Knusper, knusper, Knäuschen. Wer knuspert mir am Häuschen?

As Thursday’s and Friday’s snowfall melted away last night, a network of trails was revealed on our front lawn, the remnant of tunnels in the snowpack. Curious.


Kingston, January 6, 2014

Most likely a mouse. Hardy creatures, and admirably persistent, but unwitting carriers of ticks, and so best fated to the gizzards of predators. I welcome the more frequent visits of the Great Horned Owl in our neighborhood. We heard one’s distinctive hoot at dusk yesterday, a sound warm, relaxed, and meditative. The sight of the snow trails put me in mind of other mouse experiences. Living in a suburban neighborhood, not far from Potter Wood, mouse, mole, vole, and chipmunk visits are regular occurrences. I must say, my reaction to rodents was pretty much carved in stone after reading Orwell’s 1984. I’ll spare the reader a link to the novel’s text or the relevant clip from the motion picture, with John Hurt and Richard Burton. But permit me to note that in popping “Room 101” in Google, I learned that it is “Northeast Indiana’s Hottest Under-21 Dance Club.” Of course it is. I also learned (possibly apocryphally) that Orwell named the place for a room in the BBC Broadcasting House in which he had endured painfully dull meetings. A quick aside: The artist Rachel Whiteread “cast the entire void of the room” in plaster before it was demolished in a building renovation. The piece is called Untitled (Room 101). It was displayed at the Victoria & Albert Museum, in London, in 2004. In an interview that year, Whiteread said that the room had been Orwell’s office, so who knows.

"Untitled (Room 101)" by Rachel Whiteread

“Untitled (Room 101)” by Rachel Whiteread (BBC photograph)

Our 2001 Camry, the four-cylinder chariot that brought us coast-to-coast in September-October 2009, was last month visited by a mouse, who got into the air-filter housing and chewed the paper element of the filter within into a comfortable nest, thereby choking the air intake and making ignition problematic. It never occurred to me to check the filter; fortunately, it occurred to the ingenious mechanic we have partnered with since 1972. But I should have known that this was possible. After all, here is a mouse house I found under the engine cover of our 2007 Mazda 3, in December, 2011:


Charm abounds in this custom single-family dwelling, located in a quiet cul-de-sac.

A prodigious amount of nesting material! A more rustic alternative is seen here, in our woodpile, in January, 2011:


I felt badly having to disturb the household. But not for very long.

Then, of course, the brain sets to work involuntarily, recalling mouse adventures in literature and in real life, wondrous fun when our two children were still children. I had left both a side door and screen door door open one summer day, as I went out to do a quick something on our unenclosed porch. Liz, about 13, saw a wee mouse jump up on the step and peer into the house. “Nick!” she cried to her 10-year-old brother. “A mouse!” As Nick bounded down from his upstairs bedroom, the mouse jumped inside and scampered to the living room, hiding behind the couch. The two of them chased the little creature all around the first floor and down the stairs into the basement, where Liz trapped it in a corner. She gently guided the mouse into a Mason jar and released it in a nearby wooded lot.

Skip now to younger versions of themselves, as we read aloud Grimm’s terrifying Hansel and Gretel: “Nibble, nibble, mousekin. Who’s that nibbling at my housekin?”


Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) portrays the children as younger than I always imagined from the Grimm text, heightening their vulnerability. In the tale, the brother and sister are led deep into the forest by their stepmother and left to die. These days, the pair are adult witch-hunters armed to the teeth, in the form of Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton.  The astounding Australian stuntwoman and actress Zoë Bell makes an appearance in that movie. Note to self: Add to Netflix queue.

Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel is absolutely beautiful, no more so than at the close of Act 2, Scene ii, when the children sing their evening prayer before falling asleep in the forest.  Adelheid Wette, Humperdinck’s sister, wrote the libretto.

Abends, will ich schlafen gehn,
Vierzehn Engel um mich stehn:
Zwei zu meinen Häupten,
Zwei zu meinen Füßen,
Zwei zu meiner Rechten,
Zwei zu meiner Linken,
Zweie, die mich decken,
Zweie, die mich wecken,
Zweie, die mich weisen,
Zu Himmels-Paradeisen

Evenings, when I go to sleep,
Fourteen angels with me keep,
Two stand at my head,
Two at the foot of my bed,
Two are at my right hand,
Two are at my left hand,
Two in covers tuck me,
Two at morning wake me,
Two that point the way to rise
To heaven’s paradise.

Here’s a lovely performance, by Kathleen Battle and Frederika von Stade, both exquisite. The performance is from A Carnegie Hall Christmas Concert, recorded December 8, 1991, with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, conducted by Andre Previn.

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Appropriately, here’s how the Brothers Grimm end their story: “My tale is done. There runs a mouse! Whosoever catches it, may make himself a big fur cap out of it.”

The Mice at Work: Threading the Needle circa 1902 by Helen Beatrix Potter 1866-1943

“The Mice at Work: Threading the Needle,” by Beatrix Potter, published in “The Tailor of Gloucester” (1902). This watercolor is in the collection of the Tate, in London. “There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story,” Potter once wrote. “You never quite know where they’ll take you.”



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Remembering Marion Simon

Imperious, tenacious, and implacable, even while warm, gracious, and inviting, Marion Simon was a fascinating woman, all the more intriguing and attractive for the seemingly contradictory facets of her robust personality.

She could be guarded and enigmatic, ebullient and vivacious, sullen, rhapsodic, enraged, and reflective, all, it would seem, within the short span of an hour. The assertive sound of her footfall preceded her, a sort of prelude to the mood she was in. God help you if you caused that cloud to pass before the sun of her disposition.

Her wit cut like a scalpel and bestowed like a queen. She terrified me, a terror that was almost painful, and made all the worse by my desire to be welcomed into the kingdom of her good graces. I came quickly to admire her prodigious reading, her keen eye, and her fiery devotion to art, family, and a wonderful community of friends. So I began by being frightened of her, and I grew to love her and to treasure her approval.


That’s Marion Simon, seated and smiling by the Afghan Hound. Then Trinity Square Repertory Company, its performance home was in the basement of Trinity United Methodist Church, on Broad Street, at Trinity Square, in Providence. It was a wonderful space. Nonnie and I saw our first production together there, Troilus and Cressida, on our first date in the fall of 1971. Directed by Adrian Hall (standing to Marion’s left) and designed by Eugene Lee, the production bore the distinguishing characteristics of the company’s then-assured identity: dialogue delivered in conversational American speech, active disregard for the illusory “fourth wall” between actors and audience, free use of multimedia, a celebratory delight in sexuality, costumes that leaped across centuries, and devotion to the joyful moment. Laughter abounded. The actors spoke to us and engaged us, not as adversaries on either side of footlights but as participants in the same artistic revel. During the battle scenes, the actors prowled the aisles and ascended the scaffolds and catwalks, flinging sponges soaked in red liquid to inflict bloody wounds. This little world became Trinity Repertory Company after its move, in 1973, to the former Majestic Theater, on Washington Street. I was fortunate to work there from 1984 to 1988.

