Saturday, October 22, 2011

La Bell Vie

It’s been far too long since I shared some of our Alaskan experiences via this tiny blog. As many of you know, it’s been a busy couple of months, but I realize that is a feeble excuse. At any rate, I won’t spend any longer boring you with apologies for my negligence. Instead let’s just get the ball rolling…although I’ll shake off the dust and wade slowly into the shallow end. Here’s a short piece about perception & beauty (which relies heavily on an article from the Washington Post and More stories about life in Alaska to come...

Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten conceived of an experiment to test how people perceived quality. As I read the story, I found it also spoke to how people perceive beauty. I know I’ve written about beauty and how important it is to me to be open to beauty of many forms and in unexpected places – but it bears repeating. While my previous post about beauty mentioned having new eyes, this one is to remind us to have new ears; to listen. Listening is hard in our fast-paced world, where marketing messages find their way into our phones; where our lives our saddle-bagged by devices – newer, faster – designed to improve our connectivity to the world. Yet somehow, while we’re so busy ‘connecting’ to the world, we miss out on the beauty that’s right in front of us. We’re so busy looking at the latest viral image that we don’t look out the window on the train and see the sunset – a sunset that will never, ever be recreated. We’re so busy listening to our voicemail that we don’t hear the song that a precocious three year old just invented about a dinosaur – a song that no one’s ever heard before.

So after you’re finished reading this, take some time to invest & unplug; to look and to listen. You may be pleasantly surprised.

(The following story is taken from

Many a marketing survey has been conducted to gauge how presentation affects consumer perceptions of quality, and quite a few such surveys have found that people will frequently designate one of two identical items as being distinctly better than the other simply because it is packaged or presented more attractively. Might this same concept apply to fields outside of consumer products, such as the arts? Would, for example, people distinguish between a world-class instrumental virtuoso and an ordinary street musician if the only difference between them were the setting? These were questions tackled by Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten in 2007 when he enlisted renowned violinist Joshua Bell, a winner of the Avery Fisher Prize for outstanding achievement in classical music who regularly undertakes over 200 international engagements a year, to spend part of a morning playing incognito at the entrance to a Washington Metro station during a morning rush hour. Weingarten set up the event “as an experiment in context, perception and priorities – as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”

So, on 12 January 2007, morning commuters passing through the L’Enfant Plaza Station of the subway line in Washington, D.C. were, without publicity, treated to a free mini-concert performed by violin virtuoso Joshua Bell, who played for approximately 45 minutes, performing six classical pieces during that span on his handcrafted 1713 Stradivarius violin (for which Bell reportedly paid $3.5 million). As Weingarten described the crux of the experiment:

Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you? What’s the moral mathematics of the moment?

Three days earlier, Bell had played to a full house at Boston’s Symphony Hall, where fairly good seats went for $100. But on this day he collected just $32.17 for his efforts, contributed by a mere 27 of 1,097 passing travelers. Only seven people stopped to listen, and just one of them recognized the performer.

The Washington Post won a Pulitzer in the feature writing category for Gene Weingarten’s April 2007 story about this experiment.


Having been fortunate enough to hear Joshua Bell perform live at a concert outdoors in 2003, I can , without reservation, say that his playing is extraordinary. His playing is so beautiful that it is almost heartbreaking. (Interestingly, I was listening to an interview on NPR the other day about how music most frequently triggers strong emotional responses that are similar to sadness. I’m curious to find out more about this.) If you’ve never seen The Red Violin (which features Bell’s playing), or heard any of his other albums, I highly recommend taking a listen.

In the meantime, will someone please look for the elderly man who plays the flute on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s been my pleasure to listen to him for years, (and yes I look for him whenever I visit), and it’s been far too long since I’ve been there.

[Postscript: This is the interview I listened to on NPR.]

Friday, March 4, 2011

Love at the Laundromat

E.B. White said, “We should all do what, in the long run, gives us joy, even if it is only picking grapes or sorting the laundry,” and although I once would have found it difficult to believe that laundry could bring anyone joy, I find myself converted. 

Adam & I have determined that the washer and dryer in the basement of our apartment building are notorious coin thieves. With these monsters constantly eating our quarters, or in need of repair, trying to do our laundry in the building had become an exercise in futility. So we ventured out into North Pole in search of a remedy and found one in Forbes Laundry. (Which, interestingly, is also called a 'washeteria'.) We bag up our laundry & detergent and truck ourselves over there for, what has turned out to be, one of our favorite afternoons/evenings - Laundry Day.

