Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Of the Byzantine, two items

Two items from this morning's NYTimes:
An article on Lars Brownworth, who teaches at the Stony Brook School, and has a podcast on the Byzantine Emperors called 12 Byzantine Rulers. I applaud the the very idea (anything about Byzantium is good for people who think multiculturalism, globalism, and its conflicts and influence began in the twentieth century), and also the fact that the podcast seems to have brought the uber-snooty to their knees: "While listeners address him in their e-mail messages with the respectful honorific 'professor,'" the Times writes, "Mr. Brownworth, in fact holds only a BA from Houghton College in upstate New York. He started teaching at Stony Brook only in 1999..." Emphasis, dear readers (?) is mine. Don't get me wrong; I love the Times; that the lesson afforded by podcasting and other democratizing media is worthy of note by them is both ironic and important: intellect will out, and it is still present in the population at large. Houghton must be crowing right now. That, and a teacher's life from 1999-2007 really must be reckoned in dog-years.

Then there was this, which I quote in its entirety, in the World Briefing section:

President Fidel Castro was shown on state television for the first time in three months, standing with President Hugo Chavez at a two hour meeting said to have taken place in Havana on Monday. Mr. Castro, 80, looked stronger but still frail in the images. He dropped from public view six months ago after undergoing emergency surgery for intestinal bleeding and was last seen in an Oct. 28 video clip looking very frail and walking with difficulty. His illness is a state secret.

State secrets not being what they were in Byzantium, clearly.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Snow Today

Tandem hodie erat nix. Nives non tam altiores erant, sed satis celebrandis causae. Prima luce omnes arbores, omnem terram texit nix, et, eheu, quoque meum vehiculum et vias. Ad mensam adhuc agere mihi necesse erat, et ita per vias ivi. Iter amoenum factum est, formosum ! Nives novae et albae in arboribus pendebant, et tacite et in pace per iter nivosum egi. Laeta eram: nix, "cappucinium," et silentio mundi mihi me restituerunt.

I've just always wanted to do that.If you like the occasional Latin, you'll enjoy this Finnish site, Nuntii Latini, which broadcasts (also for podcast) in Latin once a week. The EU is also considering using Latin as a common language. Now that would be something. The Finns, who happen to hold the EU presidency right now, seem to be spearheading this, very fascinating since their language does not derive from the Romance languages. Since Finnish has something like fourteen noun cases, I'll welcome Latin.
Mirabilis had a reference to all of this sometime back, but this evening, at least, Mirabilis seems to be down/changing shape.

Update on Mirabilis: the author had a brief post, saying that she was switching blog providers and would be back up soon. Sigh of relief.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Which Cat Am I ?

Okay, on a good day this is my inner cat. From the way I answered the questions, I thought I'd end up worse. Whew. I don't do these quizzes too often, but couldn't pass up this one. I was stuck, though, on the last question: as a cat, would I want "a long, sleek body" (the one I chose) or a "long swirly tail (gave me pause). Actually, all of the choices were appealing except "big red nose." What would that make one ? Sylvester ?
Hobbes... Oh, I miss Hobbes. And Calvin, too. I'm happy to be Hobbes (the cat, not the philosopher; Hobbes Feles is not very Hobbesian.) And that's a good thing. Coincidentally, I'm in the middle of playing Randy Newman's Faust and the song of the moment ? "Life Has Been Good to Me."

In fairness to the other species, dogs, that is, and to celebrate the return, in some form, of Bloom County, I give you a link to Berkeley Breathed's "Flawed Dogs" Page, which has a link at the bottom to the "Flawed-Dog-O-Matic." Try it !

And my plea: please consider adopting shelter/rescue pets. There are wonderful animals out there: smart, intelligent, healthy, young and older, who will bring much joy to your life.

Which famous feline are you?

You're Hobbes. First of all, the makers of this quiz would like to congratulate you. You have our seal of approval. You are kind, intelligent, loving, and good-humoredly practical. You're proud of who you are. At the same time, you're tolerant of those who lack your clearsightedness. You're always playful, but never annoying. For these traits, you are well-loved, and with good cause.
Take this quiz!

