How to Make Ravioli

Last week, I was asked to teach some of the loveliest people I know how to make pasta. There was some confusion over the meaning of “making pasta,” and, long story short, I wound up showing them how to fry up eggplant, smash tomatoes, tear mozzarella, and stir it all into preexisting pasta.

So, this morning, my mom and I made some ravioli, and I made a little pictorial tutorial out of it. Here’s how we did it:

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Optical Illusion

profiles

January 2015, Buenos Aires

He has eyes like the sky in winter. He smells like two hundred dollars’ worth of bath products you buy in a store decorated with dead leaves and a canoe. His legs are uncompromising, like trees or fortresses. He says words like aberrational and sublimate like other people say want to see a movie? and don’t forget the eggs. In the morning, he crawls up close while I’m sleeping, puts his mouth right up to my ear, and yells, “Mr. Pickles!”

I’m in Argentina with a stranger. He’s my boyfriend. I’m in Argentina with Two.

He thinks he made pesto last night, but he did not make pesto.

He runs three hours every morning. What he never says when he comes home panting and red-faced is that he stops to eat pastries and make friends along the way.

*

I don’t understand Two. I mean that as a statement of fact, not as commentary. I look at him across the table every night, searchingly. I study him as I’d study an optical illusion. In the optical illusion, I can only ever see the young woman, never the old woman. And those squares look like such different colors to me, even as I learn they’re the same. The vase I can kind of see, but I can’t hold it in my mind for more than a second or two before it morphs back into two silhouettes. How does one come to understand the person sitting across the table?

*

He asks the cab driver to take him to the cueva, which is Spanish slang only he knows for a place to exchange money at the street rate. He thinks I close the cab door too hard. He thinks it and says it and says it and says it. He changes his mind about the restaurant mid-stride. He asks to eat at the bar.

Wisps of gray hair are starting to curl up under his ears. He looks like a founding father. He says he looks like Graydon Carter. He doesn’t understand why the founding father thing is funnier.

He thinks my favorite phrase is “I don’t know what to tell you.” What he doesn’t realize is that he always says whatever he’s saying many times in a row.

He can’t believe I never read that book. He can’t believe I never ate that food. “Reeeally?” he asks.

He speaks English like it’s his second language to people for whom English is actually their second language. “The bar is called Rosario. Is near to here, no?” He either means to or doesn’t mean to. It’s one or the other.

He purses his lips when he doesn’t have anything nice to say. He speaks in a voice like suede when he does.

*

The thing about an optical illusion is that when you start out looking at it one way, it’s hard to ever see it any other way. You unfocus and refocus. You tilt your head. You look away and look back.

Our brains want to organize stimuli into meaningful information–at least, that’s what I read. That’s why we tend to keep seeing optical illusions the way we saw them initially. That’s what makes it hard.

It feels radical, dangerous even, to let go of our structures of seeing, to allow those data points to blur and then sharpen again into a new image, a fuller image. I think I see Two sometimes. I think I understand why Graydon Carter is funnier to him, why he can’t stand the sound of the cab door slamming shut, why he can never choose a restaurant. I think I see him, but I stop trying for one second, and he’s gone again.

*

He wants to go to a diner in Koreatown in the middle of the night. If I say no, he’ll make himself pasta e fagioli and smoke weed while I sleep.

He wants more salt, more spice, less light, more room, better wine, warmer days, longer nights. He wants more me, less me. He wants it all.

He’s the strangest thing I’ve ever seen, as he runs out into the freezing-cold ocean and calls out for me.

The Mozart of Bitterness

Mozart

September 2014

One evening, late this summer, I declared myself the Mozart of Bitterness. I was sitting neatly on the end of the couch that doesn’t get sat on. It was one way to be less hot. I felt high up, tilted. My legs dangled. I had opened the window too, but it was of no use. The air wasn’t moving.

My elementary music teacher Mrs. Jackson wore long cotton dresses with sneakers. During her first divorce from Mr. Jackson, she taught us to sing “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” which, in retrospect, was weird. The other thing I remember about her is that she told us that Mozart could hear in his mind’s ear an entire symphony in a single moment. Every beat, phrase, and measure, from the allegro to the adagio to the rondo. His mind could collapse it all into just one second. It was then only a matter of unfurling his masterpiece and bringing it to the page. This was the nature of his genius.

