Thursday, December 29, 2011

Big Hairy Audacious Goals

Big Hairy and Audacious
The best thing I have to say about 2011 is that it's over. Hurray! 

Turning the calendar page to 2012 makes me very happy - even numbered years are better for me and the best years are the ones that start and end with the same number. I loved 2002 which is the last time it happened and none of us can really count on being here for the next time in 2022.  I intend to really enjoy this one. The first of many gravy years.
Ready for tea

The vibe is already getting better. My good neighbor came over for tea yesterday and we indulged in a few truffles and a cup of Earl Grey. Our garden is getting straightened out and the raised beds are ready for planting. We're planning a couple of trips and will be on the road in February if we can untangle a few knots.

Chocolate Hills Bohol Philippines
My Big Hairy Audacious Goal* for 2012 is to write something every day - hardly a huge goal compared to some of the bloggers I follow, but my average number of posts has been 100/year. I'm going for a triple.  No rules except that catch-up is OK.

*Term coined by James Collins and Jerry Porras in "Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies

Marlee's First Birthday

My great grand niece Marlee Eilleen (I love the three e's in a row) had her first birthday party in early December. 20 adults and about ten kids. Flash bulbs were popping off continuously in her face, everyone gave her a tweak or a poke and made funny faces at her. They took all her clothes off but her diaper and a bib, sat her in her high chair and introduced her to a purple cupcake while we all croaked Happy Birthday off-key. Surprised at first, her little face showed bemusement, wonder and then delight as she got into sucking her fingers and enjoying the taste and texture.

She's a gutsy little thing, shrank from no one and very sociable - well equipped for life. She smiled at everything and seemed to enjoy the whole event.  Frankly it would have been too much for me at my advanced age. Just the singing alone.

Dad (my grand nephew), Mom (Brandi) and Marlee
Me, Jennifer (grand niece), Marlee and Beth the first great grand niece

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2012: Pure Gravy

"Gravy, pure gravy", Raymond Carver the short story writer and poet pronounced his last decade of life. He thought he was a dead man when he was 39 and his dcotor told him he had only six months to live unless he stopped drinking. He did quit and died of lung cancer 11 years later.

Here's his autobiographical poem:
Raymond Carver
No other word will do.  For that’s what it was.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving, and
being loved by a good woman.  Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going.  And he was going
nowhere but down.  So he changed his ways
somehow.  He quit drinking!  And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head.  "Don’t weep for me,"
he said to his friends.  "I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected.  Pure Gravy.  And don’t forget it."

Here's one of Raymond Carver's short stories: 

Little Things
Early that day the weather turned and the snow was melting into dirty water. Streaks of it ran down from the little shoulder-high window that faced the backyard. Cars slushed by on the street outside, where it was getting dark. But it was getting dark on the inside too.

He was in the bedroom pushing clothes into a suitcase when she came to the door.
I'm glad you're leaving! I'm glad you're leaving! she said. Do you hear?

He kept on putting his things into the suitcase.
Son of a bitch! I'm so glad you're leaving! She began to cry. You can't even look me in the face, can you?

Then she noticed the baby's picture on the bed and picked it up.
He looked at her and she wiped her eyes and stared at him before turning and going back to the living room.

Bring that back, he said.
Just get your things and get out, she said.
He did not answer. He fastened the suitcase, put on his coat, looked around the bedroom before turning off the light. Then he went out to the living room.

She stood in the doorway of the little kitchen, holding the baby.
I want the baby, he said.

Are you crazy?
No, but I want the baby. I'll get someone to come by for his things.

You're not touching this baby, she said.
The baby had begun to cry and she uncovered the blanket from around his head.
Oh, oh, she said, looking at the baby.

He moved toward her.
For God's sake! she said. She took a step back into the kitchen.

I want the baby.
Get out of here!

She turned and tried to hold the baby over in a corner behind the stove.
But he came up. He reached across the stove and tightened his hands on the baby.
Let go of him, he said.
Get away, get away! she cried.

The baby was red-faced and screaming. In the scuffle they knocked down a flowerpot that hung behind the stove.

He crowded her into the wall then, trying to break her grip. He held on to the baby and pushed with all his weight.

Let go of him, he said.
Don't, she said. You're hurting the baby, she said.
I'm not hurting the baby, he said.

The kitchen window gave no light. In the near-dark he worked on her fisted fingers with one hand and with the other hand he gripped the screaming baby up under an arm near the shoulder.
She felt her fingers being forced open. She felt the baby going from her.
No! she screamed just as her hands came loose.
She would have it, this baby. She grabbed for the baby's other arm. She caught the baby around the wrist and leaned back.

But he would not let go. He felt the baby slipping out of his hands and he pulled back very hard.
In this manner, the issue was decided.

