Saturday, July 31, 2010

A Fever of Expectation

I don't know if I mentioned that I belong to a bookreading group; have for over 25 years.  We're a well-oiled machine by now, with a system for choosing our books, the day each month we meet, who facilitates the discussion, and who hosts our gatherings.

I've read some incredible books with this group, books I'd have never read on my own.  And I've had my experience of any given book greatly enhanced in discussion.

This month we're reading The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones.  She also wrote Lost In Translation.  (By the way, years after the movie garnered the acclaim it did, I finally saw it.  I'm afraid I was rather...underwhelmed.  But I don't hold her responsible for that.)

There's a new twist to our August meeting, however.  Mones is a Portland resident.  And, she will take groups that read her book to a   Chinese restaurant in town, and she will do the ordering, and "facilitate" the meal while we discuss her book.

When the possibility for this option was proposed, I'll admit I was a little resistant.  This was when I wasn't working and I had a feeling it might be pretty expensive.

As I read the book, I slap my forehead and wonder what I was thinking when I hesitated.

I've never read descriptions of food like this.  She's awakened--no, she's inspired--longings I never knew existed for flavors and textures I've only read about.  Cravings have opened like holes that only specific shapes can fill.  I wonder if she's up to the challenge of fulfilling them.  I cannot wait for this meal.

This book explores the theme that food is about far more than eating.  It's almost like tantric sex, a gateway through the senses to enlightenment.  In addition to being a path to the divine, it's also a language in which subtleties such as rank and favor are communicated.  There are literary connections slyly conveyed, and a great chef can be the inspiration for great works of art.

So it piques my interest.  I wonder how many other aspects of ourselves might be engaged in this meal.  Should I look for hidden messages, obscure connections?

But what if I'm not so crazy about the story itself?  Can we really have an honest discussion with the author right there?

Problem for me is...the book has some flaws.  They're small, yet erode the fundamentals of my willingness to believe.  We have Maggie, a recent (one year) widow who is a food writer who has to go to China to address a paternity claim against her deceased husband.  Of course it's a shock to her memory of her beloved husband, and her belief in who they had been as a couple.  To confirm the suit's legitimacy she has to take a DNA kit to the child and obtain a sample.  Her editor asks ("since you're going to be there anyway") if she'll take an assignment of profiling a restaurant that will be opening in Beijing, with a young American-Chinese chef who cooks exclusively in the classical Chinese tradition.  In tandem with the restaurant's opening is the publication of a book written by his grandfather, "The Last Chinese Chef."  When Maggie arrives the funding source for the opening has just dried up; his chef 'uncles' who've taught him all he knows through brutal "tough-love" urge him to enter a cooking contest for the Cultural Olympics as a means toward finding more capital.  Maggie pivots to focus her story on the competition.  The time-frames for verification of her departed husband's culpability and the cooking competition roughly coincide.

I guess my quarrel is it's so predictable that the two will fall in love.  And the story just doesn't have much depth--push against its two-dimensionality and it will fall right down.  I like to lean into a story and have it support me.  This one's too flimsy.  Not a bad read, not a great one.

I can forgive this by rationalizing that the romance really isn't the point.  It's merely an artifice to celebrate Chinese cuisine--its history, language, symbolism, cultural significance.  The food writing truly titillates, and it's clear from her acknowledgments page that this is where she put the bulk of her efforts.  Her research includes Chinese cooking/food books hundreds, and thousands of years old.  There's depth to burn behind all writing concerning food.  No problems with substance there.

So what happens if I'm honest about my experience of her story?  Will she order something 'special' for me?

I think I may just keep my mouth shut...except to eat.

(And I'm going to read Lost In Translation, too, to take a second look at her fiction.)

Monday, July 5, 2010

A strange kind of limbo

This process of coming to a decision to end my marriage has proceeded agonizingly slowly.  For me, anyway, since I spent at least 5 years seriously considering it (and arguably as much as 13 years before that getting to the point of seriously considering it).

Before kids, Gary and I together were part of a vigorous and vibrant outdoor community.  We mainly based our pursuits around ski touring into wilderness areas on heavy gear, to then climb and ski the wild slopes.  It was in the context of this community that I met Gary.

It was a fun life, that of adventurer and animal-woman.  It cost me, though.  I had to do a lot of overriding of my inner signals to maintain this life.  I realize now that though I made a lot of friends and our respect/liking was mutual, my main impetus toward this life was to counter being the-person-that-I'm-not-supposed-to-be (timid, agoraphobic, limited, dull).  It was fear of being This Person that motivated me to be That Person.  I held it together for a lot of years, but when I got pregnant at 40, I was really ready to stop pushing myself so hard.