Adam loves his Pad Prik King!
It's not that we enjoy folding clothes or watching the large glass front commercial dryers, it's that this simple ritual has become associated with so much...more. Laundry night means that we also stop by the Thai Cuisine restaurant for an order of Pad Prik King and Pad Thai. We sit in one of the booths at Forbes while our laundry whirls and eat our tasty dinners. Then out come the card games, Cribbage or Milles Bornes. The time passes so quickly, I've almost begun to wish we had more laundry!

While Adam was away this past month, he even wrote to me that he particularly missed this little tradition of ours. In fact, it was one of the first things on our agenda when he returned. It brought us back to 'normal', as though we pushed a 'reset' button and all was right with the world. The hum of the washing machines, the smell of detergent, the taste of Thai, the warmth of the building buzzing with activity - adds up to more than the sum of its parts. And I've begun to notice other peoples' little rituals there  - the couple doing their bills, the woman talking to her daughter on the phone, the family eating pizzas - and it comforts me. 

Next month we'll be moving into a house that has a washer & dryer of our very own and I know that the laundromat is an expense we'll be able to forgo...but I'll miss it. And I wonder if, from time to time, it wouldn't really hurt to take one little load over to Forbes - just for the fun of it.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Merry Gentleman

Though he may not be old, his eyes sure do twinkle and his demeanor is jolly. Perhaps this is why Adam was chosen to be Santa Claus at last year's Troop Christmas party. (Or perhaps it was because I suggested it to his boss.) But the reason he agreed to do it is because he is truly a merry gentleman. He dutifully rehearsed all the names of the reindeer and fielded every 'toy' question I threw at him for days beforehand. So when the time came to put on the borrowed suit, I knew he was going to be fine. He strode into the room with a bag full of sweets exclaiming "Ho! Ho! Ho!" and when the children cried, "SANTA!" he was truly in his element.

Child after child lined up to tell him their heart's desire and have their picture taken, and when the children had all been seen then the soldiers started lining up! It seems they couldn't resist the opportunity to sit on Santa's lap. I'm not sure if they had all been 'good little boys' but Santa turned no one away. At the end, he declared, with satisfaction, that none of the children had recognized him. The best part was when one small boy tried to come in (when Santa's hat & beard were off) and said urgently that he had forgotten to tell Santa something. Santa quickly made himself presentable and went outside so that the little boy could whisper in his ear, "Good bye, Santa". I guess it's better to play it safe and mind your Ps and Qs when Christmas is on the line!

I know that Adam is not the first man in my family to have 'played' Santa. My grandfather and some of my great uncles have also taken on the role. It is so wonderfully endearing to know that Adam is willing to continue the tradition. More than that, it warmed my heart to see how happy it made him, how focused he was on each child. And isn't that the true nature of Santa after all? I know there are many theories on the origin of Santa Claus, and several sources of historical inspiration - from Saint Nicholas to Odin - but when I think of Santa from now on, it will be my husband's sweet smile I see twinkling in his eyes.

It may seem inopportune, posting something about Christmas after Valentine's Day, but shouldn't we, as Dickens urged us, "honor Christmas in [our] heart[s] and try to keep it all year"?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

I Found New Eyes at the Gas Station

Marcel Proust said that, "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes." I've certainly found new landscapes here in Alaska, but I also try to have those "new eyes" all the time. I will never cease to be amazed by the aurora borealis, or the moose munching grasses in our back yard. However, these things have a type of beauty that stands out. What about the hidden beauty around us? The simple acts of kindness, the extra efforts, the pride in good work - will we overlook these things? I hope not.

In that spirit, I'd like to thank the person who puts together the gas station sign at the end of our road. Whoever it is takes the extra effort to compose a little poem on either side. Every time I stop at the traffic light, I look over with anticipation to see what new verse awaits the passersby. Sometimes they stay up there for the whole month, but they give us something to look forward to. It's not necessary, I'm sure they could take the easier route and simply put up the bare facts, but this small act brightens up my day. So tomorrow I'm going to stop in and thank our gas station poet for the beauty they give us all.

