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Building, Literally and Figuratively

My dad wrote this article the other day and it moved me. I want to share it with you:

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I usually write about leadership and business issues in the design and construction industry. Today, however, it’s hard to avoid commenting on public debates that challenge us in America and around the world. Some of them are about building, literally and figuratively.

Architects love walls. They’re fundamental in what we do: outside, inside, tall, short, transparent, opaque. They shelter us from heat, cold, and rain, separate things that need privacy within buildings, and provide all kinds of opportunities for interesting design statements. They hold things up. They’re constructive and valuable.

Walls in the political sense have a less useful, more insidious meaning. We’ve become obsessed with defining ourselves, and dividing ourselves, from people and ideas that seem threatening. Different. Foreign – even in our own communities.

For example, my home town has 91 municipalities in a single urban county. They have interesting historical roots, but today they often consume our energy as people compete with each other, locally, rather than addressing the real competition for talent and investment that’s half a world away. It’s no surprise that the region isn’t growing.

On a national level the divides between backgrounds, races, and ideologies have never been sharper in my lifetime. We see threats all around us and are quick to create walls between us and “them” – the “other.” We create some of those walls with language and behavior, and in some cases they’re physical – like the idea of a kind of medieval barrier against our neighboring countries. We’re all trying to be architects now.

The idea of protective walls is certainly not new. We all know about the Wall of Jericho, the Great Wall of China, the walls and moats fortifying human settlements from hostile forces through the ages. The walls repelled the attackers, at least for a period of time, when the assault was based on numbers and brute force. That notion is quaint but irrelevant in our age of instant communication and global travel. We have strong national values but multi-national populations in much of the world.

I was reminded of the photo above, which I took on a London street in 1978. The subject is an immigrant, perhaps from Pakistan or India, holding a bright red can of Coke and with a bright yellow paperback copy of To Kill a Mockingbird in his jacket pocket. I think I was struck by those colors, which worked well with my Kodachrome slide film. Only later did I think about the meaning of the image, with its convergence of contrasts between nationalities in England, races in 20th-century America, and the commercial symbols that transcend them all. Who knows what real barriers this gentleman had overcome and has faced since?

This week I had two Uber drivers on a trip to Dallas. The first was from Iran, a member of the Baha’i faith, who talked freely about his new political and religious freedom. The second was from Iraq; he apologized for his poor English but expressed pride that his three young children spoke perfect English and were teaching him. Both drivers expressed great appreciation for their opportunities in America. They love our country. Are they “us,” or “them”?

In The Language of Postmodern Architecture, Charles Jencks declared that modern architecture died with demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis. In the same vein, perhaps we should hope that Ronald Reagan set the stage for a new generation with one of the best-known challenges of the last century: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!” It worked. We should do as well.

A Poem for Salman Rushdie’s New Novel

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I just finished Salman Rushdie’s latest, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. Here’s a brief summary of the book’s premise, borrowed from The New York Times book review:

The central character of Rushdie’s new novel… is…a man who gets cursed and gets blamed for it. Geronimo Manezes, a Mumbai-born gardener now living in New York, has begun to levitate. This isn’t the wish fulfillment of a flying dream; it threatens his livelihood and brings the increasing hostility of strangers. “Why do you imagine I consider my condition an improvement? He wanted to cry out. Why, when it has ruined my life and I fear it may bring about my early death?”

But Geronimo’s predicament is not an isolated case. It foreshadows an era of “strangenesses,” where the “laws which had long been accepted as the governing principles of reality had collapsed.” The strangenesses — some meteorological, some natural disasters, some simply miraculous — are the prelude to a full-blown invasion of the human world by malevolent spirits from another dimension.

It turns out that all four evil jinn, Zabardast, Zumurrud, Ra’im Blood-Drinker and Shining Ruby, have broken through the wormholes separating the world from Fairyland and are bent on causing havoc in the 21st century. The only power that can stop them is a nice female jinnia called Dunia and her human descendants: Geronimo Manezes, the British composer Hugo Casterbridge, the young Indian-American graphic novelist Jimmy Kapoor and a femme fatale called Teresa Saca. If Dunia can gather them up in time and awaken them to the power of their jinni nature, humanity might have a chance against the forces of darkness. “The seals between the Two Worlds are broken and dark jinn ride,” she tells Geronimo. “Your world is in danger and because my children are everywhere I am protecting it. I’m bringing them together, and together we will fight back.”

It certainly wasn’t my favorite Rushdie novel. The NY Times review is pretty critical, and I agree with its perspective. Reviewer Marcel Theroux notes that Rushdie’s “capcaiousness” and “breadth” as a writer/enchanter is a distinctive feature of his style and something to be celebrated… when “there’s been some compelling principle at work.” As Theroux puts it,

“Complaining that Rushdie’s not a naturalistic writer is like criticizing kimchi for its cabbagey funk.”

