Archive for December, 2010

The arc of the moral universe is longer than the attention span of a five-year-old

Whoa-oh, what I want to know is are you kind?”

— Grateful Dead

There is a certain kind of comic moment that restores balance to the world in a way that is always recognized as beautiful and fitting. My daughter Mara often creates this kind of moment, unintentionally of course, as the by-product of signaling to me that she’s done with a particular line of conversation and needs to move on.

Example? I thought you’d never ask. It happened tonight in fact. We were at the drug store fetching some medicine. Mara was eyeing a rack of Silly Bandz™ packets and coveting them vocally, despite the fact that she’d got a packet of the popular and colorful shape-holding rubber wrist bands in her Christmas stocking just two days ago. She hadn’t realized there were so many different kinds available. Pink pony ones! Finger sized ones! She told me she wanted me to get her some of the pink pony ones for her birthday.

As we walked out of the store I smelled cigarette smoke and said “Yuck, someone’s smoking.”

Mara, holding my hand as we (I) dodged puddles in the parking lot, looked around for the offending individual and said “That’s so unjust!”

I chuckled and said, “What does unjust mean to you, Mara?”

She enlarged to the effect that people aren’t allowed to smoke cigarettes. I explained that actually, in the State of Washington, it was neither unjust nor unlawful to smoke cigarettes unless you were doing it indoors in a public place. Then, because she seemed interested and engaged, I explained that unjust meant “deeply unfair”, and that justice had nothing much to do with the law, that in fact some laws were unjust.

As we drove out of the parking lot, she directly behind me in her booster seat, I cited by way of example the fact that not many many years ago there was a law saying women could not vote. I explained that that law was unfair and people eventually realized it was unfair and got rid of that law.

Mara seemed favorably impressed by this news, so I went on.

“We like to obey the laws,” I said. “The laws are created, most of them, to keep us safe and make sure things are fair. But God doesn’t care so much about the law as he does about what’s fair and just.”

I wasn’t sure I wanted to go into the whole Jim Crow thing with her, but Mara had responded with interest to the sufferage issue, so I kept going.

“There used to be laws in many parts of our country that said that African Americans and other people with dark skin couldn’t go into certain stores or ride on buses with white people.”

“Why?” asked Mara.

“Why? Wow, I don’t even know why. That just seems wrong, doesn’t it?”

“What was wrong about that?”

“Well, it wasn’t fair. Imagine if you had white skin, like we do, and you were hungry and you went into a town where most of the people had dark skin, and they said you couldn’t buy food there, and you said but I’m hungry and I need food, and they said I’m sorry but we don’t serve people like you here, how would you feel? Would you feel that you were being treated fairly?”

“No, I think that would be unfair. I think that would be unjust.”

I beamed a smile she could not see as we puttered home in the dark rainy night. “That’s right,” I said. “I’m so glad you get that.”

And then, I admit, the spirit took me. The pontificating urge rose up. The image of the father teaching his daughter in the way of truth just congealed in my head. It seemed to be going swimmingly, and I couldn’t stop.

“So you see, Mara, laws are things that people make, but God is the one that speaks in our hearts about what is fair and just.”

I imagined Mara in conversation with a friend someday, perhaps long after I am gone, saying “My dad used to say that…” and she would repeat the gem of an adage that I was just now saying to her in the car on this cold and rainy night. Only I was having trouble distilling the point into a gem. I kept fumbling for it in pithy little fragments.

“See, what we decide is lawful isn’t the same as what’s just. You can make all the laws you want, but…”

I was homing in on it. I was close. I was wound up and feeling that the truth and importance of what I was saying would carry this moment into the end-zone. My role as the parent, dispenser of knowledge and calibrator of the moral compass for my daughters, had wrapped me like a mantel and I was putting the cap on a speech that was worthy of that role.

“Dad?” she interrupted. “For my birthday will you get me three packs of Silly Bandz?”

The stage notes at this point call for a slight pause, and in the light reflecting off the rear view mirror onto the father’s face we see a look that we might have seen a million times on the visage of Dick Van Dyke or Bob Newhart. Jack Benny. The moment was deflated. I had lost her, and all I could do was look at the camera and be wry.

