Sunday, September 28, 2008

Cooking In the Storm

Two packages chicken breasts
Two heads Bibb lettuce
1/2 pound fresh mushrooms

It’s a dark, damp morning, the day after the first presidential debate, and I am writing my grocery list in my head. The house is still, the silence all-encompassing, a microcosm of the silence of a nation holding its breath. My fears today are many – some justified, some no doubt extrapolation – but I seem unable to delineate one from another. And so I do the one thing I know how to do in both good times and bad. I cook.

1 bottle dry cooking sherry
1 large bunch red grapes

My little grandson, who came to us four years ago by way of south Korea, is four and half now. He’s in kindergarten where he’s learning to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The big words are tricky and the concepts mud puddles. But he stamps his feet in them and splashes until he’s drenched with their majesty -- the rest will come later. For now it’s enough to put his hand over his baby heart and cut to the chase, “Flag of the United States of America! Liberty and justice for all!”

2 cucumbers
1 container Parmesan cheese

Early this morning I saw two deer. In the space of time before the sun has fully risen deer blend so seamlessly with the backdrop of trees they are nearly invisible. If you want to see them – really see the grace and shape of who they are-- you have to look hard. If you focus on their color you’ll miss them every time.

1 loaf artisan bread
2 large tomatoes

Words tumble over words in my head, but I can’t bring them to my mouth, can barely force them out through my fingertips. I should be out canvassing the neighborhood, signing up voters, working the phone banks. I’m a world class talker – ask anyone who knows me. I could talk the legs off a donkey and sell the pope a double bed, but right now all I can do is cook. So I will do that then. And when I have chicken, and rice pilaf with mushrooms, salad, and bread, I will pack them all up and take them to the Democratic party headquarters to feed the young volunteers who are here from Chicago, Rhode Island and California. They crash on family room floors, eat whatever presents itself, work until the wee hours and then repeat it all over again day after day. They breathe life into the words my grandson shouts and the ones I can’t articulate.

1 bag celery
2 green peppers

I am silent today. My voice is stilled by anger, but mostly by grief. I am sick over what’s happening to our country, sick that Barrack Obama must contend with the circus his opponent is trying to make of the election during a time when our country is literally cracking open like an overripe pomegranate. We are bleeding, we are gushing blood like a geyser, and his opponent and the woman he is using for his own selfish means, are apparently insulated from the spatter. But we are not insulated. We are black, and white, Asian and Hispanic, sick and well, Christian and not Christian, straight and gay, poor and middle class, employed and unemployed, young and old. If we don’t succeed in making a difference this November we will continue to have no buffer from the raging storm of greed and lies they so neatly couch in words like faith and Christian. The last safe haven may be this kitchen. And so I will go there today and cook for Barrack Obama.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Ike's Last Breath

The last breath of Hurricane Ike blew over the Midwest rather spectacularly on Sunday. Nancy and I usually walk five miles on Sunday morning, but decided to delay until afternoon to get a few things done at home. Nancy showed up around five and almost immediately the many trees in my backyard started rockin’ and rollin.’

“I think we’re cooked,” I said. “Might as well sit down and talk.”

CRASH! The outer door of the screened porch flapped in the wind like Sarah Palin under the scrutiny of Charlie Gibson. Porch trees and plants fell like dominoes and one of several small decorative windows at the top of the screens imploded, leaving the brick floor littered with blue glass and smashed wood. I grabbed the door while Nancy saved a decorative stained glass panel and together we moved all the furniture as far back against the wall of the house as we could. At this point Nancy decided maybe she’d better make sure her own hatches were battened down and made a dash for the car. I stood at the door in amazement and growing apprehension. Our trees are not saplings. If they fell … My next thought was my husband who was in Indiana doing an outdoor show for his business. According to the Weather Channel, Cincinnati was hardest hit and he was but one hour away from Cincy.

By the time Ike gave up the ghost power was out in much of the area and the yard looked like a war zone. Eric had managed to get through on his cell phone earlier and all was well in Indiana, though the connection was so full of cracks all I heard was “me … okay now … okay?” By ten p.m. I had the glass cleaned up on the porch and Mickey the cat ensconced once again to take in the night air. The real work began yesterday.

