Essays

THE FULL BODY EXPERIENCE

The Full Body Experiece: Essay Cover
 
When I found out that Molly Moon’s Ice Cream was opening another shop, my first thought was: in this weather?
 
November seemed a strange time of year to install a sixth store. I was compelled to find out if Seattle really wanted or needed another gourmet ice cream shop.
 
I made my visit on a boring Wednesday night, a week or so after the grand opening. The space itself was luminous: the white tiles, the spotless counter, the polished chairs, even the sign glowed in its brand newness. I was dazzled, and I wasn’t the only one. Walking down the newly unveiled south wing of the Village, the streets were empty except for a line of people extending out the door of Molly Moon’s.
 
Unlike the other locations, Molly Moon’s new opening was constructed to feel less like a traditional ice cream bar—where you can go right up to the counter, press your nose against the glass, and order the one that looks the most tempting—and more like a café, where the menu is handwritten in chalk on a large blackboard above the counter, with no visual help in sight other than the recommendations from the ice cream baristas. With its small tables and stools set up to the side, the U Village location invites its customers to enjoy their cold treats in the comfort of a warm store.
 
Too bad so many people wanted ice cream. I was already freezing and had to queue up outside. Waiting in line sucks. Waiting in line in the cold? Even worse. My fingers were already numb. How was I going to carry the cone? As I shivered in my jacket and scarf, I tried to stop obsessing over the weather, and its debilitating aspects, and decide on a flavor.
 
They had their everyday selections, including my two favorites: Lavender Honey, where the lavender is grown in Sequim, Washington, and Stumptown Coffee, using the roasted beans from the Oregon-based company. However, Thanksgiving was just a week away and I was in a festive mood so when it was finally my turn at the counter, I requested a sample of all four of their seasonal flavors: Pumpkin Clove, Pear Elderflower Sorbet, Cinnamon, and Vegan Coconut Chunk.
 
First, I took up a little spoonful of Pumpkin Clove, then of Cinnamon. If the pumpkin flavor had not come in a beautiful burnt orange color, I could have easily gotten the two confused when it came to taste. The flavor of the pumpkin was present, though not at all powerful, and the cinnamon also presented my palate with more cream than the aromatic spice itself. These might be good to have as a double-scoop since the flavors melded well, but singularly, neither had enough intensity to truly entice or surprise my taste buds.
 
The Vegan Coconut, however, was surprisingly good. The idea of anything being vegan usually sends me into a this-would-be-so-much-better-with-real-dairy-or-meat-mindset, but I was pleasantly surprised at how creamy it was and how every bite had real coconut flakes with a hint of Theo’s chocolate scattered throughout.
 
Next, I was given a sample of the Pear Elderflower Sorbet. Because it was a sorbet, and therefore not made with cream and eggs, it was much lighter than the other three, and naturally-sweet tasting. At the first encounter of sorbet to lips, the flavor of the pear shined, then left with a faint floral aftertaste. This became my new favorite. The juiciness of the pear, the exotic taste of elderflower, all scooped onto a freshly made waffle cone, was exactly what I was hoping to experience at Molly Moon’s: a new perspective of flavor on an old dessert.
 
I left the store with a smile at my delicious discovery and forgot about complaining, forgot how cold it was, even forgot how numb my fingers were. All I felt was delight and childlike excitement at having found a favorite new flavor. As I passed another patron, also happily licking away at her Molly Moon treat, I asked how she felt about eating ice cream in cold weather.
 
She replied, “Oh it’s the best. My dad always said that ice cream in the cold was a full-body-experience. I swear, it tastes better that way.”
 
After this visit to Molly Moon’s, I have to say I agree.
 
And ice cream in the snow? That must be positively thrilling.

BRIDGES

Bridges: essay cover
 
I am so sick of bridges as metaphors. Sometimes I just like walking on a bridge, dammit. Sometimes I like climbing the scaffolding. Sometimes I like jumping in a river (really for real, not, like, figuratively). When the hell and why did it all have to start meaning anything more? I love bridges. I love the functionality arched or flat, covered or open, static or, for want of a better word, drawable (retractable? Upendable? No, not better words…). This asshole the other day was telling me about bridging his past selves with his future self as a way to balance his chi and I wanted to hit him very hard. I wanted to, with tweezers, pluck every pubic hair off his body slowly, testing each one’s tensile strength. Maybe pulling two at a time. Maybe three. How many pubes do you have to yank simultaneously before they don’t break? That is, before the skin rips first? Give me a bridge any day. Give me a metaphor only with a glass of gin so that I have something to occupy my hands and dull my senses while you bore me… My mother once told me, “No one likes a whiner, Kirstin.” If I didn’t rant, what would I say? If I couldn’t speak, what good would I be at all? I sometimes feel like roadkill not yet killed, merely hit, bleeding on the concrete while so many others speed by happily going wherever it is happy people go. I sometimes wish that I really were about to die like that—how self-important, right? “No one wants to hear you bitch about death.” I think my mother would say that if she had the nerve to say bitch, which she doesn’t. When I’m up on a bridge alone and in the country those thoughts slip away. Something about solitude and a bird’s-eye perspective and the nearness of the brief rail-to-ground abyss and proximity of the fulfillment of the death wish allow me to feel comfortable in myself, in my silly, verbally diarrhetic existence. “Can’t you ever shut up,” I think 3,000 of my ex-boyfriends and friends and lovers have said to me. Like, no, fuckers. And why should I? I’m way up here. I got rain on me nose and breezy breeze breezing breezily on me toes. Doing okay.

HOLY HAIRY MEATBALL!

hairy-meatball
 
Being broke and being a foodie may seem paradoxical, but I assure you, it is merely extremely difficult and involves long, willful gazing at food photography and heart-breakingly buying boxed grocery sushi, knowing it just won’t be the same.
 
Having saved up enough for a nice meal, I couldn’t wait to try out Cuoco, a Tom Douglas restaurant located in Seattle’s South Lake Union. Be it another one of his restaurants downtown or through an enterprise like his partnership with Starbucks (where he helped create a coffee blend that pairs with Thanksgiving dinner), Mr. Douglas’s name is constantly in the Pacific Northwest air. Yet of his fifteen restaurants, until last week, I had yet to try a single one.
 
When I sat down for lunch last Wednesday, I was pleased with Cuoco’s ambience –nostalgic with its brick and green-bordered windows lining the walls like an old-timey train station, but with touches of modernity in its large-scale paintings and trendy bar/lounge. I had heard good things about the place – it featured organic produce, hand-made pasta, and highly touted drinks.
 
With the unlikely appearance of the sun that cool October afternoon, I opted to splurge on a glass of 2009 Cabernet-Merlot along with pork meatballs over spaghetti. 
 
My noodles were cooked perfectly – they had that wondrous toothsome texture, and the tomato-garlic sauce had just enough heat to brighten an otherwise simple meal. It wasn’t until most of my plate was clean that I finally slowed down.
 
I had a few strands of spaghetti left and a whole meatball. I speared the ball with my fork and eyed it with conviction – I had saved for this meal and I was going to savor all of it.
 
But then I saw a dark clump on the side of the otherwise smoothly textured, lightly sauced pork. What is that? I thought. A burn? Some sauce? I poked it. No, it’s coming off, and as a piece of fuzz clung to my nail…oh wait, it’s hair! At first, I thought it must just be a part of the pork, but after a closer examination, I saw clearly that it wasn’t just a few bristles. It wasn’t a freshly fallen strand that had innocently found itself laying atop a forkful of spaghetti, no. It was a mingling of follicles and lint nestled in a clump
 
No doubt about it, I was looking at a hairy meatball!
 
As someone who goes out to eat fairly often, it is almost impossible to avoid such an incident; in fact, finding a stray hair in food is somewhat de rigueur. But a clump! A small mass? A dust bunny of cilia? My thoughts raced with possible explanations, anything to excuse the rising sense of disgust and disappointment building in my belly. Perhaps it fell from the ceiling or from a dirty exhaust vent… These scenarios did not make me feel better. And I hated thinking about it, but disturbing questions kept popping up: Who’s hair was it? Was it even human? Could it be the hair of, say, a cat? Of an opossum?
 
Faced with the dilemma of either telling my very friendly server about the fibrous gob or keeping it to myself and risking another customer finding their own, I decided to give notice.My waiter apologized profusely, and when my check was dropped off, all that was on the bill was wine.
 
I had not expected my meal to be comped, which not only saved me my hard-earned pennies but had the happy side effect of quieting my stomach and generally increasing the enjoyment of  my experience at Cuoco.
 
Now I’ll be able to afford my next Tom Douglas meal.
 
Maybe if I’m lucky, history will repeat itself thirteen more times. Then I can get a taste for all that each of Mr. Douglas’s establishments has to offer. 

BALLERINA SKINNY

ballerina-skinny-2
 
The morning bus ride to the studio was always the worst. I stared at my reflection in the window and articulated the bun on the top of my head, pulling bobby pins out of my clenched teeth to secure my hairdo. I was dreading class. Ms. B had recently made me aware that, while I could put on a captivating performance, my turnout sucked, and so did my arch. The combination of the two was causing severe tendinitis in my knees, and my feet were taking an extra beating. Already, I’d twice had toe surgery. I got to thinking that after thirteen years of blood, sweat, and tutus, I wasn’t exactly sure why I was dedicating myself to ballet anymore. I also got to thinking about how badly I needed a coffee.
 
I got to the corner of Seneca and 2nd Avenue and filed in line off the bus and into Starbucks where I couldn’t help but notice the glass case glowing next to me. It was filled with fresh doughy bagels, cupcakes that oozed frosting, and scones covered in a glittering glaze. Foods that Ms. B always blamed when one of the girls in my class got her period or grew a pair of tits.
 
“Hi, welcome to Starbucks! What can I get for you?”
 
“I’ll just have a tall skinny vanilla latte, please.”
 
“Will that be all for you today?” The barista’s cheery smile and cheesy demeanor irritated me. I glanced again at the illuminated case. Each baked treat laughed out loud at the leotard that clung to my body like a cancer.
 
“Yep, that’ll be all,” I replied shortly while fumbling through my purse for my wallet. My fingers grazed the small Tupperware container that held my breakfast: nine almonds and a sliced apple. Bird food.
 
Next thing I knew, I was in the coffee shop bathroom. I tore out of my leotard. My tights were suffocating so I ripped those off, too. The bun that I had so carefully put in place became non-existent as my hair tumbled down my back. Everything went in the garbage, including my $200 pointe shoes.
 
It’s been eight years since I was inside a ballet studio. My permanently demented toes and achy knees are a constant reminder of the passion I once had for dance. I truly miss it.
 
But I’m a writer now. I can eat whatever the fuck I want.