“Yes, sweety. We’ll get you three packs of Silly Bandz for your birthday. It’s a long time from now, so you may have to remind me.”

“I will.”


Smallcreep: a book (and album) report

If you prevent men from seizing and wielding power over you by force, you do not solve the problem of human freedom. You merely make it necessary for others to acquire power over you by some other means.”

— Peter Currell Brown

In 1980 Mike Rutherford released a solo album called Smallcreep’s Day. In case no one remembers, Mr. Rutherford was (and may still be) the bass player for the progressive rock band Genesis, and latterly the guitar player as well. This is the band from which Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel sprang to successful solo careers performing pop music of a completely different species. Mike, too, released a number of albums, his offerings published under the appellation Mike & The Mechanics, an entity that delivered several hits including All I Need is a Miracle and The Living Years.

Mike before the Mechanics. Image probably copyright Shergold Guitars.

But Smallcreep’s Day preceded the “Mechanics” and was very much a concept album in the style of Genesis. It was his first solo effort and many agree his most creative and certainly his most energetic. I was a great big Genesis fan, and I had the record in my clutch the day it hit the bins. The jacket of this record showed a man, presumably the character of the title, peering down in wonder at something from a catwalk in an industrial setting.

In fine prog tradition, one side of the album was one long suite of songs chronicling the adventures of Pinquean Smallcreep, a man who (the inner sleeve informed me) worked in an enormous factory putting the same component into the same machine day after day and week after week and year after year, never seeing much of the works beyond his own little area until the day he became curious about what they were building and set off to find out. The songs and tunes were wonderfully evocative for me, and the album has remained one of my favorites through the years. The lyrics do not reveal what Smallcreep discovers at the last, but the ending ballad beautifully narrates his grateful return home to his wife and children.

The cover of a minor musical masterpiece.

Another note on the sleeve said that the album was inspired by the book of the same name by Peter Currell Brown. I logged the name in my memory and made a mental note to read that book someday, imagining that the author might have been more explicit about what hulking industrial horror lay at journey’s end. In my mind’s eye I pictured Smallcreep coming upon some collossus of destruction, maybe a giant robot like the one on the cover of The Alan Parsons Project’s I Robot album.

This was in those benighted olden days when you could not instantly know every fact by entering a few words into an online search engine (in fact, this was back when engines were engines and leaked fluids). To find the book, which for all I knew might have been written in the 1920s or the 1950s (1965, it turns out), I would have had to go to a library or maybe a large bookstore — Waldenbooks or B. Dalton would have been the largest, there were not yet Borderses or Barnes and Nobles — and I never got around to it.

In fact I pretty much forgot all about it until recently, when in an idle moment I thought of and googled the book and found that while it had gone out of print in the ’70s, it had been picked up again in 2008 by the British house Pinter and Martin.  It was being distributed only in the United Kingdom. In fact, even P&M themselves would not directly sell it to a Yankee. Their website directed me to an entity called The Book Depository, which promised free shipping to almost anywhere in the world (every country I could think of was listed, but maybe if you live on the island of Saint Helena you would be out of luck — no, just checked, and they deliver to the world’s most remote inhabited place).

A forgotten cult classic reprinted in 2008. Image copyright Pinter & Martin.

The book was shipped by Royal Mail, which caused me to whoop and holler a bit when it arrived, and that precipitated my having to explain my enthusiasm to Mara, who simplified my explanation when she told Angela that “the Queen of England sent Daddy a book!”  

I’m a slow reader, but even so I expected that I would whip through this little book. And I might have. The writing is excellent. I mean it really excels. Brown’s style is fleet, crisp and elegant — quintessentially British, I’d say — and he finds just smashing similes and metaphors for everything. Of a corpse: “He looked balefully up at us like one who has been disturbed from sleep to be reminded of some tiresome duty, and he looked fidgety and worried even in death.” Of men walking swiftly down a stairwell: “They began to clip-clop down the stairs at a great rate, leaning forward even further like ski-jumpers in flight.” And near the apocalyptic ending, when a worker inside a mammoth industrial crane glides high over Smallcreep’s head: “I saw his bared teeth like rows of concrete blocks…and then he was gone, but his shadow came after him like the shadow of an enemy aircraft and touched me, so that I shivered, as if my name had been marked down in a book.”

