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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

A Separation and a Bit About Cookbooks

People were capable of living their lives in a state of permanent disappointment, there were plenty of people who did not marry the person they hoped to marry, much less live the life they hoped to live, other people invented new dreams to replace the old ones, finding fresh reasons for discontent. - Katie Kitamura, A Separation
I like to cook quite a bit and almost never use cookbooks. That sounds like I'm super rad and so in tune with food that I can just make delicious food from a handful of random things in the pantry, but what I mean is that I use Pinterest a lot. As much as I cook, I still have a pretty vague understanding of what's actually going on in there. Aside from having a couple of Alton Brown episodes under my belt, the actual mechanics of cooking are pretty mysterious. That's me when it comes to relationships too, now that I think about it.

Pinterest usually sends me to cooking blogs, and if you've read a cooking blog, it's the opposite of a Howie's Book Club post. There's a bunch of dumb stuff about the blogger's family and hubs and if hubs liked the food (hubs always likes the food because hubs quit his job to help run the blog) with pictures of their kids and dog and stuff, and then at the bottom there's a recipe, which is all I'm there for. Where on the other hand I'm told when people read my posts they skip the part at the end about the book. Anyway, in the post they probably talk about why the food works, and what the different ingredients do, but I prefer to just put the things in a pot and hope it works out.


Part of why I like the internet is that it doesn't judge me for how dumb I am. There was one time when I was a teenager and home alone and I decided I wanted French toast. I looked through every book in my mom's cookbook drawer and didn't find a single recipe. Part of this is because most of the cookbooks my mom had were church cookbooks. These are collections of favorite recipes from members of the ward and there is something to prove here. Your name is on those meatballs, and you put Lipton French Onion Soup mix in there.

Nobody puts French toast in a cookbook because everyone already knows how to cook French toast. Obviously in the days of food trucks and Pinterest we're discovering entire new frontiers in the science of pain perdu--including and not limited to savory french toast and probably something with pumpkin spice in it--but these were not those days. The days to which I refer are the days when I put an egg in water and then put it in the microwave for 3 minutes because I wanted a hard-boiled egg. A microwave (and a measure of self-confidence) was ruined that day.

There's a whole food truck here devoted to grilled cheese sandwiches, which is delicious but also isn't that just a melt? Like, a grilled cheese sandwich stops being a grilled cheese once you put a single additional ingredient in there. The last one I had was filled with pulled-pork, barbecue sauce, very thin apple slices, and onions. It was amazing. Yeah, it had cheese in there. But we still call that a pulled pork sandwich. It's like calling a kitchen table a Corvette because they both have chairs in them. This actually drives me crazy, now that I think about it. I'm going to need to take a break.

(15 minutes of Contra III: The Alien Wars later)

OK, that game is hard and I made up two new swear words. Anyway, the point I was trying to make is that if I google "how to make a grilled cheese sandwich" there are multiple recipes. This one has 524 reviews and a five star rating. 69 people (nice) have submitted photos of their own grilled cheese sandwiches. It serves 2. It requires 4 slices of white bread, 3 tablespoons of butter, and 2 slices of cheddar cheese.

Wait, what?

Who submitted this?


I have no problem with this. Every time I make hard-boiled eggs (not in the microwave), I STILL look it up. Now if there is an apocalypse, which seems remarkably more possible with every day, I might be in trouble. I am as dependent on the internet for cooking as I am my smartphone for navigation. Daryl Dixon, I am not (Daryl Dixon makes a mean juevos rancheros, look it up!). For now, though, I'm hanging in there.  

Ol' Howie brings it with the Asian fusion though

This is not just cooking, everybody. There are a lot of things that many of us consider common knowledge that can easily be lost after one or two generations. My kids don't know how to use a number 2 pencil to rewind a cassette tape that their off-brand Walkman devoured. They don't know how to tape an edited-for-TV version of Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors from TBS, setting the timer to start and stop at the right time because it's on when you're supposed to be in bed. And they've forgotten how to have any hope for a future in which wildlife will still exist and fresh water, gasoline, and bullets won't be the principal forms of currency. You know, silly stuff.

They can also easily lose things that we parents fail to pass on, but are still pretty vital. It's a pretty easy line to draw: grandma made fresh bread a lot, mom or dad didn't, you think fresh bread only exists at Great Harvest and is created by bread wizards who have in turn enslaved bread elves and it's a harsh existence that is morally conflicting but warm bread is also so good with butter on it. My grandpa grew wonderful watermelons, but that knowledge has apparently left our family for good. Like a permanent death for Freddy Krueger at the hands of the oft-tormented Elm Street kids, watermelons elude me. 

This applies to things like budgeting, too. Or resilience to adversity. Or dependability. The one I'm thinking about specifically here because of the book I read is healthy relationships. There are lots of people on this big blue rapidly warming marble for whom the skill of healthy relationships is like me growing watermelons: they've tried a bunch of times but they've never seen it demonstrated. 

Nobody's parents are perfect, and because families are all together during the worst times, we see each other at their worst. My kids behave much better for their piano teachers, sports coaches, and martial arts instructors than they do for me. I think it's because I've seen them be brats, but they still have a chance to impress the black belts. It's like that with husbands and wives, too. We try not to fight in front of the guests, but our kids are always around (like, always). After a while they're going to see a lot. But there's fighting and then there's fighting.