By eight I was outside with a stack of leaf bags and a rake. A huge branch I’d heard glance off the office window was now impaled in the fence. I may be a hundred pound weakling, I but sang that old Helen Reddy song in my head “I am woman, hear me roar …“ and wrestled it out and around the house to the curb. Meanwhile next door, a crew showed up at the neighbor’s house to perform the same ablutions. I chatted with the workers awhile and then we all got down to business – they with their rip-roaring machines and me with my rake and leaf bags. The day was dank and overcast, but a sudden flash of joy filled me from the top of my head to my sandaled feet. We made it! We survived! The wet leaves and debris smelled fresh and earthy and I breathed in their scent glad to the core of my being that I was out there doing what I was doing.

Not long after this, the owner of the house with the crew strolled outside with his coffee for a chat. I know he thinks I’m a tree-hugger and he’d be right about that, especially since it was my trees that had left their body parts all over his bare, green expanse of lawn, but I think he sort of likes me anyway. We talked about the damage and I said, “There’s sure a lot to be done out here, but then that’s the price of paradise, right?”

“Well, I wouldn’t say THAT,” he replied.

I guess paradise is wherever you find it. For me it's right here on this street in this town in Ohio.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Death, Stories And Fresh Eggs

My mother used to say that death always comes in threes. This year two local booksellers died, one whom I didn’t know, and Doug Gunn whom I did. I miss the latter at book sales and will no doubt feel it keenly next week when we go to the Wooster AAUW sale. Last year I picked up a book there and heard a voice behind me cry, “Stop! Don’t do it!” I turned around and there was Doug laughing at my near mistake. He’d almost bought the same dud-in-disguise himself the very same morning. The last time I saw Doug was last fall at the Ashland sale when we both crowed with delight when they announced a ban on scanners. Doug was the first “old school” bookseller who made me feel like we were classmates, something I appreciate as much now as I did all those years ago.

I guess my mother was right about death pulling a trifecta though because on Monday Rob Levandoski, writer and bookseller (Two Bird Books of Akron), died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. Rob’s third novel “Fresh Eggs” was a 2004 Pulitzer prize nominee. The New York Times called him “a distinctive literary voice deserving to be more widely known.” I agree, which is why I think nature, God, the Universe, whatever, Whoever, got it wrong this time. But of course I don’t get a vote.

Last evening my friend Nancy, who is another local writer, and I went to calling hours at the funeral home. It had been a dark, rainy, glum day straight out of one of those Victorian English movies where they shoot from above, panning a sea of black umbrellas at the graveyard. For two days all Nancy and I could do was email each other endlessly. And yet for all that outpouring of emotion we were still shocked, sad, and so sorry for Carol, his wife of only five years. As we knew it would be, it was a rough go, and there were tears involved (mostly mine as I can cry on a dime), but we thought of a funny story about Rob and laughed our heads off too.

A few years back, Rob, Nancy, and another local writer, Betty Wetzel (who has also since died), were asked to be part of a panel discussion at the library about the writing life. Before it began, the moderator, who would never be accused of having a sense of humor, asked the trio if their publicists burdened them with too many events.

“Are you kidding? I had to sleep with mine just to get this gig,” Nancy deadpanned.

Picking it right up, Rob asked Nancy, “Do you think maybe you could sleep with mine too?”

Betty, a sly wit with a great Olympic laugh, cracked up and pretty soon everybody but the moderator was on a roll. Poor guy -- he looked like he was trapped with three live grenades and no access to the SWAT team, which I guess in a way he was.

I love that. Not only is it quintessential Rob, but it’s also the Ghunga Din of stories. We told it, and for one normal second laughed in the face of death. The best stories are like that though. They embolden us, make us strong, brave, and hopeful that there really is life not only after death, but in the face of it. Somebody famous (I forget who it was and I am not in the mood for research) said, “Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it.” I don’t know about genius, but I’ll certainly attest to magic and, most definitely, power. Without the stories, without all the pictures Carol had placed around the room, without the books and newspaper articles, Rob's first press pass, and his old antique typewriter -- all stories in their own right -- how would we ever have dealt with that much sorrow? Stories not only embolden us -- they save us too.
P.S. I just opened Rob's book "Fresh Eggs" and read the inscription dated four years ago. It says, "To Tess, Stop getting rich with the business and start writing again. Rob." I never got to tell him that after a six year dry spell, I finally did.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Form and Function

It’s official! The new library is finished and back up on the town square instead of operating out of an old DIY store as it has for the past two years. Today is Opening Day, but lucky me, I’ve already had a good look, thanks to a red and black invitation which summoned Eric and me to a special, guests only, sneak peak Thursday night. I was insanely excited to go and had been for weeks, but by the time the witching hour rolled around I felt as much relief as I did anticipation. A week ago today disaster struck the library.