"Little Things" from Where I'm Calling From: The Selected Stories Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by Tess Gallagher.
The story appeared as "Mine" in Furious Seasons And Other Stories Capra Press, 1977 and as "Popular Mechanics" in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love Knopf, 1981.


Trivia - Progressive Measuring Spoons

Limbo week. Where nothing really happens. The wheels of industry cease to turn. I used to take the time between Christmas and New Year's to clean out my files and pretend to organize myself for the upcoming year. This is the first year I've had in full retirement...didn't work a single day and didn't earn a single dime. Files are a thing of the past. 

Instead of fooling with files, I continue to concentrate on arranging our living space. Organizing the accumulata. Above is my measuring spoon drawer. If someone breaks in suddenly and demands a 1/2 teaspoon of anything, I can deliver it in a hurry. No fumbling around.

The measuring spoon drawer is in my mechanics cabinet which houses all the gadgets and cooking tools. It's installed in the island right across from my sink.

I resist accumulating new gadgets because most are such disappointments, but they do make great Christmas gifts even if they end up unused. This year I noticed these Progressive measuring spoons which appear to offer a few design improvements.

They're magnetic so if you don't have a measuring spoon drawer you can stick them on the surface most convenient for your use and they nest. No annoying ring holding the set together.  There's a wet end and a dry end - if you measure a 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla and then have to measure a 1/2 teaspoon of salt, you don't have the clumping problem, nor do you have to rinse it off. The bottoms are flat so you can rest the measured amount on a counter, ready to use. There's a decent grip in the middle. I'm ordering a set from Amazon.

Here's the knife drawer in my mechanics cabinet. I'm not sure what mechanics use this drawer for but it works well for knives...the edges are protected, I can find them at a glance, there's plenty of room. If someone needed an emergency tracheotomy, I think I could find something that would do the job here..

One kitchen tool I particularly loathe is the food processor. Big and difficult to store, hard to clean,  with too many parts.  The recipe testers at Cooks magazine, Sunset, Food and Wine all love these machines because somebody cleans up after them, and cleans up as they go. They incorporate the processor in far too many recipes. For instance, I made key lime tarts the other day from a Food and Wine recipe. The crust is made of Oreo cookies and to crush 12 of them, the recipe calls for use of the FP.  For 12 cookies, any sane cook would use a rolling pin.

Yes, I have a rolling pin drawer.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Worst Recipes

I have some left-over crab meat and I was looking for a souffle recipe. It's Christmas morning after all.

From the book, "Fashionable Food" by Sylvia Lovegran, comes this horrible recipe from the fifties, in my opinion,  prelude to the foulest darkest decade in recent culinary history, the sixties. People were so engrossed in the sexual revolution that food was barely on the radar screen.

Lobster Thermidor, can-opener gourmet-style. 

1 (15-ounce) can condensed cream of mushroom soup
1/4 soup can water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
1/2 teaspoon prepared mustard
3 cups frozen cooked lobster meat, thawed and cut into chunks.

Preheat the oven to 450 F. Mix the soup, water, lemon juice, half of the cheese and the mustard in the top of a double boiler. Add the lobster chunks and heat (do not boil) over simmering water. Pour into a buttered shallow baking dish or into lobster shells. Sprinkle with the rest of the cheese. Place in oven until the cheese is browned, about 15 minutes. 

In those days, dubbed the "Casserole Decade" by food historians, "can opener" mixed with "gourmet-style" was perfectly acceptable. Canned soups and TV dinners were newish on the grocery shelves. The Campbell's Home Economists were quickly developing soup-as-glue recipes that were roaring successes, still haunting our kitchens decades later. Who doesn't look forward to the classic green bean/mushroom soup/onion ring dish (three cans!!!!) for Thanksgiving dinner?

A frozen TV dinner sold for $1.00 in the fifties. Today at Albertson's you can purchase Michelina's Gourmet entrees for the same price - a buck each.

Other fifties greats include classics like the gag inspiring, Fruit cocktail-Spam Buffet Party loaf which incorporates such snazzy ingredients as Miracle Whip, gelatin and canned fruit cocktail. How about the Velveeta crab and cheese souffle? or the fat-on-fat Barbecued Bologna for men a la Crisco from the Crisco cookbook, "Praise for the Cook". No kidding, that's the name and here's the recipe:

Barbecued Bologna for men - a la Crisco

3/4 cup Crisco vegetable shortening
2 tablespoons Kitchen Bouquet
3 - 2 pounds whole bologna sausage

Mix the Crisco and Kitchen Bouquet together. Spread over the sausage. Grill the bologna over hot coals or spit roast the bologna until it is browned and hot through. Cut into thick slices and serve on rye bread or toasted hamburger buns.

