Friday, September 30, 2011

Pancakes and Ketchup

During the years of growing up and on into early adulthood, wherever meals were served, in diners, cafeterias, restaurants and even the ones regarded as fine restaurants there was always along with the salt and pepper one condiment that had a permanent place on the table, and that was ketchup. No doubt that’s the reason I now like ketchup on a number of different foods. In a steak restaurant with friends once I surprised everyone at the table by eating the expensive prime cut of steak with ketchup. But then, people in Japan surprised me by putting ketchup on their eggs. In a word, people everywhere like ketchup and that has been the case for centuries.

As far back as the first century AD Romans were using a condiment to flavor their fish and fowl and very likely it was an idea they got from the Greeks. The Romans used something they called liquamen made of vinegar, oil, pepper and a paste of anchovies. In 1690 the Chinese developed a tangy sauce, a brine of pickled fish, shellfish and spices which they called ke-tsiap and which later spread to Malaysia where it was called kechap. British seamen brought the puree-sauce back to England. Chefs there tried duplicating it, but didn’t have the necessary ingredients so substituted things like mushrooms, walnuts and cucumbers. They also had trouble with the foreign spelling so dubbed their condiment “ketchup.”


So, where did the tomatoes come from? That happened in New England near the end of the eighteenth-century, and though tomato ketchup was slow to catch on, by the mid 1800s it had become a kitchen staple. Naturally, it was all homemade ketchup in those days, and the process was time consuming with all the parboiling, peeling, removing seeds and continuous stirring. In 1876 a German-American businessman named Henry Heinz began factory production of Heinz Tomato Ketchup and women eagerly bought it. It was an instant success in its wide-base, thin-neck, cork-sealed bottle, and apart from the cork seal is a design still in use today.



Ketchup is the most frequently used condiment in the US, with children under thirteen consuming fifty percent more than people in other age brackets. Over 650 million bottles of Heinz Ketchup are sold each year in more than 140 countries. The company uses in excess of two million tons of tomatoes each year, though some of that is used in other Heinz products. As for what people like with ketchup, is it only hamburgers, hot dogs and scrambled eggs?

Richard Nixon liked ketchup on cottage cheese. Some pour it over their pancakes. As a kid I sometimes ate mayonnaise sandwiches, but ketchup sandwiches? Also heard of mashed potatoes and ketchup, and people who insist that French toast is better with ketchup than syrup. A grilled cheese sandwich with ketchup doesn’t sound too bad, but splashed over macaroni and cheese, or tuna? How about those times you’re in a hurry, or maybe the cupboard is sort of bare…poor man’s spaghetti marinara in a jiffy—just douse the cooked spaghetti with ketchup.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Warm Weather Friends

During the warmer months in Florida including September, there are few times when you don’t see scads of lizards lounging in bushes, trees and on fences. Though they are mostly solitary reptiles of a territorial nature, it’s rare to walk out on the patio and see fewer than two or three of these gentle creatures basking on a tabletop, the arm of a chair, propped in the leaves of a plant or scampering across the tile. Despite their numbers, lizards are intriguing enough to be the target of children and toddlers running to grab one, though they easily evade these naive stalkers. Not long ago a friend gave me a birdhouse which I placed on the patio table beside a giant fern, a favorite hangout for the lizards. On more than one occasion I have seen lizards go into the birdhouse and park themselves there with no more than a head poking out, ever vigilant for insects around the fern.


As a kid in Louisiana I used to catch lizards by the dozen, curious one day, cruel the next. We played with them in more ways than you count, some of our methods bizarre and highly questionable. Probably the most extreme was our game of astronaut training with lizards, which has been recounted here in a guest post a few months back. But these days I am painfully repentant about those childhood games and like to think that now my thoughts toward such harmless and beautiful reptiles are more gentle and caring.


