Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

A memorial to a memorial

Thursday, April 10, 2014

I visited Copley Square more than once last spring. More than two or three times; each time it was a wrenching experience. Each time I joined others walking slowly, dabbing at eyes or letting tears fall freely, remembering what happened on April 15. We stepped around the wilting flowers, read the heartfelt notes, saw the objects left in tribute, including all those running shoes. If there was one overriding image, that was it: the running shoes, everywhere at the Copley Square memorial and later grouped into a heart shape for an iconic Boston Magazine cover.  

It was the kind of outpouring that often grows in the face of tragedy, like the ones at firehouses all over New York after 9/11, and like the one outside the Engine 33 Firehouse on Boylston Street right now. They are the human impulse to comfort made visible. Their power grows out of their spontaneity.

And then what to do with them? Sweep up the flowers, distribute the teddy bears, put the signs and letters in a storage corner? In Boston the decision was made to preserve as much as possible and create an exhibit. The result, “Dear Boston,” is currently at the Boston Public Library, next to the newly-repainted Marathon finish line and across the street from where the memorial grew.

I am sad to say that the exhibit, while clearly well-intentioned, is a memorial only to a memorial. A neat square of running shoes. Letters in children’s handwriting--notes from other countries--all under glass, clean, and carefully planned. And maybe that’s why it feels so depressing, so dead. The Boston Strong spontaneity is gone, scrubbed out, cleaned up, and presented for viewing access. 

Maybe that's inevitable. In an online essay Quentin Miller wrote about how the instinctive outpouring of last year’s Copley Square tribute is likely to remain, in the minds of those who saw, it more poignant and powerful than any permanent marker the city might erect. That memory is definitely more powerful than this exhibit, just as "Boston Strong"--complete with expletive from Big Papi--is more powerful than the heartfelt but limp-sounding, "Dear Boston."

Certainly the impulse to preserve the tribute is understandable, as is the necessity of having some tangible sign this year of what happened last year.  

If you go to the BPL you may be impressed with the way an organized presentation has been orchestrated out of the scrambled chaos of what was left in tribute. You may find it interesting that people in other countries felt Boston’s sadness, and its strength. You may appreciate the fact that these things were collected and preserved.

But you  probably won’t cry.

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The Occasional Recipe: Chicken with Shallots and Cherry Tomatoes

Monday, April 7, 2014

I’m not taking credit for this recipe. Or any of my other “occasional recipes,” for that matter. They each originated elsewhere: I am not a creative cook, just a good follower and dumber-down of  recipes. So this one came from a recent New York Times Magazine. But I feel all right putting it out here because, as Sam Sifton notes in the article that includes it, the recipe originally came from a Martha Stewart magazine and went through several tweakings to become “Rishia Zimmern’s Chicken with Shallots.” And it went through a couple more when I made it, to become “Not Exactly Rishia Zimmern’s But Still Chicken with Shallots.” Or, since it includes cherry tomatoes, which, until I discovered the Kumato (oh, wow!) had been the only tomato I could bear to look at during the winter, maybe “Chicken with Shallots and Cherry Tomatoes.” 

So here, from Martha to Rishia to Sam to me to you!

Chicken with Shallots and Cherry Tomatoes
(serves 4-6)

8 chicken thighs
a little flour
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 Tsp. unsalted butter
8-12 small shallots, peeled but left whole
2 c. white wine
2 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
2 sprigs fresh tarragon or 1/4 tsp. dried
2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved

1--Rinse chicken thighs, pat dry, and sprinkle with flour, salt, and pepper.
2--Melt butter in large skillet or heavy pot. When the butter foams, cook chicken until well browned and crisp. You may need to do this in batches so the pieces aren’t too crowded to brown.  
3--Remove chicken pieces and set aside. Add shallots to pan until they begin to soften and caramelize, about 10-12 minutes. Deglaze the pan with wine and add mustard, tarragon, and the chicken. Cover the pot and simmer 30 minutes.
4--Remove lid and allow sauce to reduce 10 minutes. Add tomato halves and cook another 5-10 minutes.

A salad and warm fresh bread works well. I made baked apples for dessert, as, hopefully a little good-bye to winter. 

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The dirty side of clean

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Stepping from the shower, toweling off and feeling clean, I hear the radio report that, I am warned, may be disturbing. Turns out it is about “cleansing,” too, but this cleansing is the killing of one kind of people by another kind of people, though, of course, how many kinds of people are there really? 

My father never said “kleenex” as others did when they meant some paper for wiping the nose. He pushed back against the trade name, said, instead, “cleansing tissue,” a construct that sounds, in retrospect, slightly archaic. That memory, and the pleasure of the bath and shower--especially when accompanied by fragrant soaps and gels and emollients--left me with a benign and even affectionate reaction to the word.