I found later that it was she who was responsible for my being hired at Trinity Rep, in 1984, to join a splendid and spirited team in the Marketing Department, where I thrived as a writer. I will never forget handing her my first press release. She scanned it, returned it with a dismissive flick of the wrist, and said, “Why we keep hiring people who insist upon reinventing the wheel, I don’t know.”

In time, I earned her praise, which I wore, and still wear, as a badge of honor. And I will never forget a moment that we shared by the lobby stairs one day, as we watched the first snow of winter fall on Washington Street. A homeless man struggled to cross. No coat, no hat, no gloves. He turned down Aborn Street and disappeared.

“Have you read ‘Flood,’ by Red Warren?” she asked. I hadn’t.  She paused for a moment. “It’s worth reading,” she said. “There’s a wonderful line: ‘There are always cracks. Even in a loving family. The question is just how much humanness you can get over the cracks. To hold things together.’ ”

Thank you, Marion.

Marion Simon

In 2012, on the website of the New York-based League of Professional Theatre Women she wrote of herself: “At age 90, my greatest inspiration comes from waking up and facing the day. I loved Providence but am happiest in NYC and grateful to LPTW for new colleagues and friends. My life in the theatre began in the ‘60’s with a production of Harold Pinter’s Caretaker, directed by my mentor, Adrian Hall, with Richard Kneeland, William Cain and J.Frank Lucas. I contacted then-Managing Director Donald Schoenbaum to see if I could be useful.”

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“Something and everything”: Higgins’s Trade

     “Well,” the driver said, “you invited him up here. Send him back.”

     “He wouldn’t go,” Cogan said. “He’s hungry for the dough, said he really needs dough. Lost his job or something and everything. He wouldn’t go if I told him. I don’t think he’d do anything I told him, unless he was so drunk he couldn’t think of anything else to do. Which he probably is.”

The first chapter of Cogan’s Trade, by George V. Higgins, is ten pages long, 310 lines of writing. Only twelve of them are descriptive, the rest dialogue among three characters. The rap on Higgins, who died at 59, in 1999, at his home in Milton, Massachusetts, was that he was great on dialogue–plot, not so much. This is bunk, and it irritated Higgins no end. Here he is in an interview with English writer John L. Williams, in 1989, from Williams’s Into the Badlands, a collections of his pieces on crime writers (the chapter on Higgins appears here):

“I have tried and tried and tried… I have had more success in your country than in my own. People want to be told stories and I have tried to explain, at what I’m sure is tedious length, that in my novels the characters are telling you the story. They do not understand. I am sick and tired of reviews that go ‘of course there’s no plot as usual but the dialogue is great.’ It’s as a friend of mine said when George Brett was still in his heyday with the Kansas City Chiefs, ‘Ah well, George Brett hit 350 again this year and George Higgins still writes good dialogue. You guys should start a club.’ I’m sick of it.” 

Elsewhere Higgins noted, “Dialogue is character and character is plot.” So what is it about the dialogue? There is the slang of hoods, of course, but truth be told not much of it. There is the run-on sentence, too, with its paucity of commas and conjunctions, but that’s hardly a revealing technique. Profanity, contractions, hesitations, interruptions, digressions. All of these qualities add a patina, an kind of aural atmosphere, but they can’t carry the emotional weight or provide the forward motion of great writing. What can bear the burden and send the wind rushing past your ears as the story moves ahead is the way Higgins has his characters try and fail repeatedly to make sense of the randomness of their incomplete lives through storytelling. They are attempting to create an arc of meaning for what they do, for what they want and have wanted, dream and have dreamed of, as if the manipulation of words can impose order on reality–indeed, control reality. The extent to which Higgins’s  characters are in self-delusion and the extent to which they remake their world is marked by their failure or success as storytellers. Each character drapes himself in imagery that springs from self-created stories about his past, imagery that accrues like the sweat and dust of a long day. Each character creates himself for others through stories, and the effect of those stories changes depending on who’s listening, who the character wants to complain to, impress, threaten, and control.  Higgins’s characters, like Shakespeare’s, manipulate meaning by manipulating imagery.

Born in Brockton, Massachusetts, in 1939, Higgins earned a law degree from Boston College in 1967, after working for a time as a reporter for The Providence Journal and The Associated Press. He became a deputy assistant attorney general (1967-69) and assistant attorney general (1969-70) for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts (1970-73), and a special assistant U.S. attorney (1973-74), then turned to private practice as a criminal attorney. Of Higgins's first novel, "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" (1970), Norman Mailer said, "What I can’t get over is that so good a first novel was written by the fuzz."

And it doesn’t hurt that he’s so damn clever, as in this exchange between Cogan and a man we know only as “the driver,” toward the end of a brilliant fifteen-page conversation set in a silver Toronado that’s parked in an MBTA lot in Cambridge, from Cogan’s Trade (1974):

     “Counselor,” Cogan said, “go talk to the man. Trattman’s gotta be hit, and you put it up to the man, he’ll agree with me right off. Give it a try. You don’t do it? Forget about the money. He made a mistake.”

     “A long time ago,” the driver said. “He made a mistake a long time ago.”

     “He made two mistakes,” Cogan said. “The second mistake was making the first mistake, like it always is. That’s all you get, two mistakes. Tell the man.”

Cogan is a hit man, called in to track down the three men behind the robbery of a mob-sanctioned, high-stakes poker game. Two of fiction’s most endearing, loud-mouthed blunderers are in the mix, Frankie and Russell, who, with Amato, nicknamed Squirrel, get the stories going at a fast clip in the novel’s tour de force first chapter. A film is in the works, written and directed by Andrew Dominik and set for a September release, with Brad Pitt as Cogan. The title has been changed to Killing Them Softly, not a promising sign. But the cast is to die for. Joining Pitt are Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, and Sam Shepard–enough testosterone to galvanize iron. The setting in the film has been moved from Boston to New Orleans. No doubt the city needs the help of an infusion of production money, but there is no scenic beauty in the novel, whose action is played out in a dreary succession of parking lots, apartment complexes, offices, and bars.

Coming off wonderful performances in "Moneyball" and "The Tree of Life," Pitt has been spared having to hone a Boston accent for the film version of "Cogan's Trade." They've moved the setting to New Orleans. Pass the Turbodog.

Films from two interesting novels for Richard Jenkins in 2012. Here, from "Cogan's Trade" and later in "One Shot," based on the 2005 novel by Lee Child, with Tom Cruise (as Jack Reacher), Robert Duval, and, gulp, Werner Herzog. I'm already in line for both.