Maybe I'm misinterpreting Proust, but I don't think that really matters. I hope that Adam & I never become inured to the beauty that surrounds us - in whatever form it takes.

And all this Proust has me craving madeleines... Time for something sweet. Maybe a fresh blended milkshake?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Mystery Alaska

Sometimes it's fun to judge a book by its cover. I enjoy perusing the library shelves and finding a book that I've never heard of and if the title & cover look interesting, I check it out. I've found some real gems by doing this. One of my new favorites is Nancy Atherton's Aunt Dimity series. I'm forcing myself to ration them but it's very difficult - because they're so good!

The protagonist in most of the Aunt Dimity stories is American Lori Shepherd. She inherits a journal through which Aunt Dimity communicates from the spirit world. Lori, her family, and her neighbors in the small English town of Finch solve mysteries - from blackmail, to missing relatives, to (gasp!) murder! The characters in the series are endearing and although each novel can stand on its own (I read the last one first, actually) it is more fun to read the books in publication order and watch the characters develop.

Each book is usually under 250 pages and is a very quick read. The plot lines are never very complicated and the language is approachable. However, to merely say that they are 'simple' stories doesn't really do them justice. The story flows effortlessly, which takes a competent writer, and the situations/locations are well-researched and beautifully described. It's like eating a delicious meal - the skill of the cook is often belied by the simplicity of the menu.

Speaking of menus, a fun thing about the Aunt Dimity series is that each book has a recipe at the end of a dish that appeared in the story - usually a dessert. I'm very interested in trying some of them!

Here's the first - a recipe for oatmeal cookies which reappear throughout several of the books:

Beth's Oatmeal Cookies (as seen in Nancy Atherton's Aunt Dimity series)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Makes approximately 6 dozen cookies.

1 cup butter or margarine
1 cup granulated sugar
2 jumbo eggs
5 tablespoons raisin water (see below)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup raisins
2 cups water
1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

In small saucepan, combine raisins with water and bring to boil;
lower heat and simmer uncovered for 5 minutes. Set aside to cool.
When cool, reserve 5 tablespoons raising water, then drain raisins in colander. 
In large mixing bowl, cream shortening and sugar. Add eggs and raisin water
and mix well. Blend dry ingredients into creamed mixture. Add nuts if desired.
Add raisins and combine well. 
Drop by heaping teaspoonfuls, 2 inches apart, onto greased baking sheets.
Bake 10-15 minutes, or until golden brown and firm on top when touched
with your finger. Cool on wire racks.

Another one of the characters in the series that is very dear to me - so dear, in fact that I'm trying to make one of my own - is Reginald. Reginald is a pink flannel rabbit. Nancy Atherton herself has commented on Reginald and his popularity - "When I first wrote Aunt Dimity's Death, an early reader (who shall remain nameless) exclaimed: 'Why on earth would a thirty-year-old woman talk to a stuffed animal? No one will believe it. Get rid of the rabbit.' Seldom in literary history has there been a more dimwitted observation. Reginald, Lori Shepherd's powder-pink flannel bunny, has gone on to become one of the best-loved characters in the series." And I have to agree! As a girl who has several stuffed friends who are beloved, and who have moved with me to Alaska, I think that there are many of us who can identify with Lori and Reginald. Throughout the series, perhaps in response to that "one reader" Atherton respectfully introduces us to many other people who have a special stuffed animal.

Last night's Aunt Dimity, (Aunt Dimity and the Deep Blue Sea), had some very menacing moments. Although it didn't help me go to sleep, I certainly appreciated Atherton keeping me on my toes and avoiding the pitfall of formulaic writing. Today I'll read the last of the ones I have - Aunt Dimity Goes West, and then Wednesday I'll check out another three. I'm very excited, but what's more exciting is that the newest Aunt Dimity comes out this month! On February 17th, Aunt Dimity and the Family Tree will be available! So, I don't feel too badly about reading them voraciously - as long as Nancy Atherton keeps writing!

For more information on the author or these wonderful books - visit her website here.

Love Me Knot

Before we got married, Adam's mother sent us this love knot. Made of plaited straw, seashells and beach glass it is a reminder of the delicate, but flexible nature of love. It came with a short verse and a wish for good fortune.

