Monday, February 25, 2019

The Trip to Santa Clarita: A Photo Essay with Q & A

geometric forms, dappled light

What follows is a conversation with Jennifer Reese about her photo essay inspired by a trip to Santa Clarita, California. We spoke to her at her home in Brooklyn.

Q: Jennifer, tell us about your recent trip to Southern California to visit your son, Owen, at college. That’s an extraordinarily evocative photograph of the front of his school (see above), but I’ve heard you found the surrounding scenery gorgeous and inspiring.

A: Yes indeed. It was both familiar and exotic. I’m a native Californian and after six months in Brooklyn I was bowled over by the grandeur of the rugged green mountains, the palms, the orange trees. I saw it all anew. Just staggeringly beautiful, the American West.

Q: How did you find your son?

A: I found him, as I did the landscape, both familiar and exotic. I was sitting in the lobby of the La Quinta waiting for him one evening and I looked up and thought, who is that tall, handsome, self-assured young man with platinum blond hair walking swiftly towards me?

Q: What a sweet moment. I hope you told Owen you thought he looked handsome.

A: Of course. I told him he looked very handsome despite the absolutely ridiculous, embarrassing blond hair.

Q: I’m not sure . . . 

A: It’s an abomination. 

Q: As long as he’s happy. 

A: I’ve never seen him happier. 

Q: Is it true that the swimming pool at CalArts is clothing optional? That even classes are clothing optional?

A: Why does everyone keep asking me about that? Yes. It’s true. CalArts is not a stuffy place. I was just walking around one day and almost tripped over a girl who was rolling across a vast, empty atrium for no apparent reason.

Q: Clothed?

A: Yes. 

Q: Tell us about this next photo. It’s very subtle.

A: I’m so glad you like it! I was idly drinking my coffee at the La Quinta one morning when I decided to try to capture the atmosphere of the American chain-hotel breakfast room. It’s always the same, whether you’re in Anchorage or Austin. Awful food served in a space with the ambiance of a Jiffy Lube waiting room. No one seems to think this is as bizarre as I do. I feel this is a rich untapped subject for the American artist.

Q: Intriguing.

A: The first picture of the La Quinta breakfast didn’t include the TV tuned to political news, so I took another. I find this one more powerful.

Q: It is a stronger shot.

A: Right? I was going to post it on Instagram but I couldn’t think of a clever caption. I guess I’m really just a visual thinker. 

Q: Indeed.

A: I recently read a quote, attributed to John Cage: “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” I spent a lot of time each morning drinking coffee and studying the breakfast room which was, I admit, visually boring -- at first.

 But Cage was so right! It’s not boring when you really look. The last day of the trip a very old, scowling woman was pushing her walker — on which she’d balanced a styrofoam bowl of Froot Loops and milk — around and around the room. She was heading somewhere with great purpose and yet she never seemed to get there. At one point a middle-aged woman barked: “Sit down, Mom!” But Mom continued to circle. I could not look at the old woman’s ancient, demented face without experiencing a deluge of thoughts and feelings. How could anyone find that scene boring?

Q: Not boring, just depressing as hell. Jesus. Let’s move on. This is a masterpiece.

A: Wait, I can’t read you. Are you being sarcastic?

Q: Why would you think that?

A:  Good. Whew. I’m so insecure. Where were we? Oh yes. I’ve found that Santa Clarita has become less boring and less depressing the longer I’ve looked at it. On my first visit, I thought that there was nothing here but bland adobe-colored malls, bland adobe-colored housing developments, a lot of chain restaurants, and Magic Mountain. This is my fourth trip and I find more to interest me every time.

Q: How does this photograph illustrate that? What am I missing?

A: Glance at that picture quickly and you see only the Payless. Look longer and you see a marvelous used bookstore called the Open Book. 

Q: I see the Payless, but. . . let me find my glasses.

A: I spent ninety minutes at the Open Book and bought a copy of Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz for $2.95. It’s an incredible shop. Huge selection of books and low prices. I can’t wait to return.

Q: Inside of a Dog is superb. I love dogs.

A: Me too.

Q: I have a pit mix named Gracie.

A: How funny, I do too. 

Q: So what’s the next picture you want to talk about?

A: Next picture?

Q: Yes. We’re going through your photo essay from the trip to California.

A: These are the only photographs I took.

Q: WTF, Jennifer?

A: Excuse me?

Q: You call this a photo essay?

A: I call it a short photo essay.

Q:  Not a single picture of blond Owen or his lovely friends drinking Shirley Temples at the Italian restaurant? No shots of an orange tree or a palm tree or the fried bananas and coconut ice cream at Jitlada Thai? No pictures of the girl rolling across the art school atrium? Of the homemade Ring Ding at Olive & Thyme? The clothing-optional pool?

A: I’m going to have to ask you to calm down.

Q: No picture of your cute father who joined you on this trip? No shots of the towering eucalyptus on the CalArts campus? Of the found-object art in the gallery?

