Monday, January 30, 2006

Ugly Dumplings

Potstickers are the junk food of China. There are hundreds of kinds of dumplings. Maozi and shu mei, pidgeon egg dumplings (which refer to the shape, I think) and all the varieties of dim sum. But the most common dumplings where I lived were the pork stuffed half moons that here we call potstickers.

When I lived in China there were a bunch of dumpling restaurants in walking distance of the college where I taught. These places were sheds, thrown together from scrap and plywood and only large enough for at most a dozen people to sit and eat, and at night, they would glow and flicker on the street since most of them had no electricity and used propane lanterns sitting on the tables. They were part of the gray market economy. They weren't recognized by the government and were technically illegal although I assume authorities turned a blind eye like they did to the baker and the yam seller and the bicycle repair guy and all the other little shops. They were unheated fire traps--the propane burner was an open flame but I doubt it really warmed up the space much. Since people couldn't own land when I lived in China, they sprung up on the side of the road--really squatters--and their back walls were often the walls that surrounded factory compounds--or where I lived, the wall that surrounded the college. Someone would set up a burner powered by a propane tank and a chopping block and make dumplings. I never ate in one because when I would pass in the early winter dark they would be full of men, wearing their coats and drinking beer or baijiu (liquor), their faces red, shoveling dumplings in with chopsticks. Working men. I would have been like a stork in a chicken farm.

The potstickers where I lived were not, technically speaking, potstickers. They were boiled, not fried. And everybody knew how to make them. On New Years Eve and at family gatherings, everyone would sit around and make them by the hundreds. I was taught to make them in China but the truth is that there is a certain skill to handling the dough and forming the dumplings (call jiaozi) and neither I nor any foreigner I knew could do it even as well as your average twelve year old girl. I came back to the U.S. with a great taste for them. I didn't eat them in those little sheds, but I did eat them at friend's houses and my own cook would make them for us if we had company and it was, in his opinion, that kind of occasion--not formal, just good friends and beer.

They're on menus everywhere here these days, but the things that you get in the U.S. tend to be disappointing. Commercial potstickers have thick 'wrappers' or dough. In China they are sold one of two ways, either in tens (you order ten, twenty, thirty, however many you want) or by the jin, or kilo. If you order them by the jin, the smallest order is ban jin, or half a kilo. A kilo, by the way, is 2.2 lbs. When I told my Chinese students that in the U.S., when you order dumplings you get either six or eight, they laughed. They didn't believe me, either.

I introduced them to Bob and he, too, loves them. So this afternoon, having found a recipe, I decided to try to make some. The recipe I used was actually for shrimp and pork potstickers, made in a frying pan. There are a lot of pitfalls in making potstickers and this particular recipe, it seemed to me, would minimize my possibility of screwing up.

To make potstickers is, in one sense, very easy. The dough is just flour and water. You make the filling and you make the dough, and then you roll out little round circles of dough. You plunk a spoon full of your filling in the middle of the dough, fold the dough over in a little half moon, and crimp the edges. Then, in Shijiazhuang, we boiled them. (People fried the leftover ones the next morning for breakfast.)

If, when I folded it over, I didn't get all the air out around the filling, then when I dropped the dumpling in boiling water, the heat would expand the air pocket and the wrapper would burst, a catastrophic failure that made the boiling water into weak soup and left a limp and shredded empty dumpling wrapper. Even when I thought I had got all the air out, people were always taking my dumplings from me and getting the air out.

Assuming I had gotten the air out, I would squeeze the edges of my dumpling together. In China, everyone made beautifully pleated edges for their dumplings. Mine were not beautiful. And no matter how carefully I squeezed, someone was always picking up one of my dumplings and sealing a place where I had missed. This is another dumpling engineering disaster, which allows water into the dumpling and creates a soggy mess that is better for flavoring the boiling water than eating.

But the recipe I decided to try tonight is different. First you plunk the dumpling in a hot frying pan and let them fry on the bottom, then you pour a little water over them and let them finish cooking by steaming. It seemed to me to be a possibly very forgiving way to make dumplings. And it is, in parts of China, very traditional. I have been making Chinese food this week in honor of Chinese New Years, and I want it to taste like I remember it. And nothing here does. The pork tastes different. Everything is just...different. Not bad, but not what I remember.

Yesterday I made pork with black beans and garlic. U.S. pork is very lean, so I bought a pork shoulder roast. This is a fairly cheap cut of pork in the U.S. It has a lot of fat in it. It can be tough. I cut it into shreds and stir fried it with scallions and fermented black beans and garlic, soy sauce and cornstarch, and there was the pork taste I remembered!