And I love Rushdie’s funk. It’s why I gravitate toward everything he writes. As for this novel, though, I’ll quote Theroux again:

“Behind its glittery encrustations, the plot resembles a bare outline for a movie about superheroes. There’s a war between worlds, lightning comes out of people’s fingertips and it all culminates in a blockbuster showdown between the forces of good and evil.”

Still, I am drawn to the “nice” jinnia, Dunia, who is enamored with the human world. I am fascinated with the contrast between capricious beings made of smoke and fire versus plodding, helpless humans. In the book, Dunia produces a line of half-jinn, half-human descendants, and the line they walk between their human natures and their jinn natures is fodder for us all. It inspired me to think about the “smoke and fire” lurking in myself, and my human company. I jot this poem down this morning. When I refer to “smoke and fire,” I think I’m referring to the ways in which our human limitations give way, the ways in which we surprise ourselves, transcending our human natures and tapping into something more powerful.

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Smoke and Fire

Smoke and fire:
You address me, “Beauty,”
You nick-named my stomach years ago
At a wedding, my arms are wrapped around you
“Python arms” you dub the photo
Then you say, “Hey Beauty, come here”
Insults, terms of endearment,
From You,
They both land lightly,
Almost to lift me up.

Smoke and fire:
I chased you out of the building
Clear sky, hot pavement
You were running for your life
Now we meet again in August
Your trusting smile,
signing your letter “yours truly”
“I’m ready to step up my game this year”

Smoke and fire:
Skin so thin that a hang nail
Threatens hospital beds and IVs
Skin so thick all the same
You weather your version of chronic pain
Far more graciously than me
And so I confide in you, and worry with you
Even when you’re the one hurting

Smoke and fire:
How many times have I rubbed
salt in your wounds
And you’ve called me back
Invited me over
Given me something from your closet,
Your fridge
“I’m so happy to see you,” you always say.

Smoke and fire:
You used to bribe me to type your papers
Your eyes were bloodshot as you
teased me about my first boyfriend
I bought you beer when I visited you at school
even though I was the younger one
Now you grip your newborn
like a football, easy
You’re well-versed in car seats
and choking hazards
And sleep schedules

Smoke and fire:
This life is muddy for you
Thick, brown, halting
Leaves traces of dirt on your shoes
Wherever you go
And yet you keep going,
So kind
Along your way

If only I could rub the magic lamp
Get a fat, blue little jinn
To fight your demons for you
Smoke and fire-like

Instead, I hold onto the traces
Of smoke
Of fire
inside these
soft,
beating
human hearts.

 

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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Hello Again, Here’s a Poem

Screen Shot 2013-05-07 at 8.56.58 AMMuch appreciated readers of Swirl to Coat, I’ve missed sharing my thoughts with you. I have been deep in the world of my English classroom, and otherwise adjusting to a new home and a new city. I’ve been writing a lot of curriculum, and an article on dance history. As for the blogging scene, my sincere apologies for being MIA.

So I’m creating a new category called Life in Lists. Aside from the fact that it’s an easier, perhaps lazier way to blog my thoughts, teaching creative writing has reinforced to me how powerful lists can be for wrapping your head around your own complex consciousness and arriving at meaningful observations about your life. Our textbook, The Practice of Creative Writing by Heather Sellers (which I highly recommend to anyone interested in pursuing creative writing for their own purposes, it’s brilliant, recommended to me by one who knows her stuff) is structured according to broad principles of writing, applicable to any genre: images, energy, tension, pattern, insight… And one of the things she includes in the insight chapter is that one “way to be wise” is to make lists: “Lists force a writer to stay focused on a single subject for longer and build the wisdom muscle.

Today I won’t be sharing a list, but a poem from The Practice of Creative Writing. For me, this poem has an implicit connection to food….and in my wrapped up world of female white privilege, it also makes me think of dieting — “cursing what hurt me, and praising what gives me joy,” and leaving a popcorn trail…  You know, “how everyone eats popcorn,” according to Amy Schumer…

Personal
by Tony Hoagland

Don’t take it personal, they said;
but I did, I took it all quite personal –

the breeze and the river and the color of the fields;
the piece of grapefruit and stamps,

the wet hair of women in the rain –
And I cursed what hurt me

and I praised what gave me joy,
the most simple-minded of possible responses.

The government reminded me of my father,
With its deafness and its laws,

and the weather reminded me of my mom,
with her tropical squalls.

Enjoy it while you can, they said of Happiness
Think first, they said of Talk

Get over it, they said
at the School of Broken Hearts

but I couldn’t and I didn’t and I don’t
believe in the clean break;

I believe in the compound fracture
served with a sauce of dirty regret,

I believe in saying it all
and taking it all back

and saying it again for good measure
while the air fills up with I’m-Sorries

like wheeling birds
and the trees look seasick in the wind.

Oh life! Can you blame me
for making a scene?

You were that yellow caboose, the moon
disappearing over a ridge of cloud.

I was the dog, chained in some fool’s backyard;
barking and barking:

trying to convince everything else
to take it personal too.

