Subjects happen along. What I’m writing today will be shaped by something that happens tomorrow.
A few weeks ago I saw a photograph of Heidi Klum stretching a pair of underpants, which reminded me of buying my first pair of microfibers in Florence, which reminded me of seeing, in a church close by the market, Masaccio’s Adam and Eve being ejected from the Garden of Eden, newly aware of their nakedness, suddenly in need of briefs and, of course, salvation. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might tell the story of buying those briefs in Piazza Santo Spirito. Then I saw Heidi.
This morning a friend, call her Rachel, sent me an email telling me about a trip she and her husband took. She signed the email R and R. Her husband, call him Ron, is the other R. It was just what I needed today, that R and R. Because it’s both ordinary and surprising, and because I’ve been waiting to tell a story about cutting my nose while shaving one day many years ago, and because I heard about someone who considered having the family dog stuffed for perpetuity. These three things are not connected in any way, except for the fact that they are mine and I’m going to bring them together in a narrative.
I’ll need to say I cut my nose shaving last week, the day we go for an R and R dinner. That’s not what happened at all. And their little dog Ruby, long terrified of men, will nuzzle my feet as we have dessert. That will never happen. I came to lying late in life. When I discovered, in writing, the special pleasure of “imaginatively reconstructed experience,” of making decisions about what the writing needs, I felt a sense of liberation and potential. You put things together; they add up. It’s a pleasure to make something, a lamb shank, for example, or a reflection on Tupperware and the Vitruvian man. A writer I know used to say, “The only time I feel I’m doing something important is when I’m writing a poem.” I like that. It captures the feeling of being wholly absorbed by an activity, using what you know, making something of it.
I spent yesterday morning cooking. As a retired person, I spend a lot of time thinking about lunch, a lot of time shopping for lunch. I look for creamy burrata. I want to palpate the fava bean pods. This morning, a pan of Swiss chard and a platter of boiled potatoes. This morning, a batch of chicken thighs cooked alla cacciatore. And this morning I was surprised by olives, black pitted beauties I cut in half and tossed in with the chicken. These olives, soaking in a murky purple brine, left an oily residue on my fingers. Good olives, they made a good dish better.
As a writer and cook, I’ve had good mentors. They helped me acquire craft knowledge, they helped me develop voice and palate. I’ve learned the importance of continuous practice and application, of reading and eating around. There’s also imitation and discovery. A few years ago I read Julian Barnes’ collection of short fiction, Pulse, where I found four linked stories in which six characters carry on a dinner conversation in totally unmarked dialogue. It worked. How did he do that? I tried it, discovered its challenge and pleasure. This morning, on Slate, I read about chard stem hummus, making a dish “recognizable to American cooks, [widening] our understanding of the classic spread. And, perhaps, [making] chard stalks—a real underdog in the kitchen—a little friendlier.” And to think that just yesterday I threw my stalks away.
Rick Bailey taught writing at Henry Ford College for 38 years. He wrote textbooks for McGraw-Hill (1998, 2005, 2009) and directed the Cranbrook Writers Guild Conference for five years. Every May for seven years he led travelers on one-week excursions in Italy (Florence, Venice, Rome), focusing on slow travel: churches and museums, local culture, and heroic eating. His poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have been published in many online magazines.
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