A: Why is everyone so hung up on the beautiful and interesting? Beauty is trite. Interesting is obvious. I prefer to focus on the utterly drab.

Q: That must be the secret to your success as an artist.

A: I’ve often thought it must be.

Saturday, February 09, 2019

My weird visit to Dr. X

Thank you for the sweet comments. In this post, I describe a strange evening that ends with some food but isn't really about food. I still cook, but not as much as I used to, and if I wait to write about cooking adventures, there will be big gaps. 

  As I mentioned in the last post, I have a boring but debilitating ankle injury. Thursday I decided to see a doctor and I chose Dr. X because his office is a quick drive from our house and he’s in our insurance network. How bad could a random doctor be? He wasn’t going to perform major surgery, he was just going to look at my ankle and perhaps refer me to a specialist, so I saw no reason to bother with a lot of fussy research. Or any at all. Off I went to Dr. X.

First thing, the nurse called me in and had me step on the scale fully dressed without even taking off my boots. Good God. That was a blow. The nurse left and eventually Dr. X came in. He was a tiny, bright-eyed, bespectacled man of about my age with an accent from somewhere on the Indian subcontinent. When I say he was tiny, I mean he was considerably shorter than I am and I am not tall. I felt like a volleyball player next to Dr. X.

Dr. X shook my hand and before he had even dropped it said sharply, “Why are your hands so warm?”

I was about to reply that it was probably because the room was hot, but he didn’t wait for an answer. “And why are your fingertips bluish?”

I looked at my fingertips anxiously. “Are they bluish?”

“Purple. You see?” 

I said, “Maybe because I ate a pomegranate a few hours ago?

He looked up. “Do you eat a lot of fruit?”

“Not really. I do like pomegranates.”

“What is your diet?”  

“What do you mean by that?”

“What do you think I mean?”

I said, “Are you asking, like, what do I have for breakfast?” 

He didn’t answer. He said: “Do you drink?”

“Yes.” What did any of this have to do with my ankle? I told him I was here because I’d been walking a lot and hurt myself and . . . 

He cut me off. “Give me your phone. I want to look at your phone.”

“Ah, I know what you’re going to do,” I said. “You’re going to look at my pedometer.”

Dr. X seemed disappointed. He said, “A lot of people with iPhones do not even know about the pedometer.” He took my phone, went into the pedometer, studied it for about 20 seconds. He then informed me that I had a repetitive stress injury because I’d been walking too much and hadn’t been resting between days of walking, he could see it right there on the pedometer. Bodies need rest, something about mitochondria, stretching, cross-training, etc etc, walk 10 minutes a day, no more, and you’ll be fine in two weeks.

I was annoyed. This domineering little man had demanded my phone and hadn’t even glanced at my leg. I said, wait a second, I’ve been resting and elevating my leg and icing it for a few weeks already and it isn’t getting better.

“Oh, you’re worried about a stress fracture,” he said cheerfully. “Stand up. Now jump up and down like this.” He jumped up and down. I jumped up and down. 

“Does it hurt?”


“That means you do not have a stress fracture. You have, like I said, a repetitive stress injury. Do you get a lot of sunlight?”

Huh? “Probably not. I take vitamin D.”

“How much?”

“I don’t know. A capsule.”

“Very strange that someone who walks that much would say she doesn’t get a lot of sunlight.” 
 He began typing the diagnosis into the computer. “How do you spell repetitive?”

I told him how to spell repetitive. 

“That’s what I typed but it’s not coming up. How many words a minute do you type?”

“I type pretty fast,” I replied. 

“I know you type fast because you are a writer, but how many words per minute?”

“I have no idea. I’m still wondering, why did you ask me about my diet? Why did you ask me if I eat fruit?”

“I forget,” he said.

The appointment was over. As I walked out, he said, “Are you limping?”

Why yes, doctor.

It was the weirdest appointment. It was about 7 p.m. by now and I limped across the street to a roti shop and ordered a vegetarian roti for dinner. I had been planning to go to a pizza restaurant, but cheesy pizza seemed much less attractive after that visit. A roti is like a Caribbean burrito, but instead of a tortilla, the wrapper is a sheet of whole wheat Indian flatbread, and instead of carne asada and pinto beans, the filling is likely to be chicken and potatoes, or, in my case, curried greens and squash. Roti are everywhere in this part of Brooklyn but this was my first. It was delicious. What is your diet? Healthy.

I sat there eating the roti in the empty roti shop, thinking about Dr. X. I would never go back to Dr. X, but I realized that while he was eccentric and obnoxious, I had rather enjoyed him. I had found him amusing, even somewhat cute. I had found him amusing and cute because he seemed harmless and he seemed harmless entirely because he was so much smaller than I was. If a tall doctor had barked questions at me and demanded my phone, I would have been nervous. Instead, I had played along, unfazed. I thought, Is this how men feel all the time when they (literally) look down at women? Is it just size that explains the difference between “you’re beautiful when you’re angry” and “you’re terrifying when you’re angry?” 