I've lost my appetite. 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Keep Calm

Vivian Swift featured a link to a make your own "Keep Calm" poster.   Here's mine:
    And here's the link so you can make your own:
    The original "Keep Calm" poster you can read about on Vivian's blog right here:

    Merry Christmas

    Photo 1. Christmas Eve - through the rancho door 2011

    Photo 2. Farewell chandelier
    Which picture shall be use in our midnight Merry Christmas e-mail?

    Photo 1. A syrupy sentimental Christmas shot through our avocado front door. 

    Photo 2. Currently punishing ourselves for continuing to procrastinate about throwing junk away, we're resolved to stay put here until the junkola is gone. The other day, we got up and first thing, while still in our pj's, sleep-rumpled, grungy and before the dumpster guy arrived, we heaved the chandelier in it, said the last rites and parted with it forever. This light held sway (oh pardon me please) over many of Richard's dinners for years in DC and for a few at the rancho. In storage for ages, when we unwrapped it we found the wiring all chewed up or rusted and most of the parts cracked, chipped or broken.

    Although Richard is feigning a separation anxiety attack we were actually having a merry time thinking up captions for the shot. Our favorite:

    "Last night we had one last swing on the chandelier and we're very much worse for the wear. In fact we were thinking of diving in the dumpster after it!"
    "Their chandelier days clearly over, the McHargues prepare to face 2012 unlit, as it were."

    We held on to that chandelier
    'Til people thought us very queer.
    We rose at dawn
    To get it gone
    Consoled ourselves with lots of beer.

    December Book Club Meeting

    The book selection for December was Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome. It was selected because it's short and easy reading, appropriate for the holiday season. Some claim it's the funniest book ever written. I agree. I also think it's one of the most enjoyable travel books ever written. The humor has held up remarkably well considering it's a Victorian novel. The key features of the book are the funny perspectives of ordinary events (think Bill Bryson) and the fact that it wasn't written in the high falutin' style practised by novelists of the time. The Victorian literati thought the state of the novel had gone to hell in a hand basket when this book became a best seller. It's never been out of print.

    Another bonus: the book can be downloaded free from the fabulous site: Even an illustrated version is available and it can be downloaded to a multitude of devices.

     Roz hosted our meeting and a goodly groaning spread was enjoyed including bounty from gardens still putting out in December, one of the benefits we get from living here in Fallbrook. Fresh greens from Barbara's garden, a squash dish from Lori's garden and candy-sweet tangerines from Lori's and Rozs' trees. Roz made a pot of delicious chicken soup, a venerable recipe from her mother-in-law which includes as one of the critical components, precisely 12 peppercorns. Cookies and candies, irresistible, finished off the feast.

    Next month we read the Julian Barnes novel, "The Sense of an Ending", this year's Man Booker prize winner. Critics say there "is more to get each time you read it". I like to have a book like this around - one that becomes familiar but still surprises.

    For those of us interested in story telling whatever the medium, in this week's New York Times Book Review, there's an essay by Craig Fehrman on the "Channeling of the Novel".  As the state of film  deteriorates at a rapid pace and our beloved movies become little more than a string of dangerously loud and obnoxious sound effects enhancing car chases and explosions, cable TV is morphing into the preferred venue for serious and excellent story telling. He comments about the writers creating original cable series such as Solomon Rushdie -  "The Next People", Michael Chabon and Jonathan Franzen - "The Corrections". Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer Prize winning novel "A Visit from the Good Squad" is being made into a pilot.

    A footnote about sound effects: my friend's son was an intern on the newly released silent film, "The Artist". We're anxiously waiting for it to open locally so we can enjoy a theatre experience without ear plugs for a change.

    Wednesday, December 14, 2011

    My Rich Uncle

    Shuffling through family pictures and attempting to get them scanned and in order, I ran across this letter from my cousin. She enclosed the "rich uncle' photo above with the letter and comments that Hilda (my aunt, second from right) and Stuart Carroll (right) had a love affair for years but were cousins and never married. 

    Hilda was one of my three "maiden" aunts and the oldest of the lot. I knew her only as an elderly woman who wore lisle stockings and those awful clunky shoes with a thick wedge heel and laces up the front..."nun's shoes".  She ended up never marrying which in those days was a tragedy; this letter implies that she never got over Stuart. Instead she worked for the Canadian National Railway for 50 years, retiring with the proverbial gold watch. I wish I knew more.

    The rich uncle with all the hair acquired real estate in downtown LA and in Hawaii. Not only did he get the big hair gene he was also a driven entrepreneur. What kind of imagination and guts did it take to leave the farm in Canada,  get into the U. S. and start acquiring property? I have no idea who he used as a role model but "go west young man" was the adage of the day and he heeded the advice. His property was left in a trust, very well managed, and his brothers and sisters, one of whom was my grandmother benefited from the generated income throughout their lives. When the last of his siblings died in 1967, the remains of his estate was divided among the heirs who were all listed in the account of distribution of the estate. There are so many relatives, so many Irish names that I wonder if I'm related in some way to most of the people of Irish descent in Canada. 

