Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What People Do and How They Do It, Part 2

When we left off last week, the door on my composter was still upside down, even though I had overcome my nervousness about calling the handyman back to correct his mistake. I was not laughing, nor was he. Though he wasn't angry or resentful or anything. On the phone, he sounded completely mellow about the whole thing. I couldn't imagine why, however, as every time I went out to look at that composter and contemplate the door, all I could see was that the whole bloody thing would need to be dismantled and reassembled. Yes, just to flip the door. It looked like a nightmare to me.

After the handyman stood me up twice, I called the composter-assembly hotline. The phone number was conveniently posted right on the assembly instructions. A woman answered, which (forgive me) surprised me. I described my problem, and without a moment's hesitation, she told me how to fix it. There are bolts, she said, right by the latches, and all you have to do is unscrew them, turn the door around, and reattach.
     "Wait," I said, "can you hold on while I go outside and look?"
     "Of course," she said.
     And the minute I looked, I could see that she was right. It was so very simple. She was so brilliant. I was so glad I'd called, and I told her so.

But I was annoyed with myself. I had been too preoccupied with the big picture and I'd failed to see the details--those simple screws, that simple solution. This is the complete opposite of what I've been struggling with in my novel--that is, I become preoccupied with getting a particular detail right, a word, a sentence, a color, and it becomes difficult to see the big picture. How do the parts fit together as a whole? What is the arc? How do the threads weave in from start to finish.
     Both are important, of course. With a composter or a novel. The small details and the big picture. The forest and the trees.
     I went out to the composter with my screw driver and my wrench, but those screws were on so tight, I could not get them to budge. But later that day, the handyman came back ("I'm a man of my word," he said), and he did the deed in no time.
    Now back to work.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

What People Do and How They do It

 
 I know a man who works for a contractor. This man is a great plasterer and painter and worker in general. He's careful about cleaning up after himself and attentive to details. I've known him for a long time, and he's done lots of work in my house. This man is very good-natured, and he likes to tell stories when he's here working.
     One time, he told me about some of the mistakes he and the guys he works with make. Crazy, shocking things for a homeowner to hear--like ceiling parts falling down, or pipes connected wrong, or paint splashing on a customer's custom-upholstered couch, or dropping a new porcelain sink on the way into a customer's house and having it shatter on the pavement. I know this sounds crazy, but these are very responsible people, and they fix their mistakes, and everyone makes them, and with all the work they do, and all the equipment and the carrying and lifting and physicality and so forth, the mistakes may be louder or more visible than the ones you and I make.
But the point of the story was not so much the mistakes but the way these guys make fun of each others' mistakes. They laugh their heads off when someone else makes a mistake and taunt and tease unrelentingly, enjoying the pleasure of the moment, knowing (perhaps) all the while that retribution will be coming in the not-too-distant future, but not letting this diminish the pleasure.


This is so different from how I am that I barely know how to take it in. Still, this story did help me out today. How, you ask.
     Yesterday, I hired a handyman to do a job for me. I chose him on a friend's recommendation. The job was to assemble our new composter because our old one recently fell apart. Here's what it looks like. It comes in a very heavy box, and it has a million parts, and assembling things like this is outside the comfort zone of my husband and me. We could do it, but it would likely take us a whole day and cause us extensive consternation. So I hired the handyman. He came, and in two hours, he and his partner put the thing together, and to me, that seemed like genius, and well worth the price.
After he left, however, and I took a good look, I realized that the door was installed upside down--or perhaps it was the panel that the door connects to, making it not impossible but exceedingly difficult to open and close. I knew I had to call the handyman back and ask him to return to fix it. But I felt awful about this. Would he have to dismantle the whole thing to install that panel the right way? Would it even be possible? I had a hard time sleeping last night thinking about this, but especially about asking him to come back to fix the mistake. But then I thought of that man I know who laughs at his friends' mistakes and lets them laugh at him. And that gave me courage. Call made, but the composter is not yet fixed, and I feel a little queasy but I'm trying to remember the laughing. Stay tuned for updates.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Oh, Dad

Friday marks my father's yahrzeit--the anniversary of his death.  He died in 1998, so it's been 13 years, which seems incredible. In honor of him, I'm re-posting this piece, which I originally posted in March of 2010.


