were there, Kevin was cooking. He came out to answer our questions about the food; I could tell my dinner was safe in his hands, and he and the rest of the staff had good listening skills and took a real interest in our suggestions. The dining room, at [address here], is gleaming and new, and in a separate location from their mouthwatering take-out counter down the street. In the dining room, the physical and psychological wall between kitchen and dining room is broken; Kevin cooked for us in plain view, as if on a stage, with a keen willingness to share his love of ingredients and artful presentation. This theatricality only made more true what Shakespeare said: all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely chefs. Or something like that.

But back to our sumptuous dinner.

I always enjoy the experience of tasting familiar foods in a new context. For example, the general paucity of good British restaurants encouraged me years ago to seek out their excellent health-food establishments. With their original interpretations of, say, salads, these places were years ahead of American sprout-and-lentil joints. A chilly land that had only recently become able to depend on a full spectrum of fresh international produce was having a quiet food revolution, setting the stage for unusual but heady combinations: a salad of radishes, walnuts and chickpeas; a "beetroot" mélange with tangerines and pinto beans. These eateries, often tucked away in odd corners of museums and dead-end cobblestone streets, were not bogged down by our generations of customary American vegetable combinations (coleslaw, carrot and raisin salad, three-bean salad). The witty Brits applied themselves to their expanded palette with the playfulness of a kid with a new box of crayons. I adore a good fresh coleslaw, but there were times when eating a "Beetroot Salad" at the overcrowded, subterranean Food for Thought in Neal's Yard was positively exhilarating.

Which is where I am going with the Marinated Local Beet Salad at Rogue Chefs. The warm, bright aroma and flavor of the locally-grown beets just leapt out at us. The accompanying celeriac-mint coulis, or fruit purée, was carefully chosen for its contrasting coolness, soft texture and contribution to the complementary color scheme of the canvas (in this case, a square white plate). We also ordered the Crisp Seared Ahi Sticks. The rare, lightly pan-seared ahi — a favorite dish of my companion — was also a knockout, even for a seasoned pan-seared ahi connoisseur. Lightly battered and fried rolls of seaweed wrapped around toothsome tuna tidbits are bias-cut and displayed artfully on a plate of perky, clover-like frisée greens — but this dish is more than just a pretty plate. It offers up such sparkling-clean chords of flavor — think the first few chords of, say, Pinball Wizard the first time you heard them — we didn't know whether to ogle the presentation, listen to what our awakened taste buds were telling us, or take pictures. We did all three.

Although there are no "recipes" per se, there are guidelines, of course, so that the food does come out looking and tasting like the food described on the menu, and of course the ingredients list needs to be consistent with its billing. I wanted to order everything on the menu, but I had to control myself and just go with one more appetizer. The words "Portobello" and "Napoleon" appeared together on this menu for the first time in my vast reading history, so I decided to have them bring it on. To be honest, I'll order anything that involves the name of any petite French dictator: appetizer, dessert, whatever. This was my least favorite of the three, but only because it was on the small side, and I wanted more. (Next time I'm getting the Truffle Flan).

So I was delighted with the main course: Pan-Seared Australian Beef Filet Mignon Medallions with Truffle Risotto and Spinach. Local is best, of course, but it's also good to throw in a bit of the exotic. Frankly, the fact that Rogue Chefs isn't too terribly politically correct is part of its charm. It was a hearty plateful, and it tasted spectacular. It was Vertical Food, all right, but each story stood up on its own, especially the deeply-flavored greens, sandwiched between the meat and the risotto. Each layer contributed to the layer beneath it so there was more than just "presentation" going on here, there was richness of content.

We also enjoyed a similar dish made with chicken and herbs, which would be a welcome alternate choice for those not wishing to be too politically incorrect. There are also vegetarian and seafood choices available on the menu, which reads as lyrically as a love poem from Dylan Thomas's Under Milkwood.

We were sharing, Chinese-food-style, and my companion was intending to bring some of our leftovers to her significant other, but that was becoming increasingly less likely. Reluctantly, I allowed them to take the entrées away, only to have them replaced by a large, lavender-infused Crème Brulée with two spoons, reassuring her that I was finally finished. In my book, there's always room for anything-infused Crème Brulée.

Rogue Chefs' crew are chefs and other restaurant personnel who have come there on a quest to reconnect the earth, the food, the five senses, the people and the community. You can dine at their restaurant and wine bar Tuesday through Sunday, or eat lunch there on Saturday. In addition to having restaurant hours, Rogue Chefs provide private food services to peoples' homes, especially those who are too busy to cook every night. They also host wine tastings, and, of course, cater special events.

Wonderful prepared food is available at the Rogue Chefs Catering Company deli counter. They also run classes and workshops for beginners to more advanced cooks in basic cooking, baking, sauces, soups, cake decoration and so on. You can sign-up for special 6-8 course dinners on Friday and Saturday evenings for 15 or less people and enjoy direct interaction with the chef. These meals also offer wine pairing from different regions, including information about wine makers and farmers. They also bring in chefs from different parts of the globe for special evenings that spotlight various cultural dining experiences. For more information or to sign up for one of these events, please phone 650.712.2000 or visit their comprehensive, well-designed and easy-to-navigate website at http://www.roguechefs.com.