Invasive Procedures

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Sometimes in my father’s house the doors of the upstairs bedrooms close on their own. My sister, before moving away to Omaha, used to say she saw things that weren’t there. Still, I never believed the house was haunted, so it didn’t bother me to take a nap in my sister’s old room (“the blue room” for its walls of robin’s egg blue). It was the middle of the morning of a very warm day.

Lying in the blue room, fighting the urge to stem the sleepiness with caffeine, I calculated twenty minutes before the inspection at 11:00 am. I should have just gone for the coffee. As I dozed the sleep was shallow, and I awoke hearing the wind chimes that I had just hung on the door to the family room downstairs.

This hand-painted wind-catcher captures the beauty of the reefs without
robbing them of their wonderful resources. Sand Dollars, Starfish, and Scallop
Shells are treasures of the ocean, and Bali is surrounded by a vast ocean full of life.
The musical tuning of this chime is from the exotic instruments of the Indonesian gamelan.

The specialist who came to check our house for termites arrived early and smiling too widely. I was upset by the interrupted nap, and the fact that his red shirt was too red for so early in the morning. I concluded that he was clumsy as well as too eager to take my money. But I did not want termites.

“Oh, they’re out there,” he said, clicking his drugstore-bought ballpoint pen. “The mound over by the bamboo trees, we’ll have to remove that. And poison the soil.”

So he had stepped out through the back door into the back yard, sweeping through the property in the short time it had taken me to come down the stairs. We walked through my house and up the stairs, his eyes running across my ceilings, into corners. All wood, yes. No, not antique. Yes, we just installed it. The termites, he informed me, had invaded from the empty lot next door.

“We’ll line the perimeter with poison so they can’t penetrate,” he said, clicking and scribbling with his ballpoint pen, sweat pellets forming on his temples. “Is there a trap door in the ceiling our people can crawl through?” I pointed at an outline in the ceiling of my children’s bathroom, a square tile hidden from view unless you happened to crane your neck in unusual angles. It was muggy and still up here, where the hot air rose into the sloping eaves.

“Will the…poison…kill my frangipani?”

“No,” he said, “it’s botanical. Citrus-based. Not likely to kill anything but termites.” I pictured a liquid murk seeping into the soil to find the queen termite, a thermal missile traversing its kill zone while leaving its orange-scented wake.

I signed the contract, ensuring monthly visits without my having to think about a thing, evaluations like a military review to rid my home of termites, ants, mice. All in. Sign now and cut a check to avail of the end of month promo. And just like that, I could worry less about stove-scurrying mice, termites emerging from their lair in the dirt to chew through my walls (sometimes at night I could hear them), ants on my dining table disrupting dinner with their rivulet-shaped processions down the tassels of the tablecloth my mother had crocheted by hand.

Then I heard it, after the termite man left on his motorbike. Echoes of blissful Bali breaks, yearly each summer when the girls were little. The wind chimes mimicking a fairy-sized gamelan. Disks of bleached teak tied together by black string, cat’s cradle style; slender steel rods suspended and, when brushed with a fingertip, made a sound like the tinkling of glasses. Or like spirits trailing bells through the trees, on nights lit only by the moon and candles on dinner tables. At the end of the string, a real starfish, a fragile pentangle the color of beach sand. Of five points, I counted four-and-a-quarter. It looked like a thing dead, scavenged off a dying wave, one of its limbs missing.

©Scribblerbean 2012

Mistress of Spices, in a way.

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Having run out of coffee today I had to get my caffeine fix from another source. I rummaged and found a handful of essential spices (cinnamon, clove, cardamom) and brewed me some chai instead. The anise didn’t go into the pot; it’s just here because it’s pretty.

My course work in non-fiction is coming to a close so hopefully I can channel more energy back into this blog. It was a summer course, swift and rigorous, and stretched as I am, I am ever so grateful for the privilege of having taken it.

Thanks all for your patience! I do hope to be back to scribbling very soon.

How To Make Muffins

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On afternoons when the air crawls and my words get lost in a cloud in my head, I bake. As cupboards slam, the rattling of cake tins begins to dislodge ideas, shaking them loose like flour through a sifter.

For all its demands of focus and precise amounts, baking draws me into a state of unforced thinking, a mental meander that spills out beyond the countertops, past the lines on the measuring cup and confines of the measuring spoons. Before the hour is up the words begin to rise up, because memory is like yeast.

