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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.

Turning the Page

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.37.10 AM‘Tis the season for list-making! I recently shared a fantasy smorgasbord of Christmas cookies (one down, four to go), and today I feel compelled to share a few books on my shortlist, an homage to that other, all-consuming winter pastime: curling up on the couch with a good read. From literary criticism to historical fiction to memoir to spy novel to a book lover’s self-help manual, Forrest Gump might liken my selection to a box of chocolates, as in, “you never know what you’re gonna get.” I’m cool with that — it aptly describes the pleasure I derive from bookstore browsing. Here are some of my far-flung finds:

Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.38.41 AMAt least once before on this blog, I have tried to put my finger on what is so doggone compelling about Henry James, going so far as to cite Zadie Smith’s insights and dignifying the ridiculously overwrought The Golden Bowl with a detailed book review. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that my desire to understand James — how he crafts such highly sympathetic, surprisingly tragic characters — is still burning. It’s a nerdy fixation, but one that evidently plagues other members of his fan club, including Michael Gorra, author of Portrait of a Novel, which I discovered in a September 2012 issue ofThe New Yorker. In essence, Gorra’s book distills James’s literary genius into an analysis of his most famous and critically acclaimed novel. Reviewer Anthony Lane is another ebullient fan, and points out the dramatic potential of a “book about a book” by emphasizing how James’s poised, understated prose somehow left “the equilibrium of [its] readers shaken,” all starting with this innocuous opening line: “‘Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.’” For obvious reasons, Lane reserves his recommendation of Portrait of a Novel — part biography, part textual analysis, part literary criticism — for those with an established attachment to Portrait of a Lady. However, he ends his review with a message for less ardent fans, saying we “need him [Henry James] more than ever,” referencing Gorra’s assertion that Portrait of a Lady’s greatest accomplishment is exposing the “limits of self-sufficiency.” Yes, I’m wholeheartedly onboard — Isabel’s misplaced trust in her own bright and promising future, with such an all-American commitment to her own destiny, is what makes the failure of her choices “shake our equilibrium” as cock-eyed, optimistic Americans. If the current state of our economy has made many people more open to the fallacy of the American dream, if TV shows like “Girls” garner accolades for depicting modern-day Isabel Archers on their hapless journeys toward self-actualization, then perhaps there’s never been a better moment to explore the coming-of-age story of the twenty-something author who called us out on our false pretenses circa 1880.

The Paris Wife

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.39.29 AMA few months ago, I spent some time perusing this 2011 historical fiction novel in a bookstore. It seemed like a light diversion, telling the story of a 28-year-old midwestern woman, Hadley Richardson, and her whirlwind relationship with Ernest Hemingway. Rich with references, it contains a glamorous cast of real-life legends — Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, in addition to Hemingway — a fabled setting — Chicago and Paris circa the roaring twenties — and the intensity of a love affair in which wife equals literary muse. According to Janet Maslin of The New York Times, The Paris Wife is addled with clichés and clumsy pastiches of the characters that populate its pages, but who really cares? I have a feeling that much like Woody Allen’s disjointed film, Midnight in Paris, this book earned its popularity for more sentimental reasons, serving as a wistful ride back in time and across the atlantic.

A Story Lately Told

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.39.53 AMI enjoy the fact that memoirs are a kind of inclusive, “bottomline” writing endeavor, concerned with honestly sharing the writer’s experience rather than word-smithing. More than other genres, the art of writing a memoir (and the pleasure of reading one) seems to be purely about the transfer of information, about illuminating the myriad layers contained in a single life. I’m drawn to Angelica Houston’s recently published memoir as a way to glimpse into pop culture history. She touches on the marital dynamics between her flamboyant, self-absorbed film director father and her young, beautiful, ballet dancer mother, her pastoral upbringing in Galway, Ireland, her power couple status vis-a-vis Jack Nicholson, even her unapologetic embracement of fashion as a source of aesthetic pleasure and self-expression. It cracks the surface of a life mostly known through images, whatever your generation.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.40.56 AMI’ve never read anything by acclaimed crime writer John Le Carré, but he’s been on my radar via book reviews and recommended reading lists since the publication of his 2008 novel, A Most Wanted Man. His name seems to pop up with increasing frequency, from film adaptations (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in 2011) to new works (A Delicate Truth in 2013) to the increasing relevance of espionage in our culture (the NSA, Edward Snowden, the popular TV show, Homeland, to name a few examples). Touted in Anthony Boucher’s 1964 New York Times review as “a novel of significance, while losing none of the excitement of the tale of sheer adventure,” The Spy Who Came in from the Cold seems like a good place to start within Le Carré’s formidable oeuvre. The protaganist, Alec Leamas is disillusioned with espionage work, undertaking one last assignment before quitting the field. The story doubles as a suspenseful account of his assignment and a deeper, psychological portrait of a man “permanently isolated in his deceit.” Having just finished season two of Homeland, this description sounds eerily like Carrie Mathison and Nicholas Brody, and their mutual experience of being “isolated in deceit.”

