Interview Across a Breakfast Table: Big Trees, Fancy Cakes, Primary Sources, and Good Friends

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Welcome back to the ongoing series in which my wife — author Jennifer Ziegler — and I question each other amid coffee refills, canine constitutionals, and sometimes even actual breakfast.

After a bit of a hiatus, this week Jenny and I are each posting our conversation about one of the biggest reasons for that hiatus: our part-work, all-fun November visit to the Bay Area.

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(Though I can’t help but point out another reason for that hiatus: Jenny was busy putting the finishing touches on her purty new website.)

Me: It seems like we were just there, but it’s already been nearly three weeks since we got back from our trip to San Francisco, where I went for research and you went for fun. Before we forget, what stood out for you about our visit?

Jenny: So much! The people. The conversation. The architecture. The museums. The weather. The trees, water, bridges, and sea lions. And cake. How about that cake?

Me: That Shark Vs. Train cake was something else. And we’ve got the before-and-after photos to prove it.

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These amazing and delicious Shark and Train cakes were made by Misery Loves Co. in Fremont.

These amazing and delicious Shark and Train cakes were made by Misery Loves Co. in Fremont.

My college roommate’s birthday celebration — just a few miles from the location of the only baker I know making three-dimensional cakes based on any of our books — was a terrific way to end our visit. But let’s go back to the first day. What did you do when you found out that the Museum of Modern Art was closed?

Jenny: I did what I was planning to do anyway for part of the time: I wandered. I poked around shops and explored Yerba Buena Gardens, across from the museum. (The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Fountain was beautiful and inspiring.) I bought a tea latte in a lovely little sweet shop where about five languages were being spoken. I then went into the Cartoon Art Museum, where they had a special exhibit on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

It was a great day to observe and study and think. Speaking of that, were you having some big “eureka!” moments while researching at the Museum of Performance + Design? What were your most exciting discoveries?

Me: My biggest “eureka!” while researching the Christensen brothers and The Nutcracker at the MP+D was pretty much the same as it is every time I’m researching a nonfiction topic and make the jump from secondary sources to primary ones. (In this case, interview transcripts with the brothers and some of the dancers they worked with, programs from the first US productions of The Nutcracker in 1944 and 1949, costume designs from those productions, etc.) I’m floored every time by how much closer to my subjects that primary research gets me.

But definitely the most exciting part of my research didn’t happen in the museum itself. It happened at the restaurant just down the street where I had lunch with Nancy Johnson Poulos, who danced in the very first full-length Nutcracker performed in the US, 69 years ago this month.

At lunch with Nancy Poulos Johnson.

At lunch with Nancy Poulos Johnson.

I’m sorry I missed the Cartoon Art Museum. How did that compare to the brand-new Arnold Lobel exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum?

Jenny: Both were terrific. Both had original outlines and manuscript pages, which are always fascinating to me. Lobel’s insight into the characters of Frog and Toad, and their friendship, was eye-opening, as was Neil Gaiman’s letter to his publisher about Sandman (a character he revived) and Death. I was pleasantly surprised to see that Arnold Lobel also did a lot of rough drafting and sketching in cheap spiral-bound notebooks — which I’ve been doing since I was a child. Seeing those slightly bent, yellowing notebooks under glass at the museum delighted me to no end.

You didn’t get to romp around the city as much as I did. But that day we spent out at Muir Woods was a memorable one, too. What did you take away from that special outing?

Me: Well, for one thing, I was surprised by the lack of non-human mammals. I saw a chipmunk outside the gift shop, but that was it. The quiet of Muir Woods — once you got to an elevation above the crowds — was astounding.

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There was so much world there — these giant, giant trees, with their enormous trunks dwarfing us and the sun filtering down through their tops way up high — and yet there was hardly any sound at all. And I loved that serendipitous moment when we were on our way down the trail and encountered that family marveling at a pair of sticks precariously balanced on the pointed tip of a trail marker. That was infectiously joyous, and entirely unexpected.

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Then, of course, we picked up the cake –

Me, Aaron from Misery Loves Co., and Shark. (Not pictured: Train.)

Me, Aaron from Misery Loves Co., and Shark. (Not pictured: Train.)

– and shared it with friends. For all the sights we saw and work that I got done, it was the people who really made the trip, don’t you think?

Jenny: Definitely. The human mammals were the best part. Jenni Holm is an award-winning author, but who knew she also offered emergency transport? She rescued us when our train left us stranded that cold night and took us out for crepes! Seeing her and meeting her lovely family was a high point.

Jenny and Jenni.

Jenny and Jenni.

Then, lucky us, we got to meet Deb Underwood for breakfast.

Me, Deb, and Jenny.

Me, Deb, and Jenny.

I haven’t seen Deb in person in over two years, but when I talk with her it always feels as if we visit on a weekly basis. We made plans to surprise Mike Jung, another of our fellow EMLA authors, at his workplace in the Bay Area, but it didn’t happen. Fun to plan, though.

More wondrous moments came from meeting people from your past for the first time – like Miguel and Juan, Britton, and Shai. I loved hearing you all relive past times. It’s clear that you are special to them. But of course. It’s always marvelous being able to weave together the different threads of our lives and our past. You know good people.

Me: I sure do.

20131120, Chris and Jenny

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3 Responses to “Interview Across a Breakfast Table: Big Trees, Fancy Cakes, Primary Sources, and Good Friends”

  1. Cory Oakes says:

    So glad you guys had a fun time! I’m from that area so I feel responsible. I love the cakes (AWESOME!) and I agree about Muir Woods! They are cooler than “just where the Ewoks hang out”. (Although, I must admit, that makes them pretty cool!) Welcome home, you guys!

  2. Mike Jung says:

    AAAAAAWWWWWW!!! It would have been so great to see you two!! I’m sorry it didn’t pan out, but how fabulous that you even thought about it! *sniff*

  3. Chris Barton says:

    Thanks, Cory! I must have known somewhere in the back of my mind — in the vicinity of other bits of trivia I picked up in 1983 — that Return of the Jedi was filmed there, because I commented while I was at Muir Woods just how much the place looked like Endor.

    And Mike, now we’ve got all the reason we need to make a return trip. And to look forward to Vermont in May!

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