Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Tradition of the Blueterry Pie

This story starts with a young woman named Patry Francis. She lived in Boston, and she worked as a waitress, and even more important, she worked at being a writer. One day, as a result of several twists and turns on the path of life, she was invited to dinner at the home of Marilynne Robinson. These were in the days of Robinson's Housekeeping--a book that Patry particularly loved. And if you've read that book, you know that the characters lived a rather vagabond life, even when settled, and beans directly from a tin can was a typical cuisine du jour. So I am certain that Patry approached the evening of her dinner at the Robinson home with many kinds of curiosity--including the kind that many readers have about the relationship between fictional worlds and the real world of the author who creates them.

Nevertheless, Patry found a lovely dinner--curry, which she had not before eaten, and for dessert an unusual blueberry pie. It had a layer of whipped cream and a layer of uncooked blueberries. No upper crust. Patry admired the pie, and Robinson said that she would share the recipe. However, as it is with life, many years passed, and Robinson did not get around to sharing the recipe.

The next thing to happen in this story was that Patry began to participate in an online forum called Readerville, where readers and writers gathered to discuss books and writing and all things literary. It was at Readerville that I became aware of Patry because of her unusual name and because we had several things in common: (1) She mentioned a meeting with an author named Anne LeClaire. "Funny," I thought. "I too know Anne LeClaire." I had been in residence with her at Ragdale--an artists' retreat in Lake Forest, IL. (2) Patry and I had short stories published in the same issue of Colorado Review. "Funny," I thought when I got my issue. "I 'know' that person from Readerville." And (3) one day, Patry mentioned the Robinson dinner and blueberry pie in a blog post. "Amazing," I thought. "I know that pie." In fact, I had the recipe--one I had seen in Gourmet magazine in June of 1989--possibly around the time that Patry was heading off to dinner at the Robinson home. So I decided to speak up.

At the time, Patry's agent was shopping her novel around, so I wrote to Patry and told her about our three life-intersections, promising to send her the pie recipe. Also, I said in the playful way of lunatics and writers, that when blueberry season came, we should both bake the pie (she in Cape Cod and me in Chicago), and that it would invoke the literary energies and reconfigure the forces in the universe, causing her novel to sell.

I can't remember which came first--the joint baking project or the novel sale (see The Liar's Diary by Patry Francis)--but this blueberry-pie event became a tradition between us. We would bake our pies, and Patry would write about it on her blog, and soon people all over the country joined us in the baking project ("Bake a Pie for Your Muse," Patry called it). They wrote to her about it and sent her their pictures, and this has been going on for perhaps five years now. You can see some of this (plus the recipe for the pie) if you go to her blog.

A year or two ago, Patry became very ill, and I was not sure whether our tradition would continue. But last year, she did still manage to bake, and she posted on her blog about my book sale--the novel Grand River and Joy that I have been telling you about. Patry has an extremely warm, welcoming personality--a "come on in, everyone, and pull up a chair" way about her--and this has drawn many people and commenters and followers to her blog and, in turn, to the blueberry enthusiasm.

I baked my pie Monday night, particularly in celebration of my new novel, and it is typically scrumptious--but even maybe a little bit more this year. And I have some things I could say about it (especially the crust, which I am a stickler about, and which is particularly flakey this year). But I do not know what is going on with Patry, as she has not posted on her blog for a month or so, nor has she answered my recent emails. And if you have read my website, you know that I tend to worry. So . . . I am going to have to find my Patry and complete the blueberry pie circle for the summer of 2009. I'll let you know what I find.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Listening to the news about Henry Louis Gates

This is a picture of me at my first book event--last Thursday at the Oak Park (IL) Public Library. At the moment this photo was taken, I was listening to my friend Richard read a passage from my book to the very, very wonderful audience that had gathered. You can probably see the tension in my hands as they grasp onto each other for dear life. Richard has a beautiful voice for reading, which is why I asked him to help me out, and he did a beautiful job. If I do say so myself, the passage he read (bottom of p. 54-57, for those of you who have a copy of my novel) sounded damn good.

