I belong to a book club founded by Southern women who might possibly be the biggest fans of Harper Lee: the Mockingbirds. They so love this iconic author that I interrupted a shoot in Alabama to send them these pictures from her hometown of Monroeville.
So I couldn’t have picked a worse time to be moving back to Washington DC and missing the meeting where we examine “Go Set a Watchman.” We’ve been procrastinating on scheduling this particular meeting for months in part because of spoilers that this book would devastate readers who have grown up treasuring “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Not me. I had to read Mockingbird in high school in Oregon and it didn’t have the same cultural resonance where there were only three African Americans in the entire student body. If anything, I categorized it as another book that romanticized and elevated white people to savior roles involving African Americans. It didn’t correlate to the race reality I knew, especially having grown up in Apartheid South Africa.
So the shocking revelation in GSAW that Jean Louise’s father Atticus was actually a racist didn’t ruin the book for me. It was easier to believe Atticus’s “change” of character than Scout’s. He was a man of his time all along. It was his noble belief in the law that she, and we, misinterpreted as selfless empathy. If Jean Louise really were the 26-yr-old, holier-than-thou character the author asks us to believe, she’d never have forgiven her father’s change of character in one afternoon.
Her quick forgiveness feels fake, unnatural to the sassy, headstrong character that I enjoyed meeting at the start of the book. Same goes for her uncle. When he tells Scout that it is precisely when those she loves are wrong that they need her the most, I found myself arguing with him. On the surface the advice seems noble but in my experience it also rationalizes going along with the status quo.
Of course I’m not the first to find fault with these aspects of the book, or its literary shortcomings. It reads more like a stage play, full of soliloquies and asides meant to tell, rather than show, what we are meant to understand. But on this front, I forgive Harper Lee.
“Watchman” was submitted to publishers in the summer of 1957. I would argue that any novel published, without a give-and-take editing process, 58 years after submission would be equally awkward. It was, essentially, a first draft. Here’s what others have written about the troubling chronology:
“The novel was finished in 1957 and purchased by the J.B. Lippincott Company. Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, although impressed with elements of the story, saying that “the spark of the true writer flashed in every line,” thought it was by no means ready for publication. It was, as she described it, “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.”
I can only relate it to how I would have felt if someone published the first draft of either of my memoirs. The Other Mother was so angst-filled and journalistic that my editor made me burn it down and start over. The initial versions of the book I’ve just finished are similarly awful – I tried to fill it with my sense of injustice against Latin America instead of my own experiences.
So I’m left with the irony of forgiveness. I’m willing to forgive Harper Lee and the character she wanted us to admire in To Kill a Mockingbird but not the character she asks us to admire in Go Set A Watchman.
Regular readers already know that I am a dance snob. And a pho snob. But I am also a sushi snob. A little ironic given that the idea of eating raw fish repulsed me well into my 30’s. That’s when I met my husband and started traveling to film shoots in Asia. He coached me through the easy stuff at first, California rolls and the like, and soon I was drooling over live mackerel still quivering on the skewers that brought it to my table. I realized I’d become a sushi snob when I couldn’t convince a client to even try sushi on Kyoto’s famous Pontocho street and it stuck me as tragic.
So given my hard-earned expertise (that’s a euphemism for conceit) I did not expect to be wowed by sushi on a recent shoot in Denver. Frankly, I picked the place because the white leather booths at Epernay Lounge looked kinda swank and the name (@EpernayLounge) sounded like it would at least have good champagne. That and it wasn’t a chain stuffed with tourists along 16th Avenue.
We sat at the bar, as all sushi snobs do and discovered that the twenty-something wielding the knives was executive chef Ariel Bilyeu. As in girl power in a traditionally male arena. This was already interesting. And then we opened her menu. Anyone who comes up with names like the Pablo Escolar roll is onto something. And forget the champagne. There was a haberno-infused tequila cocktail called the Ex Lover that even a happily married woman can’t resist.
