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Making Plans

I’ve been making a lot of plans lately. Lesson plans, life plans. Today I’m taking a step back, using poetry to muse about control, spirituality, and the inspiration of the natural world, with a few shots of my Iceland vacation thrown in.

Making Plans

Remember in July,
when we stood still in our hiking boots,
waiting for the geyser to gush?

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Even that was a plan you made
and clothes I carefully laid
and bills we carefully paid
so we could dig our heels in the brown ground,
say “Wow”
When the earth flaunted its do-as-it-likes

Carefully stepping around wet stones and
“hugging the mountain” when the altitude felt too high

Screen Shot 2016-08-07 at 4.08.49 PMand reaching for a stray horse’s snout on a muted, windy slope,
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We breathed in Earth’s overflow
witnessed Her grace

But over a Gull, or lobster soup,
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we mused over plans for home,
or lunch,
stealthily strategizing.

Meanwhile, glowing chunks of blue-white ice floated idly toward the Atlantic
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Aggressive waterfalls thundered down cliffs
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the gray Atlantic met with pebbled beaches
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And we took pictures, eager to clap
For this jazz.

Then

Surrender came in a flash
when I stripped off my coat and scarf and laid in the moss-grass of a mountain
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suddenly remembering that memorial service photo of Carrie’s mom,
basking in the sky on Colorado grass
Before ALS hit.

Today I wonder if I’m a fool
to think that the plans I’m making
bear a contrast, rather than a pale resemblance to
the sprinkling of volcanic ash on a glacier
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Perhaps I’ve been duped
by the strangeness of ash on ice
the drama of cascading water
the glow of blue lagoons

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Yes, I think I’ve been duped.
I’m “a theatre person”; I should understand
the planning that goes into the artifice.

“Whipped cream on a brick,”
a dance teacher once said,
of a ballerina’s lithe posturing
to look like she does as she likes.

Still, it’s a nice thought,
And one that I think I’ll hold onto,
That when the geyser errupts,
She’s just letting it go,
on a whim.

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Reading in Iceland

Written on June 29, 2016:

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I am currently traveling — lots of hiking, biking, reveling in Iceland’s beauty marks — but in flight, or in the lull of a long day (the sun sets at midnight here) I am engaging in my favorite form of travel, flying through the pages of a good book.

I decided to dive into some travel writing: “The Best American Travel Writing 2002” edited by Frances Mayes. As Mayes writes in her introduction, “reading and travel have a natural symbiosis” — reading about a variety of foreign adventures while on an adventure of my own puts me in the traveling mindset — a mindset characterized, in my experience, by a closer clinging to the present moment and a mental, as well as physical experience of dislocation that allows for greater self-reflection, spontaneity, and once again, that in-the-moment mindfulness  thing. (Such an elusive and aspirational practice, at least for me, when muddled with to-do lists and daily routines).

Perhaps reading and travel are “symbiotic” in the way that they transform readers and wanderers by first transporting them. And this process of transformation is built upon the liberty, the privilege, of reflection and mindfulness. Mayes seems to draw on this principle in her selections. She writes:

“Early in the process I began to wonder what exactly qualified as travel writing. I am immediately drawn to the incongruous qualities of spontaneity and reflection. I like to read about journeys when the traveler is charged or changed by the place, when the traveler is moved from one psychic space to another during the course of the trip.”

If the highest purpose of travel (and naturally, the mark of good travel writing) is to, however subtly, transform the psyche of the traveler, this Mark Twain quote, also a part of Mayes’s introduction, comments on one way in which travel broadens consciousness:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

So where does 2002’s “Best American Travel Writing” take its reader?

My favorite essay, so far, is Michael Finkel’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Void” originally published in National Geographic Adventure.

It follows a lone traveler piled into a truck driving across “the giant sand sea at the center of the Sahara.” The void itself, the “giant sand sea,” is fascinating — its disorienting quality attracts an eclectic group of passengers, from a drunk to a widow to an American named Beth who just wants “to feel the wind in her face,” provokes reactions ranging from bliss to terror, and serves as an ever-shifting landscape of haunting, unpredictable beauty. Finkel writes:

“Many of the tourists are on spiritual quests. They live hectic lives, and they want a nice dose of nothing — and there is nothing more nothing than the void. The void is so blank that a point-and-shoot camera will often refuse to work, the auto-focus finding nothing to focus on…”

There’s a strong statement about modern society — that Westerners with hectic lives will haul themselves across the Saharan desert just to bliss out on endless sand, to envelop themselves in a place that represents emptiness and nothingness… Finkel continues,

“After a fortnight of wind, Beth came to a profound decision. She said she now realized what her life was missing. She said that the moment she returned home she was quitting her Internet job and opening up her own business. She said she was going to bake apple pies.”

By contrast, “Forty Years in Acapulco” from Men’s Journal chronicles an eighty-nine-year old Polish immigrant named Mort Friedman whose idea of paradise is stalwart routine, reclining by a pool in your finest swimwear at a hotel. This is not travel as self-discovery or spiritual quest but travel as self-affirmation. The routine of “wak[ing] at nine-thirty; putt[ing] on a brand-new bathing ensemble… fly[ing] down on American Airlines on the same date every year” enshrines all of the achievements that earns Mort his yearly trip.