No one on the internet wants any part of this story, so I guess it was just another one of Mrs. Jackson’s pedagogical flourishes. That didn’t stop me from declaring myself the Mozart of Bitterness that evening, late this summer.

I spot a name in my inbox, and, in a single moment, I can conjure every wrong ever committed by the possessor of that name. I relive the pain of that time she stood me up at that one coffee shop with the fruit-free scones; that time she was thumbing through a stack of cropped pants at J. Crew and, just for my benefit, sighed, “I suppose I’m up to a size 6 now”; that time at the party in that warehouse when she gave me the look that I know meant I was talking too much about my ex and, further, that I’m a self-involved person generally and lucky to have anyone who’ll listen to me carry on at all. Yes, I can experience all of that in a single moment.

To be clear, my bitterness is not reserved for any one person in particular. It’s for anyone. It’s for everyone. And I conjure wrongs both big and small, both real and imagined. I relive them all.

This is the nature of my genius.

*

The Mozart of Bitterness. I chuckled at the thought in spite of myself. I’ve been depressed.

While I’ve always had the trappings of depression–extreme introspection, a tendency to leave rooms suddenly, a personal narrative blog–only recently did I start feeling depressed. Years ago, after my then-fiance summarily dumped me over the phone, my therapist suggested that I let myself feel sad. I tried to convince him that I simply didn’t know how.

“I don’t own sweatpants, and I don’t listen to Bon Iver,” I said.

“I can’t eat whole pints of Ben & Jerry’s. I’m lactose intolerant,” I said.

“I like Beyonce and pizza and jokes,” I said.

It seemed that grieving would be so much easier for me if only I knew how to feel sad. I dreamed that one day I would develop the depth of emotion and character to fully experience loss, to sit with it, to just be with it.

I’m here to tell you that dreams really do come true. Five years on, I’m not just an expert at experiencing loss. I’m a virtuoso. After all, I’ve managed to achieve this state of grinding hopelessness and despair in response to the most ordinary of disappointments. Friends of mine are divorcing, breaking up, falling out with me or with each other. It’s true that I’ve had my share of medical trouble, but, if anything, cancer wound up being a good excuse to start a blog and a great way to get people to show up to my birthday party. I don’t know how I got this way, but at some point in the past few months, life started to feel like nothing but an accumulation of burdens.

To wit, my mind can twist a monosyllabic text message into a grievous offense, a routine interaction with a customer service agent into a referendum on her character, a friend’s suggestion to keep a gratitude journal into cause for a 2,000-word e-mail laying out a critique of the neoliberal sham we call positive psychology.  

My imagination, once applied to daydreaming about being surprisingly good at karaoke or delivering stirring speeches before an audience that happens to include everyone I’ve ever wanted to impress, is now used to stretch my capacity to be cruel. I use my imagination to develop and refine diatribes, rants, condemnations, denunciations to suit all occasions and tastes. I select and arrange words in ways ever more punishing to their imagined target. In my daydreams, I’ve become as sharp-tongued as I was inspirational. I am, no doubt, the Mozart of Bitterness.

December 2014

Three months ago, I wrote that I was the Mozart of Bitterness. I liked the idea. It felt very me, but I couldn’t figure out where the piece was going. It needed a turn of some sort–a sign of hope. I wanted it to end with a breeze that felt just right on my forearm or a bit of sunlight breaking through the tree branches. I waited for the turn to come.

But as it happened, my life turned in the most utterly ordinary way. I was suddenly no longer depressed, and it was because of nothing grander or more poetic than 50 mg of Zoloft a day and a new boyfriend. It’s a hard thing for me to admit. I just hate to be so basic.

How to Breathe Again

Wisconsin

I was so honored to spend the week in Wisconsin teaching and writing personal narratives with some of the best in the business. This is a one-night Dinosaur Sweaters engagement. I’ll duck back down after this, at least until Thanksgiving. Thanks to Patty, Leah, Nikki, Kristin, Dani, Amy, and Marissa!