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Monday, January 22, 2007

How we live now

I found this site, called Normal Room on the Commonplace Book blog (see sidebar). This is really enjoyable and interesting site: people who are just people and not interior designers (the "normal" of the site's name)are invited to upload photos of their homes, no matter their condition or location. The site comes out of Finland,but there are shots from all over, from Sweden to Cyprus. So far, as might be predicted, people who like what they have have posted shots, though a few people have braved it and shown rather primitive bathrooms, flaking ceilings, etc. The point of the site, as noted on its homepage, is to let others see how people decorate around the world (so it has no overtly political purpose). What has so far been pleasing about it to me is that it really does seem to have attracted typical folks from all walks of life: students who have photographed their study space, young singles who have uploaded photos of their first places, as well as some elaborate and beautiful places as well.

This is an idea with much potential, and I hope it catches on in more countries. In hopes that it will, and that people can share their living conditions and ideas of beauty and comfort, here it is, on my low-traffic blog.

It reminds one, humbly, how a plant in a sunny window can make a person more "house proud" (I mean that in a good sense) than many rooms of furniture.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Hey Sailor, What Ship ?

Or Requiescas in Pacem, Tillie Olsen.

After I read the obituaries last week, the first time I read "As I Stand Here Ironing" came back to me so vividly. There are no interesting circumstances surrounding the first time I encountered Olsen's work; instead, I remember the power of the narrative itself, so distinctive a voice, such dignity and fatigue embued in the simple task of ironing. "Hey Sailor...", as refrain and story, has haunted my own skull, on and off, when the time is right, for years. Read John Leonard's "In Praise of Tillie Olsen" from The Nation. Maybe he is a little younger or a little older than I am, or was more sheltered, as his own account would predict. I knew about black people and poverty,and alcoholism and silence too, but I had never encountered a voice that so eloquently spoke of the human condition stripped of its eloquence. She put into words what my child's eyes had seen. She knew, and that was my surprise. I didn't know about leftists and working class movements (though I would soon learn) when I first read the stories. It was the sense of revelation, not that she knew what I had lived, because I hadn't lived those things, but that the world was like that, and someone saw that, could tell it others. There is a depth of soul there that one does not find, say, in Raymond Carver; though I admire his stories and think they owe much to Olsen, there is a cadence to reality in Olsen that is missing from Carver. It's the cadence of hope, I'd venture, of the characters' sense of themselves as fully human nonetheless, whereas Carver's despair derives from, oftentimes, the characters' self-perceived smallness, or worse, I have sometimes suspected, from Carver's association of economic brutality with brutishness and some desire to portray its emergence.

Tired tonight. I had a three day weekend, and gray and rainy though it has been, it was wonderful. I had a streak of ambition on the housekeeping front, perhaps stemming from my rescue of those pairs of shoes, perhaps because some energy and creativity is really coming back to me (not that these are exclusive. I overhauled ---or hauled out--- the master bedroom closet, folding sheets and sweaters into organizer boxes, neopolitan pinstrip fabric ones, with little windows for viewing the contents, and binning handbags, gloves, and scarves. Oh, and the obligatory hanging shoe storage, of course. The goal was ostensibly the obvious: to be able to find stuff, not trip over shoes and other articles on the floor of the closet, to make room for the Christmas stuff, which now must be restowed, and keep falling onto my head for the better part of a year. The real motive, need, the one that probably had me avoiding the whole de-cluttering activity, was that I had some folders, even a few tote bags, that contained papers from my previous life; some just thrown in during the last minute move, receipts, old mail, even grocery lists, others, though, were loaded: either documents or letters that open the whole all up again, some needing keeping, and others just waiting for the shredder. Mission accomplished, I am happy to say. That, and finding needed items in the morning was becoming the equivalent of negotiating an avalanche at an ice skating rink. The old cats' ashes are perched up there on the shelf, but those I left in place. I need to know where they are, so they are in a spot with other precious mementos. I love my young cats, but I miss you, old girls.