THE MUSHROOM EFFECT

mushroom-effect
 
Tall and inexplicably tan, the woman standing next to me had an incredible smile; which is saying something since on anyone else, the grin would’ve been overshadowed by the mirror-reflected yoga chant tattooed across her chest. How fitting that her best asset would belong to the most pertinent body part for a mushroom event: the mouth.
           We were in a quaint crowd of old-time hippies and new-age hipsters at the Annual Wild Mushroom Show hosted by Seattle’s Magnuson Park. Situated on Lake Washington, and on clear days offering views of Mt. Rainier, this park is well known for both its beaches and events; it was an ideal location, a sanctuary for mushroom enthusiasts and fungus academics alike.
           I had arrived at the cooking demonstration late in the game, no samples left. Perhaps the most important elements of a mushroom festival are the tastes the mushrooms. The tastes of a fungus is the essence of the fungus, the root of the mycological experience. And here I was and no mushrooms to taste. Empty plates seemed to mock me. Forlorn, in utter abandon, I turned to the nameless woman next to me.
           “Oh,” she said, “if I were to die a thousand deaths and meet God at a poker game where I only have a pair of two’s and ultimately descend into hell, the richness and simplicity of this Matsutake would’ve been worth it. And in that flaming eternity of misery, the one glimmer of hope would be the succulent tang of the delicacy ever lingering on my tongue.“ She beamed. “The earthy flavors lasted minutes. I longed to hold on to every precious morsel. I chewed each chew with excitement, with joy, really. After I finally swallowed, I licked my lips.”
           Closing my eyes, I imagined that treat in my own mouth as she continued—yes, continued—to reminisce.
           “Doused in garlic and oil and sprinkled with paprika and cumin. It was firm yet gooey with an incredible aftertaste leaving a finite memory on my tongue”.
           It was then that I knew this was the best mushroom I’d ever experienced—and probably that I would ever experience.
           I snapped back from my fungal daydream and the poetic tattooed woman with the smile was gone. The crowd had detoured to a lecture with the title “Secrets of Forest Mushrooms.” How intriguing. And yet my adventure was limited by time and so I snuck over to the photography exhibit instead. Remember that scene in Fantasia when the mushrooms do that little dance to the Nutcracker Suite? The first few photos were reminiscent of that scene: short and stout, cute button-topped mushrooms. But the gallery was actually depicting a progression. The fungi became taller, darker, gruesome. Mushrooms in a basket, in a garden, then in the overcast forest. Some smooth, others coarse. Increasingly deformed. What would that black sticky one taste like? If I were to chop up two hundred and pour them in a bowl, would they wriggle when my back was turned? What about the aptly named Death Cap? Would it lure me in? Would the taste of its poison be so appetizing that I would lose all self-control? I envisaged a damp sort of odor permeating from my mouth. In the back of my mind, the image of an obituary titled “Death by Mushroom” was slowly becoming clear:
The 22-year-old University of Washington graduate with a promising future was found dead at 8:25 this morning. The autopsy revealed that an inordinate amount of Death Cap mushrooms had been consumed by the deceased, leading to acute toxicity. The final report deems this case an unfortunate fungal suicide.
The photographs were imprinting themselves on my skin, in my mind, turning my heart to one giant black viscous Shiitake. I backed away as far as I could, tearing my eyes from the display, practically sprinting to the exit.
          In a long purple skirt with hair cut to the chin, a woman of about sixty thanked me for coming and asked if I enjoyed the festival. Calming my breathing pattern, I smiled and retorted that it was certainly an experience to remember. Connie, according to her nametag, explained how people just don’t get it; you have to taste the mushroom in order to fully understand its greatness.
          I politely smiled. “Maybe next year.” 

DEAR MILEY,

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 06:  Miley Cyrus attends the Costume Institute Gala for the "PUNK: Chaos to Couture" exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 6, 2013 in New York City.  (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)
 
 
PROBLEMS: Mediocre music videos, disturbing pedophilic photo shoots with photographers such as Terry Richardson, not to mention the HORRENDOUS performance delivered at the VMA’s, which included but was not limited to:  juvenile teddy bear props, unflattering costumes, repulsive reptile tongue gestures, and worst of all, the creepy foam hand that literally had FINGERNAILS. GAG.
 
Okay, let’s flashback to the night that I sat around my laptop with a few of my sisters in my sorority house, watching your first music video for your new album Bangerz, “We Can’t Stop.” The video played, our jaws dropped, and from that moment on, I had poison to spit every time your name came up in conversation.
 
I used to love you. Even when your Disney days were coming to an end, your long luscious hair and fun, pop songs like “Party in the USA” continued to get my booty shaking. You even had your delicious boyfriend, Liam Hemsworth, following you around for a hot second. And then your twenty-year-old ass had to cave into your bullshit lingering teenage angst, and metaphorically scream “fuck the world” while chopping off all of your hair, bleaching it brittle.
 
RIP long luscious locks.
 
The other day, I grabbed my little red ear buds, plugged them into my iPod, and downloaded the rest of the Bangerz beats, just because I was curious. I had vented so much about my hatred for you that I had forgotten why I fucking care. I hadn’t taken the time to give the rest of your album a chance because I was so peeved about what you had already done with your new singles…and your hair. While waiting for the songs to load, I decided that I was going to screw around on Pinterest and about ten minutes later, I caught myself seriously jamming to whatever was bursting from my headphones. Like SERIOUSLY jamming: head bobs, shoulder shimmies, you name the dance move, I was probably doing it right there in my chair. What is this song? I pushed the button to illuminate my iPod screen: it was playing your album. I had been rocking out to the song #GETITRIGHT, one of the many catchy ballads Bangerz boasts.
 
Damn, some of these songs are so good.
 
And that’s the thing; some of your music is actually worth listening to. Fuck you Miley for distracting the world from the actual talent that you have. And that skinny-ass-white-twerk of yours is not the talent I am referring to.
You have gone all out trying to shock the world with your new vulgar image. In fact, your reputation has become infamous and you have metastasized to the point that there isn’t a social media outlet that will leave you alone. But what have you done to shine light on your actual music?
 
The answer is NOTHING. As much attention as you are getting, whether good or bad, it all revolves around your personal life and personal choices rather than the music you are producing. You have been interviewed by highly esteemed publications such as Cosmopolitan Magazine, Rolling Stone, and Harper’s Bazaar, but none of the articles mention Bangerz for more than a brief sentence or paragraph. Instead, they ask you about your love life, breaking away from Disney, or your recent retina-burning shenanigans.
 
In a recent interview with Cosmo, you were asked the question, “How did you feel about the celebrities who dissed your VMAs performance?” You decided to respond with this statement, “I don’t really care. I think everyone would have given anything to be me at that moment.” Hmmm. I bet you all of the money in your outrageously large bank account that the abhorrent look on Will Smith’s face as you were humping Robin Thicke’s leg like a desperate unneutered puppy was not one of envy.
 
Miley, if you ever read this, just know I could have probably let it all go if you still had beautiful hair tumbling down your back.
And NOW I know why I fucking care. It’s your hair; your gorgeous fucking hair just cut off your head and pitched into some grimy garbage can. And now you’re just gross with your gross tongue and your gross wrecking ball and your gross foam finger and your stupid gross bleached bald head.
 
What does that all say about me?
 

WE, THE ZEDD HEADS

zedd-heads
 
 
At 10pm on September 29, I stepped into line outside of the Showbox Theater in Seattle to hear Zedd—the internationally known, exceptionally talented, twenty-four-year-old DJ. As I waited, I watched intimidating men in dark suits and earpieces pulling kids aside and searching their pockets and bags.
            These security measures seemed harsh. I wondered if the extra precautions stemmed from the tragedy that had occurred barely a month earlier in Boston. One of the first stops on Zedd’s Moment of Clarity tour was at the House of Blues, where nineteen-year-old Brittany Flannigan died of “an apparent overdose,” according to WHDH, a Boston TV news channel. They made the girl’s death out to be a direct product of the show—a sort of necessary evil of electronica.
            Maybe that’s the only way to sell a story.
            When I was let in, the place was already packed with children and teens and old men alike—there was, after all, no age limit. Guys wore neon tank tops; girls wore neon next-to-nothings. The crowd was divided: younger members occupying the wall on the right, sporting anime-character backpacks, arms laden with multi-colored beads; older Zedd fans lingering by the bar and VIP section. The opener was still playing, and the overhead lights shone dimly on the dance floor, grimly reminding us, as though we were anticipating the start of a movie, that the main attraction had yet to come. I took this opportunity to let a few vodka tonics chase each other down my throat until Zedd finally appeared on stage, accompanied by an impressive display of digital production with lights and lasers colliding and kaleidoscoping over our heads.
            He played tracks from many of the giants of house music like Swedish House Mafia and Hardwell and remixed top forty favorites such as Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” and Skrillex’s “Breakin’ a Sweat.” Some criticized Zedd for not playing enough of his own songs, but for the most part the crowd was in thunderous agreement: this was a great show.
            I was, at that point, caught up in an overwhelming feeling of positivity that permeated the venue. Dizzy from the mass excitement and too much bottom-shelf vodka, I swayed and sang with others. For an encore, Zedd played his most popular song, “Spectrum,” and as his performance came to a close, the beat dropped one last time and the ceiling exploded in lights and confetti.
            The entire crowd cheered.
            Then the theater lights turned on, reality stung our eyes, and I looked at all that beautiful confetti stuck to the grimy floor.
             As people formed a line, this time to get their coats, and slowly began filing out, I looked around for telltale signs of a stretcher or ambulance, struck as I was with a terrible if slightly paranoid thought. To my dizzy relief, no one had died or needed hospitalization, but I couldn’t help noticing that my own experience had been tempered with memory of Ms. Flannigan’s death. I wondered if they guy next to me, pupils dilated and sweating profusely, had heard about her. A good chance he had—after all, Zedd had canceled the show immediately following her death, had even tweeted to his 650,000 followers, “PLEASE, everyone… BE RESPONSIBLE!”
            The man noticed me looking at him. He said, “Hey, you want to go to the after-party tonight? It starts at three and goes til morning. Or some time.”
            I hesitated a moment. Then I declined.

OBSERVING THE SEASONS OF JAMES SALTER

james-salter
 
 
I received a fare alert from JetBlue recently (they’re my favorite domestic airline). They were advertising fall specials. The subject line of the e-mail caught my eye. It read: “$49 fares—straight from the autumn of our hearts!”
 
As I was sitting down to write this review, it occurred to me that this felicitous expression, “the autumn of our hearts,” captures something about the writing of James Salter. If JetBlue is sending us travel fares from the autumn of their hearts, James Salter’s oeuvre is very much about the autumn of our hearts. A certain tone pervades all of his work and that tone feels to me like a chilly November afternoon: crisp, slightly jaded, leaning in the direction of winter.
 
Consider the frosty remove of this passage from A Sport and a Pastime (1967), where Salter describes a late fall morning in rural France:
 
The mornings are growing colder. I enter them unprepared. Icy mornings. The streets are still dark. The bicycles go past me, their parts creaking, the riders miserable as beggars… I have a coffee in the Café St. Louis. It’s as quiet as a doctor’s office. The tables have chairs still upturned on them. Beyond the thin curtains, a splitting cold. Perhaps it will snow. I glance at the sky. Heavy as wet rags. France is herself only in the winter, her naked self, without manners. In the fine weather, all the world can love her. Still, it’s depressing. One feels a fugitive from half a dozen lives.
 

Like Emerson or Joan Didion, Salter is a masterful writer of individual sentences. If only for that reason, he is the greatest living American writer that most people have never read. His sentences are pristine, gem-like, objects of awe. They evince the most rigorous editing—he has indicated in interviews that he is a fanatical editor—and yet somehow they never feel excessively worked over.