So I made my filling using the same cut of pork. I have an old meat grinder (vegetarians avert your eyes.) I ground the pork shoulder (I am a bit obsessive) and made my filling. I rolled out my dumpling wrappers. And I made some of the most lopsided dumpling wrappers ever seen. (I made my wrappers the way I saw them made in China, which involves snipping off a piece of dough about the size of a coin, and then rolling it out in a circle. I didn't trust myself to be able to roll a square of dough out thin enough to make the dumplings the way I remembered them.)

They were Ugly Dumplings. I heated the oil, placed them in a spiral in the pan, cooked them until the bottoms were golden brown, then poured water in the frying pan and plunked a lid on and let them steam.

I lifted the lid at one point and saw that one of the dumplings had ballooned out--air pocket, what would have been a catastrophic failure in boiling. I plunked the lid back down without looking farther. After ten minutes, I took the lid off. They looked done. They smelled done. And they smelled like...dumplings. I inverted the frying pan over a plate. My dumplings clung to the frying pan. I ran a spatula around the edge.

One of the dumplings left a bit of wrapper in the frying pan, but the rest came out perfect. Two dozen pork and shrimp dumplings, ugly, but tasting like I remembered them. The wrappers were paper thin. The pork and shrimp filling had the indefinable something (probably pork fat) that was different than pork here. The vinegar and soy sauce were both Chinese brands. In China, one of my phrases was You cu ma? 'Do you have vinegar?' Like asking for ketchup on your hamburger, I like black vinegar on my dumplings. We doused them in dipping sauce and ate the whole plate.

I don't think I'll do them often. And if you are Asian, you will never have dumplings at my house because trust me, these are Ugly Dumplings. But it's nice to know that if I want, I can call a little bit of China up in my kitchen.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Chun Jie Hao

Happy year of the Fire Dog. It's 4703.

Bob and I went out for dim sum this morning and then to the Chinese grocery where I bought all sorts of great stuff--fermented black beans, garlic shoots, star anise, and hell money. Hell money is the stuff you burn for your ancestors so they may have wealth in the afterlife. It was $0.39 a pack for millions. I suspect inflation is a big issue in the after life.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

It's an Honor Just To Be Nominated

I love to win awards, but usually I don't like award ceremonies. I don't know why. I'm not a very ceremonial person, I guess. I went to my college graduation only to please my parents. When I got my master's, I told my mother I wasn't going to walk because it would be four hours long and hot. My marriage was done by the mayor of Blue Ash, Ohio and took less than ten minutes. (I was going to wear blue jeans but Bob asked me not to. So I wore a suit.) I don't like to get dressed up anymore, because I don't like the way I've gained weight. I don't like to be anxious. I don't know how to talk to people at parties (I know Larry Dark will never believe I find myself unable to talk, but I find parties at WorldCons to be torturous.)

But I had the best time at The Story Prize. I'd like to think it was because I have matured, but I don't have any other evidence of that. One of the coolest things was meeting Patrick O'Keefe. He won the award, and unlike me, who is secretly convinced that I am a genius and the world just hasn't figured it out yet, Patrick clearly didn't believe he was going to win. I genuinely thought Jim Harrison was going to win, so while they were getting ready for the ceremony, I kept trying to drag Patrick to the back of the auditorium so we could sit and commiserate. We'd start chattering but then we'd have to find out where we would enter or get our mikes on, so we didn't get much of a chance. But I was utterly charmed by him. Luckily, he lives in Ann Arbor, and I'm planning to get him to Cleveland to cook for him. I'll see if Ii can arrange a local signing and reading or something.

Mostly, I was so happy. While I am secretly convinced I am a genius, I am also secretly convinced I am a fraud. And this recognition was such a bolt of lightning, so out of the blue, that it lifted me up and wafted me through the whole process. While we were at lunch at the Lotos Club, Larry Dark said that he and Julie Lindsey read all of the submitted collections and then picked the three winners--which he then amended to the three finalists. I cringe when someone says 'It's an honor just to be nominated' but then, most awards don't give the finalists a check, ask them to read their work on stage, and treat them the way we were treated. I really do feel like I won something big. I would like to think I will be able to sustain this enlightened behavior through other aspects of my life. I suspect not.

Julie and Larry have put together a short list--which I plan to read.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Home From the Big City

I am home $5,000 richer. I had the time of my life. I had tapas with the Nielsen Haydens*, lunch at the Lotos Club with Larry Dark and Julie Lindsey, a long walk and conversation with Greg Feeley, a great evening at the Story Prize**, breakfast with a friend, lunch with some unfictioners***, dinner with Gavin Grant and Ellen Datlow and Gordon Van Gelder and Jim Minz and lots of other people**** and I am exhausted.