Higgins describes Russell, on the book’s first page, as wearing “an army-green poncho, a gray sweatshirt and dirty white jeans. He had long black hair that reached his shoulders. He had the beginnings of a black beard.” So which generates more heat, those descriptive words or this dialogue:

     “It’s stupid,” Frankie said. “It’s fuckin’ stupid. That’s a thousand dollars a year.”

     “Look,” Russell said, “I don’t need nothing, make me dumb. You know that, you and Squirrel. Squirrel knows it, at least. Maybe you still think we were smart, doing that. You’re just as dumb as I am. You just come around and stroke me some, I’ll do any dumb fuckin’ thing you can think of. The thing is, though, you and me’re different. When this’s over, I’m through, doing dumb things for guys. I do dumb things for me, maybe, and then, I get grabbed, okay, at least I was doing them for me. Which means, I get to keep all the fuckin’ money. I don’t have to give Squirrel nothing for being smart enough to see I’m stupid any more.”

The defense rests.









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The beauty of the vernacular landscape: robots, Shepard Fairey, and a piece of wood

Earlier this winter, on a drive to Providence, I stopped at the Dunkin’ Donuts at the intersection of Routes 1 and 138, across from the site of the Hannah Robinson Rock and Tower, for an iced coffee and a chocolate-frosted doughnut. I got in line, ordered, and waited off to the side. The fellow behind me moved up to place his order, and presented the counter person with this:

"x2 err bag, sm reg hot, Md T m/s, Md dunki cy no," and so on.

“I can’t read that,” she said disappointedly.

“That’s okay, I wrote it. I’ll read it to you,” the fellow said.

He was wearing heavy-duty Carhartt bib overalls, Timberland boots, and a cotton hooded sweatshirt with frayed cuffs. He had just come from a work site, and he had written the coffee, tea, and doughnut order for the crew on a piece of scrap wood. The other counter help gathered round to admire his ingenuity, I took a photograph with my cellphone, and we all went our separate ways, smiling.

The odd, small beauty of this experience has lingered, and I think of it every time I approach that busy intersection. It’s almost as if an invisible strand of memory, like line unspooling from a reel, links me to that workman and that piece of wood, which is now, no doubt, long since burnt to ashes in a flaming pile of construction debris. And I thought of it again the other day when, having an appointment in North Providence, I saw this on a traffic sign:

The forward tilt of the head knocked me out more than the thought of an adolescent Andre the Giant in knickers.

I hadn’t seen one of these Andre the Giant stickers in a while, maybe because most of the thousands of them all over Rhode Island were slapped on more than twenty years ago and are weathering away. The brainchild of graphic designer Shepard Fairey, who created the image and the agitpop campaign to make it ubiquitous–as well as to promote himself and his brand–the Obey Giant phenomenon resides at the distinctly American intersection of conceptual art, anti-establishment cultural critique, and commerce. It’s a grand way to be subversive, be cool, and make money, all at the same time. What’s not to like?

Just a few days later, I read in the New York Times that Fairey pleaded guilty to criminal contempt for having concealed and destroyed documents as a means to cover his culpability in using, without permission, a 2006 photograph of Barack Obama by Associated Press photographer Mannie Garcia as the template for Fairey’s “HOPE” poster of the presidential candidate. Fairey had long claimed that he had not expropriated the AP image, so that he was not in violation of copyright laws. In January, 2011, Fairey acknowledged in a legal settlement with AP that “he had initially believed that The A.P. was wrong about which photo he had used, but later realized that the agency was right,” according to the New York Times. Now Fairey was admitting that he had tampered with documents to conceal his tracks and shore up his case against AP. He will be sentenced July 16 and could face up to six months in jail.

Whether the episode and possible jail time burnishes Fairey’s mystique and or takes him down a notch remains to be seen. It might accomplish both. Maybe he’ll have to drop the price of the Limited Edition Obey Pen and Card Case, a holiday gift idea on sale at his company’s website. “Your Mom or Dad will like the classic styling and never realize they’re a collaborator in the infiltration of the corporate world,” Fairey writes on the site, achieving a tone that somehow makes him both an instigator of mockery and an object worthy of it. Well, we’ll give him a break.  He admitted his wrongdoing. He’s ready to take his medicine. And the Andre explosion, whose shock wave is still expanding after all these years, remains pretty cool at its heart–as Fairey has written, a nice introduction to Phenomenology, an attempt to “enable people to see clearly something that is right before their eyes but obscured; things that are so taken for granted that they are muted by abstract observation.”

With that in mind, get a load of this: an image that adheres to the surface of America’s Cup Avenue, in Newport, by the pedestrian crossing at West Pelham Street:

Alert Art Bell. Clearly, this is a sign from another dimension.

I saw this little guy, about six inches high, while crossing the street. It appears to be a vinyl cutout glued to the asphalt, but with the traffic and everything I didn’t get to touch it. This was the photographic remnant of a wonderful day of shopping and thirst-slaking in Newport shortly before Christmas with a group of friends who have known each other for more than forty years. We’ve been doing this annual jaunt since the mid 1980s, a grand tradition that never fails to yield up visual gems like this, another instance of the invaluability of the vernacular landscape.

Then, last week, one of the gang sends me this:

"A vinyl thingee pasted on the crosswalk at 44th St. and 6th Ave. in Manhattan," my friend Paul writes.

An online search quickly announced the creator of this image: Stikman, he calls himself.  This little robot dude shows up all over the country and in a variety of forms, from pavement stickers to wood installations. Unlike the Andre image, which does not vary and whose potency, in part, derives from its graphic immutability, the variety of the robot’s posture and facial expression suggests not only a range of emotive qualities but the hand of different artists. When we slap on an Andre image, we’re participating in Shepard Fairey’s exercise in context busting. We become an extension of his physical silkscreen and of his metaphysical concept. But we can make our own robot dude, hence making the robot dude our own. It’s guerrilla graffiti of an entirely different, more accommodating sort.

The Brooklyn Street Art blog reproduces some nifty Stikman images, including this beautiful installation, Georges Braque by way of Louise Nevelson:

"...canyons of steel / They're making me feel I'm home." A Stikman figure in New York, in autumn (photo copyright Jaime Rojo)

More Stikman robots can be found here, there, and everywhere, the latter link posting some hauntingly beautiful wood installations in partial decay:

Photo copyright geko1973. Taken on March 5, 2012, in New York City.

By way of contrast, here’s an urban look at Obey Giant:

Photo copyright geko1973. Taken June 21, 2010.

In a most timely happenstance, Stikman is having an exhibition at Pandemic Gallery, in Brooklyn, New York, with an opening reception set for Friday, March 16. The show runs through April 6. Here’s the poster for the show:

"Celebrating 20 years of playing with sticks in the street." Note that Pabst Blue Ribbon is the corporate sponsor.

