Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Pope Weighs in on My Marriage

When the Pope visited Vienna in 2007, I was excited to join the crowd of 20,000 who gathered in the rain outside Stephansdom Cathedral to watch the Mass on gigantic television screens. I even bought a souvenir, a little Pope flag. I'm not sure why. I'm not Catholic; indeed, although my true-love Frink once considered becoming a priest and his family are devout believers, I can't help feeling a certain antipathy for the church.

And yet, I derive pleasure, and sometimes even peace and joy, standing in a cathedral, absorbing through its cold marble walls and floors the solemn echoes of ritual and time. There is s
omething beautiful and enviable in pure belief.

As I stood outside Stephansdom that day, I felt richer somehow -- richer for sharing the pomp and cer
emony, richer for seeing the beautiful, shining smiles of joy on the faces of five nuns from the Phillipines who stood near me in the crowd. People were waving yellow & white flags, yellow handkerchiefs, and a few red and white Austrian flags. Yellow umbrellas here and there indicated priests who were moving through the sea of people giving communion. (It’s a good thing it had stopped raining; I might have had an awkward moment or two, since the umbrella I carried was that precise shade of yellow.) After the mass, the Pope came out and addressed the crowd. His message, in German, was largely lost on me, although I read later that he encouraged people to have more babies and to respect the Sabbath.

The crowd was surprisingly quiet. I didn’t hear a single cell phone ring or anyone speaking much above a whisper, except for one guy with a shaved head and tight blue and white checkered pants. Waving his souvenir flag, he commented loudly to the woman beside him, which elicited many frowns.(A few days before the Papal Mass, I toured Stephansdom. We were inside the gated area in the nave when I noticed a little mustached, Italian man crawling under the ropes that separate the general tourists from those who have paid for a guided tour. He rushed up to a young guy in our group, gesturing and saying something rapidly in a muted hiss as he snatched the black cap from the young man's head. The tour guide, a cherubic-faced fellow, placidly ignored this and kept talking about the lizards and frogs carved along the balustrade of the pulpit).

The press reports that people in Austria have become “apathetic and hostile” to the church, due to recent scandals and a heavy church tax, but from where I stood, I couldn’t see much indication of that. And yet, I understand that perspective all too well.

I bridle against the church's prejudice against women, the certainty that people who share my gender are lesser beings, unfit for the priesthood. I find it hard to ignore the weight of history, from the Crusades to sex scandals involving children. And the sheer wealth of the church is disturbing. I'll never forget standing before an altar of solid gold in a barrio in Mexico City, where just outside children in rags begged in front of tin and cardboard hovels.

And then there is the fact that my own marriage was annulled by the Catholic Church.

We weren't even Catholic, my ex-husband and I. And yet, one day, six or seven years after our divorce, a letter arrived from my ex, telling me that he had become Catholic and was having our marriage annulled. A few weeks later, I received a letter -- all officious with burgundy logos and seals--from the Archdiocese announcing that it was conducting a Tribunal. After taking evidence and testimony from those who deemed themselves qualified to dissect our marriage, it would make its ruling. I declined to participate, save for writing one short paragraph summarizing the reasons for our divorce.

That tribunal, and the inevitable annulment that resulted, was the ultimate betrayal in a marriage rife with lies and deception. To fully understand why, I have to take you back to to the last months of my 25-year marriage. After five miscarriages, I was pregnant again.

By this time, I had learned to wait until the fourth month to tell my family I was expecting again. When I shared the news, my mother sent me a pile of hand-made receiving blankets, decorated with tiny rose buds in blues and yellows. I began turning our guest room into a nursery and sounding out names. A boy would be Michael. A girl (which I longed for), would be named Annie. One day, as we were walking to the car, I shared this name with my ex (who shall be known here as Matt). His response -- an abrupt snap of the head, a piercing look, a mumbled "it sounds childish" -- seemed odd.

I soon learned why. Matt was having an affair with a nurse at work. By cruel coincidence, her name was Annie. And she, too, was pregnant with Matt’s child.

To this day I cannot utter the woman’s name. (In my house, she is known as “The Slut.”) Nor can I remember the exact sequence of events: how far along I was when I learned the news, how long after this I lost my baby. Some scenes, however, are crisp and clear: Matt choking out the words. Me rocking back and forth, sobbing hysterically, hurling questions and accusations. How could a doctor, a doctor of all people, be so careless, so stupid? Matt falling do
wn the stairs, his face a torment as he tried to escape my devastated wrath. Sitting in my OB’s office, cheerfully telling him that this time my baby was going to make it, only to see by his grave expression that I was wrong. Lying on a table as the ultrasound wand pressed into the gel on my belly, the machine beeping and clicking, Matt making the sounds and expressions of a caring husband at my side. Throwing the flannel receiving blankets my mother had made in a garbage bag and shoving them in the back of a closet. Praying that The Slut would lose her baby, too.

Matt said he was not in love with the woman and wanted to save our marriage. Early in our separation, Matt would visit me, the baby seat in his car a cruel reminder of the child that we – that I – would never have. Finally, I stopped seeing him. I needed time alone, to think, to feel my own emotions without having to deal with his. I soon realized that I would never be able to accept this child and his mother into my life. We divorced, and not long after, Matt married the mother of his child.

I won't lie and say it was easy, but after long years in Al-Anon and the hard work of honest self-assessment, I had come to terms with Matt's betrayal -- had even grown grateful to the woman who rescued me from a disastrous, unhappy marriage that I had been too loyal or too frightened to end. Then, out of the blue, that Pronouncement from the Tribunal landed with a slap on my counter. I had been annulled. The Slut's marriage to Matt was now sanctified, now bore the official imprimatur of the Church. And mine had been annulled. The irony was breath-taking.

