My mother, Renate Wisoker, passed away at home, peacefully and without pain, on April 22, 2017. The official obituary can be found here.
For my own, personal eulogy to my mother, which I somehow managed to get through reading at the memorial service without crying, please continue reading.
I am a writer. Those of you who’ve read my work know I routinely turn out hundreds of thousands of words. Simple words, complex words, and a whole bunch of entirely made up words.
I grew up being encouraged to read the dictionary for fun. My parents valued learning above all else. We didn’t just have the chance to go to college; we were EXPECTED to go to college. To matriculate.
That’s one of them fancy words I’ve learned over the years. Matriculate. Always sounded to me like it should mean that time when you leave your mom’s house for real for the first time. Or like it should have something to do with graduating. But it really just means to be enrolled in college or university.
Words are funny things. For a writer, assembling words into a story is a bit like herding a million plus cats into a box. It’s much easier if the box is very, very large.
The words I’m speaking to you right now are a tiny, tiny subset of a very, very large herd of extremely recalcitrant cats, all of whom have been hiding from me for days now. In other words, I, the writer…have been left silent.
My sister Tanya finally gave me a box in which to fit the things I want to say. I wouldn’t have been able to write this without her help.
I think I knew the German words for cat and dog before I could read. My mother and grandmother, Martha, always talked in a mixture of German and English. It’s peculiar to me, today, that while I was always pushed to excel in school, I don’t recall any particular push to make me learn German. It was just part of the background sounds.
My siblings may remember differently. It may well be that mom tried to teach me and I just refused to learn. It could be that she chose not to teach me so that she could have private conversations with her own mother. I don’t know. I’ll never know, now. There are so many things that I’m realizing simply never occurred to me to really talk to her about. I can compare my memories of childhood with those of my siblings, but mom and dad are no longer here to adjudicate disputes over The Way It Really Happened. That’s an important point of parental privilege.
Here’s a ridiculously small item: did my mother serve us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when we were kids? I have no clue. Seriously, no idea. One sibling insists yes. Another says no. By the time we asked, dad was already gone and mom’s memory was failing.
Everyone knows my mother sewed. Gardened. Danced. Traveled. Adventured. But who knows which of the shirts in her closet she wore to my nephew’s bar mitzvah? Who can point to which pieces of furniture were brought from Florida to Oregon to Connecticut to New Hampshire to Connecticut and back to Florida?
Who remembers trying to wrangle a cranky, screaming toddler on a public bus in the Oregon summer heat? Only mom. My siblings weren’t there. I was, but I was too young…I only know about it through stories.
From the trivial to the profound moments of my life, mom was always there, patiently collecting stories, holding on to the memories of our past selves. Every triumph was read back to me, as was, naturally, every mistake. Another important parental privilege!
I know the German word for naturally, but I’m afraid to try saying it because while I can spell just about anything, my pronunciation is terrible in English, let alone German. Even the German words for cat and dog, I won’t try saying those in front of a crowd.
Stories come naturally to me. I remember telling stories to my sister’s stuffed toys, having imaginary friends, endlessly writing bits and pieces, scenes and chapters, in those clunky three or five subject notebooks.
I remember one day, while I was in high school, I was sitting in my room writing. Mom came in, very upset because she’d just found out there was a school dance that night. She tried to order me to go. I refused. I told her I just wanted to write.
I am now the only person who holds that memory.
The last few days have been very surreal. I’m beginning to realize that’s in part because I now have no trustworthy backup to so many family memories. My mom. My dad. My cousin Rhoda. My grandparents.
My sister gave me a very, very good word, one that finally got me started on this eulogy. I can’t find a word in any of my dictionaries, or even make one up, that fits any better than this. I’m even going to say it in German first.
I am now enrolled in a life without my parents at my back.
I’m home again, from my most recent Florida trip. The garden is starting to bloom. The pineapple sage has, improbably, migrated six feet to the side and into an entirely different bed. The lavender did not survive the winter. The ferns did. I’m waiting to see if the baby fig tree is going to recover from the harsh cold snaps.