From the scientific side, lizards are classed in the same order with snakes, and from the standpoint of zoologists snakes and lizards are practically the same thing, except that lizards have legs. The Carolina anole is a tree, or arboreal lizard found in the southeastern US, including Louisiana, and a very common sight here on the Florida coastal plain. The anole lives on small insects like crickets, spiders, grasshoppers and the occasional moth. It may also at times eat certain kinds of grass. Its ability to change color prompts many to call it a chameleon, but a lizard’s color-changing abilities are not as sophisticated as a true chameleon. They are territorial creatures and the males will fight other males to defend their territory; not unheard of to see one fighting his own reflection in mirrored glass. They are affected by stress which is visible in a constant and unchanging brown, lethargy and a long-lasting black semicircle behind the eye. Healthy specimens will often exhibit a good awareness of their surroundings. It isn’t uncommon to see the males during breeding season courting females with a colorful extension of the dewlap on their throats and bobbing up and down in a push-up like movement. When the female is ready she will let the male catch her, and with a gentle nip he grasps the skin above her neck and wraps his tail around and underneath her tail near her vent. In this posture the mating ritual is enacted.


The female lays the first clutch of one or two eggs in two to four weeks, but continues to lay eggs during the season until she has produced about ten eggs. The eggs are buried in soft soil or compost and abandoned. Left to incubate in the light of the sun, if all goes well they will hatch in thirty to forty-five days. The young hatchlings must fend for themselves without the care of an adult, always vigilant for larger lizards, mammals, birds or snakes who will eat the small babies in a gulp. If they are able to evade predators, the average lizard will live eighteen months, though some have been known to live longer.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Was the Gun Loaded?

Fear and anxiety are not usual companions around this house, but who can say that the two are total strangers, that a little of each doesn’t sometimes worm it’s way under the door or pry at the windows? For everyone there are surely times when the what if of unanswered fears hovers around the ears and paints gray markings on a day that shines so brightly outside the windows.


In a poem from her 2004 collection Curious Conduct, Jean Marie Beaumont expresses oh so well what that feeling is like. The poem is called “Afraid So” and pairs that ‘answer’ with a series of quite ordinary but especially poignant questions that typify our modern uneasiness.


AFRAID SO

Is it starting to rain?
Did the check bounce?
Are we out of coffee?
Is this going to hurt?
Could you lose your job?
Did the glass break?
Was the baggage misrouted?
Will this go on my record?
Are you missing much money?
Was anyone injured?
Is the traffic heavy?
Do I have to remove my clothes?
Will it leave a scar?
Must you go?
Will this be in the papers?
Is my time up already?
Are we seeing the understudy?
Will it affect my eyesight?
Did all the books burn?
Are you still smoking?
Is the bone broken?
Will I have to put him to sleep?
Was the car totaled?
Am I responsible for these charges?
Are you contagious?
Will we have to wait long?
Is the runway icy?
Was the gun loaded?
Could this cause side effects?
Do you know who betrayed you?
Is the wound infected?
Are we lost?
Can it get any worse?


Jeanne Marie Beaumont currently teaches at The Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan and in the Stonecoast MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine. She grew up in the Philadelphia area and moved to New York City in 1983. She holds an MFA in writing from Columbia University and has published three books of poetry, the latest Burning of the Three Fires in 2010. In 2006 “Afraid So,” was made into a short film by filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt and has since been screened at a number international film festivals.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

About the Human Heart

This past weekend was one of those dictated by the spell of a new book temporarily eclipsing everything outside the fertile flatlands of south Texas and the hardworking farmers, the indelible characters of Bruce Machart’s first novel, The Wake of Forgiveness. That it is a first novel is almost as surprising as the controlled power of it’s 309 pages. Let us hope that its author has shown us only a preview of his talent and the books to come. The Wake of Forgiveness is epic in it scope, its story rippling with themes of loss, anguish, and redemption of the human heart. But then, it is about so much more.


Machart’s writing brings to mind all at once Greek tragedy, Cormac McCarthy, Kent Haruf and William Faulkner—monumental comparisons for a first time novelist who all the same pulls it off with style to spare. At its root level, the novel is about the bonds of family, particularly between fathers and sons, but no less between mothers and sons and in small part the bond between brothers. For all its magnificent elegy, The Wake of Forgiveness is a brutal tale of family instability and the ties that bind people to their land. Machart reminds us of the rough ride ahead with his use of scriptural aphorism. At one point it is the harsh injunction from Lamentations, ‘It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; let him put his mouth in the dust—there may yet be hope.’ As if that were not enough he reminds us of the words of Jeremiah, ‘The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.’