My chocolate chip cookies have found fans among my children’s friends for about a decade. Even without consulting the recipe, I can make these cookies without paying too much attention to amounts of flour, baking powder, baking soda, two kinds of sugar. I know the space a cup of butter occupies in my mother’s pink mixing bowl.

Sometimes the mixture is a pinch short of salt, or the butter is half an ounce over. Routine dictates deftness and pace, but sometimes I just want my cookies. The mess I make in my kitchen is spectacular. If the batter comes to a texture like down pillows (as it must for today’s sour cream blueberry muffins) it will be beautiful coming out of the oven. Hunger, as Carlo Collodi wrote, is the best sauce. Despite improvisation, a need is satisfied.

Not so when I attempt to write. As a craft, writing is more demanding and less forgiving than baking. So much can fall flat. There are no tried-and-tested recipes. There are no basic ingredients when one has tens of thousands of words to choose from, and only the most carefully selected will do. And even then, an afternoon’s efforts do not guarantee a satisfying result. Where it takes an hour to bake even the most gorgeous of all cupcakes, it can take a lifetime to create a work of substance and elegance.

I think about this when I struggle to craft a 500-word piece I can be happy with. The writer Jane Hirshfield, in taking apart the meticulous writing of Emily Dickinson, has said, “a single word can be as consequential to the experience and meaning as a single link is to the integrity of a chain.” And so I run my fingers over words to find the choicest, freshest ones (never, never use too much), roll them around so I can taste them first, testing them for heat or coolness. I imagine combinations of flavors, scents, and textures, staggered by the possibilities and the responsibility.

No wonder I get stuck. No matter: I head to the kitchen, and begin to bake.

Quickened by Dickens

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I feel like I’m a better person than I was two weeks ago. I’ve finished reading Great Expectations and to my surprise, I really enjoyed it. Understand: I have never had to read Charles Dickens. This unfortunate reality is likely due to skipping two years of high school (long story) and all the reading that went with it. In the years since my academic career played out its spotty history, the thought of reading Dickens has been intimidating. English majors read Dickens. Oh wait, I am an English major.

Notes from the margin:

social class, “great expectations” = ambition

human nature, identity

Also a question: does the nature of the giver, especially if he’s an escaped convict, detract from the value of a gift?

I think Magwitch is a really good name for a cat.

Watercolour of Abel Magwitch from Great Expect...

Watercolour of Abel Magwitch from Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“You’re so smart. You’ve always been smarter than me,” said my sister with a little bit of awe when I told her I laughed out loud in parts. “I tried Dickens. I didn’t get it.” She was sad when she said this.

“Try him again,” I said. “He describes people as furniture, compares them to plants. Think of him as a 19th century Eddie Izzard.”

“I don’t know about that,” my sister said. “Would you like some cake?” We are Skyping and doing imitations from Game of Thrones.

My sister is modest. She has read Austen, I have not. (“You’ll like her, I promise!”) She’s next on my list. As with Dickens, I’m a little scared but hope to be surprised.

If this line isn’t so wonderfully English, I don’t know what is.

Out for Lunch

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Open up a can of chickpeas. See in your head a bowl of creamy hummus. Remember E’s picture from Jordan? It was taken around a campfire at dusk. A Bedouin man brewed a pot of tea and E had tea like that, in the desert, amidst sand dunes. E ate a lot of hummus while she was there. Won’t touch the restaurant variety today.

Slice a lemon. A fridge must always contain lemons. Imagine if you reduced the contents of your fridge to just those things found in very old valleys: chickpeas (how did they grow those?), olives, goat cheese, and hello, wine.

Hummus was probably a staple for any strapping young shepherd. Who knew that people living a thousand years ago ate better than we do today? Grinding seeds against a stone, leaving dates and figs out to dry until they were strips tough as leather. Organic then wasn’t expensive. It was the only way one could make lunch.

Day 310: Shinjuku

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My friend Hiromi made me a list of cafes to visit on my first trip to Tokyo in 2010. Two doors past the Calico Cafe (a cat cafe, I was to find out) is Ejinbara Coffee. The menu was in Japanese, so I just pointed to the first item. I wasn’t disappointed.

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Every cup that isn’t an espresso-based drink is prepared in a siphon. The result is an exceptionally “clean” taste, and a mouthfeel I can only describe as light-as-air. I wish I knew enough Japanese to tell you where these beans originated from, but the cup was worth the $10 price tag.

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