I’m writing again–well, editing, mostly, but ideas are starting to pile up around the edges for stories once I clear my desk of the current novel. I’ve found a lovely editor, who’s pushing me hard to get more detail and more action, break up the long blocks of dialogue with exposition. I’ve actually overhauled several chapters practically from the ground up to add tension. The editing process is as slow and tedious as writing this book has been. I want to release this book by November. I’m waiting to see if I can accomplish that.
My mom is still smiling, still laughing, still looking at the beauty of the world around her. Her appetite is frankly incredible, considering that when I left in November I usually had to coax her to eat more than a few bites. Now she’s eating everything in sight, seems like. It’s absolutely wonderful to see. She’s okay with sitting and listening to people talk, but a lot of the time she really just wants to be left alone. According to the doctor, the cancer has probably spread to her liver. I’m waiting. Just … waiting.
The trees are an improbable shade of green. Tiny yellow leaves are dotted across the roof. My office window looks out over the garage roof, so I get to watch the wind shuffling the dry ones around and tugging resolutely at leaves still damp from last night’s rain. The neighborhood is quiet, except for birds chittering about whatever birds talk about. My faithful old dog is sleeping at my feet, snoring on occasion. I’m feeling incredibly blessed to have this beauty, this time, this solitude, this space. I know it’s a rare gift. I know it won’t last. I’m not going to wait to enjoy this.
Over the last few months, I’ve put out a couple of blog posts about the process of my mom slowly dying. She’s been fighting lung cancer, and last year it metastasized to her brain. The docs gave her until about Christmas 2016 at best.
I’m fresh out of poetic, meaningful rambles about that.
I’m planning a trip to see her next week.
Yes. It’s nearly April 2017 and she’s still alive. My sister is doing a fabulous job of care-taking, but none of us expected things to … well, drag on this long, to be blunt. I hate myself for phrasing it that way, because I should be So! Happy! That mom is still Alive! Right??
Except not. Mom’s going through the expected cycle of physical and mental decline, just more slowly than expected. I was entirely braced and ready to lose her by Christmas, had all the schedules and structures in place in my head for how 2017 would unfold vis à vis my grieving and helping settle the estate and me getting back into the convention circuit and so on.
(Pause here to laugh ruefully. And a bit maniacally.)
I should really know better than that by this point in my life. The more you plan, the more things go awry. So here we are, and here I go again. Back on the road, hauling editing and writing jobs along to keep me company.
Not the worst life imaginable. I do relish challenges.
It is extremely odd and a bit disheartening to realize that the miracle I wanted was for mom to have a quiet, pain-free, drama-free, and relatively swift journey through the process of dying. Instead, I have the miracle of her quietly, peacefully, slowly living on. It’s absolutely amazing that she’s still here with us. I apparently come from very sturdy, stubborn stock.
Makes me wonder what’s waiting ahead for my siblings, and for me…
On FB, Twitter, and personal conversations of late, I’ve been seeing the same tacks develop in conversation after conversation. I can predict the curve of the conversation and whether I’ll have to block/cut off the person in question within their first two comments. (I’m being generous.)
I’m going to detail those arcs here, and I’ll probably just start linking to this post as a shortcut to getting into the same argument over and over ad nauseum.
1: “If [favorite person] had been elected/appointed, this wouldn’t be happening!”
This usually comes with a heaping side of “don’t blame me, I didn’t vote for that asshole.”
Problem: This always derails the conversation from [problem we can address in real life/real time] into an abstract fantasy world. A specific conversation–about, say, a clueless thing said by an ignorant politician–warps over into Big Picture Talk. Inevitably, I’m accused of things I didn’t say, lined up alongside people I disagree with, and talked down to, if not outright insulted.
2: “The wording on this could have been better, but here’s what [politician] really meant!”
This usually comes with a heaping side of “you just don’t understand how politicians talk.”
Problem: This starts out with an intrinsic assumption that objecting to the politician’s statement is based on ignorance of context. Sometimes, that’s true! But not always. Politicians are supposed to serve the people, meaning they’re the ones who should understand the context of their own statements. That’s a big job, no question, which is why they have aides and researchers and advisors who are supposed to vet public statements and warn the politician about upcoming landmines. This is what they get paid the big bucks for. It’s not our job to understand politician speak. It’s their job to communicate clearly to the public. Inevitably, this comes down to a partisan argument that I’m just looking to bash the politician in question for anything and everything possible, and that the politician should be given credit for all the good things they’re doing. Which, again, derails the point in question into a Big Picture Talk that’s much harder to actually affect.