    Wednesday, November 23, 2011

    IPad woes

    I haven't figured out how to use the IPad properly for blog posting. Even though the drafts I've written look OK..when posted, the text turns into one long paragraph. Hiccups repaired in the draft appear as intact hiccups in the posted text...capitalization etc. I'm hesitant enough about publishing my scribbles...mortified by the IPad end result. I love having the thing with me to read and answer my email, watch TED lectures during airport waits and for reading, currently Damascus Gate by Robert Stone. I intended to attend an Apple class but they are few and far between.. they fill up almost immediately. Has anyone used an online tutorial which might be helpful?

    As I carp about these inconveniences, I remember how it used to be "on the road". Carrying your cash around in one of those hideous money belts. In all my old travel photos my measurements were 32-36-32...the 36 dwindling to 35 then to 34 as the travel moved forward and the money was spent. Writing letters to make hotel reservations and waiting weeks sometimes for confirmations. Paper airline tickets with 14 copies of everything..lose it and you were dead. There's an ATM right across the street here and they've never been more than a block away from anywhere. I can carry a couple of hundred shekels around and of course use the credit card for almost everything.

    Last time we were in Bali (last December) ATM's had appeared everywhere and are even air conditioned. At the Denpasar airport home to perhaps 30 Indian change makers notorious for giving out incorrect change, a row of gleaming machines replaced the dimly lit row of cubicles I used to shudder to approach.

    The only real shuddering we've done here is with the taxi drivers. Most we've had have tried to cheat us....they forget to turn on the meter and half-way through the ride start negotiating the fare; they give incorrect change; they take the longest possible route if you're on the meter. I read about these practices before we arrived but didn't quite believe it but after 4 or 5 incidents I'm convinced. They view a fare as a wallet attached to a person with the emphasis on wallet.They employ every means possible to empty that wallet before you're out of the cab. This is the last ugly run-on post...we're catching a plane tonight/tomorrow morning and returning to the luxuriously, deliciously large keyboard and monitor.

    Monday, November 21, 2011


    After a dozen days of running at top tourist speed from thing to thing, we've settled into a small apartment in Jerusalem in the German Colony. Great location steps from restaurants and shops. We're regrouping - taking inventory of what we have left as you can get almost anything in this neighborhood. And what we should replace, if anything, before going home.

    Richard lost his great Tilley hat at the Dead Sea Scrolls museum..not a bad place to lose a hat. Tilley actually replaces lost hats, or so they claim. How they can do this is beyond me. Certainly for their own protection they should have an upper age limit on the purchasers. My black shoes are gone..I think I left them in the first's hard to lose shoes while you're actually wearing them, although when you see a pair sitting in the street, you wonder if somebody didn't miss them. As we're flying back to the bay area on Thursday and going directly to Thanksgiving dinner, I'll have to wear sandals or sneakers to the event. There are larger problems in the world. I'll be giving thanks that I have any shoes at all to wear.

    The toothpaste is gone and we're tired of arguing over who didn't check the bathroom, so I can't say who should get the demerit. An essential, we'll have to buy a small tube. Toothpaste is easy to identify, no matter the fact world-wide now, it seems to be all Colgate. No "Darkie" toothpaste left....that was a brand that used to be sold in had a cartoonish logo of broadly smiling black man.. If still on the market, it's had a name change to "Darlie" in response to the complaints about the racial stereotyping.

    All of our underwear will be trashed as we leave. We bought a package of laundry soap and the label info was all in Hebrew. The only English stated that it was for colors. Our freshly washed laundry is all grey. I think we bought a bleach for colors. The suitcases will be a little lighter.

    Our Insight guide is gone along with our insight, I guess. Most of the beds we've gotten are singles pushed together. A crack develops between the two, widening as you toss and turn; as we've been reading the guide, while exhausted and in bed,no doubt it slipped between the cracks,literally, and disappeared into the maw of dust bunnies and other people's lost items. This year has been a stay-at-home year for us and I can only hope we've gotten a little rusty on the travel routine due to lack of practice and will get our act together sometime soon. We still have our passports and shekels, at least for now.

    Surviving the Holy Sepulchre

    Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem chaos reigns. The territory is carved up into tiny chunks owned by various religious groups and sub groups. Supposedly it is the site of Jesus' crucifixion but most evidence points to the fact that this site along with many other famous Christian sites were selected by various officials and groups in response to pilgrim's need for a substantial physical spot to embrace, visit, worship at. The Franciscans were particularly sensitive to this and cooked up the stations of the cross for instance and the rosary, a kind of portable prayer of course was wildly popular and continues to be so. People buy them here by the dozen to take home.