The iconic food-lovers — think Julia Child — are always hearty, voracious people, feeling people, with a rich and abundant emotional life, and a corresponding appetite. If you’re reading this, I leave you with the injunction I’m giving myself — which is to take life personally in the sense that there’s power and abundance to be found in vulnerability, in pouring yourself into your work and relationships, so as far as that goes, go ahead and make a scene.

Chapter One, Willpower

star5112 Balancing or falling? CC BY-SA 2.0Picture a group of twenty year-olds scattered around a dance studio, facing each other in pairs, leaning forward on their toes, noses touching. This was the first day of a Performance Studies class I took — for one day, before dropping it — called “Performance and the Body,” or something to that effect. Our introduction to the weekly, four-hour class was to stand as close to our partner for as long as we could, as still as we could. Afterward we debriefed on the challenges of this task, and many of us remarked that it was really difficult not to lob their partner with a big kiss. Nobody yielded to the temptation — one of my stranger feats of willpower.

As mentioned last week, I’m in the middle of reading Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, part history, part psychological study, part self-improvement book. Chapter one begins with a discussion of pop singer Amanda Palmer, a Dionysian, Lady Gaga type who doesn’t exactly conjure the traditionally straight-laced, Victorian idea of “willpower,” and yet, as the authors are wise to point out, who possesses it in abundant supply. She first honed her powers of will by standing stock still on top of a box, dressed as a bride in the middle of Harvard Square. She could manage it for about 90 minutes at a time, not being able “to scratch if she had an itch, wipe her nose if a piece of snot started to dribble down, swat at a stray mosquito…” She was doing nothing, but the discipline of being totally blank-faced and nonreactive was itself a challenge. Reminds me of how my old drama teacher used to yell, “F— YOU!” at us, as in, “focus you.”

Actually, there are four categories of willpower, according to this book:

  • Control of thoughts — this is accomplished by focusing
  • Control of emotions — this is accomplished through “indirect strategies,” such as distracting yourself when you feel negative emotions
  • Impulse control — really a description of how people react to stray impulses
  • Performance control — the ability to complete a task with the appropriate mix of speed, accuracy, perseverance

In chapter one, the authors also suggest that willpower is like a muscle that gets fatigued after use. Apparently we use the same supply of willpower for all tasks: making decisions, writing a term paper, resisting chocolate chip cookies, waking up on time… Author Roy Baumeister coined a term for willpower fatigue, called “ego depletion.” It draws upon Freud’s energy model of the self, the idea that the self is comprised of various, competing energies that must be productively channeled. University of Toronto researchers Michael Inzlicht and Jennifer Gutsell found that ego depletion manifests as slower activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, and also in more extreme emotions — so next time your plagued by violent mood swings, ask yourself how much self-discipline you’ve had to exercise recently.

An amusing study conducted by two Australian psychologists proved the forcefulness of the ego depletion concept. In the study, they administered self-control tests to students at several points throughout the semester. During exams, the students smoked more, doubled their caffeine intake, spent money more impulsively, and generally took on a host of bad habits. Turns out that stress erodes willpower, which explains the students’ poor behavior.

In another study, scientists put hungry subjects in a room with warm chocolate chip cookies, radishes, and chocolate candy. Some were told to eat the cookies and the candy; a separate group was told to eat the radishes. Then they were instructed to work on insoluble puzzles. Those who ate the sweets worked on the puzzles for an average of 20 minutes, whereas the radish-eating participants only persevered for about eight minutes. Their willpower had presumably been depleted by the effort of resisting the cookies. To summarize,

“You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it [and] you use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks.”

What’s the take away? Focus on accomplishing, changing, or mastering one thing at a time. And be patient with yourself, whatever the challenge 🙂

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??

 

 

What’s Cookin’, Good Lookin’

Jake Bellucci Le Creuset CC BY-NC-ND 2.0One of the things I love about winter is that it’s a season conducive to cooking in bulk — think soups, stews, casseroles, gratins, the list goes on. I have gotten into the habit of preparing one to two soups for the week on Sunday afternoons, and boy, has it been scrumptious, not to mention economical and time-saving. I thought I’d compile a list of my recent soup pursuits, with some of my forays into baking, fish, and why not, mashed potatoes thrown in for good measure. One of the pleasures of blogging for me is documenting what I cook throughout the year, so as I give into that, I hope that you find something posted here that you might consider trying. (Also, if you don’t already have one, I hope you’ll consider busying yourself an immersion blender… the one I recently acquired has been a godsend this winter, as evidenced by the list below. If not, a regular blender works too. Just a thought 🙂 ) Bon appetit!

tracy benjamin tortilla strips CC BY-NC-ND 2.0I first tasted this chicken tortilla soup recipe from Food and Wine at the home of my friend, Allison, on a much-needed getaway trip to Nashville, Tennessee. (The trip ended with the discovery of frozen pipes in our frigid condo, due to my flakiness in leaving the heat off just as Chicago morphed into Chiberia. Even our jar of olive oil was frozen solid, but that’s another story!) This soup makes clever use of the aforementioned immersion blender, thickening up the tomato/onion/garlic/five spice/chicken broth/cilantro base with fried tortilla strips, puréed. The cubed chicken is added raw and cooked conveniently in the broth, and chunks of avocado are mixed in at the end. It’s hearty, zingy, and deeply satisfying when topped with the usual Southwestern suspects: grated cheddar, homemade fried tortilla strips, sour cream, cilantro, scallions, and lime wedges.