3: “I came onto your feed and started an argument, and I’m angry because nobody’s listening to my brilliant analytical points.”
This usually comes with a heaping side of “Why won’t you stand up for me? Your friends are being meeeeeeeeean!”
Problem: This conversation is always, ALWAYS between folks from a marginalized group (trans activists, POC, anarchists, bisexuals, etc etc) and a person from a majority group (generally, but not always, a straight white male). The former, who have been dealing with nonsense arguments for their entire lives, are understandably not interested in finding out whether This Particular Person is actually an okay guy. They’re especially not interested in participating in a conversation that will most likely derail along one of the two above lines, because their focus is on getting shit done and saving lives. Abstract arguments don’t work with them. They see an injustice, they want to go after it and fix it, not listen to talk about the last sixteen presidents from the perspective of someone who’s not in the least worried about his or her own personal safety on a day to day basis. Inevitably, this winds up with flounces, angry rhetoric, asshat memes, and *me* getting blocked. Which puzzles me, because…I didn’t start the fight…? But whatever.
4: “You liberals always do [this thing that makes me crazy]! There’s no talking to you!”
This usually comes with a heaping side of “You’re so stupid, you’ll believe anything, why don’t you trust the news sources I like to read?”
Problem: I have read those news sources. I’ve read across conservative and liberal, anarchist and libertarian. I’m quite aware of confirmation bias. There are certain sources I regard with skepticism (Huffington Post) and some I outright refuse to touch these days (Breitbart). That isn’t because of any one current issue. I’ve watched these publications for years now. When I get fired up about a cause or a problem, believe me, it isn’t just the latest clickbait crap that I’m reading. Inevitably, this winds up with me having to block the person in question, because they turn out to be all about Winning the Argument instead of having a reasonable discussion. (Irony being, of course, that they’re displaying the very confirmation bias they’re trying to accuse me of…)
So there you go. Four very simple ways to avoid losing an argument with me before you even get properly rolling. You’re welcome. Go forth and enjoy a good discussion or ten!
Happy Valentine’s Day!
I love cooking. LOVE LOVE LOVE cooking. A good cookbook or cooking magazine will drag me down a rabbit hole of researching, searching out ingredients, testing recipes, and
begging inviting folks to come over and be test subjects for enjoy my newest dish. Cookbooks have been research materials for novels, as well. It’s much easier to describe a food if you’ve made it yourself!
So instead of talking about romance today, I’m offering you … a cooking magazine review.
I used to have a shelf of over twenty cookbooks. I might be underestimating that figure. *ahem* For various reasons–-the need to slim down clutter, moving about, an unfortunate stint in a mildew-laden environment–-my cooking shelf is now primarily cooking magazines. Specifically, Cook’s Illustrated. I absolutely fell in love with this magazine years ago, and it never fails to teach me something new and interesting.
For a really interesting background on Christopher Kimball, who launched, sold, bought back and relaunched the magazine, check out this article.
Flanked by consistently great front and back cover art, the inside showcases a clean, easy to read format, lots of great sketched illustrations and photos, and valuable side-matter. There are Quick Tips, which features mail-in tips from readers; I’m continually surprised by some of the ideas folks come up with, and I’ve adopted several myself. For example, in the latest edition on my desk (March/April 2017), there’s this tip:
Storing Dry Goods: Paper bags of flour and sugar are prone to tears and holes, so Ward Wood of Bardstown, Ky., transfers his dry goods from their original packaging into gallon-size ziploc bags, which he then labels. The plastic is sturdier than paper and more compact than a hard storage container. Plus, the bag’s large opening makes it easy to measure without making a mess.
I concur. I’ve begun doing this with sugar, and oh lord is it ever easier to handle!
The focus of Cook’s Illustrated is on two things: explaining the science behind a recipe, and reworking a problematic recipe to create streamlined, consistently yummy results. The title of each article lays out the goal clearly. For example (again, from the March/April 2017 edition):
Better Hash Browns: How do you make a crispy, creamy shredded potato cake that isn’t greasy and is a cinch to flip? It starts with a cake pan.