And here’s a portion of what the artist has to say about himself and his work, taken from the gallery’s website:

“My pieces start their lives as static objects, but they come to life when I place them in a public place where they are subject to the forces of time, interactions with humans and climate. I share this transient form of art to connect with a viewer whom I will never meet, in hopes that the joy of finding the unexpected has altered their consciousness. It finds an indigenous space in our surroundings like a flower escaping from the crack in a sidewalk. Continuously altered by time and circumstance.”

The joy of finding the unexpected. Perfect. And it brings us back to that piece of wood with which we started and on to the mind of a most extraordinary observer of American life, terrain, and culture, John Brinckerhoff Jackson, the author of Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (1984, Yale University Press) and many other revelatory books. I’ve not read a more incisive and provocative observer of the relationship between landscape and human activity. Though strictly speaking Jackson is a geographer, the breadth of his reading, the sensitivity of his eye, and his heart’s gracious acceptance of mutability make him more aptly a philosopher. After reading Jackson, the American landscape will never look the same–nor will little robot dudes.

Here is Jackson from the preface to Discovering the Vernacular Landscape:  “I have wanted people to become familiar with the contemporary American landscape and recognize its extraordinary complexity and beauty. I have reminded them that their immediate surroundings, whether urban or rural, contain a wealth of structures and spaces and compositions no less impressive than those in other parts of the world and in many instances unique to America. Over and over again I have said that the commonplace aspects of the contemporary landscape, the streets and houses and fields and places of work, could teach us a great deal not only about American history and American society but about ourselves and how we relate to the world. It is a matter of learning how to see.”

To get an idea of the scope of Jackson’s influence, take a look at the books that have been honored with the John Brinckerhoff Jackson Prize, awarded annually by the Association of American Geographers, from Paul Groth’s Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in The United States to Arthur J. Krim’s Route 66: Iconography of an American Highway.

Jackson died in 1996 at the age of 86. According to his obituary in The New York Times, “After retiring from teaching and lecturing in 1985, he did laboring jobs at construction sites, gas stations and gardens.” Let us give him the last word on these matters:

“The older I grow and the longer I look at landscapes and seek to understand them, the more convinced I am that their beauty derives from the human presence. For far too long we have told ourselves that the beauty of a landscape was the expression of some transcendent law: the conformity to certain universal esthetic principles or the conformity to certain biological or ecological laws. But this is true only of formal or planned political landscapes. The beauty that we see in the vernacular landscape is the image of our common humanity: hard work, stubborn hope, and mutual forbearance striving to be love. I believe that a landscape which makes these qualities manifest is one that can be called beautiful.”


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Bob Dylan was right about pie crust

Among the infinite activities that we humans concoct, codify, and ritualize, none is more pleasurable, more satisfying, or more mysterious–in the kitchen, that is–than the creation of pie crust. Each of us is hungry for excellence, has her and his own preferred approach and method, and will be damned if anyone else’s is as good as theirs, or their wife’s, or their mother’s. In my mother’s case, it is her mother’s apple pie that set the standard and gave delight–or the memory of those pies, which is another reality altogether. To pull Borges slightly out of context, “…man’s memory shapes / Its own Eden within….” As a child, Nonnie’s mother’s pie crust provided the ideal. My mother’s was mine, then supplanted by Nonnie’s on my palate and in my mind. (“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is / To have a thankless child! Away, away!”)

Having been  blessed and cursed these recent months with more time than I once could only dream of, I have cut my own swath though the kitchen, targeting recipes that appear to be tasty, nutritious, and fun to make. For dessert, I’ve had great luck with apple-pecan tarts, semolina-almond torta, princess pudding (a variety of dark-chocolate mousse), ginger-molasses cake, Boston cream pie, apple clafoutis, and mango tres leche cake. So with a dash of experience and a sprinkling of confidence, I approached pie crust, only to be confronted with a confusing array of styles.  There were too many ways to go. I didn’t know how to choose one that I could make my own. Pie dough with butter, with vegetable shortening, with vegetable oil, with some combination of butter and shortening, or with lard. Lard produces the best flavor and the most flakiness, I repeatedly read, but it’s meat-based so out of the question. Five times I tried to make an apple pie, and five times I failed. The filling tasted fine, but the crusts were shoe leather. The crusts looked all right, lightly brushed, as they were, with egg white, so nicely browned, and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, scalloped around their circumference or with a raised ridge or with an edge made flush with the tines of a fork.

For my first attempt at apple pie, I used an all-butter crust. I made two crucial mistakes: I overworked the dough, and I rolled it out too thick.

Clumsy but charming, in a roadside stand sort of way. But the crust was tough, chewy, and inedible. I chose a somewhat different all-butter crust recipe for the second pie and again used a food processor to mix the dough. Again, I overworked it. How tough was the crust? It reminded us of the Three Stooges making their way through Southern Comforter Cake.

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I had been having success using Cortland apples for the filling, but was lured by a recipe into using Honeycrisp for my fifth attempt. They're pretty, but Cortlands offer better taste and texture, it seems to me.

You can't judge a book by its cover. The crust, once again, was impossible to eat. My fifth apple pie was another failure.

This last dud prompted me to pull back, do some research, and let it go for a while. I sorted through a few of Nonnie’s cookbooks, read about pie dough online, and picked up a book at the library by Ken Haedrich simply called Pie. There was a nice, thorough introductory section about the different approaches to pie dough, from the fat content to which crusts are right for different fillings. Haedrich encourages you to try many types of pie crust, working by hand, food processor, and mixer to see how the results differ by appearance, taste, texture, and flakiness. Sometimes the bottom crust should be pre-cooked, sometimes not. Sometimes a butter crust is right, and sometimes you should go with Crisco. Heck, I just wanted one that worked. Crisco. I remembered that cute Crisco scene in The Help, about it being your best friend. I remembered this, too:

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Now I was even more confused.  So I did what any humble, self-respecting American pie maker would do. I turned to the Bible. The Joy of Cooking, that is (1983 ed.). The basic pie dough here called for a combination of butter and shortening. All right, then. And that peach pie in Haedrich’s book sounded pretty good. He said frozen peaches in a bag are often better than store-bought peaches since they’re flash frozen on the farm so soon after picking. Interesting. And it doesn’t call for a top crust but for a crumb topping made of crushed almonds and coconut. More interesting. I girded my loins and entered the kitchen.

The filling couldn't have been easier to prepare: two 1-pound bags of frozen peaches, 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, the finely grated zest of one lemon, and 1/3 cup of sugar. Let rest for 10 minutes. Mix 2 tablespoons of cornstarch with 3 tablespoons of sugar, and add to the fruit mixture. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract and 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg.

This time, the dough felt right and looked right. I blended the flour, salt, butter, and shortening by hand with a pastry blender, and the ice water with a pastry fork, being mindful not to overwork the dough. It was clear from the start that the crust recipe in The Joy of Cooking wouldn't give me enough dough for a 9 1/2-inch pie pan, but I liked the way the dough was coming together, so I kept on. The result was a crust edge that was too thin and too quick to brown, but so be it.