Steven Lilley Broccoli CC BY-SA 2.0Padraic told me he felt like he was dining at Panera after eating Ree Drummond’s broccoli cheddar soup, and I took that as effusive praise! I used 2% milk instead of whole, and things turned out quite creamy nonetheless. The recipe starts with preparations for a roasted broccoli garnish, and proceeds with sautéing onions in butter, then simmering pieces of raw broccoli in a mixture of milk, half-and-half, flour, and nutmeg. Three cups of cheddar cheese are added, with the option of puréeing the mixture or breaking up the broccoli with a potato masher. I think this might be the most indulgent broccoli dish there is, but January/February is certainly a fitting time for it.

nick mote Lentil Macro CC BY 2.0Surprise, surprise, this recipe does not use a blender — no, instead, Ina Garten’s lentil sausage soup, from her cookbook Barefoot in Paris, is richly textured with softened vegetables, lentils, and chunks of sausage. In my unsuccessful search for the recommended French green lentils, I learned that French lentils are simply smaller in size, so I just bought the most petit ones they had in the store, which worked fine. The process starts by cooking onions, leeks, and garlic flavored with cumin, thyme, salt, and pepper; then celery and carrots are added. This mixture plus pre-soaked lentils, chicken stock, and tomato paste simmers for an hour, then pre-cooked sausage is added and warmed through. You finish it off with a drizzle of red wine vinegar or red wine, take your pick.

cookbookman17 White Beans CC BY 2.0Cristina Ferrare’s minestrone soup from the cookbook, Big Bowl of Love is another hearty, one-meal wonder. It’s basically a compilation of fresh vegetables, beans, and tomatoes, puréed thick and served with freshly grated Parmesan and a generous drizzle of balsamic vinegar. I couldn’t find an exact reproduction of the cookbook’s recipe on the inter tubes, so I’ve posted the recipe at the bottom of this entry.

PINKÉ Pyrex Casserole CC BY-NC 2.0Then, of course, there comes a time when enough soup has been had and a casserole — what else? — beckons. The notion of chicken tetrazinni was so delightfully retro to me that I felt compelled to whip up a behemoth batch of it. Who else but Ree Drummond, aka The Pioneer Woman, to guide me through layers of spaghetti, mushrooms, melted cream/Monterey Jack/Parmesan cheese, bacon, peas, and toasted bread crumbs? Hers is technically a turkey tetrazinni, which sounds delicious, but the only time I have cooked turkey on hand is the day after Thanksgiving. So I turned to The Kitchn for advice on poaching chicken breasts. Ree suggests adding up to two extra cups of chicken broth to the cheese/veggie/pasta mixture before baking it, even if it’s a little soupy. I second this — I added this amount and the consistency of the finished product was just right — cheesy but not overwhelmingly so, and moist. I skipped the chopped olives, but hey, that’s just me.

essgee51 Dill and Lemon 2 (20/365) CC BY-NC 2.0 Sometimes soup and casseroles don’t carry you through the entire week, which makes room for minimalist dishes like… salmon, roasted with lemon, butter, and dill. This is my go-to recipe for salmon — it’s as easy as melting butter with lemon juice and seasoning the fish with dill, minced garlic (or garlic powder), salt, and pepper. Comes out moist and flaky every time.

Anne White Yukon Gold Potatoes CC BY-NC 2.0I made a batch of these super easy, quick, and straightforward mashed potatoes to go with the salmon. It’s another find from Cristina Ferrare’s cookbook, Big Bowl of Love. I love this recipe because it turns what you normally think of as a special occasion, holiday side into a week night staple. The most work and time intensive part is peeling, boiling, and mashing the potatoes — after that’s done, you just add butter, milk, and salt, but in proportions that consistently produce a creamy, fluffy, apporiately-salted mash. The addition of lemon zest may sound strange, but I find that it brightens and freshens the dish in a beautiful way. Then again, I’ll add lemon to anything. A handful of chopped scallions add a peppery bite to the creamy potato canvas. I find that making mashed potatoes during the week is really quite practical — the leftovers can bulk up another quick-cooking protein a few days later or be packed in a lunch.