I've always thought Smallcreep found something like this, from another album in my collection.

But I discovered right away that the storytelling was of the kind that if I’m honest I must say is not my favorite. I am not especially learnéd, so I can’t evaluate the book within a literary tradition, I can only talk about my own experience with it (which is why this is a “book report” and not a “review”). I was prepared for something a little fantastical, but this was in that vein where things happen that are so bizarre and grotesque, and no one in the story reacts realistically to any of it, which leaves the reader — remember, that’s me — no cathartic vent in the story. Here’s an example. One factory worker is feeding a die stamping machine so quickly that when Smallcreep interrupts him to ask directions the man makes an untimely move and one of his hands is chopped clean off. Far from expressing horror — my the reader’s horror — the man grumbles that he’ll surely catch it from the foreman now, but before the scene is over he gets his other hand chopped off, too, and he wanders off dripping blood muttering about how they’ll probably dock his pay.

I was once charmed by this drastically understated style of storytelling, even attempted it myself, and I’m sure the style has a proper name, which I don’t know. But I get bored with it. Yes, I get it — the company owns this man so completely that his own sense of self-preservation and self-worth are overridden even when the company’s machines are bodily chewing him to pieces. Check. After a few chapters of this kind of thing I began to feel as though I were walking with Smallcreep in a macabre, dangerous, and depressing funhouse where there was no limit on what the author could throw at us. Rules of society, psychology, physics, architecture and even probability were AWOL. I understand that it’s a style, and that some consider it a very gripping style, but I don’t enjoy it. I feel taxed by the need to cobble up some significance for these seemingly unrelated and absurd events. So even though the writing itself was so original, I found myself not wanting to pick the book up. It’s only 205 pages, but I wasn’t even halfway through before my interest had flagged. There seemed no hope, no point in going on just to encounter more absurdity.


Or maybe he'd discover they were building something like this, the largest digging machine in the world.

Except that I really wanted to know the same thing that Smallcreep wanted to know. What were they building there? I am not a book-ending-cheater. Many fine and worthy humans do this, but I do not. So the piper had to be paid. I slogged on. Just past halfway, it gets briefly interesting when Smallcreep is forced by one of a series of misunderstandings to descend below the factory to a vast underground lake of sewage, out of which he is hauled into a boat by Walpole, the company’s lowest paid employee, who is proud that he and his family go without practically all comforts and is happy to do so to preserve the “order” of things. But then it refracts again into inexplicable scenes of barbarism and chaos, and I almost despaired.

Suddenly, however, Smallcreep opens a door into the office of some kind of chief of marketing or sales, and here the narrative suddenly begins to arc upward into a cogent idea, as the salesman tells Smallcreep that our modern society consumes products with the same spooky fervor that mediaeval illiterates consumed myths and legends. Here I perked up, because while a little didactic this thesis was right up my alley. I am the choir for this sermon. And it gets even better when our hero finally ascends to an austere little room in a tower, where the general director sits. This man says amazing things about industry and leaders like himself, delivering himself of such whopping mouthfuls as:

I would not hesitate to say that the blame for a not insubstantial proportion of human misery, yes, and of the bloodshed of the last hundred years must rest squarely on the shoulders of those whose lineage I have chosen to inherit. But lonely as I am, and aware as I am of the fallacy of the concept of human progress, it has been my last untarnished hope that that minority of men about whose shoulders the cloak of true wisdom has come to fall has from age to age increased both in number and in quality of men; for if it is not so I know, and the very knowledge weighs heavily upon me, that the story of man will henceforth be one of retreat, slow but inexorable retreat, into darkness, chaos, terror and despair. Sir, against that despair only I and such rare men stand, sole guardians of all that is of the essence of civilization and human culture.”