I loved that particular recipe, by the way. Hash browns are one of my quiet favorites, and one of the ways I judge if a restaurant is worth a breakfast visit. I’ll be trying this version as soon as I have the time.
In addition to reader tips and analytical recipe articles, there are also reviews of staples and equipment. “Tasting Premium Extra-Virgin Olive Oil”, “Rating Silicone Spatulas,” and “Equipment Corner”, for example. The Ingredient Notes section talks about many of the items mentioned throughout the recipes of the month: to name only two, “Determining the Age of Eggs” and “Sorting out Rye Flours” were damn useful bits of information for me.
I particularly like the Kitchen Notes section, featuring pro tips generally related to the theme of the issue. “What Is It?” is the star of this part, in my opinion: an odd, usually antique gadget is unearthed, researched, and explained, along with notes on whether it holds up to today’s equivalents. (Sometimes the answer is resoundingly it’s better than modern versions!)
The front cover clearly lists all the major articles within, making it simple to pick out the magazine with the recipe I’m looking for. The Table of Contents offers a cleanly organized list of where to find what; the Index, at the back, offers both text and photo listings of the contents. If you can’t remember the name but do remember the photo that headed the recipe, this is a huge win.
So okay. I love Cook’s Illustrated. I think you got that loud and clear. But wait. Because now there’s Milk Street, created by the same guy who’s behind CI.
I will note that while I’d heard of America’s Test Kitchen before, I’d never been particularly interested. For whatever reason, it just didn’t catch my attention. Looking over their web site and at their books today, I still don’t feel compelled to check them out. I don’t know why. Perhaps I’m simply (and unfairly) equating any cookbook with “America” anything in the title with boring and bland food. Maybe it’s that the current feature image of two blond white ladies in aprons is prompting only an epic shrug from me. Given the current political chaos, picking out two white women to represent “America’s Test Kitchen” seems dreadfully tone deaf to me.
I also find it particularly ironic that I have such an indifferent reaction to ATK, considering that it is literally the home of Cook’s Illustrated. And yes, Christopher Kimball is a rich white guy.
Without knowing any of that lawsuit stuff beforehand, I finally sat down with my promo copy of Milk Street and was enchanted.
Milk Street is like Cook’s Illustrated 2.0: still no ads, still featuring great photos, a starkly simple layout, but with a drastically narrower focus. The recipe articles are streamlined, without all the detail that can occasionally feel tedious in CI. Instead of a single recipe taking up two or three pages, here there are sometimes multiple recipes on a single page. There’s a lot more text, and it feels like a smaller font; it’s definitely a busier visual overall, with less white space than CI.
Equipment reviews have been ditched, as have the Kitchen Notes, tips from readers, and a great deal of the side matter featured in CI. Instead, Milk Street has a small book review section that covers both fiction and non fiction: the reviews are short but solidly written. In the initial issue, Kimball covers “The Food & Wine of France” (Edward Behr), “Sweetbitter” (Stephanie Danler), and “Land of Fish and Rice” (Fuschia Dunlop). I’ve added those books to my TBR list, of course. 🙂
Kimball is, unapologetically, using Milk Street to position himself as an ethnic cuisine bridge-builder between the world and Americans who don’t already have harissa and pickled mustard seeds in their repertoire. It’s not a bad position to take, and I think he does it reasonably well.
Perhaps surprisingly, however, I’m not going to subscribe to Milk Street. For one thing, money is tight: if I pick up this one, I’d have to ditch Cook’s Illustrated. For another, given the uproar and lawsuits, I’d rather hold off until the fuss settles out. I suspect that either the content and layout of Milk Street will change significantly to satisfy the complaints, or the magazine will quietly go under as a way of ending the lawsuits.
I’m definitely hanging on to the promo issue. It’s damn good. Better than Cook’s Illustrated, in many ways. I’d recommend asking for the sample copy, for as long as that option is open. (If you’re interested, Cook’s Illustrated also offers a free sample copy, so you can try them both and see which you like for yourself!)
But for now, in an either/or situation, I’ll stick with Cook’s Illustrated for the reader’s tips, equipment tests, and thorough explanations of how each recipe went from original challenge to final result.