Thursday, March 15, 2012

the green flash

An early Happy St. Patrick's Day to all you lads and lassies. No, guacamole is not Irish, but it's green, and I love green food. You can skip to the recipe at the bottom now, if you just want the how-to. Grab a seat. I'll be there in a minute or two. 

For the past four years, D has attended an annual meeting in Pacific Beach, California, and I've tagged along, feeling lucky that I get to spend a few days gazing at the ocean, eating delicious sushi, wearing white jeans in February, and running on the boardwalk in the sunshine and the low humidity. Pacific Beach is also famous for its sunsets, which frequently feature something called the green flash. Residents of the town and of nearby La Jolla describe this phenomenon with varied attitudes. Some people are openly skeptical or derisive, while others avow that they've seen the green flash numerous times. D himself swore that he had glimpsed it, a couple of years ago, but I could never tell whether he was just teasing or not.

He's not the only one caught by the fascination of this odd natural phenomenon. In 1882, Jules Verne published a novel called The Green Ray, in which a young woman sets off on an adventure with two very different would-be suitors to find the elusive green flash, which according to Scottish legend "has the virtue of making him who has seen it impossible to be deceived in matters of sentiment; at its appearance, all deceit and falsehood are done away, and he who has been fortunate enough once to behold it is enabled to see closely into his own heart and to read the thoughts of others." The opening paragraph in the second chapter of the novel gushes: "If there be green in Paradise, it cannot but be of this shade, which most surely is the green of Hope!"

Until this year, my inability to see the green flash has reminded me of what has happened every time I've stood and contemplated one of those accursed Magic Eye pictures. You're supposed to stare at the picture as if you're looking through it into the distance. After a number of seconds, the two-dimensional pattern reportedly transforms into a three-dimensional image. And when you've seen it (apparently, according to those who know), you don't have to worry that you'll lose the image. It's like riding a bike: your mind doesn't forget. As one instructional website explains: "Once you perceive the hidden image and depth, you can look around the entire 3D image easily. The longer you look, the clearer the illusion becomes." Interestingly, the act of looking is more important, in this case, than the image itself. You only see it when you're not trying to see it - when you're looking at something else.

Those stupid pictures made me feel like the most unobservant, dense person on earth. I could not see that secret image. Ever. I have still never seen the hidden world in one of those drawings. Maybe I'll go to my grave without ever having had that experience. 

However, this year, I did manage to witness the famous green flash all four evenings while I was staying in Pacific Beach. There was nothing particularly dramatic about it. It wasn't like a strobe light or a beam from a laser gun, as I had imagined it would be. Instead, it was just a gentle gleam, a melting green tinge that appeared at the very upper edge of the sun's sphere, just as it sank into the ocean, and it lasted for about one second. 

right about sunset, Pacific Beach boardwalk

It was so cool. But I think the best part about it is the context surrounding the green flash. Just before sunset, everyone begins to gather at the edge of the boardwalk by the pilings draped with aged rope. People grow quieter, mellower. Babies and dogs look beatific in the light of the fading day. People sitting on beachfront restaurant patios pour their dinner companions another glass of wine. Kids on their bikes, even joggers glow with expectation, glancing periodically at the horizon to make sure they don't miss it. Everyone turns towards the sea, facing the evening wind. They look into the sun, but only with occasional, short glimpses to check its downward progress - otherwise, the after-glare from all that brightness would mar their vision and obscure the subtler green flash that follows.  

One of my favorite poets - the one I always said I would have chosen as my third grandfather if I could have - is William Stafford. In his book Writing the Australian Crawl, he offers this account of poetry in the first section, entitled "What It Is Like":  "Poetry is the kind of thing you have to see from the corner of your eye... It's like a very faint star. If you look straight at it you can't see it, but if you look a little to one side it is there."

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, avoiding looking at something full-on does occasionally have its benefits, in poetry and in life.

When I was in my late twenties, before D and I got together, I dated someone who was wrong for me. This is a very long and not very interesting story, so I'm going to simplify it for the sake of time. 

For various reasons, at the time I met this guy, I had had enough of the vicissitudes of picking a partner based on some grand reason, like being soul mates. This romantic approach didn't seem to have worked out so well for me up to that point, so I decided to be pragmatic about it. By all rights, we should never have gotten together, but this guy seemed nice. Why not? I was single. He was there. He liked me. He pursued me. He also told me at the beginning that he was, and I quote, "an asshole." That everyone he knew said he was an asshole. He said this while smiling faintly, and I guess I figured that he was just being charmingly self-deprecating. Now I realize that he was trying to tell me the truth ahead of time. He was kind of an asshole. Not a bad person, but not a particularly nice or warm or open person, either. Certainly not the kind of person I was looking for.
I tried to end things with him months before the end actually happened. He asked me to be patient and give him some more time; things would get better, he promised. Feeling sympathetic, I did as he asked, and then two months later, in the dead of winter, he dumped me. 

There is nothing particularly strange or tragic about this story. I guess what's strange is how hard I took that breakup. I don't think my heart was broken so much as my pride was hurt. Sure, a large part of it was the irrational feeling of shame and powerlessness that comes whenever you're summarily dismissed by someone else - but I was also angry and disappointed with myself for having spent over a year on a relationship that I had known was never what I had really wanted anyway - on someone I cared for but didn't love. I was tired and disillusioned, and I couldn't imagine ever mustering enough moxie to try it again.

My friends were wonderful. I talked to Esther and Stacy bunches on the phone. And between Valerie and Casie, they threw me a life preserver at two key moments when I needed one. 