Or maybe something like Gustav, the largest gun ever built (thanks Adolph!).

This was the first time anyone seemed to be saying anything to Smallcreep that wasn’t hallucinatory gibberish, but he’s basically telling Smallcreep that the masses are lucky that such a man as himself is in charge of their lives, because the masses themselves would actually prefer to be enslaved by a dictator. Pinquean meekly resists this assertion, reminding the esteemed director that they fought for freedom, to which the GD replies,

I do not doubt your ferocity. But one look at freedom, and you would all shrivel up like worms in a snowstorm…You do not buy freedom because you dare not. In a society of free men you would be forced to face up to the truth of what you really are. In every sense of the expression you would have to do your own dirty work, you would have to forge your very own relationships with those around you.”

I’ll leave it there. It made me wish the book had had more of this and less of women giving birth to babies that died while no one noticed because they could not hear her screams over the roar of a band playing.

In the 1927 movie "Metropolis", the people tend and serve the machines they've created. Maybe that's what Smallcreep saw?

Here’s the final irony and the bittersweet victory of the book, which I recommend for its writing and for many of its arguments but only to those with the patience and stomach for a long dismal journey into the surreal: Peter Currell Brown was a factory worker — he WAS Pinquean Smallcreep — until he wrote a book that is as much as anything else a lament about the death of virtue, integrity and craftsmanship in modern work life, the success of which book enabled him to quit the factory and become an artisan, a sculptor of pottery.  Brown was given a happy ending that he did not vouchsafe to his offspring Smallcreep. On the other hand, I’m sure it was not Brown’s agenda in Smallcreep to make us feel content with the shape of mid-20th-century society.


About the clock

As long as we’ve been married, there have been no ticking clocks in our bedroom at night, or even in rooms adjacent to our bedroom, and even when I wore a watch, Angela insisted that it be “put out” at night, like a dog. I used to roll my eyes at her antichronometerism, as though to be unsoothed by the ticking of a clock — indeed to find the sound of a clock other than sleep-inducing — was somehow inhuman and bizarre. If you know anything about how stories go, you might foresee that taking this attitude was in the long run unwise on my part.

Yesterday morning Angela came across one of our little decorative clocks in a state of disassembly on the kitchen table. It lay — I knew — with its back off, its battery compartment off and its battery out, in a sort of “exploded view”.

“What happened with the clock?” Angela shouted from down the hall. I thought I heard a tone of amusement in her voice.

“I can explain that,” I shouted back, and then heard her musing at half volume, “I bet you can.” And I did.

About the Clock

Emilia woke around midnight when we tried to crawl into bed next to her after indulging foolishly in an episode of Granada’s Sherlock Holmes (the ones with Jeremy Brett, than whom no one is better at portraying the great and flawed detective). She was reminded upon awakening that her teeth-to-be were hurting her and began crying.

Angela executed various ministrations in hopes of soothing her back to sleep, but she kept up her doling off and on for several more hours. We have not had a single uninterrupted night of sleep this week (not complaining, just painting the picture for you) so in the interest of self-care and personal responsibility for my own needs, I took my two pillows and our warm duvet after about the first hour and went and bedded down on the living room floor.

"...until he comes literally face to face with the rotund little fiend."

I was unsuccessful at falling asleep there for various reasons, among them the city’s new Stalag streetlamps one of which has been installed right outside our living room window, which has no…ah…has no…what is the word, treatments? so that the cold white industrial warehouse light foamed into the room and coated everything with a depressing bright gray.  Millie continued to wail at intervals, just as I would be nodding off. The cats downstairs — they sleep downstairs behind a closed door because they have not yet learned not to jump onto the faces of sleepers or climb the refrigerator in the wee hours — would mew loudly ever and anon.

But what was really maddening was a loud ticking or dripping sound that I gradually became aware of. It didn’t sound regular enough to be a clock, the interval seemed much longer than a second and some of the instances were much louder than others. It sounded more like occasional dripping onto a piece of paper outside, which it might be, I thought, because I had opened a window to get some fresh air in the living room and it was probably raining. 