We over-ordered and then watched as she sliced, plucked and shaped our meal. I’ve never seen someone so enthusiastic about micro-greens. She wasn’t gentle with them either – one leafy herb needed a little roughing up to release its incredible aroma. We got the full before-and-after taste test, courtesy of Ariel’s latest obsession.
She’s one of those people who grew up multi-tasking and happily answered my questions as she worked. Yes, she learned how to make sushi in straight-up Asian style. No, the work ethic depicted in Jiro Dreams of Sushi is not an exaggeration. Yes, she takes liberties with the genre to spice things up but still loves the classics.
“I spent a year learning how to roll rice,” she said. “It was awesome. I got screamed at every day.”
Luckily there was none of that at Epernay. Hipster electronica piped through the sound system while black-light, body-painted dancers prepared for a late-night performance. Ariel patiently showed the chefs working under her how to prep the plates. Maybe it was the Ex-Lover but the best part of the show was watching men who were as awed by her precision and presentation as I was.
Oh, back to the sushi. The Pablo Escolar yellowtail roll was creamy heaven. The baby octopus in wasabi vinaigrette melted on my tongue. And the avocado-and-eel caterpillar roll I ordered had micro-green ears and caviar eyes.
I couldn’t eat here just once. So I scooped up a stack of Ariel Bilyeu’s business cards to take back to the hotel lobby. Pushy? Maybe. But I am a sushi snob and visitors to Denver deserve better than Maggiano’s Little Italy and the Hard Rock Cafe. Epernay Lounge is going to make the concierge’s reputation.
I am the least logical travel blogger to write about Atlantic City. I’m that person you shouldn’t stand next to at a slot machine because my eyes are glazed over and I exude buzz-kill vibes. It’s not a judgment thing, exactly. Just being inside a casino bombarded by flashing lights and incessant mechanical noises makes me feel like an epileptic seizure is imminent. Which is not entirely unfounded — if you’ve read my memoir you’ll know why.
But I’ve found myself in this neon-throbbing, cash-flashing city twice in the past year, doing PR and media for sporting events. This time I head straight for the sushi bar with cell phone in hand to distract myself and earbuds ready to block out the noise. But Lady Luck is with me because I meet a chatty, handsome barkeep named T.J.
He’s a recent veteran and an Atlantic City native who was trained as a chef but should run for Mayor or at least Cheerleader-in-Chief for behind-the-scenes Atlantic City. He immediately confesses that the best food in the city is not to be found in casinos, which is why I am not naming the casino where this conversation is happening.
Instead he googles the address of a Vietnamese dive called Hu Tieu Mien Tay that he swears was written up in The New York Times as having the best pho on the East Coast. I look it up. He’s not exaggerating.
I still have my doubts. Maquest tells me it’s in a strip mall 10 miles from the casinos in a suburb called Pleasantville. And then there’s T.J.’s credibility. He claims to love Poutine so much he’s plotting a food-truck empire built around the slimiest of hangover food. But I’m a pho snob and I can’t resist comparing this reportedly authentic version to the best I’ve ever had. Which also happens to be in a strip mall on 185th street in Aloha, Oregon. So there.
The ambience might put off some. But for me, walking through a Walmart-sized Asian supermarket full of fresh green vegetables next to Hello Kitty clocks and weird Japanese candy is a good sign. The chef doesn’t have to go far for ingredients.
I order summer shrimp rolls, just in case I’m disappointed in the pho. And they’re spectacular. We grow basil in our backyard and catch shrimp from the creek out front in South Carolina but still haven’t mastered the art of rolling them together with noodles and coming out with something presentable.
When the herb plate piled with bean sprouts, mint, jalapenos and lime wedges comes out, I understand what most visitors to Atlantic City feel when they rattle the roulette dice in their hands: anticipation, bordering on immoral. This plate comes with a strange, long, ragged green herb the waiter says is tall Vietnamese cilantro. I think. That’s how authentic the accent is. He warns me it’s spicy, but I wad some into my mouth anyway. How could cilantro hurt?