So I hope that you will understand my mixed emotions when I look at my little Pope flag or visit a cathedral. It's all there -- the awe and the anger, the envy of pure belief and the disdain for officious hypocrisy.

And I hope you will forgive the little taste of schadenfreude I felt when I learned that Matt and The Slut are now divorced and engaged in an ugly court battle. I wonder what it will cost to get this one annulled?
Read more!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Angry Fox, Happy Monkeys

A short post today...no long essays of loss or longing. Instead, a couple of wonderful, whimsical works of art. I don't know much about them...I inherited them from my Great Aunt and Uncle, who traveled the world in the '50s and '60s. (If you can shed any light on the artists, I would be grateful! But in any case, I hope they bring a smile to your face, too!)

I call this charcoal painting "Monkey Joy." The label on the back reads "Lanka Framing Works, No. 113. Galle Road, Bambalapitiya." I've never heard of Bambalapitiya, but a quick web search shows that it's on the coast not far from Columbo, Sri Lanka. And Google Maps shows that the shop is (was?) across the street from Holy Family Convent. (As someone who remembers the old days of laboriously doing research in dusty 25-volume encyclopedias, it is nothing short of magic that I can be sitting here in the Midwest, see a label on the back of a picture, and 30 seconds later be looking at a satellite photo of that precise location half a world away!)

I love the grumpy expression this fox is sporting, and the simple lines suggesting rocks and bushes. This watercolor on parchment is signed by "Inikumo, who was a Japanese artist who seems to have worked mostly in woodblocks.

Read more!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Party Grandma

I didn't much like my father’s mother when I was a child. I dubbed her "The Party Grandma," in contrast to my mother's mom, the dimpled and doughy "Grandma Grandma," who wore a hand-made apron and baked pecan pies. The Party Grandma had been a flapper in her youth, sporting bobbed hair and cigarettes, and to her dying day at 81 she liked make-up, music, and martinis. She loved a good joke, and when I picture her, she is laughing. But somehow, in spite of the laughter, something about the Party Grandma made me sad. Her eyes rarely smiled, and even when I was very young, I sensed that her exterior was a lie.

I know little about her life, other than that my grandfather, a heroin addict and drunk, abandoned her when my father was young, and that she had to go to work to support her two children -- a humiliation for an upper-middle-class Southern woman in the 1920s. My Great Aunt Jackie, a stable, thick-ankled, religious woman, more or less raised my dad and his sister while grandma spent her evenings out.

Two of The Party Grandma's visits to our home in Colorado became part of our family lore.

When I was four or five, grandma was leaving after a visit that to my mind had gone on far too long. I was sulking in my bedroom, and when my parents summoned me to come see her off, I marched to the door and shouted “Good bye, Good luck, and Good riddance!" I don’t remember grandma’s reaction, but my mother was highly amused, and after repeated retellings that phrase became a family mantra.

Then there was the time grandma drove into the Safeway on Main Street, which, until she got there, was not a drive-through. I suppose she was getting up in years -- the previous week she had backed into a tree when she had taken us on a picnic. On this particular morning, she was driving my older sister and me to the grocery store. As she pulled up to the curb directly in front of the store, her foot hit the gas pedal instead of the brakes, and we ended up in the frozen food section.
We weren't wearing seatbelts (I’m not even sure they existed then), and my sister, who was in the front seat, broke the windshield with her forehead. I was in the backseat and flipped over it to land in my sister's lap. We weren't hurt, although Molly had a small cut, but grandma was considerably shaken, and she cried for what seemed like days, terrified that my father would decide that she was getting too old to drive. What I remember most, however, is some old boy in a trucker hat surveying the damage. He took a long look at the cracked store window, the crumpled front end, and grandma's license plate. "Yup," he said laconically, "just like a Texan."

Grandma spent her entire life in Texas and Oklahoma. I don’t know when she moved to Odessa, but it must have been after she had remarried. My father had joined the Navy by this time, signing up at 16 by lying about his age, and he never really got to know his half-sister, born when grandma was 44. Grandma's second husband was a low-level oil man, and the family lived in a clapboard house on the edge of town. No Country for Old Men got the look of that flat and dusty West Texas town, with its hammer-shaped pumps and desolate vistas, just about right. Sometimes I wonder if Lillian Lemont was disappointed by her life, whether the no-longer-young woman with the bobbed hair ever looked out at the scraggly trees and the laundry drying in the sulfurous air and dreamed of something better.

I never met grandma's second husband; he had died before I was born. But I do have some rustic, post-card-sized watercolors he bought in Peru in 1918. My grandmother gave them to me when I was visiting her once in Odessa. I was in college, and I was fascinated by old family photographs. We went through them together, and as she told me who the people were, I penciled their names on the backs. But that was all she shared: names, birthdates, a few key places. Like my father, she never talked about the things that really mattered, and she never once mentioned my grandfather. When she died, the bulging envelope of photographs, along with her red '66 Rambler (my first car) came to me. Her two daughters took most of the antiques – the carved ebony chairs and the fine porcelain knickknacks, reminders of a more prosperous time -- which left my father feeling mutely hurt. My father was one of the least acquisitive people I've known, but I think he would have liked to have a few more things that had belonged to his ancestors.

One thing he did carry home from the funeral in Texas was a tall green and gold china vase that had long ago been promised to my mother. My parents were divorced by this time, my father happily remarried, my mother single and bitter. The vase was a focal point of her resentment. It had actually belonged to my great-grandmother, who, following our family's tradition, had willed it to my mother by writing her name on a piece of masking tape stuck to the bottom. But instead of giving it to mom, my grandmother kept the vase after her own mother passed away. It sat in a prized place on her mantle, making her living room a bit less shabby and my mother absolutely livid.