 
Salter’s prose is tightly controlled but somehow it also flows with a kind of freehanded, painterly flair. You can recognize his work anywhere by the impressionistic diversions that his paragraphs can take. In his new novel All That Is, for instance, he describes Christmas in New York thusly:
 
It was Christmas in New York, crowds hurrying home in the early darkness, captains of the Salvation Army ringing bells, St. Patrick’s, the brilliant theater of the great store windows, mansions of plenty, the prosperous-looking people. They were playing “Good King Wenceslas,” bartenders were wearing reindeer antlers—Christmas of the Western world, as in Berlin before the war, the deep green forests of Slovakia, Paris, Dickens’ London.
 
I don’t know how we get from St. Patrick’s cathedral to the forests of Slovakia and Dickens’ London but it works.
 
James Salter feels like autumn to me, however, for reasons that extend beyond his literary style. Here is what happens in his major works: people live elegant lives filled with sensuous pleasures. They host dinner parties and drink Grand Marnier in the evenings. They bum around major European cities. They spend long afternoons in hotel rooms or empty apartments having tremendous sex with people they shouldn’t. Life is usually just lovely for Salter’s characters. But that loveliness is also deadly. Life is never anything more than the appetites of the flesh. Characters grasp for some higher meaning in their lives but always come away empty-handed. Like J. Alfred Prufrock, they want to squeeze the universe into a ball and roll it towards some overwhelming question but in the end life is just a lovely dinner party. And, eventually, it’s not even that. Couples divorce, people die, friends scatter and then everyone grows old and dies. And, for Salter, that’s all, folks.
 
There is a crushing and unforgettable sentence in Light Years that illustrates Salter at his most bleak. After a character’s husband dies, she gloomily contemplates the prospects of finding a new partner. She wonders out loud: “Do we really only have one season? One summer…and then it’s over?”
 
Time is one of Salter’s great themes. In his books, time is limitless—abundant with rich experience—and then suddenly it’s not.
 
Critics have said Salter has a kind of French sensibility and I would agree with that. Camus is never far beneath the surface. Salter has said specifically that he admires Celine, Gide, Henry de Montherlant, and Henry Miller (who was not French but might as well have been).
 
A few words about Salter’s marvelous new novel All That Is: The first thing to say is that, if Salter is not quite at the height of his powers here, he is not far off the mark. The book is, in this respect, an extraordinary feat. I cannot think of another American writer who has written so well into his 80s.
 
This latest novel is a variation on the usual themes. It tracks essentially the entire life of Philip Bowman, beginning with his years in the Navy during World War II and following him through an ill-advised marriage, a career as a literary agent in New York and then into the waning years of his life.
 
There is much to love in this novel. Bowman’s New York is the old New York of our imagination. In one scene, he stops by the Algonquin Hotel bar for a drink and it’s a fashionable spot, not yet an overpriced tourist trap. There is lots of very good sex in the book, some of it quite deviant. When Bowman decamps for Europe, we get to walk with him through the streets of post-war London, Paris, Spain.
 
Through it all, Bowman has his ups and downs—desires both fulfilled and unfulfilled—but his prevailing affect is ennui. He is always more detached towards events in his life than he is enthusiastic about them.
 
He is detached about everything, that is, but the war. A girlfriend asks Bowman “What are the things that have mattered [in life]?” Bowman responds: “Well… if I really examine it, the things that have most influenced my life, I would have to say the navy and the war.” As he ages, the war never really leaves Bowman. It returns in his dreams. He has a random encounter with an old shipmate that seems to haunt him.
 
I wonder then if this book and, indeed, much of Salter’s work cannot be situated within the literature of post-war disaffection. Salter’s three best books, A Sport and a Pastime, All That Is, and Light Years, are all in their way cultural critiques of the post-war world. The shimmering but fatuous comforts that we won at Normandy and Guadalcanal. Salter himself served in the Pacific Theater, in the Air Force. Through Bowman, he is perhaps admitting something about himself, that the war never really left him either.
 
The first pages of All That Is are the most optimistic.  Bowman is a young lieutenant on a warship in the Pacific. His fleet is dueling the Japanese to the death. Here his life seems to be flowering, glorious. Alas, these scenes take up only twelve pages. The remaining 278 pages—Bowman’s life in New York in the 50s and 60s—are a long autumn of sex, booze and discontent. Maybe it makes sense, then, to think of James Salter as something like an unacknowledged Beat poet. The America that he writes about is, after all, the same post-war America that launched a thousand howls from young poets like Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti. The only difference is that Philip Bowman would never howl; that would be déclassé or, at the very least, a touch extreme. Bowman just shrugs and pours a scotch.

essay #13

racism lunch
 
RACISM FOR LUNCH
 
My mother used to make me lovely lunches. My favorite was her homemade dumplings. We would invite our neighborhood friends over to roll the dough, cut vegetables, and hand-form the delicious, iridescent balls. We had two big pots of boiling water into which went batch after batch of pork and Napa, pork and scallions, and plain vegetarian dumplings. The house filled with voices, laughter, and song in a mingling of Chinese, Taiwanese, and English. Most importantly, we stuffed ourselves with dumplings and pickled cucumbers. Afterwards, we’d have many leftovers, which my mother froze. Since I loved her dumplings, she would steam them and pack them for my school lunches.
 
When I was thirteen, my family moved to a new city, which was challenging to me as the only Taiwanese-American in my new school. I wanted to fit in and I mostly did. The only real differences between my classmates and myself were in our eating habits. I had noticed these differences the first time I was invited to have dinner at a friend’s. Our entire meal was set out on one plate—I was used to having a bowl of rice, which I would eat with a variety of small dishes in tapas style. And for lunch, it looked like my food was alien in comparison to everyone else’s—or exotic anyway.
 
Eww, what’s that smell?” someone asked. My friends and I were in sixth grade, sitting in the hallway, and I had just opened my bento box with Hello Kitty painted on it. They all peered in. My mother had packed homemade dumplings. My classmates poked at a dumpling, dissected it with their forks, and deciding that it was not something they had seen before, promptly told me it looked disgusting. Also, it stank they said. I was embarrassed. If they thought my dumplings were was disgusting, did they think I was disgusting, too? Someone handed me half a ham and cheese sandwich. “Have something normal.” I was only too grateful to stash my dumplings away.
 
Every lunch after, if my mom packed dumplings, I would throw them out before the bell rang and share in my friends’ Pizza Lunchables and chocolate and vanilla puddings.
 
The problem with pretending that I didn’t have a lunch was that sometimes I would forget to throw out the dumplings and they would sit in my lunchbox for a day or two until my mother asked for it so she could repack it. So one day when she found rotten dumplings, she asked me why I had been letting the food go to waste. I got angry at her. I told her I wanted to trade in my “smelly Asian food” for simple sandwiches.
 
“Why can’t you just give me what my friends eat? Dumplings are gross. They’re stinky. People make fun of me.”
 
I saw the hurt on her face. She had handmade these, put love and care into each dumpling, packed them for her daughter because it was her favorite food, and now her daughter was too embarrassed to bring them out for lunch. My anger turned to guilt, but I couldn’t understand why she didn’t see that the food we ate marked us as different, and even worse, sickening.
 
My mother stopped packing dumplings for me after that, and the pain she felt was more than just about a bratty daughter wanting to eat what was cool for lunch. She questioned her decision to raise me in the States at all. Would I lose my sense of culture? Would I reject the traditions my grandmother had taught her? Would I grow up to be ashamed of being Taiwanese? To my mother, dumplings weren’t just a traditional food item, they were little purses of love. I was only in middle school then, but I wish I’d had the gumption to stand up for myself and my dumplings, to tell my friends to taste them and really try to enjoy them because there was nothing repellent about a single one.
 
I didn’t, of course. And I regret to say that incident (amongst others: being scolded for slurping soup straight from the bowl in high school; hearing taunts for feasting on udon for breakfast in college)—and my classmates’ prejudices—created distance between me, my mother, my culture, and my entire heritage.
 
Food is a reflection of identity, personal and cultural. Rejecting and expressing disgust for pickles, say, or sushi, venison, or entire categories of foods is insidious. Too many people classify personal tastes as facts—if salmon roe looks unusual, it must be nauseating. But even when veiled in a more subjective light, statements like, “I just don’t like Indian cuisine,” betray a self-important snobbery that borders on racism.
 
I’m twenty-four now. I work at a sushi restaurant in a trendy part of town where we serve our miso soup without a spoon and only set the tables with chopsticks. People of all different ethnicities come in to try rolls and sashimi and tempura and soups they’ve never had. Some are timid, some are obnoxious, but in most cases, the abolition of ignorance through the simple act of eating is all that is needed to turn hesitation and even disgust into pleasure.
 
For myself, I’ve made it a goal to explore as many different kinds of food as I can so that I am never constrained to eating a  “normal” lunch again. It’s the best way I know to make amends with my mother.
 
– Kat Chen
 

essay #12

write and read
 
TURNING STONES: THE EDUCATION OF THE WRITER
 
“How did you come to write?” This is probably the most common question asked of writers and puts the cart before the horse, because all of us received our initial inspiration from reading.  The more revealing question is, “How did you become an avid reader?”  Was it because you liked to hear stories told when you were a child? Was it because your mother read to you from a very young age? I grew up in a family of story tellers and my mother did indeed read to me when I was very young.  But when I look back, I can trace the path I took to becoming a reader, and in time a writer, to a single day of my childhood.  It was a summer day, and I was playing with a neighbor girl in my mother’s rock garden when a snake slithered out from under a stone.  Marty screamed “Copperhead!” at the top of her voice, a scream my mother still recalls, because it scared her.   She came running outside, but by the time she reached the rock garden, the snake had disappeared.  That is, it disappeared from our sight.  But it did not disappear from my mind.  It fascinated me, that snake with its elegant movement as it crawled among the stones, its straw colored stripe that ran the length of its back, and the utter magic with which it disappeared, like liquid rope pouring into a seam of the earth.
 
My mother recalls that in telling the story that night to my father, he remarked that it was probably just a garter snake and entirely harmless.  Now my father only knew a little about snakes, but enough to know that a snake described as having a stripe down its back was certainly not a copperhead. In the Appalachian hollows of my childhood, nearly every snake was accused of being a copperhead, for the simple reason that copperheads were the only venomous snake in the region and ignorant people tend to assume the worst. Marty of course was not to blamed for the mistaken identity.  She was simply repeating the dreaded name that she had heard from adults. I would like to believe that people today are more enlightened about snakes than they were when I grew up, but I fear that most are not.  Snakes remain the least understood, most feared and most persecuted animals on the planet.
 
And, for me, from that day forth, the most fascinating.  Shortly after the excitement in the rock garden, my father caught a garter snake near the foundation of the house.  He handed it to me and taught me to pay it out like rope, letting it slip from one hand to other before it settled down and no long tried to escape.  I was surprised to find that it was not slimy as popularly believed, but its coils were cool, smooth and dry to touch. I also, for the first of what by now must be thousands of times, experienced the tickling sensation of a snake’s forked tongue flicking against my skin.  Eventually my father took it from my hands and released it into the grass, having no idea that the experience had transformed my life forever.
 