Speaking of, the cats had a high time with all of this activity, the revelation of the forbidden zone (they are banned from the closets), and, in spite of NO SNOW YET, an evening of cookie baking (ginger snaps). Half of these to be mailed off to a friend in the midwest, who is, indeed, knee deep in it, and who will have to slither to work tomorrow and the next several days. As usual, up too late when I shouldn't be. But the house smells good, much of it is clean, and hey, a cold front is coming in. And so, this post's image is clearly not a shoe, but an incredible motivation for getting out of bed in the morning (five is going to be really hard tomorrow): there will be coffee posts on this blog. While in line at the nearest (I wouldn't call it local) Starbucks, this special roast, Casi Cielo, was sitting on the rack out in the middle. The aroma was overwhelming, and I wondered if it would make a good cappucino. I must have done more than wonder, because I bought a pound. I like a dry cappucino (foam and espresso only), so it might be dilute if you add a lot of milk, but, O, the flavor ! Perfect with fruitcake, or with the Times in the morning, and, one hopes, perfect for the 5:00 am dose of reality replete with wide-awake cats perched on the counter ledge, preening and craning their noses toward the steamed milk. 'Night, All.

Sunday, January 07, 2007


This is going to be such a prosaic post for such a wonderful day. Three Kings Day, La fete des Rois. Never mind that yesterday was the real day--- the twelve days of Christmas, done. Maybe that is why my energy suddenly dropped off late this afternoon. I did not make it to church this morning (I miss my old one and get rather homesick when in the one here, but truth be told, I have fallen out of the habit, and have taken Sunday morning for myself: quietude, cats in the sun, NY Times on my lap), but Advent through Epiphany is my favorite time of the year. No galette, either, since we still have the fruitcake and it came out exceptionally well. I chopped the apricots and figs for a new one to be made tomorrow afternoon. My mother came over yesterday and we ran some errands and had lovely late afternoon with tea and large hunks of fruitckae.
I am keeping the Sportos, pictured. I trekked out to Marshall's to revisit the boot that started me on Sportos in the first place (a style from last year, the Allison, I think. They didn't have it in my size at M's). It was no higher than the Amelia and not as attractive. Settled. I could really do with some snow right now. The shoe thing must be some kind of turn-of-the-year ritual for me. I have set about cleaning the master bedroom closet, and "found" some shoes that just needed sprucing up. Now they are cleaned and polished, sitting in a row. Even my old pair of LaCanadiennes, plain black, just over the ankle snow boots that I bought years ago when I was in New York, heading downtown from the public library when it started to snow unexpectedly. I think I had crossed onto Broadway at that point, and found a shoe store having a January sale. I bought what was available, and had no idea of how good a sale I'd encountered until, with the boots wearing out, I had checked the brand on the label and then looked online for more like them. The sticker shock ! I covet the Tillie's (or Tilly's, I think), but haven't worked up the financial nerve.

Too much NYTimes this weekend, actually. I read a sad story about a woman who lost her husband to a brain tumor and had intimations of my own short time on this earth; between polishing shoes and chopping fruit, I must find a way out of this morass that my career has become. Remember, during the Columbine aftermath, when the kids trapped in the classroom with their dying teacher held up a sign to the window that said "Person Bleeding To Death" ? Metaphorically of course, that sign could be in my window, especially every Sunday night. Then there was the cover article in the magazine, about the baby sitter turned incompetent and possibly murderous nurse (no parallel there, thank goodness). It kept rattling around in my head that the author took note that the babysitter, her former babysitter, always found someone else at fault for what happened to her. The very thought led to too much introspection on my part. What if really bad things have happened ? What if people really have, for their own psychological reasons, perpetrated bad acts upon one, caused damage that one did not incur? The article walks a fine line (the babysitter-nurse, as it turns out, was a victim of incest, which "explained" why she was the way she was, which was someone so incompetent and unsure that she could not admit she was wrong, ever). None of her story sounds like mine, not in the least. It is that a story so distant in every way from mine opened up the whole thing again, the aching question of one's own potential complicity in a fairly catastrophic event, or series of events. The fact that our society is quick to find fault with the person who suffers, too shallowly Freudian to face up to the fact that on an everyday scale, a civil and humane scale, people can be quite uncivil and lacking in humanity. The inhumane we apparently have no problem comprehending, or are so bombarded by it that we cannot associate it with ourselves, as in the dim feeling that many people treat the Iraq War as something apart from themselves and their daily lives. A reality tv event, survivor on a grand scale. The other extreme, finding fault with the sufferer, I have seen only to well years ago when the AIDS crisis hit: why were some sick and others not ? Were you thinking positively (a great irony of word choice there)? I've seen this with cancer patients as well, people with even good intentions implying that attitude, strength of faith, secretly desiring to get well/die were causing things to turn out the way they were going. I understand it: we all want to think if we do things right, we will be spared. Perhaps what I felt from the author of the NYTimes article was her own anxiety not about how she could have hired such a person, but about what she shared with her and could not acknowledge: a vulnerability to other people's secrets, a realization that she was laid open to more complex and perhaps darker motives than she had expected.

