Prunes and Prism

RULES FOR YOUNG LADIES: Some arch advice on snagging a husband. Exercising the mouth into a pretty shape through repetition of certain words seems to have been an indoor sport for young nineteenth-century girls; in Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens' overly bred girl repeats, "papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes and prism." (

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Opposable Thumbs Be Damned

If you like blogs about cats, you'll love blogs by cats. Even suspiciously fluent ones.

For some reason, a long time ago the Comrade and I were talking about what if a rabbit had a computer, and what kind of keyboard it would have (and there were no peyote buttons involved, I swear it). We decided that it would just have two big keys for the two big, plushy paws, one labeled CABBAGE and the other CARROT.

So our rabbit could type a story that would go like this: CARROT CABBAGE CARROT CABBAGE CARROT CABBAGE, and all the other rabbits would understand how beautiful it was. But then I pointed out that it wouldn't be much of a narrative without conflict, and so she would need a third key that said something like FOX! So: CARROT CABBAGE CARROT CABBAGE CARROT CABBAGE ... FOX!

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Mea Maxima Culpa

Dear parishioners of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church, Brooklyn:

My mother and I, fresh-faced WASPs with a romanticized Thorn Birds understanding of Catholicism, have made a Christmas tradition of attending midnight mass in your house of worship. It's a lovely service, made even lovelier this year by the tiny boy in the kilt and brogans who carried the Christ child to the altar.

The moment when the lights go out and your cantor begins to sing (this year, jolting me from a shameful reverie in which I was wondering why on earth Sarah Jessica Parker had worn that positively dowdy striped sweater earlier on Larry King) may be my very favorite part of Christmas. For a couple of minutes every year, I feel -- to the extent that a fish-fry Methodist understands these things -- Christ's mystery.

I know I'm not supposed to take Communion in your church unless (1) I'm Catholic and (2) I've confessed. And every year I do it anyway, and every year I wonder if you guys can tell. I know you noticed that I didn't genuflect when I sat in my pew, and I know you think I'm cupping my hands to receive the host with a little too much cinematic gravity. But I've never believed my fish-fry Methodist God would mind if I just slipped in with everybody else: Only say the word, and I shall be healed. *

And that is why I am so heartily sorry that I drank the last drop of Christ's blood on Saturday night.

You know, when I take the wafer I always feel that mild anxiety that I'm not passing as Catholic, and in the relief that follows wonder whether I should chance it with the wine. (I've noticed quite a few of you take the wafer without, and the drinking of the wine just seems like a much more fraught transaction because you have to drink it under the watchful eye of the one who administers it, and it's unclear how much you're supposed to take, and then there is the ritual wiping-away of your Protestant saliva.) But this Christmas I decided to go for it, and that is why I was so flustered when, as "Silent Night" swelled around us, the lady with the goblet said, "The blood of Christ, given for you -- and there's just a little bit left."

My first impulse was to wave my hands around and say, "Oh, that's all right, I'm good," but then I would be not only a Methodist carpetbagger but one who treats the blood of Christ as something optional, like chastity, fidelity, or salvation itself. So I tipped the cup to my mouth and saw that there was indeed just the tiniest, feeble little drop, barely enough to trickle down to me.

So, good people, I didn't take it! I didn't! I just put my lips to the rim and pretended I did! I saved the miracle for the real Catholics!

I'm not sure what will be more offensive to you: (1) that I pretended to be Catholic so I could take your Communion or (2) that I just pretended to take your Communion because I wasn't Catholic.

Whichever, I am sorry.

Peace be with you,

Your Humble Narrator

*Maybe this is just my own version of the crapped-out relativism I decried in my last post.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Nolo Contendere

The New York City Bar Association is at 42 W. 44th Street -- for those keeping score at home, an olive's throw from the Algonquin Hotel. Where is Dorothy Parker when you need her to meet you for a cocktail after your appointment at the Monday-night legal clinic?

The free lawyers had set up a table with Christmas cookies and Sprite, and the guy with the clipboard thanked me for coming -- really, card-carrying liberal New York at its best. I couldn't stop thinking about this quote from Annie Hall:

"You, you, you're like New York, Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, the socialist summer camps and the, the father with the Ben Shahn drawings, right, and the really, y'know, strike-oriented kind of, red diaper, stop me before I make a complete imbecile of myself."