How Proust Can Change Your Life

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.41.39 AMI read de Botton’s The Art of Travel last summer, which I have written about at length on this site. After confiscating the book from my husband during our road trip down Highway 1, I quickly became smitten with de Botton’s ability to expound upon broad, timeless topics in a manner both original and unexpectedly practical. De Botton has a singular focus on essay writing, and rather impressively sticks to large, universal subjects, such as Art as Therapy, Status Anxiety, and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. If the measure of a good cook is their most basic dish, the same test applies to writers — the best ones can take on well-worn topics head-on, infusing them with flavor. The Art of Travel mustered a lot of flavor, and from what I’ve read, How Proust Can Change Your Life contains the same mixture of insight and practicality. According to de Botton’s website, the book developed out of the notion that literature is a transformational thing, a belief widely proselityzed by English teachers but rarely examined in-depth. So de Botton examines Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, characterized as “a byword for obscurity and irrelevance,” to demonstrate some of the ways in which literature can literally be a guide to real life. I have never read any of Proust’s books, which may speak to the unsubstantiated claims of English teachers, but why not start easy, with “a self-help book like few others”?

[Photos: “Turn the Pages,” Krissy.Venosdale’s photo stream via Creative Commons, and photos of the books’ front covers]

Paris To The Moon

Screen Shot 2013-06-24 at 7.50.51 PMI recently finished this book by New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik. It is a collection of essays reflecting on the idiosyncracies of French culture, written during the author’s expat stint with his wife and pre-school age son. Described in Le Monde as a “witty and Voltairean commentator on French life,” Gopnik has a knack for extracting the essence of French sensibility from everyday encounters…

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 12.31.52 PMIn a way, Gopnik’s writing is like an “amuse-bouche,” a French culinary term that could be liberally translated as “mouth tease,” a carefully selected hors d’oeuvre that primes the diner’s palate. His anecdotes touch on essential truths of French culture, but it’s a controlled sampling, inviting the reader to savor the details and imagine the rest.

In part, Gopnik’s Paris is so charming because it proves to be so stereotypically French. For example, Gopnik’s pursuit of a gym membership yields a comically French result. It is called Régiment Rouge, where elegantly coiffed women in red tracksuits arrange several one-on-one meetings to ensure the thorough completion of his dossier (file), throw a crèpe party to celebrate the installation of “high intensity” machines, and then grant him the right to use his membership as frequently as once a week, advertising le régiment as “‘très New Yorkais.’”

(In my experience, Non-Parisians live up to their stereotypes with equal flair –accordion players on cobblestone street corners, men in berets, baguettes in hand…  They don’t disappoint.)

Perhaps the singularity of French culture is best articulated in the last chapter of the book, preceding Gopnik’s move back to New York, with his wife, son, and now Parisian born daughter. He is standing on the Concorde Bridge with his son, Luke, watching Christmas lights on the Eiffel Tower. Luke says that the tower “‘looks like champagne,’” which gets the author thinking philosophically about the century-old, recycled symbols of France, such as champagne and the Eiffel Tower. Should he be depressed that these worn out emblems of French-ness are being incorporated into his young son’s consciousness? Is that what France is reduced to?

Then he recalls another writer’s argument that the Eiffel Tower is in fact a greater invention than Isaac Newton’s Principia, because

“‘the principles of physics have a permanent general existence outside ourselves… while the tower, in all its particulars, could have been built only in Paris at Eiffel’s moment by Eiffel…’”

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 12.45.01 PMWhether you love or hate the French, chances are that your feelings are partly directed toward this possession of a singular, idiosyncratic sensibility that is as stubbornly French as the Eiffel Tower is Eiffel’s.

From an airplane window, the Eiffel Tower looks oddly large, as if it were randomly plopped onto Paris like a mismatched toy. This sounds like France’s relationship with much of the world: surrounded by many other sprawling cultures, the French uphold their French-ness in glittering, upright, iconic glory. It’s hard to hate them too much for it — after all, we Americans understand this notion of being true to one’s character.

Besides French-ness, there is another culturally rich set of ideas running through Paris To The Moon, that is, the reality versus the fantasy of displacing yourself, of choosing to be a foreigner, of watching your young child construct his own five-year-old Parisian existence before his parents transplant him back to New York to continue growing up.