    As we entered the church and our eyes adjusted to the gloom we could see the mobs and mobs of people. As I got my bearings a huge Greek Orthodox priest pushed by me almost knocking me over swinging his incense salver in front of him and literally pushing people over as I suppose he was trying to accomplish his round of prayer and sanctification. I'm surely not the only one of the collaterally damaged who cursed the brute. This piece of real estate is so highly contested that the presiding clergy break into actual fights from time to time. Each group's territorial jurisdiction seems to hang by a thread. It's so bad that the church is falling into ruin because to implement repairs cooperation between the smoldering factions would be required.

    Symbolic of the whole mess is a ladder that has been resting against one of the walls for a century and a half...some say it was used to deliver food while one of the groups was under siege..another story is that some brave soul was going to attempt a repair but found the procedure to be even more complicated than the San Diego Building department and gave up. Even removing the ladder is impossible. We felt grateful to get out of there with only minor injuries.

    Sunday, November 20, 2011

    A fat cat in Tel Aviv

    The beautiful fat cat was sitting on the restaurant windowsill watching us as we picked our way along the rainslick street. Richard chucked him under the chin and the cat looked me up and down in a sideways glance. I could tell he didn't think much of me...they never do until the scraps start falling on the floor.

    We got settled inside, ordered a couple of glasses of wine and noticed the party across from us near the windows, was smoking away. The cat moved over to the smoker's window and sat there staring in. Soon one of the smokers cracked the window and the cat's paw was in like a flash. The paw groped around aimlessly for a minute or so and then started to stretch and stretch and stretch. The smoker's ignored the cat gymnastics while Richard and I were laughing loud and hard. The cat didn't actually hook anything and withdrew his paw,looked at it and started to groom himself as embarrassed cats are wont to do. Another few minutes passed and one of the smokers cracked the window slightly more. incredibly quickly the cat flattened himself sideways and squeeZed in leaping over the smokers (who barely noticed...they were French and tres chic) and immediately began sucking up bits from the floor which he had quite obviously GPS'ed while he was outdoors peering in through the windows.

    It was all too slick. We decided the whole scene was planned by the cat...he knew that smokers would open a window and chose his spot strategically. Not only that,but he had me pegged as a soft touch from the earlier assessment and didn't waste any time sucking up to the French or the other sophisticates. Straight over to our table and he went into a routine you wouldn't believe, purring, rubbing, rolling around. If the cat pulled out a "nose and glasses" I wouldn't have been surprised. He scored big time at our table and moved along when he saw the plates were empty. Oh he left us laughing but I felt cheap and used when he was done with us. Love 'em and leave 'em....that's the way it goes in the cat racket here in Tel Aviv.

    Monday, November 07, 2011

    Idiot's Guide

    I aspired above my grade level by purchasing "The Complete Idiot's guide to Jewish History and Culture". It occurred to me that there might be a market for a version even simpler, for those like me, so handicapped they couldn't complete such a tome. But no - an idiot is the bottom of the IQ barrel - on some old psychology scales indicating an IQ of from 0-25 while an imbecile was rated at 26-50 and a moron, the top of this sad heap, at 51-70. From a classical marketing standpoint the Idiot's Guides should have been a total failure  - as little chance for success as would be the "Impotent Man's Guide to Sex".  Not so. Apparently we have no problem on the whole admitting we are idiots. The guides have been a roaring success from the get-go.

    We're leaving for Tel Aviv tomorrow and I'm only halfway through the complete guide - ergo, a half-finished idiot. Those of us in the food business would say "half-baked idiot".  Summarizing the summary of the summaries, there are really only 198 bullet-point essentials I'm hoping to get through while it's raining.

    The last Idiot's Guide I read was for the Civil War. Not bad. Illuminated much about Gettysburg. The Jewish History and Culture guide is written by a rabbi with a great sense of humor. Of course, there's endless material to work with and a host of Jewish comics to quote. Keeps the text lively.

    We're doing the usual tourist route: Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Galilee, Golan Heights, Caesarea, Tiberias,  Masada, Haifa.  We rented a small apartment in Jerusalem where we'll spend the most time. Stretching ourselves too thin as always we're arriving back to SFO on Thanksgiving day where we'll rent a car and drive to our nieces in Orinda for the annual family Thanksgiving dinner.

    Tuesday, November 01, 2011

    Enough Space

    Who hasn't been thinking about population density as the news blared about person number 7 billion entering the world yesterday? How crowded are we going to be with the next billion coming on in a scant fourteen years?