A third essay, “The City and the Pillars,” describes New York’s immediate response to September 11, 2001, emphasizing the instinct of New Yorkers to throw themselves into a daily routines, such as shopping for groceries or cafe owners hosing down sidewalks, in a stubborn protest of the horrific reality of the towers. Adam Gopnik writes,

“The pleasure of living in New York has always been the pleasure of living in both cities at once: the symbolic city of symbolic statements (this is big, I am rich, get me) and the everyday city of necessities, MetroCards and coffee shops and long waits and longer trudges. On the afternoon of that day, the symbolic city, the city that the men in the planes attacked, seemed much less important than the real city, where the people in the towers lived.”

One downside to reading a collection of travel essays, if you’re reading it cover to cover, is that you occasionally get stuck in a destination that you don’t find exciting, or you find yourself a passenger on a journey that wanders a little too long — in my case, “A Rio Runs Through It,” by Rod Davis from The San Antonio Express-News. You’re obviously jolted from place to place, occasionally leaving you with that feeling of the void: there’s too much and therefore nothing to focus on.

So how are my first four or five days in Iceland affecting my psyche?

As much as I appreciate the beauty of the landscape, the density and crispness of the language, and the friendliness of the people, the answer that first comes to mind is that I’m experiencing a renewed appreciation for certain aspects of the U.S.

For example, in a country where most foods, save sea food, have to be imported, and everything but a hot dog is startingly expensive, I appreciate living in a country rich in access to cheap produce (notwithstanding the obvious problems with our agricultural industrial complex).

And as beautiful as the Icelandic landscape is, I find myself reminded of certain remote parts of Montana or Oregon, and feel gratitude for the tremendous diversity of the American landscape, East to West:

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That being said, the lack of visible poverty in Iceland, except for two homeless men in Rekjavik, points out the visible poverty in the United States and our complacency toward it.

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On a more personal level, the gift of time has given me the chance to reflect on the balance between teaching and writing in my life, and how, in an ideal world, I’d like the balance to tilt. Who knows — maybe enough geysers and hot springs and glaciers and waterfalls will convince me that I need to ditch it all and start baking apple pies. I’ll keep you posted 🙂

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Farewell Chicago

brunurb P1090489 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0I have seven more nights to sleep in my Chicago bed. Seven more 5:30 am snoozes filled in by the sound of dump trucks reversing, ambulances speeding, cabbies honking, and heels clicking on pavement outside my bedroom window. Am I feeling nostalgic? Not so much, as a matter of fact. I’ve reached a point where the allure of the city, in all its gritty, gray, urban glory, has faded for me. I’m ready for a shorter commute. I’m ready for bigger patches of green grass, for big, old trees that aren’t plopped in the middle of a concrete sidewalk with a copper plate covering for protection. I’m ready for pizza that isn’t Chicago style pizza — and yes, that especially includes Imo’s, even if it does resemble “Velveeta on a cracker.” I’m ready for snow that melts, rather than transforming into a coal-black packed powder for weeks on end. I’m ready for longer springs, longer autumns, shorter, warmer winters.

Did I mention that I’m ready? At the same time, I’m already anticipating that moment when the absence of all that Chicago has to offer suddenly tugs at me, when suddenly I’m aware that I’ve given up a great deal and I can’t go back to it. I know it’s coming. So here’s a little list of Chi town places I’ll especially miss, hopefully with some appeal for both readers well-acquainted and completely unfamiliar with the windy city:

The Old Town School of Folk Music is one of my favorite places to see live music in Chicago. In addition to offering a wide range of classes in a wide range of instruments for both kids and adults, Old Town hosts so many great concerts. This March I saw Los San Patricios, a concert about Irish immigrants’ contributions to the Mexican-American war, jointly produced by the Sones de Mexico and the Irish Music School of Chicago and featuring a fusion of Mexican and Irish music and dance. Another favorite was a performance a few years ago by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell, performing songs from their joint album, Kin.

Joseph Kranak Signature Room CC BY 2.0LSD, as in Lakeshore Drive, is such a gem. The glint of sun on the corner of skyscrapers. Wide swaths of lake, stretching toward the horizon. Belmont Harbor, with its promise of leisurely summer days spent out on the water. An open view of Buckingham Fountain, whose spray hits the sky just so, making a rainbow. Joggers and bikers cutting their path, making the city feel lived in, alive. Warm days when the beaches are loaded with people. Cool days when the sand is iced over, windswept into craggy piles. Gray, dry  days when the city is a blend of blue, silver, and white.