Let’s just say I am relieved to cool off my mouth and lips with the steaming hot pho broth. Which is revelatory. The old man at the table in front of mine is spoon-twirling it into his mouth with much less slobber than I can muster, but he looks like he eats here everyday. I don’t get much pho practice in Beaufort. So forgive my runny chin.
And my runny eyes. I’m not going to lie. It is so good I’m crying a little. Which I’m going to blame on that weird cilantro since otherwise I’d seem like some pathetic white woman sitting alone under a vinyl painting of the Great Wall moaning to herself.
My faith in T.J. is restored. I’m never going to try the stuff but if YOU visit Atlantic City and get bored of gambling, take a chance on T.J.’s future poutine food truck. If it’s half as good as his palette and referral service, it’ll be worth the chance.
My heart hasn’t stopped spinning, squeezing, wringing and pounding since Thursday morning, when I woke up to the news of nine innocent people murdered in their Charleston church. “Police searching for the suspect, a white male….”
It didn’t seem real then, or now. I thought it was a misprint. Some other Charleston. Some other Wednesday night than the one when I was swimming in the creek under a moonless sky so beautiful and warm, blissfully unaware of the atrocity unfolding just up the Intracoastal waterway from Beaufort.
I know it shouldn’t make a difference that it happened so close to home but when it happens in your backyard it does. I wanted the familiar distance that has separated me from all the other shooting rampages that have broken my heart. I wanted to feel sorry but not scared. But this young killer was on the loose and there are people I love within blocks of his killing grounds. Before the victims became named human beings I ran down the mental list of acquaintances who might have worshipped at Emanuel. Might have been there. Might be no more.
Like our senator, born in Beaufort, the unfailingly cheerful, civility-exuding Clementa Pinckney. A man younger than I am with two daughters who can’t possibly know how to react to their daddy’s death.
I am filled with sorrow and uselessness, feeling vaguely guilty about continuing on with work and the daily sameness of life when nothing will be the same for those girls or any of the families in Charleston. I arrived in Atlantic City last night for work and yet I’m not really here. I can’t put what happened behind me, nor can I summon any reaction other than sadness. Close-to-spilling-over tears are still, days later, all that there is room for in my head and in my heart.
And yet I glimpse snippets of “coverage” and “reactions” on TVs I wish were not blaring in the airport, in the hotel lobby, reposted on my Facebook and Twitter feed. Because then I am confronted what I have done the other times when these shootings were not in my backyard. I’ve blamed. Snapped back with all my liberal, gun-control fervor and spewed my anger at politicians who say things like nice people with guns are the only defense against bad people with guns. Like the NRA who blamed our slain senator for not advocating concealed weapons in churches.
Now I “get” why the families of victims are not usually the ones in front of the camera blaming anyone or demanding the death penalty. They are still dealing with actual grief, still too stunned to contribute to the outrage. In Charleston they are praying for the soul of the man who destroyed the lives of those they love. They understand that he is only 21 years old and that someone so young would even know such thoughts, let alone act on them, is tragedy enough.
Yet the first person I speak to here in Atlantic City wants to rant about it. Barely have the words “how is everyone holding up?” left his lips when he leaps to disparaging President Obama for “making it political” by blaming guns. And this is a nice person who probably thinks he’s making me feel better, in his own way. I open the Press of Atlantic City and read the “world” reaction story — foreigners judging us in exactly the opposite way – shocked at our continual gun culture of violence and inaction.
It’s too much. Please, just hold off on the judgment and the blaming. Let our hearts catch up with our mouths. Let the reality of what we’ve lost sink in, hurt and burn. To move on so quickly does dishonor to the value of those nine lives. Maybe it’s only because it happened in my own backyard, not some school or shopping mall far away, but this time I can’t bury this grief with outrage. Particularly if nothing is really over but the shouting.