I wish I could wrap this up neatly, find my way back to the Three Kings, the presents for the saviour-child. Perhaps it is enough to look around at this end of the season, see fine shoes waiting for my feet to fill them, cat pressed against my side, soft lamplight, chopped fruit in a bowl, the house warm, the rain outside.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Fruitcake, Part II; Shoes Again

All week long I've not been able to get myself to bed for a long sleep: the first few nights I simply stayed up too late, but these last two nights I've fallen into a sleep on the couch, then had to pull myself awake and get properly to bed.I couldn't wait for Friday, and now am home and happily settled in for the weekend. Friday, and I'm very tired. Not in a state of near-coma exhaustion, but close. I should be in bed now, but fortified with a good dinner and the New Year's fruitcake, I'm trying to have a bit of an evening here.
I found a large box at my door when I came home; my online shopping treasures had arrived. A side lesson: I took the free ground shipping from these companies and both packages have arrived within a week. Good to know. The snowboots are lovely, but, alas, shorter than I'd thought (I think the given shaft measurement was off). Before deciding to send back or keep, I'll go out to the local Marshall's and see if there is another style to be had that appeals more. They're Sporto Amelias in black, and have much to recommend them: they were comfy right out of the box, and are awfully good-looking. One step into a snow drift, though, and you'd risk snow tumbling in over the top. Not that this is an immediate worry with the globally warmed winter (I use that term traditionally and loosely) we've been having. The ankle boots from Coldwater Creek, are, I think, going back. I risked a three-inch heel, but that's not the problem. The boot is tight on the sides of my right foot, and I don't really cotton up to the concept of "breaking in" a shoe. I wore them for an hour to see how they'd feel and couldn't feel my right foot after half an hour. Feeling returned, but I'm happier now that they're off. Too bad, because they have a nice look.

Here we go. Fruitcake and Baking
(Instructions for preparing the dried fruit and candied ginger, orange or lemon peel are in the previous post below. Since they have to soak up the Cointreau, please read and prepare fruit before making the batter.)

Ingredients for the batter:
3 cups all-purpose flour and more for dusting
1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt (you need salt to help with rising; you can lessen to 1/4 tsp, but don't skip it)
8 ounces (2 sticks) of unsalted butter, melted (no substitutions)
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
4 large eggs
2 tablespoons dark unsulfured molasses (Martha warns: "not blackstrap")
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract (Yes. You read that right. A tablespoon)
1 cup sweetened flaked coconut
[The original recipe calls for 1 cup chopped toasted walnuts, but since I can't eat them, they're not in my version]

Pan: Use either a 7x3 or 9x2 inch pan. The smaller pan means longer cooking. I use a 9x2 springform pan, which makes getting the fruitcake out very easy. Martha suggests coating the pan with cooking spray and lining with parchment paper, then spraying and flouring the lining. I have never done this, and have just buttered the pan and dusted with flour. My fruitcake browns fast, and this may be why. Martha's method may be best if you don't have a springform pan.