Andrew Seaman Davis Theater CC BY-ND 2.0The Davis Theater, located in the Lincoln Square neighborhood, is almost 100 years old, with a definite old-timey feel, established by antique posters, retro vending equipment, and four theaters displaying high, smallish screens and dingy, threadbare seats that you can’t help but love. It’s a refreshing respite from the brightly lit, commercial complexes where movies are more frequently shown today. Perhaps it’s most admirable feature, though, is the name — speaking as one, it’s hard not to love a “Davis” 🙂

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 11.32.31 AMSpeaking of Davis’s, I will sorely miss Davis Street Fish Market, purporting on their website to be “Chicago’s #1 Seafood Destination.” I have a long history with this place. I recall eating there with my parents on a college visit to Northwestern, and celebrating my graduation there a few years later. These days my husband and I like to journey over to Evanston on a Friday night for some “Crescent City Cioppino,” replete with scallops, crawfish, clams, shrimp, mussels, tomato, and fennel, or maybe some Jambalaya. Well, we used to. I suppose I’ll need a new seafood spot in the Lou.

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 11.58.32 AMI’m not a big shopper, but I have some great memories of sorting through Knee Deep Vintage‘s collection of dresses, t-shirts, bags, and shoes. Open since 2008, the shop is located on 18th Street, in Pilsen, on Chicago’s south side. I bought an army green dress with a gold print, 1950s-style, with a cinched waist, stiff collar and 3-quarter cuffed sleeves, and pleated flare skirt that I was intent on sporting for Halloween, Mad Men style, but it’s just been hanging in my closet for the last five years. I finally donated it the other day. Still, it was a rare find, and I’m glad I went knee deep for it.

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 12.12.52 PMDak is a Korean barbecue joint near my house whose praises I also sung on the site Food Riot. A clean, spare, small space with blonde wooden tables, gray floors, and plentiful spools of paper towels, Dak is good for two versions of wings: one with a soy/garlic/ginger sauce, and a spicy red pepper version. Rice bowls are also on the menu, containing veggies, a fried egg, and a sweet/spicy red pepper sauce, but my favorite is their Bulgogi — thinly sliced steak lightly dredged in Korean barbecue sauce served alongside a sticky mound of white rice. They also make a mean eggroll and a tasty batch of sweet potato waffle fries that are hard to resist.

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 3.06.01 PMSpeaking of neighborhood haunts, it’ll be hard to part with Devon Market. The Edgewater grocery store has fresh bread baked in store, a large produce section, a wide assortment of Mexican style meats, international pantry items, and is such a bargain compared to the bigger chains.

Patrick Emerson Follow Harold Washington Library Patrick Emerson CC BY-ND 2.0How I’ll miss the Harold Washington Library, and the entire Chicago Public Library system. The sheer size and vibrancy of Chicago’s libraries, housed in so many beautiful and historic locations, is something to be savored. (I think Sulzer Regional Library in Lincoln Square is a close second for me.) And for a bit of trivia, did you know that the city’s public library system was set into motion after the Great Chicago Fire, when 8,000 books were donated from England? Now you do 🙂

Rachel 365/28 Lao Sze Chuan CC BY-NC 2.0

Lao Sze Chuan is, hands down, my favorite place to eat Chinese food in the city. They have a delectable eggplant pork dish that’s soft and buttery and decadent, a mayonnaise shrimp item that sounds disgusting but is strangely addictive, delicious crispy beef dishes, irresistible steamed dumplings, and warm pots of fresh tea. That said, their menu is extensive, and in all my times eating there, I’ve only scraped the tip of the iceberg. Don’t take my word for it — this place has received numerous awards from the city’s culinary community. It’s a fairly widespread favorite.

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 2.11.39 PMAnd… last, but certainly not least, I will miss Links Hall, a performance space for independent artists — a place to take risks, generate new work, and expose Chicago audiences to new horizons. With all its artistic offerings, I doubt Saint Louis has a place quite like it. Aw shucks.

So there you go. As I prepare to journey southward, I remember that Chicago is a loaded, special place, full of places and people and meals to be missed. What’s your favorite Chicago gem??

 

 

Grateful Wednesdays

Kalyan Chakravarthy Half what? (CC BY 2.0)I’ve decided that hump day deserves a regular gratitude list. It’s the best way to slide into Thursday with my head screwed on straight, to pause in the middle of the week for a little putting-in of perspective. And I think there’s added value in listing nuggets of thankfulness  in order to share them — for me, that is. It feels like a subtle way of taking action on what I’ve been given, paying good things forward by making them known to you, dear reader, or by drawing attention to the less tangible things. And for me, making a personal gratitude list public helps me to
cement and augment a more general posture of thankfulness and abundance. I hope it reads less as, “good for me, now let me pat myself on the back” and more broadly as “the world is loaded with wonder.” So, thank you, and without further adieu, ten things, small and not so:

