The joy of cooking.

By the time I left my office this evening, things were looking pretty grey and aimless, yet again. Fortunately, I'd driven to the office this morning so that I would have the car there, ready to take me to the grocery store. And so to the grocery store it took me. Even though it was 6:15 as I headed north out of town--since the grocery store is in the next town to the northwest--the sky was still light: deepening blue to the east, a greying blue overhead, and a pinkening to the west where the sun had recently been. There's a stretch of road on the way to the store that I love. To the south of the road (which runs east-west) is a cornfield. From the road, it almost looks as though the field is level. But it's actually bisected by a valley that creates an effect of many hills. The swells and falls of the land work together with the parallel evenness of the field's harvested corn rows in a rippling repetition that I've always found strangely fascinating, even comforting. In summer, passing a field of fully grown corn feels to my eye like watching water flow. My childhood best friend, who grew up on a farm, always responded to my awe with dismissal. "It's just corn," she said. "It's all like that." For her, the rows were about machines and labor. For me they were always aesthetic. Tonight, they were just what I needed to see, even in their winter barrenness. As usual, the colors were what grabbed me. In winter, what's left of the corn is golden stubble, and in the particular dusk through which I drove this evening, that gold was the perfect complement to the sky's soft, strong blue. And then the Simple Minds came on the radio, with that telltale "hey hey hey hey," and I rocked out to "Don't You Forget About Me" all the way to the intersection just before the store. We were at "la lalalalaaaa lalalalaaaa la la la la la la la la la la" by the time I made it to the light.

Singing along (and yes, I'll admit it, doing a little car dancing that also involved hand motions) to that anthem, I was reminded for not the first time this week of a story from my childhood that simultaneously amuses and distresses me, a quarter-century later. When I was in kindergarten, my parents attended their first parent-teacher conferences, while I stayed home with a babysitter. I have vague memories of their coming into my bedroom after they arrived home; I must have been just on the brink of going to bed. One of them had my first report card in hand. It turned out that I'd gotten all "E"s except for the "N" (for "Needs improvement") in social skills, of all things. When my parents asked what needed to be improved about my social skills, the teacher revealed that I was being disruptive every day when I left the classroom to head off and read with some older kids. "When she leaves, she says, 'Goodbye! I'm going!'" the teacher told them, "and when she comes back, she always says, 'I'm back! Did you miss me?'" My parents asked whether the teacher had told me to come and go more quietly. She looked to one side (or at least I imagine her looking to one side, suddenly embarrassed not to have thought of that herself) and admitted that she hadn't. My parents assured her that I was very tractable and would have changed my ways had I known they weren't appropriate. And in fact, when they came home, they told me that I was being a bit too noisy in my departures and arrivals. I remember feeling self-conscious the next day, trying to slip out of the classroom as quickly and quietly as I could, and to slip back in silently when I returned.

This story used to make me laugh, because it seemed so silly. And then about three years ago, I realized that I haven't actually changed a bit. When I leave, I don't want to be forgotten. When I come back, I want to have been remembered and missed. Thinking about the story this way made me start to dislike it, to be angry with it and all it entails, for having taught me that there was something wrong with wanting to be remembered--instead of that some others would know I'd been gone, even if they didn't tell me so, while others probably wouldn't know (or care) even if I told them.

Somehow, by the time I made it to the store, I had slipped back out of musing yet again on this story. Amazingly, the store was relatively quiet, and I was back out on the backroads before the light had fully gone--even though it was nearly 7 p.m. by the time I reached home. Glass of chianti at my side, if not quite in hand, I busted out a favorite meal in fairly short order. Somehow, thinking back over all the times I've cooked for others as a way to try and ensure that I stick with them even compounded the pleasures of a knife crunching through hot peppers, an orange hushing over a grater, shrimp slipping out of their shells.

sources for today's images: 1) The St. Petersburg Times Online; 2) Linda Mahoney's paintings.