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 Snopes.com). 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 Snopes.com)

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. http://www.npr.org/2011/06/01/136859090/the-power-of-music-to-affect-the-brain]

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.

Satie-sfaction!

As you might have noticed, from the time stamps on these blog posts, I am a bit of a night owl. I've always had a tough time winding down at the end of the day, clearing my mind of cares. For a long time I combated this by watching one of a few favorite movies. After a while, the movies provoked a Pavlovian response and I'd be asleep within the first few minutes.

Last year, however, I read an article about sleep behavior and it made me rethink some of my bedtime habits. One of the things it suggested was that, "...even the most relaxing program or movie can interfere with the body’s clock due to the continuous flickering light coming from the TV or computer screen. Television is also noisy, which can disturb sleep if the set is accidentally left on." So I decided to change things up. I put together a cd of relaxing music and started listening to it at bedtime. I found it occupied my mind enough, after a while, and soon I had weaned myself from the television.

Unfortunately, Adam and I don't have a cd player in our bedroom and Adam is used to falling asleep with the television on. So, we've come up with a compromise! We put on one of the music channels (Light Classical) at bedtime. I'm always up later than Adam is and one of the bonuses of this new system is that I'm learning a lot more about classical music. There are little tidbits about the composers, conductors and orchestras. It's so gratifying to have more of a working knowledge of classical music. Instead of just humming the refrain, I can identify the composer and title! So satisfying!

One of these compositions that I've really come to love is GymnopĂ©dies by Erik Satie. He was quite a character - for more information on the curious life of Satie, take a peek at this fellow's site. The piece is achingly beautiful - simple and slightly melancholy. When first published, it began a new style of ambient, minimalist music, which Satie himself called 'furniture music'.  It is perfect music to relax the body, the mind and the soul.

Take a listen by clicking HERE.

Brian Eno, who is one of the twentieth century's innovators of ambient music said, "[it] must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting." (Eno has worked with many pop artists as a producer and collaborator, including one of my favorites - David Bowie.) It's the type of music that lingers without being obtrusive. I could play this piece by Satie over and over again and never tire of it.

Or maybe the point is that I do tire. It allows me to reach that state where satisfying sleep is possible. Merci bien, Satie.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Simple Gifts

Today I am reminded of a Kahlil Gibran quote, "You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give." I am overwhelmed with the desire to give. Fortunately, I am in a position where I can give of my time and I intend to give generously. I don't think that my motivations are entirely altruistic because of the simple fact that being able to do these things, to be useful, to be busy, makes me so happy. Un-fortunately, there are too many people, places and organizations that are in need of help. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the numbers of causes, the scale of 'help' that is needed around the world. I feel like I am using an eyedropper to put out a fire. But with encouragement from my sweetheart, I push these feelings aside and remember that I am one person and I do my best to do my best.

On Wednesdays I am a volunteer at the Noel Wien Public Library in Fairbanks. It is a beautiful library, and offers many outreach services to the interior of Alaska. The beauty of the library really takes your breath away. It sits in the middle of fifteen acres of park land. On the northern side of the library are six acres which are maintained by the Fairbanks Botanical Society. In the summer it will be covered by wildflowers. There are benches and paths for biking and walking. To the east is an open field with a large bird bath and a footbridge. I can't wait to see it surrounded by green and life.

Right now it is full of life on the inside. Trees grow in the lobby, there are plants everywhere and it is full of local artwork. Many of the exterior walls are glass from floor to ceiling and offer a pleasant view of the snowy outdoors - which makes you realize just how cozy it is inside. If you want to be really cozy, you can curl up in the fireplace room. What a haven for the residents of Fairbanks.

In addition to being a wonderful place to visit, the library and the librarians & pages who work there do wonderful things. Today we helped with part of the Guys Read program - "a web-based literacy program whose mission it is to help boys become self-motivated, lifelong readers." The library has a fantastic Bookmobile which serves outlying areas of the borough, which incidentally covers 7,444 square miles! Only slightly smaller than the entire state of New Jersey. There are outreach services for those who are home-bound, offered free of charge. (Interestingly, there is an author who writes mystery novels who was inspired by her time as a driver of the Fairbanks Bookmobile in the 1970s. Sue Henry has written Murder on the Iditarod Trail, The Serpents Trail, and about a dozen other mysteries.) There is also a books-by-mail regional service for residents of the bush, www.bushbooks.us , and the librarian devoted to this service collects information from readers and sends them books that they might enjoy. There's a lot going on here! I'm really enjoying learning more about the wonderful people who work here and promote reading and vigorously defend public access to information. Even if it's only one day a week, it makes me very happy to be a part of this organization.