My lawyer wore a natty winter scarf with his blazer; think Jack Albertson, circa 1965. I told him I needed a simple (!) divorce, and he told me I need not rush into anything, and I realized with a sinking feeling that he must be assuming I was a Wronged Woman. I also realized he was letting his gaze linger on my decolletage, which was admittedly straining against a shirt that fit before I cultivated this bumper crop of new fat. I decided to be flattered. (I have long found Jack Albertson charming, perhaps because he had the courage to love blubbery, blubbering Shelley Winters in The Poseidon Adventure.)

I thought I could keep us away from the specifics of my situation, but as my 30 minutes of free legal advice wore on, I realized that was short-sighted and stupid. Would I go to be fitted for a brassiere and then refuse to show the saleslady my boobs? Because I didn't seem to mind showing them to my free lawyer!

And so I said, "I need to be frank with you. I'm actually the one at fault. I'm the guilty party. This is all of my own design."

And he said, "You have to stop thinking that way. Blaming yourself doesn't do anyone any good. These things are never one person's fault."

As I click-click-clicked out of the marble halls of justice, this felt less like absolution than empty moral relativism. It might have offered succor if I'd ditched Vacation Bible School for socialist summer camp.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Found in Translation

Last night Emma didn't sleep in our bed the way she usually does, and so after ruminating about it for half an hour after lights-out, I got up and went into the living room to make sure she was still breathing.

Two hours later, both the Comrade and I were awakened by throaty, all-points-bulletin meows so loud he could hear them through his foam earplugs (which he always, Papaw-like, wears at night, sometimes with an American Airlines courtesy sleeping mask). We bolted in like the house was on fire to find her just sitting next to her food, and after we blearily petted her for a couple of minutes and she began to purr, we thought maybe she'd just been disoriented and went back to bed. Shortly thereafter I heard her placidly pushing her water bowl across the room.

Then the Comrade began snoring, not robust snores but broken, phlegmmy ones, the kind I imagine he'd make if a housecat were trying to suck out his breath. I prodded him and hissed that he should wake up and stop snoring like that, because he was scaring me -- Stop dying! Stop it right this instant!

After that I never did get back to sleep, because it seemed incumbent upon me to lie there in the dark and make sure none of us perished in the night. I used to refuse to sleep on airplanes because I thought that as long as I maintained consciousness, we couldn't crash, and in all honesty I'm still not totally convinced this isn't the case.

The Comrade: "Can't you feel my love evaporating?"

Your Humble Narrator: "Evaporating means it's disappearing."

TC: "What does the sun do?"

YHN: "It emanates."

TC: "Can't you feel my love emanating?"

When one person is not operating in his native language, the stage is set for all kinds of wacky misunderstandings and opportunities for poking gentle fun. Isn't it?

Also, there are the times when I realize I have not been heard at all. For instance, on Saturday I told the Comrade that we still had Red from Netflix, and also Closely Watched Trains (which I got because I think we have worked our way through every Russian film worth seeing, and this one won an Oscar though the jacket copy makes it sound like a Czech version of Rochelle, Rochelle). And yet we seemed to be watching Scary Movie 2.

I thought your people were supposed to be SOULFUL, I thought as I stalked off to the bathtub with the latest issue of Budget Living and a biography of Mao Tse-Tung. It would later be revealed that the Comrade had never heard me say anything whatsoever.

This happens, sometimes with repercussions swift and terrible, about every week or so, and then I find myself casting back to the moment I originally said the words and trying to remember whether it should have been obvious that we were trapped in radio silence. Had the Comrade responded with some non sequitur that should have indicated to me he'd misunderstood? Had he murmured something noncommittal? Or, worse and, it must be said, most likely, had he met me with the same glaze-eyed goodwill you extend to well-meaning yet unintelligible foreigners (to wit: the sweet Peruvian lady who works in my office building or, God help me, my Chinese psychiatrist)?