I will post real stuff tomorrow.

*fresh anchovies bear the same resemblence to the furry salty things in the can that fresh tuna does to the stuff in the pouch.

**more on this, I promise.

***unfictioners are people who like unfiction. See also ARGN.

****and I had soup dumplings, which are a food of the gods. And Ellen Datlow gave me chocolate.

Monday, January 23, 2006

College Boys the World Over

This from Chris Barzak's blog. The Dormitory Boys. Two bored Chinese college guys with access to too much bandwidth.


I'm all ready to head for New York. I've got a studio apartment on Bleecker Street for three days. They take pets but unfortunately for Shelly, I'm not up to taking one to New York. I bought a new suit, a new coat, new make-up and new socks. I have copies of Patrick O'Keefe's collection, The Hill Road, and Jim Harrison's collection, The Summer He Didn't Die, for them to sign. I have Derryl Murphy's collection, Wasps At The Speed of Sound to read on the flight. I hope, if I get a spare minute, to pick up a copy of Tom Bissell's God Lives In St. Petersburg to read on the way home. I have ear plugs for sleeping in New York City. CDs for lulling me through the morning routine. My office is still clean, my schedule is chock full of seeing people in New York (with more that I won't be able to see.)

I'm not taking my laptop. That alone will make it feel like a vacation.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Thanks Adam!

Adam, you bought me cool leather gloves and a great scarf for Christmas. (And chocolate, mustn't forget the chocolate.) I liked them so much I decided I needed a better coat, so I went out and bought one. It's wool and alpaca and the color of dark chocolate and although this photo doesn't really do it justice, it may be the coolest coat I ever owned. So I made your dad take a photo of me so I could show you I was stylin'!

Thanks dude!

(Shelly says hi!)

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Five Weird Habits Meme

Chris Barzak was tagged by Ms. Bond for the five weird habits meme. He tagged me.

The first player of this game starts with the topic "five weird habits" and people who get tagged need to write an entry about their five weird habits as well as state this rule clearly. In the end, you need to choose the next five people to be tagged and link to their web journals. Don't forget to leave a comment in their blog or journal that says "You have been tagged" (assuming they take comments) and tell them to read yours.

Wow. This is a little like opening up that closet in the extra bedroom that is really a mess so you just don't open it any more. Five weird habits, huh?

1. Before I write anything, I always play Free Cell. I suspect that this is far from weird and that way too many people have been seduced by some form of computer solitaire. But I really do have to play free cell before I write.

2. When I close and lock my car door, I have to be holding my keys in my hand. I started this when I used to lock myself out of my dorm room. If I was holding the keys when I closed the door, they couldn't be in the room. now it has become a habit and then one of those things. I can't bring myself to close the door if they aren't in my hand. I can be looking in my purse and see them, but I have to touch them in order to be able to close the door. I find this so annoying I am actually working to break myself of this habit. I did manage to break myself of the habit of genuflecting in a Catholic church. But I still feel weird when I don't.

3. If the dachshund is on the second floor as I am coming up the stairs, stop and let her lick me on the nose between the bars of the stair rail. It is the only time she and I can look each other in the eye since she is only eight inches tall. This comes under the heading of 'cute' behavior and is therefore mildly embarassing.

4. I say 'either' and 'neither' so they rhyme with 'fiver' rather than 'leave her'. This is complete affectation. No one in my family says it that way and I don't think any of my acquaintances do, either. I'm not sure why I do it. And I'm not really consistent. Sometimes I slip.

5. When I write, I have to set up the manuscript from the very beginning as if it were a final draft. Manuscript format, address at top, large bank space, double space, etc. When I write a novel, I allow myself to set up chapter conventions any way I want, but I still have to put the header in and double space and all that stuff. Otherwise, it's not writing, it's something else. Nothing I have started, either handwritten or in single spaced format, has ever become a story. Sometimes the double spaced perfectly formatted stuff doesn't become a story either, but sometimes it does.

So I tag Greg Feeley, Greg Van Eekhout, David Moles, Madeleine Robbins and Barth Anderson. You're all it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Mechanics of Dreaming

I dreamed I was visiting my mother (who was living in what looked like a four star hotel complete with shops in the lobby) and I discovered that she had taken some friends across the street to the local Scoopies* and treated them all to ice cream. Except all she had in her purse was a Provident Bank CD (certificate of deposit) for $10,000 and the ice cream place had not only accepted it but had given her a couple of hundred dollars in change and given her the rest in Scoopies' Gift Certificates. I was on my way across the street to try to straighten things out when I woke up.