  1. Wait for it…chocolate chip and roasted pear scones, courtesy of Smitten Kitchen. What a slightly unexpected, fruity, chocolatey, tart-sweet combo. While I’m at it, the entire Smitten Kitchen site — a self-contained gold mine of recipes, simple and scrumptious — and also, the mini scone pan I was gifted for Christmas. I never got around to making scones before I had this pan. It’s the little things.
  2. The people in this world who choose a hard path, knowing it’s hard, and knowing that there is no way around it. I’m thinking of Dr. Martin Luther King. I marvel at the clarity of his life’s mission, vision, and moral conscience.
  3. Winter headbands that keep things insulated on, say, an early morning/early evening commute involving lots of walking and waiting in the cold. If you’re reading, go ahead and grab yourself one! Just do it.
  4. The unique beauty of urban landscapes: the warm, orange glow of streetlights against a dark early morning sky, the steep rise of buildings, winding around the lake, the contrast between a bright train car and the sleeping wooden balconies outside. I could go on (I’ll spare you) but suffice it to say that Chicago is a looker, even in the thick of late January.
  5. A new vegetable soup recipe: Provençal Vegetable Soup, from Ina Garten’s Barefoot in Paris. There are a couple of things about this soup that I find noteworthy: the addition of broken spaghetti noodles and halved green beans, the liberal use of chopped leeks, and last, but not least, the swirling-in-for-serving of pistou, a paste made of raw garlic, tomato paste, fresh basil, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese.
  6. The practice of blogging. I think of it as a practice,  not unlike a yoga practice. It’s something I routinely turn to to clear my head, to challenge myself, to slow myself down and develop a deeper presence of mind and level of self-awareness. I’m thankful that blogging is something I can always return to when I have the time, that there’s now a foundation of entries on this here site to blossom into more entries. And more. It’s a good thing we bloggers collectively have going here, on WordPress. To think that the world of blogging didn’t exist a few years ago…
  7. New horizons/things to look forward to. For me, that includes a very hypothetical, much discussed and absolutely unprepared for trip to Ireland in the not so distant future. The longer it goes unplanned, the longer the gestation phase of my fervent anticipation — a blurry assortment of misty, rolling hills, warm pubs, and long, stretched out days of doing whatever the heck we please. One day we’ll get there.
  8. The space and time to be enjoyed by two adults who don’t have kids…yet. In other words, the absence of a heavy (yes, and beautiful) responsibility. This translates into gym time, leisurely cooking, the satisfaction of getting-stuff-done after work, whimsical and aimless conversations with my husband that have nothing to do with getting stuff done.
  9. The difference between writing for an editor and writing for myself. I say difference because I am grateful for both modes, so to speak. I find both challenging and rewarding in different ways. With writing for myself comes the joy/challenge of figuring out what I truly want to say, and also the spontaneity and lightness of having an idea strike my fancy and setting words to page. With writing for an editor comes more scrutiny, more research, a satisfying degree of clarity regarding form and style, and the meaty challenge of organizing ideas accordingly. With both comes the joy and freedom of returning, writing as much or as little as time dictates, but always knowing that writing is there.
  10. Befitting this rather nerdy post I will end with an entirely nerdy “nugget”: I am proud to say, I am very, very thankful for step aerobics. Yep, that’s right. Doing “mambo cha-cha-chas” and “corner knees” and “helicopter turns” astride a big plastic bench. At about 7:30 on a Tuesday evening when I’ve been alternately sitting and standing but not doing a whole lot of moving, it’s bliss, a way to get the blood flowing if you have an affinity for basic jazz dance moves and/or leanings toward the 1980s decade. Somehow, over the last three or four years I’ve morphed into what some would call “a stepper” — I just wish I had the wristband and the pastel-hued leg warmers to do myself justice. Oh well. When a girl’s gotta step, a girl’s gotta step. Er…woman, that is… (I have a pet peeve for grown ass women referring to themselves as girls. Oops.)

So that’s it. My list of small, and not so small points of gratitude to get me over the hump. I hope they serve you as well. As my dust-gathering Book of Common Prayer reads, “It is a good and a joyful thing, always and everywhere, to be thankful to God.” Amen.

When Things Fall Apart

Justus Hayes La Chartreuse - Not Thorough Enough CC BY 2.0Yesterday morning I awoke to a crisis, of sorts — my closet had literally imploded in the middle of the night. Shelves smashed into the door, shoes shoved up against the wall, a heaving mass of clothes and bags and drawers to remove, gingerly, from the slightly cracked door. Today ended with a trip to Home Depot and a living room stacked with boxes and drawers, clothes hanging from my keyboard stand. This had to happen for a reason, I tell myself. Couldn’t find time to purge, now I’m forced to reckon with piles of things I forgot I owned.

Daphne Rose Kingma, of The Ten Things To Do When Your Life Falls Apart, would say that I’ve “integrated my loss,” number seven on the list of ten. Please forgive the implication that my closet is my life — although it has taken on a life of its own unfurled this way in the middle of my living room, so the metaphor seems apt. In all seriousness, Kingma writes that “crisis of any kind calls us into integration,” which means facing the troubles, losses that we experience, telling ourselves the truth about our struggles, and granting them a meaningful place in the narrative that we construct about our lives.