My mother had never liked her mother-in-law. One of her favorite resentments was how grandma had tricked her into spoiling dad's favorite meal. Dad loved beef stroganoff, and as a young newlywed, mom asked her mother-in-law for her recipe. Grandma complied, but she craftily altered a key ingredient, substituting water for milk. In this way, she insured that mom's beef stroganoff could never compete with her own. The vase only added fuel to the flame. And when mom learned that dad—and thus, his second wife Betty—had taken possession of the coveted vase, she seethed with indignant anger.

This green vase, my dad's new wife, and Grandma were all tangled together in my mother's mind. Mom never felt accepted by dad's family; even as I child, I could see that she was an outsider when grandma and dad's sister were around. The three of them shared the same sense of humor and bon vivant good times, and my mother was always on the periphery of their laughter. And, after she and dad separated, mom was hurt and humiliated when dad took Betty to Texas to meet his mother, even before telling his own wife that he was seeing another woman. Mom simply could not tolerate the idea that Betty now owned her vase, and for years almost every time I saw or spoke to my mother, that prized piece of porcelain inevitably found its way into the conversation.

Finally, whether to bring peace to the family or to save myself from listening to her complaints, I asked dad for the vase. I drove to his house, in a town a few hours away, wrapped it in an old towel, and took it to my mother. Although it clashed with her décor, she put it in prominent spot on her mantel, where it sat until the day she died.

And, just as my father did after his mother died, when mom succumbed to cancer, I returned home with that green vase in my arms. It doesn’t go with anything I own, but I will always keep it, a gilded symbol of the complex dynamics that make a family. Read more!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Caveat Emptor: Four Commandments of Consumption

Dear Readers: The theme of this blog is things--things that tell a story about life, relationships, society, culture. Things that are in some way significant, beautiful, historical, necessary, or useful. But the fact is, some things are just things. (Or, as George Carlin would say, “stuff.”) And some stuff is, quite simply, annoying. This is a rant about annoying stuff. If rants aren't your cup of tea, I hope you'll scroll down and check out some earlier posts. :-)

A week or so ago I got a new frying pan. Our old one, a copper-bottomed pan that belonged to my mother, had become warped and didn’t cook evenly.(I have a theory that there are two kinds of people: the Matching Pan People--who refer to it as "cookware"-- and the rest of us. We are proud to be among the Unmatched Pan People.)

So anyway, I bring the new pan home, remove the cardboard covering, and peel off the label, which is taped smack in the middle of the pan. I start washing it so I can make a nice vegg
ie and scallop stir-fry. A full thirty minutes later, after scrubbing with boiling water, soap, a scouring pad, and Comet cleanser, I have finally gotten rid of the sticky residue left from the tape, or at least enough of it that I am fairly certain it won't form a chemical reaction with my ginger sauce and kill us. I fail to notice that the pan also has tape on the bottom, so now it is permanently scorched in.

Which leads to one of the vexing enigmas of modern consumption: Why do stores ruin products by attaching labels that damage the things they are selling? For example, those little T-shaped plastic strips holding price tags on sweaters and socks that pull the threads when you try to remove the last little sharp bit that is always buried in the fabric.

Even more annoying are the deliberately shoddy products, where the manufacturer’s only goal is to get you to buy the item, like a fly-by-night snake-oil salesman who will be in the next county by the time your hair turns green and the diarrhea sets in.

Such companies put all of their effort into marketing. What do they care if the thing falls apart or doesn’t work after you’ve paid for it? How many people will take the trouble to return a $1.99 utensil? Example: We have a pasta spoon that is so heavy on the handle end that if you rest it in a pan or bowl, it flips out, flinging sauce and noodles everywhere.

The most annoying of all are the stealth-crap products, those whose shoddiness doesn’t become apparent until a few days or weeks after you buy them. The pants with the hem that falls out after the first washing, the jackets that lose their buttons, the new shoes that lose a heel when you're walking down a flight of stairs (it happened to me).

Case in point: I bought a silver metal bathroom set that included a soap dispenser (the spigot broke in two weeks), a toilet brush and a toilet paper holder. Now, I may be missing s
omething here, but what is the one purpose of a toilet brush? To scrub the toilet. And what is one thing that is always in a toilet? It doesn't take Helen Keller and Teacher to spell out the answer: W-A-T-E-R. So wouldn’t you think a container designed to hold a dripping toilet brush would be made of stainless steel? No such luck. It is made of a metal that rusted through in just a few months, leaving marks on my floor. (I apologize for this graphic photo. I swear the stains are nothing but rust!) Of course, it has no manufacturer’s mark and I can’t remember which of the ubiquitous box stores sold it, so I can't file a complaint or get a refund. Instead, it is one more piece of trash for a future Wall-E to compact and stack into a massive pyramid of waste.

Such experiences have led me to create the Four Commandments of Consumption:

The First Commandment: Thou Shalt Buy No Crap. I will buy quality things that will last, or I won't buy them at all.

The Second Commandment: When Possible, Thou Shalt Buy Used. It's better for the environment -- no packaging to dispose of and it keeps perfectly useful stuff from ending up in a landfill. Best of all, there are no labels to remove!

The Third Commandment: Thou Shalt Ask 'Can I live without it?' Shopping for shopping's sake seems to be the new national past-time, encouraged by shows like Sex and the City and stores piled with doodads so cheap that we figure, well, why not? But a little item that seems to cost just a dollar has hidden costs, from cluttering the house to clogging landfills.

Which brings me to the Fourth Commandment: (non)-Garbage In, Garbage Out. For each new item that comes into the house (excluding groceries and cleaning supplies), at least one object must go, either in the garage sale, Ebay or charity pile, or in the trash. The result? Equilibrium, Koyanaskatsi, Life in Balance, Less Stuff to Dust.

