Tuesday, February 28, 2012


I hear your whine and raise you one. I do empathize! Whining is what Frank and I seem to do quite a bit of these days.  If it isn’t the weather it’s the coming elections, or the unbelievable things our kids are doing, or the dumb  things other people do. 

       What are they thinking?
              What are they thinking?
                      What are they thinking?
                             What are they thinking?

Not that we know all the answers – far from it! – but in our old age we do enjoy a commiserating whine.

The weather, above all, is Frank’s favorite topic for a whine.  After 75 years in the north he is not too kind when it comes to Carolinas weather. Until we stopped the daily paper he was sure to report to me the high and low and the forecast for the day up in Albany. Not that I cared, and he knew it, but it was information he delighted in sharing out loud. Now I get only the Sunday forecast. I suppose that’s a blessing.

Monday, February 27, 2012


I see by the Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac, a site I check every morning, that today is the birthday of John Steinbeck.  That struck a chord in my writing self.  Steinbeck, usually named when I’m asked as my favorite author, was the first author whose full set of novels I read.  I was lucky in that my parents had most of them on their shelves.
Strange as it may seem, the scene I remember most from all I read was one from either Cannery Row or Sweet Thursday.  They are one narrative in my mind, and they are my favorite works of his, perhaps because of the following anecdote.
There on Cannery Row, in a Depression era contest to bring some amusement to an otherwise unamusing time, a man is trying to set a record for flag-pole sitting.  Something about the whole thing was bothering this guy, so in the middle of the night he got up and went out and shouted up to the sitter. The answer was shouted down: “I’ve got a tin can up here.”  You know what the question was, of course.  And for some quirky reason this has stuck in my brain for over fifty years.

As I’ve read other novels since then I’ve often come upon an instance where a character was in, shall we say, a marathon situation.  Often I’ve thought about the incident in the night on Cannery Row. Only rarely has the author satisfied my curiosity, and rarely as well as Steinbeck. I just thought you’d like to know that.

Friday, February 24, 2012


February 24th prompts me to do up an essay on writing. I’ve been at this blog, this compendium of personal essays, for well over a year now, and February 28th marks the birthday of Michel de Montaigne, considered by many to be the father of the personal essay. Montaigne was born in 1533, during my favorite period of history, the Renaissance, in a wonderful part of France: Perigord.  Oo la la, think truffles, think wine, think foie gras. Montaigne is called the father of Modern Skepticism.  I’ll raise my glass to that – I am somewhat of a skeptic myself, and a curmudgeon to boot. The title of his huge volume of essays, “Essais”, translates literally as “Attempts”, and attempt is what writers do: attempt to teach, to entertain, and perhaps to sway the reader to a certain point of view.

The critic and writer Stephen Greenblatt said, "The first and perhaps the most important requirement for a successful writing performance — and writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig — is to understand the nature of the occasion." I write as I hope I’d speak to you in person, and I always hope you enjoy the performance. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, though I always try to relate the essay to the occasion and the season.

We’ve a bunch of diacritical marks to go along with our written language, but they don’t always convey the exact nuance that speech would carry, nor can they convey the subtle facial or body movements that would accompany a live reading (nudge, nudge, wink, wink).
In a live reading I’d never have to use dashes or parenthesis or a semicolon; I’d not have to worry about my spelling or grammar, and long sentences like these wouldn’t be so obvious or difficult to follow.  I’ve always tried to be aware of using proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation, but after a while I just like to say “Nuts to that”.  My nephew is the force behind a popular blog on films. (Check the list of blogs I follow, you’ll know which one it is. Zen Hugs db.) Sometimes his spelling, grammar and punctuation set my teeth on edge – but then I realize that I do know what he’s saying, I do understand it perfectly, and enjoy it immensely, so why carp (or crap, anagrammatically speaking) about it.  But I digress…

...back to my topic: writing.  "Composition is a discipline; it forces us to think. If you want to 'get in touch with your feelings,' fine — talk to yourself; we all do. But, if you want to communicate with another thinking human being, get in touch with your thoughts. Put them in order; give them a purpose; use them to persuade, to instruct, to discover, to seduce. The secret way to do this is to write it down and then cut out the confusing parts."   A man I really admired, William Safire, journalist, author, a man of many words, wrote that. 