*Scoopies is actually an ice cream place in New Mexico. And of course the dream was way more fluid than I have described. She didn't have a purse at first and she had dropped a large roll of money into a glass of water. I tend to have dreams that resemble the way I think when I write. Large roiling masses of stuff which sort of refines itself towards coherence. It's one of the reasons I am suspicious of dreams in stories.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Ten Years After?

I wrote an essay years ago on being a stepmother. It has gotten me more response than any other single thing I’ve ever written. I didn’t try to publish it anywhere but my webpage, but since then it’s been published in a couple of newspapers and periodically someone writes me and asks me if they can put it on a website about parenting and/or stepparenting. I always say yes.

I get an average of about an email a week.

They always say ‘Thank you’. Often in the subject line. They are usually a lot like this one:

I just read your stepmother essay online. I cant stop crying right now. Tears are pouring down and I feel inexplicably sad. Your words are so true. I am 33, soon 34. I am engaged and common law with my fiance who has three children 10, 11 and 13 - boy, boy, girl.

Being their stepmother IS the hardest thing I have ever done. It sometimes makes me want to run. I fantasize sometimes about having a partner without kids, no baggage, free to start a life with only the two of us.

I guess I just wanted to say thanks. Although you describe a tough, often thankless job, (and it made me cry!) I feel good knowing there's someone out there feeling these feelings. I am glad I am not alone.

Bob says to me that I should do a follow-up essay. A couple of days ago I came home to a phone message from Adam telling me about something that was bothering him and asking me to call him back. I called my kid back and we talked awhile. He’s at college and doing really well. He’s just my kid now. I’m lucky because of who he is and how he lives his life. He’s still the person who can get under my skin faster than anyone else in the world. And I suspect I can get under his skin just as fast.

I could write an essay about how well it all turned out. A happy ending.

I don’t want to, though. The women who are writing me…a lot of them will not have happy endings. Second marriages where children are involved are more likely to fail than first marriages. A lot of times it’s money. It’s hard to send money to support someone else’s kid. Hard to wait for money to raise someone else’s kid.

Not all kids are my Adam. Not all of them are smart, funny people who make a lot of the right choices. Not all of them would make any parent, biological or step, happy. Sometimes the situation is so complicated that from the outside, it’s hard to see how it could make anyone happy.

So if I write an essay called Ten Years After, I’m afraid I will steal consolation from the people who write me. I will make them feel that I’m different from them. That they are alone. I don’t think my writing is going to change the world. Very little writing does. But I like to think that I have provided a bit of consolation.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Home Improvement Cont'd

At the end of December I bought a couch. It was to replace a huge, ancient yellow monster which had first been my mother's and, after she had it reupholstered and lived with it for many more years, became mine. It was well over twenty years old and although a bit hard, far from worn out. But it was deeply stained from years of muddy paws and no amount of cleaning would get the stains out. No one sat on it because it had not been originally purchased with any considerations about being a dog hair magnet. It was an embarrassment when people came over and since no one in the family would sit on it, and it is the couch placed for optimal television viewing and conversation, it was not only taking up a huge amount of room, but it was keeping us from being comfortable.

This is my new couch.

We carefully explained to the dogs that the new couch was off limits. When they tried to leap up we firmly told them no.

It's actually slipcovered, so when the dog hair and muddy paw prints become too much, we can have the slipcovers cleaned. And in fact I bought a replacement set. It's just a practical, family room couch. The color is for wearability. But it's way more comfortable than the old couch.

We've had it for two weeks.

Sometimes you just have to bow to the inevitable.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Office

Briefly clean.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Clean Sweep

There's a television show called Clean Sweep where a television crew goes to the house of someone who is so desperate that they are willing to allow America see how awful things are if it means that afterwards things will be clean and nice. These are people who are on the way to becoming the kind of old people who die in their houses and it takes the fire department six hours to tunnel in far enough to find the body.

This was also the state of my office.

Bob got me a new bookcase and one of the obstacles to cleaning my office was the piles of books. My office is 11' by 12' and has a desk, two six feet tall bookcases and five filing cabinets in it. And a lot of papers and books. It's so bad that when I was diagnosed with lymphoma last year, one of my thoughts was, 'I've got to clean my office. I can't leave it for someone else.' But then they told me I would be fine so I didn't bother.

On Saturday, thinking about my big, mostly empty bookcase downstairs, I thought I might start clearing a little of the office. I tend to start on these projects and after about fifteen minutes, I get overwhelmed and I quit. I started Saturday around noon and I finished about an hour ago. I feel so virtuous.