    Where we've moved - to the avocado grove in De Luz, we have a lot of room and I've been enjoying both the quiet and the space. While landscaping the new planting beds, we've liberated many plants from the tiny cramped pots they've been stuck in, some for a couple of years.  Frequently as they're eased out of their little homes, you see roots curled round and round, back on themselves, reaching to the surface and then diving back down into the dirt. I almost heard the lilies sigh the other day when we moved them to nice large holes where they can wiggle around and stretch.

    A book about crowding I've never forgotten is John Hersey's "My Petition for More Space".  Personally I have a touch of claustrophobia and have felt something akin to "line sickness" when stuck on the freeway in a jam.  Seems like a great time to read this wonderfully imaginative tale again.

    "Try to imagine a book that mostly takes place in a waiting line. Hersey does it with this marvelous tale. It is the near future, when couples have to apply to have a child, and are allowed only one. (Patriotic teen males can agree to get a vasectomy.) Personal space for individuals is limited to an 8x12-foot painted square in a large warehouse dorm, and the only area in New Haven with grass and trees is walled off -- the mayor gets to mow it but others can only look at it through a window after waiting long hours in line. Thirty-seven-year-old Sam Poynter, who writes reports and is getting divorced, is in a line, four abreast, to get to the petition windows where he will ask the authorities for the unheard-of favor of a slightly larger living space. Crushed around him are people petitioning for more protein, to change their residence or job, to get Havana cigars, to have a child. An elderly woman is petitioning to have her dear grandson not to be taught to read, so he can learn something more useful. Moving a block every 15-20 minutes for several hours, Sam grows to like some of the strangers around him (especially the young blonde in the blue dress against whom he is pressed from behind, who seems to respond to his verbal and physical overtures) and dislikes others. A woman faints and is passed over heads; several people suffer "line sickness" and go screaming mad. An unhappy gent starts up a chant to get Sam thrown out of line. Like Hersey's earlier science fiction novel, _The Child Buyer_, this 1974 story wraps considerable humor within a chilling and depressing overcoat."
    David Loftus, Resident Scholar  

    Sunday, October 30, 2011

    On the Farm

    When I was a kid, on certain Sundays in September we city slickers piled into a couple of cars and repaired to a friend's farm where we picked potatoes and stooked wheat. Bob the farmer was eternally an old man in my memory - a disheveled bachelor dressed in dirty overalls. He had a goiter problem, a huge Adam's Apple and bulging eyes. He was skinny and the few teeth he had were yellowed from his continual smoking; a smoldering fag always hung from his fingers. He could smoke a cigarette down to the size of a pencil eraser and watching him drag on those burning bits was both fascinating and horrifying. At any moment you'd think you could smell his lips searing.

    He spoke very slowly and deliberately. Despite his gruff appearance he seemed to like kids and he usually had a surprise of some kind ready for us on visiting days. Riding on a cow's back was one such surprise.  He'd pick us up and settle us on the cows back and then pile up some fresh cut grass in front of the animal so that it would stay in one spot. The elevation seemed very lofty to me and quite exciting. As I grew older I can remember reading on the animals back - one of the more curious ways I've read a book.

    During my university years, I had a garden on his property. He'd turn the earth for me and I'd come out in the spring and set the rows with my hoe, sow the seeds and set strings above the rows. My father probably forced me to do this as part of the payback for tuition...I was too self-absorbed to think about charity and he was always harnessing me to the plow, so to speak. Dad did all Bob's legal work for free and likely called in a few chits to get Bob to indulge me in my continuing farm education.

    Bob did all the really hard work in advance and I got the good part - planting yellow wax beans, beets,  rhubarb, potatoes, peas and onions as soon as the frost danger was over (it was never really over in Winnipeg). Harvesting in September usually yielded bushels and bushels of vegetables which we donated to an orphanage. My boyfriend's little black Austin convertible would be loaded down...I'd ride squeezed into the back using my body to keep the peas from blowing out as we crept our way to the orphanage. We'd make several trips a day on Saturdays until the plants were picked bare and the nights were getting frosty.

    Old Bob came to my wedding. It was the last time I saw him. The reception was held at a restaurant in the airport presaging how my life was going to unfold. Bob, all cleaned up, smoking longer butts in honor of the occasion, and my three maiden aunts (all in their sixties at the time), resplendent in hats and gloves, got blotto drinking Manhattans in the Fly-Away bar before the wedding. None of them really drank much in real life and they ordered Manhattans because they'd heard the drink was sophisticated. What happened afterwards I shudder to think. My father reported that they all suffered mightily from hangovers. Fortunately, the aunts lived right next door to the Catholic Church; if "morning after" confession was necessary, they didn't have far to go.

    My Lapsed Judgement

    I reached into my cache of greeting cards to find something to send a friend. For the fiftieth time I shuffled past the three cards, now yellowed with age, that endure as a testament to my temporarily lapsed judgement and common sense.

