Archive for June 2010

While Cleaning My Study

June 10th, 2010 — 7:36am

With a few days’ lull in events for Cakewalk, I’ve been cleaning my house. I mean seriously cleaning: not just moving the piles around to vacuum under them, but actually going through the piles and finding field trip permission slips that should have been turned in three years ago, and a Real Simple magazine from months back that promises “MORE TIME FOR YOU: Find Extra Minutes Every Day” “Hall of Fame Time-Savers” “Short-Cut Dinners” “Problem-Solving Products” — any and all of which I’m sure I would have found really useful except that I have never had the time to open the magazine. Into the recycling pile it goes.

In five days I’ve finished the laundry room, the main bathroom, the linen closet, my bedroom, and the major coup of getting my husband to give up the big closet he’s insisted he needed for the last 18 years. For the first time in almost two decades I now have all of my clothes in one place, rather than broadcast over four locations throughout the house. Several times a day I’ve opened my pristine closet, organized and color-coded, just to stand there and admire.

Since yesterday I’ve been working on my terrifying study, which is not much bigger than the closet but has over one thousand books in it, as well as all my desultory papers and file boxes of book research and weird random stuff, like a full-body fox stole that guards my 1920s Underwood typewriter…

…a collection of birds’ nests and another of miscellaneous doll parts…

…samples of mineral pigments and a dried lotus blossom from Aswan that, if you put it in water, would smell just like it did when it was fresh. I’ve got an old farmhouse wardrobe that is filled with nothing but foreign editions of Wintering. Where are you supposed to put such things, your two dozen copies of your own novel in Estonian?

One of my favorite treasures in my study is the box that my rabies vaccine came in. On one of my trips to Egypt to research my new novel, I was bitten by a rabid dog. Rabies is so common in Egypt that there are whole hospitals devoted to it, but my bite merited only a bored glance from one of the rabies doctors, even though a chunk of my calf the size of a golf ball was missing. “Just go to the pharmacy,” the doctor said wearily as she pushed an elevator button to escape me. At Egyptian pharmacies you can simply order the rabies vaccine series over the counter, which is what I did. That was easy — getting away from the leering male pharmacists who kept insisting that I needed to have each of the series of shots administered to my bare derriere, with every man in the pharmacy in attendance, was the hard part. The strange part was the vaccine box, which is illustrated with a photograph of a friendly-looking golden retriever:

Except if you look more closely, you see that someone has drawn the notorious rabies slobber all over the dog’s lips:

The cartoonish drool looks like a 7-year-old drew it, but it gets the point across.

There’s so much stuff in my tiny cabinet of curiosities of a study that I am not sure how to get it orderly enough to keep working in it, but I’m trying. One of the problems is the Wall of Books: these are not my reference books — the hundreds of books I use for my current book project — but the myriad novels, poetry, and quirky nonfiction title that are lined up and ready to be read, as well as the piles of same that I’ve read but can’t put away elsewhere in the house because I haven’t cataloged them yet.

When I read I underline anything I think might be useful to my work — vocabulary words, memorable phrases and unique metaphors — and then I catalog all that I’ve underlined in electronic files. It takes a couple of hours per book to record my notes, and I’ve fallen far behind. I mean years behind. The neurotic in me can’t put those books away until I’ve cataloged them, so I’m basically drowning in a sea of books that never go away.

Which brings me to Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water, her second novel, based on her experience in a mental hospital. Frame is one of my very favorite writers, a true genius whose excruciating sensitivity was both her  burden and her gift. This is how her narrator in Faces in the Water describes what happened to her:

“I was put in hospital because a great gap opened in the ice floe between myself and the other people whom I watched, with their world drifting away through a violet-colored sea where hammerhead sharks in tropical ease swam side by side with the seals and the polar bears.”

Faces in the Water is one of my Uncataloged Books, and I think it’s now been waiting its turn in my study for eight years. So it’s not like it’s here because of Cakewalk, but in that weird numinous way these things happen, when I picked it up to dust under it, this is the passage the book opened to:

“The nurses, feeling bored because there hadn’t been a recent fight, would fetch a bag of sweets from the tin which was bought every fortnight as part of the Social Security allowance for the patients. The lollies would be showered into the middle of the day room and it would be first come first served with fights developing, people being put in strait jackets, whistles blowing; and the tension which mounted and reached its peak at intervals — both in the patients and in the nurses who long ago had to suppress any desire to ‘nurse’ and were now overworked and degraded, in many a case sadistic, custodians — found its release, for a time.

After a lolly scramble, when the fights had been dealt with, there was unusual quietness and dreaminess and sometimes laughter, and those who had been successful in the rush held tight to their sweet sticky booty. The toffees always had the same taste, of dark swampy syrup that made one feel sick and at the same time gave comfort…

My own taste for toffees came at night when, being hurried along the corridor to bed, I felt such pangs of hunger that I became skillful at darting unobserved into the open pantry, and sometimes snatching a handful of toffees from a newly opened tin. But that was a rare occasion. More often I seized in one hand a slice of bread from the bin and delved honey from a large tin, pasting it, ants and all, with my fingers across the bread, and thrusting the whole in the sweaty hairy hollow under my arm, and withdrawing it and eating it, salt and sweet and gritty, in the quiet of my room.”