Do you have any Commandments to add? What is your most frustrating product story? Post them in Comments

Read more!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Lynd Ward: Novels without Words

Lynd Ward (1905-1985) was an artist and illustrator best known for his Depression-era novels told entirely in woodcuts. I first discovered him in the '70s, when I found a second edition of Madman's Drum at a yard sale. The noirish mood of the book instantly appealed to my drama-teen sensibilities, but unlike many of my youthful enthusiasms (Black Sabbath anyone?) my respect for Ward's work has not only held up but grown. I'm enthralled by the Art Deco lettering, by the thick yellow pages, and by the vivid, often disturbing woodcuts, which at times slash and gash across the page like a visual scream.

As a writer who lacks the ability to draw even a convincing stick figure, I am fascinated by the concept of narration without words.
To truly read a Ward novel, to read it well and close, requires no less skill and attention than does reading a masterpiece of the written word.

Ward was America's first graphic novelist, a medium that often doesn't get the respect it deserves. Commenting on Ward's first novel in woodcuts, Gods' Man (1929), one writer notes that "its artistic innovations were unprecedented; its visual structure and pacing owed as much to silent film and mass-circulation comic pages as they did to artistic predecessors like Kollwitz or Honoré Daumier. Wordless novels were political interventions, too, meant to take advantage of what Ward called the 'great asset of the book’s thousandfold duplication of contact with people.' Ward wanted to get art out of stuffy museums and snooty galleries and into the hands of an international community of readers who shared the language of images. From "Silent Beauty," by Christopher Cappozola.

Gods' Man tells the story of the seduction and redemption of a young artist and is said to have inspired Allen Ginsberg's Howl. I found a copy, along with a first edition of Vertigo (1937), when I was in college. And last year, my darling Frink gave me a lovely gift, a framed Ward print. Along with Eric Drooker's Flood! (1992), a graphic novel inspired by his work, that sums up my modest Lynd Ward collection.

Ward wrote six novels in woodcuts in all (10 if you count his wordless picture books for c
hildren): Wild Pilgrimage (1932), Prelude to a Million Years (1933), and Song Without Words (1936). I'm still looking for these, though not with great vigor--I lack the acquisitive obsession of the truly avid collector. He also illustrated children's books, as well as editions of Beowulf and Frankenstein, which I will certainly pick up if I ever come across them. And one of these years, when I can spare the $100-300, I'd like a copy of Storyteller Without Words, a 1972 book that features all of his graphic novels, accompanied by the artist's comments on his work.

If you're as intrigued by his work as I am, here are some links you might find interesting:

This fascinating blog has some excellent reproductions of Ward's woodcuts.
Georgetown University has an exhibit catalogue with illustrations.
A mini-biography of Ward can be found here.
The Graphic Novel, a pre-history features many pages from Ward's books.

This site has Ward prints for sale (but it costs nothing to look at them!)
Read more!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Girl in the Plastic Tent

Everyone who sees my doll shrinks in mock terror. I can understand why. With her pug nose, fixed grin, and spiky orange hair, she does bear a likeness to the maniacal Chucky of horror movie fame. If you picked her up, you might notice a missing arm, a permanent smudge that mars her face, and hair that shows evidence of a child's clumsy scissoring. But when I catch sight of her, I see comfort and companionship, a reminder of two dreamlike days I spent in the hospital when I was six and had my first confusing brush with death.

I can't imagine the anxiety that made my parents decide to leave my two sisters home with dad while my mother, who didn’t drive, took me by bus to the hospital in Denver. Was the medical care inadequate in our small Colorado town? How expensive were those tests, with all the electrodes and brain scans, and how did my parents pay for them? Did they even have health insurance back then? It’s too late now to ask. My mother and father are gone, unable to answer questions I never before thought to ask. All I know is that as a child I suffered from seizures, fainting spells, and temper tantrums that frightened even me, and I had to go to Denver for an EEG, the result of which was ten-plus years on the epilepsy drug Dilantin, which made my gums grow over my teeth and which I’m now not sure I even needed.

The drive to Denver is a hazy blur punctuated with moments of Kodak clarity: sitting in a Greyhound bus on a mountain pass, stalled for hours while road crews cleared tons of snow from an avalanche that had struck the cars in front of us. The mesmerizing glow of Denver’s countless stoplights, new to my small-town eyes. A store with a glass case full of tiny, exquisite ships made of spun sugar. And the distinct memory of standing in the bright aisle of a toy store, my mother waiting as I tried to choose the new doll she had promised I could take to the hospital, where I would be spending two days alone. I wavered between a pretty doll with a beautiful dress and a funny-looking one with an enormous plastic head and orange hair. Of course I chose the latter. I named her Orangeeta, and everything about her made me smile, from her gigantic feet and ears shaped like tea-cup handles to her round little belly with an innie that at some point I colored in with blue ink.

The hospital is another mélange of memory: fluorescent white halls, nurses in crisp white dresses and airplane-shaped caps, an antiseptic room with a pastel quilt that seemed insultingly infantile. For some reason, I had to stay up all night for the EEG that would be performed the next morning. At first it seemed like an adventure. The nurses marched smartly up and down the halls, and they brought endless paper cups of red Kool-aid. But as the night wore on, I became bored. There was nothing to play with except a jigsaw puzzle, and I was outraged by the betrayal of finally finishing it only to discover that it was missing a piece. I wanted desperately to sleep, but every time I dozed off, an impatient nurse shook me awake and gave me more Kool-aid, which quickly changed from a treat to a torment. If I followed the nurses around and asked questions, they became even more impatient. So I talked to Orangeeta and wandered up and down the florescent halls in my robe, scuffing in unfamiliar slippers.

That’s when I saw the girl in the tent.