It is the story of the Skala family, hardworking Czech farmers in Lavaca County, Texas. In the fictional town of Dalton, 1895, a fourth son is born to Vaclav and Klara resulting in the death of the mother. With the loss of the only person he ever felt love for, pain shuts Vaclav down, and he turns from the newborn son he has named Karel, refusing even to hold or touch him. In a shift of chronology, we see them next in 1910 when the embittered father has begun using Karel and his brothers like draught horses cinched into traces dragging a plow behind which their father cracks a whip. The mark left on the four boys is their crooked necks, a permanent twisting brought on by the years of mule-like labor harnessed at a plow. Karel grows and becomes a skilled horse rider, racing to win more land for his always distant and violent father. In one last race when the boy is fifteen, a loss drains the last cup of loyalty and affection between Karel, his three brothers, and his father. Machart moves his story ahead to 1924 when the father is dead, Karel has his own family and remains estranged from his brothers, one married to the girl who brought Karel to manhood.


The story moves back and forth between 1895, 1910 and 1924, never less than a seamless tale knit with tension in its wringing of strained relationships. But we are not left with a complete tragedy, as the four brothers find a way through the vivid fire-driven climax to reclaim a promising shred of their family bond.


There is so much in Machart’s writing that stirs the blood—the wide open spaces of south Texas, the beauty of a horse streaking through rain and moonlight, the grit of farming and ranching. Open the book anywhere and pull randomly from the page passages that vibrate with the writer’s language. Taken out of the story and read independently the pulse of life is intact. Warning of a change in weather Machart writes…

‘The sky hangs swollen and sickly above the distant horizon as if the whole mass of the heavens has been wounded and gauzed with clouds and backlit feebly by the diminishing moon.’


In description of a character we read…

‘Henry wore an ambitiously waxed mustache that seemed to curl around the sides of his mouth like some invertebrate creature that had slithered through cold, congealed oil only to find itself mired on a simple man’s face.’


Grappling with his troubled memories Karel at one point flounders…

‘There are times, goddamn them, that won’t turn loose of you any more than they’ll permit you to take hold of them.’


Machart has stated that he began The Wake of Forgiveness because he wanted to understand why the landscape and the vernacular of rural south Texas triggers in him such a sense of longing. I hope he reached the understanding he was searching for, but in the event he didn’t quite find a complete answer, it is abundantly clear that he has brought to his readers a depth of observation and insight about not just the Texas landscape or its vernacular, but also about the human heart.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Stretching the Truth

Three scenic locations in Japan have historically been considered the most beautiful sights in Japan. All three are celebrated in the country’s literature and have been rendered numerous times by artists. The first of these places is Itsukushima Shrine, specifically the giant torii, or gate built over the water located near Hiroshima. The second is Amanohashidate north of Kyoto, a pine covered sand spit stretching for two miles across Miyazu Bay, and the third is Matsushima near Sendai in northern Japan. Over the years spent in that country I visited each of these places in turn, looking each time for a fragment of the lost Japan.


A particular cluster of small islands off northern Japan’s Pacific coast have over the years been carved into various shapes by wind and waves and topped by the twisted postures of wind-bent pine trees. The islands are collectively called Matsushima and from bygone times have been described by poets and artists as the most beautiful place in Japan, one of the fabled Three Views of Japan—the three most celebrated scenic sights. I first learned of the place from the travel journals of long dead poets who made pilgrimages to such places, extolling in poems their great beauty. One of these short poems attributed to the great master Matsuo Bashô is clearly an expression of dumbstruck awe: Ah, Matsushima! / Ah-ah Matsushima! Ah! / Matsushima! Ah! I have my doubts that the poem is truly something written by Bashô, but his impression is clear in a passage from his travel record, Narrow Road to the Deep North: ‘Much praise had already been lavished upon the wonders of the islands of Matsushima. Yet if further praise is possible, I would like to say that here is the most beautiful spot in the whole country of Japan.’


In the mid 1980s I finally had the chance to travel to this celebrated place, first stop on a journey following the long and meandering itinerary of Bashô and his companion Sora 300 years earlier. Leaving the urban sprawl of Tokyo behind on a clear morning in early summer, my own companion and I were filled with the excitement of seeing a place so long imagined and only seen through doubtful retouched photographs in second rate guidebooks, both longing for air not grimed by exhaust and sights untainted by power lines. I even hoped we might sleep that night in rooms overhung by the droop of pine branches rasping against weathered eaves that framed a scattering of tiny islands floating in moonlight. Some journeys start out with unrealistic invention.