There’s a saying that I sometimes hear intoned in yoga classes: “I am exactly as I should be today.” It reorients the mind from a constant state of comparison — what is versus what should be — to simply, what is. With this mantra, the mind is freed up to observe and claim ownership of what naturally exists, and to proclaim the rightness of it, because it is. I imagine that this way of thinking has something do with the concept of integration, in its way of honing powers of observation versus powers of control, even the darker, unwelcome aspects of our surroundings, circumstances, and identities are acknowledged and incorporated.

Kingma writes that our “human nature prefers distinction, separation, and confusion, [but] our spiritual nature seeks wholeness, inclusion, and union. Since we are ultimately spiritual in nature, life keeps pointing us in the direction of this growth.” As much as we might resist embracing what is painful about life, casting our experience in a line, with steps “forward” and “back,” the reality is that we don’t selectively determine our path, instead, our path happens to us, and in it’s in our best interest to include the unplanned, unwanted directions in constructing a more three-dimensional image of ourselves.

It seems that I’ve veered a long way from my caved-in closet. As I pick up the pieces, I’ll try to embrace the chaos for what it is. After all, it is.

Gratitude and Roasted Red Pepper Soup

“Soup is a lot like family. Each ingredient enhances the others; each batch has its own characteristics; and it needs time to simmer to reach full flavor.” — Novelist Margaret Kennedy

bourgeoisbee Roasted Tomato Red Bell Pepper Soup CC BY-NC 2.0 There’s something you gotta love about soup that’s predicated on one vegetable, simmered and softened, then pureed. It’s an act of gratitude, piling raw peppers into a pot and making the most out of them.

Lately I’ve wondered what it means to actively practice gratitude — not just ticking off  lists of thanksgivings but fully embodying a spirit of thankfulness, in the way that we go about our day, in the things that we desire, in the way our goals and hopes are oriented. It offers us a way out of changes in mood or circumstance, a way into feeling still, centered, and easy.

I’m grateful for the singleness of focus I’ve had lately with my writing. My family is all so supportive of my writing goals, which is motivating and sustaining; it makes me feel like less of an impostor when someone asks me what I “do.” It isn’t so much doing as it is thinking and then recording my thoughts. Which brings me back to my gratitude for soup. A steaming bowlful, topped with a dollop of mascarpone cheese, is a reminder to inhabit the moment more fully, to savor the flavor of a single vegetable, and be filled with warmth.

Roasted Red Pepper Soup
Makes 3 large servings
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 cups sliced onions
1 1/2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons white wine
6 red bell peppers, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup chicken broth
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
A sprinkling of red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper
Mascarpone cheese for garnish

Tools

Chef’s knife
Cutting Board
Measuring spoons
Measuring cups
Large pot
Wooden spoon
Immersion blender or blender/food processor

  • Slice the onions, mince the garlic, chop the bell peppers, and measure the thyme. Have the chicken broth, salt, and pepper out, with measuring cups nearby.
  • Swirl the olive oil to coat the bottom of the pot. Add the onions and cook on medium-low heat until they soften and turn a bit golden.
  • Swirl the olive oil to coat the bottom of the pot. Add the onions and cook on medium-low heat until they soften and turn a bit golden.
  • Add the minced garlic and cook for another minute.
  • Add the two tablespoons of wine and cook on medium-high heat until the liquid is reduced to 1 tablespoon.
  • Add the peppers, broth, thyme, and red pepper flakes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  • Cover the pot and simmer the peppers for about 30 minutes, or until they’re soft.
  • Purée the mixture using an immersion blender or a normal blender/food processor.
  • Serve warm (or chilled) with a scoop of mascarpone cheese in the center.

Talking Documentaries: The Island President

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 4.08.13 PMI watched a wonderful documentary a few weeks ago that I hope you’ll consider watching if you have some spare vacation time this week. In The Island President, award-winning cinematographer and director Jon Shenk profiles the urgent environmental agenda of the lowest lying country on Earth: the Maldives, a constellation of 1200 islands scattered below India. A three meter rise in sea level would be enough to obliterate the country’s pristine beaches and Sunni Muslim population. In 2008, the Maldives transitioned from a brutal dictatorship to a democratic government under the leadership of Mohammed Nasheed, and a fascinating parallel is drawn between Nasheed’s rise to the presidency, overcoming a relentless military regime, and his next epic political battle: fighting the imminent threat of climate change.

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 3.59.39 PMThe movie opens with a panoramic view of the Indian ocean, featuring the graceful underwater waves of a coral reef, large circles of land that dissolve into water, a streak of uninterrupted sky, the overlapping of blues, greens, and turquoises from all sides. Such beauty is juxtaposed with a brief history of former President Gayoom’s repressive regime, during which Nasheed and other outspoken government critics were imprisoned and tortured where upscale resorts now stand. After being repeatedly imprisoned, Nasheed went into exile to continue his reform efforts. When the 2004 tsunami hit, decimating whole islands and reducing GDP by 50 percent, he decided to return to the Maldives. In the words of one government official, his much anticipated return would either result in his death or his becoming president. The latter ended up happening. Within weeks of reclaiming his country, Nasheed realized that the most urgent political issues facing the Maldives all revolved around climate change. Beaches were washing away, the fishing industry had stalled, and rising sea levels threatened to take an entire republic — in essence, a civilization — off the map in the foreseeable future. Nasheed’s response was to take the global lead on reducing carbon emissions, vowing that the Maldives would become carbon neutral by 2019.