Then again, it could be a simple case of blah-blah-Ginger. The Comrade, incidentally, loves The Far Side. I fear that here he is coming off a little Balkie from Perfect Strangers, which is certainly not my intent; in fact, his English is usually good and often lyrical: He will stick his head out the window and proclaim that the air smells like "wet grass and dying leaves."

In the spirit of cross-cultural exchange, a Russian lesson:

The phrase for "Molotov cocktail" is butilka s goryuchey smes'yu, which literally means "bottle with flammable mixture."

But while you're reeling from how pedestrian that is, consider the words for ladybug: bozhe karovka, which means "God cow."

Thursday, December 15, 2005

(Up Against) The Fourth Wall

I interviewed Lili Taylor today! She's just as thoughtful as you want her to be, and speaks in eloquent, fully formed quotes. She worries about teenage girls.

Your humble narrator could not resist asking what she thought about the fate of her character on Six Feet Under -- didn't it seem unlikely that Lisa Kimmel Fisher (the way we had come to understand her) would have had an illicit affair with her dopey brother-in-law back in Coeur d'Alene, only to die at his hand? I know, I heard the words leaving my mouth and I tried to run after them, but there they were, having dislodged from my brain and fallen out like gumballs from a machine. And besides, I wanted to know.

Well, gentle reader, she said that she hadn't really kept up with Lisa after she went missing. She didn't go to the read-throughs after that, and people told her what happened on the show but she hadn't really watched. In fact, she does not own a television.

I'm afraid there's a lesson here, and I plan to stop my ears up and sing until it goes away. Why do I care more passionately about Lisa than the person who lived between her ears for three seasons (plus the one epi in season 1)? I mean, it's almost like TV characters are made up by people who get paychecks.

So maybe I should stop talking about them in therapy and think about something else. Like the plight of teenage girls!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Women Who Run With the Sopranos

I had a therapist (n.b.: This blog is not going to be all about my unruly emotions and how I'm failing to manage them! Eventually we're going to get around to other things. Like cosmonauts.) lo these many years ago who would recommend books about how to heal the wounded woman within through Jungian archetypes, or literary characters (Your father as King Agamemnon: discuss). I can't say these helped or hurt, but I nonetheless read them with great relish, being fresh from college, where I took classes in which I wrote poetry based on my dream journals. (Really, for credit.)

Dear reader, it won't surprise you to learn that I have another therapist now, and we have never once talked about La Llorona, the Weeping Woman. Because apparently my heroine's journey is informed only by HBO.
  • My phantom back pain -- just like what Big Pussy suffered in season 1 when he was ratting to the Feds (and Dr. Melfi told Tony that back problems are often a manifestation of a psychological burden)!
  • The way I wonder how happy families look -- just like Brenda did when she ate with her boss's hyperfunctional family and then went home and tried, sadly, to recreate that hyperfunctionality with a new polenta recipe!
  • The Gordian knot of parental relationships -- just like the all-consuming love and corrosive resentment Carmela feels toward Meadow!
  • That hideous ponytail that the Comrade would not cut off -- just like Furio's!
Then a couple of weeks ago we were discussing free-floating rage, and I brought up the Sopranos episode in which Janice beats one of the other mothers at a soccer match and has to go to court-ordered anger-management classes --

And my therapist [who reminds me of Claire's high-school guidance counselor from Six Feet Under seasons 1 and 2 -- though I can also almost see him as Father Intintola] says, "And Tony goads her about her abandoned French-Canadian son until she blows up, and then he walks away smirking? We've talked about that before! [Beat.] Wasn't that you?"

Now, friends, I'm sure it wasn't me, and that means I am not the only analysand out there destroying my inner life with cable television. My therapist says TV characters and situations come up often, especially from The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, the devastating last episode of which got a lot of play on his couch in the weeks that ensued.

I asked him what he thinks about Tony's sessions with Dr. Melfi -- don't a lot of therapists think they're unrealistic? Didn't I read that in Slate? I thought he took this the slightest little bit personally, because he shot back, "They don't? Why not? Do you think they're realistic?"

"I -- I guess," I said, though I have never tried to (1) strangle him or (2) mount him, which Tony managed to do to Melfi just in the first season.

