I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in

In the course of my life, I’ve had my fair share of mental-health “vicissitudes,” let’s call them. I’ve never been medicated for any of them, although at one point a psychiatrist strongly urged me to go on lithium. At another point, my best friend and mother strongly suggested some sort of antidepressant. I fear brain meds with the superstitious abhorrence of a “primitive” who doesn’t want his photograph taken for fear of losing his soul.

So I’ve endured these various episodes without anything stronger than booze, food, and books to help me. That might be why I view all my memories through gels that are colored by whatever strange weather was going on in my brain at the time. Sometimes I cringe. Often I cringe. Bad weather influences behavior, especially when there are no meds to act as umbrella, sunscreen, hurricane shelter.

I was manic for the five years it took me to leave my marriage, recover from it, and fall in love again. Mania is a particularly fearsome system because it allows for all manner of outrageous excesses – of consumption, flamboyance, expression – while its high hard winds and blinding sun block rational conscience and regulatory thought.

For the five years before that, I was depressed. For a while, I couldn’t get out of bed or stop crying. I had what I now see was a bona fide breakdown for a number of months. Then I managed to pull myself together enough to go about my daily life again, but I was still not feeling well at all, inside. I remember being interviewed at the Brooklyn Public Library during this period by a local NPR radio host named Leonard Lopate. He teased me about how horrible all the characters in my latest novel were. This came at me like a knife in the chest; I had lost my sense of humor entirely by this point, many months into an unrelenting black fugue state. “I hate nice people,” I blurted, like a two-year-old. When he asked what I was working on now, I said, my voice trembling on the verge of tears, “I’m not writing anything. I can’t write.” He was flummoxed, understandably. This was not a therapy session, that he was aware of, anyway.

And of course there have been all those other mental storms, less extreme than mania or depression, but strong enough to bend my un-medicated, unmediated mind to their force fields – corrosive rage, demented passion, dizzying confusion, panic attacks, anxiety attacks, and so forth. Even simple unhappiness has been dangerous, when a swamp of resignation and malaise hindered an urgent need for action and change.

But the most precarious state of mind, in my experience, is always smug complacency, those times when I feel pretty okay about everything, in a warm-oatmeal, chamomile-tea, down-comforter, footie-pajama kind of way, as if I were sprawled on a billowing couch, looking out the window at life going by, almost drooling sometimes with a wholly illusory, borderline-infantile bonelessness.

Invariably, luckily, just as I’m settling in for a long winter’s nap, the gods splash a bucket of ice water over me and I jump up shrieking, dripping and shivering and properly awake again.

My relationship with food always changes radically right along with my mental state. When I’m manic or depressed, at those far extremes of internal human experience, I don’t eat much at all; I can’t. Food attenuates for me into a remote, untenable idea of something I used to love, and still love, in theory, but can no longer tolerate or understand. When I’m anxious or unhappy, I tend to eat whatever comes to hand, standing up, on the fly. In those extremely fleeting, rare states of calm, focused, centered, balanced serenity, I eat thoughtfully and without fanfare, like some species of Buddhist monk, for nourishment and social communion. This almost never happens.

Smug complacency makes me wallow in food, obsess about it, become a glutton, a gourmande. Food nestles at the center of my nice safe life, forms the heart of my warm, fuzzy day. I find myself participating fully in the current national collective obsession with food choices as a way of pretending we have any control over anything at all. Organic, gluten-free, local, wild-caught – these decisions begin to feel political and meaningful, crucial and important. Some evangelical, proscriptive, black-and-white way of thinking, engendered by reports of food-industry horrors, causes me to scan labels, davening with nitpicky ferocity, to interrogate meat-counter guys and eschew all canned food, even organic enoki beans.

Eventually, the gods throw a pie in my face. A pie made with processed, bleached white flour, lard from pigs raised on antibiotics and offal cooped up in tiny, shit-filled pens, artificial chemical flavorings whose cancer-causing properties are indisputable, and genetically modified high-fructose corn syrup.

And there I am, back in what I think of as my “real life,” the one in which there are no down comforters, the one in which I don’t tend to drool, the one in which I’m as crabby, uncomfortable, and aware of my own absurdity as the next guy.

Harissa Haddock

The other night, I coated a few fillets of haddock in a harissa rub, a lovely amalgam of various spices that comes in small plastic tubs from Whole Foods. I broiled them and served them over coconut jasmine rice with steamed red chard alongside.

“This is Harissa Haddock, BBC News,” I said in a fake British accent as I pulled the fish out of the broiler.

