Monday, April 10, 2006

Recipes for recovery

I suffered through the blackest of asses upon my return from La Paz. Your garden variety depression: what have I accomplished, who loves me, why do I exist? The intensity of the self-pity, however, reached un-troutlike level so I self-medicated. I fixed a humble peasant dish of cabbage, tripe and onions that I’d learned from an old woman in Brittany from whom I rented a seaside cottage while writing my third novel. I’d been drinking heavily at the time, and her overwhelming cuisine saved my liver. It was there that I was introduced to Alsatian and German wines that so perfectly complement peasant food and thus slowly weened myself from the dangers of calvados and brandy.

Stage two of my recovery included three young, farm-raised hens served with a three-olive sauce. The olives cost me fifty-seven dollars at the import shop, and when I fished around in my pockets and several bolivianos spilled onto the counter, I broke down and began weeping. The Turkish boy at the register stepped back, eyeing me warily.

A bottle of a light Spanish Monastrell with the meal gave me pleasant dreams for the first time in a month.

What really set me on the mend, however, was a conversation with my youngest daughter, Billie. She took the Foreign Service Exam this past Saturday. A bit of background is needed: when she was thirteen we spent six months in Marseille where I was a guest lecturer as part of a cultural exchange. Our closet friends were career diplomats at the consulate who thrilled Billie with tales of life at their African posts in the post-colonial era. It’s been her ambition ever since to work for USAID or the State Department, where she hopes to be a force for positive change. She took the exam in 2003, only a few days after the start of Mr. Bush’s subtle brilliance of the Shock and Awe(!) campaign. She was among the 6% of the applicants invited to take the orals, but she declined saying she wanted to attend graduate school, but in truth she was depressed over the neo-con foreign policy nincompoopery. But two years out she still has the desire so she’s starting the process all over again. My point is that her entire life’s ambitions are tied up with the results of a silly standardized test. She passed it once, but what if she failed this time? But rather than acting stressed or fatalistic, she was chipper with a c’est la vie indifference to her future when I talked to her on the phone. “I’ve got backup plans, Daddy, no big deal.” All this made me fell silly in my self-pity.

So she invited me to D.C. for a back-room feast with our friends at Etrusco to celebrate three months of waiting for the results of the test. “Most-Favorite Mommy Number Two will still be in town,” she said, referring to my second ex-wife, of whom she is quite fond. I sense an ulterior motive. I demurred but will likely go.

And so I am on the mend. I probably won’t be able to write for some weeks, but I’m now distracted by my MFA classes, which I’ve been neglecting. It’s a lovely day today, and I have a four-hour grad seminar on prose style this afternoon. I think we’ll have class outside in the state park where there is a babbling brook under a ceiling of glorious redbuds and dogwoods in full bloom. I’ll make up some exercise, perhaps the translation of visceral and tactile sensations into prose. We’ll go wading and I’ll ask them to immediately transcribe the sensation into their journals. It’s all nonsense, but MFA students love this sort of thing. In fact, this touchy-feely pseudo naturalism is a trait of bourgeois writers everywhere: that’s why so many conferences take place in idyllic settings that somehow recall England’s Lake District. I've been there and it's lovely, but it's no more wild than a golf course. As sophisticated as our urban writers are, they're often clueless when it comes to the natural world. A brilliant sociologist friend from Manhattan once visited me in the Midwest and remarked that it was the first time he'd "seen cows in the wild." That being said, there is something primal about rivers and streams, and it will do my students some good. My exercise today, of course, will mainly be an excuse for me to be outside, and also to sit on the bank and study the women in my class wearing shorts, watching them emerge from the brook with pink dogwood petals stuck to their glistening thighs. Perhaps I’ll fall in love again. Several times, if I’m lucky.

Next up will be my favorite French recovery dish, which despite the damage it does in cholesteral is the ideal restorative for a wounded heart. A Syrah or Shiraz with big fruit should pair nicely. And so the Trout mends.

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