Did I dare to hope that this pie would come out all right? Varlam Shalamov, the great Russian writer and Gulag survivor, wrote that, in the prison camps, "Hope is the enemy." Varlam, I wish I could make this pie for you, you dear soul.

With the pie in the oven, let’s relax and enjoy this wonderful performance by Loretta Lynn. Nobody pronounces “baby” better than Loretta Lynn.

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I pressed down too hard with my hands on the crumb topping, making it more of a helmet. A looser, rougher surface texture would have better. But the almond-coconut topping tasted real fine, adding an interesting flavor profile to the plump, juicy peaches.

Finally, on my sixth try, the pie crust was flaky and delicious. Get back, Loretta.

What did I learn? I experienced for myself what I recalled Nonnie had come to understand when we were first married and she was determined to make bread by hand. You’ll go through a lot of dough. You’ll fail. You’ll learn from your failures. Ah, once again, I hear Bob Dylan rummaging around. “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” comes to mind:

Some speak of the future
My love she speaks softly
She knows there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all

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“… in every holt and heeth / The tendre croppes….”

Yes, it’s neither March nor April, Chaucer fans, but with the arrival of February’s leap day, let’s take a walk to the paradise garden and see how this year’s absent winter has prepared us for spring. Before you know it, we’ll be tracking mud in the house.

Winter aconite, growing on the edge of the garden by our back door. The sun hasn't hit them yet, so they're clenching their fists.

What a little sunlight will do. Note the "jester's collar" of leaves that surrounds the blossom.

William Robinson, the great Irish gardener and writer, praised this wee plant, the harbinger of spring, in his 1870 book, “The Wild Garden: or, Our groves and gardens made beautiful by the naturalisation of hardy exotic plants; being one way onwards from the dark ages of flower gardening”:

“The Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) should be naturalised in every country seat in Britain–it is as easy to do so as to introduce thistle. It may be placed quite under the branches of deciduous trees, will come up and flower when the trees are naked, will have its foliage developed before the leaves come on the trees, and be afterwards hidden from sight. Thus masses of this earliest flower may be grown without the slightest sacrifice of space, and only be noticed when bearing a bloom on every little stem.”

A squill emerges from the warming soil. The genus is scilla, and there are scores of species. This purple infant is likely siberica.

Why the squill, such a delicately designed flower, is named for a vicious six-headed, twelve-legged sea monster in Greek mythology, I don’t know. Scylla makes a notable appearance in Book XII of Homer’s The Odyssey, when she gobbles alive six of Odysseus’ men. Here is the scene in Allen Mandelbaum’s nimble translation (1990):

But just then,
Scylla seized six–the strongest–of my men;
she snatched them from the hollow ship; and when
I turned my eyes to seek my friends,
all I could see were feet and hands on high.
They called my name aloud for the last time
and shrieked in anguish. As a fisherman                             [250]
who, from a jutting rock, has cast his bits
of food as bait to snare small fish, lets down
into the sea his long rod tipped with horn,
and when she’s made a catch will whip it back–
writhing; so were my men whirled through the air,
writhing, against the rocks. There, at the door
to her deep cavern, Scylla swallowed them
as, in their horrid struggle, my dear friends
stretched out to me their hands–the saddest sight
my eyes have ever seen in all that I
have suffered in my journeys on the sea.

A pair of aconites hold their own against an onslaught of snowdrops. Part of the Amaryllis family, the genus Galanthus (Greek for "milk flower") is another beloved herald of spring.

Interestingly, Galanthus, like Scylla, makes an appearance in The Odyssey, in Book X, when Hermes counsels Odysseus on how to escape from the lair of Circe, who had drugged him and his crew into forgetfulness. Again, Mandelbaum:

“But come, I’ll save you from her snares, I’ll thwart
her plans. Now, when you enter Circe’s halls,
don’t leave behind this tutelary herb.
I’ll tell you all her fatal stratagems:
She’ll mix a potion for you; she’ll add drugs
into that drink; but even with their force,
she can’t bewitch you; for the noble herb
I’ll give you now will baffle all her plots…..”

When that was said, he gave his herb to me;
he plucked it from the ground and showed what sort
of plant it was. Its root was black; its flower                       [400]
was white as milk. It’s moly for the gods….

Some scholars maintain that the plant described by Homer is purely fictitious, while others believe it is a type of hellebore. Most, by my reckoning, identify it as Galanthus nivalis. If you’d like to take a fascinating walk down this road, check out this article (1983) in the journal Clinical Neuropharmacology, which posits that because Galanthus nivalis contains galanthamine, a “centrally acting anticholinesterase” that blocks nerve impulses, “the description of ‘moly’ as an antidote in Homer’s Odyssey may represent the oldest recorded use of an anticholinesterase to reverse central anticholinergic intoxication.” Remarkably, Galanthamine has been used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Way to go, Homer.

Nearby in Nonnie’s garden, the hellebore makes its appearance, as the “Christmas rose,” Helleborus niger.

Helleborus niger has been used in the past as an herbal medicine. The English botanist John Parkinson (1567-1650) said that it is "good for mad and furious men, for melancholy, dull and heavie persons, and briefly for all those with blacke choler, and molested with melancholy."

This was the garden’s first plant to flower in winter. A beauty. And here’s a rival for our affection, Rheum rhubarbarum. Does any plant have more fun in a pie?

Piercing the frost-touched ground, rhubarb is indomitable.

I can find no reference to rhubarb in Homer. However, Bear Creek Winery, in Homer, Alaska, produces a rhubarb wine. Here’s a closer look at the crimson nubbin.

Evident, as Dylan Thomas put it, is "the force that through the green fuse drives the flower." A miracle.

It is proper, right, and just to give Shakespeare the last word on affairs of the garden, as in affairs of the heart. Yes, he mentions rhubarb, in, of all places, Macbeth (Act V, Scene 3).


What is your gracious pleasure?

What news more?

All is confirm’d, my lord, which was reported.

I’ll fight till from my bones my flesh be hack’d.
Give me my armour.

‘Tis not needed yet.

I’ll put it on.
Send out more horses; skirr the country round;
Hang those that talk of fear. Give me mine armour.
How does your patient, doctor?

Not so sick, my lord,
As she is troubled with thick coming fancies,
That keep her from her rest.

Cure her of that.
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?

Therein the patient
Must minister to himself.

Throw physic to the dogs; I’ll none of it.
Come, put mine armour on; give me my staff.
Seyton, send out. Doctor, the thanes fly from me.
Come, sir, dispatch. If thou couldst, doctor, cast
The water of my land, find her disease,
And purge it to a sound and pristine health,
I would applaud thee to the very echo,
That should applaud again.–Pull’t off, I say.–
What rhubarb, cyme, or what purgative drug,
Would scour these English hence? Hear’st thou of them?