I instantly had to email my friend Rosie about this. “Harissa haddock,” I wrote to her. “Dish? Or BBC News announcer?”

“Wait,” she shot back, “I thought she was the tragic, much preyed-upon, oft-violated young heroine of an extremely long 18th century novel.”

“Moll Flounders,” said Brendan.

And then we ate.

Oh how time flies with crystal clear eyes

Brendan is out of town tonight. We’re almost never apart, and we prefer it that way, to put it mildly. But whenever one of us goes off without the other, I feel a resurgence of some old part of myself, my lifelong pleasure in being alone.

We tend to go off for three nights at a time. My experience of being the one who stays home follows the same trajectory every time Brendan leaves. The first night, I’m blue and a little agitated, as if I’m going through withdrawal. The second night, I’ve slipped back into an old, much-loved skin, the quietude of my own mind without the presence of anyone else but the dog, and I revel and wallow in it. But by the third night, I’m agitated and restless again. By the time Brendan gets home, I’m more than ready to resume our life in tandem.

When I was married and living in Brooklyn, my husband generally worked late at his studio. On most nights, we ate together when he got home, at 9 or 10 or sometimes even 11. But once in a while, I called to tell him not to hurry home. He never complained: this meant he could stay as late as he wanted.

I was happy, too, because I preferred to eat earlier, and I loved going out by myself to restaurants. On those nights, I headed out early, at 7 or so, my favorite dinnertime. I had plenty of places to choose from. We lived in Williamsburg, before it was ruined and overpopulated and overdeveloped. Back in the mid-90s, new restaurants were opening here and there, but the old tried-and-true ones still thrived, hadn’t been driven out yet by exploding rents.

My favorite place to go for “bachelorette nights,” as I called them, was a place called the L Café, on Bedford just off N. 7th, near the L stop, owned and run by a woman my husband had gone to Bennington with; it was definitely “new Williamsburg,” and it was funky and quietly glamorous, but it wasn’t achingly hip – that was a few years away, the relentless self-consciousness that infected the neighborhood.

The L was in a narrow, long storefront, the general size and shape of the inside of a trailer. There was a sweet, lavish garden out back with wrought-iron tables and wooden booths. The interior had the dark wood wainscoting, tin ceilings, and linoleum floors of classic North Brooklyn décor.

I walked in and was instantly enveloped in moody indie music and a warm breeze of good smells from the kitchen. Strings of tiny white lights twinkled behind the bar. I always sat at a small table in the back and ordered a plateful of something homey like yellow rice and red beans and roast chicken, or lamb stew with chickpeas and root vegetables. While I ate and drank wine, literally wriggling my toes with the deep happiness of autonomous solitude, I would write, by hand – I can hardly remember how anymore, but in those days, I kept a journal I wrote in almost daily, like finger exercises for a musician. And I annotated the printouts of my current novel-in-progress with a pen.

I always had a second glass of wine but never a third. I stayed there at that table for two or even three hours in a self-contained bubble of words and food and wine. People came and went and talked at the tables all around me; I didn’t look at anyone. I eavesdropped a little, but only in a desultory because-it-was-there sort of way, without any real purpose. If someone I knew came in and greeted me, I said hello back with the borderline-rude brusqueness of a night watchman, guarding the factory. The whole point of these nights out was to be alone in public with a plate of food and some wine and my writing.

These nights afforded me immense happiness, more, I think, than any dinner party or one-on-one dinner with my husband or a friend, in those days. I’ve always felt loneliest in the presence of other people – people I can’t connect with, people I feel unseen by, people who make me feel insincere or uncomfortable. For me, loneliness comes from a sense of missing something. I don’t miss anything when I’m alone.

The L is closed now, like many of my old favorite places, not that it matters, since I don’t live anywhere near Brooklyn these days. Tonight, Brendan’s second night in L.A., I fed and walked Dingo and headed for the fridge to unearth the pot of chicken vegetable soup I made yesterday, which is very good and wholesome and filling and all, but which I had for dinner last night as well as lunch today.

I stood there for a minute while Dingo eyed the cut-up apple on the board on the counter. Because he’s trained me well, I tossed a few pieces at his head, and he caught them as expertly as a frog catching flies.

There was no wine in the house. That settled it.

“Guard the house,” I told him, collecting my laptop and phone – the contemporary equivalents of a journal and printout of a work in progress. “I’ll be back.”

