As I walked the kids to school today, I came to a fork in the road. Literally.
It spoke to me, metaphorically, about where my path here in France (In Tacoma) leads.
A week ago, I finished reading “Provence, 1970”, Luke Barr’s book about a historic gathering in southern France of American food royalty, including Julia Child, James Beard and MFK Fisher. The introduction to the book included a quote from MFK’s journal that made me want to follow her through her seminal journey. It seemed we could be kindred spirits, since I am also “keenly aware of the need to make new sense of the old mythologies.”
By the end of the book, though, the egos, the gossip, the decadent meals and out-of-reach living overshadowed my connection to MFK’s pilgrimage. My initial enthusiasm gave way to disappointment. This reaction is more a casualty of my old career than a fault of the story.
For years I conducted book interviews as a public radio host and producer, anywhere from three to five authors a week. Our reputation in public radio was that we respected our listeners and guests enough that we read the book. We didn’t rely on pre-fab questions from press agents. We conducted original, provocative interviews. If that meant I read for hours every evening and most of the weekend, so be it.
I read with a laser focus to uncover the most interesting angles and the best entry points for a compelling interview. I learned how different books were structured, to see the patterns of storytelling. Eventually, I could see the outline, the conceptual ingredients, of the book more clearly than any detail. It was essential to doing my job.
If I let myself get lost in a story, I couldn’t conduct an interview. It would just be a gush-fest. I had to maintain a critical distance to be able to engage the author. Book interviews completely altered the way I read, and I’ve had trouble deeply connecting with books ever since.
Reading is just one aspect of my life that came to be dominated by my career. With a daily radio show, I had to constantly look for guests and topics. Air time was a beast that had to be fed, and fed well.
Producing radio led me to look at people, music, food, thoughts, anything, in fact, in terms of how it could be turned into a good story. Everything I experienced faced the question, “Is that something listeners need to know about?” As a result, my own interest in a story or object or idea was dependent on the interest of thousands of people I never saw.
This was my experience. I don’t expect everyone in public radio, or anyone in media, feels the same. It’s only as the time between my career in radio recedes that I begin to see how it shaped me, for good and bad. And, the more time passes, the more I can see why I had to leave it.
When it comes to reading books, this Year In France (In Tacoma) is a conceit to help me reconnect with what truly interests me, not just my target demographic. And, since I don’t have to quickly come up with a riveting focus to interview the author, I have time to digest books in ways I never could before. Rather than rushing to broadcast with the dominant impression from cramming the entire book into two evenings of reading, I can let the narrative bloom in my mind.
Taking that time paid off today. A week after finishing “Provence, 1970”, the specifics of the menus and the publishing successes of the characters have faded. My annoyance at the entire food industry has subsided. Instead, a quiet scene from the book floated to mind.
The moment is a frozen Christmas Eve in Marseilles. Having spent a dour few days in Arles, MFK delights at her posh hotel, treats herself to fine champagne and decides to leave France, literally and metaphorically.
The following is quoted from “Provence, 1970”:
She had come looking for France and she had found it – cold, hard, and real – but it was not home. It was not hers, not really. She was American. And this trip, which had begun months ago as a kind of sentimental immersion in the pleasures of France past, had turned into something quite different. Instead of the past, she had found the future. She had found a new way of seeing, a way past nostalgia.
Was it any wonder this all struck her in some deeply existential way? France had for so long been her inspiration. She was, indeed, one of the modern inventors of American Francophilia, articulating its tone and ethic, its codes and allusions and seductive sophistication. France was at the very center of M.F.’s emotional and intellectual life. It was the emblem of glamour and good living, the repository of dreams, a place, both in the world and in her own interior landscape, where she had found beauty and solace.
And now she was saying goodbye. To the past. To France. To her dream of France.
Last night, I had a dream. Two women, looking fully grown, but only half as tall as me, one blonde, one brunette, stabbed at each other with forks. I broke up the fight, telling them they behaved just like kids. The forks had only three tines, like the one I discovered on the street this morning.
The dream flashed in my mind when I saw the fork. When my daughter saw me stop and look at it, she said, “Hey, fork in the road, just like that movie!”
This scene from The Muppet Movie was one my dad particularly loved. He referenced it all the time while driving when I was a kid. I loved it, too. I imagined that a hand from Heaven stabbed it into the ground, to make sure Kermit and Fozzie didn’t mess up the movie. These days, I wish I had such clear stage directions in my own life.
MFK’s fourchette dans la route led her away from France, both physically and creatively. The culture that inspired her voice began to stifle it, and she chose to set out on her own path, to trust her instincts above tradition, to embrace the new American Food Renaissance.
I am at a crossroads. Something has to be left behind, something foundational to the way I see the world – and myself. I sense that what I must leave behind is a philosophy or culture that shaped me as much as France did MFK. I just don’t know for sure what my France is.
On my way back from dropping off the kids, I saw the fork still lying in the street. Just to make sure I remember that I am, in fact, taking a new path – even if I don’t know what it is – I followed the late, great Yogi Berra’s advice, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”