Today I did the last of our recycling on post. Adam and I decided that, from now on, we are going to recycle at the Fairbanks Rescue Mission. It started when we saw a commercial thanking the residents of Fairbanks for bringing recycling materials to the Mission. (Fairbanks does not offer curb-side recycling services, nor are there recycling machines in stores. All recycling is done voluntarily.) They have started a Green Collar jobs program. "This program uses the Fairbanks Rescue Mission Recycling Center to create an employment environment in which the participant can be trained, evaluated, and certified in an actual work environment. The Green Collar Job Program is a holistic approach to attaining these goals. Mission residents operate the entire recycling operation and subsequently will not only gain a valuable sense of accomplishment but will also learn viable employment skills. The program is committed to adults who have employment barriers and focuses on their development as employees. Program participants will receive job placement, job training, careers counseling and resume preparation need to the community." In the commercial, the Mission director acknowledges the fact that it is 'inconvenient' to cart your recycling to their location, but then reminds us how much more inconvenient it is to be homeless. It really touched me at my core. Homelessness is frightening anywhere, but to think of being homeless here, where the alternative means living in life-threatening weather makes me want to cry.

The Fairbanks Rescue Mission is the only overnight men's emergency shelter and women's emergency shelter in the interior of Alaska. Let me say that again. The ONLY overnight men's emergency shelter and women's emergency shelter in the interior of Alaska. The Interior, generally measured as the area south of the Arctic Circle, north of the Alaska Range, west of Canada and (arbitrarily) east of 154 degrees west longitude, covers more than 167,644 square miles. 
This is the larger than the state of California. One shelter. They are in need of help. The more that I read about their mission, their resources, the more I know that my next goal is to volunteer there as well.  I've got my application ready and will bring it in tomorrow. I know that there are many organizations that are worthy and offer good services, but if you're in the giving mood, please take a moment to read about the Fairbanks Rescue Mission.

To give - "to transfer possession of something concrete or abstract". And although I take Gibran's counsel to heart, I'm sure that organizations like these appreciate when you give of your possessions, too.

I'm so very thankful. For everything.

The Deep Heart's Core

One of the reasons I love Adam so much is because we share a love of nature. Both of us are romantics and we've adopted each other's utopian imagery. It's so comforting to to instinctively understand what draws Adam to a piece of artwork or why he likes a particular poem. For example, hanging in the bathroom, is a copy of the poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree by William Butler Yeats. This was not a poem that I was familiar with, but now I can't imagine not knowing the verses. They are beautiful.

THE LAKE ISLE OF INNISFREE

Isle of Innisfree, Loch Gill, Ireland

By William Butler Yeats

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade. And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.
-1890

Before this, the only Innisfree I knew was the fictional setting of John Ford's classic, The Quiet Man, and the song "The Isle of Innisfree" which was the main theme of the film. But, as fate would have it, this Innisfree is also one of Adam's favorites. It's one of the films whose dialog we seem to casually slip into everyday conversation. It's so nice to speak the same language, to have familiar frames of reference.

I was very interested to read that Yeats was inspired by reading Thoreau to recreate his own Walden in Ireland. I love learning about artists who take inspiration from other artists I admire, as you may remember from earlier posts. I, myself, was just reading Thoreau last night ("Civil Disobedience") and always find his work inspiring - and humbling. I have never read Walden, but it is in my newly stocked Kindle and, once I finish the Count of Monte Cristo, I plan on devouring it. But before I curl up with Edmond Dantes, I want to share a poem that speaks to my own domestic utopia. Maybe my sweetheart can build this 'dream house' in his own imagination and meet me there...

Sorry for the rambling nature of this entry. I'm in a wistful mood.

Vagabond House by Don Blanding

When I have a house . . . as I sometime may . . .
I'll suit my fancy in every way.
I'll fill it with things that have caught my eye
In drifting from Iceland to Molokai.
It won't be correct or in period style,
But . . . oh, I've thought for a long, long while
Of all the corners and all the nooks,
Of all the bookshelves and all the books,
The great big table, the deep soft chairs,
And the Chinese rug at the foot of the stairs
(It's an old, old rug from far Chow Wan
That a Chinese princess once walked on).