Whisk together flour, baking powder, spices and salt in a medium bowl and set aside.
Put butter and sugars in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle; mix on medium speed until smooth. [I confess that I do not know if a "paddle" is different from the beater that came with my Kitchen Aid.] Mix in eggs, one at a time, molasses and vanilla. Gradually add flour mixture; mix until smooth. Mix in fruit and coconut, (and if you're adding them, nuts). The batter gets very heavy and sticky at this point. If you're using a handmixer, you may smell the motor burning...

Pour batter into pan. Bake until a cake tester comes out clean, about two and a half hours for a 9x2 inch cake or two and three quarters hours for a 7x3 inch cake. [In my experience, it is wise to check for browning; after the first hour or so, I put a loose piece of aluminum foil over the top.]

Remove cake from oven; if desired, brush with up to 1/2 cup of Cointreau (I used 1/4). Unmold cake, let cool. Store, wrapped in plastic, at room temperature for up to three days or in the refridgerator up to one month.

You can cut the cake when it is warm or slightly warm, and it is a delight, but it will be crumbly. We enjoyed it this way on New Year's Day, when it had come out of the oven three or four hours before we had dessert. After some fridge or settling time, it is easier to cut.

Well, it is almost eleven. One of the cats is sleeping in the rather large Coldwater creek box, and my eyes are starting to close as well. Good night all.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007


God bless our food, God bless our drink; and keep our homes and ourselves in your embrace, O God.

Fresh fruitcake used to be an oxymoron to me until I found this recipe and a new New Year's Day tradition was begun. I love the symbolism of the dried fruit, the preserved riches of a warmer season, revived within this spirited (pun intended) cake full of the riches of a winter kitchen's pantry: molasses, cloves, ginger, brown sugar, cinnamon. Our new tradition of New Year's Day Fruitcake, begun 1 January, 2005, is a celebration of life and health, with a wish that these most basic and important blessings thrive in the new year.

It's from a Martha Stuart magazine, December 2004, and not, as far as I have been able to tell, archived on the website. I have adapted some of the dried fruits to my own taste, but otherwise, it is essentially as printed there. I have editorialized as well.

Tonight, the fruit part:

1 cup dried figs, chopped
1 cup golden raisins
1 cup dried apricots, chopped
1/2-1/4 cup dried cranberries*
1/2-1/14 cup dried cherries*
1/2 cup of candied ginger, chopped
1/4 cup of candied orange peel, chopped(I used candied lemon peel this year, to good effect)
1/2 cup of Cointreau (orange-flavored liqueur; costly, worth it, no substitutions)

Stir together the dried fruit, candied ginger, peels in a small-medium size bowl. Douse with the full 1/2 cup of Cointreau, and stir to mix. The alcohol makes the fruit less sticky on the surface and easier to blend. I use a pretty ceramic bowl, and cover it with a snug fitting plate as a lid (rim fits the bowl rim). You can use plastic wrap. Let sit at least three hours or overnight. And we'll leave it to do so for this evening. *The original recipe does not include dried cherries or cranberries, but called for 1 cup of dried pears, chopped.

Monday, January 01, 2007

These Feet

The kitchen is a wreck right now: evidence of a New Year's Day well spent, cooking then dining with my mother and her companion (he is eighty this year), football humming pleasantly in the background while the fruitcake, and then the ham and side dishes cooked on the stove and in the oven. Taking the lid off of the chopped dried fruits one has soaked for hours in Cointreau: an exhuberant smell, nostril clearing, heady. Nibbling at the alcoholic fruit along with one's morning cappucino while proceeding with the recipe: shameless. A peerless sense of warmth and well-being.

I can see I shall be going to bed late, waking early for the return to work, and the kitchen stands a very good chance of remaining in shambles as I attempt to avoid tomorrow by avoiding going to bed.

