Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

In the eye of the beholder

Monday, July 10, 2017

A few years ago, while walking through the Radcliffe Quad, Dr. D. and I saw several piles of what seemed to be building or gardening supplies—earth and various kinds, sizes, and colors of gravel. We assumed a modest project was about to begin. But then we noticed a sign with the title and creator of what, it turned out, was an art installation.

It became a joke. We started noticing “art installations” everywhere—a quarry, a nursery, a building site. Who knew there was so much public art to be seen?

But then the joke turned a little. Why not an art installation? With all the hurrying and busyness, the thousand daily annoyances, worries, to-do’s, and random distractions, why not pause and take a different look at things we usually don’t give a second glance? A pile of rocks, their shapes and random as a John Cage composition. A heap of dirt or a stack of bricks on their way to becoming a garden or a walkway. On their way to being transformed by effort and imagination.

I’ve seen art installations in parks that seem to tell us something like this—a field of feathers, a tiny doorway at the base of a tree, a group of sculpted ants picnicking beside the Muddy River—pointing to a new, unexpected way to see what surrounds us. Prodding g us not to let our assumptions or our busyness dull us to the possibility that there could be wonders to see around us.

And this, too--isn’t this what we do with all our heaped-up moments—try to shape them into something worth noticing?

Thank you, Radcliffe Quad and that art installation.


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The Occasional Recipe: 4th of July Lemonade Syrup

Thursday, June 29, 2017

 I’ve definitely given this recipe before, but it seems the right moment to do it again.
As they say, when life—or in this case the political process—gives you lemons, well, you know.

Here we are, celebrating a moment that we look back on with a certain amount of reverence along with a large dose of 2017 reality.  We see clearly the compromises the FFs made as they stated boldly that all men are created equal, though we know they didn't really mean all men any more than they meant those who held up the other half of the sky. A decent respect to the opinions of the current population requires that we balance gratitude for the wisdom our founders had with understanding of their flaws and of the flawed compromises they made.

For several years I’ve had the pleasure of being in a class at Temple Israel where we look at our ancient texts and create new midrash, or stories behind the stories, stories that tell other ways it might have happened. Always our teacher, Rabbi Elaine Zecher, tells us to start with two things—context and world view. That’s what we need to do with our Declaration of Independence, too, if we are to try to realize its most idealistic objectives.

Right now I am finding idealism hard to come by. I am dismayed and disheartened by what this country, or at least its leadership, is at this exact moment. But I’m going to try to make lemonade, and I offer you this recipe.

Lemonade Syrup

Combine and boil for 5 minutes:
            2 c. sugar
            1 c. water
            the rind of two lemons
                        I’ve always cut the rind into thin strips which I leave in the syrup, but
                        I’m also thinking zesting the rind would work, too, so I’m going to try that
                        next time.

Cool and add the juice of 6 lemons. Strain (optional) and refrigerate.

This recipe makes a pint of syrup. When you’re ready for a glass of lemonade, just add 2 Tbsp. of syrup to a glass of water.

Happy 4th of July. Gulp.


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Remembering the Ladies

Thursday, June 15, 2017

We were in a hotel room in Austin when James Comey was testifying before Congress. We sat, mesmerized, but then realized our time in Austin was short and there would be coverage of Comey that we could catch up with later. So we went to the LBJ Library to learn, to remember, and to mourn the America we thought we lived in.

Of course, Vietnam, a war without popular support and without apparent rationale at any level, throws its shadow over the Johnson presidency. But, even with that, what he accomplished! Civil rights, voting rights, Medicare, Medicaid, the Office of Economic Opportunity, creation of HUD, the NEA, PBS, and VISTA, automobile safety, vocational education, and on and on—it’s an impressive list centered around education, the arts, civil rights, and what we now talk about as economic inequality. Basically whatever’s getting dismantled now can probably be traced back to then.

