small talk

doorway night-light spiderweb

(1) Overheard at Goodwill last weekend:

"Oh, my goodness, John! I haven't seen you in so long! How've you and Trudy been?"

"We're doing all right, can't complain. How 'bout yourselves, you and Joe?"

"Pretty good, pretty good. Well . . . [lowers voice] except that Joe is having chemo . . . for his prostate. It really knocks the wind out of you, like they say. But he's doing okay."

[Voice also lowered] "Well, actually, I just got the results of my prostate test this week, and . . . "

The conversation continued as I browsed away through the linens, thinking about all the little lies of small talk.

(2) Conversation with my new doctor yesterday in which small talk was not so small:

"Well, I can't see yet if there's an infection because there's a big plug of wax in there, so we'll soften it up and flush it out first. You might get a little dizzy, but we'll be as gentle as possible."

[She inserts softening drops into my ear and leaves the room. Ten minutes later . . .]

"Oh, you're reading Richard Ford's Canada. My son can't wait to read that one. Have you read his Independence Day series?"

"No, this is the first Ford book I've read. It's good." (—but the entire book-length lead-up to the climax is overly drawn out and repetitive with all the non sequiturs, the characters circling around awareness and meaning and connection like hawks hovering over a field but never diving for the mouse, which is perfect for a short story but torture in a novel.)

"So you like the post-War authors, big suburban family dramas?"

"Uh, I'm not that into Updike and DeLillo."

"Have you read Franzen?"

I nod.

"Which do you prefer, The Corrections or Freedom?"

"It's hard to say." (The Corrections, because it felt truer, though I don't remember much of either. Franzen's good with dialogue, characters, and scenes, but I can never hear his name without remembering a review from years back calling him a purveyor of "wide-screen fiction," which is funny considering HBO just passed on The Corrections' pilot, finding all the flashbacks too hard to script and follow on screen.)

"You must read Aloft by Chang-Rae Lee. It's wonderful. Which book do you read over and over?"

"Okay, thanks. Mm, I don't reread books, really. But I've kept a few to reread. I love Nabokov, so I'll read Speak, Memory again at some point." (I don't reread books because there's too little time, too many books. If it's a book I'm not enjoying, I won't even finish it anymore. I only have half my life left, if that. One must become more selective, ruthless even.)

"So you want to write like Nabokov. Where'd you go to school?"

"I grew up Mormon, so I went to BYU, and then I became not-Mormon. My master's was at San Francisco State."

"That must have been hard on your parents. They're still Mormon? Do you have siblings?"

"Yes. It was. Is. We don't talk much." (We don't have much in common—so many topics to avoid.)

"Well, that sounds like something to write about."

(Doc, there's so much dirt under the family rug I don't even know where to start beating.)

(3) Postscript with the medical assistant:

"So your prescriptions should be ready soon. Do you know where the pharmacy is?"

"Over that way." I did a little wiggly motion with my finger in the air, pointing behind her.

"Good. You're all set then."

"Great, thanks." I picked up my bag, book, and jacket and followed her out of the exam room. "Well, that was disgusting."

"That was nothing. This week a guy came in saying his ear was bothering him, and they pulled out a huge spider."

"Wow. . . . I assume it must have been dead by then?"

"Oh, yeah. Have a good weekend!"


spiced vegan mayo & the joy of stick blenders

baked sweet potato fries, curried cauliflower, & sautéed tofu w/ spiced vegan mayo dipping sauce

A year ago I finally broke down and bought a Cusinart stick blender, the best $30 I've spent on a new item in a long time. I'd waited so long because I already own a standing blender (a parental gift years ago), a vintage 1980's Cuisinart-knockoff K-Mart food processor (a gift from my friend Jeff that works better than the newer Black & Decker food processor I bought in college and have since passed along to Goodwill), and a small mini-prep food processor that was a hand-me-down from my grandmother. That's already a lot of electrical-blade equipment for someone who doesn't like excess stuff. But immersion blenders are perfect for what they do.

For example, I love creamy vegetable soups but hate the inevitable mess made during the transfer between hot soup pot and blender container. The blender may leak around its seal, soup splashes and drips, the blended soup then has to be dumped into a third bowl—you get the picture. But with a wand blender, there's no mess. And cleaning the wand itself is easy, even without a dishwasher, especially if you're rinsing and washing up right after use. I had often seen older, used stick blenders at thrift stores but always passed on them because the blade end didn't come off like the new ones do, a feature I recommend. (If you're blessed by the Secondhand Fairy like Jeff seems to be, you, too, might be able to find a like-new, all-stainless steel Cuisinart stick blender at Salvation Army for $4. But that would take real luck, and it didn't happen to me.)

My stick blender didn't see much use last winter because I was a little afraid of it. But no more. To make up for lost time, I've been whipping things up this fall—a curried butternut squash soup with coconut milk and cilantro and a spiced vegan mayonnaise I've been using as both dip for roasted vegetables and sauce to flavor legume, grain, and vegetable stews.

