Grandma Gertie always said there's not a savory dish that can't be made tastier by just a touch of tarragon.

Tsunami and Me

Tsunami and Me
too big to escape now....

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Still Hooked on Books

A few weeks ago I rose early on a Saturday to take my first Metro Blue Line trip to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. I only had to change trains once, and landed right at the entrance to the USC campus, right across the street from Exposition Park. As the train took me through some of the neighborhoods I frequented as a child and teen, I bored my companion cross-eyed, as I pointed out the scenes of my youthful crimes.

Before this excursion I’d poured over the colorful Festival of Books supplement that had arrived earlier with my daily paper. So many choices, and so little time. I finally narrowed my “conversations” down to three: prolific novelist Joyce Carol Oates, interviewed by KCRW Bookworm, Michael Silverblatt, a panel that included Marisa Silver, the author of Mary Coin, based on the famous Depression-era photograph, “Migrant Mother,” and Thomas Coraghessan Boyle, a California fave of mine since I read Budding Prospects, back in the eighties.
Joyce Carol Oates
Silverblatt and Oates discussed her new autobiography, The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age, as well as The Doll Master and Other Tales of Terror, a collection of six haunting short stories. 

When Silverblatt asked Joyce if, given that she so often writes of horror, she was happy, the audience laughed. But Oates replied seriously, “Terror is part of everyday life…I don’t think of happiness as a goal. I want meaning, and art puts meaning into chaos.” She went on to say that she believes the whole meaning of life is not to become extinct, and that motive is mostly unconscious, that her characters’ motives spring from tribal consciousness.”

I’ve been mulling over those comments ever since, and just put The Lost Landscape on my library hold list. I’m always interested in the early years of writers. And just couple of hours earlier I'd been chugging through my own personal lost landscape.

“Fiction: The Road Home,” had been designated as the theme of a panel, led by Tom Lutz, editor-in-chief of “Los Angeles Review of Books” Along with Marisa Silver, Monte Schulz, the son of “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles, and Cathleen Schine, author of The New Yorkers, also participated. I focused mainly on the comments of Silver, since one of my book discussion groups had chosen her book a month earlier. 

Marisa Silver
Silver explained that although he wants to live in Los Angeles now, she still regards New York as home. But when she lived in New York she wrote about her childhood in Connecticut. Silver’s new book, Little Nothing, she wrote entirely out of her imagination. “After Mary Coin, I felt I was drowning in research,” she explained. 

Schultz’s closing comment enchanted me, “People remember how writers write, not what they write.” Maybe, maybe not, I thought, but it inspired me enough to approach Silver at the conclusion of the panel to tell her how scintillatingly brilliant her closing paragraphs were in Mary Coin, which seemed to please her. 

Boyle read his short story, “The Relive Box,” and fielded a few questions. Though he’s an atheist, he said he’d believe in God “if the Coen Brothers would make a movie of one of my books.” 
T. C. Boyle

He concluded with this warning to his audience: “You see me happy and gregarious, but inside I’m black, as black as Samuel Beckett.”

I thought that was a fitting conclusion to a day of listening to literary icons, especially since a few hours earlier at a Center Theater Group booth I’d spun a fortune wheel. I'd won a pair of tickets to see Beckett’s absurdist drama Endgame in May at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City.


Monday, April 11, 2016

Tea for Two Redux

Melt-in-your-mouth crumpets!
Will you still feed me, when I'm 64?
On our recent trip to England, my longtime friend, Linda Safford, had hoped we'd find time for afternoon tea at one of the posh Mayfair hotels or at the British Museum. Alas, we didn't, so busy were we with outings here, there and everywhere. So to make up for it, I treated Linda to afternoon tea on her April 8th birthday.

McKenna's Tea Cottage in Seal Beach has  been in business in the heart of Old Town Seal Beach CA since 2011. This was my first time there, and it won't be the last.

Front parlor of McKenna's Tea Cottage
We enjoyed the Lady Hamilton Tea, with our choice of over 50 teas. I had Orange Spice and Linda stayed with traditional Earl Gray. The tiered tray set before us included scones, clotted cream and jam, and five kinds of tiny sandwiches. One caution about this delightfully quaint retreat...don't show up unannounced because it's usually booked fully in advance. Make reservations to avoid disappointment. More about McKenna's can be found here: 

One of my earliest anthology stories, "Tea for Two," was published in 2008 in Chicken Soup for the Soul: A Tribute to Moms.  I still remember making tea for the very first time, and that time, my special guest was my mom.