As I've mentioned before, I live in what some might call an "edge" community--by which I mean I live in a town that is generally more affluent than its neighbor to the east. In this case, the neighbor to the east is the west side of Chicago--a mostly black and, in some places, distressed area. Streets severely potholed, food deserts, boarded-up windows and deteriorating buildings. Grated store fronts. When I drive through there, it reminds me a lot of the Grand River and Joy neighborhood I describe in my novel. Today, I want to tell a story about the place where I live and a colander
     Many years ago, my parents came to visit. While my husband and I were at work one day, my parents got busy trying to help us out around the house. My father noticed that my colander--which looks much like the one in the photo above--was in need of repair. The ring at the bottom, on which the whole enterprise depends, was hanging by a thread. Well, he thought, he'd simply head out in the car and find a place that does welding--a body shop or some such. He was certain he could find something.
     When looking for services, most people in my town head west (away from the Chicago neighborhood I described in the first paragraph) rather than east. Either my father did not know this, or he didn't particularly care, so he headed east. My father was not a large or imposing or macho man. I think he simply wasn't afraid of certain things. Or perhaps he was unaware that he should be more cautious in certain places and situations. I do not know. In any case, he soon found himself pulling up to a body shop on the west side of Chicago.
     He got out of his car, this smallish gray-haired Jewish guy, colander in hand, and entered the building. There he found four black men, sitting around a table, playing poker and smoking cigarettes. I do not think in reality that they were drinking whiskey, but in my imagination (forgive me), they were.
     "I'm wondering if you can weld this for me," he said. He showed them how the ring was flapping. The men looked at each other, likely somewhat incredulous. They put down their cards. They put down their cigarettes. (They sipped from their drinks.) And then one of them got up, came over to my dad, and said, "Sure. Let me see what I can do."
     I still have that colander. And you can still see the welding marks. It wasn't the finest, most elegant repair ever, but it's held all these years.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Annual Paean to the Blueberry


Once upon a time, my path crossed with a woman named Patry Francis. She was a writer and I was a writer, and she told a story about a long-ago time when she had been served a blueberry pie at the home of Marilynne Robinson, where Patry had the good fortune of being a dinner guest. The pie was not your usual blueberry pie--it had a layer of whipped cream and a layer of blueberries--and Patry remembered it fondly all those years, hoping to someday encounter it again. In stepped I, who was certain that I had the recipe for this very pie--from an old issue of Gourmet magazine. I sent her a copy (she lived on Cape Cod, whereas I live in Illinois), and we vowed to make this pie to honor the serendipity of our friendship and this pie-discovery and our writing muses (who always need honoring in whatever form they happen to take). 
      We have made this pie for multiple years now--she on the East Coast, me in the Midwest. Patry has written about it on her blog. I have written about it on my blog. Others have baked the pie and written about it on their blogs. One year, Patry was very sick, and I wasn't sure she would be able to make the pie, but she did nonetheless. One year, my muse was the little tomboy-girl Sal, from Blueberries for Sal. One year, I shared the pie with my book group. One year I shared it with my neighbors at our block party. Every year, I worry (but every year a little less) about whether the blueberries will cook down during their session in the pot with the sugar and corn starch (they seem so dry; it seems so impossible that they could transform).This year I was practically serene during this phase. 
    This year, I made the pie in phases--the crust on Sunday, then into the freezer with it; the cooked blueberry part before dinner last night, so it had time to come to room temperature then sit in the refrigerator for its allotted time before pie-construction would be permissible. Whipping the cream came after dinner, then assembly, then back to the refrigerator for another prescribed spell before eating. 
     My daughter is home for a visit, and I waited to make it so that she would be here to enjoy it with me. I have done this other years as well. We have what we call a pie party well after dinner each night. She eats very slowly to make it last.

Since Patry and I began making pies, we have both published novels; she has a contract for a second (which is in the editing phase), and I have a pretty solid draft of a second one, which is nearing readiness but not quite ready to head out into the world. Patry and I cannot attribute all this literary productivity to the pie effect on the muse, but why not attribute at least some of it?
     My daughter pointed out that my pie is a little different this year, and I do agree. The crust is a little crustier (in an excellent way, I think), and there seems to be something a little different too about the way the blueberries settled onto the cream. And why shouldn't things be a little different from year to year over all these years? Below is the photo of this year's pie, which I placed next to an image from my desk calendar. I chose this calendar because its theme is magic, and for every week, it has a vintage poster or photo depicting magic in some form.
     My new novel has circus and magic and illusion as one of its themes, and so I chose the calendar for inspiration. And now to the pie.