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 4.22.48 PMAfter reconstructing this recent history, the film shifts its focus to Nasheed’s efforts to persuade world leaders that in his words, the “annihilation” of the Maldives is an equally urgent global issue. The camera follows Nasheed’s meetings with the British parliament to his dealings at a New York climate conference — his first trip to the U.S. — capturing many snapshots of the developed and developing world’s complacency. Meanwhile, he adopts strong rhetoric: “if you don’t protect the Maldives today, you cannot protect London tomorrow.” It’s very compelling to watch Nasheed’s team move with heightened awareness of their own mortality through a political process that is as murky and unsympathetic as a tsunami itself. For example, a British journalist cheerfully observes in a radio interview that “you really like a fight, don’t you,” to which Nasheed laughs and points out that he’s fighting for his country’s existence. Another scene shows Nasheed lobbying a British politician who smiles nervously and states that supporting democracy in a Muslim country must be an important priority. During a review of global warming statistics for the Copenhagen summit, Nasheed’s audacity is replaced by a grave silence, but he quickly resolves to enlist the support of India, China, Brazil, and other rapidly developing economies the only way he knows how: by presenting the issue in a “green ribbon cutting” format, in other words, a PR opportunity.

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 4.28.48 PMYou grow to love this lithe island president, wading into the ocean in a business suit to film public service announcements, conducting underwater cabinet meetings to expose the decrepit state of coral reefs, awkwardly but good-naturedly choking down a hamburger at an American sports bar after a disappointing first day at the New York conference, agreeing wholeheartedly with the London Times headline, “Global Warming like Nazi Invasion.” The Minister of Housing & Environment, Mohamed Aslam, effectively summarizes the unique political situation, or more accurately, apolitical situation of the Maldives: “I don’t even like the word negotiate. With climate, there’s nothing to negotiate.” But of course, the negotiations in Copenhagen are everything, and Nasheed reveals his underlying shrewdness when he makes major concessions to China with the aim of maintaining his country’s VIP status as a climate game-changer. To the disappointment of his delegation, his outspoken idealism gives way to a more calculated approach toward a less tangible outcome: maintaining influence in future talks.

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 4.13.52 PMSadly, Nasheed’s voice is silenced by something far more blunt than the complications of international diplomacy. As noted in the closing credits, he was ousted from power in February 2012 by forces loyal to the former dictator — once again, a reminder that the health of our planet is inextricably linked to that seemingly “dirty” word, politics. In the meantime, I’m inspired to be a little nicer to my patch of the planet this new year.

[Photos: “Maldives Sunset,” Sarah Ackerman’s photostream under CC BY 2.0, “Maldives from the air 1,” Commonwealth Secretariat’s photostream, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, “Maldives Underwater Cabinet Meeting,” Divers Association of Maldives’ photo stream, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, “Island President,” humanrightsfilmfestival’s photo stream, CC BY-NC 2.0]

Something Added

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.27.29 AMOne of my English professors used the phrase “something added” to sum up the value of books. I have expanded it to include food, and for that matter, anything artistic, insightful, or whimsical that we encounter on a daily basis — works of art, fleeting images from our day, snippets of conversation, or home cooked meals. The value of these things lies in their being “added,” a reminder that our work-centered, often self-centered culture is filled with side notes. There is a creative pulse worth taking, observing, contemplating. Last week I was doing research for an article on brownies (what else?) and I found this lovely blog: http://www.101cookbooks.com. In the author’s words, it “chronicles a cookbook collection, one recipe at a time.” I love blogs that document ongoing, behemoth projects — http://101books.net is another good one — and it got me re-evaluating my broad, blurry approach to blogging. At a certain point, though, follow through is everything. As much as I enjoy reading your admirable, impeccable, immaculately groomed sites featuring elegant variations on a well-defined theme, I’m going all-inclusive with this post as a mark of solidarity with my fellow generalists. I invite you to enjoy my sloppy smorgasbord of inspiration this past week. Something added is always welcome 🙂