We were blissfully unaware of it until Monday morning when Eric brought in the local paper. I was down the basement, as I am every morning from five a.m. to seven-thirty, wrapping books and listening to the radio. I love this time of day -- there’s just me, the orders, the credit card machine, the bubble wrap and the radio. I wrap, think, sing, dance a little and generally enjoy the solitude. It’s rare to have it interrupted, so when Eric hollered for me to come up I took the stairs at breakneck speed

Silently he held up the paper. The headline screamed “Sprinkler Floods Library.” One look and the wail of anguish was proportional to the destruction of the great Library of Alexandria. Nooooooooooooooooooooooooo! Say it isn't true!

But it WAS true. A frozen sprinkler in the attic thawed and spontaneously let loose in the adult fiction section drenching the floor with four inches of standing water. Dedicated staffers showed up Saturday night and worked into the wee hours of Sunday morning to save what books they could. A trailer was quickly dispatched from a moving company and the books piled onto it to be taken away and freeze dried. Of course some were lost, but the vast majority may well be saved. And best of all, the Grand Opening would still take place. It was okay, it would be okay. But the potential loss still unnerved me.

The night of the sneak preview it poured rain, but I dressed up as the occasion warranted in understated black topped off with the drop-dead vintage Hattie Carnegie gold choker I got for Christmas. Inside it was a gathering of the tribal leaders -- a party with books. But I barely noticed even the people I knew. I am not even going to try to describe the building. Just think contemporary chic without the hard edges. Just think dazzling.

I couldn’t help but compare it to my first visit there back in the early 70’s. Newly married and fresh from the big city, I was totally underwhelmed. But over the years it got better and better -- so much better that the ALA deemed it best in the nation a few years back. And now it is housed in an architectural wonder that far surpasses the new replacement library in my home town. (Think cell block. Think ugly.) As I stood there ruminating on that I recalled a conversation I had not long ago with an educated woman who actually said to me, “I think libraries are an anachronism. Who needs them? You can get on and order anything you want.”

Yes, you can. Those of us who are fortunate enough to indulge can indeed do that. But not everyone has the discretionary income to order up books like Happy Meals. Libraries are a democracy, the one true equalizer sharing their wonders with everyone for the price of a small card. We need libraries. We need to see before our own eyes the depth and breadth of our culture. No, of course not everything humankind has produced is there -- there’s a decided shortage of papyri and incunabula -- but what is there is not chosen by vast corporations who have reduced what we read to the mechanics of “turning product.” At the library the small gems still glitter quietly and those who mine them are instant millionaires.

I need the library. I need to be in the presence of books that are not for sale. I need to see the old men reading magazines, the children scampering about with such unbridled glee they sometimes forget to use their inside voices. I need to see the retired teachers loading up on mystery novels, the teenagers gathered around library tables doing homework (well, a little homework) and the business people tapping away on computers. I need to return again and again to the place that nurtured my spirit when I was a small, unhappy child. I need the library to remind me who I was and who I have become because of it.

An anachronism? Hardly. In fact, I’ll be going back today. The sneak peak was all about form. Today is about function.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

"My Darling Ellie ..."

One of the most magical things about being in the book trade is how frequently a special book or piece of ephemera will gravitate to its perfect home. Perhaps none has done that so spectacularly as something I got last year -- some would say “by accident.” However, I think it was meant to come to me, so I could be the conduit to its new and perfect home. If I hadn’t already known this, I would soon have learned it, as tangible proof arrived in the mail at Christmas -- a gift so amazing I had to share it, as well as its bittersweet story.

It all began last winter when I bought a box of turn-of-the-century Delineator magazines at an auction. I knew there were five or six in the box, but what I did not know was that underneath lay a small trove of ephemera consisting of a few letters, a utility bill receipt, a membership card for the Rosicrucians, a packet of old negatives from a pharmacy out west and a beautiful luggage label from a hotel in India. Delighted at my unexpected good fortune, I immediately set the magazines aside and sat on the floor to savor it all, beginning with the letters. As most booksellers who deal in ephemera will attest, most found letters are not keepers. While I personally enjoy reading about getting in the crops and the improvement of Grandma’s influenza, most people aren’t nearly so charmed.

But these letters were special -- I could feel it. They were addressed to a woman aboard a Japanese liner in the Pacific Ocean. The writer was from a college in India and the date was 1933. Carefully, I opened the first envelope and extracted a single sheet of thin paper written on both sides in flowing, if hard to read, script.