Ay, my good lord; your royal preparation
Makes us hear something.

Bring it after me.
I will not be afraid of death and bane,
Till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane.

[Aside] Were I from Dunsinane away and clear,
Profit again should hardly draw me here.






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The Legacy

We took to the road on a recent chilly morning, one of the very few cold days of this rare and welcome winter, for unplanned discoveries in eastern Connecticut. The radio was off. The sound of the tires on asphalt offered more than enough enjoyment, a bittersweet echo of our cross-country camping trip of 2009. On occasions like these, stretches of silence will be broken only by Nonnie’s one-word identification of the license plate of a passing vehicle. Wisconsin. Idaho. New Mexico. The shared rising feeling mingles nostalgia, pride, and expectation touched with rue. Will we ever hit the road like that again? These shorter day trips quicken the pulse: yes, we will.

We drifted out toward Old Lyme, East Lyme, and South Lyme, pulling off Route 95 for roads that sound promising–Shore Road, Neck Road, Rope Ferry Road, 4 Mile River Road–and any left or right that catches our eye. Grand old trees spread out over the roadways, bare branches waving in the stiffening wind. Architectural delights abound: stern mansard roofs, graceful molded cornices, towers and turrets both rounded and square.

The John Sill House, on Lyme Street in Old Lyme, Connecticut, was built around 1817. Sill was a smuggler who hid his booty in secret closets built throughout the structure. He enjoyed the dwelling for only three years, losing it in the wake of his arrest in 1820. (Historic Buildings of Connecticut image)

From time to time we’d stop and park the car to get a closer look. The temperature was below freezing, and the rising wind, abetted by a winter sun hanging low in the sky, drove us back quickly to the warmth of the car. I had neglected to bring a hat and gloves, a bad move.

With a stark yet reassuring grace, the John McCurdy House sits right across from the daunting First Congregational Church of Old Lyme. It was built around 1700 by the perfectly named Amos Tinker. General Washington, we are told, spent a night here in April 1776, while on his way from Boston to New York. We shall not question it. (Historic Buildings of Connecticut image)

After a nice lunch and a glass of wine at the cozy Black Sheep Tavern, on Main Street in Niantic, we drove east by Jordan Cove and decided to head for the coast. The wind seemed even stronger, shaking the car now and then, and a cover of thick gray clouds now fully obscured the sky. How had we not seen that happen? Attracted by a sign for Harkness Memorial State Park, we caught a glimpse of ocean and turned south off Great Neck Road. Ours was the only car in the parking lot. We could see the roiling Atlantic about 1,500 feet away, beyond a broad expanse of lawn. Let’s do it–we’ve come this far. Nonnie pulled her scarf over her head, I jammed my hands into my jacket pockets, and we made a dash for the water. The wind was so strong and my fingers so cold, I had trouble keeping the camera still.

The falling mercury and the strengthening gale conspired to make the beach grow more distant with each step.

The bitter wind, now gusting past 40 mph, lacerated us with sand from the beach. The sign to the left, Nonnie bravely discovered, reads "No Swimming."

Though terribly cold, a mysterious mansion on the far east end of the property proved irresistible.

Even from a distance, the gardens beckoned.

The frozen gravel crunched at each step. What is this place? Who lived here?

Flecks of snow were starting to appear, making it all but impossible to imagine a string quartet, croquet, and a bottomless Pimm's Cup.

"On the table was spread a snow-white tablecloth; upon it was a splendid porcelain service, and the roast goose was steaming famously with its stuffing of apple and dried plums."

We were beyond cold, but the place held such delights that we couldn't pull ouselves away.

As soon as we returned home, Nonnie planted herself at the iMac to discover the identity of the gardens' architect. It was the work of the extraordinary Beatrix Jones Farrand, one of Nonnie's favorites. A wonderful surprise.

Farrand fell in love with landscape while summering at her family home on Mount Desert Island, in Maine. During trips to England she visited the estimable Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson. As if that weren't enough, Edith Wharton was her aunt. Farrand designed the kitchen garden at The Mount, Wharton's estate in Lennox, Massachusetts.

It was time to go home. What discoveries we shared today.

The estate was called Eolia, and the forty-two-room mansion became the summer home of Edward S. Harkness, who inherited a fortune thanks to his father’s investments in a promising company called Standard Oil. Harkness bought the property in 1907, when he was thirty-three.  He was worth about about $155 million when he died, at the age of sixty-six, in 1940. That’s about $2.4 billion today. Harkness had deep pockets but a bottomless heart. His philanthropy extends far beyond this beautiful estate, set so dramatically against Long Island Sound. He gave away nearly $130 million, making major donations to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, and Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. Countless colleges, universities, and boarding schools benefited from his charity, and the Yale School of Drama and its theatre were created through his gifts. A peerless legacy.

Later, while reading up on Harkness, I came across an article by Richard F. Niebling, in the Fall 1982 issue of The Phillips Exeter Bulletin, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Harkness Plan, a $5.8 million bequest that significantly enlarged the Academy and established endowments. Niebling notes that the recipients of Harkness’s substantial gifts were varied, but that two overarching observations can be made of all of them: “…they all received Harkness’s personal attention, and none of them, in their material embodiment, were allowed, during his lifetime, to bear his name. Where the name Harkness is attached to some building, it commemorates another Harkness–for instance, the Harkness Pavilion in New York City honors his mother; The Harkness Tower at Yale, his brother. There is no Harkness dormitory at Exeter or college at Yale or house at Harvard. He was a very modest man.”


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Finding stillness at 95 mph

There’s a shopping plaza where it used to be. Driving south on Route 4, just as you cross over Route 102, you’ll notice an old silo tucked in on your left, barely visible by a stand of struggling trees, this small patch of green overwhelmed by the asphalt and cinder block that sprawls beyond it. A few steps southeast of the silo–that’s where the batting cages were. I kept extra tokens in the ashtray of my car so I could pull over and whack a few when the feeling struck. There’s a mile of difference between the way a baseball player swings a bat and the way the rest of us do. But that doesn’t diminish the pleasure of the occasional solid thwack and seeing the ball shoot over the torn netting and out toward the grassy field.

The peculiar joy of the batting cage–the creaking mechanical arm, the grunts and exclamations from adjacent batters, the expectation of each pitch, the final weariness and satisfaction–returned in a rush, along with many more of the unique charms of baseball, reading “The Way of Baseball: Finding Stillness at 95 mph,” by Shawn Green and Gordon McAlpine (Simon & Schuster, 2011).

