Monday, August 01, 2005


I am not so much writing about food today, except to say that I had a lot of it over the weekend and to say that my biscotti were a big hit at the family reunion. It was so hot and humid there that, despite being all sealed up in ziploc bags, by Sunday, they were starting to soften a bit, but then again, they had mostly been consumed by Saturday afternoon.

Going to one of my family reunions is a bit like going to a foreign country, except that you don't really need any shots, and you can drink the water. As I've noted before, my family's background on my father's side is largely Mennonite, and while not all of the family members still attend a Mennonite church, those who don't tend to belong to something equally or even more socially conservative. One of the more bizarre (to me, anyway) results of their religious preferences is that most of my cousins (second cousins, really, except for the ones who are first cousins once removed) tend to be married either immediately after college, if they go to college, or by the time they're twenty, if they don't pursue a degree. Marriage, you see, is the only way they're allowed to have sex. Anything sensible like having sex without being married is strictly forbidden. Not getting married, and therefore doing without sex, is unthinkable. Things have changed to the extent that birth control, at least, appears to be an acceptable practice, though only after marriage. (On my mother's side of the family, most of my cousins are also married by the time they're twenty, but in their cases, it's generally because they're knocked up or they've knocked up someone else.) This is a very good thing, or we would really need a much larger site for the reunions. If you go back two generations, my grandfather was one of nine children (counting only the ones who lived past childhood). Nowadays, most of my cousins tend to sensibly stop at two.

I would happily forgo family reunions were it not for the insistence of the children (L., really; A. has mainly lost interest, and is currently abroad anyway). When first told my parents that I was gay (this is a clause that gives me fits every time I try to write it; should it be "that I was gay" or "that I am gay"?) they requested that I not share this datum with the extended family, and I agreed, largely because I knew that if the extended family knew that I was/am gay, they would ostracize me, and then I would no longer be able to take the girls to family gatherings, which would probably be no worse than a mixed blessing for me, but would likely be a loss to the girls. Besides, you never know how you're going to feel about family matters as you age, and there could be a time when I'm eager to meet up with my distant relatives; stranger things have happened, though no examples are leaping to mind. Regardless, it is clear to me that if certain members of the clan were to find out that I prefer the company of men, there would be a strongly negative reaction, ranging somewhere from refusing to acknowledge my existence to loud and angry denunciations to praying for me to attempts to reprogram me. None of these responses strikes me as much fun (unless of course they were to attempt to reprogram me by forcing me to enjoy the company of a large number of highly attractive men in the hopes that overdosing on enjoyment would sicken me to the point where I would feel compelled to repent; this, however, seems an unlikely strategy for the people in question; it does, however, sound like the foundation for a sound business plan; I must remember to see if I can find a backer). Neither is it much fun to spend a lot of time among people who are only welcoming because they don't really know who I am.

So is it really any wonder that I ate so much ice cream over the weekend? Probably not. On the plus side, I did get some truly spectacular hash browns and perhaps the best slightly overcooked fresh green beans that I have ever had. Really, I went back through the line a second time and completely filled my dining hall plate with a pile of green beans. I am not sure why they were so good, but I think the secret was too much salt. At the family auction, I successfully bid on some "homegrown organic elephant garlic" that looks very nice. I am generally not a huge fan of the elephant garlic since its main selling point seems to be that it's milder than standard garlic, and I don't think that standard garlic needs to be less intense, but I will surely be able to find something good to do with it.

On the way out to Pennsylvania, L. had complained about having nothing to do, so I stopped at Costco and got the CD version of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and she listened to that on a portable CD player with ear phones the rest of the way out, all the way back, and on any of the longer rides in between. I was feeling somewhat left out, since there was only country music for me to listen to. I do not dismiss out of hand any genre of music; they all have at least something that I like, though in the case of country music most of what I like died when Patsy Cline's plane flew into a mountain. Still, I listened for maybe two hours in total when we were doing the last leg of the trip out and on the trips between the camp and my folks' house. After about the fourth time I heard Faith Hill sing about being a Mississippi girl, I was ready to listen to about anything else. (I did hear a few amusing novelty songs, though none to match my all time country music favorite: "Yabba Dabba Doo, the King is Gone and so Are You")

So we stopped at Ollie's, a store that is much like what Building 19 used to be in the Boston area, and sells all manner of discounted items that presumably fell off a truck somewhere. My last books-on-tape purchase from Ollie's had been somewhat disastrous. I had scoured the shelves at great length before finally finding the one book that looked less than execrable: a P.D. James mystery. Sadly, when I put the first tape in, there was either some sort of recording malfunction, or I had gotten the Greek version. Tape two was all right, but missing the first tape of a P.D. James book seemed problematic. On this trip, I had the same difficulty finding anything that didn't seem painful to listen to, but I finally found a somewhat squashed (but still shrink wrapped) box containing an unabridged version of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which seemed promising and which was only five cassettes. All was well all the way home, but later that afternoon when I had decided to head in to the office, I discovered that what claimed to be tape 4 of the Le Carre book was actual an old recording of the Burns and Allen radio show. I listened to tape 5, which was what it claimed to be, and I enjoyed it well enough, but still.

It is not beyond the realm of imagination that my subconscious, which no doubt feels at least as guilty about the whole books-on-tape concept as my conscious mind feels, is sabotaging me and telling me to stick to print.

Fortunately, shortly before I left for Pennsylvania, I happened across a Barnes and Noble bag which contained a copy of Anne Tyler's Back When We Were Grownups that I had purchased a month or two earlier and then mislaid. So when I had some down time in Pennsylvania (mostly before turning off the lights in bed), I got started on that.

Anne Tyler and I go way back, and if you don't like her books, I don't really want to hear about it. She is clearly not Jane Austen, but I feel the same way about her writing as I feel about Jane Austen's: people who don't like it lack either experience or a subtle mind. It is the sort of writing that makes me feel protective. I first started reading her when she was suggested to me by the professor in a (non-fiction) writing course I was taking, and I could not get enough. If memory serves, the first book of hers that I read was Earthly Possessions, which may still be her best. That was more or less around the time of the publication of Morgan's Passing, and I soon read it and then went back and read everything she had written earlier. Her writing is domestic, intelligent, and funny. Not unlike Jane Austen's.

Jane Austen was something of a cypher in that relatively little is known about her personal life, and she never had anything like the amount of fame that she deserved. Ms. Tyler is something of a cypher since she almost entirely refuses to be interviewed and does no promotional work on behalf of her novels. One presumes that she has a personal life, and one knows that she was married (I believe her husband died, but I may be mistaken) and has children, but all one really has is the text. I cannot but reach the conclusion that little beyond her family life and writing hold much interest for her.

In some ways, the narrowness of her scope can be a trifle disappointing. Her novels tend to return to the same themes, and if her characters are all unique, they, and their familial situations, also tend to resemble each other a lot. And you could certainly say that the plots are sometimes predictable; I have a pretty good idea of how Back When We Were Grownups is going to end and what sort of peace Rebecca Davitch will ultimately find.

But for all that, there is something almost subversive, in a gentle way, about an Anne Tyler novel. In a time when we accept constant change as not only necessary but perhaps even virtuous, she seems to constantly remind her readers that you cannot escape your past and that the failure to escape it may leave you a happier person.

I still have a fifth or so of the novel (which does include a character who's a caterer and some interesting food) left to read, so I may yet be disappointed, but I think that having read and liked every one of her novels (for years, she was the only author I would buy in hardcover), I can trust her to finish skillfully.


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