Outside, a warm, strong, rainy wind blew. I walked along two blocks of uneven brick sidewalks to Bonobo, the hipstery local pizza place. There were strings of tiny Christmas lights strung along the tin ceiling and moody electronic music playing. I sat at a table in the back by myself and ordered the house salad and wine and a gluten-free arugula pizza. The waitress had a pierced nose and a tattoo and could have worked at the L Café in 1997. I ate and drank and wrote and ordered a second glass of wine, but not a third.

Bachelorette Soup

In a big soup pot, put all the vegetables and herbs in the house, chopped small: in this case, the rest of the cauliflower, 4 ribs celery, 2 onions, ½ sweet potato, 1 ½ heads worth of crushed cloves of garlic, a handful of basil, 5 tomatoes, and a red pepper, plus the chicken bones from the leftover roast chicken, the rest of the chicken broth in the box, 2 bay leaves, salt and pepper, some cumin and herbes de Provence and cayenne, and a few shakes of Worcestershire sauce. Cover with water plus an inch. Bring to a boil, uncovered, then turn down to a simmer.

After half an hour or so, when everything is soft, add the leftover coconut-saffron jasmine rice (or some other starch) and the chopped leftover chicken meat, optional. Bring to a soft boil again, turn down, and simmer for 10 minutes. Taste the broth; adjust seasonings. Serve with fresh lemon juice and Sriracha.

The farmer is the man who feeds us all

On our way here from Portland yesterday for the weekend, we stopped at the Earle Family Farm on the main road just before the turnoff. We bought a pound or two each of their just-picked late-summer tomatoes and squashes and cucumbers and peppers, plus eggs from their chickens and sweet, rich mutton sausages made from their ewes.

It’s a 130-acre biodynamic farm. Their hand-built greenhouse is filled with flowers and herbs. Next to it is a garden; another, larger one is in the field just above, and their sheep are pastured higher still on the slope of Dundee. The little store in the barn has a cash box stuffed with change, and it runs on the honor system. Prices are on a chalkboard next to an old hanging scale. Packaged meat and eggs and perishable produce are kept in two old fridges and a freezer. There’s an enormous basket of yarn for sale, too, hand-dyed hand-spun skeins from their sheep.

We waved to Tom Earle, driving by on his tractor, as we walked back to say hello to Danny, the new ram. He was markedly obese, and his balls must have weighed twenty pounds, collectively. They hung between his hind legs like giant soft durian-sized bobbles, swaying and undulating and almost touching the ground.

“Damn, that boy is hung,” said Brendan.

I laughed.

The fat, fluffy ewe in the barn with him looked exhausted. Ruth, Tom’s wife, told us that she’d had to separate them with chicken wire.

The Earles have no frozen lamb this year; last spring, Ruth told us, many of their lambs died of something mysterious, a wasting disease. This year, all the sheep are obese, also mysteriously, something to do with the rain and grass and temperature, Ruth guessed, but she didn’t know for sure.

“So no lamb, not now,” she said. “We’re butchering chickens in mid-November, though. You want stewing chickens? Yeah, they said they’d do the older hens when they do the turkeys. Nice that it’s at the same time. I could do it myself, I know how to do the whole thing start to finish, but it’s better to have someone else do it if you’re the only one who can. You eat organ meat?”

“Sure, we do,” I said; I’d happily eat anything from their farm at all.

“Well, I’ll keep that in mind when we butcher the pigs. Oh, and I’m running a pickling workshop tonight. I think I’ll see what happens if I throw some lemon cucumbers in my pickling mix. Have you ever had one? Here, taste, just brush off those prickly things. Want to come to the workshop?”

I did, in fact, want very much to go, but I had a lot of work to do and wanted to get to it. I asked if I could come another time.

Ruth and Tom Earle seem to know how to do everything, in the 19th century style of farming. They are always working, all day, somewhere on their farm. When I was young, in high school and in the years following, I attended and then worked at four different Waldorf schools in various anthroposophical communities, so-called because they were formed around the teachings of the early 20th century Austrian mystic and clairvoyant, Rudolf Steiner. He gave his overarching philosophy the rather ambitious name of “anthroposophy,” which means “the knowledge of the nature of man.” His theories gave rise, in a practical sense, to revolutionary new forms of education, farming, and medicine.

There were biodynamic farms attached to the communities where I lived — in Spring Valley, New York, and then Chateau de La Mhotte in the Allier district of France, and finally Harlemville, in upstate New York — so I couldn’t help overhearing a thing or two about its basic concepts, along with discussions of the etheric and astral bodies, Ahriman and Lucifer, Findhorn, and homeopathic medicine. But all I know, really, about biodynamic farming is that things are done organically, according to the phases of the moon, and it’s deeply spiritual, arcane even — not the first adjectives I would use to describe the Earles.