After that day, I determined to learn everything there was to know about snakes. How could I gain this knowledge?  I couldn’t learn much from adults.  My father only knew a little about snakes, which was a little more than almost anyone else.  Snakes were to be avoided, to be feared, to be awarded superstitious powers, to be exterminated from the earth.  Or at least from the Appalachian foothill country where I grew up in southeastern Ohio. My grandmother Inez, or Nanal as we called her, was so steeped in superstition that she believed “hoop” snakes would bite their tails, turning themselves into circles like bicycle tires, in order to roll down the hill and strike people dead.  She also believed milk snakes would crawl into a baby’s crib, bite the baby on the mouth and suck the air out of his lungs, turning the baby blue. “For pity’s sake, child,” she’d tell me, “I seen it with my own eyes.”  When she stayed with us, she would stuff towels under the door to keep the snakes I kept from crawling into her room.
 
In the face of such pervasive ignorance, the only place I could turn for accurate information was books.  There was one problem.  I was not yet in kindergarten and couldn’t read.  My mother, who was a children’s librarian, came to my rescue.  She began to teach me how to read, despite her misgivings about my motive, and by the age most children in my class were just starting to learn the a,b,c’s, I was reading Raymond Ditmar’s “Snakes of North America,” the most advanced and comprehensive book on snake identification, distributaries and behavior that the local library carried.  The lessons I learned from my fascination were as much about people as about snakes.  At an age when most children thought adults infallible, I grew to suspect them.  Many were ignorant, prejudiced and so fearful of a boy who played with snakes that they would not let their own sons and daughters near me.  This gave me an outsiders perspective on life, and helped form me into a person who suspected common wisdom and asked questions — traits that are very desirable for a future writer.  Life could be mysterious, beautiful, and misunderstood, as mysterious and as beautiful and as misunderstood as the snakes that hid under stones and in the folds of the earth, and I wanted to get to the truth.  I turned thousands of stones in search of snakes; later the stones I turned for the truth would be in my mind.  I became a devout disciple of that great sleuth and stone turner Sherlock Holmes, an avid follower of the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn — a reader, a searcher, and, in time, a writer. It all began with a garter snake in a rock garden.
 
– Keith McCafferty
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essay #11

cave painting
 
WHY NARRATIVE WRITING MATTERS
 
As hunters and fishermen, we have a need to tell stories. It has always been so, since the beginning of recorded time. The first stories that humans ever told, that we are aware of, are recorded in the pictographs painted on the cave walls of Lascaux in southwestern France. They are more than 20,000 years old. They do not tell stories of love or war, or of politics or philosophy. They tell stories of hunting. Paleolithic scholars believe that some of these drawings of bison, cats, bear and rhinoceros are accounts of past hunting successes and are a mystic ritual to improve the chances for success in future hunts.
            As outdoor writers, this is the tradition we come from. Our Paleolithic ancestors were the first storytellers. The need to tell our stories, to record them so that others might read them and learn from them and draw inspiration from them, is one of the oldest human impulses. It began with cave art and the oral tradition. As we developed written language, our hunting and fishing stories became narratives on pages made of papyrus, wasp nests, and finally wood paper. Narrative writing does not have to instruct, though it can instruct. It does not need to illuminate larger issues or reveal fundamental human truths, though the best of it can do that too. Its primary purpose is simply to tell a story.
            One of the greatest fishing stories I ever read was written by Roderick Haig Brown and began something like this: “I’ve told this story before in different ways but as it is the best story I know . . .” –he then proceeds to talk about trolling in a rowboat for king salmon in a place where nobody had caught salmon before. There is no moral to his story except the unwritten one, that the best fishing, and hunting, too, has a sense of discovery at its core. Nobody wants to read a story about fishing for hire, a man casting his line where a finger points, or a man pressing the trigger after the guide has done all the real hunting. The gun writer Elmer Keith wrote one of the best hunting stories I ever read, and it was just his account of one soggy, rainy day’s hunt up on the Lochsa River in Idaho. Keith is the only one in the story, turning the bowl of his pipe down so the rain won’t put it out, and tracking elk, killing elk, and dressing them out in the dark, providing winter meat for his family and the families of those other hunters back in camp. Keith wrote stories as if he was telling them to a friend and in fact in his later years his stories were dictated. His detractors, and there were many, fault him for being ungrammatical and not having the slightest idea how to use punctuation, that compared to someone who had real writing skills like his nemesis Jack O’Connor, the late great gun editor of Outdoor Life, Keith was a very poor writer. They entirely miss the point. Good writing may accompany good storytelling, as it does in Haig-Brown’s stories but isn’t necessary. A raw story, told straight, like Elmer Keith’s, is often better and more memorable than an elegant story that lacks narrative drive. The skill is not in the perfect crafting of sentences, but what those sentences say, the art of storytelling.
            Let me make that point in another way. When I was preparing this essay, I started by making a list of what are to me the greatest hunting and fishing stories ever written. Of those, only three were written by undeniably great writers. The are William Faulkner’s “The Bear” from Go Down Moses, “Big Two-hearted River” by Ernest Hemingway, and “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” also by Hemingway. Let me excerpt a couple pages from the beginning of the “Short Happy Life.”
           
It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.
       “Will you have lime juice or lemon squash?” Macomber asked.
       “I’ll have a gimlet,” Robert Wilson told him.
       “I’ll have a gimlet too. I need something,” Macomber’s wife said.
       “I suppose it’s the thing to do,” Macomber agreed. “Tell him to make three gimlets.”
       The mess boy had started them already, lifting the bottles out of the canvas cooling bags that sweated wet in the wind that blew through the trees that shaded the tents.
       “What had I ought to give them?” Macomber asked. “A quid would be plenty,” Wilson told him. “You don’t want to spoil them.” “Will the headman distribute it?” “Absolutely.”
       Francis Macomber had, half an hour before, been carried to his tent from the edge of the camp in triumph on the arms and shoulders of the cook, the personal boys, the skinner and the porters. The gun-bearers had taken no part in the demonstration. When the native boys put him down at the door of his tent, he had shaken all their hands, received their congratulations, and then gone into the tent and sat on the bed until his wife came in. She did not speak to him when she came in and he left the tent at once to wash his face and hands in the portable wash basin outside and go over to the dining tent to sit in a comfortable canvas chair in the breeze and the shade.
       “You’ve got your lion,” Robert Wilson said to him, “and a damned fine one too.”
       Mrs. Macomber looked at Wilson quickly. She was an extremely handsome and well-kept woman of the beauty and social position which had, five years before, commanded five thousand dollars as the price of endorsing, with photographs, a beauty product which she had never used. She had been married to Francis Macomber for eleven years.
       “He is a good lion, isn’t he?” Macomber said. His wife looked at him now. She looked at both these men as though she had never seen them before.
       One, Wilson, the white hunter, she knew she had never truly seen before. He was about middle height with sandy hair, a stubby mustache, a very red face and extremely cold blue eyes with faint white wrinkles at the corners that grooved merrily when he smiled. He smiled at her now and she looked away from his face at the way his shoulders sloped in the loose tunic he wore with the four big cartridges held in loops where the left breast pocket should have been, at his big brown hands, his old slacks, his very dirty boots and back to his red face again. She noticed where the baked red of his face stopped in a white line that marked the circle left by his Stetson hat that hung now from one of the pegs of the tent pole.
       “Well, here’s to the lion,” Robert Wilson said. He smiled at her again and, not smiling, she looked curiously at her husband.
       Francis Macomber was very tall, very well built if you did not mind that length of bone, dark, his hair cropped like an oarsman, rather thin-lipped, and was considered handsome. He was dressed in the same sort of safari clothes that Wilson wore except that his were new, he was thirty-five years old, kept himself very fit, was good at court games, had a number of big-game fishing records, and had just shown himself, very publicly, to be a coward.
 
            In those short paragraphs, Hemingway introduces three vividly drawn characters and sets the stage for the unfolding of the story. A man has turned and run when charged by a lion. From here the story will flash back to the hunt for the lion, and then forward to the next day when Macomber must face his demons and try to resurrect his manhood while hunting Cape buffalo. It is a story of redemption. It is not only a great hunting story. It is a great story, and widely considered one of the most perfectly crafted short stories written in the English language.
            Now, what does this story share with the other two I’ve mentioned, besides artistic merit and the subject matter?
            There are two things all these stories have in common that strike to the heart of great narrative writing. The first is that all three are fiction. “The Short Happy Life” was inspired by a story Hemingway heard about a titled European woman who accidentally shot her husband while on safari, and the white hunter, Robert Wilson, was based on two professional hunters who were friends of Hemingway, Philip Perceival and Bror Blixen. But the story itself came about in the customary manner—one person shutting a door and stringing together lies summoned from the ether. That’s not to say that all great writing has to be fiction—but all great writing draws from fiction; it relies on fiction techniques. This shouldn’t come as a big surprise, for if it is true that ancient hunters and fisherman were the first storytellers, I’m guessing it is equally true that they were the first liars. I can image some cave man finding a mountain goat that was killed in a rock slide and dragging it home to his cavewoman and while she cooks it, painting a picture on the rock wall showing the goat charging and the hunter standing firm with his spear. And her shrieking, “Liar! Liar! Liar!” like the wife of Miracle Max in The Princess Bride when he’s trying to breathe life back into the Man in Black with a bellows stuck down his throat.  And let’s face it, has that really changed in 20,000 years?
            Who amongst us can honestly say that no one has ever accused him of stretching the truth in print, or at least around the campfire? Where I live in Montana, I hear stories about 20-inch trout being caught every day of the season; I’ve seen some of those 20-inch trout, which invariably grow to 22 inches by the second telling, and they were 17 inches. Honest 20-inch trout, unless you fish at night, come to the net once or maybe twice a summer. We are natural born liars. And this isn’t something to be ashamed about. In fact, it’s to our advantage. It gives us a leg up on other writers, those soulless city dwellers who read literature in which nothing ever happens but bad behavior and then, when they try to emulate it, find they may have ink, but what their pens lack is blood. I have a friend, Barbara Peters, who owns the Poisoned Pen Press and The Poisoned Pen Mystery Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona. Barbara has mentored a great many writers over the years and likes to say that a story that doesn’t work can be fixed, but that there’s no cure for a boring writer. You’re either interesting and vital or you aren’t, and we hunters and fishermen have the right stuff. It’s in our DNA. All we have to do is get out of way of ourselves and let the stories we were born to tell find their way onto the page.
            Now, there’s something else the three stories I mentioned have in common: They’re old. Really old. “Big-Two Hearted River” was written in the 1920s. “The Short Happy Life” was written in the mid ’30s. “The Bear” was first published in 1942.
Great hunting and fishing stories, fiction or fact, endure. To my mind, the greatest true hunting stories ever written were Jim Corbett’s tales of man-eating tigers and leopards. I was six weeks in India following his footsteps. Much of Jim Corbett’s India no longer exists. Most of the tiger habitat in the India Corbett knew is no more, and in many areas the tiger itself has disappeared into the realm of myth. But the stories in “Man-eaters of Kumaon” are as thrilling to read today as they ever were.      
            The greatest reading experience of my life happened when our Volkswagen bus broke down when my family was on a camping trip in the Rocky Mountains. We had to be towed into Denver to get a new engine put in the van. I was nine years old, and at one point, my mom dropped me off in a public library to read for a couple hours. My dad had told me about Jim Corbett and I found one of his books in the library. I thought I’d only have time to read one story, so I chose the longest one in the book, which was “The Talla Des Man-eater.” On that first trip west from our home in Appalachia, I caught my first decent-sized trout, saw my first bear, saw the sun come up to illuminate my first ever mountains. But what I remember most is reading the story of a man with an abscess that threatened to explode inside his brain, who was in so much pain he could no longer sleep, and who, with one eye squeezed shut and his right eardrum destroyed, hunted on foot and alone, at night as well as by day a man-eating tiger in the foothills of the Himalayas. I opened that book wanting to lead a life of great adventure. I closed it wanting to write about it.  
            I think what I’m trying to say is that the craft of narrative writing matters. It has the power to move us in ways that other forms of outdoor writing can’t and the best of it is timeless. Read an article about how to catch fish and it is out of date in ten months. Read a piece about where to hunt elk and there may be no elk there by the time you shoulder your pack. Stories about gear are outdated before they are published (in hardcopy, anyway).
            But read a great story and it stays with you the rest of your life. It doesn’t matter if you can’t recall where you read it or that the magazine you read it in has been composted and the paper returned to the earth. It is alive in your mind. When you are the writer of the story, it takes on yet another dimension. It becomes a record of those times in your life when you lived most fully. I have never kept a journal, I wish I had, but I’ve written hundreds of stories and they run together to form of diary. Those stories are what I read aloud, hour after hour, as my father lay in his death bed, hoping but uncertain that he heard them, and those stories are the legacy I will pass to my children. This is who your father was. This is who his father was. This is what I thought about taking you hunting and fishing with me, before you were ever born. Take what you will from them.
            So, that’s my pitch. That’s why I believe that outdoor writers need to pay attention to the narrative as our highest and only enduring form of art, and it’s why the editors who are so fixated on service articles should shake some of the leaves of “how-to” and “where-to-go” and “what-to-buy” to the ground, so that they can see the tree standing behind them, the one form of outdoor writing that has roots, and find some space to run our stories.
 