Tom Gill Apples CC BY-NC-ND 2.0Speaking of packing lunches, the discovery of a homemade scone in my lunch bag is worth the effort, I think. Lately I’ve been on a scone kick, as mentioned here. It’s the byproduct of my newly acquired “mini scone pan,” allowing you to just drop the dough into a greased pan, and the fact that scones are so versatile — good for breakfast, lunch, dessert… These apple and cheddar scones combine roasted chunks of tart fruit with a salty, cheesy bite, and the dough is non-fussily brought together in the bowl of an electric stand mixer — no messy wielding of a pastry cutter or hauling out of a food processor. The pre-roasted apples, grated cheese, dry ingredients (flour/sugar/baking powder/salt), and wet ingredients (butter/cream/egg) are simply combined in a single bowl and mixed together on low.

Screen Shot 2013-02-14 at 9.01.41 PMWith regard to other baked goods, this Valentine’s Day I was in the mood to make something chocolate, but I wanted to bypass some of the more decadent, ultra-sweet chocolate desserts. I still wanted to make something special, something I don’t normally make. I landed on Love and Olive Oil’s Orange and Dark Chocolate Biscotti, featuring my favorite chocolate-fruit flavor combination. The orange notes come through strongly, and the chunks of dark chocolate impart a subtle richness and decadence of flavor. I love the hearty crunch and mild sweetness of biscotti — making it at home transports you to your favorite café and gets the coffee pot percolating.

zoyachubby Basil CC BY-ND 2.0A second Valentine’s Day experiment, this time for the main course, was seared scallops with basil olive oil pistou. Somehow seafood is romantic to me, it’s the first thing that comes to mind when I imagine a Valentine’s Day dinner. I’m somewhat shy to say that this was my first time cooking scallops at home, but searing them proved quick and easy. Pistou (pronounced pee-stew) is a French term, and it’s similar to pesto: a mixture of herbs, garlic, and olive oil (in this version the herbs, parsley and basil, are blanched first. I’d never thought to blanche herbs before — aside from the nuisance of repeatedly hand wringing them dry, the blanching did make the sauce more delicate.) The pistou is spooned under each scallop and fresh herbs are sprinkled on top for a simple but slightly elevated presentation. The pistou certainly distinguishes this scallop dish and imparts lots of fresh flavor, but I have to say, it’s oily. I doubled the recipe, and even leaving out about 1/3 cup, the oil still saturated the plate. You might consider scaling back on it by paying closer attention than I did to the food processor.

John Robinson Lemon and lime CC BY 2.0Two final dinner recipes — last night I tried this fish taco recipe in lieu of Lent. It’s refreshing and light all around, a much-needed break from all these hearty, thickly puréed soups I’ve been making. You can use any white fish, I used cod — flavored with a marinade of lime juice, minced garlic, cumin, chili powder, and vegetable oil. For a healthier meal, the fish is grilled, not fried. The tacos are dressed with a cabbage slaw combining shredded cabbage, sliced red onion, cilantro, and more lime juice and veggie oil. Additional toppings include salsa, sour cream, and sliced avocado. (I opted against bottled salsa for an easy-to-make salsa fresca, containing chopped tomatoes, a squeeze of lime juice, some diced red onion, and a pinch of salt.) Last but not least, what could be easier than this lemon spaghetti recipe, authored by the one and only  Giada Di Laurentiis. You literally whisk together lemon juice, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese, and boil noodles, then make a few tweaks with pasta water, lemon zest, salt, pepper, and fresh basil (or in my case, dried). Couldn’t be simpler, and couldn’t be more delicious.

So there you go… a kitchen sink’s worth of good food links. Hopefully it stimulates some upcoming cooking adventures in your own kitchen. Thanks for reading, and please let me know if there’s a better recipe out there for salmon, mashed potatoes, soup, fish tacos, etc. etc. Happy hunkering down this winter!

Hearty Vegetable Minestrone Soup
From Big Bowl of Love

Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 2 celery stalks, diced
  • 2 small zucchini, diced
  • 2 cups broccoli florets, cut small
  • 1/2 small cabbage, shredded
  • 1 cup cauliflower cut into small pieces
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 (28-ounce) can of chopped tomatoes
  • 1 quart chicken stock
  • 2 (15-ounce) cans white navy beans or cannellini
  • 1 1/2 cups uncooked small tube, shell-shaped pasta, or orzo
  • 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • fresh basil
  • red pepper flakes
  • balsamic vinegar, for drizzling

Instructions

  • Heat a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil and heat until hot. Quickly add the onion, and sauté for 5 minutes, until the onion starts to caramelize. Add the garlic and sauté for 30 seconds.
  • Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute; then add the water and stir. Simmer for 2 minutes. Add carrots, celery, zucchini, broccoli florets, cabbage, cauliflower, and salt. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until the vegetables start to release their juices.
  • Add the canned tomatoes and chicken stock. Bring to a gentle boil. Add the beans and stir. Cover and gently simmer on low heat for 45 minutes.
  • In a blender, (or with an immersion blender), purée three-quarters of the soup until semi-smooth. Pour back into the stockpot and stir well. This will thicken your soup.
  • Adjust the seasoning (taste for salt; you will probably need to add more — 1/4 teaspoon at a time, so you don’t oversalt). Bring the soup back up to a gentle boil. Add the pasta and stir well so the pasta doesn’t stick. Cook the pasta for about 5 minutes or until al dente. You don’t want to overcook the pasta. Ladle into heated bowls. Garnish with 2 tablespoons freshly grated cheese per serving, fresh basil, and red pepper flakes to taste. Drizzle about a teaspoon of olive oil and balsamic vinegar over the top.