Then some decades ago the people killing each other in the former Yugoslavia started using it to describe what they saw as simply restoring their land to their kind of people. It sounded like a euphemism for “genocide” with its “final solution” overtones, and it gave me chills to hear it. It was used with quotation marks around it that you could see in print and hear in speech as a disclaimer--their words, not ours.

And then a strange thing happened. It started being used in news stories and public pronouncements not with quotation marks around it, not as naming an action being held up by the world as horrifying, but...kind of as an acceptable descriptive term. 

What happened to the quotation marks? 

I looked it up on that font of all knowledge, Wikipedia, and found that “Ethnic cleansing is not to be confused with genocide.” Oh horrors, no. I didn’t stop to read the fine print to find out that distinction. I went on. It was “initially used by the perpetrators during the Yugoslav the 1990s the term gained widespread acceptance in academic discourse in its generic meaning.”

Well, if you want to get all nit-picky, ethnic cleansing doesn’t have to mean killing. It can also apply to various forms of forced migration (deportation, population transfer) as well as mass murder, and intimidation.”  The Final Report of the Commission of Experts (why does this sound as if I lifted it from “1984”?) defines ethnic cleansing as a  "a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas." A purposeful policy--sounds downright legitimate, doesn’t it? Wikipedia didn’t mention the quotation marks. 

I can accept murderous thugs figuring out a name for their activities, a way to rally troops, justify actions. What I can’t accept is that we and our news outlets and our public officials have adopted it and turned it from something chillingly reprehensible into...well....just another term with widespread acceptance in academic (and other) discourse.

I wish I had the influence to wage a one-person campaign on this. People, I want to say, listen to what you’re saying. Be careful with your words and recognize their power. These words mean something horrifying. Put back the quotation marks.


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Thinking about Pete Seeger

Friday, January 31, 2014

A few years ago, driving back from New York, I heard an old interview with Pete Seeger rebroadcast on the radio. I hadn’t heard his music in a long time. He was probably in his 80s at the time of the interview, but his reedy voice was strong in its outrage against injustice and oppression.

As the interview ended, they played a clip of him singing, “We Shall Overcome,”with the audience joining in. “We’ll walk hand in hand,” he sang, and, in the car, I sang, too. “We shall live in peace,” we sang together, and tears started running down my cheeks. This moment was in George Bush’s America, and peace was no longer even a dream. 

I guess it started when the effort to combat terrorism was define as “war.” But is there still any hope voiced about the possibility of living in peace? Living with a negotiated settlement maybe. Living with secured borders, living with any number of other trusted but verified breaks in battle.  But living in peace, that 60s dream of little children growing up healthy and free to be you and me, is out of date and out of fashion.

You’ll forgive me a moment of nostalgia for the moment when two superpowers agree to lay down their most planet-threatening weapons. Things were simpler then, I know. It still seemed as if war would be an unavoidable sometime thing. And in between, it seemed, there might be comity and coexistence, varying degrees of international harmony, acceptance, cooperation. 

I know--that time is long gone. Now Pete Seeger is gone and who is left to sing that song? Who dreams anymore that we shall live in peace?

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A decision!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

So you know, gentle readers, that I’ve been agonizing over a major decision. To iPhone or not to iPhone, that was my question. I hated being out of touch when traveling, but hated just as much the thought of my e-mail dogging me relentlessly throughout the day. I also worried that, nearly alone among all the people I know, as a non-smart-phone user, I was looking, and actually being, slightly behind the curve. 

A poetry reading isn’t usually the place for technological insights, but here’s my story: last Wednesday I went to a terrific reading--in fact, the first of two very fine readings I heard that night. This one was by Louise Gluck and Katie Peterson. Louise Gluck needs no recommendation from me, but she was beautiful in word and presence, reading from a book due out next fall which I will spend the intervening months eagerly awaiting. I was only slightly familiar with Katie Peterson’s work, but liked what I knew and am now a huge admirer. I got to hear both of them read, though then had to miss the Q&A to rush to the book launch of Denise Bergman’s “The Telling.” 

None of this has anything to do with cell phones.

What does, though, is that a lovely woman in a red coat, many years my junior, took the empty seat next to me and happened to take out her phone as we were waiting for the program to begin. And to my surprise and gratitude, the phone owned by this young and au courant-looking person apeared to be a cousin of mine, complete with slide-out keyboard. When I commented on it, she said something about not wanting too many intrusions on her time. Exactly, I thought.