Shawn Green, who began his fifteen-year career with the Toronto Blue Jays, holds the major league record for total bases in a single game, nineteen, when he hit four home runs, a double, and a single against the Milwaukee Brewers on May 23, 2002. He's also the only major league player to hit seven home runs in a three-game span (May 23-25, 2002). He hit 42 homers that year, among the 192 homers he hit in a great five-year stretch from 1998-2002, when he was among the top hitters in the game. (google image)

“The Way of Baseball” describes the role of Zen meditation in Green’s journey to free himself from his ego, play baseball without the burden of goals, and learn to live in and savor the moment. It’s unusual and refreshing to hear a professional American athlete speak this way about himself, and it’s the first time I’ve finished a sports memoir reminded that the desire for perfection is an invitation to disappointment.

Green was in his third undistinguished season with the Blue Jays when manager Cito Gaston forbade him from using the batting cage unless it was in the presence of the team’s batting coach. They wanted Green, a left-handed hitter, to learn to pull the ball–that is, to make contact with the ball early and hit it to right field, increasing the chances of a home run. Green wouldn’t do it. He wanted to hit productively to all fields. In anger and frustration, Green started practicing on a batting tee, the only place he was allowed to take unsupervised swings.

"My breathing became rhythmic: inhaling as I put the ball on the tee, holding my breath as I got in my stance, and exhaling as I took my swing," Green writes. "What was happening here? My tee work had started out as form of punishment, yet suddenly it felt like something else, something more than just a hitting exercise. Was it becoming a meditation?" Green used a Tanner Tee, just like this one. (google image)

In time, Green found that his daily work with the tee was quieting the voice in his head and rewarding him with stillness. He learned, as one does in yoga, to focus on his breathing and not on the pose, to feel the swing without thinking about it. His practice gave him the confidence and the self-awareness to take apart his swing and burnish each of its components: his stance in the batter’s box, the length of his stride, the orientation of the head and eyes toward the pitcher, and the “loading” of the upper body–that is, the location and timed movement of the shoulders, arms, and wrists as the swing develops, among many other elements. Most important, Green came to see the pitcher not as an opponent but as a partner.

Green lingers in satisfying detail on how he rebuilt his swing over the next two years, deepening his meditation practice and stilling the natural tendency to be hard on himself. He is learning, as Buddha taught, that “You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” Hardest of lessons, alas.

There are delightful observations on the era’s greatest pitchers along the way:

  • “Pedro Martinez was untouchable in the late ’90s not because he threw harder than anyone else but because both his fastballs and off-speed pitches looked the same coming out of his hand. Such deception, along with great control and movement, makes it tough for a hitter to get the barrel of the bat on the ball.”
  • “[Curt] Schilling’s glove started the same every time out of the windup, but when his glove went over his head, the fingers rounded on the forkball and remained flatter on the fastball. From the stretch, it was more difficult to catch, and I sometimes got crossed up because the differences were so subtle. Other times, I swung and missed even though I knew what was coming because Schilling had such good movement on his pitches.”
  • “[Randy Johnson’s] tip was easy to discern because his glove flared before he began his windup…. In one game he grew so paranoid about us having his pitches that he altered his whole delivery by hiding his hand behind his back rather than keeping it in his glove as he normally did. I enjoyed seeing such an intimidating figure completely lost in his head.”

These tropes–of being lost in the head, over thinking, hearing the harping, critical voice of “the little man on my shoulder”–inform the book, becoming most dramatic after Green’s eventual success with the Blue Jays led to his signing a six-year contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers for $84 million. The pressure was on, and Green imploded.

“The pull of my ego proved too strong,” Green writes. “My awareness became lost in my new identity…. What I didn’t realize was that it was my ego that was pulling me out of the present moment at the plate. Instead of becoming the act of hitting, as I had in the past, I was working toward the purpose of fulfilling statistical goals. I calculated that I needed to hit about 7 homers and notch about 20 RBIs each month to stay on track with the player I was supposed to be: the star who’d hit 42 home runs and had 123 RBIs the season before.” Green finds a new understanding in a familiar Zen proverb: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” Humbled by his disappointing performance in 2000, Green recommits himself to living in the present moment, rediscovers his swing, and lets go of ambition and goals. The process is nicely symbolized in a section on Green’s decision, on September 26, 2001, not to play on Yom Kippur, though not a fully observant Jew. The incident, of course, echoes Sandy Koufax’s famous decision to sit out a World Series game in 1965 because it fell on Yom Kippur. For Green, the decision allows him to display respect for his heritage and to sever a tie with his ego: missing the game ended a streak of 415 consecutive games and cost him a shot at hitting fifty home runs for the season. (He ended with 49 homers and 125 RBIs.)

Here’s a look at Green’s swing, slowed down, as part of a television ad against the use of smokeless tobacco products. Green was with Arizona Diamondbacks at the time (2005-6). The swings starts about twenty seconds in. I’m struck not only by the relaxed grace of his swing but by the way he lowers his head at the moment of contact, as if bowing in gratitude.

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Green’s account of his historic week in May 2002 is fascinating reading, all the more effective for his and co-writer McAlpine’s decision to chronicle each at bat with excerpts from Green’s journal entries, written after the games. What a stretch of hitting. Among the gems was a first-pitch home run against Schilling, with the defending world-champion Diamondbacks, marking Green’s seventh consecutive hit, five of which were home runs. In the next game, Green broke his bat on the last swing of his streak, hitting his seventh home run in three consecutive games, batting eleven for thirteen with fourteen RBIs. The cracked bat now rests in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, in Cooperstown, New York. And the satisfying memory of Green’s rewarding journey rests in me. Namaste, Shawn Green.





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Rebirth in Death

Unmet friends give us one last gift in their dying: the obituary. I am repeatedly reminded of this blessing in the fruitful pages of The New York Times, meeting artists whom I otherwise would never have discovered were it not for the curtain of death. So it was as I read the November 3, 2011, obituary of Mary Hunt Kahlenberg, an extraordinary woman, who died October 27, with her husband by her side, in their home in Santa Fe. Kahlenberg was an expert in the art of the Navajo blanket, the founder of what is now Tai Gallery/Textile Arts, in Santa Fe, and, during a long career as a museum curator and collector, a champion of textiles as art rather than craft. Her warm aesthetic heart, technical understanding of textile creation, historical acuity, and sharp eye for detail combine memorably in “Walk in Beauty: The Navajo and Their Blankets” (Gibbs Smith, 1991), which she wrote with Anthony Berlant. (The volume is available in Rhode Island libraries.)

Kahlenberg's study of Navajo blankets weaves the disheartening story of the tribe's forced relocation and incarceration with its indominable spirit, as reflected in the vivid patterns, colors, and emotive power of textile weaving.


The book is a wonderful portal to the artistic beauty of Navajo blankets, with key aesthetic points dramatically illustrated by full-page color photographs of the textiles. Kahlenberg’s observations are trenchant and confident.