    Here's the birthday card that can never be sent.

    Here's the Christmas card......

    When I bought these card a dozen years ago in Marlene's Hallmark I thought they were hilarious. As my own rear view "adjusts" with age, I've grown more sensitive to my potential audience. The cards survived my last vicious purge of stuff - I keep them as a sort of touchstone of bad taste.

    The third card I bought when my friends were younger; there was little risk in treading on such thin ice. Now I still think it's funny but don't dare send it to anyone.

    Wednesday, September 21, 2011

    Neither brass nor bass

    Intrigued by the idea of a organ recital with hand bells and brass, I went over to Grace Presbyterian Church to see the advertised concert. The organist, an enthusiast and charming woman was the star of the show. She introduced each piece with a short explanation of the music and it's origin, facts about the composer and why she chose the piece. Designed to show off the organ, several of the compositions were quite showy and made good use of the entire key board and the bass pedals. After she finished each piece with a flourish, she'd come back to the microphone, almost breathless and make a little comment about her playing, "That really warmed my fingers up!" or "That one is a real challenge!" She was adorable. She also played a bell solo and was part of the bell ringing ensemble.

    I was fascinated by the gloves the bell ringers wore and did a little research when I got home. Some play the bells "naked" - without gloves, others claim gloves are necessary to protect the bells from oils and sweat on the hands. 

    Turned out there was a typo in the flyer advertising the concert. It wasn't brass, but rather bass accompaniment and it turned out that the bass player had an emergency and couldn't be there. No brass and no bass either!

    Enthusiasm makes a huge difference no matter the endeavor. I enjoyed the concert and the almost-one-woman show very much. 

    Monday, September 19, 2011

    Aidez moi!!

    Every year I swear I'll get my taxes done in January. Then I shoot for April. Next thing I know it's September and my accountant tells me I face a 25% fee increase if my information isn't in her hands by September 15th. There's nothing like a good deadline - one with a bit of pocket pain attached, to make you finally face the music.

    Why am I writing a blog entry instead of drilling away at the paperwork until it's done? Because nothing brings out the procrastinator in me like this one task. I can think of at least a hundred things that should take precedence.  After the hundred things are done, I get an attack of ADD.  I can't focus on anything for longer than 30 minutes without taking a break, which leads to a distraction and then another break and so on. I've read that there's some kind of ego depletion phenomenon that occurs when excessive procrastination sets in and I believe I suffer this. Who am I anyway and why am I trapped here wallowing in paper?

    Every year I imagine the dreaded audit is imminent.  In my nightmare scenario, I mail in the return and some young zealot gets hold of it and finds hundreds of errors. A viciously precise scrutiny ensues and a precious year of my life is wasted justifying my $19.95 subscription to Food and Wine magazine.

    As I shuffle the papers around, I find myself gradually getting numb. My tongue went first in this year's case of  tax paralysis, starting with a specific cluster of nerves down the middle - I can barely cry out, "Save me from all of this....someone, anyone!" In other years, 1992 if I remember correctly, the finger nerves, specifically the nerves involved in gripping a pencil, failed utterly. In '04, I couldn't keep that rubber finger thingy on and it would fly off my paper flipping finger like a boomerang or something out of a Kung Fu movie. If I was prone to headaches I suppose I'd develop one of those. Stressed, my body is sending out random alarms. I need a Canadian aspirin or two (they put some codeine in the mix) and I have a bottle of 500 reserved specifically for the temporary relief of the pain in the ass our tax code has become.

    My husband took one look at me a few minutes ago and decided to go to KFC and pick up some fried chicken for dinner. I'm headed for the wine bottle.

    Thursday, September 08, 2011

    Truth and Fiction: Clara Peeters

    Osais Bert was waiting outside the door with the cloak over his arm, pacing back and forth and ruining her concentration.  She sighed, reaching for her loupe and glass. When would he cease his hounding? Hunching over the canvas she used her finest brush to finish her own reflected image in the silver candle stick.  The idiot Osais could try 1000 times and never reach the perfection she could achieve.  In the atelier, when a detail was necessary Clara was summoned. The first and only woman to ever work here her steady hand and perfect eye could capture the smallest, finest details. And the master reaped the benefits in prized commissions and higher fees. He needed more money.  After all it was 1607 and inflation was rampant since the Burghers had money to lend and the Church no longer counted usury a sin.

    More frequently now the studio was accepting private commissions.  Gone were the days of painting only for Rome, recreating ponderous Biblical scenes to hang in obscurity in dark churches, monasteries and clerical residences.