The liberation and joy that come from being a willful outsider is in a way, less interesting than the ennui that sets in at the end of the five years, prompting a move back home, the growing desire to be an American in…America. Do the same forces propelling someone to travel propel him to return home? This gets at the meaning of home, the role of the traveler in defining his destination. Gopnik quotes his wife at the beginning of their stay:

“She felt, she said, as if she had died and gone to heaven — but with the strange feeling that that dying and going to heaven mean parting, leaving, and missing the people you left behind on earth” adding that “the loneliness of the expatriate is of an odd and complicated kind, for it is inseparable from the feeling of being free, of having escaped…”

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Like the arc of many stories, the falling action of Paris To The Moon leads its characters from whence they came, across the Atlantic and back to New York, decidedly not to the moon, whatever the title suggests. Perhaps there is inherent wisdom in that.

[Photos: “Eiffel Tower On A Moonlit Night,” RejiK’s photo stream, “1st Course: Amuse Bouche,” ulterior epicure’s flickr photostream, Robyn Lee’s flickr photostream]

Happy Father’s Day + Eating My Words

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I have recently been obsessed with bar cookie versions of more elaborate celebration cakes, e.g., red velvet cake bars or better yet, dulce de leche cheesecake bars. They have the cuteness factor of cupcakes, but more conveniently, they are made in one big pan.

For example, these dulce de leche cheesecake bars would have been perfect for my mentee’s birthday. What did I end up giving her? A card/hershey bar from CVS… I guess I’m holding out for her half-birthday?

Then I attended a going away party for my department head. Old habits die hard, along with my fantasy of casually elegant cheese cake bars. This time I stalked the net for something with a key lime twist. Predictably, Smitten Kitchen yielded cute eye candy, this time individual key lime cheesecakes made in cupcake tins. Eye candy it remained.

So I recycled these pecan shortbread cookies I hadn’t already eaten. (Less cute, but definitely worth making.)

Tomorrow is Father’s Day and I have now moved on to the idea of german chocolate cake bars, in honor of my dad’s favorite dessert. Oh, and the internet provides! In good faith, I even looked up how to properly package and mail homemade baked goods. Yet here I sit, typing words onto a screen, having typed grades and unit plans and e-mails onto a screen the entire day, because I’ve learned that food feels most like love when it is happily prepared, and dad, I think I hatched this idea a little too late. (My mixer has lately been erratic and I think I might end up crabby and covered in flour.)

There is a better writer than me, Adam Gopnik, author of Paris to the Moon, who describes this habit of spending inordinate mental energy imagining and planning meals, to the point that eating them is secondary. In a word, he characterizes it as French:

of all the leçons de choses I have absorbed in Paris, the most important has come from learning to cook. I cooked a bit in New York, Thanksgiving dinner and a filet mignon or two, and summers by the grill, like every American guy. But here I cook compulsively, obsessively, waking up with a plat in mind, balancing it with wine and side dishes throughout the working day (‘Do I dare pack a Brussels sprout?’) shopping, anticipating six o’ clock, waiting for the perfectly happy moment when I can begin, as one almost always does, no matter what one is cooking, by chopping onions.”

He goes on… and on… and one more time on…

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 2.17.12 PM“The beautiful part of cooking lies in the repetition, living the same principles, day after day: planning, shopping, chopping, roasting, eating, and then vowing, always, never again to start on something so ambitious again… until the dawn rises, with another dream of something else….

Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 8.31.31 PM“Cooking, for middle-class, end-of-the-century people, is our only direct, not entirely debased line with the hermetic life, with Zen sitting, with just doing things without a thought. No wonder monks make good cheese…

alphabet soup kids pasta“Writing isn’t the transformation of stuff into things. It is just the transformation of symbols into other symbols, as if one read recipes out loud for dinner, changing the proportions… Writing is a business of saying things about stuff and saying things about things and then pretending that you have cooked one into the other…”

And yet, at the risk of sounding apologetic, and notwithstanding the fact that really delicious german chocolate bars trump esoteric thoughts about cooking, the words do count, I think.

Gopnik also writes about how French people have a  gift for abstraction, extrapolating on the minutiae of life and making it fodder for philosophical debate. In my mind, German chocolate cake symbolizes much more about my dad than his sweet tooth.

Favorite dessert? German chocolate cake. Career/calling? Architect. Hobby? Piano/organ. Bedtime ritual? Set out the cereal bowls for breakfast. My dad is predictable in great, very specific ways — he makes reliably tasty pancakes; he does not fancy breakfast for dinner…

But also in more abstract ways, including his stalwart qualities of being kind, insightful, upbeat, and taking a broad-minded and balanced view of all people and situations. Some people say that I am my father’s daughter. I wish my sweet tooth were more equally focused, along with a few other things, but I’ll take it 🙂

Here’s to a sweet Father’s day, in gratitude for all the world’s deserving dads.

[Photo Credits: “Cake, German Chocolate,” sea turtle’s photo stream and “Rows of Buddha,” shack’s photo stream]

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