Well, “get in touch with your thoughts” – it’s evident that I’ve presented three other people’s thoughts here.  But they’ve so eloquently said what I wish I could have as I noodled around with this essay.  And as I noodled around with this essay I came upon these excellent rules for essayists:
·          Remember to never split an infinitive.*
·          The passive voice should never be used.
·          Do not put statements in the negative form.
·          Verbs have to agree with their subjects.
·          Proofread carefully to see if you words out.
·          If you reread your work, you can find on rereading a great deal of…**

*and do you know why we’re not supposed to split an infinitive? Because in Latin it was only one unsplitable word. But the rules of grammar are not backed up with any punitive governmental legislation, so whatever works works.

** …a great deal of “what was I thinking?” And, just what was I thinking? I suppose I was just making an attempt to suit an essay to the occasion of Montaigne’s birthday.

This essay excepted, (and you’d think it would be just the opposite) I attempt to “cut out the confusing parts” of what I write, and not ramble too much. Maybe I’m trying too hard. Now to get back to our birthday boy Montaigne, he said “The highest of wisdom is continual cheerfulness: such a state, like the region above the moon, is always clear and serene."  Curmudgeon that I am, I do always try to be cheerful.  I think it will help me live longer.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

at Strawbery Banke, Portsmouth, NH

We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are. 
                                                         Anaïs Nin (whose birthday is today)

Friday, February 17, 2012


Recently I read of Eva Gabrielsson’s wonderful evocation of a Viking curse. (You can read the article here.)  What struck me about the Viking curse, and the article describes it as ‘elaborate’, was the symbolic sacrifice of a horse: she broke a statue in two and threw it in a lake.  She was angry and she wanted to vent and get some revenge.  The whole ritual must have been extremely satisfying; cathartic to say the least.  “I felt immense relief, and so did the others who were with me,” she said, explaining, “It’s a ritual - we lack rituals for grief, for confusion, for rage.” It was easy to conjure up a vision of this angry gal smashing things: smashing things is something I’d often like to do.

Except for the Greeks among us who smash plates, we do lack rituals for grief, confusion, or rage.  I suppose, thinking on the lighter side, I can dismiss confusion, especially at my age, with an offhand mention of “Major Senior Moment”, but the grief and rage deserve something specific to be done in response.  I remember a neighbor from years ago who was so mad at him when her husband died.  Not only did he leave her, his death was, in her mind, due to his complete lack of regard for doctors’ orders after he’d had a massive heart attack.  She was mighty peeved, to put it mildly. I know she ranted and raved, but I’m sure she would have liked to haul off and smash him – or at least a plate or two. 

I'm not ready to put a curse on anyone or anything, but very often I find that I’d just love to smash a stack of plates or throw a few glasses against the wall. Oooo – how immensely satisfying that would be! Frankly, I have thought of it, but I never followed through.  Why? Because I’m the one who’d have to sweep up the mess! I guess I’ll have to get a membership in a gym with a punching bag and take my occasional frustrations out on it.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

 I captured this rose for you in 2001 at Descanso Gardens
in Southern California

"One day I shall burst my bud of calm and blossom into hysteria." 
                       Christopher Fry in The Lady’s Not for Burning

Friday, February 10, 2012



Soup Of The Evening
Beautiful Soup, so rich and green,
Waiting in a hot tureen!
Who for such dainties would not stoop?
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!

by Lewis Carroll, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

In the winter this old gal’s fancy heavily turns to thoughts of soup. Theoretically, soup can be any combination of vegetables, meats, or fish.  Fruit soups are on their own. Soup can be any consistency from thick and chunky gumbo or stew, to thin and smooth consommé. In between you’ll find all manner of broths and bouillons, purées and cream soups, bisques and chowders. 