I tried to ignore it, but every now and again it became so loud, like two or three ticks in a row that sounded like they were very close by. I lifted my head to see if my ears could triangulate its location, but the sound seemed to be coming first from one direction, then another. What, some kind of strange insect accidentally imported from Sulawesi? A not-quite-randomly-ticking mantis or locust? Really, I was so tired that I sort of imagined such a creature flying around the room, ticking when it alit.

Now it was making me angry. The more I tried to not hear it, the more it became the only sound I heard, like Poe’s telltale heart. Tick…TICK…tick… … …tick…TICK!!!…TICK!!!…tick…Tick…tick, it said.

What is a clock if not the beating heart of time? Illustration of "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Harry Clarke, circa 1919.

Finally I sat up. Angela laughs to picture this part in her mind, but I assure you, as I assured her, that it would not have made attractive viewing. Middle-aged guy in underwear, drooling with exhaustion, with an unfriendly scowl writ across his brow and all other facial muscles that can be summoned to the task. He rises slowly, listening to the tick and the tick and the TICK!!!, and he slowly turns — this turning part can actually be imagined cinematically with judicious slow zoom if the lighting is not heavyhanded — until he is looking across the long living room at the baker’s table, looking across the long room to the clock sitting there, the pretty little clock that he and his wife got years ago on one of their day trips to La Conner.

It doesn’t occur to him at this hour, in this drained state, to wonder why this clock is on the baker’s table in the living room. Usually it’s in the kitchen. What he doesn’t know is that only a night or two earlier, his wife had moved it from the kitchen because it was driving her mad with a loud ticking. It is evident to him now that the sound is not moving around the room, it is coming from where the clock sits. How it threw its voice, let alone disguised it as that of a small Indonesian beetle, is anybody’s guess, but that was all a red herring, a trick to throw him off while he lay on the floor. Now fully risen to a man’s height, he is in full possession of faculties incapable of being swindled. He bends forward and steps across the room as carefully as a fox, but maybe looking more like a heron, his ears leading him, his eyes holding the sound in place as with sharp spears, until he comes literally face to face with the rotund little fiend.

I wait. It seems to be making no noise at all for a moment, then I hear several low, quiet, quartzy ticks. And then it goes TICK!!! right up my nose. The ensuing scuffle resulted in the heap of parts Angela found in the morning. 

That was my explanation about the clock. But Angela didn’t need any explanation. She had understood all as soon as she’d seen the clock parts on the table, and she felt vindicated. As she put it later, “Imagine my glee…”  

Table for four, please

T’was rather a frabjous day for us, was yesterday. Emilia began her transformation from a creature who sucks her nutriment from a nipple in liquid form, like any right whale calf, to one who sups solids at table, like the Queen of England*.

I have been remiss about recording Millie’s milestones. I have a Moleskine notebook that bears all of the dates of Mara’s firsts, and pseudo-firsts, events such as:

Wed. June 8 – squeal of delight.
Sat. June 18 – held piglet, 4 mins.
Sun. June 19 – saw and picked up piglet.
Sat. July 16 – giggled/multisyllabic laugh”

It goes on until the day a year later when Mara walked back and forth between Angela and me for the first time. The first time around, we did not already have a five-year-old who was negotiating for her own quotas of attention, so there was more time for documentation. I have rarely reached for my book and pen when Millie has executed her firsts. 

It's a bit like fencing at first. Thrust and parry!

It could be argued that we have enjoyed Millie’s firsts more because we haven’t been so busy waiting for them and writing them down. It is anyway the obsessive compulsive in me that wants to have a record of exact dates. And too, maybe all eldest children undergo a similar encyclopedic scrutiny. It is really my hope that Mara will find this information completely dispensible, that she will instead cherish these scratchings only as evidence that we took such an interest in her development, in the goofy way that new parents do. In turn, we hope Emilia will be glad that we watched and enjoyed her without regard to time, measurement, or comparison.