– Keith McCafferty
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essay #10

Max the Cat-2
 
KAT CATCHES A CAT
 
I have never been a cat person. I’ve never had a cat. I had a dog once, and for a while I managed to keep a hamster alive. But I’ve never had even a single cat-tending experience, so when called upon to capture and care for my neighborhood stray, I was hesitant.
              I first met him after my roommate Kara and I moved into the bottom-floor unit of a four-plex that bordered a trailer park and a street that doubled as a freeway entrance. He was a handsome cat of stocky build, a sturdy 20 pounds, white-whiskered with pale blue eyes, and the tip of his right ear was missing, marking him a warrior of the streets. He was also “intact” as they call it – a fact that was obvious as he strutted by us with his tail held high and slightly crooked in greeting, showing off two enormous furry cat balls.
              While it was still warm out, we would leave the front door open, and he would let himself in and rub his head vigorously against our legs, purring so loudly and deeply it was almost a growl. I soon met his owners, the family who lived in the unit above my own. The father looked to be in his early-thirties, wiry-thin and pale with black hair, and his wife looked the same, except with washed-out blond hair. They had an adorable one-year-old son. I once caught Jake – the father – sitting on the stairs outside, petting his cat.
              “Your cat is so friendly, he hangs by our door all the time,” I told him.
              “Oh yeah? That’s good. He’s pretty choosy about the folks he likes.”
               “What’s his name?” I asked, letting myself into my apartment.
               “It’s M…” was all I heard before Jake went up the stairs and I closed my door.
               When I retold this encounter to Kara, she asked me if I ever figured out the cat’s full name.
               “I’m not sure, maybe it was Max or something.”
                And that’s how he became Max the cat.
                I didn’t much interact with Jake again, but for those first two months, my roommate and I heard multiple episodes of yelling and cussing coming from upstairs. Max would hide under the steps next to our front door. I would sit and keep him company but it seemed like he was always there, waiting for his owners to let him in or pay him some attention. And as the weather turned colder, the father didn’t seem to be around anymore, and Max was constantly outside. When it started consistently raining, as it does in Seattle, I would try to coax him into my house, but he would stay stubbornly under the stairs. The girls who lived next door told me they’d heard that Jake had gone to rehab.
               “For what?” I asked.
               “Meth,” one girl whispered.
               “No, it was Oxy,” said the other.
                I never found out definitely what Jake had to be rehabilitated from, but the girls agreed that the mom had moved out with her son to live elsewhere with her family. The unit was empty.
                I didn’t see Max during the months of December and January, the coldest time of the year in Seattle. I had started leaving dry cat food and a bowl of water outside by the stairs but it was rarely touched, and when it was, after close scrutiny, I couldn’t be sure that it wasn’t just a raccoon or other animal eating it. Finally around mid-February, I caught a glimpse of a black cat slinking around the shrubbery by the stairs. I put out cat food again, but this time I used the canned kind, hoping the strong stink of tinned tuna would attract it. That night I glimpsed a cat coming out from under the shadows to sniff at the bowl. I was returning from work and as soon as it heard me, it ran under the stairs and disappeared. No matter how I looked around the complex, cat food in one hand, flashlight in the other, I couldn’t find the cat. I left the food outside and gave up. The next morning, the bowl was licked clean.
                Kara and I started leaving cat food out once a day and it was almost always completely finished by sunup. We began to see the cat more frequently, but it was still too skittish for us to confirm that it was, in fact, Max the cat. Finally, one day when I opened the front door, instead of darting away, the cat froze, gave me a good hard stare, and continued eating. I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was Max but he looked so different: so much smaller, his skin and fur dangling from mere bones and muscles. And his bright blue eyes had turned black, pupils dilated from starvation. His fur was much darker than before, too, dirty and matted from sleeping outside. He had a deep cut above his right foreleg, which extended to his chest, and although it was scarring over, it was definitely a fresh wound.
                For months, we fed and coaxed him every day but were still unable to get him to come inside the house. Our year-long lease was ending. Kara was moving out to live with her boyfriend and his dog, and I was moving into a townhouse with two other friends. We were all worried about Max. He was becoming less skittish and friendlier but we had found traces of blood on our front steps, possibly left by a cat that had tried to help itself to Max’s food. We couldn’t keep leaving cat food outside if it was attracting other animals, nor could we ask the next tenants to continue feeding him, and since Kara couldn’t take him, I was left with either trying to catch him with the hope of changing a wild, tough, outdoor, cousin-to-lions tomcat into a domestic, indoor Garfield, or leave him to continue fending for himself for who-knows how much longer. I chose the former.
                 First, I recruited the help of two other people. We tried to lure Max into a kitty kennel with food, treats, catnip, toys, and a laser pointer. When Max found that he couldn’t get to the food in any way besides bodily entering the cage, he laid down a foot away from it and gave us a look that clearly said, “Fuck you.” One of my friends was able to pick him up but as soon as they approached the kennel, Max kicked his hind legs into my friend’s side, squirmed out of his hold and once again walked just out of reach from us. He began cleaning himself. We went home after that. I knew I had lost that night.
                 A week later, I waited for two hours on the steps of my empty apartment with cat food and a book, but he must have been too busy that day.
                 The third time I tried to catch him, I was so determined that I even scheduled an appointment at the veterinarian’s office for the next morning. That afternoon, when Max showed up, I didn’t wait around. I had my boyfriend with me, and he propped the kennel up vertically, door held open, and I distracted Max with some foul-smelling food, and when he started eating it, I quickly picked him up and plopped him tail-first into the kennel and locked the door before he could react. The car ride home was filled with yowls of complaint. But Max was finally mine.
                 Now, I wonder if I did the right thing. Successfully catching a ten-year-old cat was certainly nothing I’d ever planned for in my life. Have I rescued or captured him? Does he hate me for taking him away from his life of outdoor adventure or does he appreciate the effort my friends and I have exerted in order to find him a good home? Max now stalks around our house, demands loudly to be fed, and has marked my bed as his own. Perhaps he has caught me and not I him.
                 One thing is for sure: dogs are so much more grateful.
 
– Kat Chen
 

essay #9

blue jasmine
 
BLUE JASMINE
 
In his 1949 essay “Tragedy and the Common Man,” Arthur Miller defines tragedy as a crisis of “personal dignity.” Tragedy, he says, is about our “underlying fear of being displaced, the disaster inherent in being torn away from our chosen image of what and who we are in this world.”
 
I was thinking of this classic essay as I watched “Blue Jasmine,” Woody Allen’s new film. “Blue Jasmine” tells the story of Jasmine French (Cate Blanchett), a Manhattan socialite who is very much displaced. When we first see Jasmine, she is standing on a San Francisco sidewalk toting Louis Vuitton luggage and looking utterly discombobulated. “Where am I, exactly?” she asks. The question is literal (she doesn’t know San Francisco very well) but also reflects her existential disaster (she’s lost all sense of her place in the world).
 
Jasmine is in San Francisco because she’s moving in with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Jasmine’s fall from Manhattan high-society is a fable for our times. Her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) is a successful financier and, while times are good, the two spend their days lounging on sundecks in the Hamptons, hosting parties in beautifully appointed rooms, and debating the merits of different brands of private plane. Alas, Hal turns out to be a Madoff-esque crook and ends up in jail.
 
When the government confiscates all of Hal’s ill-gotten gains, Jasmine is left bereft of everything that gave her life meaning: money, status, her morning Pilates class. Shattered, she retreats to her sister’s apartment in San Francisco to piece her life back together. The Mission district of San Francisco is portrayed here as a blue-collar, rough-and-tumble foil for Manhattan. It’s neither here nor there but in the Mission as I know it the biggest danger is that you might overpay for a jar of artisanal Mayonnaise (small-batch, of course).
 
Theater people will recognize the film as an homage to A Streetcar Named Desire. Jasmine, like Blanche Dubois, is a quivering wreck, flitting through each scene like a fatally damaged butterfly. The role of Stanley Kowalski is shared by two blue-collar lugs that her sister Ginger dates: Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) and Chili (Bobby Canavale). Both are brilliant casting choices. Dice Clay’s final monologue is a revelation, so good that you wonder if you’re really watching that Andrew Dice Clay.
 
The real star of the film, though, is Cate Blanchett, who steals literally every scene she is in. She’s almost too good for this film. There are many scenes, or individual lines, where Woody Allen has written the script in his breezy, intellectual style and Cate Blanchett just demolishes the levity like a wrecking ball. Blanchett is intensely attuned to her emotional core. She can tap into it and produce a thousand shades of anxiety or sadness at the drop of a hat. Woody Allen’s script has Jasmine frequently self-medicating with Xanax and vodka, for instance, but Blanchett expresses the entirety of Jasmine’s pain and repression with one nervous smile.
 
Ultimately, the film does diverge a little from the spirit of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” At the end of “Streetcar,” Blanche is defeated by Stanley and his cruel realism; we don’t necessarily side with Blanche and her penchant for fantasy but we pity her. In “Blue Jasmine,” Augie and Chili aren’t that cruel, they’re just regular Joes. And Jasmine’s lying is not that harmless but is seen as part of the fraud infecting the financial sector during the 1990s and early 00s. Her and Hal’s lies actually hurt people.
 
“A Streetcar Named Desire” wants to say something about the ambiguous nature of self-invention. “Blue Jasmine” wants to make the more pedestrian (but timely) point that there is a fine line between self-invention and self-delusion.
 
So what happens when we are “torn away from our chosen image of what and who we are in this world”? In tragedies, this conflict is never resolved. King Lear goes mad. Willy Loman kills himself. Jasmine French ends up homeless and mad, sitting on a park bench talking to herself. I suppose that these are all cautionary tales for the rest of us since, as Arthur Miller suggests in his essay, we all experience this sense of “displacement.” No one is ever quite identical to their chosen image of what and who they are; there is always slippage. The only choice we have is to get comfortable sleeping on our sister’s couch in the Mission or else wind up sleeping in the park.
 
