Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The difference between lemon juice and lemonade

As I was heading out the door to give a book talk at the Gloucester Public Library yesterday, I found myself anticipating the Interesting Question. The Q and A segment invariably consists of a standard stable of stock questions that keep the rhythm, kind of like the drum line in a concert situation. But at every event, there’s always some off-beat query that calls for a bit of improv.

These are the questions that keep things fresh and fun, because, let’s face it, as relevant as it may be to discuss the origins of my literary pursuits (an early surviving work, The Happy Tree, dates back to 1977) and where I get my ideas (um, doesn’t everybody find 6 or 8 things utterly hilarious, significant or depressing before they get out of bed in the morning?) it’s much more fun to tackle questions like the one from the aspiring writer who wanted to know how many times his submissions could be rejected, as though there’s some kind of cap on the number of people who can dislike your work. (Wouldn’t that be great, if there were some sort of Writer’s Guarantee Program? Muster up the resilience to send something off, say, 30 or 40 times and then—bam! You’re a writer!)

Then there was the guy who wanted a breakdown of the “rules” governing exactly how mean or benevolent you’re allowed to make your characters.

I love that stuff.

Yesterday the question that caught me off-guard wasn’t strange or quirky, but it made me think. A young woman asked what gave me the confidence to think I could write in the first place.

Even though I gave her an honest answer involving some combination of feeling pretty in touch with the teen culture and all the encouragement I received from my supportive husband, I realized later that the question goes a lot deeper, because it really asks me to evaluate what kind of person I am.

See, I always thought of myself as someone who was up for a challenge. But I recently found myself wondering if that image is just a snapshot of Ideal Me, who we’ve already established as radically different from Actual Me. Because it seems Actual Me has a tendency to curl up into the fetal position at the first sign of adversity, a fact was underscored by a visit to the herbalist a couple weeks ago. During the course of the visit, Herbalist J suggested that the transient stomach aches that have starred in this summer’s medical melodrama could be gluten intolerance.

I received the suggestion with the enthusiasm of a six-year-old who’s just been taken off lollipops.

See, I don’t eat red meat. In fact, I don’t eat white meat, either, with the exception of fresh chicken breast cooked just so. I don’t like fish or seafood. Vegetables are good, but nothing too exotic, like artichokes or avacados. I like beans, but they make my stomach hurt.

Minus bread and pasta, I’ve got nothing.

At the mere suggestion of a gluten-free lifestyle, I envisioned an existence of corn meal and fritters. I was haunted by memories of mass cornbread baking late-seventies, when my mother filled little corn-ear shaped pans with a thick batter that baked into hard little corn-ear bricks. My dad, known for his indiscriminate ability to eat anything, made a valiant attempt to stomach the little cakes before taking them to work with a view toward eliminating a rogue band of mice. They didn’t take the bait.

So I went home and rebelled, gorging on wheat matter of all kinds. And I got a stomach ache.

So I decided to take my mind off things by curling up with the newspaper. An article outlining the progress of a major dig underway in Jamestown caught my eye. Turns out, they’re digging up a lot of teeth there these days. So they interviewed one of the archeologists to find out why. Here’s what he had to say:

“When the English settlers switched from their traditional wheat-based diet to a diet based on Indian corn, all the sugar in the corn led to what some of us call ‘Virginia mouth.’ They really suffered a noticeable decline in their dental health.”

Who knew? I altered my mental picture to reflect this new information: now I’ve got myself working through a bag of Fritos with a single blackened tooth, onward to the frame where I’m left gumming my way through a pan of cornbread.

Then I made a foray on to the information superhighway, and found a fellow blogger who goes by Gluten-Free Girl. I access her page, expecting nothing more than photos of a skeletal frame surrounded by corn husks and false teeth.

Instead, I’m greeted by pictures of plates of food and bouncy little stories featuring food as the protagonist. I figure I’ve clicked on the wrong blog mistake, but I read on to discover that it’s all for real. Every post is a celebration over some new perfected recipe or a fabulous dish or new restaurant she’s discovered.

Turns out this girl is one of those elusive famous bloggers we’ve all heard so much about. She also has a nice book contract and a new marriage to a chef who cooks gluten-free. I read and read for days, to the neglect of my own blog, fascinated by the fact that this woman’s career, even her life was jumpstarted by the very events I from which I’m seeking cover.

Isn’t it amazing that victims and adventurers can emerge from the same events?

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