But to get back to the theme of this blog--the discomforts of diversity--in that photo, I might as well be listening to the recent news about Henry Louis Gates's arrest in Cambridge, Mass. I know that people who are far more rhetorically savvy and adroit than I am (likely, including Gates himself) will be writing about this incident, but in this, my little corner of the universe, I want to say a few things about it anyway.

The first thing, as we all now know, is that he was in his own home. The second thing is that he had just returned from a trip to China, so he was likely somewhat strung out and jet lagged. The main thing, at least for me anyway, is the assumption in the story that one cannot raise one's voice with a police officer, or lose control in any way, regardless of circumstance. That one is not allowed to be indignant or stressed out or incredulous or uncooperative with a police officer under any circumstances. Now, I know that some of the order that reigns in our society has to do with the authority we give to police. I know the police have certain rights that no one else has. I know that the police officer in the Gates incident was likely just doing his job. But, come on. What if HL Gates lost it under these circumstances--even if he refused at first to show his ID, refused to step outside, talked back, acted out? Shouldn't he be able to say to the media, "Of course I lost it. Wouldn't you?"

Next point: We can never know how this incident would have played out if the homeowner had been white. But no one can seriously claim that race didn't figure in here somehow. Can they?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Color line

I'm returning this week to my usual programming (that is, posting entries from Phil Herbst's The Color of Words: An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Ethic Bias in the United States). And here's a term I don't think I hear very much anymore, even though it's familiar to me in a deep way. Perhaps the reason we don't hear this term as much anymore is that the "color line" has blurred over the years? What do you think?

color line.
From the nineteenth century, an American metaphor for the social and political distinctions and distance be­tween black people (and sometimes other nonwhite groups) and white people. This symbolic line is most clearly demarcated in racist societies. Black sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois de­clared that "the problem of the twenti­eth century is . . . the color-line" (The Souls of Black Folk, 1961,23).

The color line is spoken of as being "drawn" (making distinctions based on color), "crossed" (behaving without re­gard to the distinctions), or "broken" (bringing down the barrier). For ex­ample, in April 1947 the black Ameri­can baseball player Jackie Robinson played his first regular-season major-­league baseball game, thereby "break­ing the color line" in organized baseball. A notable book written in the early twen­tieth century about the color line was Ray Stannard Baker's Following the Color Line (1908).

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Travels and Travails

My husband and I were in New Orleans last week, which is relevant to this blog because of the taxi ride to the airport. The story was that the driver showed up right on time, nice big air-conditioned van, and friendly, southern hospitality ("Get right in, baby, you'll be cool in there."). When she asked us the reason for our trip (which was to visit our daughter) and we mentioned that our daughter works at a small shop in the Quarter, the rant began.

"Ugh," she said, "that's the worst of it. Do you know what's going on down there this weekend?" We did know that there was a big music festival in town--the Essence Festival--with Beyonce as the headliner. We'd read about it, seen the crowds going to the convention center.

And then it was all "they" (with a snarl) and what "they" do--crowding the streets, eating and drinking, partying, being loud. Sounded pretty much like New Orleans all the time. But not to her. This was different, this was something even Houston wouldn't put up with (whatever that was supposed to mean). She seemed to have a particular complaint about the way "they" rock their cars back and forth, even pointing out that these were rental cars they rocked. Her seething monologue went on all the way to the airport. Scary.

A few weeks before that, my husband and I were visiting family in Detroit--people we hadn't seen in a number of years. And a cousin got off on a rant about another group of "theys," using an ugly term to describe them.

The content of both these rants, and the sense that everyone in the group being discussed could be gathered under the one label "they," that "they" were all alike in every respect, was disturbing enough. Even more disturbing, however, at least for me, was the assumption that all the gathered listeners would agree with and go along with the views and disdain. That the speaker felt completely comfortable in speaking this way. That he and she felt not the least bit tentative nor apologetic nor aware that others might feel otherwise.

For the purposes of this blog, I am going to make an assumption too--that all readers are at least making their best human attempt to view people as individuals whenever possible and to avoid grouping "Others" in negative ways. Say "amen" somebody.