There's also neglect, and sarcasm, and infidelity. There's all the kinds of abuse: sexual, emotional, physical, financial, religious. There are addictions and mental illnesses. Kids who grow up in situations like that are like a kid who never learned how to make French toast, but the stakes are a lot higher and the solutions much more complex. But not insurmountable. The problem is that if those relationships are all you know, they seem normal to you. You don't think you deserve something better, or you don't really believe that there is something better. Everyone else is faking. You don't even know there is a such thing as French toast, and if there is, what have you done to deserve something so fancy?
In the end, what is a relationship but two people, and between two people there will always be room for surprises and misapprehensions, things that cannot be explained. Perhaps another way of putting it is that between two people, there will always be room for failures of imagination.
In Katie Kitamura's The Separation, we are meeting a woman approaching middle age confronted with the tatters of her marriage. She's been separated for months from her handsome and charming husband, but they haven't told anyone yet. When he disappears on a trip to Greece, she's forced to go looking for him. It sounds like it could be a thriller with a title that has "The Girl" in it. But it's not that kind of book. It's hard to put down and full of mystery and some pretty subtle menace in there, but it's more of an exploration of relationships.

There aren't a lot of characters--the hotel concierge, a jealous clerk, the driver who loves the jealous clerk, the absent Christopher, his parents--and so the narrator can focus on them. Making interpretation of their lives makes her reflect on her own, and kind of the nature of love and loyalty and all of that big time stuff.
As she observed him, she briefly frowned, it was one of the quandaries a woman sometimes faces, not just a woman, but all of us: she entrances one man without effort, a man who is undesired, who follows her around like a dog, however much he is whipped or abused, while all her efforts to attract and then ensnare another man, the truly desired man, come to naught. Charm is not universal, desire is too often unreciprocated, it gathers and pools in the wrong places, slowly becoming toxic.
I really liked it. It's so deliberate. It's hard to describe and I've started and scrapped this post from a lot of different angles. There isn't a ton of things that happen, and the things that do sometimes seem random and meaningless, but in a meaningful way, you know? Not every story is a crackerjack mystery with a convoluted conspiracy. Sometimes things happen without a good reason.
In childhood, words are weightless - I shout I hate you and it means nothing, the same can be said for I love you - but as an adult, those very words are used with greater care, they no longer slip out of the mouth with the same ease. I do is another example, a phrase that in childhood is only the stuff of playacting, a game between children, but then grows freighted with meaning.
The narrator spends more time than usual with her in-laws, without her husband as a buffer. She sees the seeds of some of her marriage's problems there. The thing I keep thinking about is that we often don't even know that we're ignorant when it comes to things like relationships, especially but not limited to the romantic ones. I want to learn how to hard boil an egg, there's instructions there. You figure it out. Maybe it's embarrassing, but it's only embarrassing once and then you've got it figured out. But we look at people reading a book about how to be a better spouse or parent and we think, don't they know? The assumption is that if I'm picking up a cookbook, I know how to boil an egg.

It's funny to look through a book of art history. Thousands of years ago people didn't know that tables got smaller as they got farther away from us. That from our perspective everything converges into a vanishing point on the horizon. They were the best artists in the world but hadn't grasped what is now taught to kindergartners. Perspective requires math, some of which wasn't even discovered and implemented until like the 1400s. We don't expect every artist to completely learn how to do their craft in a vacuum, because we've got thousands of years worth of technical discoveries to lean on.

But often we send out a young married couple into life with nothing other than what they were able to sort of glean by watching their parents, who did the same thing themselves. It's no wonder we lose things. It's actually kind of amazing anything works at all, ever. I don't think it's enough to just try to model healthy relationships. We might not even have them, but if we do, we also need to think about why they work. And when we talk to our kids, we point it out. Even when it's happening right then and it's messy.

There's no shame in looking things up. What if you were taught the wrong way to make a grilled cheese, like the person I knew who thought that you make them in a microwave? You can fix that! Look it up on the internet, ask someone you know who looks like they enjoy good grilled cheese, read a book. Get a few different viewpoints, then pick what works best for you. That's how we learn in every aspect of our lives, but for some reason it's not something we think about how to do when it comes to the real basic stuff. (I'm not talking about grilled cheeses here, I'm talking about relationships.)

Let's say you have a Ramona Quimby-style row in front of your kids and they get sent to bed before they see you make up. That kind of thing sticks with a kid, and it's why that scene resonated with several people who responded to my blog post about it. It takes a couple of minutes to sit with them before they're in a dark room all by themselves filled with the same kinds of doubts and fears we have--maybe even more so--and chat about how mom and dad work through disagreements. Or say you saw a scene in a Disney movie that is unhealthy, even if it's portrayed as healthy ("Sweety, we NEVER kiss someone who is literally unconscious, no matter what the little people are telling us). It's the relationship equivalent of saying, "Hey kid, you know how to make a grilled cheese? No? Let's do this."

S/O if you grew up thinking mac and cheese came from a box