Last week I was watching the first episodes of the new Project Runway and I found myself tearing up at the false(tto) bravado of Heidi, the uber-enervating Alabamian, after she was booted out -- snapping right back with that chirpy "Let me hug y'all anyway!" How many times have I made that cornbread-fed chirp-chirp-chirp in the face of disappointment, I thought, and then: The line is drawn here.

Just like Captain Picard did in Star Trek: First Contact!

To reward you for reading this far, let's have a cosmonaut story:

When the Comrade was six he had to have his appendix removed. He says the doctor led him by his little hand into the operating room, where he boosted him onto the table and told him they were going to play cosmonaut, with a special mask and everything. The doctor said, "Don't you want to be a cosmonaut when you grow up?" (I swear that in a previous iteration of this story he said, "Don't you want to be like Yuri Gagarin when you grow up?" but the last time it was recounted this version was, Politburo-style, discarded.)

Anyway: "Don't you want to be a cosmonaut when you grow up?"

And the Comrade said, "No, I want to be a janitor!"

He said he wanted to be a janitor because Kolya, the janitor in his apartment block, was such a cool guy, in a special coverall with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, all [and for this next untranslatable bit, he swaggers forth, eyes squinted, looking not unlike Steve McQueen were Steve McQueen pushing an industrial-size broom].

I guess the doctor wanted to honor the Comrade's proletariat impulses (lest the doctor find himself in Kamchatka eating shoe leather), so he said that seemed like a fine thing, but wouldn't it be fun to play cosmonaut?

The Comrade agreed that it would, and so the doctor put the mask on, and he doesn't remember another thing. Poor tiny cosmonaut! It kind of chokes me up.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Better Than the Movie

I've just finished the new book from Joyce Carol Oates (the writer so prolific that she may not in fact be a writer at all, but a head in a jar). It's set in the suburbs of upstate New York, and I realized that while I was reading the parts that take place in the narrator's mother's house, I was picturing the first suburban house I grew up in. I was six; it was a two-story brick house on a corner lot. Then I realized that whenever I read a book about suburbia, I picture it happening in that house. Does anybody else do this?

Monday, December 12, 2005

Ripeness Is All

This weekend I couldn't stop cooking, or ruining the food. I thought I'd make a trifle but the pudding would not thicken (I didn't know this was negotiable. I didn't know pudding came in anything other than instant!), the brussels sprouts didn't caramelize the way Ruth Reichl said they would (they just charred on the outside while the inside remained intractably cabbagey), the eggs for the salad refused to boil (there was a warp in the time-space continuum, because they were in that pot for at least 30 minutes, my hand to God). The food had a life of its own, and it defied me.

When I was with [the man who is still my husband] I didn't even know how to boil an egg. Once I tried to stir-fry some frozen vegetables but left the bag sitting on the stove, where it caught fire, and then I lost my appetite because everything smelled like burned plastic.

When we split up, it became apparent that I was going to have to learn to cook if I ever wanted to eat at home again. And then, with my Comrade in Arms, something happened: this Italian-mamma alter ego moved in and wouldn't leave. I say "Italian mamma" the way Nigella Lawson would understand it: she wore a black slipdress with cups and was always pushing a wooden spoon around in something delicious, hip jutted out provocatively.

I guess this is a normal part of the courtship ritual, as I might have realized earlier in life had I not (1) married soon after the first time I left the menstrual hut, (2) been living in a dormitory when I met [the man who is still my husband], where we weren't even allowed hot pots, and (3) married a terrific cook who was kind of proprietary (though this is not the way he would remember it) about the kitchen.

So what I'm saying, and maybe this is news to no one, is that for the first time in my life, cooking seemed like a Womanly Art. And so I set about to learn it, getting elbow deep in flour and proudly setting the results in front of the Comrade as if I were a housecat and this was a bird I'd killed in the yard.

In a sad confluence of events, food is not at the heart of the Comrade's existence, and this was especially true in the early days of my life as a cook. When he was growing up in Odessa, meals were a rotating selection of three items, most likely stewed, and they did not stand in for love, sex, social interaction, or comfort. Food was fuel that was necessarily ingested so that one could get on with the business of propping up The Great Soviet Athletic Machine.