Down the hall was another room with an open door. Inside, a little girl was lying face-up on a bed, completely enclosed in a clear plastic tent. A gray, tired-looking woman sat in a chair in the corner. The woman told me that the girl in the tent was her granddaughter and that she was having trouble breathing. I padded down to the nurse’s station.

"What’s wrong with that girl,"I asked. "Why is she in a tent? "
"She’s very sick,"was the brisk reply.

I remember the odd feeling of being a little jealous. After all, I wasn’t the least bit sick. I was just there for tests. No one sat up at my bedside all night, as the sad grandmother did. I went back down the hall and sat with her. I don't remember what we talked about – I seem to recall that she was also from out of town and had come on a bus, but I might be imagining that, conflating her story with my own. I do remember liking and trusting the old woman, who was kind and soft and wore a cotton dress with pale flowers, like the ones my own grandma wore.

The next day, I was taken for my tests. I was fascinated by the electrodes placed on my head and by the squiggly lines that printed out on a big roll of paper. But I was also achingly tired. Finally it was over I was allowed to crawl into bed and sleep.
When I woke up, the hospital was very quiet. I walked down the hall to visit the grandma. As I approached room, a nurse grabbed me by the arm and spun me away, whispering that the little girl had died. I was stunned with the thrilling enormity of this information, with the exquisite sadness. Suddenly I was no longer jealous of the little girl in the tent.

I sat in my bed and hugged Orangeeta, waiting for my mother to come and take me home.

(Check back later for a story about how Orangeeta is connected to my parents' divorce.)

Read more!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Splurging on My Own Jewelry: An Un-Valentine's Day Tale

When I got this necklace, it was the most expensive piece of jewelry I had ever bought for myself. It cost $80. I was living in Boulder with my then-husband, who was in grad school. My work as a freelance writer barely kept us afloat. But when I saw this necklace in a bohemian, second-hand dress shop, it seemed made just for me. I loved the shimmery copper and the depth of the green and turquoise beads, which are set inside a layer of clear glass. Every time I passed the store, I went in to look at the necklace, anxious that it would be gone. Finally, I bought it. My husband (who, aside from my wedding ring, gave me only two pieces of jewelry during our 25 years together -- a ring when we were 16 and some pretty calla lily earrings for an anniversary) was angry. But I didn't care. And it turns out I was right. The necklace has given me more joy than my husband ever did, and while he is gone from my life, the necklace remains.

Even though I can now afford it, I seldom spend much on clothes or jewelry. My most extravagant splurge ever was on these gold earrings, which I found in Athens when I was working in Europe last year. They cost $600, and when I plunked down my Euros and wore them out of the shop, feeling elegant and happy, I didn't have to answer to anyone.

PS -- Frink just read this post. His response? "You spent $600 on earrings in Greece?!!!" Sigh.
Read more!

Monday, February 9, 2009

That's Quite a Package!

Sometimes the most important part of a thing is the decision not to buy it in the first place.

At the grocery st
ore the other day, I was in a hurry and thoughtlessly grabbed a couple of packaged noodle dishes because the picture on the box looked good. As soon as I got home, the noodles sat on my counter mocking me. I don't exactly wear a green halo, but I recycle, use canvas grocery bags when I can remember them, and try not to buy products that come in layer after layer of packaging like Russian stacking dolls.

When I opened the noodles, I was ashamed and appalled. The outer package was a cardboard box. Inside the box was a plastic bowl, with a plastic lid, both shrink-wrapped in a plastic sheet. Inside the bowl, there were -- count them -- four separate packages, two foil, two plastic, containing peanuts, noodles, sauce, and "vegetables" (some weird powder that looks nothing like any vegetable I know). To top it off, there was a tiny plastic fork. All this for 8 ounces of lunch.

Why do we buy these things? Do we really need the momentary convenience of a disposable bowl that will languish in a landfill for a thousand years once we're done with lunch? After all, since the product must be microwaved, most of us will be eating it at home or in an office, where it shouldn't be all that hard to find a real, washable bowl. Ditto the plastic fork. And why all the separate packages for the ingredients?

I've also noticed a disturbing trend in take-out food.

Take Applebees for example. The food is fine, but the packaging is horrible: Three-inch deep oval plastic trays as big as serving platters, covered in plastic lids, all packed in a giant paper bag, with forks, napkins, and little packets of salt and pepper. I like take-out, but geez...couldn't they at least use coated cardboard? More and more, I resist the urge to order out because I can't justify the waste.

When I came of age, casual drug use and sex were completely acceptable but wastefulness was a sin. I lived with parents who had been Dust Bowl and Depression babies and had experienced real deprivation. My own teen years coincided with gas shortages and President Jimmy Carter asking us to turn our thermostats down to 68 degrees in winter. I learned to turn the water off while I brushed my teeth and to rinse and reuse aluminum foil and baggies. I read books like The Population Bomb and Diet for a Small Planet-- which led me to become a vegetarian -- and The Monkey Wrench Gang, which made me fantasize about chopping down billboards that marred the landscape. We called it environmentalism, now shortened to the more colorful "green."

It may be pure nostalgia, or maybe guilt at my own backsliding ways, but it seemed like consumers had more of a voice back then, or more of an environmental conscience. I remember the public outcry against the plastic eggs that contained L'eggs pantyhose, which forced the company to start putting nylons in cardboard boxes. A few years later, public pressure persuaded record stores to stop selling CD's in those over-sized plastic "jewel cases." But somewhere along the way, in spite of all the talk about global warming and buying green, we seem to have become blase about wasteful packaging. The one exception is bottled water, which has recently gotten well-deserved scorn. But meanwhile, we keep dutifully buying salads in foam clamshells, tomatoes in plastic boxes, and toys that are wrapped more elaborately than an Egyptian mummy. Just today I bought some antacid. The box was twice the size of the bottle, which was 10 times larger than necessary to hold the pills it contained. Why? The answer, no doubt, is shelf space. A larger container is more likely to catch our eye as we pass by, pushing our grocery cart, which itself was designed to get people to buy more stuff.