4 comments » | Books, CAKEWALK, candy

Cakewalk 101, Part 2: My Stalker, Tom Hanks, or Ingredients and What to Do with Them

June 1st, 2010 — 8:23am

Back in the day when I sat through a lot of command-performance family Sunday drives, I made up a mental game for myself that I called Zebra/Button. My idea was that if you thought hard enough, you could find a connection between anything in the world and any other thing, no matter how unrelated they seemed — even a zebra and a button. I whiled away many a tedious hour discovering threads of connection that I was sure would relegate me to the status of savant if I ever deigned to tell anyone what I knew.

Many years later, I was working at my first job in the editorial department of North Point Press. The lion’s share of my time was spent organizing and responding to the “slush pile,” the literal piles of manuscripts stacked up in listing towers all over my office. I was all but buried in manuscripts, and periodically my bosses and I would take armfuls and read until it became obvious whether the manuscripts in question had any hope of being published by our small literary press. Most of them just didn’t fit into the categories of books championed by North Point, but as I wrote in Cakewalk, every once in a while we were rewarded “by something priceless popping up — sometimes good, though more often something so thrillingly bad it became the topic of our weekly Friday afternoon staff parties. My favorite was the epic novel about a nineteenth-century livestock drive across the western plains, a heroic tale of wanderlust and bravery and tragic consequences, of murderous rustlers and five-thousand-head stampedes and rugged male bonding that could have been another Lonesome Dove except that the earnest author’s crusty, do-or-die protagonists were wrangling a flock of turkeys.”

Regardless of the quality of the writing of the tomes surrounding my desk, I never ceased to be impressed by the physical evidence of so much blood, sweat, and tears, the vision and tenacity of so many people who had not just managed to write a whole book, but possessed the courage it so obviously took for them to send their work out into the world for the assessment of strangers. North Point was a place with high ideals, and I took those ideals to heart, writing something encouragingly personal and signing my name to every rejection slip I sent out with the manuscripts I returned to their hopeful authors.

One of those authors was a local writer named Amos Hanks, who had submitted his hand-written memoir for the approval — or not — of North Point’s editors. If you’ve read Cakewalk, you already know who Amos Hanks is. But whether you’ve read Cakewalk or not, there’s more to the story…

Amos Hanks’ memoir just wasn’t the kind of book North Point published. He was a regular guy who’d been in, I think, the Navy, and most of his memoir detailed jobs working as a short-order cook in the Bay Area and car camping with his kids. In my rejection letter I wrote that I too remembered the pre-seatbelt-law days of rolling around in the back seat of my parents’ station wagon.

Amos was an amiable guy who didn’t want to take no for an answer, it turned out, and he was willing to make a deal. If I’d reconsider publishing his book, he told me over the phone, he could set me up with his son. Tom Hanks.

That’s the part of the story I told in Cakewalk. But as I’ve said before, my manuscript got way too long, and some of it ended up in another version of a slush pile. Such as the varied enticements Amos Hanks dangled in front of me to try to get me to publish his book:

“He’s a great kid, my Tom. A really good boy. He went to Skyline High, you know it, in Oakland? But you don’t have to go to Oakland — he knows Berkeley like the back of his hand! He was a busboy at Spenger’s Fish Grotto. I bet he could still get you a discount on a nice fish dinner.”

“He’s gonna be a big star! You just watch, this movie with the mermaid is just the beginning. Maybe you saw him in his tv show, Bosom Buddies? You did? So I don’t have to tell you, he likes girls. He’s a real gentleman.”

“Well, he’s divorced. Well, not yet. But his kids are real good kids. And he’s been split up from their mother for a while. He’s been dating a real nice girl, Rita, but it’s not like they’re married or anything! I mean, married to Rita. Just the first one. But like I said, they’re just dating. He’s gonna be a big star, the world is his oyster! And what’s the harm in a nice fish dinner?”

A few years later, having not had a nice fish dinner with Tom Hanks, I was living in the tiny beach town of Pacific Grove on the Monterey coast. I had a little baby and a bad marriage to a mostly absent husband and a very large untrainable dog in a tiny, drafty house. My life was like that puzzle about the boat, the fox, the chicken and the bag of seed: all of it needs to get across the river in the boat, but only one at a time, so in what order do you take them across the river so nothing gets eaten? In my case, it was about how to keep the baby, the dog, and myself fed, safe, and reasonably sane with absolutely no help.

One day I set out with the baby, the dog, the stroller, extra diapers, snacks, and plastic bags for our regular daily walk. During the night I’d been bitten on the face by a spider, and I looked like Mount Vesuvius was angrily erupting on my forehead. It was pouring rain, and I couldn’t get through any of the police barricades that had been set up all over my little town: a movie was being shot on the main street, and I had to walk across the soggy bottom of a hillside to get to a place where I could let my wild young dog loose without having him run into traffic.