Feet: I have done this two years in a row now on my Christmas vacation: I have become taken with shoe shopping, or shoe window shopping. I am not Imelda. I tend to find one pair of graceful and comfortable shoes (Liz Claiborne Flex Lynx has been the one), buy several pairs, wear only this shoe and neglect all others in the closet unless I'm in flats for the weekend, slip-ons for biking, etc. I have slippers that I do not wear and go barefoot in my own house. I do not have trouble with my feet, pedicure my feet, or any such special allowance. What I do not do is go to Zappos and click through the entire inventory; instead I start out looking for something reasonable, say a new pair of Lynxes, but end up following out links, and not very shoe-fetish titillating ones either: Land's End, Clarks, Ecco. It dawns on me that, say, it might snow, and I then would need some snow boots (LaCanadienne Tillie's, but I have not yet purchased them), or I find a deal, say the polartec boots at Land's End, and then go looking for other deals. So far boots are ahead, whereas shoes of various styles took the lead last year. I have, or will have, when the orders come through, ankle boots, sort of snow boots, and dress boots. Perhaps I simply have all the clothes I need and am focusing on something where variety could do some good (?).
No remaking of the self here in a conscious way, but I do recall that I used to have dreams in which my feet figured prominently, though shoe buying or wearing did not.
Maybe it is simply easy, all this passive and mostly virtual window-shopping (the purchases, save one, were made in person). Besides the Tillies already mentioned, I also covet what looks like a perfect pair of dress pumps made by Ecco. I apologize for all this brand-dropping. When I get a shoe I like, I will wear it until I kill it. I will buy one after another until the company stops making them. My last Lynxes have a frayed hole near the sole (irreparable), so I shall be forced to choose from among my collection of "occasionals" tomorrow.

Tomorrow is sure to be bothersome, isn't it ? Messy kitchen (too late to clean it now), not enough sleep (too late to even rush to the bed now), not my usual dress shoes. Or will I, in my certain fatigue to come, find evidence of life welling on the surface? Will it carry me through the day ? How shall I stand ?

Oh.I have had the sound off on the television. On Jay Leno, a balding largish man in yellow swimtrunks is holding his nose underwater in a bathtub. Clearly time for bed.

When New Time Folds Up

This post's title courtesy of a book of poems by that name by Kathleen Fraser. I had the privilege of meeting the poet once, when I was in my twenties and living in Oregon. She had come to where I was working and had given a reading, and I remember getting slightly lost, but finally finding, the house-on-a-hill-in-the-rain where she was staying, with a sister or cousin, I think. All by way of saying that, at the time, I found the title of the collection abstract. My mind kept seeing Brancusi's Bird in Flight, but I could not imagine, outside of that image conjuring itself, what it meant. I was so young.

Now, a few minutes before the New Year officially comes into being, here I am: I have pondered that phrase since at least March Nineteenth, when I started a post of ths same title and hung it up out of fatigue. When new time folds up: I have deliberately not looked at the poems, which I still have, autographed and slightly brittled. How absurdly unabstract, I now think in my forties. New time, once so infinite, once so renewable, moves faster now; the years fold in upon themselves, curiously more moebic (as in moebius strip) than the linearity of the journey stretched before one. Coincidentally, at The Cassandra Pages , Cassandra writes that blogging seems a youthful mode of activity, the feeling of all possibilities open; time, as she puts it, as her younger self experienced it: that she used to sew, knit, cook, etc., and, as she writes, "when I turned forty I decided time was up, that I'd better concentrate on something." Exactly, O Prophetess. (Hmmm... my neighbors are cheering early. The ball is dropping.)

Perhaps we do simply grow more tired, need longer to feel still, to create. Happy New Year, All. New Year's Day is really the day I savor: time has no folds, dinner cooks all day, a warm house with guests begins the year. A day out of time to rest easy in as I, as we, all plunge ahead. I, too, have a book coming out (much more technical than Cassandra's, to be sure) that will mark, I hope, some kind of turning point, whereafter I shall not have to write that my legs are tired, my chest tight, my spirit discouraged, and ambition unfulfilled, as I feared I would keep chanting if I kept writing this blog last year.

How do we do the dishes, do our jobs, read good books, have time to write ? I leave you tonight in the new year, my dishes undone, the fruit for tomorrow's fruitcake not yet soaking in its bath of Cointreau; the cats are asleep, the revelers are still cheering; time yet to fill the dishwasher, chop the fruit, and begin again.