*

I always wanted to be the kind of person who’d know how to answer the nurse’s questions. I mean, I knew the answers to her questions by heart, but I didn’t know exactly how to answer them. She was asking me if I was having a mastectomy preventatively or if I had been diagnosed, then when I was diagnosed, then why I chose not to have a lumpectomy. And I assumed she was asking in some official capacity, that she’d print the answers neatly in the little boxes on the forms clipped to her clipboard. So I answered clearly and succinctly, staring straight forward, no trace of anything in my voice. “I was diagnosed with cancer. Two months ago. I have a BRCA mutation.”

Apparently, though, she was just trying to make conversation, trying to make me feel comfortable and cared for. I always wanted to be the kind of person who would know how to pick up on cues like that, but I wasn’t.

She gave me this limp little smile, rubbed my shoulder, and said, “Don’t worry, honey You’re in really good hands here.”

*

A few months earlier, I stepped onto the elevator that would take me many, many times to see the breast specialist at St. Luke’s. And because I knew I’d being seeing a lot of the people in this office, I fantasized about being Everyone’s Favorite Patient, who, in my mind, was kind of like the patient version of Patch Adams. I’d walk in, and the receptionist would show me a picture of her daughter in her dance costume, and I’d gush about how big Skyler’s getting and how cute she looks with her hair like that, and I’d high five the other patients in the waiting room. I’d have in-jokes with the technicians, and we’d pull pranks on the doctor. I would be Everyone’s Favorite Patient facing cancer with humor and fortitude.

But the elevator ride was only six floors up, so I had to face pretty quickly that I have neither the cheerful disposition nor the folksiness nor the off-beat sense of humor nor the interest in other people’s children to pull off this character I’d created. For me, it was always about how I’d play this role. Who would I be, or who I should be, as a patient?

And I guess that’s why I felt so disappointed with myself, answering the nurse’s questions all wrong, making her think I was one of those patients who needed to be consoled.

*

When I woke up from the first of what would be three surgeries, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I had an oxygen mask over my nose and mouth. I’m sure it was meant to help me breathe during surgery, but it seemed so much in that moment like it was suffocating me, like it was keeping me from breathing. I wanted to take it off or yell out to the doctor to take it off. But the eight-hour surgery had sapped the me out of me, and, like in a dream, I couldn’t get myself to speak. And even if I could have summoned the energy to say something, I was afraid to. My body seemed so fragile. My whole being was held together with stitches. I was afraid that if I moved the wrong way or spoke too loudly, my body would come open and fall apart.

So I just lay there and listened to her tell me that they biopsied my lymph nodes and nipples during the surgery, and that they came out clean. And, even though it was wonderful news that I’d get to keep my hair and my nipples, I just needed that lady to stop saying things to me. So I just looked at her with big eyes, the only part of my face I could use, until I fell back asleep.

*

By the time I had my third and final surgery a month ago, I was surprised to discover that I had learned how to be a patient. I knew that the nurse was talking to me about the octopus salad at Kefi so I wouldn’t notice the needle going into my vein, and, that third time around, I hardly did.

I knew they’d roll me up to the operating room, but not into the operating room. I knew that I’d have to walk in on my own. In the operating room, I knew to gather the gown up around my waist and sit not in the middle of the operating table but a little bit higher. I knew to sit forward and grab my ankles while the nurse put patches on my back. I knew to let go of my ankles so the PA could wrap the compression devices around my legs. I even knew that Maggie’s little boy was born a month before Sam’s, and I knew those babies looked damn cute in the photos.

And it felt so weird that this was all so normal. Did I really want to learn how to be a patient? Did I really want this to become so routine? I didn’t cry or even look like I was about to cry because I knew they wouldn’t put me under like that. So I kept my eyes dry for just a few seconds until I fell asleep.

*

When I woke up from that final surgery a few hours later, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I had this oxygen mask over my nose and mouth. I didn’t want to get used to all the bad stuff about being a patient. I didn’t want it to become normal, and it did. But so did reaching up and ripping the oxygen mask off my face, waking up from surgery and remembering how to breathe again.