Eating solid food for the first time is a real coming out. Angela was just telling me something she’d read recently about how the first solid foods are not really about nutrition (most of it doesn’t go down anyway). They are about socialization. The baby is joining the family in a ritual that she has witnessed for quite some time and has not been able to take part in. In Millie’s case, when one of us is not holding her during meals she reclines in a little “bouncy seat”, observing this wondrous thrice-daily social event from about six inches off the floor. Now she would become part of that high circle and masticate with us.

Filial trust.

Eyes on the prize.

Angela steamed up some carrots and pease, then mashed them. We put our little debutante in the high chair – the one Mara used to sit in, bless me for an old sappy dad — and aimed the padded blue spoon toward her mouth as carefully as if we were using clippers to detonate a bomb. Emilia was ready for this. She actually opened her mouth, after some initial scrapping, and let the spoon in and closed her mouth on it. We have a picture somewhere of Mara expressing displeasure through an unhappy face covered in orange yams. Millie was wiggly and wanted to grab the spoon, but seemed to have no objection to the vegetables’ taste per se.

That is not to say she ate them. I think that the feel of something solid in a baby’s mouth makes them keen to eject it. It doesn’t occur to them, natural as the idea is in itself to know one’s world by putting as much of it as possible into one’s mouth, that the substance should be swallowed. Everything that went in was analyzed for a time, then oozed out the front or the side.

We're willing to call this a success.

After a few mintues of what I imagine Millie regarded as a kind of joke, she started flapping for the real McCoy, something she could drink from a bottle. We obliged, and we considered the event a success.

*This is a royal assumption. 

The layers of belief

Our little family is slowly developing a list of holiday traditions. I wrote about Trinity Farm last year, the place where we have now gone three years in a row to cut our Christmas tree. People go there to get their trees, but they also go there to ride the kiddie train, sit on Santa’s lap, play on the old firetruck, sit around drinking free cocoa and apple cider around an open firepit, and just generally be outside in the subalpine air.

Emilia and I survey a field of future Christmas trees.

Saturday was a gorgeous day, sunny and cold. We found our tree rather quickly (and encircled it with a prayer of thanks delivered eloquently this year by Mara, then cut it down and affixed it to the top of the car), which allowed us more time to clamber around the fire engine and linger by the fire.

Goofing on the fire engine is an annual tradition.

Because the bonfire is so central to the Trinity Tree Farm experience, Angela thought to bring a bag of marshmallows with us, and I had snipped two long suckers from the cherry tree in our yard and thrown them in the back of the car before we headed up. I sharpened these into marshmallow roasting implements and we made ourselves sick on fire-roasted clouds of sugar. Other, less fortunate kids were eyeing the marshmallows and whispering to their parents about it, until we started telling people to help themselves. We passed the sticks on to eager young roasters, creating a miniature Sucrose Event there by the fire that will inform the pastiche of images and scenes in the memories of at least a dozen little kids.

Since there were cookies and hot-dogs and kettle corn for sale, I’m not sure that our little marshmallow commune quite fit into the farm’s economic model, but we were glad to have been part of so much spontaneous joy.

Onlookers lick lips in envy.

Mara still isn’t keen to sit on the old elf’s lap. We have never told her there is no such thing as Santa Claus, in fact we maintain the elaborate charade (some gifts are from Santa, for example, and we leave him a plate of cookies), but some part of her knows he is a fiction, and so it disturbs her to see him sitting there. Mara has not indicated to us that she is ready to give up this wonderful childhood myth — in fact just the opposite — but she definitely won’t sit on some stranger’s lap when she knows good and well that it’s not Saint Nick.

Millie getting her first whiff of grand fir.

Angela and I are learning about a strange kind of “belief” that Mara is displaying these days and that was even present to some degree last year. We dug the Advent calendar out of the garage on December 1st, lighting the fuse on a countdown to Christmas that will significantly reduce the quality and quantity of sleep for all members of our household who are five and a half years old. We’d splurged on a really nice Advent calendar last year. It’s not so much a calendar as a little wooden dollhouse with 24 cubbies — each hidden by a hinged door — large enough to hold a piece of candy or a small toy. Mara goes insane when this thing is sitting on the mantel, as though she were a wolf and it were a full moon. Little trinkets or M&Ms or other treats show up magically each on their appointed day, put there “by Santa’s elves”.