So I came to a two-fold recognition, that I do want to protect my time and that I’m not alone in this. I decided that the answer for me was to keep my less-than-smart phone and get an iPad for when I’m traveling. And that is exactly what I did--I got an iPad Mini, very cute, with a bright blue cover and plenty of promise as a traveling companion. And, say what you will, my chunky intrepid little phone with the slide-out keyboard, continues to be just what I need. 

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Thanksgiving and "The Goldfinch"--savoring last morsels

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Leftover stuffing is the best part.  I like all the orange vegetables, too, but my favorite is the stuffing, even better the day after, even cold. And as I was eating my last crumbs of stuffing I was reading the last 20 or so pages of “The Goldfinch” and thinking of how sweet the final bits can be.

The book, though nearly 800 pages long, seemed to go by almost too quickly. I tried to slow down, but even at this heft,  it was hard to put down. (Little digression:  I had thought I would prefer to read it on my Kindle, but I got the hard copy as a gift and found its wonderfully smooth pages a reminder of the tactile pleasure of holding a book.)

All the reviews seem to reference Dickens, but I thought, rather, of the Brothers Grimm and all those folk tales of unparented children befriended by kindly old dwellers in odd houses. The book is filled with loss endured to the point of unendurability (even the apartment building?? really?) and a foray into a dizzy guns-and-vomit-punctuated chase that I found only barely tolerable. Yet I did not want it to end. And so I lingered over the last 20 pages, which may be among the most astounding and substantive and satisfying pages I have read in a long time. Maybe ever.

Those pages are a meditation on art, on how a single thing beyond ourselves--a “fateful object--a painting, a city, a color, a sound--may have as its grandest purpose not to entice crowds but rather to whisper in the ear of a single person and fill that one soul and be a balm against life’s guaranteed cruelties. This, the book tells us, is art’s magic.

I may be wrong about this. I’ve been known to be wrong in the past and it’s possible I may be wrong again in the future. I have read only one review mentioning this. But then again, I may not be wrong. Maybe Donna Tartt is telling us that in the face of uncaring Nature where “life is catastrophe” and “there is no way forward but age and way out but death,” our only defense is to grab hold of something that elevates us, that suffuses our hearts with glimpses of the possible and strengthens our resolve to immerse ourselves in our inexplicable lives. 

In those final pages Theo, the book’s main character, muses that life is short and fate is “cruel but maybe not random. Nature and Death always win, but we don’t have to bow to it.” We can, he says, go forward with our minds and hearts open; "it is a glory and privilege to love what Death does not touch.”

And so it took me days to read the last 20 pages. I savored every word. Like last crumbs of Thanksgiving stuffing, which doesn't come around so often.

(When a book gets such uniformly high praise, it’s tempting to approach it cynically and pick for flaws. It couldn’t be that good, could it?  Well, what did you think? )

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It's about time

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

I am the only person I know without an iPhone.  Startling, I know. No instant access to e-mail.  No games, though I’m quick to grab Dr. D.’s iPad for a quick round or two of the latest word game we’re playing. No GPS when I’m not in my car. No way to look up nearby restaurants when I’m out and about or find out what time the store/museum/library opens.

What I do have is exactly what I wanted--a perfectly reliable phone, with a perfectly ok camera, and--the thing I really like--a real keyboard. One that’s not on a screen. One with tiny keys that my fingers hit reliably and with no prompting by a chip that thinks it knows what word I’m typing. To paraphrase one of my poems, I’m fine. Though if you’ve ever heard or read that poem, “Before I Met Him,” you know how that turned out. 

But now I’m at a crossroads. In a few short weeks my not-smarter-than-me phone will be at the two-year mark. It would be a logical time to move up (?) over (?) to the iPhone. But here’s my worry: can I have an iPhone and also an “I”? 

Back in July, 2010 I blogged about trying to wrest control of my time from the devices we didn’t have just a few years ago that now seem to have us.  I wrote about how I am very susceptible to the siren call of the ping, the plink, the little indicator that the outside world wants to make contact with me. Yes? Hello? How will I resist when I have it with me all the time?

What I’m thinking about--what I frequently think about--is my time, how I use it or squander it.  I’m worried I won’t be up to the challenge of protecting it. We talk about “spending” our time and that usage says more than we usually think about. What else do we own? This is the commodity we live with and it’s finite, although, unlike other things we “spend,” we don’t always know when we’re running out. 

Of course it’s not the iPhone’s fault that it’s a time sink. We’re supposedly in control, though there’s evidence to the contrary. Writers usually need no major temptations. When we’re faced with an empty page or a blank screen, plants call out for water loudly enough to pull us away. And having so many temptations in the palm of my hand feels risky. So...should I do it?

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