Father Jack

Image

Zach and Ashley’s Wedding – April 2006

Father Jack Cawley passed away this week. Father Jack was the pastor at my church for much of my childhood. He was my first mentor in social justice, but, the funny thing is, I can’t remember exactly how he mentored me.

I do remember the Midwest-inflected Spanish he spoke at midnight mass and how keen he always was to come over for my mom’s struffoli afterward. I remember the year he brought a couple of friends and stayed until 2 AM, drinking Vin Santo with my parents and going on about My Cousin Vinny.

One Sunday, he and Father Dan put on a skit. It involved a wheelbarrow and some singing, and I remember that.

I remember when Father Jack blessed the mysterious robed man who stood in the center aisle for the entire mass. I remember spending that mass squirming, trying to look away but not look away, and I remember how Father Jack looked right at him.

My dad, about whom it was said that he’d go up in flames just by walking into a church, put on a suit and came with us anyway, just twice a year. I remember watching him watch Father Jack speak–back straight, face straight, hands folded in his lap. This was my dad’s version of genuflection. It was always a special day when Father Jack gave the homily, just as it was a special day when Victor sang “Taste and See” or when we went to Luckys for brunch.

What I don’t remember is how Father Jack taught me that we must make ourselves subject to one another. I don’t remember how I came to think that being Catholic is about serving others, that “good works” are really the lifelong work of social justice.

I didn’t find it remarkable that, in the pews, I sat shoulder to shoulder with same-sex couples. I came to believe that Jesus called us to do more than tolerate or accept; he called us to love. But I don’t remember how Father Jack taught me that. I don’t remember him saying it in a homily, over dinner with my family, or at the women’s shelter where we sorted donations. And I certainly don’t remember what he did to create a community where everyone felt loved.

At the time, this kind of Catholic practice didn’t seem remarkable or in any way unusual. It was all I knew. I don’t remember how Jack taught me any of it because, of course, he taught it the best way: by example.

Image

Father Jack with Dad (after a dip in the pool, eating my mom’s food, drinking wine out of a plastic cup)

Are Leggings Pants? A Derridean Analysis

A couple of years ago, on my way to Texas, I was summoned by a TSA agent at JFK. It was December, and I was already hankering for spring, so I was in a flouncy floral dress layered over leggings with boots. When she summoned me, I was hopping hopelessly on one stocking foot, yanking the boot off the other.

It took a few tries on my part to understand that she meant for me to get out of line and go to her. I did, but, the whole walk over, I swung my face back and forth in a dramatic way, as if searching for someone else she might more reasonably be summoning. By the time I got to her, I felt satisfied with my effort to mark her behavior as atypical.

“Hi,” I said.

“Just thought you should know that your dress is really short, and you’re flashing the men behind you,” she said.

I suppose she was just looking out for a sister, but, at the time, I felt she was taking a tone with me. Some combination of indignation and vulnerability spread from my gut to my limbs and head and then spilled right out of my mouth: “Um, yeah, I’m wearing leggings, so, you know, whatever, it’s fine.”

*

In Of Grammatology, Derrida lays out the logic of the supplement in a critique of Rousseau’s The Confessions. Here’s how it goes: Rousseau argues that writing supplements speech. Speech is primary, abundant in its presence, immediate, complete. Writing merely adds to speech: it is secondary and inferior to it.

But supplement means both addition and substitution. Derrida suggests that Rousseau’s use of supplement-as-addition invokes its other, oppositional use: supplement-as-substitution. The very existence of writing implies that speech is, in fact, somehow incomplete. Writing takes the place of—or substitutes for—what’s inadequate or absent in speech.

For Derrida, this isn’t simply a matter of inconsistency in Rousseau’s argument. It’s that each use of the word necessarily entails the oppositional meaning. Supplement can never just mean addition because the very presence of a supplement calls to mind the insufficiency of what’s there primarily, and so it must also mean substitution. It is by this logic that Derrida shows how the speech/writing binary that has shaped Western thought is already corrupted.