Which is why there were tears and recrimination, O, reader, there was HEARTBREAK(!), when the Comrade rejected the macaroni and cheese (four cheeses! hand-grated!), when he proclaimed the beef in the stroganoff "too tough," when he suggested cooking the salmon in the casserole a little longer next time. It didn't feel like disappointment or garden-variety humiliation, but rejection! Sexual rejection! The Italian mamma within slunk out to the fire escape to hang up her laundry, a cigarette between her lips.

Usually if I can't get anything on the first try, I pretend I never wanted to do it in the first place; with the cooking, though, I didn't have that luxury. We had to eat. And that is why I threw out the mealy buckwheat kasha and boiled another batch right before the Comrade came home, just so he could say it was perfect and I could say, "Better than your mother's?" And why I gathered tips on chicken cutlets in kitchens all over Odessa, while the Comrade translated. I got better, and the Comrade came to understand how important the food was to me, and together we talked the Italian mamma down off the ledge.

[The man who is still my husband] and I were chow-happy chowhounds. I could probably reconstruct our lives together through meals we ate, and wouldn't consider that an impoverished way to do it. The pineapple we ate on our honeymoon, the apple cake his mother used to make with one-and-a-half cups of Wesson oil, the truffle risotto at the Central Park West restaurant we couldn't afford. I ate hundreds of meals with him, and honestly never had a better dining companion.

My favorite scene in Kramer vs. Kramer is toward the end of the movie, when Ted and Billy are expertly making the French toast together -- as opposed to the mess they made at the beginning, when they'd been thrown to their own devices. You're meant to watch how effortless the cooking is and understand how far they've come, and I think of that now when I cut up an onion in an especially efficient way. Sometimes when I'm deglazing a pan I'll think, how do I know how to do this, and then I realize I must have seen [the man who is still my husband] do it and it's like he's out there guiding me in a Kung Fu flashback.

Last night I saw him for the first time since he moved away. Neither of us were hungry but we fell on our dinners like wolves. About the brussels sprouts: He says I should have boiled them before I put them in the oven.

(He's thinking about doing his dissertation on the Geechees, who live on the coastal islands off Georgia, and maybe he'll work in a trip to their homeland, Sierra Leone. "It's much better now," he said airily.)

He also says we need to get divorced. "I think I could be a better friend to you if we did," he said. "I feel like the sword of Damocles is hanging over my head." Then he said he couldn't remember who Damocles was.

I stupidly replied that the albatross was from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And then: "How much mental real estate does this [this, this awful thing I did to us, and everything that followed] occupy for you these days?"

He said not that much anymore, and then asked the same thing of me, and I said a lot, and that it had been a bad year, much worse than the first year after I left.

He said wouldn't it be good to get closure, or put it behind me, or whatever it is you say, and I said that I didn't think I ever would. (The brussels sprouts at this French bistro, incidentally, weren't any better than mine.) I told him that he could have filed for divorce if he'd wanted to, the way I used to say, Well you could have paid the ConEd bill yourowndamnself, and he said he hadn't wanted to, and of course I know why. In front of the restaurant I told him I was proud of him, and he told me I should start writing again, and then I had to get away so I could howl.

A cafe opened up around the corner from our apartment a few months ago, a sweet little place with yellow ribbons and patriotic effluvia on the door and in the windows. When I finally got around to eating there, I saw on the wall a photo of the family who owns the restaurant, behind the podium at the most recent Sept. 11 memorial service. Standing on the far right was the harried lady who cooks the eggs. In the corner of the photo was the family's surname, which I also found on a poster that listed the firefighters who had died that day.

I had kind of a, I don't know, Formal Feeling about that place after that; I can't eat a piece of bacon there without thinking Life Goes On! It's not maudlin, and it's not inspirational, either; it's just the living example that after devastating loss, there is still a blackboard out front waiting for the pies of the day, and that this is at once awful, unfathomable, and the entire point. With grief, pancakes.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Nothing New Under the Sun

I began this blog when I failed to write a novel during National Novel-Writing Month. I thought 50,000 words in 30 days would be a good way to keep expectations low while pulling myself out of the Slough of Despond I've been in lately. I've never written fiction consistently and in fact stopped thinking of myself as a fiction writer a long time ago (which is where the low expectations come in). But it seemed like the right thing at the right time, and of course I couldn't be satisfied until my cousin agreed to do it, too. (And now she's done with hers, by the way, which is the difference between those who Do Things and those who sit, paralyzed, while fruit cup dribbles from their chin(s).)