Tom is slight, lanky, handsome in a rawboned way, taciturn, sweet-natured, and warmly practical. Ruth is talkative, energetic, bright eyed, small and round and strong, with long grey hair and a soft, round face. They look, in fact, like a quintessential 19th century New England farming couple. They do not exude one whiff of mysticism, but evidently intricate beliefs and practices are at least partially the reasons for the abundant, beautiful produce they grow in fields of granite-strewn, thin soil, the unbelievably delicious meats and chickens and eggs from the animals they raise and pasture.

We drove away from the farm discussing that mutton sausage, how good it was, last time we’d got some. In the house, we unloaded the bags of food and put things away. We drank tequila on ice with limes while I made a quick semi-succotash of the Earles’ patty pan squash and green-and-orange, knobby, lumpy, richly ripe heirloom tomatoes, chopped and sautéed in olive oil with smoked paprika, Worcestershire sauce, and the tiny bit of old dried thyme left in the glass jar. While it bubbled, I fried four of the eggs we’d just got. They were so fresh, their yolks were orangey-gold and their whites puffed up a little in the hot oil. I slid them on top of the vegetable stew, two per plate, and we tucked in. The still-runny egg yolks melded into the savory gravy, the whites were crisply browned, and the whole thing was delicious.

Awesome Lamb Burgers

Because the Earles have none this year, we recently bought some ground lamb at Whole Foods, flown all the way from New Zealand. We also bought Canyon Bakehouse gluten-free hamburger buns, the best I’ve ever found.

Brendan picked a handful of mint from right outside the door; that, at least, was local.

To 1 lb ground lamb add:

1/2 large onion, minced

8 garlic cloves, minced

a small handful each of minced fresh mint and cilantro

1 T harissa spice mix

1 tsp. each of salt and black pepper

1 T olive oil,

and a dash of Worcestershire sauce.

Form 4 patties. Fry in oil over medium heat, about 7 minutes a side. Serve on toasted buns with a sauce made of the following ingredients, mixed well:

2 T mayo

4 T ketchup

a dollop each of apple cider vinegar and Worcestershire sauce

2 tsp harissa spice mix

a small handful of minced cilantro

Eat with oven-roasted red potato wedges and a French lentil salad with grated carrots on a bed of red-leaf lettuce.

I’d rather be in some dark holler where the sun don’t ever shine

When we woke up yesterday morning, there was a chill in the air. The light was simultaneously more muted and more intense than the frank hot brightness of a summer morning, and the air was full of a very familiar, bracing back-to-school feeling. We ate toast with scrambled eggs, dressed a little more warmly than usual, and looked out at the sunlight breaking between clouds that neither billowed nor floated, as they do in the summertime. These clouds meant business. They looked like real weather.

Late in the morning, we set out on “the circle walk,” a 4 or 5 mile loop that starts along an empty, heavily wooded stretch of the road by the lake, then goes left up another, steeper road, then another left onto a dirt road that runs up and over the hill and between two beaver ponds, then yet another left onto another dirt road and over a white wooden fence, and a sharp left down the steep, marshy trail that leads us home. The whole way, we pass through thick, dense old woods. The only sky we see is directly overhead. We usually do a lot of parallel silent thinking on this walk: the terrain is not conducive to chattiness.

This time, though, we brought a covered straw basket with us, not unlike the one Red Riding Hood might have carried to her grandmother. Dingo trotted along just behind or ahead of us, sniffing and peeing and eating grass and trundling along, looking nothing like the wolf. Immediately, we found a patch of trumpetlike mushrooms by the old graveyard. From then on, we were on the scent; we occasionally headed off the road into the woods, on the trail of something neon yellow or otherwise intriguingly funguslike, scrambling over rocks and roots, distracted, then headed back to the road and resumed our walk until something else caught our eye.

“There’s another beer can,” I said. “There’s another one. Another one. There are as many cans as there are mushrooms. Oh my God, another one. Next time we should collect Bud Light cans. Who the hell are these people?” I had an image of a bunch of backwoods yahoos driving along the road throwing empties out their pickup windows and hooting into the quiet air.

“Hey,” said Brendan, heading for a clump of mushrooms. “Look at those.”