*

A year later, I was back at JFK and dressed comfortably in a long-sleeved black tee shirt, black leggings, and an oversized belted sweater dress, reminiscent of this. I removed my flats and my belt before I queued up. I was about to step into that big Minority Report machine thingy when a male TSA agent told me to take off my sweater.

“It’s not a sweater. It’s a dress.”

“It’s your outer layer. You have to take off your outer layer.”

“Certainly not when the outer layer is a dress.”

“It’s a sweater, and you have to take it off.”

“This is my outfit. See?”

“You have to take off the sweater to go through security.”

“You want me to take my outfit off?”

“You have to remove your outer layer.”

“I’m not walking through security without my clothes on.”

At that point, I asked to speak to one of the female agents. One sauntered over in a way that suggested she takes no shit, as they say, so I leveled with her: “See, this is my dress. I’m only wearing leggings underneath.”

“No, you have to take off your outer layer.” (!)

“But these are just leggings.”

The guy interjected, “You’re wearing pants.”

“Leggings aren’t pants.”

I appealed to the woman again. “Leggings aren’t pants.”

“You have to take it off.”

I took it off. And I slinked through the checkpoint like a cat burglar in nothing but my skintight all-black.

*

These two incidents, when read against each other, highlight the ambiguity of leggings—a necessary ambiguity, as you will see. In the first incident, leggings were a sufficient presence. There’s no way I was flashing the men behind me; I might as well have been wearing pants. In the second incident, however, my leggings (probably the same exact leggings, I should note) were not sufficiently present. They didn’t count as clothes or as part of my outfit.

The everyday assumption (if a stroll down 6th Avenue is any indication) is that leggings are sufficiently present, sufficiently pants. That’s what the agents in the second incident and the me in the first incident assumed.

But the agent in the first incident and the me in the second incident remind us that, if leggings must be supplemented by a dress of some sort (or a long sweater, or a tunic), they are not sufficiently present. They are, in fact, incomplete.

We wear leggings on their own often enough, but, when we do, we are subject to the rebuke of would-be fashionistas: leggings aren’t pants. We also, probably more often, supplement leggings with another garment. So, the other garment, the supplement, is both optional and not optional. It’s not just a question of opinion whether or not leggings require a supplement. My own appeal to both meanings of leggings reveals that the meaning of leggings is necessarily unintelligible.  Leggings are both pants and not-pants. This very tension, the unintelligibility, is what makes leggings leggings.

I hope that, through this analysis, I’ve freed the leggings-aren’t-pants principle from the body-shaming and slut-shaming discourses of which it’s a part (admit it). Derrida would remind us that all words are at the mercy of how they’re used, and so too are all articles of clothing. Leggings are just as much and just as often pants as they are not-pants.

And that’s how leggings corrupt the pants/not-pants binary that has shaped Western thought.

A Story in Four Parts (Part Four)

Dinosaurs on Table

As a self-proclaimed excellent speech/wedding toast giver, I’ve developed a few helpful guidelines for preparing what, at the very least, I will proclaim an excellent speech or wedding toast. First among them is this: don’t begin by telling everyone about the process of composing the present speech/wedding toast. When I first sat down to write this toast, I thought I’d tell you all about David and Juliana’s love. But then I realized that their love speaks for itself. Etc. Etc.

This is to say I’ve been battling the temptation to tell you all about my process of developing this blog post, the fourth in a four-part series about my experience with cancer. On my way home from the gym today, I was thinking that writing about my writing process would be akin to beginning with “Webster’s Dictionary defines cancer as a serious disease caused by cells that are not normal and that can spread to one or many parts of the body.” It feels like a hack move, but, more importantly, that inner struggle to express meaning is rarely as interesting to other people as it is to the writer herself.

But there’s a problem with transferring the speech/wedding toast guideline to personal blogging. If we limit our writing to our inner struggles that others will find as interesting as we do, we’ll have pretty much done away with the genre.

