Friday Mar. 31, 2017

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Making Risotto for Dinner When His Ex-Wife Calls

While I mince an onion, he talks with her,
planning their son’s bar mitzvah, sounding
so familiar, so nuts and bolts. Turning up the gas flame,
I sauté the onion translucent. Butter sizzles, foams,
as they go over the invitation list, names I’ve never heard.

Adding a cup of Arborio, I think of white rice
thrown high in the air by the fistful. I pour
two glasses of chardonnay, one for the risotto,
one for myself, sip, then gulp. Blend.

The band, flowers, menu?
Heady, I stare at the recipe to orient myself, to understand
what I am doing: Add broth, cup by cup, until absorbed.
Add Parmesan. Serve immediately.

The word immediately catches my eye,
but their conversation continues, then his son
gets on the line and hangs up on him,
as I stir and stir, holding the wooden spoon.

“Making Risotto for Dinner When His Ex-Wife Calls” by Kendra Tanacea from A Filament Burns in Blue Degrees. © Lost Horse Press, 2017. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1930, the Motion Picture Production Code was put into effect, setting guidelines for the depiction of sex, violence, crime, and religion in American movies. Also known as the Hays Code after Hollywood censor Will Hays, it was originally a list of 36 "Don'ts" and "Be Carefuls," and as such it was pretty ineffectual and tough to enforce until 1934, at which time films needed to pass review and receive a certificate of approval to be released. The Hays Code was used until 1968, when it was replaced by the Motion Picture Association of America rating system that we use today.

Hays, a former Postmaster General, was hired at the sum of $100,000 a year to polish Hollywood's image, which had gotten rather tarnished in the 1920s by risqué content and off-screen shenanigans. The Supreme Court had ruled in 1915 that the First Amendment right to free speech did not extend to movies, and the film industry adopted the code hoping to avoid further government interference.

Based on a document created in 1929 by a lay Catholic and Jesuit priest, the document was decidedly moralistic in tone and actively set out to promote traditional values. Crime must be punished and criminals must not be presented as sympathetic characters; pre- or extra-marital sex must never be portrayed in a positive, enticing, or titillating light; authority figures must be portrayed with respect; the church and the clergy must not be laughable or villainous. Showing drug use and interracial romance were likewise outlawed. In 1934, the newly created Production Code Administration strictly enforced the code and gave itself the power to change scenes and whole scripts. As a result, Rick and Ilsa's Paris affair and Inspector Renault's sexual extortions in Casablanca were only hinted at. The film's original ending, in which Ilsa doesn't get on the plane but lives in sin with Rick, was also scrapped, and we saw instead Rick's unselfish renunciation of his true love.

In the 1950s, the code was increasingly subverted by more racy foreign films, which weren't bound by the Code, and the lure of television, which offered competition for the moviegoing audience. Some studios began releasing films without the PCA's approval and found that they could still make a buck. Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot (1959) was one such picture, and it was a box office hit with its gambling, bootleg gin, cross-dressing heroes, and Marilyn Monroe's tales of topless pillow fights. The Code's death knell could clearly be heard, even over the movie's hot jazz soundtrack.

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Marge Piercy (books by this author), born in Detroit (1936). Her grandfather was a union organizer who was murdered while organizing bakery workers. Her grandmother was born in a shtetl in Lithuania, and Piercy grew up sitting in her kitchen and listening to her stories. She grew up working-class and Jewish in an era when anti-Semitism was a constant part of life. She witnessed the Detroit race riots; her first boyfriend was black, and she was beaten up for it; and she lost a friend to heroin when she was a teenager. She said: "I knew so many kinds of people, from a Wyandotte Native American to kids from the projects to kids up from Appalachia to strivers and strainers and gamblers and numbers runners. Detroit formed me."

When she was 15 years old, her family moved into a larger house, and for the first time she had a room of her own — upstairs, along with two tenants. Now that she had some privacy, she began to write poems and stories. She went on to college — the first person in her family to do so — and earned a master's degree from Northwestern, then moved to France with her first husband. But the marriage failed, and she returned to Chicago, in a time she remembers as the hardest in her life. She was broke, working part time, and divorced. She submitted her writing over and over, but it was all rejected.

She remarried, and became deeply involved in political work, organizing for women's liberation and against the Vietnam War. In 1968, she published her first book of poems, Breaking Camp. She had written six novels that had all been rejected, but she continued to write; she finally decided to depart from her feminist point of view and write from a male perspective, and that manuscript was accepted and published as her first novel, Going Down Fast (1969). She said, "You simply couldn't publish serious fiction about the lives of ordinary women then."

Piercy was living in New York City, but with her health deteriorating and the anti-war movement consumed by infighting, she moved to Cape Cod. She had never lived outside a city before, and she was shocked by how much she loved it. She began to garden, and her poetry stayed political but also began to bring in images of the natural world.

In 1976, she published Woman on the Edge of Time, a work of speculative science fiction about a working-class Latina woman who is committed to an insane asylum, and whose experiences with time travel lead her to understand that her actions will influence the direction of the future. It became regarded as a feminist classic of science fiction.

After her mother died in 1981, Piercy became newly interested in Jewish faith, particularly in Reconstructionist Judaism. She said: "The seasons are very vivid and real to us. Living seasonally is part of what I love about Judaism, as well as the tradition of social conscience, and the historical, religious, and spiritual aspects of Jewish holidays."

Her books include the novels Braided Lives (1982), He, She and It (1991), and Sex Wars (2005), and the poetry collections The Moon Is Always Female (1980), The Art of Blessing the Day (1999), and most recently, Made in Detroit (2015).

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