Obviously size confers advantage. I knew this in an abstract way, but I’d never really felt it before. I enjoyed that feeling. I imagine Dr. X would too.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Waiter! There are raisins in the soup, my son is a blond, and I live in a strange city!

The new house is handsome and brown and my old stuff looks really good here.

        The last time I wrote on this sadly neglected blog, I described the night our dog almost died from eating chocolate. The other day, Gracie ate a large pellet of rat poison in the park and I took it as a mystical sign that I should re-start my dormant cooking blog.

Kidding. I recently took a leave of absence from grad school, which has freed up a lot of mental energy. I also cooked a really strange, delicious soup that I wanted to recommend. So I am typing.

Not that I don’t have a good excuse for the hiatus. It’s been a hell of a year. Both of our kids are now in college and Mark and I now live in Brooklyn. Last spring, Mark’s employer asked him to move to NYC and given that we were about to be empty nesters we said, sure, why not? Why not leave behind family, friends, temperate climate, elderly cats, the house where we raised children and chickens and goats and had happy memories and fig trees and a hand-built pizza oven to embrace, in middle age, a new life in a vast metropolis where we know hardly anyone?
a sad day
Well, I can now tell you why not. Oh boy, can I tell you why not. But I can also tentatively tell you why to. While I can’t think about my old life without wanting to cry, the change of scenery has been exciting and interesting enough that I am able to avoid thinking about the old life for days at a time. My grandfather used to talk about people needing to “repot” themselves lest they stop growing. We repotted. We’ll see how much growing ensues. There have been moments when I have worried that shrinkage and regression will be the result of the move, but today I am feeling optimistic and am betting on growth. Watch this space.

Anyway, last week on a sunny, cold morning, Gracie and I went out for our usual hobble. She walks and tries to run, I hobble. The best thing about New York has been the walking and it was so unbelievably great that I walked and walked and walked — sometimes 8 or 10 miles at a go — until I injured myself (boring old person injury) and now the worst thing about New York is the walking because even a short trip to corner store gives me insight into what it must be like to be 90. 

scene of the crime
We were hobbling around in the park when I saw Gracie eating something that wasn’t the usual denuded chicken bone, but a rectangular green pellet the size of a lipstick. I yelled and she dropped the thing but snatched it up again before I could jerk her away. She swallowed it whole. We hobbled straight to the vet. After a delightful procedure that I was permitted to observe, the startled vet said, oh wow, yes, that’s rat poison. The good news: the rat poison was still almost completely intact and Gracie is fine. The bad news: there is rat poison lying around in Prospect Park.

We hobbled home from the vet to await the extreme weather of the polar vortex and I decided to make a strange, wintry cabbage soup I’d read about in The Dean & Deluca Cookbook. The soup contains kielbasa, cabbage, and golden raisins. Although I have since learned that it is fairly common to put raisins in cabbage soup, this was a first for me. Satisfying my curiosity about the raisins was the whole reason I wanted to make the soup; I think I may be more tempted by recipes that sound weird than recipes that sound good.

To be fair, the cookbook tried to make the recipe sound good. Here’s the headnote: 
“There's a wonderful paradox in this soup (Waiter! There's a paradox in my soup!): it's filled with hearty ingredients and hearty flavors -- and yet, the overall feel of the soup is light and delicate. A guaranteed crowd-pleaser in winter.” 

Guaranteed crowd-pleaser? Not exactly. The first night, I was tempted to throw away both Dean & Deluca and the soup. It was watery and cabbagey and the raisins were just bizarre. Two days later, Mark reheated the soup and brought me a bowl for lunch (my injury means I get served more often) and it was a completely different soup. A soup we both wanted to eat. They always say this about soup and stew, that the flavors need time to meld, but rarely has it been so true as it was with this soup. By day three, the raisins had given up all their fruity sugar to the broth, which was floral and sweet, and yet there was also spicy, meaty kielbasa in there, so it filled you up. For five days in a row I ate the cabbage soup for lunch and marveled at how good it was until finally today I realized the soup was on the downswing. Like the raisins, the kielbasa had finally given all its flavor to the broth and tasted like nothing. When the kielbasa tastes like nothing, the soup’s over. 

You should try this recipe, though let it sit overnight before you serve it. This is a tasty, unusual, once-a-winter soup. I hope I can remember to make it again next winter. 

The other recipe I made recently that went over big was Deb Perelman's beans on toast from Bon Appetit. It felt wrong to serve a dish like this, geared for picky children, to two unpicky adults, but I will probably do so again because it is so easy and tasty. This is exactly the kind of meal Owen would have loved when he was a kid. No more. When I dropped him off at college in August he was a dark-haired meat eater.

He returned to us in December a vegetarian blond. He could not be persuaded to touch meat, even when we went to the most tempting Chinese dumpling restaurant. I respect that. I’m not nuts about the hair, but he could not care less, which is as it should be. Our children have their own lives now and Mark and I are trying (!) to do the same.