At any rate, the saga of the plastic noodles has reminded me to be more conscientious when I'm shopping. Now, about those billboards.... Acetylene torch, anyone?

Links: Population Timb Bomb
Recipes for a Small Planet
The Monkey Wrench Gang
History of the shopping cart
Read more!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Willa Cather and My Grandfather's Peace Pipe

Willa Cather, knew all about the power of material things, as this description from Lucy Gayheart shows: "Lucy stuck the telegram in her mirror and hurriedly began to dress. She was thinking that years from now, when she would probably be teaching piano to the neighbours' children in Haverford, nothing would recall this part of her life more vividly, or make it seem so real, as that slip of paper."

I have most of Cather's books, two copies of some of my favorites. I prefer the buff-colored Vintage Classic editions. Unlike most paperbacks, whose covers and spines bend and crack, these are supple and flexible, with a clothlike feel that makes them comfortable to hold even with one hand. I got my Vintage Classic edition of Lucy Gayheart, along with several other books, in Red Cloud, Nebraska, at the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial. They cost more than they would have if I bought them used or on Amazon, but I enjoy knowing that they come from the very town where she spent most of her childhood.

There is much of Cather's own material culture in Red Cloud, but the object I remember most didn't belong to her at all, but to Annie Sadilek, the real woman on whom My Antonia is based. I will never forget standing in a frame house, in the tiny bedroom where she slept. Seeing her modest iron bed and faded quilt was incredibly moving. I love My Antonia. It pulses with life, not only Antonia's, but the life of the prairie, where there is "motion in the landscape; in the fresh, easy-blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping."

Cather's descriptions -- of the wolves chasing the bridal party's sleigh through the snowy forest or of Mr. Shimerda frozen in a pool of his own blood on the barn floor -- form part of my mind's architecture. And I will never forgive Jim for his inability to respond to Antonia, for his need always to see her as a mythologized set piece in his imagined Arcadia.

I'm not sure I understand my fascination with things touched by those I admire, the pull that draws me to visit places like Red Cloud so I can stand where Cather stood, see the very Bible in which she changed the date of her birth (making herself three years younger), touch the white picket fence surrounding her home. But in addition to the books, several objects in my own home intersect with the same cross-country trip that took us to Red Cloud and other places where imagined and real lives blend together.

After we left Nebraska, we headed north, taking in the Badlands, Mt. Rushmore, Wall Drugstore, the Corn Palace. My partner (who prefers to be known in these pages as "Frink") will never let me forget that we drove a hundred miles out of the way and paid a farmer $3.00 to see what Frink calls "The Hole in the Ground." But this wasn't any hole in the ground; it was the actual place where Pa built the dugout described in The Little House on Plum Creek. I snipped a few stalks of grass from the field bordering the creek, which I keep in a vase of dried flowers. Seeing them makes me feel a tangible connection to Laura, who lives in my mind as surely as the grass grows next to the hole in the ground on the banks of that creek. (Truth be told, this was the second hole in the ground we visited on this road trip; we also saw the wagon ruts from the Oregon Trail, which sent shivers up my spine but left Frink cold.)

We also went to Pipestone National Monument, on the South Dakota/Minnesota border. I didn't even know that the monument existed, but as soon as I saw it on the map, I wanted to go there to trace the history of one of the few things I own that once belonged to my grandfather.

My grandfather was the black sheep of his family, a heroin addict and drunk who abandoned his family in the 1930s when my father was six. My father never spoke of him and even changed his own
first name to distance himself from a man he seemed to resent bitterly until the end of his life. (Of course, the fact that his first name was Wirt might have had something to do with the name change.) I know little about my grandfather, but I do have a few photographs of him. In one, he is about 13 years old. He stands, looking out with a more imperious version of my father's face, his hands resting on a beautiful, long-legged white dog. This formal drawing-room photograph does not at all jibe with the whispers I have heard about my grandfather, or with another of his things that has been passed down to me: a brick-red stone peace pipe, which I've been told he purchased in 1905 on a trip to Yellowstone. So, when I saw how close we were to the pipestone quarry, we veered again to visit yet another hole in the ground. Frink liked this one far better than the first two.

Pipestone National Monument is small and lovely, with a bubbling creek, a pretty waterfall, and the thin seams of pipestone from which Native Americans still quarry their sacred pipestone. The artist George Catlin, who collected Native American pipes (especially the pornographic effigy models), recorded the origin of the pipestone:

At an ancient time, the Great Spirit, in the form of a large bird, stood upon the wall of rock and called all the tribes around him, and breaking out a piece of the red stone formed it into a pipe and smoked it, the smoke rolling over the whole multitude. He then told his red children that this red stone was their flesh, that they were made from it, that they must all smoke to him through it, that they must use it for nothing but pipes: and as it belonged alike to all tribes, the ground was sacred, and no weapons must be used or brought upon it. (Sioux account of the origin of the pipestone, as told to George Catlin, 1836, from park website.)

By the time Catlin was collecting and drawing such pipes, they were being produced for the tourist trade, and I'm sure my grandfather's pipe was never used in a sacred ceremony. But it is weighty and beautiful in its simple elegance, decorated only with rows of concentric circles carved on the bowl and stem ends. I keep it on a bookshelf in the living room, nowhere near the Cather books, which are upstairs in my office, or the prairie grass, which is in a green vase on the dining room buffet.