“Will You Take Me As I Am,” and Other Joni Musings

Thomas Hawk Indoor Fireworks, Plate 2 (CC BY-NC 2.0)“No, but are you really listening?” This is the line I repeatedly confront my husband with when listening to Joni Mitchell. I have yet to convert him, and until that fateful day, I’ll be a broken record. I knew that I had found a kindred spirit in Michelle Mercer’s Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period upon reading that the author used Mitchell as a litmus test for would-be boyfriends, confessing, “When a guy seemed like a decent prospect, there was one good way to find out.” She adds, “You didn’t play Join Mitchell for girlfriends… I already knew that they got it,” but “a soulmate would ear the ingenuity of Joni’s chords, the novelty of her song structure…” Judging by this standard, my otherwise wonderful husband is not soulmate material — Joni doesn’t inspire reverence in him so much as chuckles and gentle mockery (can you believe the gall! To chuckle…) For example, in the admittedly playful but equally brilliant “All I Want,” he gets such a kick out out of the line “I want to shampoo you” that he likes to convert the following one, “I want to renew you…” into “I want to run through you…” He also occasionally chicken balks when I’m putting on an impromptu concert from the revered Joni canon, but that’s another story…

For the longest time, I thought my singing voice was the problem. I kept saying, “You’d like Joni better if if you listened to her sing her own songs, rather than my flawed imitations,” but he’s yet to have the aha moment, you know, when he comes to his senses and properly worships the ground she walks on. I do give him credit for nabbing me a copy of Will You Take Me As I Am from our local library, and we shared a laugh over the fact that the “you’re not really listening!” sentiment seems to be something of a phenomenon. Then there’s Mercer’s observation that women “just get” Joni, consistent with my experience — I’m thinking of my friend Allison, and my mom, whose Ladies of the Canyon and Court and Spark CDs first prompted my obsession — and men? Well, the noncommittal ones just need to listen, in case I haven’t made that clear.

I discovered Joni Mitchell relatively late, I guess — in college. I’m embarrassed to say that as an adolescent I never had a love affair with any particular band, or “singer-songwriter,” excluding some modest enthusiasm for The Cranberries 🙂 I’ve always tended towards female singers — at the time I was probably fond of Lauryn Hill, Dido, Sara Mclachlan, you get the picture — and then of course I was also immersed in the campy, self-referential, albeit musically rich world of musical theatre, which probably crowded out space in my soul for more earnest, angsty plungings into sophisticated artists. Nothing in my middle or high school years compared to the technically agile, lyrically pointed and precise, vocally pure music of Joni Mitchell, which only became more rewarding as I discovered more albums, her style always evolving, becoming more and more expansive. For all intents and purposes, though, I think college still counts as adolescence, at least for my innocent, rather late-blooming development, and so I was probably bowled over by her lyrics in the singular, intense way of a pimply teenager. In her book Mercer states that according to scientific studies, the music we are exposed to in our adolescence hits us the deepest. I find this fact at once utterly fascinating and entirely sensible — it makes sense like the notion that the first love is the deepest, but it’s fascinating to imagine that the half-formed synapses and emotional/hormonal turmoil of adolescence is also the perfect storm for receptivity to music.

Mercer is a music critic for such media outlets as NPRThe New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal, and DownBeat. She originally interviewed Joni for her biography of Wayne Shorter, and many of their conversations are included in Will You Take Me As I Am. Mercer writes as a fan, but “without a scintilla of fanzine gush,” as described by reviewer Phillip Lopate. In the book she writes that what inspired her to take on the project was her immense gratitude for Mitchell’s songs, and a feeling — shared by Joni herself — that despite the awards and critical acclaim, there is a lack of critical analysis breaking down what Mercer calls “the hybrid force of her words and music.” The book is a huge pleasure for fellow Joni fans, allowing us to revisit our own gratitude for her work and investigate the source of our immense pleasure in it, and — no small thing — providing us with extra ammo the next time we need to persuade a certain special someone of the genius that he’s missing out on 🙂 I’m only halfway through, but here are some points I’ve found noteworthy so far:

The Personal Is Universal

  • Much is made out of Mitchell’s dislike for the term “confessional” as it is often ascribed to her deeply personal and heartfelt songwriting style. Despite the fact that Mitchell is gifted with a profound receptivity to her environment and to the people around her, falling in love multiple times and drawing artistic inspiration from her many loves, she chafes at the word “confess,” as if the songs were more about her and the specificity of her experience than artificial renderings of characters, speaking to what is universal about the human experience. Blue is known to be one of her most heart wrenchingly personal albums, as well as one of her most artistically coherent, elevated ones. According to Mitchell, when she played “All I Want” for some songwriter friends, Kris Kristofferson’s famous response was, “Jesus, Joni, save something for yourself.” Mercer argues that Joni’s willingness to put so much of herself in her music, to write so purely from the heart while putting out music that is so formidable from a technical and artistic standpoint, is exactly what makes her music so universally beloved, almost a “religious experience” for listeners. As Mercer writes, her music tends to feels like a unique experience to each listener. As Mitchell puts it, “The people who get the most out of my music see themselves in it.”