Plus, now I remember what I’ve already discovered in the past (and once further back in the past): my process of writing about an event is my experience of the event. The process isn’t about developing metaphors and tinkering with sentence structure. It’s about making meaning of the event; imagining an audience that interrogates my knee-jerk responses and cheeseball life lessons; putting the event in its proper place in my life; and determining its scope and the extent of its consequences.

So, I’m caving to temptation and writing a bit about this process.

A month ago, I called Rhiannon to proclaim (I’m a big-time proclaimer) that I have not learned any lessons through this experience. It was a Sunday night, and I was eating chicken on the couch. I told her that my final blog post would be a rejection of what Carrie Bradshaw once called our urge to go “from confused to Confucius.”

“I’ll write about how to force a big meaning on my experience would be to place undue significance on my body. Lessons are just the consolation prize after you’ve lost something big. What did I lose? I lost breast tissue.”

That’s how Rhiannon and I talk, by the way. I’m not making it up. We arrive at our conversations with fully formed conclusions to share. She cosigned on my logic, and I felt ready to write on that basis. Only, I was still just partway through the reconstruction. I was a surgery away from the final result, and I knew I’d need to wait to finalize any meanings or anti-meanings.

On a Wednesday afternoon in early December, I went in for the second surgery. There was absolutely no to-do about it. I walked to Roosevelt Hospital. I mailed my rent check and did some Christmas shopping on the way. Got some fancy bowls for my family.

Speaking of the walk, right before I turned into the hospital, a woman came up to me and yelled, “You’re back in New York after all these years! Blonder and bluer-eyed than ever!” She was in business casual, a light pink knit jacket over a gray sheath, a face full of tasteful make-up. Her voice was as loud, full, and clear as a Broadway star’s. She was an invitation to make disproportionate meaning out of the situation if ever there was one. I am, in fact, back in New York after all these years and, well, at least comparably blonde and blue-eyed. How did she know? It must mean something.

Later, as I lay on the cot in my inflatable hospital gown, bored with the six-month-old copy of Entertainment Weekly they gave me, I thought of the final blog post again. There’d be so much to write about. The first three parts were just about the diagnosis. I’d have to write about my first surgery: about how they did the perfect Dinosaur Sweater incision, about how I looked like a corpse, about the doctors who came in the next morning to pat each other on the back for a job well done. I’d have to write about the reconstruction process, about how the tissue expanders were like Barbie boobs, about the saline injections, about the plastic surgeon’s obsession with “side boob” and my obsession with the fat graft. On top of all that, I’d have to write about the imminent second surgery. Who knows how much I’d have to say about that?

It all just felt like such a chore. The experience was some percentage in the past and some percentage in the future (I now know that it was, at that point, 90% in the past and 10% in the future). None of it felt like right now. And it doesn’t feel like right now either.

All summer long, people asked me how I was feeling. I said that I feel fine but that I’m giving myself license to not feel fine at any point in the future. The day of the first surgery, August 22, looked like a grand threshold. I’d go through and come out a different person, and that’s when I’d avail myself of the license to feel any sort of sad and existentially put-upon.

But there really wasn’t anything so grand to it, nothing so definite or defining. I felt fine and like myself all the way through. That’s what I was thinking when I called Rhiannon that Sunday night. Yet, right now, I have the distinct sense that I’ve been through something. Something real happened.

The “something real,” of course, is the sum of all the sub-events and, yep, the life lesson. Here it is: I can’t ever know how I’m going to feel in a given situation until it’s upon me. I spend so much time dwelling on obsolete feelings of the past and anticipating—occasionally, fearing—feelings of the future. But there’s enough feeling to the feelings right now that there’s no need to drum up capital-f feelings for a blog post or even a good story to tell. Sometimes a whole lot of experience—like a Carl Andre sculpture—amounts to just what it is.

So, I guess what I’m saying is that cancer taught me to live in the moment. Yikes, people. I know you were expecting more. I was expecting more, but I’m happy with what I’ve got.

(If you’re interested to know more about my writing process, here’s how it went: I sat down this afternoon, a table full of toy dinosaurs before me, and I wrote it. I’m going to help give Harper a bath now. If you want details on the reconstruction process, you can check out my Prezi on the topic here.)