Still, these things are all connected in my mind -- Willa Cather's novels, a prairie landscape which for most of my life I knew only from books, a pipe held by a grandfather I will never know at all. The thing that unites them might be simply the roadtrip through the prairies, but it feels deeper than that, like the prairie itself. I remember hearing somewhere that for every six feet of grass growing on a prairie, there are 18 feet of roots growing beneath the ground. That's how these objects feel to me. Somewhere under the surface they are all tangled together, woven by memory and imagination and by a longing for something that remains elusive and mute. It can only be felt, like the heft of a cool stone pipe in my hands.

Click here Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial website. (If you're a photographer, you may be interested in their current photography contest.)

Click here to visit Pipestone National Monument.

Read more!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Bamboo and Bhikkus

There is a sway of bamboo in our bedroom. It's not real bamboo, but a shadow grove that will live forever on the Chinese scroll I inherited from my great aunt and uncle. As beautiful as it is, in some ways it is a poor substitute for the real stand of bamboo that used to grace our backyard. Grown from a foot-long cutting shoved into the ground a decade ago, the bamboo spread along the fenceline, sprouting spindly, fishing-rod stalks that eventually grew into poles twenty feet tall and as thick as my arm. Their skin was cool and satiny smooth like birch bark or ginko leaves. The bamboo provided a green curtain between our house and the neighbor's and gave our suburban back yard a wild feeling. The birds loved it, building nests high above the ground among the leaves. In winter, the sleek, segmented columns stayed supple and green, bringing life and color to the yard as they swayed in the breeze. The best days were when the bamboo bowed patiently under the weight of a newly fallen snow. As if posing for a Christmas card, a cardinal would land on a curving stalk, a daub of scarlet bobbing against the white and green background. And in summmer, Frink would cut some of the dead poles and bind them with jute to make spigots for the fountain on the patio.

For many years, our next-door neighbor shared our enthusiasm for the bamboo, allowing it to spread into his yard, creating a small, communal forest. Then he transferred to a new city. The new neighbors were a young couple with an impossibly tidy house. One of the first things they did was chop down all the bamboo on their side of the fence. They renovated their yard, making it as neat and regimented as a forest of office cubicles. Ours was a running type of bamboo -- not the best variety for a suburban neighborhood -- and for several years it sent out reconnaissance squads, hoping to recapture the neighbors' yard. They were not amused. After a couple of years, we sadly realized that the bamboo would have to go.

I was determined that if I had to sacrifice my bamboo, I wanted something in return. So, I decided to squeeze a long-desired pool into our small backyard. The bamboo succumbed to the violence of a back-hoe, and an above-ground pool and deck took its place (see the forthcoming “My Hoosier Pool” for more on that.) There are homages to the bamboo in the fencing that surrounds the pool and in the pathetic cuttings that grow in pots, but I long for the day when I can buy some acreage out West where my bamboo and I can run free.

A year or so after we cut down the bamboo, my great aunt died. She was 97, a Southern steel magnolia and unlikely world traveler. (You’ll be hearing a lot about her and my great uncle in these pages.) One of the things I brought from her house was the scroll that now hangs in our bedroom.

The scroll is a bit older than I once thought. For some reason, I thought my aunt and uncle had purchased it in China in 1981, a trip that was quite an adventure for a couple then in their seventies. But recently I found some old black and white photographs that show the scroll in the background. The pictures must have been taken in Sri Lanka, where they lived in the late 50s and early 60s, when it was still called Ceylon.

The photos illustrate an event my aunt loved to talk about: The Day the Bhikkus Came to Dinner. The bhikkus were young Buddhist monks-in-training. In her soft drawl, Aunt Fern would recount how they came to visit, all serious and meditative in their bright orange robes, under the watchful eye of an older monk. But they were just kids, and at dinner, when one tasted the table sugar, his face lit up with joy. He asked for more, and the stern master chastised him. In her sweet, firm, grandmotherly way, Aunt Fern said that surely a little treat wouldn't hurt just this once. Perhaps not wanting to offend his hosts, the monk nodded his permission. Aunt Fern passed around spoons and soon the sugar bowl was empty.

The photos also show a man man hovering in the background who is probably Paramali, my aunt’s cook in Sri Lanka. He was another favorite topic of Aunt's stories. She and Paramali got off to a rocky start. Aunt Fern took her life-long role as a housewife very seriously, and she and my uncle had a moral objection to servants. But they soon learned that it was expected for westerners, especially those with the U.N., to employ locals. They hired Paramali, who made it clear that the kitchen was his province. But Aunt Fern was intent on learning how to prepare curry and to use the coriander, tumeric, ginger root and array of peppers she found in Paramali's kitchen. He resented her intrusion, but she persevered, and soon she and Paramali became fast friends. But she never could break him of one habit. Paramali was known for whisking dishes away before one was quite finished eating, an action that became known by the verb, "to Paramali." I was excited not only to find this visual confirmation of two oft-heard stories, but to see the Chinese scroll hanging in the background.

Whereever it came from and however old it may be, this two-dimensional black and gray painting captures the essence of bamboo, with all its life, and depth, and sway more accurately than a crisp color photograph ever could. The bamboo stalks don't so much end at the painting's edges as they draw you outward, suggesting more life just beyond the edge of the silk canvas. I can imagine walking past the sparse stalks in the foreground, venturing further and further back until I get lost in the dense grove.

It is a fitting reminder not only of my aunt and uncle and the stories they shared, but of my bamboo groves, both those dead and gone and those that are yet to be.
Read more!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The American Woman Cooks

Just opening The American Woman's Cookbook reminds me of my mother. On the title page she dashed off a quick recipe for Kaye's Cooked Frosting, which conjures memories of elaborate birthday cakes shaped like the Easter Bunny or tin drums with candy cane striping. Food was the centerpiece of my family's life. It was how we celebrated occasions and one of the only ways my mother felt comfortable showing love. Mom was a traditional Southern cook, serving up mountains of fried chicken (cut from a whole bird), vats of buttery mashed potatoes, and stuffing made from scratch. Every Christmas we had a pink concoction called "winter strawberry salad," made with miniature marshmallows, whole cranberries, and pecans, which mom would crack and pick out while watching tv. Her specialty was breads and deserts, which for some reason had names that didn't quite fit. Her "steamed puddings" were actually tiny, raisin-filled muffins that we devoured like popcorn, and her Key Lime Pie used lemons, not limes.