My house will stand on the side of a hill
By a slow, broad river, deep and still,
With a tall lone pine on guard nearby
Where the birds can sing and the storm winds cry.
A flagstone walk, with lazy curves,
Will lead to the door where a Pan's head serves
As a knocker there, like a vibrant drum,
To let me know that a friend has come,
And the door will squeak as I swing it wide
To welcome you to the cheer inside.

For I’ll have good friends who can sit and chat
Or simply sit, when it comes to that,
By the fireplace where the fir logs blaze
And the smoke rolls up in a weaving haze.
I’ll want a wood box, scarred and rough
For leaves and bark and odorous stuff,
Like resinous knots and cones and gums,
To toss on the flames when winter comes.
And I hope a cricket will stay around,
For I love it’s creaky lonesome sound.

There’ll be driftwood powder to burn on logs
And a shaggy rug for a couple of dogs,
Boreas, winner of prize and cup,
And Mickey, a lovable gutter-pup.
Thoroughbreds, both of them, right from the start,
One by breeding, the other by heart.
There are times when only a dog will do
For a friend . . . when you’re beaten, sick and blue
And the world’s all wrong, for he won’t care
If you break and cry, or grouch and swear,
For he’ll let you know as he licks your hands
That he’s downright sorry . . . and understands.

I’ll have on a bench a box inlaid
With dragon-plaques of milk white jade
To hold my own particular brand
Of cigarettes brought from the Pharaohs land,
With a cloisonne bowl on a lizards skin
To flick my cigarette ashes in.
And a squat blue jar for a certain blend
Of pipe tobacco, I’ll have to send
To a quaint old chap I chanced to meet
In his fusty shop on a London street.

A long low shelf of teak will hold
My best-loved books in leather and gold,
While magazines lie on a bowlegged stand,
In a polyglot mixture close at hand.
I’ll have on a table a rich brocade
That I think the pixies must have made,
For the dull gold thread on blues and grays
Weaves a pattern of Puck . . . the Magic Maze.
On the mantlepiece I’ll have a place
For a little mud god with a painted face
That was given to me . . . oh, long ago,
By a Philippine maid in Olangapo.

Then just in range of a lazy reach . . .
A bulging bowl of Indian beech
Will brim with things that are good to munch,
Hickory nuts to crack and crunch;
Big fat raisins and sun-dried dates,
And curious fruits from the Malay Straits;
Maple sugar and cookies brown
With good hard cider to wash them down;
Wine-sap apples, pick of the crop,
And ears of corn to shell and pop
With plenty of butter and lots of salt . . .
If you don’t get filled it’s not my fault.

And there where the shadows fall I’ve planned
To have a magnificent concert-grand
With polished wood and ivory keys,
For wild discordant rhapsodies,
For wailing minor Hindu songs,
For Chinese chants and clanging gongs,
For flippant jazz, and for lullabies,
And moody things that I’ll improvise
To play the long gray dusk away
And bid goodbye to another day.

Pictures . . . I think I’ll have but three:
One, in oil, of a windswept sea
With the flying scud and the waves whipped white . . .
(I know the chap who can paint it right)
In lapis blue and deep jade green . . .
A great big smashing fine marine
That’ll make you feel the spray in your face.
I’ll hang it over my fireplace.

The second picture . . . a freakish thing . . .
Is gaudy and bright as a macaw’s wing,
An impressionist smear called “Sin”,
A nude on a striped zebra skin
By a Danish girl I knew in France.
My respectable friends will look askance
At the purple eyes and the scarlet hair,
At the pallid face and the evil stare
Of the sinister, beautiful vampire face.
I shouldn’t have it about the place,
But I like . . . while I loathe . . . the beastly thing,
And that’s the way that one feels about sin.

The picture I love the best of all
Will hang alone on my study wall
Where the sunset’s glow and the moon’s cold gleam
Will fall on the face, and make it seem
That the eyes in the picture are meeting mine,
That the lips are curved in the fine sweet line
Of that wistful, tender, provocative smile
That has stirred my heart for a wondrous while.
It’s a sketch of the girl who loved too well
To tie me down to that bit of Hell
That a drifter knows when he know’s he’s held
By the soft, strong chains that passions weld.
It was best for her and for me, I know,
That she measured my love and bade me go
For we both have our great illusion yet
Unsoiled, unspoiled by vain regret.
I won’t deny that it makes me sad
To know that I’ve missed what I might have had.
It’s a clean sweet memory, quite apart,
And I’ve been faithful . . . in my heart.