We were late getting this started this year, so the first morning had already gone by before we brought it upstairs and set it above the fireplace. This meant that the first day’s cubby should already be opened, a calculus not lost on the girl, who wondered whether there might nevertheless be something delightful behind that first door when we took it out of its box.

Magic for as long she needs to believe.

[Aside: Funny she should ask, because Angela had had the presence of mind to slip a chocolate coin into it before bringing it up.] We told Mara that it wasn’t likely there would be anything there since we were late about it this year, and we delivered thespian astonishment when she looked anyway and found the coin.

A while later she asked Angela, “Mommy, did you put that coin in there?” Angela usually says something like, “What do YOU think, Sweetie?” in answer to such questions, but she was caught off-guard and she answered “no”. This seemed to satisfy Mara, but I felt bad that we had lied outright in direct response to a yes or no question. Creating the myth in the first place, telling her that elves were hiding goodies in the calendar, was not the same as lying. But looking her in the eye when she was asking for the truth in unequivocal terms and telling her Untruth…well, I didn’t like it. Angela agreed immediately when I brought it up, and we agreed we would burst the bubble of her childhood innocence the next day, since she seemed ready.

Still a believer.

But the next day I had to rush off to work and “the talk” didn’t happen. Because I find Angela’s telling of what happened later so beautiful, I will use the words she sent me in an email that day:

Hey Dude,
I had a chat with Mara after you left, and I asked her who she “wished” was putting things in the advent calendar. She said Santa, his elves, or his Hon.* I said, “what about me or daddy?”. She got a kind of funny look on her face, and said “NO. Then we wouldn’t all be surprised.” That was the end of the conversation. Mara is a smart kid, and at some level, she knows that we are the ones that are creating the magic, but we can still give her permission to believe in Santa, elves, fairies, etc. She clearly wants to still believe. Because she’s such a smart kid, she’ll really need that permission from us to still live in the land of make believe. She’ll really need us to play along with her. I really botched it last night…I was so unprepared for her questions. But I don’t think it’s the end of the world. I think it would be sadder, at this point, to take away that ever so thin veil between fantasy and reality…I certainly gave Mara the opportunity to come up with the “true” answer this morning, and her choice was clear.” 

I can see the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny wiping their brows and saying “Phew! That was a close call.”

*”Hon” is Mara’s word for a spouse, girlfriend or boyfriend, or civil partner.

Tripping over Little Italy

Once or twice a week, on my way to lunch at Planet Java over on Washington Street, I pass by an odd little triangular building made of brick, a remnant from Seattle’s not old but certainly unremembered past, when the laying of new street schemes over older grids, the clashing of one major landowner’s grid against another’s, the interplay between streets and railway easements and tectonic shifts in the city’s dream of itself left little wedge-shaped lots here and there. Although this building predates the Alaskan Way viaduct that nearly clips its corner, it looks as though the building were cut in half at an angle to make room for that modern highway. 

Actually, I’ve had not only to walk past this little earthen pie-slice but walk around it, since it stands in the direct line that the west sidewalk of Western Avenue would take if Western Avenue continued past Yesler. It does not. Yesler, that great dividing fold in the Seattle map, puts paid to Western’s southward meander. A likeness of it continues as the alley between this little building and its more regular neighbors toward First Avenue. I used to be able to walk through this alley, but an iron fence was put up across it some years ago, and I am now obliged to skim the northwest corner of this triangular edifice on my way to lunch.

Its number is One Yesler Way, the very first lot on the old Skid Road. This is the pointy end, Luigi’s is around front.

