My Dinner with Russ

So I went to dinner one Wednesday last August at Russ Parson’s house because he’s my cousin and I adore him, and because I was in LA and that’s where he lives. And also because he’s married to one of the best women I know; there is nobody in the world better to laugh with than Kathy Parsons. And also because his gorgeous daughter, Sarah, had just graduated from college, so she should get jewelry, which I needed to hand deliver so I could also hug. And also because Russ is the other writer in the family (How To Read A French Fry, great book, you should read it) and we can talk publishing, except we never do. Mostly with the Parsons, you just laugh a lot.

It was my turn to buy dinner because the last time we’d been together it had been Russ’s birthday and we were in New York and they took to me to Per Se where we had a seventeen-course meal that lasted six hours and will always be one of the best memories of my life, both for the food and for the company, plus Thomas Keller showed us around the kitchens and it was amazing, so I definitely owed them. But Russ is one of the great foodies of our time—the guy has James Beard medals strung around his kitchen like Christmas lights—so when I said, “Let me take you out to dinner,” and he said, “No, come here, I’ll cook,” I did not argue. Nor did I argue with the champagne he poured as soon as we got there so we could toast the fact that we were all together again, and then Sarah’s graduation, and then the finished Don’t Look Down, and then his deadline extension, and then the sunset, and then I forget what else, but we toasted it. And we sat around the big table in his backyard and ate–my God, we ate–goat cheese and peppers, pasta tossed with fresh tomatoes, gorgeous glistening fresh cucumber with cracked pepper, thick grilled steaks with garlic butter, and amazing homemade peach-almond ice cream, all under trees strung with tiny white lights. And while I am a snarky, cynical bitch, I have to tell you, there is nothing better than eating great food in a beautiful garden with wonderful people you love while the sun sets. And laughing. After a lot of good champagne.

And of course we talked about food. Well, sort of. Russ said the original artichoke was some kind of weapon. Bob said, “Did you ever wonder who first looked at a squid and said, ‘I could eat that’?” (Russ said, “Squid is good if it’s fresh and well-prepared,” but Russ never met a food he wouldn’t defend.) Sarah said that she’d met one of the survivors from that Alive! plane crash when she was in Brazil.

And then we started talking about Brazilian waxes.

This is probably where I should mention that my critique partner, the lovely Valerie Taylor, got me a Brazilian wax for Christmas last year. I opened up the envelope, and it was a gift certificate for our local spa for, yep, one Brazilian wax. I looked at her and said, “Thank you so much. WHY?” And she said, “Because I want to know what it’s like. You go find out and tell me.” So now it’s Christmas again and I still have this certificate because even if the technician buys me a drink and tells me I have nice eyes, I am not letting anybody do that to me. Probably.

So we’re talking about it—well, Kathy and Sarah and I are talking about it, Russ has his hands over his ears and is saying “Lalalalalalalalala” which shows you can have a lot of James Beard medals and be internationally famous and still be immature, and Bob is saying, “I don’t want to know what that is” which shows you can be a former Green Beret and know how to kill people with your little finger and still be a wuss—and Kathy says, “Who the hell thought that up anyway?”

And I realize it’s the Squid Question. At some point, somebody said, “You know what would be a good idea?” and then ran with it. And whether it remained squid or became calamari depended on what he did with it, but the point is, he ran with it.

Which leads me to my own life because, as my daughter once put it, “Mom, it’s always all about you.” Some of my Squid Questions have been unmitigated disasters—going platinum in college is not a good memory, and there was that time I dove into cold surf and had an asthma attack that almost killed me, and I definitely shouldn’t have shown my tattoo to my therapist—but I can’t honestly say I regret any of them. If nothing else, they made me smarter. (Haven’t see me as a platinum blonde lately, have you? And one of my tattoos is the Chinese symbol that means “to risk” which I did on impulse along with the one I’d come for, and it only occurred to me later that the flash at Mother’s Tattoos probably wasn’t done by anybody who actually reads Chinese, and that for all I know that symbol means “This Space For Rent” or “Skanky Ho.” Which is all part of the risk, so the symbol still works. But I digress.) And some were necessary disasters, like getting married at twenty-one which was really stupid, but if I hadn’t I wouldn’t have Mollie now, so it was a good thing. And then there are those that were brilliant. Quitting my teaching job when I was neck-deep in debt to go back to grad school and write romance novels was a dumb plan that turned out smart. Buying the ugliest house I’d ever seen because it was on the most beautiful land I’d ever seen is working out well. Collaborating with a writer of violent military thrillers was a terrible career move except that it resulted in the one of the best books I’ve ever done and you should see the one we’re working on now, as our agent says, “This is a riot!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” (That’s a direct quote from her e-mail. Well, she’s our agent so she has to love us, but trust me, she’d tell us if she hated it.)

So I’m thinking Russ is right (well, Russ is usually right) and that the point isn’t that squid is intrinsically bad, that it’s that you take the risk and then concentrate on the execution and voila! calamari. So I think maybe it’s a good idea to periodically say “yes” to the Squid Questions with great enthusiasm and no regrets, even while all those about you are saying, “Are you out of your mind?” And that maybe I should go for that Brazilian wax. Not now, of course, but maybe some day.

And I should definitely always have dinner with the Parsons because those people know food and laughter and love.

And squid.