But the morning before November 1, I woke up from a dream in which I was shelving books in the library as part of a work-release program. (I'm not sure whether I know this because we were wearing orange jumpsuits, or because it was just a given, as sometimes happens in dreams.) I kept pulling one big, complicated volume or another off the shelves and thinking I really should get around to reading this, but (shoving it back in place) I'm just too tired. And then, on one of the lower shelves close to the Periodicals section, I found a little heap of stale doughnut holes, just for me.

Feeling shame and good fortune in equal measure, I popped one in my mouth after the other, and though it was like eating cinnamon toast made from particle board, I don't think food has ever made me happier. Then the whistle blew, signaling the end of our shift; my colleagues finished their work and filed out, on the way to vocational school (and this was definitely one of those dream-dictated givens), where they would learn general secretarial skills. I felt so forlorn, because my stale doughnuts were gone, and because I felt like Cinderella being left at the hearth.

And when I woke up, I had to ask myself, how did I get so low that I mourned being cast out of the earthly paradise of vo-tech? And why was I making do with not even stale doughnuts but holes -- the little scrap pieces of dough that had been cast out of actual, actualized doughnuts?

I realized that I had been down so long, down did indeed worry me. Could National Novel-Writing Month save me?

We'll never know, because that night, when I ostensibly could have started the novel that would have restored me from hole to whole, I watched The Four Seasons (with Alan Alda and Carol Burnett, who I so wish were married in real life) while I made a pot of Weight Watchers 0-POINTS soup and drank brandy out of a tiny, tiny teacup.

After this had gone on for a few nights (with varying movies and pots of food, but consistent tiny brandies), I realized that this wouldn't be the month when I wrote a novel. And after begging my cousin's forgiveness, I promised I would start a blog.

This was easier said than done, because to have a blog I needed to name it, and gentle reader, you would not believe how many people are out there on Blogger blogging away with domain names that should have been mine. After a while, I stopped trying to find a name and just began randomly entering text ( just to see if someone had thought of it, and most of the time someone had.

A random sample:

Unreliable Narrator
Reliable Narrator
Humble Narrator
Jolie Laide
Sotto Voce
Nota Bene
Mirabile Dictu
Rosetta Stone
Wage Slave
Family Album
At Sea
Sea Legs
Tall Cotton
Odessa File
Water Water Everywhere
Stockholm Syndrome
Puppet Master
Girl Detective
Letters Home
Dear Diary
Slim Pickings
Nothing New Under the Sun

Whatever you may be sure of, be sure of this: That you are dreadfully like other people. ~James Russell Lowell, "Democracy Address," Birmingham, England, 6 October 1884

When I found the Dickens quote "Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes and prism, are all very good words for the lips," I was kind of enchanted by "Prunes and Prism" but rejected it because I believe most Americans, including this one, associate prunes with laxatives. Then it occurred to me that since I'd been walking around calling myself "spiritually constipated," prunes might be somehow fitting. (And I hope, though I cannot promise, that that is the only scatalogical reference you will ever encounter in these pages.)

Finally, I came across the reference to "prunes and prism" that you see underneath the blog's title, on the entertaining and informative site Merrycoz (and I would like to thank its proprietress for allowing me to quote her). I've never read Little Dorrit, and when I saw "prunes and prism" in context, it just rang like a bell that this should be the name -- because this blog, like those young ladies' exercises, is a hopeful and probably misguided attempt at self-improvement, and also because we all so earnestly believe that we can reshape ourselves through words.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Chapter 2: Emma

Now let's see if I can upload a photo. I love this picture of Emma! She looks so beautiful and damned.

Chapter 1: I Am Born

I am humbled by my blogging ignorance. Next time my mother calls and wants me to explain how to save a Word document, I'm going to have more compassion than I did the first 108 times. Let's see if I can link The New York Times.