If you are the type who prefers Miracle Whip (ugh) to Best Foods/Hellmann's, you won't like this sauce because it's garlicky and lemony rather than sweet. But that's why it's good.

The first version I made with unsweetened soy milk because that's what I had on hand, which makes a thin, runny sauce. In the second version I used silken tofu, and the consistency is creamy. (I'm eating non-GMO soy, Carol, promise.) I didn't use nearly the amount of oil called for in the recipe and added paprika for a spicier flavor and color. I also didn't measure any of the ingredients, just used half a lemon, a few garlic cloves, the whole tub of soft tofu, several glugs of the oil (the first time with safflower, the second time with extra-virgin olive), a big dollop of Dijon mustard, a heavy dash of paprika, and salt to taste. It whips up quickly in a wide-mouth quart Kerr jar and the consistency holds up well for about a week, stored in the fridge.

At work the other day, after I'd heated up my lunch (lentil-barley stew with vegan mayo sauce), one of my coworkers said from around the corner, "Mmm, that smells good, smells like pasta."

"No, it's a lentil stew with vegan mayo. The secret is silken tofu."

"Eww. I'd never eat that."

"Trust me, you can't taste the tofu."

"Well, maybe I'll have to try it sometime."


autumn in Portland

ginkgo tree, Portland, Oregon

My friend Dan asked the other day what I do on the bus, since I now spend so much time on it. Sometimes I stare out the window at the city. Occasionally I knit. Often, I try to ignore loud teenagers or random crazy people, like the one who interrupted my reading this week on MAX to say I should trust my gut, something about rainbows, that I was a good friend, and that I'd be a good mother. (That makes three near-strangers in a month at separate times who've said I should become a mother: two seven-year-olds and one crazy woman. Sadly, for these advisers, even if I had the impulse to procreate, I'm what they call geriatric in mommy terms.) After a few minutes of my nodding, smiling, and mumbling things like "Oh" and "Hm" while waiting for the crazy lady to stop talking (she didn't), I asked her if she'd like a seat and got up and moved down the train car, which was admittedly rude but so is interrupting a reader in public to give her unsolicited advice about childbearing. She called down the car, "Thank you, sister!" I half-waved and ducked back down into my book.

Mostly on the bus I read, my number one method of escapism ever since I learned how—zoom, right into someone else's life, a voyeur sitting on the sidelines, watching, avoiding her own life but also learning, always learning. Books are how I learned in elementary school from Trixie Belden, vintage tomboy girl-detective, that apple seeds contain trace amounts of cyanide. So every so often I'll eat one, a bite of almond-flavored poison feeding an underlying extinction wish.

For weeks, because the book's over 400 pages, at 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Friday I've been on the bus reading Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams, a naturalist-geographical memoir and history of the Arctic that won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1986. I figured that since so much future talk will center around the melting North Pole, I should bone up. From Lopez I've learned that Portland's eight or so months of gray, drizzling doldrums are nothing compared to perlerorneq, the "extreme winter depression" of certain Polar Eskimos, some of whom run amok, knifing up their own fur-and-skin clothing, or running shrieking out into the night, or eating dog shit, before being gently led to bed by family members. The Eskimos (not necessarily Inuit) define the state as feeling "the weight of life," "sick of life" after envisioning what's coming and feeling too tired and angry to endure another round of 24-hour icy darkness, month after month (paperback, p. 243). And who could blame them? Northwest Oregon weather is depressing enough, and maybe why the city has such a high per capita number of microbreweries and strip clubs.

Per Lopez, in the Arctic, "[n]o summer is long enough to take away the winter" (p. 244). Since I already feel that way about Portland, I couldn't handle living farther north. The three weeks I spent in Norway one December years ago taught me that, the sun up at 10 a.m. and down by 3 p.m. Lately, I've been daydreaming again of moving south. But where, and how?

In front of my apartment are two ginkgos, an ancient—as in dinosaur ancient—species and one of my favorite trees for their yellow fans, though Portland ginkgos never reach the brilliance of those in South Korea, with its drier, sunnier autumn climate. One tree is male, the other female. Whoever planted them apparently didn't know that a female ginkgo's salmon-colored fleshy seeds drop and smear all over a sidewalk and smell like dog shit. I wrinkle my nose and walk around the mess on my way to and from the bus. As if to apologize for soon going bare, all the deciduous trees around Portland this time of year glow like sunsets.

The weekend has been quiet. In fact, I never left the house: a little cooking, some laundry, much green tea drinking, and a lot of reading, namely Laurie King's thick Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes mystery, The Language of Bees, in which I came across the following aside: "how the soul craves sunlight in the depths of a northern winter!" (hardcover, p. 324). It appears to be a theme this week, threading through my library selections. Next up is Richard Ford's Canada. And who knows what I'll learn therein?

Edited to add: "And, of course, [in Montana] the winters were frozen and tireless, and the wind hurtled down out of the north like a freight train, and the loss of light would've made anybody demoralized, even the most optimistic souls." —Richard Ford, Canada (p. 10)

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