There are many representations of love knots throughout history. For centuries, many cultures (Celtic, Algerian, Sikh, African...) have used the symbol of a never-ending knot to signify completeness, constancy and strength. Variations of the knot have been used in marriage ceremonies, and even the idea of a wedding ring can be seen as a variation of the 'knot' with no beginning and no end.

The idea of a love knot made of straw seems to be rooted in celebrations of the harvest. Sometimes called the Countryman's Favor, Harvest Knots or Lover's Tokens, the knots are braided from gathered remnants of the grain harvest. The braided design was then presented to the object of the man's affection and if she wore it on her sleeve the following day, she accepted his invitation and the courtship began.

As happens with most symbols, their meaning evolves through history and the same is true for this plaited straw knot. The contemporary Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote a very nice proleptic (anticipatory) elegy called "The Harvest Bow". In the poem he elegizes his father while reminiscing over a braided straw knot. The verse that speaks to me in particular talks about 'telling' the bow:

I tell and finger it like braille
Gleaning the unsaid off the palpable

I can imagine the son caressing the work of the father, or the girl caressing the work of her sweetheart - remembering the hands that made it. Especially in this age of mass production, computerized & digitized, robotic assembly, it's rare that we can hold an item and imagine the hands that lovingly crafted it. Which is why it's important to keep craftsmanship alive, to make things ourselves; why we guard those trinkets and treasures made by hands we love. It's why I keep a box full of the gifts my sister has made me since she was four, why socks and scarves made by your mother or your best friend are always warmer, and why I treasure the handwritten letters Adam sends. It's why the love knot sent by your wonderful mother-in-law is guaranteed to bring happiness.

It's because they are made with Love.

[And just in case you're interested in the full text of "The Harvest Bow", I'm including it below.]

The Harvest Bow by Seamus Heaney

As you plaited the harvest bow
You implicated the mellowed silence in you
In wheat that does not rust
But brightens as it tightens twist by twist
Into a knowable corona,
A throwaway love-knot of straw.

Hands that aged round ashplants and cane sticks
And lapped the spurs on a lifetime of game cocks
Harked to their gift and worked with fine intent
Until your fingers moved somnambulant:
I tell and finger it like braille,
Gleaning the unsaid off the palpable,

And if I spy into its golden loops
I see us walk between the railway slopes
Into an evening of long grass and midges,
Blue smoke straight up, old beds and ploughs in hedges,
An auction notice on an outhouse wall—
You with a harvest bow in your lapel,

Me with the fishing rod, already homesick
For the big lift of these evenings, as your stick
Whacking the tips off weeds and bushes
Beats out of time, and beats, but flushes
Nothing: that original townland
Still tongue-tied in the straw tied by your hand.

The end of art is peace
Could be the motto of this frail device
That I have pinned up on our deal dresser—
Like a drawn snare
Slipped lately by the spirit of the corn
Yet burnished by its passage, and still warm.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Balsamic Reduction Mulvey

Recently I took a notion to make a Balsamic reduction to dress some mashed potatoes and steak. When Adam and I were in Anchorage, we had a fabulous dinner at a brewery and the reduction they served still makes my mouth water. I had always assumed that it must take a lot of skill to make, since wait staff always make a point of enunciating its appearance on your plate. ("This dish is finished with a de-li-cious Balsamic reduction...") But the effect on the potatoes was so delectable that I was bound and determined to conquer this cooking challenge!

When I investigated, I could not believe how SIMPLE it is to make. It is entirely eponymous - the only thing necessary to make this culinary treat is to reduce Balsamic Vinegar by 50-75% or until it reaches the consistency of syrup. Boil the vinegar and then reduce heat to medium and stir constantly. If desired, you can add sugar for a sweeter reduction, but this is not necessary.

I am a big fan of Balsamic vinegar (how many times can I say 'Balsamic' in one post?!). I think I'm taken with foods that have to be made in a specific region and to exacting standards - it resounds with tradition and quality. It's these simple daily rituals; the ceremony of diet that literally makes us into the people we are. When we participate in these traditions, eat these time-honored foods, we eliminate the distance between us and our ancestors and mouthful by mouthful we travel back in time, connecting to our shared past. In this way, cooking for others is truly a celebration, an act of love through which we help them become their future selves and remind them of their history.

And the Balsamic reduction was very tasty. So tasty, in fact, that Adam says he wants to name our first child - Balsamic Reduction Mulvey.