There is an Italian restaurant in this little wedge. The dome-shaped awning above the door reads Ristorante in Italian colors. I’ve always noted how the blindingly white linens sprout from water goblets at clean little tables next to the windows, and always thought “that place must be expensive”. Periodically, as I turn the northwest corner, I would see a very Italian-looking man — indeed a very Italian cheffish man — standing outside against the western wall, one hand in a pocket under his apron, the other holding a cigarette. I assumed this was the owner, and though I always continued on my way to my favorite diner, inwardly I registered a little glow of appreciation. Local. Independent. Authentic. I couldn’t afford even to pop my head inside, but I was glad the place was there.

That place, as it turns out, is the Ristorante Al Boccalino, and that man, that Italian man, is Luigi Denunzio, an Apuliano from Brindisi who has been creating a little network of Italian eateries in Pioneer Square — he calls the entirety of this enterprise Luigi’s Little Italy — and cooking in them since 1977.

I found this out today when my friend Mick came downtown to meet me for lunch. Mick is easy, and unless he has a particular hankering for something really flavorful and spicy, we usually end up walking over to Planet Java. Today, as we crossed Yesler and were beginning the traverse around the little brick triangle, Mick, who is half Italian, looked up at the awning, slowed, and asked what this place was.

I commented that I thought it was spendy, but I’d be up for an adventure if the spirit was moving him. So we went in for lunch. Luigi came over, bid us “Buon giorno!” and asked how we were. He doesn’t have the handlebar moustache that he’s had in the past, but he still looks unmistakably like an Italian chef. A barrel from the waist up now, he was obviously an imposing figure in his youth. Today he wore sweats and maybe even flip-flops, but I mainly was entranced by his face, which seemed so authentically foreign. He was thinking the same thing about Mick, obviously, because when he came back with our water he asked what part of the world Mick was from.

In his fifties now, Mick has silvered handsomely in the dozen years I have known him, and his face has taken on the distinction of a gentleman with an interesting heritage who might tell you some interesting stories. As he ages, his lines become more suggestive of that heritage. Mick said, “I’m Armenian and Italian.” 

Signor Denunzio then said “You have that European look to you.”

Mick then added, “My father’s name was B— and my mother’s name was Palermo.” Luigi’s eyebrows were carried upwards by a brief wave of recognition, of what I don’t know. Mick later said that in the old days, people who took the name of the town they came from as their surname either were very important people in that town or they were bastards who could claim no other. In any case, Mick and Luigi were contemporaries much of whose family heritage lay in the same corner of the world (although, as Mick will tell you, Sicily is a world again unto itself).

Western Avenue comes to an end at Luigi's front door. "Buon giorno!" Image from Bing Maps copyright Microsoft.

But you wish to know about the food. It was marvelous. I was shocked to find that a lunch entree, picked from a list of about twenty items printed simply on a white sheet of paper and including salad and bread, was under $7, and you could choose any two for $9.95. The special, a lasagna-like dish whose name I will insert inside the following parentheses when I remember it or ask Mick (timballo?), sounded delicious, and operating under the principle that in a place such as this “you should always get what they want you to get”, Mick said “I’ll have that.”

I opted to broaden the return on our research investment by picking two items from the menu, which included such favorites as fettucine alfredo and shrimp scampi. The tomato and pesto tortelini was a no-brainer for me, but I asked Luigi what would be a good partner dish. “Oh, the sausage!” he exclaimed.

Friends, we made good choices this day. I don’t know the lingo that food critics use, but the sausage was grilled up dark and rested on a heap of cannellini beans with tomatoes. It was good. And the tortellini, mwah. I have never had better. The salad, I have to say, could not hold a candle to my own Angela’s fresh green salads, which would make any chef anywhere give up trying, but it was truly delicious. And the bread was a triangle (apropos!) of focaccia that was not too salty — a frequent blunder that compels me to eye focaccias askance. Neither of us tried desert, but I might do that next time.

I have never seen Mick so delighted. Whenever Luigi turned away from us Mick opened his eyes and mouth wide in an expression as if to say, “Can you believe our luck?” Al Boccalino is the real deal — delicious authentic Italian at a great price — and both Mick and I left happy.

I know where Angela and I are going on our next date, if Signor Denunzio stays open for 18 more years.


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