“My darling Ellie …”

Words as melodic as a waterfall tumbled from the pen of a poet. By the time I finished the last one, my spirit was in Ghandi’s India, overcome with sadness for these two star crossed lovers who could not possibly have remained together. The writer was Indian, the object of his affection an American. Sadly, the stub from the utility bill confirmed what I already knew. Thirty years later the woman was still Miss Ellie -----. Held up to the light, the negatives showed a woman in western clothing of the 30’s surrounded by the architecture and saris of India. There was no sign of an Indian lover, but how could there be? Such a thing was unthinkable then. An interracial love affair must be secret, a treasure in one’s pocket.

For several weeks I vacillated on what to do with the letters and the rest of the items, but finally decided to list them for sale. Almost immediately they sold to a long time customer from New Mexico, a geneaologist, who saw them initially as an interesting project. Right away she began digging into Ellie’s past and every so often would report back to me with her findings. Ellie was a Midwesterner, a teacher. She lived out of state all of her adult life, but was buried in the Midwest. A little tidbit here, a scrap there, but it wasn’t until April that Cindy called with the big news.

“Tess, the letters are not from a man. They’re from a woman. This was a lesbian affair. I’m positive of it.”

At first I was surprised, but almost immediately I knew she was right. “Yeah, makes sense. “ I said. “Remember that part about 'I wish I could have cooked for you?' No Indian guy in the 30’s is going to say something like THAT!” We laughed and quickly adjusted to this new dynamic.

What an intrepid woman Ellie must have to have been to ventured on such a journey alone and then to have formed such a dangerous liaison. Not only was it against the rules of the day to cross racial and religious lines, but to cross the gender line as well was potentially explosive. After this discovery, however, Cindy seemed to hit a dead end as nothing more was reported, though we did from time to time ruminate on "our girls" and wonder how it had ended and whether hearts had been broken. We hoped they hadn't, but felt sure they had.

Then in December a manila envelope arrived in the mail from New Mexico. I opened it and extracted a clear plastic sleeve. On the top was a photo of a temple, clearly in India. My heart raced. Immediately I knew what this was. Cindy had had the packet of negatives developed and sent me a few copies for Christmas! There were three pictures in all. The second showed a tall, strangely compelling woman in a sari. I knew at once it was her, the poet with the astonishing command of language. For a moment I studied her face. She was not pretty in the traditional sense, but a quiet strength, an inner light, so radiated from her that my first response was to whisper, “Oh, look at you! You’re beautiful!” I could certainly see why Ellie had been drawn to her. What I was not prepared for, however, was Ellie herself.

Ellie proved to be a short, dumpy woman in a polka dot dress wearing a straw hat from which dangled a clump of artificial cherries. She was seated on the ground next to the extraordinary woman in the sari enjoying a picnic for two. There was no question about the relationship. Had we not known before, we’d have known then by the way the woman in the sari regarded her, her hand laid so lovingly on Ellie’s arm and Ellie’s obvious discomfort. In one of the letters mention had been made of Ellie’s fear of discovery and here it was --captured by the camera in black and white. How different these two were, I thought, and yet who is to say what draws two people together? The woman in the sari would not be one to be taken in by surface beauty - that much is clear --so Ellie, too, must have been a woman of substance.

Of course we still don’t know how it ended and probably never will. All we know is that a few scraps from the past revealed a seventy-five year old secret which Cindy and I both feel morally bound to keep. For this reason I have changed Ellie's name and obscured the face in the photo. It was our privilege to share it, but the secret belongs to Ellie and her lover. It is, and will always be, their treasure in the pocket.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Cooking Up A Coincidence?

Anyone who has read this blog with even a passing interest (though I suppose thanks to my long absences nobody qualifies), I am enchanted by serendipity. Today was one of those delightful days when paths cross, stars line up, and thoughts are given a strange nudge from an Unseen Elbow.

On December 27th I listed a very nice copy of a limited edition, self-published book that struck me as rather unique -- Bake Slow and Sure; Heirloom Recipes from the National Road Era. Though there was neither a commercial, nor an academic, publisher to lend credence, a quick perusal proved that it was mercifully not one of those embarrassingly awful books that only the author’s friends will buy (and then only under duress), but a credible piece of workmanship. Actually it’s sort of two books in one -- a biography/history of Jane Skiles Byers and her husband, John White Byers, the author's great-great grandparents, who handed down the generations a very old cookbook, and also a cookbook itself filled with recipes from the National Road Era of 1818-1851. It was in new condition and signed by the author at the Fort Pitt Museum in 2003.