– Matthew Saks
continue…

editorial #2

Seamus Heaney
 
ON THE DEATH OF SEAMUS HEANEY
 
I awoke this morning to a crying baby and the news that Seamus Heaney was dead at the age of 74. Somber notes to start the day. If I’d taken his death to heart harder I might be drinking a whiskey neat as I write. I feel as if I should be. Instead I’ve been reading “The Skunk” to my three-month-old and telling him what little I know about Mr. Heaney, which is as follows:
            One, he was a fabulous poet. He had an ear reminiscent of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s and a knack for fantastic juxtapositions of words, images, and ideas. (To read more on Mr. Heaney’s ear for music, see Matthew Saks’s excellent essay at DenverCritic). I have always felt, upon opening his collections, that I will be in for a treat. Simply holding Opened Ground seems to expand my vocabulary and general intelligence if only by heady osmosis. 
            But the other thing I told my son is that Mr. Heaney will likely be best remembered historically for his translation of Beowulf, widely hailed as the most readable and lyrical translation of that epic ever penned for contemporary readers. Mr. Heaney’s Beowulf came out in 1999, was adopted into the Norton Anthologies in 2000, and pretty much every high school, college, and graduate student in the English-speaking world who has been assigned the poem since  has read Mr. Heaney’s translation. I slyly told my boy that it’s a story about swords, monsters, and dragons that he’ll love and that he needs to have consumed it by age six. Of course, he’ll probably resent me. But if I had to squint at that tiny Norton typeset for hundreds of pages then so should he. Actually and perhaps partly in retrospect and out of nostalgia, I find that I quite like Beowulf and am looking forward to slogging through it again.
           I will always love Mr. Heaney most, however, for his shorter verse, and will leave you now with these opening lines from “The Skunk,” which seem appropriate on the occasion of this sad day:
 
Up, black, striped and damasked like the chasuble
At a funeral mass, the skunk’s tail
Paraded the skunk.
 
– Thomas McCafferty
 

essay #8

Orange New Black
 
ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK
 
As a general rule, TV shows and movies cannot be too depressing or else no one would watch them anymore. They may take on tragic subjects, but they must conclude with some kind of saving grace. We like our entertainment to inspire, uplift. Over two thousand years ago, when the Greeks invented tragedy, they had a different idea about the role that drama should play in our lives. The Greek tragedians – particularly Euripides – wrote plays of extreme brutality. Just in the Oedipus story alone there is patricide, incest, self-mutilation, and exile – not much uplift at the end of that story. The Greeks believed, however, that it was only in being confronted directly with the unfiltered terrors of existence that an audience could achieve what they called katharsis, a full purging of the emotions that ultimately had a renewing or restorative effect on the viewer.
 
I can think of very few modern works of art that are so black that they truly yield no light. Malevich’s famous “Black Square,” perhaps. Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita. This probably means that we’re not as high-spirited as the Greeks were, because it takes tremendous joie de vivre to fully submit oneself to tragedy. That said, I am incredibly enthusiastic about the last season of Breaking Bad, because it appears that the show is speeding towards a firmly tragic conclusion. No way is Walter White getting out of the drug game with his life or his family intact.
 
All of this is really to preface some things I’d like to say about Orange is the New Black, the hit series now airing on Netflix, which I’ve been binge-watching every night until I’m exhausted and have ensured that I will be a waste of space at work the next day (seriously, it’s a problem).
 
The show is based on the real-life experience of Piper Kerman, who recently published a memoir of the same name. Piper is a self-described Boston WASP. Majored in Theatre at Smith College, speaks fondly of vacations in Provincetown. You get the idea. After college, in an experimental phase, she briefly dated a woman named Nora Jansen, who at the time happened to be employed as a heroin trafficker for a West African drug lord. Piper became entangled in the drug trafficking and ended up helping to launder a suitcase of cash internationally. After a few scary but exhilarating months of this, Piper moved on to San Francisco, where she met the man that would eventually be her husband, and together they moved to New York to start a life together. Five years later, on an afternoon in May, she was in her pajamas in her West Village walk-up, working at home as a freelance producer, when two customs officials showed up at her door to tell her she had been indicted on charges of drug smuggling and money laundering. She ended up having to serve 13 months at a federal corrections facility in Danbury, Connecticut.
 
The show is great but, for reasons I’ll elaborate, I hate it. It’s certainly riveting. You really feel like you’re getting a sneak peek inside a woman’s correctional facility. You see the hardships (bad food, sadistic guards); you see the unique social organization of the prison (cliques run along racial lines, segregating whites, latinos and blacks); and you see the general despair that goes with being incarcerated. And Piper Chapman is surrounded by a fabulous cast of characters: Sophia Burset, a courageous transsexual; Pennsatucky Doggett, a former drug addict who fervently preaches the gospel to the other inmates; “Crazy Eyes,” a hyperactive and slightly unhinged black woman who has a crush on Piper; “Red” Reznikov, a tough-as-nails former member of the Russian mafia who runs the prison’s kitchen. This is all highly entertaining, as you might imagine, and that’s why I hate it. It’s really too entertaining.
 
The story’s premise is a prime opportunity for tragedy, but the show dodges it. Life in prison, for all of its bleakness, is still portrayed as consistently exciting. Every one of the characters is quirky and unique and interesting. And whether it’s the annual holiday party or someone’s birthday, the inmates always seem to be singing or dancing. It begins to feel like the cast of Rent was sent to a women’s prison for a year. And none of the characters seem capable of speaking a line that is not provocative or witty. Nearly every line is a zinger. Just once, I’d like a character to say something like “We’re out of toilet paper” or “Pass the salt.”
 
And it’s not just the language. Every scene, too, is larded to the max with dramatic tension. Someone is either killing or threatening to kill someone. People are either having sex or upset that they’re not having sex. Someone is either doing drugs or smuggling drugs. The inmates are either ostracizing Piper or embracing her. Life does not get this exciting in Connecticut. It’s as if someone ripped out the first page of Screenwriting 101 – “Every scene should have conflict…” – and faxed copies to the all the writers with the instructions that the rule must be strictly followed upon penalty of death.
 
TV shows have no obligation to faithfully reflect real life but by portraying life in prison as a non-stop romp the show does make me wonder about exactly what it is trying to accomplish. In a recent NPR interview, Jenji Kohan, the creator of the series, gave us some clues. She discussed how, while the supporting cast of characters is wonderful, a series featuring only them could never have succeeded. They needed the character of Piper in the prison to make the story “relatable.” Relatable to whom? Presumably, their target audience: upper-middle class, college-educated, white women like Piper. Later in the interview, Kohan discussed how the series made a conscious effort to includes scenes detailing what all of the women’s lives were like before they went to prison. The main reason for this, Kohan said, was that it would be too bleak to shoot an entire show within the prison walls, and flashbacks allowed them to shoot scenes in the real world. Otherwise, she continued, the show might have been “potentially depressing.”
 
Now, entertaining the public is no crime. But the show is also capitalizing on the perception that it courageously depicts the realities of life in prison. They want it both ways. They want to talk about life in prison (a conversation our country desperately needs to have) but only if it’s from the narrow perspective of upper-middle class college-educated women and only if it’s not “potentially depressing.”
 
The truth is that there is a tragedy out there begging to be told and when it is fully told it will be plenty depressing. America incarcerates around 2.3 million people, more than any other country in the world. A vast number of those prisoners are non-violent offenders serving draconian sentences for drug-related crimes. Black people account for about 40% of the total prison population, even though they comprise only about 13% of the US population. Hispanics account for about 20% of the total prison population even though they comprise only about 16% of the US population. The tragedy is right there. It is a story about families and communities torn asunder. It is a story about prosecutors and law enforcement systematically targeting minorities in the name of a fraudulent “War on Drugs.” It is a story about legislators cruelly ratcheting up prison sentences decade after decade so they can proclaim that they’re “tough on crime.” There’s certainly a tragedy here, but what Orange is the New Black suggests to me is that we’re not ready yet to face it head-on.
 
– Matthew Saks
 
This essay originally appeared on August 18 on denvercritic.com. Read more from DenverCritic here.

editorial #1

Hirschworth 1
 
THE PUBLISHER’S CONUNDRUM 
 
As Hirschworth enters its second month, and begins its second issue in a way, I would like to extend heartfelt thanks to all of our readers and contributors who have made this magazine’s start a success: so far, we have published 30 poems, 7 essays, 7 short stories, and the first chapter of our serialization of Candice Cousins’s novel Bigger than a Cadillac [1].
          In the month ahead, we will be publishing more new writing from a greater number of writers, providing you with more varied content that will, in my opinion, enrich the experience of reading this magazine. Hirschworth was founded in part to be a venue where people could access myriad voices, styles, ideas, and approaches to creative and critical writing and to art. In this way, Hirschworth stands for being an anti-arbiter of taste. We are not trying to push any particular aesthetic or politic on you.
           Yet, we do have certain preferences for subject matter (the sea, food, fowl cooked or living, etc.). And we cannot publish everything that comes our way. For example, the content of some submissions does not make sense to us; some submissions, to us, are overly indulgent with wordplay; some are profane in a way that, no matter how well-intentioned from an artistic standpoint, come off only as mean to us. To publish these would be to shirk our responsibility to you, our readership, and would be an easy excuse for shirking for our own responsibilities as editors. This leaves us in the paradoxical state, as one of my colleagues said, of being a magazine that is pretentiously unpretentious, that acts necessarily as an arbiter of taste even as it rages against that role.
          That is all to say, we certainly do not see ourselves as above criticism. 
          Keeping the the above in mind as a glaring qualifier, we are, from time to time, going to set about critiquing those established publications that unabashedly act as arbiters of taste, foremost of which is The New Yorker. We love The New Yorker. It and Harper’s are the only major, broadly read magazines that regularly publish fiction and poetry, that regularly make these art forms available to a general, not strictly literary readership. Secondly, we often find ourselves bewildered and annoyed by The New Yorker because of the content and quality of the poems and stories contained therein (though there are gems to be found, too) [2]. In my opinion, it is because The New Yorker acts as the de facto ambassador of what contemporary fiction and poetry are to much of the public that it should be evaluated (both positively and negatively) on its performance. In the coming weeks, we will be examining The New Yorker more closely on an issue-by-issue basis. We hope that you will weigh in with your own thoughts.
           Now, I would like to kick off this second issue of Hirschworth with a poem from Kirstin O’Connor entitled “With Apologies to Paul Muldoon” [3]. It is not a poem for everyone, but it is fitting here, and it is perhaps a poem for you. As ever, and as much as we are able, we leave it to you to discuss the merits and demerits of our content.
 
Yours sincerely,
 
Thomas McCafferty
Editor in Chief
 
 
 

[1] Sometimes a piece is very much in a gray area between a short story, a poem, or an essay, and while we do pick labels for each one, these labels are meant more to be organizational tools than decrees. I remember a friend of mine named Slim saying his favorite book of poems was Finnegan’s Wake, which seems perfectly valid despite its status as a novel.
 