Tea for Two

My sequined purple satin princess costume remained in its tissue paper wrappings on the top shelf of my bedroom closet, as I perched in my pink rosebud flannel pajamas on the window seat, peering out the bay window at the neighborhood witches, ghosts, and cowboys scurrying by. 

 On October 31, 1944, we didn't expect any knocks at our front door, festooned not with the Jack O'Lantern cutout I had made in my first grade classroom the week before, but with a stark black and white quarantine sign that shouted “Contagious Disease, Chicken Pox.”

Daddy had taken my unaffected older sister and little brother to Grandma's house for a party earlier that evening, leaving Mama and me home alone.  I had finished reading all the stories in the newest edition of Children's Activities, tired of cutting out paper dolls from the old Sears catalog, and longed to be outside.  Mama had promised me a special treat, but I couldn't imagine what could replace the thrill of joining the troops of children wandering door to door in the autumn twilight with their rapidly filling pillow slips.  No Hershey bars, candied apples or popcorn balls for me this year, I knew.  I didn't care, I told myself, because though the itching had ceased, I had yet to regain my appetite anyway.

Mama had turned on the Philco radio in the kitchen, and I heard the Andrews sisters warning “Don't sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me.”  My sister was probably bobbing for apples right now at Grandma's house, I thought.  “O.K.,” Mama called,  “Time to get dressed!” 

Glancing down at my pajamas, I wondered what she could mean, but scooted off my seat and trudged to the kitchen.  On the back of one of the chrome dinette chairs hung Mama's fur chubby, a kind of short jacket that represented the essence of elegance to me those days.  I used to love to watch Mama get dressed for special evenings, in her chiffon dresses always topped by the chubby. 

“Put it on,” she said, pointing to the jacket.  “We are going to play tea party, and I am going to be the hostess, while you will be my guest.”  She draped a string of pearls around my neck, as I shrugged into the jacket.  I noticed that the table had been set with her best Blue Willow cups and saucers, and that an empty platter had been placed next to the toaster.

Though I could not venture all the way outdoors, Mama opened it a crack so I could at least knock on the outside, right below the Quarantine sign.  “Oh, Miss Terri, it's so good of you to call this evening.  It's tea time,” she announced.  “And even though you are my guest, I'm going to ask you to make the meal, since you have such a special touch with cinnamon toast.”

I'd seen the bakery truck make its delivery earlier, and had wondered what had been left on our doorstep.  Now Mama opened the bread box and pulled out a loaf of sliced raisin bread.  She placed the sugar bowl, the butter dish and the red tin of cinnamon on the counter, and lifted the chubby from my shoulders.  Then she opened her Searchlight Recipe Book to page 44, handed me the yellow plastic measuring spoon set, and said, “Let's see how you do reading that recipe.”

I was the best reader in my class, so I stumbled only on “substitute” and “proportion” as I read aloud the instructions.

“Cinnamon Toast:  Spread freshly toasted bread with butter or butter substitute.  Spread generously with sugar and cinnamon which have been blended in the proportion of 1 teaspoon cinnamon to ½ cup sugar.  -- The Household Searchlight”

While I watched the raisin bread brown in our two-sided toaster, Mama put her tea kettle on to boil, and told me a story about the birds on the Blue Willow china.  She said that an angry Chinese father had been trying to catch his daughter who was running away with a boyfriend.  Before he could catch them, they had been transformed into birds and flew away together.  I rubbed my finger across the birds on the saucer.  “When you grow up, your father won't chase away your boyfriends,” she said with a little laugh.  “And now that you're learning to cook, it won't be too much longer before you are grown up for every day, not just for Halloween.”  I smiled.  It was true.  I was learning to cook. 

Though I hadn't been hungry all day long, the smell of the cinnamon sugar seemed to reawaken my appetite, and I ate my entire slice and half of Mama's, and even managed a swallow or two of my milk tea.  When my sister returned later that evening with the candied apples that Grandma had sent, I accepted one, but insisted I wasn't really hungry, since I had cooked and eaten a meal earlier. 

Mama's prediction came true, too, as I became engaged just a dozen years later.  And at my wedding shower in 1955 she presented me with a black leatherette bound Searchlight Recipe Book.  I turn the yellowed pages today to Page 44, and again recall  the delicious aroma of cinnamon toast as I remember the year that trick or treat became tea for two.

Happy birthday, Linda~

McKenna's entryway garden