Though most soups are served hot, some, like vichyssoise, gazpacho, or fruit soups, are served cold.  These last, to me, are summer soups.  In winter we’re talkin’ hot stuff.  Canned or made-from-scratch, soups can be served as a first course or as a meal.  As a meal they’re great with a sandwich, or a big chunk of crusty bread and a salad.

Soup can be as economical or as extravagant as you care to make it: it’s the end of the week, your cupboard is bare, and you’re down to a few bouillon cubes and an egg or two - voila! - egg drop soup.
Or: you’re entertaining a local politician or pundit, and you must come up with a fantastic, money-is-no-object, starter. Short of soups consisting of shark fins and gold - yes, there are such soups - you couldn’t go wrong with a chunky lobster or shrimp bisque. 

Canned soups are not to be sniffed at.  There are many ways to dress them in glory. Think of cream-of-chicken with some frozen peas or corn added in the cooking. Think of Scotch broth with a splash of vermouth. Think of any vegetable soup with a dash of soy sauce or a sprinkling of grated or shredded cheese. Cream of tomato is excellent made with water, not milk, and zipped up with a bit of dried basil and a swirl of sour cream.  You can make any soup thicker by using about a quarter less liquid than called for. Think outside of the can. Other soup ‘zippers’ include rice wine vinegar, celery seed, crumbled bacon, and, of course, croutons.

Soups made from scratch can be made up fairly quickly. Unless you’d like them to sit longer to ‘flavor-up’, or you have large chunks of raw meat in the soup, about an hour is all you’ll need.   Think of what you’d put on a dinner plate per person: a small serving of meat (soup is a meat stretcher), some vegetables, and a starch. Add a flavorful liquid and you’ve got soup. 

The basic starter for most soups: onions. Figure one medium onion for two servings.  Sauté the onions in butter, or oil if you prefer it, until they are translucent. Then add as much liquid as you’ll need - about a cup per serving. The liquid can be canned broth or bouillon, or water and bouillon cubes. The bouillon cube came to us from the French, those masters at both accelerating and slowing the many processes of cooking. Remember that the broth made from cubes will taste different than fresh or canned because it has more salt in it.

Before you consider vegetables other than onions, think of any meat or seafood you’d like in the soup.  If you’ve pieces of raw meat to go in the soup they should be added, along any spices you prefer, at this point. They should be cooked until they are tender.  Because it takes such a short time to cook, seafood will be added after the vegetables are tender and will be cooked until just done.  Pre-cooked meats are also added as the last step and cooked just until heated through.

Old Carrots? Perfect for soup!
Think of small-diced potatoes, barley, noodles, or rice, or a can of any type of beans - pinto, navy, kidney, or garbanzos, for your starch.  Time things like rice and noodles according to the package directions.

Consider the vegetables.  What have you? Carrots? Celery? An old turnip? Some cabbage? Some almost-past-it spinach? How about a can of diced tomatoes? Be sure to adjust for the liquid in the can.  Other than the tomatoes, any canned vegetables or beans you use should be well rinsed before you add them to the pot. Raw vegetables should be cut no thicker than a half an inch. This is the time to add the spices if you haven’t added any meat. Vegetables can stand on their own in a soup. They’ll cook in up to twenty minutes. A soup made only of vegetables can be puréed with an immersion blender for a thick, satisfying bowl-full. 

If you concoct a soup you love be sure to write down what you did. Think about making more and freezing some next time. So there you have it - soup of the evening (or lunch.)  Beautiful soup. 

Friday, February 3, 2012

Picture from a misty morning at my house

I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world
        and a desire to enjoy the world.
       This makes it hard to plan the day.
                                                                              E. B. White