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.30.06 AMI saw the national tour of this musical at The Oriental Theatre (in Chicago) this weekend. It won the Tony for best musical, and now I understand why. It is an understated, humorous love story carried by beautiful music. The staging is also beautiful: the actors play their own instruments and move seamlessly in and out of scenes set in a pub turned music shop turned recording studio. All this is accomplished with wooden chairs, mirrors, tables, and a few supertitles. The audience mingles onstage as the ensemble warms up, visiting the onstage pub during intermission. The staging/choreography was subtly timed, almost self-effacing, which enhances the music.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.32.21 AMMy main squeeze and I visited an art gallery, Hilton-Asmus Contemporary, that converted itself into a movie theatre for a free pop-up film festival dedicated to John Ford. We saw Ford’s 1940, Academy-Award winning classic “How Green Was My Valley.” The surrounding photographs by Dennis Manarchy of the American West — cowboys suspended in swirls of sand and looming clouds, an enormous buffalo posing demurely — granted the film’s black-and-white images of coal mines, craggy countryside, and weary villagers a sort of unspoken kinship.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.34.23 AMDeb Perelman’s recipe for a chopped Mediterranean salad is my October lunch of choice: A hearty, healthy, slightly briny salad with chopped cucumbers, olives, feta, pickled red onions, and peppers is as colorful as an art gallery, eh? That, and it gets tastier with time. See link at the bottom of this page.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.35.19 AMRead this book by Muriel Barbery, author ofThe Elegance of the Hedgehog. It profiles the last waking hours of a famous food critic. He waxes poetic about various meals seared in his memory, digging for a delicacy that has slipped to the recesses of his mind. Meanwhile, various members of his household — from doting wife to bitter children to the bemused Venus hanging over his desk — express their grief, hatred, and utter indifference toward the dying aesthete. It’s wry, diverting, and food-filled.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.37.55 AMI found a killer tomato sauce. By “found” I mean the google search I did worked out very well for me. This sauce is all over food blogs, which is promising, because a delicious sauce has a way of getting all over everything. You literally take a 28 oz can of whole tomatoes, dump them in a pot, and simmer for 45 minutes with an onion, peeled and halved, and several pads of butter. That’s all. It’s unbelievable. In this case, the “something added” philosophy falls flat. You could add a little salt, pepper, or possibly some parmesan cheese, but that’s a highly emphasized maybe. It’s an exercise in silky, luxurious minimalism. See link at the bottom of this page.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.39.14 AMCooking with apples is an autumn ritual for me. I have made several batches of sweetened applesauce and I am reminded that this humble dessert need not be relegated to school cafeterias. The version I adapted from “Apple Cookbook” by Olwen Woodier is thick, rich, loaded with fresh, tart apples, and spiked with cinnamon, ginger, and brown sugar. You peel, core, and slice about 10 medium apples, place them in a large pot with three T. of apple juice or cider, and simmer until they break down. Instead of puréeing the soft apples, I simmered them a little longer and mashed them with a potato masher right in the pot. Stir in 1/3 c. brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger and cinnamon, as well as several T. butter. I like to use really tart apples. A warm bowl for breakfast hits the spot.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.45.19 AMSpeaking of soft, comforting foods that signal shorter, darker days, I was inspired to make “baked polenta with vegetables” from a cookbook called “The Pleasures of Cooking for One.” (For more where that came from, see my book review). I was drafting an article about polenta, then scrounging in my cabinets for dinner, and voilà, the food muse materialized. In the form of instant polenta. This creamy, cheesy “cornmeal mush” used to be the Venetian grain of choice. Now pasta exists, but it still makes a decadent receptacle for leftover vegetables (and, as it turns out, a cushy sop-up for my “killer” tomato sauce.)

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.47.40 AMI recommend this documentary called “Park Avenue: Money, Power, and the American Dream.” It uses NYC neighborhoods as a lens for broader economic disparity. Park Avenue on the upper East side of Manhattan is contrasted with Park Avenue in the Bronx, a ten minute  drive away. One Park Avenue consists of high rise apartment buildings populated by some the world’s most politically powerful billionaires, and the other displays a community lacking basic resources and social agency. The proximity of these two streets is startling, a symbol of the boldness with which high concentrations of political and socioeconomic power are seized and retained. It’s like a Monopoly board, literally. I had just taught a class to a group of high school freshmen on Chicago’s far West side who, generally speaking, were several years behind reading level — a direct correlation to the schools in their neighborhood. Everyday we witness these inequalities in our respective cities. From the power base of New York City, the contrasts are even starker.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.48.44 AMFellow writing enthusiasts, are you familiar with Becoming A Writer, by Dorothea Brande? Five bucks at Armadillo’s Pillow bought me a reissue of the 1934 classic. Its scope is fundamental and timeless, that of helping writers to cultivate self-awareness: of their passions, subconscious feelings and perceptions, convictions. In the foreword, John Gardner writes that “the root problems of the writer are personality problems… and [Ms. Brande’s] whole focus, and a very valuable focus indeed, is on the writer’s mind and heart” (15). In the sea of information about writing, this sounds like clarity, consistent with the wisdom that, to quote a line from Theodore Roethke, “we think by feeling.”

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 11.06.08 AMIt’s interesting to think about the fleeting words or images that leverage us to take action. In Becoming A Writer, Brande writes that “the author has at his command, in the mere exercise of stringent honesty, the best source of consistency for his own work. If you can discover what you are like, if you can discover what you truly believe about most of the major matters of life, you will be able to write a story which is honest and original and unique. But those are very large ‘ifs,’ and it takes hard digging to get at the roots of one’s own convictions” (123). I feel like this little man furrowing my brow over which apple to pick. I’m just trying to decide what I want for lunch.

