Measured Extravagance

06 January 2003 - 12:23 a.m.

Culinary-linguistic mystery of the day: what is the defining ingredient of a traditional (non-vegan) Boston Cookie? why are Cape Cod Oatmeal Cookies identified with that region? At first I fancied it was because they both had cinnamon as a common ingredient, but it turns out all but one of the oatmeal cookie recipes in my edition of Fannie Farmer contain cinnamon. Do New England bakers traditionally favor "chewy" and "wholesome" cookies (the adjectives employed by Marion Cunningham in her introductions to the two recipes)? Craig Claiborne is silent on this matter, but the entries for "Boston Baked Beans," "Boston Cream Pie" and "Boston Coffee" suggest that there might not be an answer other than "just because," but at least, for those three dishes, he defines what characterizes them as Bostonian.

I'm not normally keen on oatmeal cookies, but I've been harboring a low-grade craving for a good, substantial cookie for a week or so, and since we're down to one piece of flan I decided to succumb to the urge this afternoon. Fannie Farmer's recipe for Cape Cod Oatmeal Cookies is pretty close to the one linked above, except for the chocolate chips and shortening, which aren't in the FF version. In my case, I substituted chocolate chips for the raisins and pecans for the walnuts, and made the drops tablespoon-sized (I can see fussing with teaspoon portions if I were preparing for a tea party, but chez nous, nope. Too impatient).

While getting the ingredients ready, I also chowed down on a steak and stir-fried a pan of bamboo shoots and broccoli. I think last night's insomnia may be contributing to today's foodcentricity: back in school, there were lots of 2 a.m. heatings of eggs and soups and whatever happened to be in the cupboard, because there's only so much tea and soda one can guzzle down on an empty stomach. Last night, I wasn't noshing away because I kept meaning to go to bed in a few minutes, it's just that those couple of minutes lasted from 10 p.m to 4 a.m. Then it was a boiled egg, some pickles, and a wedge of flan before church, some edamame and appetizers at a septet rehearsal, and then a killer Jazzercise session. The craving for cookies was definitely noisier than my body's usual "bring me meat and bring me wine" variations, but just a few bites into that steak, I could feel my bloodstream perking up: "Yes! Iron! Good! About time!"

The New Year ritual at my church is to tie knots into a piece of string, each knot representing something one wishes to cast away. The string is then thrown into a fire. One of the baritones in the septet admitted he had tied a knot to cast aside "perfectionism" - and then seriously considered redoing the string because the knot was off-center.

As for me, I confess that I hadn't wanted to go to church at all. I'm not feeling especially sociable or meditative these days, and if it hadn't been for the septet, I would have stayed home. Once there, I was mostly okay - it was nice to see the sanctuary packed (they ran out of programs, even), I was hugged by and hugged a fair number of people of whom I'm genuinely fond, and I'm glad not to have missed Bill's farewell speech and Beth and Robert's announcement of their engagement. Still, I would have preferred to be with my papers and my pens and my pets -- I was not in the mood for suggestions to cultivate detachment and "think less - live more" and wrestling with the philosophical paradoxes therein, not when my path for this year is to become more attached to and more focused on the here and now, rather than dithering hither and thither every which where.

It did give me pause, when the preacher retold the old parable about the student "too full" to accept new teaching. Is that me? Except that, to borrow a phrase from Zopa Gyasto, "there is more to the situation than just the cup!" I'm resisting the various metaphors of emptying the cup and jettisoning baggage I heard today, not just because I don't wanna, but because I don't believe we as individuals are such simple vessels. (To be fair, I doubt the preacher really thinks so, either, but I felt that was the direction from which the readings and sermon were pointing.) Our capacity to accept and retain fresh information isn't necessarily contingent on what's been poured into and siphoned out of us in the past - and, in my case, I sometimes feel like I've retained so little of my journey to date, in spite of the arsenal of tricks and tchotchkes amassed along the way. Hence the increasingly pronounced yearning to stay in port - not to toss the contents of the ship overboard, but to make sense of what's already there. A sail to repair here, a rope to replace there...

It's important to me to get to know my neighborhood and my city better, but it will have to happen later rather than sooner. It's probable that the Beautiful Young Man and I will be here for the rest of our lives, so it's not like I need to be in a hurry about it, and there's so very much I want and ought to do about and in the house before I extend my curiosity and my resources afield. That said, it annoys me how easily I still get lost in Nashville, and I want to become much more knowledgeable about the local scene - but it will take time, and it will take money, and I have older priorities that take precedence.