“It is obvious that in the weaving of blankets, there is a tradition for complexity and control without equal in our culture,” she writes. “In their blankets, the Navajo had a visual language that enabled them to show each other who they were. The blankets were self-portraits in which the Navajo manifested their place among people, their integration with the landscape, and their oneness with the spiritual forces of life…. There was a dynamic connection between design and function–a Navajo blanket expressed the character of its wearer and give him a kind of permanent gesture….

“There are constants in the Navajo experience which underlie the tradition of these blankets. Foremost of these is a feeling of energy. It is as if each blanket were a diagram of the spiritual presence of an individual.”

Kahlenberg’s aesthetic is especially valuable as it bestows us with the new ability to engage with Navajo blankets as artworks rather than to simply see them as craft or utilitarian objects, to enter a created world as our perception and imagination dovetail with the tangible vision of the artist. Her careful explication of technique, cultural history, and evolving design features gives us the vocabulary–the tools–we need to apprehend and to feel in new ways. A great gift. She is also wonderful when explicating the role of abstraction in Navajo society–a trait deeply rooted in the tribe’s shared culture rather than the sole purview of “the artist,” as it is in our culture–as well as the creative freedom and independence of women, all of whom were weavers, in Navajo society.

A splendid example of an Eye-Dazzler blanket, a style that emerged and flourished between 1875 and 1890. The name was given to these blankets by traders, in response to their explosive expressionistic urgency.


It must be fantastic to see these blankets up close. The blanket above, for example, is 80 inches by 57 inches. Astonishing. (It’s available here for $9,500.)

The Arizona State Museum organized an exhibition on Navajo weaving in 2004-5. The museum’s website offers a nice introductory history of the art, with slide shows and other helpful features. The exhibition also included the work of contemporary Navajo weavers.

One of the most fascinating features Kahlenberg discusses is the Navajo blanket’s lack of a border. On all four sides, the patterns move to the edge, go past the edge, and continue into infinity. It is as if the wearer becomes enclosed literally and figuratively in the unique vision of an infinite physical and metaphysical landscape. It was only later in the 1890s, when the commercial role and influence of traders grew stronger, that this never-ending quality gave way to the use of borders as a design element–indeed, a very emblem of the political enclosure of Native Americans. The traders were reacting to the wishes of the buyers of blankets who lived back East, who found the lack of borders upsetting, Kahlenberg notes.

So it is, thanks to the obituary, that we play a part in the continuation of a life well lived,  leading it past an ending and toward a shared future.





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The Poet of Ulvik

In the summer of 1971, after my sophomore year in college, my friend Michael Morrissey and I went to Europe. We couldn’t afford to travel for three months on the paltry savings from our student work-study incomes, but we determined that we could pull it off if we stayed put and worked somewhere for one month. Together in the university library one night, we poured through books of photographs of European countries. Which one would we choose to settle down in? We’d decide purely on the basis of an instinctive reaction to glossy images. We quickly agreed: Norway. No place else looked remotely like Norway. It was incomparable.

Through an international student employment agency, we both arranged to work on a family farm for a month. Room and board were included. The pay would be one dollar a day. The math worked, and so did the vibes. A possible glitch was that we’d be working on different farms, more than a few hours away from each other by ferry and bus, so we’d be separated for a month. But that might be good. We’d get to take a break from each other, become more self-sufficient. A happy reunion after a month apart would set us up well for the long hitchhike to Paris, the next stop on our summer’s itinerary.

I was placed with the family of Leif Hjelmevold, who owned a small farm in Ulvik, on the Hardangerfjord. Leif and his wife Johanna had two children, daughter Arnfrid, 15, and son Daniel, 11. Leif had been ill and was slow recovering.  With his wife tending the two dozen milk cows and maintaining the household, they had prevailed upon their grown nephew, Geir Hydle, to work the farm for the summer with someone they would hire through a work agency. The someone was me. A blessing!

The events of that month on the Hjelmevold farm, of the month in Paris, and of all the stops and starts along the way will be told at another time. I mention this episode here because of the Norwegian legend that sits atop this blog: Kven spør etter leidi når ein har slik vind! The author is the poet Olav V. Hauge, the Poet of Ulvik. In English, the poem from which this line is drawn is “You Were the Wind.” Here it is Norwegian, followed by an English translation by Robert Bly, as found in The Dream We Carry: Selected and Last Poems of Olav H. Hauge, translated by Robert Bly and Robert Hedin:


Du var vinden

Eg er ein båt
utan vind.
Du var vinden.
Var det den leidi eg skulde?
Kven spør etter leidi
når ein har slik vind!


You Were the Wind

I am a boat
without wind.
You were the wind.
Was that the direction I wanted to go?
Who cares about directions
with a wind like that!


So I will change the name of my blog from “Kven spør etter leidi når ein har slik vind!” to “Who cares about directions with a wind like that!” Should we care about our direction? Who cares about directions with a wind like that! I shall savor the wind.

We worked Monday through Friday and until noon on Saturday for the thirty days I worked on the Hjelmvold farm in Norway. On my first Saturday, after lunch, Geir led me down the winding road in the direction of the town waterfront center, not much more than a hotel, a grocery store, a few small shops, and a church. We passed by a cut off the road, a driveway winding upward.

“The Poet lives here,” Geir said.


“The Poet of Ulvik,” he said. “Olav isn’t home today.”

Olav H. Hauge (August 18, 1909 -- May 23, 1994) was born in Ulvik, Norway, and lived his entire life there, tending to his apple trees and his poetry. His first volume was published when he was 33. Hague's vision is fiercely spare. Meaning hangs on the fate of stones, moss, firewood, and smoke.

Here is Hague reading “Du var vinden” and three other poems, with images of his wife Bodil Cappelen, the Hardangerfjord, and the Ulvik mountainside:

YouTube Preview Image

The other three poems he reads here are “Elvane møtest,” “Det er den draumen,” and “Katten.” “Det er den draumen” (This Is the Dream) is extraordinary. The repetition of “at” and “opna seg” create an atmosphere of ritual and tension as powerful and unstoppable as a retreating tide. Here it is in Norwegian and in Robert Bly’s translation:


Det er den draumen

Det er den draumen
Det er den draumen me ber på
at noko vidunderlig skal skje,
at det må skje –
at tidi skal opna seg,
at hjarta skal opna seg,
at dører skal opna seg,
at kjeldor skal springa –
at draumen skal opna seg,
at me ei morgonstund skal glida inn
på ein våg me ikkje har visst um.

This Is the Dream

This is the dream we carry through the world
that something fantastic will happen
that it has to happen
that time will open by itself
that doors shall open by themselves
that the heart will find itself open
that mountain springs will jump up
that the dream will open by itself
that we one early morning
will slip into a harbor
that we have never known.

Finally, here is a look at Hauge reading at a festival in Haugesund, Norway, in 1972, just a few months after my stay in Ulvik. He is visibly heartened by the warm reception!

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Thank you, Olav! Thank you, Ulvik!



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