    When Clara was twelve she began painting insects. Her lady bugs were marvels under the glass - she captured every hair, every detail. Her reputation and genius quickly grew. Clara's flies were unequaled - layers and layers of paint were built up with her fine sable brushes; textures and light grew with impasto until the viewer was mesmerized.  Later she applied the same technique to painting other insects, grasshoppers, crickets and spiders; then small objects: mirrors, vases, thimbles. Now three years later, Clara - a woman - barely more than a child, was acknowledged not by all, but by a growing number as a skilled studio painter. The cloaking ritual, sneaking her into the studio in the day and out at night was still necessary. Osais felt the need to hide her from plain view to protect her honor although more and more often commissioners requested a painting by "the girl".
    And now at last she was painting a whole canvas in the new still life style, the style she was developing. The burghers, trying to achieve immortality desired records of their possessions  - a way to live on beyond the grave. Newly wealthy, they loved paintings of dark rooms packed with their treasures from top to bottom.  But this one was a happier canvas. Stepping back she assessed the almost completed current work. Commissioned for the wedding of a Burgher's daughter, she had carefully chosen the most iconic objects to work on the canvas in her lovely composition, which radiated lasting beauty and was neither overly religious nor profane.

    As the painting would be the prized possession of the young couple and their most important wedding gift, she was careful to include the pieces the couple loved along with  symbolic food and objects associated with love and marriage. A long twig of rosemary was hung with tiny ornaments, perfectly painted. Rosemary with its long lasting strong scent represented the persistence of young love. The beautiful tiny ornaments, exquisitely painted gave Clara the opportunity to exhibit her great skill.  She liked to include a candle light for balancing the glow on the canvas and she was pleased with the soft light on her scene. Just as life and love progress, candles represented the flare of passion, followed by radiation of a constant light, flickering occasionally and then finally simply dying   Two large wedding pastries rested on the marital plate and the "P" was the initial of the new couple but she painted it with extra joy as it was her own last initial. The two glasses represented the bride and groom. Their wedding ring at the edge of the plate added whimsy to the composition and balanced the magnificently painted fly creeping across the tablecloth in the background, the unsuspecting insect being in imminent danger of discovery, swatting and extinction; it represented and reminded the viewer of the the brief time we have on earth.

    She wiped away a bead of sweat as she worked her own tiny reflection into the candle stick. Clara enjoyed painting this quirky signature, known only to her and the only way she could get credit for her work. Soon after this trademark was discovered by a discerning eye,  the burghers began to request that she include it in all her paintings for authenticity.

    She turned back to the canvas to draw more tiny lines which the waning studio light revealed were wanting. After a few moments, her eyes raised and she met the burning, impatient glance of Osais. Her day was over. Clara reluctantly stood up from her chair.

    Monday, August 22, 2011

    Mixed media: Dance and food

    Down the alley, behind Jose’s Rotisseria, 17 chickens marinated in rum, brown sugar and lime juice turn slowly on a spit and begin to drip, the juices sizzling on a bed of red hot BBQ coals. A sweet rumminess rises up, catches the air and wafts 3 blocks east through the open window of Anton’s nightclub, flutters round the dressing room curtain and into the flaring nostrils of Ricardo Perez, tango dancer. Perez snaps to attention, his appetite alive; he reaches for one of the spicy empanadas on his dressing table, bites down, his lips and tongue slowly burning as the meaty filling and buttery crust melt in his mouth.

    On the other side of the curtain, Lucinda straightens her bodice, checks her makeup and takes one last sip of her Pisco Sour. Salivating, her tongue is prickled by lime juice and her cheeks pucker from the alcoholic Pisco. She smells the charring chicken and stamps her strappy black heels.

    The strains of the tango music start; Ricky and Lucinda swirl out onto the dance floor plastered against each other, thigh to thigh, hip to hip, nose to nose, moving sinuously to the torrid tempo. As they swoop past the birthday table Lucinda’s little finger, dangling, scoops up icing from the tres leches birthday cake. Gracefully, her hand passes her mouth and she laps up the milky icing. “Sweet”, she sighs. 

    Another a low dip and over Luncinda's raised bosom, Ricky sees the remains of a large platter of grouper in lime sauce on the table while a limoncello bottle is being passed around. Bowls of deep yellow pineapple chunks sprinkled with cilantro are scattered around the stained table cloth red blotched from splashes of the house salsa picante. Half eaten plates of flan swimming in caramel sauce are piled at the table's end. The diners have pushed their chairs from the table and lean back, sipping their mojitos, toothpicks at work. The dancers hear a belch of satisfaction as they make another pass. 

    As the last few squawks wheeze from the ancient accordion, Ricky and Lucinda assume the classic tango pose, her leg draped over his thigh, her stretched back arched outward, arm raised high in the air; as if mimicking the tortured tango melody, their two taut young stomachs begin a yearning growl .