It's interesting to me, though, how much I want to get to know this town (and not just because I'm tired of driving in circles). I've been thinking a lot about "place" lately - in part because I'm working on some poems about Chicago, and in part because I've been meandering through M'ris's archives, which contain a number of fascinating expositions on why California isn't home and the Midwest is. (There's also the fact that she's homesick for what I think of as "western Midwest," as opposed to my Midwest of Michigan and Illinois and complaining-about-Ohio. Which is definitely a different Midwest.)

It recently struck me, though, that as often as I talk about missing Chicago, I don't actually want to move back there. As a naive, neurotic undergraduate, I just didn't get around that much, although my desire to perform outside of University groups and my craving for backlist romance novels managed to get me out of Hyde Park a bit more often than your average Regenstein rat. But Michigan felt even less like "home" - even when I envisioned working at The Big Bookstore for life, even when we bought a house in Detroit, I didn't feel the click that said, "I belong here." I didn't arrive there expecting to stay - I was going to blast through my coursework as quickly as possible and then join my then-partner wherever we could find jobs for both a musicologist and a medievalist.

Even when I married the BYM, when it seemed like we were set to remain in Detroit permanently, it felt more to me like "I happen to live in Detroit," not "I live in Detroit," even though living in Detroit was a conscious, deliberate choice: we tried the suburbs and hated them. We are city people and we know this now. I've noticed that the BYM talks about Detroit the same way I talk about Chicago: he doesn't really want to move back, but he's proud to have lived there. He likes keeping track of what's happening there; he enjoys going back to see friends and do business; the place has character, so much that it is itself a character in our histories. The city of Chicago is more of an ex-lover to me than the actual person I dated when I lived there - it's the city I miss, it's the city that I should have spent more time with, and it's the city that shows up in my writing and in my dreams.

But Nashville, it is indeed where I live. I came here expecting to stay, and it's been even nicer than I hoped. Professional considerations aside, the BYM likes it because there's more good motorcycle-riding days than in Michigan and the location's relatively central - it's not more than a two-day drive or ride to most of the places he likes to visit. Me? the library system rocks. There are a good range of supermarkets and ethnic groceries and bookstores within city limits, as well as plenty of galleries and boutiques and parks. I don't miss scraping snow and ice off of my car windows. Our insurance premiums are way lower; our house was affordable. The public transportation system isn't anything to speak of, but it wasn't any better in Detroit, and truth be told, I was never wild about walking to or waiting for the El when the wind got going, or when I was just by myself after dark.

The BYM wishes there were more bars without live music. (There's a t-shirt I saw on Second Avenue I nearly bought for him: "Nashville is a drinking town with a music problem.") The phlebotomists in Michigan were better-trained (he donated gallons up there and never ran into a problem until visiting the center here; likewise, it exasperates me no end that the Dearborn nurses were able to draw blood from me with minimal fumbling and fuss, whereas here I come home with bandages on both arms as often as not). I can't get dim sum here, and it's a pain having to stop in Memphis or Atlanta to fly to anywhere else. The Election Commission in Detroit is miles ahead of Nashville's in organization and communication, and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Michigan has a stronger presence than the chapter here. The newspapers are pathetic.

But we're happy here anyway, and even if I hadn't met the BYM - my reason to stay in Michigan, my reason to come to Tennessee - it's unlikely I would have returned to Chicago. Left to my own devices, I would have wanted to try my luck in San Francisco, which I did indeed adore when I visited Strad out there in 1998. I doubt I would have worked up the courage to live abroad - it's something I fantasize about now, and at some point I suspect I'll chase after a grant or a fellowship to make it possible for a month or so, but back then I would have been too daunted by the rules and the red tape and my lack of savings and figuring out how to include the cat.

Nashville is not as dazzling as London or New York. Boston and Chicago exude more artistic and intellectual energy - I come home from visiting those cities revved. But Nashville is home, more so than anywhere else I've lived. I will never be a native here - in the South, where you're born is where you're from, even if you don't remember thing one, two or three about it - but I can picture myself growing old here. I have plans for the next thirty years and enough elbow room to accommodate the inevitable adjustments. We're on boards and committees, and we've bought furniture that requires piano movers. When I let Abby out in the morning, I often gaze outside after her - at our yard and at our trees and our fence, and our dog joyfully galloping around it all, and I say to myself, mine.

One year ago, the BYM advised: "Evil spirits. Try smudging it with some sage"

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