Linking Emotions and Artistry

  • One of the most impressive aspects of Mitchell’s songwriting is the degree to which emotion and heartfelt expression underpins every musical choice, and — here’s the key — makes the music better. As Mercer puts it, Mitchell has a reputation for being untutored, for “instinctively laying out feelings on a record…” For a great many of us, this approach may lead to amateur, self-indulgent ramblings, but in her case, even though raw emotion is driving the music, because emotion is driving the music, the “aesthetic rigor” of her music is strengthened. (Mercer devotes an entire section to Mitchell’s use of open tunings on the guitar, freeing her up to experiment with unusual intervals… I have a book of her music for piano, and the sharps and flats are through the roof; the open tunings thing explains that.) “How many artists would kill to say,” Mercer writes, “that they created new chord progressions and structures from a place of emotional inspiration, but writing from the heart made Joni’s music more technically and aesthetically intricate, complex surprising…” On a side note, in a college course I took with director Mary Zimmerman, I remember her once saying that to her, the creative process always feels like a process of anthropology, of uncovering, digging, getting to the heart of things, rather than building from the ground up. If this is how art-making should be, then Joni consistently lives up to the ideal, something to marvel at.

Lyrics, Not Poetry

  • Another impressive, and signature aspect of Mitchell’s songwriting is the degree to which the lyrics and music are connected. A testament to this is that reading Mitchell’s lyrics on the page, they fall short of poetry. But listening to her lyrics sung, they sound poetic. Mercer gives an example in the song “A Case of You,” in which the lyric reads, “I am frightened of the devil and I’m drawn to those ones who ain’t…afraid…” The asymmetry of the word “afraid” that follows the rhyming word, “ain’t” (rhymes with “I am lonely painter/I live in a box of paints”)   hints at the boldness and daring possessed by those who “ain’t afraid.” A criteria, perhaps, for all good lyrics, Mitchell’s lyrics are meant to be sung, and in setting them to music, she achieves something worthy of a poet.

Confessions that Run Deep

  • In the chapter, “In The Manner of the Ancients,” Mercer charts some of Mitchell’s influences, finding historical continuity in Mitchell’s impulses as a songwriter. She starts with a literal link: leading up to Blue, Mitchell spent time on the hippie expat island of Matala, Crete, in no uncertain terms “on a lonely road…traveling/traveling/traveling,” undeniably “looking for something…” Mitchell characterizes this point in her career as suffocatingly “self-referential”; she was seeking new experiences beyond the music industry and looking to shake off her image as an “angelic folk maiden.” So she headed to what at the time was a very trendy hippie hot spot, a place that also happens to be ancient and steeped in history, for example, a stopping point for Ulysses admits his “traveling/traveling/traveling.” Leading up to Blue, Mitchell’s physical location and “place” in her career aligned itself with the odysseys of the ancients; she was traveling, adventuring, seeking, looking to know herself through the process of making art. As Mercer notes, the mandate to “know thyself” is “essential to the ancient Greek worldview.” More specifically, Mercer connects Mitchell’s quest to know herself through songwriting to St. Augustine’s Confessions, in which Augustine “comes to know himself” by “merging Augustine the protagonist and Augustine the narrator.” In a society where written works were customarily recited aloud, Augustine envisioned the lone reader as the audience for his Confessions, catering to this figure with the “profound intimacy” of “revealing a mind thinking.” I see a parallel in the scores of lone listeners who feel that their experience of Mitchell’s songs is somehow unique, existential.

Traces of Dylan

  • Mercer gives a short, appreciable summary of the relationship between Mitchell and Dylan. Allow me to share a condensed version: Both members of music royalty share a folk music heritage, rooted in Woodie Guthrie’s songs. Both singer-songwriters depart from Guthrie’s populist, social commentary oriented lyrics to scale more personal, more universal subject matter. However, Mercer points out an interesting contrast between Dylan and Mitchell’s approach to the personal/universal: Dylan’s “confessional” songs contain an air of bitterness, almost lessening the blow, whereas Joni confronts the personal with her defenses down, sheerly, from a place of vulnerability. (I think this has something to do with the difference between male/female appreciation of Joni — perhaps women identify with and find catharsis in her vulnerability, whereas this quality falls flat for some male listeners? Women find gravitas and genius in her vulnerability, whereas men (some, that is, I know there are plenty of male Joni fans) don’t know what to do with it?)