We tried to take only one example of everything we found, but couldn’t restrain ourselves if something looked particularly worthy. Walking takes on an entirely new dimension when you’re focused on other things. Back at home, I unpacked the basket and arranged our haul on the granite steps just outside the kitchen door, and then we stood and admired them for a while. We’d found orange horns that looked like tiny Victrola speakers with gills underneath, dead-white penislike obviously toxic deaths’ caps, bright yellow and soft brown clumps of waving fronds that could have come from a coral reef, a bouquet of conjoined, delicate little oyster-colored coins, long slender stems with big flat caps of pale green, pale beige, muted red, gentle yellow, and dirty white, a hobbitlike shaggy “old man of the woods,” and other wonders and curiosities. We couldn’t eat any of them, because we had no real idea what the hell any of them were, but we did feel a certain proprietary satisfaction.

We left them there and went inside and went about our day. In the mid-afternoon, we went to the beach. The road and path and lake were deserted – no cars, no other people, no kayaks or sailboats on the lake. We went in naked and yelped briefly at the water’s sudden chill before we took the plunge. The light was glinting and bleak on the water. The woods loomed all around. The mountains beyond the lake were lit by a peculiar gold-and-silver light through knots of clouds.

We were hungry when we got home. After I took a hot shower and changed into pajamas, I took things out of the fridge and made a sort of New England bouillabaisse: a savory fish stew with carrots, Old Bay, and smoked paprika instead of fennel, orange, and saffron. As the soup simmered, the rain finally came, first lightly, then hard, then harder, and then the wind came, as if it had been an afterthought, and slammed the rain all at once through the east-facing windows so we had to rush around the whole house, closing them.

New England Fish Soup

Mince 1 large onion, 3 medium carrots, 2 celery ribs, and 7 or so garlic cloves. In a big sturdy soup pot, heat a good dollop of oil. When it’s hot, add the vegetables with a dash of Old Bay seasoning, a teaspoon or two, and another of smoked paprika, and stir well. Thinly slice two or three spicy pork sausages, ideally chorizo, and throw them in. Add a dash of salt and another of black pepper. Turn the heat down low and let it all simmer, stirring often, for about half an hour, till everything is soft and melded into an aromatic wad of flavor.

Small-dice 4 small red potatoes. Add them to the pot and stir well. Pour in half a bottle of easygoing, dry white wine: pinot grigio works well. Turn up the heat till it bubbles, then turn down and let it simmer a while until the alcohol has cooked off and it’s reduced a bit.

Add a large can of fire-roasted tomatoes or a jar of very good tomato sauce, and a glass jar of clam juice. Add enough broth – vegetable, fish, or chicken – to cover the solids plus just over an inch. Bring to a boil and turn down and let simmer. Taste, adjust the seasonings, adding more broth as required.

Chop a pound of haddock or other firm white sea fish into bite-sized pieces. Peel and likewise chop ¾ pound of large wild-caught shrimp. Finely chop a bunch of flat-leaf parsley. When it feels like a nearly-finished soup, everything tender and the flavors just right, add the seafood and parsley to the pot and let it simmer, stirring a few times, for 10 more minutes.

Mince 3-4 cloves of garlic.  Add them to a bowl with a dollop of good-quality mayonnaise and another of olive oil. Mix this quick aioli together and spread on 2-4 pieces of hot toast and cut them into triangles. Serve with big bowls of soup. Light the kerosene lantern and eat your hot supper while the rain lashes the windows.

I’ve laid around and I’ve played around this old town too long, summer’s almost gone

Yesterday, when they announced that our flight to Boston was delayed, Brendan and I headed straight for the tequila and taco place across from our gate. We ordered “skinny” margaritas – tequila and lime juice and simple syrup, but with no Triple Sec or salt, a drink I’ve always called “a margarita without the bullshit” and which has long been one of my all-time favorite cocktails. This one was made with “organic” silver tequila, which made me wonder what pesticides they’re putting on regular agave plants these days.

Outside the huge plate-glass window, guys in vests drove luggage around in little trucks, moving it in and out of planes’ bellies. It looked very, very hot out there. I guessed that our waitress, whose badge identified her as Shelley, was about my age. She had that desert skin – healthy-looking, but tanned and weathered; she might have been half Mexican, but then again, maybe not. I knew she was a native of Arizona because she had that very specific accent, the accent I used to have and almost never hear anymore — when she talked to me and I answered, I suddenly had it again, too. We could have been in the same 6th grade class together, all those years ago. We flirted the way women do when one is drinking tequila with her boyfriend and the other hopes for a good tip.