[2] We are focusing on The New Yorker at the moment more than Harper’s because of the discrepancy in circulation (as according Wikipedia). The New Yorker boasts a total circ of over 1,040,000; Harper’s has a total circ of about 187, 000.
 
[3] Mr. Muldoon is, of course, Poetry Editor of The New Yorker. He is also one of the finest poets alive in our humble opinion. 

essay #7

Experimental fiction
 
ON EXPERIMENTAL FICTION
 
The below columns are meant to be read individually as separate pieces then together as one whole piece, ignoring the column break:
 
An American Nude2
 
          In 2004 when I was living in Lake Worth, Fla., and reading Moby Dick in a sweltering apartment and listening to Belle and Sebastian and Jack Johnson a lot, I had this notion that literature could be as layered as music—in a more overt way than it already was. I wanted to set two stories side-by-side with only a slender column break between them. Each would be whole and complete in itself and, when reread as one, ignoring the break, a third story would emerge that would be both its own story and a commentary on the first two. Perhaps these are the kinds of visions you have when you are twenty-one and losing body weight by the pounds/hour in the form of sweat and replacing that perspiration with cheap beer. A sort of romantic delirium.
          Nonetheless, I set out to execute my vision: for the idea to be anything more than a gimmick, I felt it should be at least 150,000 words. An epic. And eventually, at the end, the two columns would split to three, then four. And of course the subject matter would have to justify the inherent fractured nature of the aesthetic and the disjointedness of the telling.
          I never came close to that goal. What you see above is more of a cursory attempt to see how difficult it would be to try to do the thing at all. I think it could be done. Just not by me. Maybe someone else will take it up. Though I’m not sure it’d be worth the effort.
          For my part, I got back to basics with short stories and working on a good old fashioned novel. Trying to tell a straight story without technical gymnastics is hard enough, I think. Moreover, the best stories are layered. Fiction is already in a fine shape.
 
– Thomas McCafferty

essay #6

Tour d'Argent-8  
CONVERSATIONS WITH L: LA TOUR D’ARGENT
 
“You must get the Champagne,” L. told me. He hadn’t aged a minute since I’d last seen him. A dashing gentleman in an impeccable gray linen suit. Clean shaven. A new look. “They serve the best. Not too cold. Deliciously French.”
            We were in the lobby of the Tour d’Argent, if you could call it a lobby. It felt so much like a strange, antiqued little house. Under a glass casement was a what looked like a miniature canon. It took me a moment to realize it was a wine rack in the shape of a canon. Perhaps it would blast the cork. Phenomenal.
            It was August, and I had never before been to the restaurant. L. had been many times. It was one of his favorites. He happened to be in town at the same time I was, happened to have a reservation at the same time I did, and had convinced that maître d’hôtel that we should sit together, ignoring my protestations that we should not—because we were not friends, and though I found him interesting, I rarely enjoyed his company. He was always trying to get something out of me.
            I told him I couldn’t afford the Champagne—even if it was very French Champagne. As if it could somehow be more French than any other Champagne. L. has always had a way of describing things that I find infuriating. He signaled the waiter with his finger and told the man to bring two glasses. And to me he said, “I’ll pay of course. In one manner or another. You simply cannot come here and be cheap. Be cheap every other day. You only have so many chances to be extravagant.”
            When he spoke, I found that he seemed to be singling me out quite apart from himself, his use of the word ‘you’ being specific and not generic, the implication being that he himself was often extravagant and seldom if ever cheap. Quite belittling. Rather rude.
            After downing the lovely drinks, we were whisked upstairs in an elevator and brought out into the most spectacular dining room I’ve seen: windows all around opening onto views of the streets of Paris, of the Seine, and of Notre Dame looking like an enormous, metallic Horned lizard.
 
Since I was a child, I’ve many times heard the story of my mother’s trip to the Tour d’Argent with her parents. She was a teen. Her father was a businessman and gourmand. She spoke beautiful French. He had a thick American accent. They were seated toward the back wall, as far from the windows as the room permitted. Then my mother began to order in French, and the waiter was so impressed that he reseated them on the lowest level, directly before the windows, offering up the best view. This story has always impressed upon me the importance of eloquence, accent, and learning new languages. Sadly, such understanding has done nothing to actually help me with my facility with French (or for that matter, Italian or Spanish). I knew that opening my mouth would do nothing to improve our standing in the eyes of the waiters who oozed class and unapproachable sophistication the way maple trees ooze delicious sap. I let L. do the talking. His French is perfect if also, at least to my ears, syrupy with pride. In the end, I’m not sure the wait staff or sommelier much appreciated him.
            After ordering, L. said to me, “Did you know, in the second world war, that they built a false wall in the wine cellar here to save their best wines from being stolen from the Nazis?”
            “I’d heard something about it.”
            “They even added cobwebs to cheaper bottles to make them look vintage and expensive. Quite ingenious. One of the bottles they saved was a 1921 Chateau Margaux. I had the pleasure of drinking one myself the other year. Supple. Liquid velvet fit for a prince. Really, you must make some money so you can afford to broaden your tastes.”
            I quoted Ian Flemming, saying that the only money worth having was was not quite enough, and we argued over finances and pretentions and the wars while enjoying quenelles de brochet André Terrail (pike dumplings), saumon chaufroité à la Parisienne (cold salmon Parisian style), soupe de poisson au fenouil et à la badiane (fish soup with fennel and star anise), and of course the filet de canette de Vendée, chutney de tomate au citron et wasabi (roasted ducking fillet with a wasabi and lemon flavored tomato chutney). The Tour d’Argent is famous for their ducklings, having served over a million (each diner served gets a postcard that contains the number of his specific duck: mine was in the 1.03 million range). It was, undoubtedly, the best duck I’ve ever tasted. I told L. as much.
            He said, “The best duck I ever tasted was a freshly killed pintail that had been roasting over an open flame in the Adirondacks. I had just tricked a starving man into trading it to me in exchange for a quarter million dollars. Of course, he died of malnutrition before spending the money. I have always enjoyed having my canard and eating it, too.” He smiled wickedly.
            As I have said, the man is unbearable.
            When the bill came, L. was conveniently was in the restroom, taking his time, doing lord knows what. I paid. Our glasses of Champagne had cost 60 euros apiece.
 
– Thomas McCafferty
 
La Tour d’Argent
World-class food. World-class view. Perfectly stuffy service. Bring your French and your appetite, too.
15 Quai de la Tournelle  
75005 Paris, France
www.latourdargent.com
 
 
Tour d'Argent-9
Tour d'Argent-2-2Tour d'Argent-3-2Tour d'ArgentTour d'Argent-3Tour d'Argent-2Tour d'Argent-4Tour d'Argent-5Tour d'Argent-6Tour d'Argent-7

essay #5

animal wonder
 
WONDERS OF THE ANIMAL KINGDOM
 
A fly was on my wall. Half-dangling, feet outstretched, wings against the wood. Quite dead, taunting gravity, no webs holding it. Sometimes I laughed at the fly that saw nothing and that, in expired attitude, was embracing the entire room.
            It’s gone now; I guess it could only fool with physics so long. I almost miss it, but not much.
 
This morning, while vacuuming, listening to that musical, domestic hum, I found the fly. Musca domestica. There, on the floor where it fell. Supine, feet outstretched, wings against the carpet. I turned off the machine to get a better look.
            I was about to pick it up when my cat beat me to it, pouncing between my legs, licking it up. Mister Roland’s a filthy thing, really. Fond of dead flies—live ones, too, but he has a hard time catching them. I once brought him to a friend’s cabin that had been vacant half the summer. I think he ate forty-three lifeless houseflies and six enormous horseflies before vomiting on the upholstery. It was none of it a very pretty sight.
            Roland left quite pleased with himself and began to preen. I felt a little queasy as I got back to cleaning.
 
– Evelyn B. Hirschworth

essay #4

dumplings
 
DUMPLINGS ON THE BRAIN
 
Because of my father, I was exposed to a wider array of cuisines than I had any right to be growing up in Montana in the 1980s and 90s. That was a time when my hometown of Bozeman had a few decent French restaurants, one Chinese restaurant, bars, and sandwich shops. My family rarely ate out, and I don’t think we missed much (for what it’s worth, Bozeman now has a vibrant culinary scene).
           Dad oftentimes made dishes with the game meat from the ducks, deer, elk, or antelope he hunted. A few times we even dined on bighorn sheep and moose. He would grill the loins and tenderloins and serve them with a Béarnaise or whiskey cream sauce. The rumps and other roasts he would stew or turn into burger. One of his favorite cookbooks was Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen (it’s an invaluable book). We ate a good amount of Cajun and Creole food made with Montana wildlife. But not until Emeril Lagasse came on the national scene in 1993 with his first cookbook, Emeril’s New New Orleans Cooking, did my Dad make us American dumplings. I’d never had them before. They were tremendous.
            A Southern-style American dumpling is essentially white flour, milk, butter, seasonings, and baking powder combined into a gooey ball about the size of a shooter marble then either dropped into boiling liquid or steamed on a rack or colander where, after a minute or two, it puffs up and becomes an airy little cloud that will lovingly absorb all of the flavors of whatever you put it in. These dumplings are usually served with chicken in either a soup or a gravyish roux. I love them so much that I once seriously considered starting a food truck (to be named Bun/Cock) that would serve a sort of inverted Southern chicken and dumplings dish. I wanted to make the dumplings on a huge size so that they would act as the bun into which I would slop my chicken and gravy roux. I experimented around with proportions and ingredients (pig fat, eggs, yeast, minced onions, green onions, mushrooms, more baking powder) and eventually pulled off a good, fluffy, bun-like prototype. I even priced out ingredient and equipment costs before deciding that putting every ounce of my energy and every dime of my savings into a food truck was perhaps a misguided venture when I had a baby on the way. But for a minute there I thought, This will be my contribution to world cuisine. The tiny Southern dumpling turned into a sandwich.
 
Din Tai Fung-3
 
THE OTHER DUMPLINGS
 
Back in 2001 when I left Montana to go to college on the East Coast, I got a bit confused about dumplings. I knew what I meant when I talked about dumplings, but anyone else who told me, “Oh, I love dumplings, too,” turned out to be talking about a different food entirely, which was usually though not always Chinese dumplings.
            Chinese dumplings are commonly made by rolling out a flour and water-based pasta, cutting it into squares or rounds, dolloping on a mash of pork and/or other ingredients and seasonings, closing each one up, and either steaming them or steaming then frying them. To me, these were less dumplings than ravioli variants. I was a young man and, you might say, pigheaded—but I wasn’t so pigheaded as to not want to try them.
             Turns out, I love Chinese dumplings (especially the steamed kind), and I’ve been fortunate to get a very good fill of them lately. Specifically, I’ve been making the pilgrimage across Lake Washington to eat at Din Tai Fung in Bellevue. For those who may not know, Din Tai Fung is a Taiwan-based chain/foodie sensation that specializes in pork dumplings (see above; they also serve many other dumplings and dishes such hot and sour pork soup, shrimp and pork shao mai, and shaved ice: see below). Eating at Din Tai Fung is essentially a way to consume Taiwanese street food in an upscale setting. You can even peek in on the dumpling-making process through a window (at least in Bellevue you can). My mother-in-law, who was born in Taiwan, tells me that the street dumplings in Taipei are superior. Nevertheless, she loves Din Tai Fung. And how could you not? The food is sensational (and with a new location opening at University Village here in Seattle this fall/winter, what reason will I ever have to eat at home? Other Din Tai Fung locations: Los Angeles, Australia, South Korea, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, and of course Taiwan).
             A plethora of other dumplings exist, too (from Italian gnocchi to German knödel to Nepalese momos to Jewish matzha balls and many, many more. For a list, see the Wikipedia dumpling entry). It would be an interesting endeavor, I think, to sample all of them. And since I don’t have the money to travel on a whim, I guess I better get cooking. Will this mean that I eat dumplings in one form or another for the rest of my life? Or at least the remainder of the year? Perhaps. And would a dumpling binge be so bad? Definitely not.
 