That had a cost too.  I genuinely like the people who were my companions and took great pleasure in their company--intellectual as well as physical.  Most of the members of our particular group aren't even married, and of the ones who are,  only one couple has children.  (Their children are very close in age to mine, but in a twist of irony, our kids don't really get along.)  I knew it was inevitable that parenthood would become a barrier between us--how could it not?  Many of our gatherings were about decompressing after a trip and laughing at the shared mishaps and adventures.  An avenue of connection would inevitably close, once we weren't sharing those trips.

Connor was born.  Two years later we moved to St. Louis.  Life went on in Portland without us.  When we returned in late 2004 I had Scott, and he was only 3 years old and freaked out by the move.  Things weren't well with Gary and I; and I was traumatized and exhausted by the move (and all that had gone before) as well.  To be able to participate with these people, who had continued their pursuits in our absence, and to not hold them back, or even be a hazard, would have required an effort from me I wasn't capable of giving.  I was seriously depressed, yet it felt normal.  All I knew was that I lacked the motivation to do the things that would get me up to speed with my friends, and be a good parent.  I didn't think I was being a good parent as it was.

The past 5 and a half years haven't seen me rise much above the rock bottom I hit when I got here.  I've simply not had it in me to seek out my old friends, not much anyway, and I haven't really enjoyed it when I did.  When I did it was because I was dutiful, but I had to dig way down deep inside of myself.  About all I had energy to do, once the boys were both in school, was to try to take stock of my life and see if it was my fault that Gary and I sucked so badly together.

Here's where things stand right now.  I'm working for a home health agency and have been doing so since late May.  These 4 or 5 weeks into it I'm struggling to learn a complex computer documentation system to deal with a byzantine process of getting paid through medicare.  While in orientation I've been putting in 10+ hours a day, but I'm hoping to be independently operational by next week.  Then I want to cut my hours back to 6 a day and be home a little more with the boys for the summer.  Since Gary is working out of a home office he's around to provide an adult presence for the boys, and I've needed him for this during this period of training.  It's confused some of the boundaries we've laid though.  Gary hasn't yet gotten himself an alternate place to stay.  I'm staying with my friend Marti.  I'm there for 3 nights and then come back to my house for 3.  In theory that's what Gary's supposed to be doing too.  I'd told him until he found a place he could sleep here the nights I'm on my rotation as long as he is away during the boys' waking hours--that is, not come in while they're still up, and be 'gone' (in his basement office) by time they awaken.  This is complicated by summertime and the freedom to stay up later that the boys enjoy. 

I told him tonight that he needs to get serious about finding a place.

We're in the fourth week of the back and forth "rotation" (since Gary's really not 'rotating'.  Maybe this could be called a 'failure to launch'.).  This is so brand new sometimes I'm shocked by it.  Six weeks ago I was an at-home mom and had been for eleven years.  I commute 20 miles on I-5 through brutal traffic going and coming.  During the day when I'm seeing patients this is my primary means from point A to B.  This is an unfamiliar part of the region and I'm having to learn the fundamentals from scratch.  So I'm frequently lost.  I've been driving up to 60 miles in a day seeing patients, in addition to the 40 mile round trip from home.

Sometimes I can't quite believe what I've done.  Perhaps the way I feel is the way a homeowner does who has demolished a dwelling that's too small for her and is looking at the rubble feeling a long ways away from the new, completed home.

Although we've told our immediate families, and our kids have told some of their friends' kids who have told their parents, we haven't talked much about our change in status with the others circle of adults we know.  This includes our climbing friends.  One of them has a birthday today.  There were many years we spent his birthday with him--in the Goat Rocks, on top of Mt. Shasta, in the Indian Heaven wilderness.  Gary was to join a group of them snow camping on the west side of Mt. Hood yesterday because the weather was supposed to be good.  Instead they got blown off the mountain by relentless winds and Gary returned to the house (so much for the rotation).  This afternoon he said one of the guys had called and we were invited to a barbecue at his house tonight.  Gary said he told him about us splitting.  So the circumstances surrounding our going to a party to celebrate a friends' birthday would be people learning for the first time that we are done.

I just didn't feel up for that.  The group has of course evolved with new people that I've met but certainly am not on intimate terms with.  It's not an appropriate setting or gathering for the two of us to be there together.  I called with my regrets.

There's a good chance that if friendships get divided up like so many possessions in a relationship split that I've just ceded those friendships to Gary.  He's kept in better touch with them since we've returned from St. Louis.  Since his is the first face they'll see following the news, it's likely it's the face that will garner the most sympathy.

I do have an answer should anyone ask a "Why" that I feel like answering with more than, "Not available for discussion."  It's succinct:  "We suck.  We suck together."

I do not regret that I am doing this.  Uncomfortable as much of this is, it's less uncomfortable than staying in a marriage that I suck in.