But what particularly grabbed me was an exhibit of pictures of each of the  country’s First Ladies. These pictures—either painted or photographed—were at some level “official” portraits, hung in official places and at some level selected and sanctioned enough so we can assume this is how each woman chose, or was comfortable with, being portrayed. It’s a fascinating collection. Here are my snap-shot impressions of some of the often surprisingly revealing portraits:
Martha Washington—looks as if she, like George, was conscious that “history has its eyes on (them)”. She looks dignified and--despite clothes that look ornate to us--modest and unpretentious.
Dolley’s got some cleavage!
Early 19th century Elizabeth Monroe’s portrait looks slightly 17th century Dutch, but her burgher husband would have to have been prosperous: she’s wearing black and crimson with ermine-trimmed sleeves. Angelica Van Buren also looks fortunate as she stands beside a bust of her husband.
By contrast Anna Harrison looks awful (terrible hat--call Aretha stat!) but she had good cause: her husband died 31 days after his inauguration. It’s said he died of pneumonia after catching a cold while giving the country’s longest inaugural address on a frigid March day without a hat, gloves, or overcoat. Anna, by contrast, was ill at home in Ohio and didn’t plan on moving to Washington until spring. Hmm.
John Tyler, of whom I know little, looks slightly unkempt, but both of his wives (at separate times) look kind of triumphant to be having official portraits done.
Sarah Polk looks moody in her Italian-Renaissance-looking portrait, while both Margaret Taylor and husband Zachary look like they come from hardy stock.
Jane Pierce looks as unembellished as her name. But Harriet Lane, James Buchanan’s niece appears ready to make the most of her time in the limelight, with flowers trailing from her hair to her waist. Mary Lincoln is a visual spoiler alert, looking sad, distracted, and haunted.
Frances Cleveland looks elegant, light falling on her amply exposed skin. Helen Taft looks imperious. Grace Coolidge, who, it turns out, taught at a school for the deaf, is stunning, posed in a red dress beside a white dog, a long gauzy wrap floating from her arm past trees to a distant White House.
Mamie Eisenhower’s portrait shocked me with its little girl pinkness—pink dress, pink gloves, pink bag—and a vague smile beneath those tiny bangs.
Jackie, too, was a surprise. In her portrait painted nearly a decade after she left the White House this most fashion-savvy of first ladies is wearing a long high-necked thing that looks like maybe a dressing gown for Dame Edna.
Lady Bird is also a surprise, radiant and beautiful as she looks directly at the camera. Pat Nixon, as one might expect, looks pained, sitting in her blue lace dress her hair a little too blond. And Rosalynn Carter, whom I think of as capable and outspoken, looks as if she’s made herself smaller for the picture with arms at her sides, hands in her lap, and a slightly upward look.
Barbara Bush looks In. Control.—confidant and at home—while Laura looks as if she’ll be glad to get back to Texas.
Hillary, looking very young, is posed between a chair and a small round able that holds a few items that could be White House mementos, slight poised between two worlds.
And Michelle—thoroughly modern Michelle with her strong bare arms and her decidedly non-matronly double strand of pearls—looks like tomorrow even though she is, sadly, yesterday.
The current First Lady’s portrait has not yet been hung.

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Writing about other people?

Sunday, April 23, 2017

I just finished reading a book about Nora Ephron. It was by “her best friend” and it made me grateful that most of  my closest friends are not writers.

Nora Ephron was, to me, one of those women like Wendy Wasserstein, whom we don’t know personally and yet feel we know. We feel they know us, too, and we are certain we and they would be meeting regularly for lunch or trading recipes or book recommendations or names of hairdressers…if only we had ever met.

Or maybe not. The Nora in this book isn’t really the girlfriend with the crepey neck or the not-so-much bosom buddy. She isn’t the relatably imperfect Meg Ryan characters in the movies that touched us—she was, instead, the frighteningly accomplished director creating the films anddon’tyouforgetit. She was the uber-connected person who always knew how to do or where to buy everything, cook like a four-star chef, and charm everyone in sight. She was also apparently overbearing,  intimidating, and not inclined to let kindness get in the way of making a witty or brutally honest comment. I felt relieved to have never had her personally in my life. Just reading about her left me in despair at the puniness of my life and in need of major validation. She would not have been my girlfriend: she would not have noticed my existence.

And no reason she would have. And no reason to admire her enormous and pleasure-giving achievements any less.

But all these more human qualities laid out in print by the “best friend” gave me pause. The book did not really offer a glimpse into the friendship. I had no insight into the comfort they may have offered each other in the wake of dissolved marriages or advice they may have shared on nurturing children or careers. The whole fact of the friendship was, as they say in writing workshops, told not shown. But shown, though I am guessing unconsciously, was the writer’s small nastiness and glee at exposing Nora’s flaws.

And while I was reading this, I also happened to read a magazine essay so shocking in its ugliness that it was, like an unfolding accident, impossible to tear my eyes from. The author was “celebrating” her mother’s 75th birthday by presenting her with the harsh evidence of a traumatic family event both had stayed silent about for decades. In the course of the essay, small ungenerous details, clearly added in hostility, made the reader feel sympathy for the mother instead of for the author, as was very obviously intended.

We writers are always writing about other people for a variety of reasons. They are our own reasons and it might be useful for us to remember that what the reader takes in often says a bit about us, too.


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