All these things I will have about,
Not a one could I do without;
Cedar and sandalwood chips to burn
In the tarnished bowl of a copper urn;
A paperweight of meteorite
That seared and scorched the sky one night,
A moro kris . . . my paper knife . . .
Once slit the throat of a Rajah’s wife.
The beams of my house will be fragrant wood
That once in a teeming jungle stood
As a proud tall tree where the leopards couched
And the parrots screamed and the black men crouched.

The roof must have a rakish dip
To shadowy eaves where the rain can drip
In a damp persistent tuneful way;
It’s a cheerful sound on a gloomy day.
And I want a shingle loose somewhere
To wail like a banshee in despair
When the wind is high and the storm-gods race
And I am snug by my fireplace.

I hope a couple of birds will nest
Around the house. I’ll do my best
To make them happy, so every year
They’ll raise their brood of fledglings here.

When I have my house I’ll suit myself
And have what I call my “Condiment Shelf”,
Filled with all manner of herbs and spice,
Curry and chutney for meats and rice,
Pots and bottles of extracts rare . . .
Onions and garlic will both be there . . .
And soya and saffron and savoury goo
And stuff that I’ll buy from an old Hindu;
Ginger with syrup in quaint stone jars;
Almonds and figs in tinseled bars;
Astrakhan caviar, highly prized,
And citron and orange peel crystallized;
Anchovy paste and poha jam;
Basil and chili and marjoram;
And flavours that come from Samarkand;
And, hung with a string from a handy hook,
Will be a dog-eared, well-thumbed book
That is pasted full of recipes
From France and Spain and the Caribbees;
Roots and leaves and herbs to use
For curious soups and odd ragouts.

[...]

I’ll have a window-seat broad and deep
Where I can sprawl to read or sleep,
With windows placed so I can turn
And watch the sunsets blaze and burn
Beyond high peaks that scar the sky
Like bare white wolf-fangs that defy
The very gods. I’ll have a nook
For a savage idol that I took
From a ruined temple in Peru,
A demon-chaser named Mang-Chu
To guard my house by night and day
And keep all evil things away.

Pewter and bronze and hammered brass;
Old carved wood and gleaming glass;
Candles and polychrome candlesticks,
And peasant lamps with floating wicks;
Dragons in silk on a Mandarin suit
In a chest that is filled with vagabond-loot.
All of the beautiful, useless things
That a vagabond’s aimless drifting brings.

Then, when my house is all complete
I’ll stretch me out on the window seat
With a favourite book and a cigarette,
And a long cool drink that Oh Joy will get;
And I’ll look about at my bachelor-nest
While the sun goes zooming down the west,
And the hot gold light will fall on my face
And make me think of some heathen place
That I’ve failed to see . . . that I’ve missed some way . . .
A place that I’d planned to find some day,
And I’ll feel the lure of it driving me.
Oh damn! I know what the end will be

I’ll go. And my house will fall away
While the mice by night and the moths by day
Will nibble the covers off all my books,
And the spiders weave in the shadowed nooks.
And my dogs . . . I’ll see that they have a home
While I follow the sun, while I drift and roam
To the ends of the earth like a chip on the stream,
Like a straw on the wind, like a vagrant dream;
And the thought will strike with a swift sharp pain
That I probably never will build again
This house that I’ll have in some far day
Well . . . it’s just a dream house, anyway.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Vegetable Adventures

Since moving to Alaska, Adam & I have embarked on our very own vegetable adventures! It started when we were visiting the Farmers Market once a week and got to see all the mounds of fresh produce. One week we caught a glimpse of a vegetable we'd never seen before - Romanesco.
A close-up of our Romanesco.

It looked like something from another planet, or from the ocean floor. We couldn't help staring and when the farmer noticed she explained to us that it was a hybrid of broccoli and cauliflower. It's fractal nature reminded me of coral and when I investigated further I found that it is sometimes called coral broccoli, but then again it's also called summer cauliflower. It seems as if this unusual vegetable defies categorization. It was almost too pretty to eat, but not quite! We steamed the Romanesco, much like you would steam broccoli, but I have since found recipes that suggest roasting with oil and others for Romanesco & Parmesan puree. If we find it again, we will definitely try out some more recipes!