Late this morning the phone rang and who was on the other end of the line but the author himself, Frank La Cava. All 2000 copies have been sold, he told me, and though he may get around to reprinting it, right now he’s too busy writing a second book. We chatted for awhile and I found him a most learned historian and altogether guileless and charming in his delight in authorship and its resultant benefit of “being fussed over.” I wasn’t entirely sure why he called, but it didn’t matter -- it was a lovely interlude.

We hung up and I went back to the task of listing books. Almost immediately the bell on the computer dinged and I checked my email to find an order on my own website for Bake Slow and Sure. At first I thought Frank had ordered a copy himself, as I regularly sell authors their own first editions. But no. This copy was ordered by a woman in Pennsylvania to be shipped to a man in Albequerque. How weird is THAT, I thought to myself as I wrote her a note asking if it was a gift and if she would like me to gift wrap it and enclose a card with her message. Almost immediately she phoned. Yes, please, she would like it wrapped for her twin brother’s birthday.

“Both my brother and I love to cook,” she confided. “I hadn’t a clue what to buy him and so I was just fooling around on Google and it led me to you and this book. We were talking at Thanksgiving and I told him that I have our mother’s cookbook and he was anxious to make some of the recipes we ate when we were kids. There’s something about food from the past, the way it looks and smells and tastes that makes you remember. It brings up so many stories.”

This was getting downright eerie. Back in the late 90’s I wrote a book about storytelling that Reader’s Digest actually excerpted. A few weeks ago I was interviewed by a local newspaper about storytelling and the elderly. I didn’t want to do it, but the reporter was an old friend, and I couldn’t say no. To my amazement it was as if no time had passed at all since I wrote the book. I found myself talking with such passion and interest I felt like I'd been plugged into the wall socket. Later I thought maybe it was one topic I could actually revisit. As the days went by the idea kept popping back up. First I thought I’d try to resell an updated version of the original manuscript. It is, after all, the sole book with my name on it that I don’t despise -- too much. But the more I thought about it the more I wanted to explore the relationship between cooking and storytelling, as well as the idea of food as story.

And now here was this woman stating my theme to me! Amazing. Absolutely amazing how a book I never heard of led a guy in Pennsylvania to call up to chat with me about history and cooking and a woman in Pennsylvania to order the same obscure book she’d never heard of just moments later to send to a man in Albequerque, which led me to ask if was a gift, which then prompted her to expound on cooking and storytelling! Coincidence? Nope. Not a chance. The Unseen Elbow strikes again!

Thanks for the Memories

New Year’s makes me nervous. I know rationally that time is a continuum and any effort on our part to slice and dice it is essentially meaningless in the grand scheme of the cosmos. But there is something about ushering out the “old year” and welcoming in the new that always seems risky to me. It’s like sticking our thumbs in our ears, wagging our fingers and chanting “Nah, nah-nah, nah, nah!” as we dance around the Fates. Much better I think to lay low and make a nice pork roast.

Yet I am surprisingly content this New Year’s Day, 2008. Even my husband commented on it. “Wow, ” he said watching as I ran the vacuum cleaner across the family room rug with a flourish. “You love everything today.”

Yes, I do love everything today. Well, maybe not everything. I can name any number of goings-on in Washington and the Middle East that fill me with despair. I also don’t love that I forgot to turn the oven on to cook the nice pork roast, so the latter is moldering in the trash as we speak. But at least at this moment of this day, in this office, in this house, there is contentment and even a sense of opti …
STOP! Scratch the optimism. My essentially melancholy Irish nature struggles mightily with optimism. Let’s just say there’s hope and leave it at that.
It occurs to me that perhaps what matters more than optimism anyway is gratitude. By tomorrow I’ll be bitching about lowball offers on e-bay, bad TV and the fact that the library hasn’t reopened from the move to it’s new and improved digs uptown. But right now I’m here. We are here. And we have -- I have -- much to be thankful for. Not only am I blessed with a patient husband, great kids, amusing and faithful friends, and a little boy who calls me Gran, but sales at Garrison House Books were up considerably last year. And even after ten years in this wacky, constantly evolving business I still wake up happy and excited to be a bookseller.
I just hope the darn pork roast doesn’t jinx it.