Arriving in Sendai, we wasted no time outside the station, but made an immediate run for the train that would after a short run to Matsushima-Kaigan connect us with a ferry out to the islands. At the dock a veil of hazy air blocked any view of the islands and we had to make do with conjured images of what we couldn’t see. The first crack in our rainbow glasses came when we strolled out to the dock’s end, looking down at the water to see a thick pall of garbage bobbing in the water, spread thickly around the pilings. A disgusting collage of orange rinds, soft drink cans, waterlogged Band-Aids, milk cartons and the sinister addition of a black wig curling around a drowned Styrofoam head. Who could help but wonder if it was a preview of Matsushima’s coming attractions?


The ferry was crowded and caused some concern about the likelihood of finding an inn with vacant rooms. No one to blame but ourselves for letting exuberance override the practicality of reservations. In a little while we landed at what was by no stretch of the imagination a picturesque island harbor, but undaunted we hoisted backpacks and struck out for the main street visible ahead. Uninterested in staying amidst the clutter of souvenir shops and ramen restaurants, we walked past the ‘town’ area looking for a ryôkan, or inn that offered views unimpeded by commercial signboards and flashing neon. We finally did manage that, but it was a place of mundane views and barely comfortable accommodation. The first night there I sat late by the window and at one point wrote in my journal: Snores from a nearby room / sleepless I sit / gazing at the hazy moon— 次の間の / いびききこゆる / おぼろ月


The plan was for two days and nights in Matsushima before heading farther north on a zigzag route. The truth is, it was hard to fill the time with the ‘wonders of Matsushima,’ a place of ‘legendary’ beauty that turned out to be most uninteresting, a spot made ugly by the blight of modern tourism. Though we walked until exhausted, the hikes turned up little that could be called either wonderful or scenically beautiful. Sadly, the disappointment went even further in my twentieth-century eyes. I was left to ponder what it was that travelers of another age found so appealing. Had it changed so completely over the passage of years?


Leaving Matsushima, a destination beautiful only in poems and old paintings, I passed a harbor-side souvenir shop and through garish windows spied a kokeshi doll of fitting expression. Today still, the doll sits and scowls from a shelf, reminding me that guidebooks as well as poets can stretch the truth when needs suit.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Black Craze in Deco

Adored by Langston Hughes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and Christian Dior, Hemingway called her the most sensational woman anyone ever saw. American dancer, singer and actress Josephine Baker was idolized in her adopted homeland of France. She became an instant success in 1925 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées after her opening in La Revue Nègre in which she introduced a new dance called the Charleston. In a later run at the Folies Bergères she solidified her fame and set the standard for erotic dance reviews. Baker’s success coincided with the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs in 1925, an event which defined the term Art Deco, and in fortunate timing France was seeing a renewal of interest in ethnic art forms, particular those from Africa. As a result of this timing, Josephine Baker became a perfect model for the fashion and style popular in France.


Four years later, Baker’s one-time lover and lifelong friend Paul Colin published a portfolio of lithographs called Le Tumulte noir (The Black Craze) which captured the exuberance of jazz music that so electrified Paris. Colin’s career in graphic design was launched by his poster advertising La Revue Nègre, one that was such a success he was asked to join the theater’s artistic staff. Twelve of the lithographs from Colin’s portfolio are shown below. The work was inspired by African sculpture, Cubism and the new Art Deco modernism.







Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Moon Flowered


Along with the calligraphy or brush writing of Japan that I found in library books many years ago and felt so drawn to, there were also the brief three line haiku poems that somehow, even in ignorance of their depth still captured my heart. I was moved by the sudden and momentary awareness on the poet’s part of a fleeting scene picked from the humdrum setting, the queer and unexpected observation of something as prosaic as a hat or dried field, a sitting bird, or buzzing mosquito. In the case of a seventeen syllable haiku poem the ordinary made luminous is its essence—observation colored by a skillful expression finding resonance in the reader’s experience. And in some ways my rushing off to live and work in Japan is owed in large part to the sensitivity I discovered in those poems.