Root vegetable medley.
Our next vegetable adventures were root vegetables - Rainbow Carrots, Candy Cane Beets, Turnips and Parsnips. The rainbow carrots were really pretty, but once peeled they lost their bright colors and were mostly orange. The candy cane beets were small, but really fun looking when sliced. They indeed looked like they had peppermint stripes. The parsnip and turnip don't look very exciting but make up for that in taste. We chopped all our vegetables, tossed them in olive oil and fresh rosemary and roasted them. It made a fun and healthy side dish.

After the Farmers Market closed, we had more limited access to fresh local produce so Adam and I decided to focus on those vegetables we could get in the supermarket. We both love mushrooms and went on a Cremini mushroom binge. This reminded Adam of how much he wants to be able to harvest wild mushrooms. There are a number of mushrooms native to Alaska - gilled mushrooms, shelf mushrooms, teeth mushrooms, coral mushrooms, puffballs, morels, and false morels. Lucky for Adam, Santa brought him a book on how to identify mushrooms in the wild!

Mussels, clams and shallots in a white wine sauce.
Lately we've transitioned from using onions in our recipes, which I like when sauteed but Adam does not, to using shallots. Although they are a variety of onion, they have a much more interesting flavor. They are sweeter and not as strong tasting as onions. We've used them in preparing moose roast as well as in a seafood dish. It's nice to find a delicious 'compromise' vegetable.

It's nice to have a partner who's open to trying new things! We've enjoyed these epicurean adventures and I know we'll have many more.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

New Year, New Posts!

It's time I dusted off the blog and got back on track! There are so many things on my 'to blog' list, be prepared for a barrage of posts over the next month. So here goes...

Today, in particular, I am reminded of how dependent Alaskans are on air travel. Unless you're on of the brave ones, like Adam, most people who come to Alaska do so via airplane. In addition, the size of the state is staggering and getting around within the state itself often requires flying. Brandon reminded us the other day that the state, technically, should have four time zones within itself. Driving to Anchorage for our Christmas flights took us over 360 miles of beautiful terrain, but it is a long way to drive to get to the only city in Alaska. It's easy to see why so many people take small planes to get around this big, wonderful state.


A plane lands on the runway of Hearst Road, North Pole.
Welcome to Bush Flying! Bush flying is flying that is done in remote areas. Bush planes can reach almost every part of the state. Lakes freeze so solidly that large, multi-engine planes can land on them. There are seaplanes, planes with large tundra tires and planes on skis that can land everywhere from ridge tops to glaciers to rivers and lakes. Although many times these pilots land on unimproved airfields, there are many personal airfields scattered throughout Fairbanks and North Pole. Right around our apartment there are several grassy airfields and at least one water runway.

Small planes are always buzzing around - Cessnas, Pipers, Beeches, DeHavillands. The planes are such an important part of Alaskan life that the former governor even named one of her children after one of these planes. Even now, there is a new television show about Alaskan pilots! These pilots (and their planes) are integral to Alaska. Many stores offer 'air drop' services since Alaska's small population (of about 700,000) is spread out of such an immense area. Alaska has about one registered pilot for every 58 residents, six times as many pilots per capita, and 14 times as many airplanes per capita as the rest of the United States.

This, unfortunately, also translates to higher numbers of accidents. Just this summer, one of these crashes claimed the life of beloved state Senator Ted Stevens and four others. Alaska is a challenge - on the ground and in the air. Harsh weather and rough terrain make it one of the more treacherous states to fly in. Single engine planes (with no back up engine) and remote landing areas make crashes even more dangerous. It's even been said that the National Transportation Safety Board has noted a cavalier attitude among pilots in Alaska, commonly called "bush syndrome."

Perhaps I am also suffering from 'bush syndrome', but I find the concept of bush piloting very romantic. Maybe I've watched Out of Africa too many times or maybe I listened to Skitch talk about Tiger Moths too intently, but it seems like a wonderful way to get from place to place. Alaska doesn't make things easy, it's still one of the raw places left in the world and to think that I live in a location that requires such fortitude makes me just a little bit...proud.