Right after my dog had run by the stroller at 50 miles an hour and sprayed the baby, me, and himself completely with mud, I heard shouting. “Hey! That dog! What is it!” It was a man’s voice. I looked up and saw two tall men in suits hurrying down the hillside. It was Tom Hanks and a bodyguard. Tom was the one yelling about my dog.

My dog responded by running up to Tom Hanks and leaping at him, rearing to his full height and placing his huge muddy paws on Tom’s lapels.

This is not my Scottish deerhound, and this is not Tom Hanks, but now you get the idea.

“Great dog!” Tom enthused as he tousled my dog’s filthy head. “What is he? Are they good with kids? I’m making a movie in town with a dog, but he slobbers in slimy ropes…”

As Tom and I chatted about dogs, I started wondering if I should say, “Hey, did you know your dad tried to set us up?” And then I gradually realized that not only was I dripping wet and still wearing maternity clothes a good six months after my son was born, but I looked like a three-eyed gorgon with my spider bite, and I was holding a plastic bag full of dog poo. I beat a hasty retreat as soon as I could wrestle my dog off of Tom Hanks’ suit.

Fast forward another few years. I was attending some kind of celebratory ceremony in Oakland for Rawley Farnsworth, the drama teacher from Skyline High School, and there were rumors that his former student, Tom Hanks, was going to make an appearance. Oh no, him again? I thought, and almost didn’t go. One of the authors I worked with at North Point, Anne Lamott, has a great descriptive phrase for people like me who have that combination of egotism and abasement borne of having narcissistic parents: you’re the “piece of shit around which the world turns.” Great, I was thinking about Tom Hanks, who, if he showed up, would be surrounded by hundreds of people, but nonetheless, I was sure, he’ll see me and say, Hey, there’s that dumpy young mother with the third eye and the dog poo bag who ruined my suit. But my soon-to-be second husband, Gary, was covering the event for the newspaper he worked for at the time, and he talked me into going.

So there we were in some lovely old theatre in Oakland, and as the rumor of Tom Hanks actually being in the building swelled to a crescendo of excited whispering, I realized I had to pee. I wandered around at the back of the theatre trying to find the women’s bathroom through the falls of heavy velvet curtains. I managed to pull a couple of curtains aside, and found myself staring into a room backstage, where a bunch of people with walkie-talkies were crowded around Tom Hanks. Oh god, would he never leave me alone!

“Sorry, just looking for the ladies’ room,” I mumbled as I turned and fled, though absolutely nobody had noticed I was there.

But is Tom ever satisfied? Oh no. A few years ago I traveled to Greece to meet with artist and art historian Euphrosyne Doxiadis, one of the premier experts on the Fayum portraits of Greco-Roman Egypt. A portrait in Euphrosyne’s book, The Mysterious Fayum Portraits, had inspired my second novel (six years later, it’s almost done), and we were going to spend several days together at her home on a small Greek island before I traveled on to Egypt for more research.

Euphrosyne met me at the Athens airport with an apology.

“I’m so sorry, Kate, but I’m afraid our time may be cut short by some socializing. There are some friends of friends from Hollywood staying on another island nearby, and they’ve invited us to visit. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Of course not,” I said, though I was eager to spend every minute possible talking to Euphrosyne about her own research. “Who are they?” I asked.

“Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson and their family.”

When Euphrosyne and I arrived on the island where Tom and Rita were vacationing with their family, Tom was just walking back to the house from a swim in the pool. They couldn’t leave their house, even swim in the ocean, because the paparazzi were camped out in speed boats along the beach. Even so, they’d set out an opulent Greek lunch, some of it prepared expertly by Rita’s mother, and greeted us like old friends.

“Actually, we’ve kind of met before…” I told Tom.

“Oh my god, that was Turner and Hooch,” he said when I told him that I was the lady with the huge muddy Scottish deerhound in Pacific Grove. He didn’t seem to remember the spider bite or the dog poo.

“That sounds just like your dad!” Rita said after I told them about my conversation with Tom’s father.

After lunch they gave us a tour of their house. On Tom’s side of the bed was a copy of Dan Brown’s mega-bestselling novel, The Da Vinci Code.

“A friend gave it to me to read,” Tom said, smiling and seeming a little chagrined. We’d just spent several hours talking about  politics and history and literature and art, and I’d given them a copy of Wintering, which Rita placed on her side of the bed. “What can I say?” Tom continued. “I’m on vacation. And it’s definitely a page-turner.”

So…what does this have to do with ingredients and what to do with them? Or zebras and buttons?

Nothing. I just like the story.  I’ll get to the ingredients and stuff next time.

(And thanks to Cynthia Dobbs for reminding me of the Anne Lamott quote!)

2 comments » | CAKEWALK, General

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