-Thomas McCafferty
 
Din Tai Fung-2Din Tai Fung-4Din Tai Fung
 
 

essay #3

Hot Foie Gras
 
ON TERRIBLE FOOD & ART
 
“Make it terrible or make it great.”
            That is what my professor Stanley Whitney told me when I was a
a twenty-one-year-old whippersnapper studying painting in Rome, and he specifically meant that I couldn’t settle for painting something merely mediocre. He wanted paintings good enough for the best galleries and museums in the world, and to hell with what would merely go up in a coffee shop with a $500 sticker. That was in 2003, the year I also began to really cook.
            I was reminded of his words last night when I was preparing a Marco Pierre White recipe (from White Heat) for “Hot foie gras, lentilles du pays, sherry vinegar sauce.” I had no troubles with searing the foie, but the lentils and sauce presented problems: 1) I had only a quarter cup of lentils and needed three-quarters more; 2) the sauce called for Madeira and sherry vinegar, and I had neither. Add to that a time crunch (when isn’t there a time crunch when dinner is at stake?), and I was feeling a bit of stress.
           The final stressor was Joyce Liu, a friend of mine and a former roommate of my wife’s, who’d been staying at our house. She’s a fantastic chef who’s been moving up the culinary ladder mostly under the tutelage of April Bloomfield for the last five years, since graduating from the French Culinary Institute in New York City. My own time on the line has been less glamorous and my knowledge and skillset are infantile comparatively. She’d cooked for us the previous three nights, and now I was making food for her.
             I decided to par cook the lentils ahead of time (adding jasmine rice for volume) but screwed up and boiled them into a mush. Bland but edible. At that point, I had three options: Keep it as is, knowing it will never be that good; toss it and cook new; or try to make it great and risk making it truly terrible. And I couldn’t toss it. I had no time and no more lentils and making my guest eat foie gras on rice or perhaps couscous instead wouldn’t at all be in the spirit of the dish. I’d been simmering a mirepoix of carrots, shallots, and celery in butter in a pan on the side. I turned the flame high, added a scoop of pumpkin seeds, dumped in the mush, and did my best to fry the hell out of it. The result was an oily, soggy, heap. The texture was still poor, the taste somewhat better. I strained it to get rid of the extra oil and set it aside, hoping for an idea later.
            It was after my chicken finished roasting and I was looking at the delicious drippings that it occurred to me to strain about a quarter cup of that golden juicy fat into the heap—making it even soggier, pushing it toward a savory, bastardized congee with a French flavor profile. I cooked it into oblivion and when I was done it looked sort of like purple mashed potatoes. But! The texture was that of a good mash, and the taste was quite rich.
            Regards the sherry sauce, I managed to foul it by trying to reduce dry sherry with a drop of white wine vinegar, the result being far too bitter. This was an easy fix: red wine, tawny port, and foie gras drippings brought it together into a sweet and savory syrup.
           The end result was very tasty and I was excited to eat it with our guest. Was it as good as what Mr. White’s recipe called for? I think he would say definitely not (or something more profane). And wasn’t I lucky to have chicken drippings and foie gras drippings on hand? Certainly. But when you cook (or write or paint), you sometimes manufacture your own luck, and I never had the time or ingredients to make the right thing to begin with. I needed some luck and I needed to be willing to screw everything up.
 
– Thomas McCafferty

essay #2

Food 1
 
A MAIALINO LINE COOK DISHES IT UP…
 
I was recently reminded of a well-known diner in Montreal called Wilensky’s. It’s a simple and straight-shooting institution that serves and has always served most notably the Wilensky Special, a pressed all-beef fried salami and bologna sandwich on a locally baked Kaiser roll. Its notoriety derives from its old mustard policy—if you DON’T want mustard on your sandwich, it’ll run you an extra 10 cents (previously 5 cents). Nowadays, mustard is compulsory. 
            This modest eatery could not be further away from the celebrity chef constellation of New York. And yet, next to Maialino, where I work, it raises an interesting distinction. What is the uneasy foxtrot between the curated vision of the chef and the wants and desires of its guests? In many ways, this question enters the oldest dialogue in history. In Plato’s The Republic, he asked why we would let ordinary people run society when we have philosophers. He reasoned that would be akin to passengers on a boat navigating the ship instead of the experienced captain. If we compare chefs to rock stars (as it has often been done), would you ask Mumford and Sons to change the lyrics or key to suit your whims? Rather, isn’t it the other way around where you gravitate to a song because it profoundly delights your palate, perhaps even surprises you?
            A condemnation this is not. Obviously, with a magnanimous willingness to accommodate a majority of requests, Maialino has a legion of regulars the likes I have never seen before. They include not only admirers from the neighborhood but also those who seek a place of comfort whilst going about their daily lives – whether it be business meetings, breakfast bites or special dinners. Standing alongside the unwavering excellence and accessibility of the dishes going out of the kitchen is the unobtrusively deft service that is always there when you need it and not so much when you do not. It is about your enjoyment and that alone. The food and its delivery is thus subsumed under the larger orbit of one’s dining experience rather than demanding a stage for its own vanity (though it has much to boast about).
            So, Wilensky’s is undoubtedly a cool place, with its old world appeal and quirky fascism. And perhaps truth be told, a fried salami sandwich just isn’t the same without mustard. But chances are, and if given the option, you would return to Maialino again and again because no matter what the words on the menu say, you can get that delicious mushroom and goat cheese frittata to go, just like your mom used to make. 
 
– Anon
 
 
 

essay #1

Before they were soldiers

BEFORE THEY WERE SOLDIERS

Calvin and Sean and Leaf and I start hiking into the Beartooth Wilderness in the late afternoon. The air is dry as we head up a lifeless trail past lakes that sit like Buddhas nestled in the mountains. We hike through meadows, yellow and brown with withering flowers and decaying grass. The peaks, at twelve thousand feet, terrible gods of ice and granite, command attention, respect, and fear. My muscles strain under my pack a little more each mile until I  can’t feel them. A dizziness, an ease of repetition hits you until you stop  a minute to drink and then, starting again, the sore bones and muscles that were nothing but dull pains before scream alive. After hiking for hours in silence, ignoring them becomes impossible. What little sound there is, is only the wind picking up, bringing clouds. The sky fills with haze that deepens to the intensity of black. Calvin turns to me, “We should set up camp before it rains.” I agree, though it means stopping short tonight.
            The tents go up in a drizzle, a slow leak from the clouds, exploding as we escape inside, rain pounding the granite below us in waves from the sky. Here we are far above the treeline. I open a window enough to look out and watch the lightning. No firework show could ever compete. Booms of thunder send tremors through the ground, keeping us from sleep. Across the lake, a crack, a million guns fired at once, draws me to the window and I watch the only avalanche I’ve ever seen. Boulders the size of cars slide down barren fields of scree. They look small from here. Then the storm is gone and the sky lightens and the clouds break. The last light fades into black, and we listen to the streams of water washing under the canvas tarp of the tent, runoff from the slopes above that fills the lake, which now sits as calmly as before.
            And my mind wanders to women, which is inevitable when you are sixteen and in the company of men.
 
– Lionel Harrington

criticism #1

Cursed Entrees
 
MY ENTRÉE IS CURSED
 
When I moved from New York City to Seattle in 2009, I vaguely felt that I had abandoned a concrete wasteland in favor of verdant, vital greenness. The Emerald City. A city that celebrates life. And Seattle has not let me down: from hiking and hunting in the mountains, fishing in the Sound, and imbibing the excellent local spirits, brews, and wines, I have come to adore Seattle. And of course I love the fresh fish, local produce, and mushrooms here, too. But on the subject of cuisine, I have found a caveat: I have come to dread entrées in Seattle restaurants. So often they disappoint. Specifically, I am referring to those restaurants in which appetizers, cocktails, ambience, and service are all good to great, but the main courses fail to deliver.[1]
            Why and how is this?
Shouldn’t a chef who is able to concoct a great one-bite appetizer likewise succeed with a filet of fish or slab of meat? Is it just easier to work on a small scale? To create one moment of contrast and interest that pops? Are Seattle chefs more willing to take risks with appetizers, or more willing to tinker? Are entrées harder somehow? Is the traditional inclusion of protein, starch, and vegetable all on the same plate too limiting or imposing?
Answers vary by the establishment, but let’s put this problem in context. An entrée should highlight the meal. I’m paying more for it than anything else, aren’t I? Shouldn’t it be better than the ceviche I had to start? A good entrée, as a general rule, consists of multiple food elements on a plate with each element succulent in its own right as well as succulent and interesting when mixed with the elements around it. This can be as simple as steak, sauce, potatoes, and spinach, or as bizarre as noisettes of lamb with calf brains on a bed of carrot and zucchini fettuccine. But any way you look at it, the seasoning should be judicious and the taste should leave the diner wanting more even if the portion is filling. Is this really asking too much?[2]
            I believe two interconnected problems are largely at work:
            First, self-awareness, criticism, and feedback within the establishments must be inadequate. Whether in the conception of the entrée or its execution, someone should be saying, “Hey, this just isn’t that good.” Now, I was a sous chef for the last three years and I know how hard it is to say Let’s redo it. But if the problem is only in the execution, that has to be said. If, however, the problem is in the conception, addressing it can be next to impossible for line cooks and wait staff. Too much ego is at play. Then it’s up to the owner and executive chef. This leads to the second problem:
            Diners and critics are way too easy on restaurants here. The Seattle Times and Seattle Magazine give rave reviews and hand out best of this and best of that for mind-boggling no-better-than-decent food. I am just amazed by this. Are some of these so-called critics going out stoned and starving? Or walking in wearing signs that read, “Food Critic: Go Get the Head Chef Now”?
And as for diners, well my friends, raise your standards. Otherwise, you won’t get better food. Laughing, smiling, and saying, “That hit the spot,” when all it did was fill you isn’t doing your taste buds any favors. And certainly don’t come back again tomorrow. Don’t reinforce mediocrity. Restaurants are businesses foremost, food is always secondary, so it is your spending that really runs the show. Amen to Yelp! but Yelp! is not enough—you actually have to not go.
            Okay. Glad that’s out. The next time an entrée leaves me glum, I’ll let you know about it.
 
-Thomas McCafferty
 

[1] Now, this is not a problem exclusive to Seattle and it is not a problem that is ubiquitous in Seattle, either, but it is prevalent enough that I feel it worth mention. Offhand, I can think of fifteen restaurants that fit the bill (It would be wrong to name them all with one sweeping stroke, but going forward I will write them up in reviews). I can also think of a handful that are stellar beginning to end, the exceptions that prove the rule.
[2] This article is going to be a rant now. I wish it didn’t’ have to be, but my hand is forced. If you don’t want to read a rant, stop.