Valerie called me every night for a while, and I would lie in my bedroom floor and talk to her for a couple of hours, and she would always find a way to make me laugh. And she would send me things - like Louis MacNeice's wonderful poem "Entirely." I sent her back "Some Fill with Each Good Rain," a poem by the fourteenth-century Persian poet Hafiz. We discussed, at length, her Butter Theory of relationships. If you know her and you're very lucky, you might have heard it. One night when I was feeling especially blue, she and I went to Thai of Athens (which, heartbreakingly, closed a few years ago). They were playing shrill music with a vocalist whom Valerie described as "kind of like a Thai Lita Ford?" We ate panang and pad thai, and we ordered the vegan coconut-lemongrass tofu soup for two, which came to the table in a flaming metal bowl. I still dream about that soup. It must have been someone's birthday that night because they did the usual: turned off all the lights in the restaurant and played a really loud, foreign birthday song. It was hilarious and distracting and exactly what I needed.

For Casie's part, she called me up one evening out of the blue and invited me over for homemade fajitas. When I showed up, her apartment kitchen was full of fresh veggies and meat in various states of prep. On the cutting board were a sunset of hues: halved avocados, onions, limes, cilantro, multicolored peppers, and garlic. She chopped up everything in one place and threw the peppers and most of the onions and garlic into a skillet with the chicken to brown. It smelled like heaven. Then she chopped up everything else, loosely mixed it, and left it on the board in a chunky pile for guacamole. It was so rustic and messily offhand and beautifully green that I was almost hypnotized. I had never seen someone cook like that. There was a confident matter-of-factness about it that I coveted: VoilĂ . That will taste good. Let's open a beer and go sit down. That moment, watching Casie work, changed something for me. It's part of the reason I cook now. Her approach gave me the permission that I needed to just start making stuff in my kitchen. Last summer at the beach, when I got to have my annual visit with my friends, Casie brought along a box of heirloom tomatoes from her family's garden. One day, while Valerie was making me laugh at the dining room table and Casie was slicing tomatoes for our lunch sandwiches, I thought of that time years earlier with the fajitas and the green goodness on the cutting board and the Thai birthday song and the flaming soup, time spent listening to Valerie's insightful jokes and joking insights, and watching Casie cook generously and unapologetically in her tiny kitchen.

As the months passed after that bad winter, of course, things got better. The weather got warmer. I tried just to pay attention to my life, to what was going on right then: TA-ing for a professor, going dancing, studying for comps, crafting odd jewelry and outfits out of thrift store scraps, listening to new music, helping with a British women writers conference. Late that spring, I told Valerie, "I don't know if I'll ever date anyone again. I feel like I'm turning into a cranky old man who can't even put up with other people's crap anymore. I just don't have the patience. These days I think I might be okay if I end up being an old Katherine Hepburn type with lots of plants and cats and no man." 

And then a few weeks later, just like that, when the time was right and I was completely present and absorbed in my life and the whole world was that shade of green that it only wears in July, D called me and said I should come and visit him in Birmingham. Which I did three weeks later. It was the first of hundreds of visits. 

So. Much like romance, life wisdom, poetry, faint stars, and green flashes, the trickiest thing about avocados is getting the timing right. Underripe and they're hard as rocks. Overripe and they get that weird aftertaste, plus all the brown spotting inside. It takes a number of tries, over a period of time, to recognize the moment when you're standing in the grocery store holding a good avocado. And if you are, by all means, buy it, take it home, cut that thing open, and enjoy it now. You have a very small window of perfection when it comes to those homely but divinely green flashes of joy.

While you're at it: fix yourself a cold drink and a toasted baguette or a bag of chips. Get yourself a deck chair. Grab a friend. Settle back, take a breath, and start looking. Yes, you do have to be present, eyes wide open, completely here now, to see the green flash. But don't be afraid to let your eyes drift a little to the side. Sometimes that's the only way to catch a glimpse of what you really need to see.

The best way to make this guacamole is all over your cutting board, like Casie does, and with friends around you making you laugh and bringing you poetry, like Valerie does. Enjoy.


3 ripe avocados
a few tablespoons cilantro, chopped
half of a small white onion, chopped
1 small to medium garlic clove
coarse sea salt
juice of one lime
freshly ground pepper
1 tbsp. or so olive oil
half of a ripe tomato, diced (optional)

The only thing that's complicated about this recipe is the garlic, so let me deal with that first. The garlic tastes better in this guacamole if you can get a general, mild flavor throughout the dip, instead of having to worry that you're going to bite into a big piece of raw garlic. Take your garlic clove and mince it as finely as you can quickly get it. Then sprinkle a little pile (maybe 1/4 or 1/2 tsp.) of coarse sea salt right on top of it on the cutting board. Chop the salt into the garlic clove. The salt will act as an abrasive, and the garlic will start to break down and release its liquid. When you've got the salt kind of incorporated into the garlic, take the side of your knife (you need a really wide chef's knife for this), and with the blade facing away from you and the fingers of your left hand near the dull edge, rake the garlic towards you with the sharp edge and the knife at a slight angle. Since you're also grinding the side of the knife against the garlic and salt, I should warn you that it will scratch the living hell out of your knife. But if you're like me and stubbornly disdain all the expensive knives in your kitchen in favor of the four-dollar, now gap-bladed knife from Dollar General that you've had for five years and that once chopped off your fingertip, you probably won't mind the scratches so much. Keep chopping it periodically, too, if you want. Rake and chop the mixture several times, until the garlic and salt have rubbed together and made a paste.

Now you just need to throw everything, including the garlic paste, into the bowl. Chop the other ingredients as finely or roughly as you like.

Take a potato masher and mash the whole thing together. Again, your choice as to how chunky or smooth it should be.

P.S. I know the olive oil seems like a crazy addition to something with an already egregious number of fat grams, but hey, it's good-for-you fat, and besides, I really think it just brings something special - fruitiness and silkiness - to the whole prospect.

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