Whenever I’m back in Arizona, I usually feel a subtle but definite disconnect, an echo of my ancient repudiation of the place, that flat, hot, bright, wide-open desert I never felt at home in as a kid. This time, though, I loved being there. My mother’s big, breezy, bright house on a plateau in the mountain town of Oracle has a smooth herringbone-brick floor and a covered flagstone veranda that runs the length of the triple glass sliding doors. Her front and back gardens are green and full of rosemary shrubs and thriving flowers. Hummingbirds come to rest in the little tree by the feeder and sit absolutely still there. All around are mountains.

During the 6 days I was there, it seems in retrospect, I did nothing but sleep, cook, talk, drink, and eat. Conversations were free-ranging, from serious to silly, always opinionated. I conked out every night well before midnight and slept deeply until 8, then took naps in the afternoons, long, comalike. My sleep was profound, unbroken, the knocked-out, dream-electrified, all-below slumber of an animal in a burrow where no predator can reach it. My mother’s house and presence are safe and restorative; being there this time, I felt myself give in to the torpor, sloth, and heedless sprawl of the summer vacations of my childhood. I felt as if I were a guest at a sort of return-to-the-womb spa.

As always, cooking and eating were the primary shapers of our days and focus of our energies, or rather, mine, since my mother was busy planning and packing for a solo camping trip in Colorado and Brendan had a nasty stomach bug of some kind and didn’t want anything too rich or spicy. I took on the challenge of cooking for all our dietary needs, temporary and otherwise; my mother became a vegan a number of months ago for health reasons. Her shelves and fridge are, luckily, stocked with enough staples for months of animal-free eating, neat rows of corked glass jars, bags, and cans of grains, seeds, nuts, beans, lentils, spices, dried fruit, and herbs. However, in honor of our visit, and in frank hopes of cadging some contraband, she’d laid in cod filets, salmon, organic chicken thighs, and New Zealand ground beef, in addition to all the kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, peppers, potatoes, onions, fennel, cucumbers, etc. bursting from the fridge drawers.

The first night, I made two mild curries, one of vegetables in coconut milk, and one of cod chunks poached in a curried bath of garlic, orange juice, cilantro and ginger, with red quinoa and a peach chutney made with apple cider vinegar. The next night, I baked the chicken thighs in peanut oil and salt and served them with Brussels sprouts in a glossy mustard-olive oil-honey sauce with toasted nuts, and sweet potato wedges roasted in a balsamic glaze.

On our last night, Brendan (fully recovered) and I made an Irish shepherd’s pie with the ground beef that had been flown around the world, which technically made it a cottage pie. The Worcestershire sauce-red wine-tomato paste gravy was gluten-free, and the mashed potatoes were dairy-free, but it might have been served, credibly, in a pub in County Kerry.

One evening, we went over to my mother’s friend Michael’s house for a glass of wine and to watch the moon rise over the wild desert. He’s wiry, blue-eyed, and white-haired and lives in the middle of nowhere. He built his own house over a decade or so and is currently hard at work on the stonemasonry of the outer walls. He lives with four parrots, the largest of whom is a lush who dips his beak into the nearest wine glass.

Michael has a clawfoot bathtub out in the desert beyond the patio where he takes hot baths in the snow at night in winter. His walls are hung with his large charcoal drawings of Montana rivers. Before he retired, he told us, he used to do graphics and advertising for liposuction-machine companies and is planning to write a book about it based on Waugh’s “The Loved One.” On the mantelpiece of the big stone fireplace he built is a squishy breast implant that looks like an objet d’art until you know its real identity.

Later that night, back at my mother’s, after a simple dinner of hot boiled red potatoes with olive oil, salt, and parsley, plus baked salmon and a mango-avocado-black bean salsa, plus more red wine, we saw a black-and-white banded kingsnake slithering along the flagstones of the patio. We went out to look at it, barefoot.

“Always wear shoes outside,” my mother said. “Everything out there’s out to get you.”

Then we prowled around my mother’s acre of hilly desert land with a special flashlight, hunting scorpions, which leapt into weird, neon-white relief in the purple light, curling tails and claws flagellating gently until my mother smashed them with a flat rock.

Mexican Salmon

In a blender, put 2 T each olive oil and frozen orange juice concentrate, the juice from 2-3 limes, 1 teaspoon of sweet paprika, 1/2 bunch of chopped cilantro, 3 cloves garlic, and 1/2 roasted red pepper. Blend into a creamy sauce. Pour over a 1 – 1½ pound piece of salmon in a baking dish and bake for 20 minutes at 375 degrees.

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