Mom's favorite cookbook was published in 1942. It is a fascinating artifact of a lost way of life, with chapters like "Wartime Cookery," "The School Lunch," and "How to Feed a Family of Five on $15.00 a week" (Tip #1? "Buy Carefully"). In the "Useful Facts About Milk" section, there's no mention of 2% or 1%, but we do learn how to pasteurize our own milk and that Vitamin D milk is a "new way to get this important vitamin." The book is formal and rather dictatorial in its instructions on how American women should care for their families, and it offers all sorts of helpful hints for those struggling to make ends meet in the face of food shortages and rationing.

In the "Useful Facts About Food" chapter, we are told that "every bit of fat from scraps of meat, bacon drippings, roasts, soups and poultry may be made into a mixture useful for general cooking purposes." I well remember the dented tin bacon grease canister that sat on our counter and the pots of chicken necks and gizzards boiling on the stove. (Page 170: "Never discard the bones of turkey or chicken as they always will make a delicious soup.") Mom's chicken soup was loaded with chunks of carrots and celery and wide egg noodles. This soup is one of the few meat dishes I recall actually enjoying, and if a bowl were put in front of me today, I'm not sure I could resist eating some.

I've been a vegetarian for 32 years (actually, what I call a "hypocrititarian," since I still eat fish.) I thought I had it rough in the days before frozen veggie burgers and soy crumbles, but this old book's chapter on "Vegetarian Dishes" reminds me of how hard it must have been to be a vegetarian in the 1940s. There are recipes for Peanut Balls, Peanut Scrapple, Peanut Butter Cutlets, Baked Peanuts, Peanut Souffle, Peanut Chops, Peanut Loaf (not to be confused with Nut Loaf). God forbid if you had a peanut allergy! For some variety, they offered up Chestnut Croquettes and "mock sausage" made from Lima beans, along with the more mundane spaghetti and macaroni.

The cookbook includes more than just recipes, covering the whole gamut of food-related activities, from shopping to entertaining. There's a chapter on china and table settings, complete with charts and stern instructions on what is proper. "Breakfast china is gay, sprightly; color runs rampant upon it; often whole gardens shine on its face. But it should not be used for a dinner, which demands fine china of exquisitely fine design. Luncheon is still another thing. Its china may vary as the season -- or as the whim of the hostess."

Mom had several sets of china. Our everyday dishes were premiums from the gas station or laundry detergent boxes; the one I remember most was the wheat china, with its golden sprigs of amber grain in the center, which came in boxes of Duz detergent. (I recently saw a set of these at a junk store and was barely able to resist buying it.) Her "whimsical" china was pink Russel Wright pottery, and her fine china was a delicately patterned floral, by Haviland. Mom bought the Haviland and a monogramed set of silverware at a yard sale in the sixties. Her own family had been poor -- there was no china to inherit -- and while we were comfortable, I don't think my mother could have afforded an extravagance like new fine china. (I have vivid memories of this estate sale, because I made my first-ever yard sale purchase that day -- a wooden bobblehead Japanese doll. Just a month or so ago, I found two more dolls like it, but smaller, which I couldn't resist buying.)

The chaper on entertaining is called "The Friends Who Honor Us." It cautions that while many families"see in their social life an opportunity to train their children in the social graces and amenties....Many guests are not interested in children and some are annoyed by them." And, beware the folly of Entertaining Without a Maid: "There are distinct limits to what should be attempted for pleasant and dignified results." For casual entertainment and family get-togethers, the book recommends the Rumpus Room, made possible by "the retirement of solid fuels from domestic consumption [which] has resulted in the rearrangement of basement space" (ie, the coal cellar.) The Rumpus Room was not only an ideal spot for hamburger picnics and games, but for the "taffy pulls and popcorn-ball parties of the oldsters' childhood."

The most interesting chapter is the one on "Wartime Cookery," which instructs the American woman on how to do without, including lessons on "The Return of the Soup Kettle" and "The Kitchen Garden," recipes for deserts without sugar, and tips on coping with metal shortages by breaking the reliance on "foods prepared outside the home to be purchased by her in tin cans." This chapter provides a view of a long-lost time and place, when a whole nation suffered together from the effects of war, and also helps me understand my mother's obsession with stockpiling food.

Mom was born in 1927 in Oklahoma, growing up during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, marrying (in a suit, with a corsage instead of a bouquet) not long after World War II. She spent much of her youth on a farm, earning money to help her family by picking green beans at 10 cents a pound for the local canning factory. She learned to put up her own food, especially fruits and jams, and she filled shelf after shelf with homemade pickles long after we could afford store-bought. My mother used to drive my sisters and me crazy with her excessive, obssessive shopping, especially for fabrics and groceries. If she found a good sale on donuts at the day-old bread store, she would buy 30 or 40 boxes and put them in her freezer. She continued doing this even after she and dad had divorced and we kids had grown and moved away. Sometimes we laughed about "mom's department store" -- whatever you needed, you could find it at mom's (she was generous and always happy to give things away). More often, we nagged and harangued her about her overflowing cabinets and freezer. Mom's cookbook helps put it in perspective. My mom learned early how to scrimp and save, how to eke the most meals possible out of a single cut of beef, how to lay out patterns to use every square foot of cloth (saving the scraps for quilts), and especially how to stock up when things were cheap and plentiful. In these hard times, maybe such skills are not so old-fashioned and irrelevant after all. Read more!