Soundscape as Landscape

  • One more piece of Mercer’s analysis to mull over is the way in which Mitchell’s music sounds like what her native Canadian prairie land looks like, and more generally, the way in which the sound of music parallels a visual landscape. Mitchell hails from Saskatchewan, Canada, a landlocked province characterized by “flatland,” “big sky,” and “wide open spaces.” Mercer quotes Mitchell on how her flatlander upbringing permeates her songs: “I’ve always thought Neil [Young] and I have carried a loping prairie walk in our music, a loping pulse… As opposed to reggae, which for me has a tree frog sound.” The “loping prairie walk” image makes me think especially of the song, “Night in the City” from Song to a Seagull. Mercer notes that the frequency of the terms “soundscape” and “landscape” in music criticism have prompted editors to ban both words entirely, and draws a more explicit connection between the two in citing landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead’s observation that both “scapes” “are nonverbal forms of communication that affect us subconsciously and profoundly.” Mercer adds that “the act of listening can feel like sculpting shapes out of the air,” that the presence of the prairie in Mitchell’s songs is both “subtle and manifest.”

So there you go — an attempt to dig my chops into some music criticism, sharing it out of gratitude for Joni. She gets better with every listen. What’s your favorite song/album? Drop me a line; we Joni fans must band together 🙂

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.

Into the Woods

Screen Shot 2015-01-06 at 11.27.05 AMOver the holidays I saw the new film version of the musical, Into the Woods, starring Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, and James Corden, among others. Having just reread the script for The Muny Opera and having assigned it to my Musical Theatre Lit students as one of several options for the 1980s decade, I knew what to expect: beautiful, intricate melodies, a hodge podge of familiar fairytale characters whose worlds collide as part of a rather abstract, original story a giant, a sky-scraping beanstalk. But the truth is, Into the Woods is a distinctly philosophical version of fairytaling — punctuated and enriched by the musicality of Stephen Sondheim, the storyline is a very broad and evocative arch, setting scenes and raising questions that linger well beyond what happens to Cinderella at the stroke of midnight, or the fate of Little Red Ridinghood when she encounters the wolf. Sondheim’s music has a way of pointing out the richness, thematically, that fairytales possess, and so it becomes okay for the plotline to skirt the surface of a variety of famous tales — to sample, so to speak. It’s all in the themes, the potential for allegory. Here are three of my favorite issues raised:

Be Careful What You Wish For

In the opening song, the disparate characters — the Baker, the Baker’s Wife, Cinderella, Little Red Ridinghood, Jack — sing overlapplingly of their different reasons for venturing into the woods. It’s a potpourri of fervent wishes: Cinderella wishes to go to the festival, to experience the adulation of a real live prince, Little Red Ridinghood simply wants to make it safely to grandmother’s house, the Baker and his wife long for a child and seek to break the witch’s spell of barrenness by collecting odd items in the forest, Jack needs money and is off to sell his cow, Milky White. But when Cinderella wins the affection of her prince, she repeatedly runs away, evading him, leaving her shoe behind. She finds their interactions mildly disappointing, anti-climactic. We are reminded that longing is a persistent fact of life, no matter how many of our wishes are fulfilled.

Mother/Daughter Angst

How many mothers and daughters can relate to the difficulty of letting go, building walls around each other out of a ferocious love. The witch and Rapunzel illustrate this dynamic memorably — Rapunzel is the witch’s daughter, and she remains locked in a tower. When her singing attracts the attention of a prince, the witch, played by Meryl Streep, creates a thicket of thorns that he falls upon, going blind. Rapunzel is infuriated by her mother’s controlling nature, to which the witch responds, “Children Should Listen!” The witch’s pleading, desperate profession of love for her daughter is captivating in this song. It hits at something so essential, so universal: “How do you say to a child who’s in flight/‘Don’t slip away and I won’t hold so tight?’”

It Only Takes a Moment

Sometimes life takes us by surprise, shifting our allegiances or our perspective in the subtlest of ways, the smallest of moments. Emily Blunt’s character, the Baker’s Wife, is in the woods to find hair, gold as corn, a cow, white as snow, a shoe of glass, and a red coat — when assembled, these odds and ends will break the spell that have made her barren. She comes across as a slightly harried, grounded, loyal, ordinary woman. But in the midst of her search, she meets a prince in the forest, and he seduces her. Suddenly she kisses him, taken aback by the swiftness with which she is swept off her feet. Spoiler alert — a few moments later, we find out that she has been trampled by the giant. This magical moment was one of her last. It’s dramatic, the idea that certain people or places can displace us, putting us in touch with feelings and desires we never knew we had, utterly confusing and disorienting us in the midst of pursuing what we think we want.

Into The Woods is most centrally about desire, about the lengths humans will go to satisfy their deepest longings — for love, for children, for adventure or novelty. What a rich metaphor the woods make. They embody the thorniness, the chaos, the unexpected twists and turns of any long-lived pursuit. Every life involves a journey through the wild and unknown, a venture into the woods.

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