I took everything out of the room. It helps to have a son in college because I could use his room for a staging area. I went through every file cabinet. Every box. I emptied the closet. In a moment of true bravery, I threw out my 1983 income tax forms. Okay, I threw out everything tax related before 1995. I went to Home Depot and bought closet organizing stuff. I painted the whole room pumpkin and then put back in only what I hadn't purged. It's beautiful! I can go into it without walking sideways! It's better organized! It's clean! (If I was allergic to dust, I'd have been dead.)

As soon as I find the connecting cord, I'll upload pictures. I think the cord is in the bedroom. The bedroom isn't as bad as the office was...

Friday, January 06, 2006

Lunch With Mom

I took my mother to lunch the other day. I take her to lunch every Monday and Friday. We go to Bob Evans, not because I like the food but because she does, and because they all know that she is ninety and doesn’t really have the ability to understand much. When we get to Bob Evans she often gets a hug from Mary the Buser. They know us. After four years of most Mondays and Fridays, you learn a lot about a restaurant. I tip well. The staff, which is mostly working class women, is appreciative of the tips, but they seem more impressed by the fact that I conduct this ritual.

I’d just as soon not. Conversations with my mother are difficult. She says, “It’s something!” which I believe, based on last year when we could sort of have conversations, refers to the bustle of the restaurant. We’ve had to wait for a seat, which isn’t normal. The dining room is loud with conversation.

“They’re busy, aren’t they,” I say.

“Before it was regular,” she says, “and it was fine. But they changed it all. But they still like it!” She laughs.

While we wait for our meal she will carefully unwrap her silverware and then array it on the napkin. Cindy or Meredith or Mel or Chris brings her a pot of tea and a cup. I put the teabag in the teapot and give her a packet of sugar, because sometimes she salts her tea if I forget. She rearranges the mug, the spoon, her silverware, puts her napkin in her lap. Then she moves the knife and the fork to the other side, moves the teapot (one of those little metal restaurant pots) over by the knife.

“Is yours a combination of those, too?” she asks me and gestures towards my iced tea.

I don’t know what this is about so I just nod agreeably. If I ask her something like, “My what?” Or, “Combination of what?” she will gamely attempt to respond but neither she nor I will have a clue what she is talking about.

Recently we went to Applebee’s because she had a doctor’s appointment nearby. I bought her a beer, which she liked very much.

“Did you like your beer?” I asked.

“It’s not b-, it’s good, but not beer.”

“It’s beer,” I said.

“Is it?” she asked, clearly astonished. “I thought it was chicken!”

Nouns fail her. She mixes up colors and forgets the word for snow.

The wait staff thinks I am a great daughter because I bring her to Bob Evans. But there are issues I don’t face, like, all her clothes are wearing out. But she only wears blue, and she only likes polyester blouses of a certain type that were available in the 80’s. Rigorously tailored for office wear (she was a secretary.) I’ve looked in used clothing shops, but I suspect I would have to haunt them and I don’t like resale shops. If I buy her something, since she doesn’t recognize it, she thinks that it belongs to someone else and has been hung in her closet by mistake. So her cuffs are frayed and her clothes have stains. At the Assisted Living, the staff dotes on her, thank God. She stopped wearing anything but one pair of pants and one shirt, so now the attendants listen for her to take her shower somewhere between four am and six am and sneak in and steal her clothes to wash them.

This isn’t in their job description.

I thank them. I come when they call me and say she has a cold or needs to see a doctor and I thank them. They are not allowed to accept tips or gifts, except baked goods at Christmas, so I bring cookies.

I spend about three hours a week with my mother. She is ninety and in good health except for the dementia. She is always pathetically glad to see me and I should go see her more, but I dread sitting there, while she makes sprightly conversation that neither of us understands. The staff at the Assisted Living tells me that they hope when they are old that their children will be as good to them as I am to my mom, which only tells me how many people sit there and no one ever comes to see them.

More and more my mother talks about her mother died, and then her father came all the way up, and was up there, you know, but he's gone too. And her older brother and sister were right there and bam, down they went and she can't seem to explain or find out what happened. She returns to these stories again and again. Her mother has been dead for 77 years, her father for 50 or more. Her older brother died 32 years ago and her older sister died, I believe, six years ago. I used to explain this to her, but now I just ask, "Does it make you sad?"

She is ninety years old, she knows she will die before too long and she knows that she doesn't know what is going on. I think that's what these stories are about, these obsessive versions of how her siblings came to this place where she lives and died and she can't find anything out. What is there to say to that? I hug her and give her a kiss and take her to Bob Evans and then, because I can't wait to escape, I drop her off at the door and watch while she goes in. I wait though, until she gets to the door, and she turns around and waves. I wave back.