Links:

[Photo credits, in order: Craig Damlo’s photostreamBroadway Tour’s photostreamdrmvm1’s photostreamJon Pinder’s photostreamartizone’s photostreamkahala’s photostreamMGF/Lady Disdain’s photostreamArchives New Zealand.]

Words To Drive By Part 5

On Possessing Beauty

IMG_1728There was much beauty to document on our recent trip. From San Francisco’s salmon-colored, hillside homes, to the produce stalls of Saturday morning markets, from ocean vistas to smaller nooks and crannies.

You get my drift. A snapshot or two or 50 becomes inevitable; there is an urge to possess beauty when it is fleeting. We began our slow-twisting descent into Yosemite Valley as I reached the chapter on “The Art of Possessing Beauty” in “The Art of Travel.” I felt a renewed appreciation for the examined life vacation, the notion of author-as-companion tapping me on the shoulder with some timely advice.

This time, the life of John Ruskin is the author’s point of inspiration. An Englishman living in the 19th century, he wrote The Elements of Drawing and The Elements of Perspective. He championed the art of drawing to the English public, believing that drawing was the only way to truly see the world’s beauty.

He was interested in what it meant to see: he valued writing and photography and other methods of “possessing beauty” in so much as they allowed a person to understand and articulate the various factors that made something seem beautiful.

He was acutely observant of visual and sensory details:

“Ruskin was throughout his life frustrated by the refusal of polite, educated English people to talk in sufficient depth about the weather — and in particular by their tendency to refer to it as wet and windy…” (De Botton 227).

He also believed in traveling slowly, in a state of deep concentration, covering small distances at a time. De Botton summarizes the rarity of this approach among modern travelers:

“It is a measure of how accustomed we are to inattention that we would be thought unusual and perhaps dangerous if we stopped and stared at a place for as long as a sketcher would require to draw it” (218).

I am sure John Ruskin would have delicately rolled over in his grave had he witnessed the herd of cars and RVs eagerly stopping at one particular, heavily labeled overhang for the same photo op (like me, below). I am sure our hour-long drive to the campsite, winding through one sun-drenched patch of trees after another, punctuated by the occasional, sparkling stream or stark cliff, could have easily been its own trip, its own portfolio of drawings.

Screen Shot 2013-07-28 at 8.43.50 PM

But for all the dramatic views, highs and lows we witnessed at Yosemite, we did spend one afternoon that felt distinctly aligned with his principles of slow-moving receptivity, lying along the rocks of a very clear, cold river on a thick, hot day. It was the psychological equivalent of being eight years old again, in the dog days of summer — the faded voices of families calling to each other, multiple generations in multiple languages, the crunch of gravel, the mixed smell of charcoal and barbecue, the running of water over rocks, slight breezes cutting through dry heat, sending an occasional shiver through low-hanging leaves.

That is my attempt at a “word-painting,” for which Ruskin eventually became famous. Ruskin believed that describing the natural beauty of a place meant to capture its unique, emotional effect, using emotionally evocative words to enhance the objective, sensory details.

Seems like a familiar idea, even a cliché, that the beauty of a place is tied to the feeling it creates. But when you take that idea to its logical conclusion — all places are beautiful because all places evoke feelings (of varying depth and complexity) — you become aware of how much beauty is available in any given moment, and how much conscious effort (and slowing down) is necessary to see that beauty.

For Ruskin, the conscious effort involved in “word painting” is what allows the writer to see more clearly. Ruskin had a less elevated opinion of photography, but I stand by my mindless snapshots. Capturing views is important in wine country — it allows the good stuff to sit tight, eventually be reopened, shared, and enjoyed anew.

Words To Drive By

Screen Shot 2013-07-29 at 9.43.51 AMThe Art of Travel by Alain de Botton was a fitting companion as I road-tripped the coast of California this June and July. Unlike a traditional guidebook suggesting what to do in a given locale, it probes the how — asking what it means to travel meaningfully from a historical, philosophical, and anecdotal point of view.

The book has a clever structure: in each chapter, de Botton explores a big, travel-related topic using a guide from the world of literature, art, or history to offset his own travel anecdotes. For example, in the chapter, “On Eye-Opening Art” Van Gogh’s history in Provence enlightens the author’s first trip there. With the help of Van Gogh’s paintings, de Botton finds that this much-lauded corner of the world lives up to its hype, leading to a more subtle, philosophical conversation about the two-way relationship between beautiful places and their representation in works of art.

I found de Botton’s reflections apropos — universal, nimbly working around clichés — as I found myself lazing next to a cold river reading about Wordsworth’s exultation of the countryside, or greedily snapping photos of peaks and valleys, only to encounter a chapter “On Possessing Beauty,” with relevant, reverent quotes such as

“‘I can never stand long under an Alpine cliff, looking up to its pines, as they stand on inaccessible juts and perilous ledges of an enormous wall, in quiet multitudes, each like the shadow of the one beside it — upright, fixed, not knowing each other’” (229, John Ruskin).

Allow me to share some more of my favorite musings from The Art of Travel, and how they became words to drive by, beginning with  some thoughts on departure and anticipation.

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