Despite its apparent simplicity and brevity, haiku is not an especially easy poetic form to grasp without contemplation. While it is true that many of the short poems do strike an instant chord in the reader’s mind, most of them remain clouded by the constraints of form, rules and tradition. I will admit that I am inexperienced in the form as it is practiced in English and cannot say much about haiku poems written originally in that language. There are many who practice the writing of haiku in English and I would say nothing whatsoever to criticize or disparage those efforts; it is a worthwhile pursuit, and one that has produced a number of well-received collections.

Though the rule is broken by many Japanese writers of haiku, the traditional form is three lines of 5-7-5 syllables working out to seventeen in full form. To take a well-known example: fu-ru-i-ke-ya / ka-wa-zu-to-bi-ko-mu / mi-zu-no-o-to by Matsuo Bashô is composed of three lines totaling seventeen syllables. In English the poem is something like: Old pond / a frog jumps in / sound of water and in any language is a difficult example to fathom—though it does illustrate the traditional form. The picture above shows the poem written in Japanese.

By any standard, Matsuo Bashô is considered Japan’s favorite and most studied haiku poet. He was born in 1644 and lived a short life of only forty-nine years, but in that time completely reshaped the concept of the haiku form. In his twenties he wrote poems that strongly impressed his contemporaries, by his thirties he was considered a master and sought as a teacher, and by his forties tired of that, he embarked on a series of journeys, walking the roads of Japan recording his impressions in travel journals filled with haiku poems. He is revered today as an iconic figure in Japanese literature and no student in Japanese schools is unfamiliar with his name and at least a few of his more famous compositions.

I have chosen a handful of my own Bashô favorites to include here. The translations are by Robert Hass, and come from his book, The Essential Haiku.

First day of spring—
I keep thinking about
the end of autumn.

Withered bones
on my mind,
a wind-pierced body.

You’ve heard monkeys crying—
listen to this child
abandoned in the autumn wind.

The oak tree:
not interested
in cherry blossoms.

The winter’s sun—
on the horse’s back
my frozen shadow.

A cold rain starting
and no hat—
so?

A cicada shell;
it sang itself
utterly away.

In the fish shop
the gums of the salt-bream
look cold.

A field of cotton—
as if the moon
had flowered.

This last example is the poet’s death poem:
Sick on a journey,
my dreams wander
the withered fields.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Achoo!

One of the extras that comes with life in a big Japanese city is the freedom from having to buy Kleenex, or pocket tissue because so much of the stuff is handed out free in advertising packets by people on the streets. Not hard to build up a stock of the stuff that will last forever. Naturally, it isn’t the full-sized soft and creamy tissue you can buy in boxes at the drugstore or supermarket, and is probably not very useful for ladies removing make up. But then there must be other deficiencies as well when you start comparing the giveaway tissue with the boxes for sale. Makes you think…


In the historical sense, times of war have been the impetus for countries to power up their industry and to solve the problems not only of bullets and bombs, but also the problems of materiel shortages. In a word, war has a way of spurring the invention of new materials to support something nastily known as the ‘war machine.’ Many of our present day metal alloys, plastics and fabrics were the result of research carried out during periods of war.


Just prior to the start of World War I cotton was in short supply. Imagine for a moment the importance of something like cotton at a time it is needed in so many areas, to fill so many needs. As a result of the cotton shortage in 1914 scientists came up with a new, very absorbent cotton substitute for use as bandages on the battlefield, in hospitals and first-aid stations. The research was carried a step further and produced an even more absorbent material for use as air filters in the gas masks used by infantry. That was a cotton-like wadding produced by Kimberly-Clark called Cellucotton. But then the war ended and the company found itself with warehouses overflowing with a huge surplus of cotton substitute.


Businessmen are not apt to arbitrarily dump warehouses full of unused inventory, so they sought a peacetime use of their new product made redundant by the Treaty of Versailles. They came up with the notion of a glamour product, something that would be endorsed by the stars of Hollywood and Broadway—a tissue that could be used with cold cream to remove make up. It was named Kleenex Kerchiefs and was promoted as a disposable substitute for cloth hand towels. Kimberly-Clark engaged stars like Helen Hays, Gertrude Lawrence and Ronald Colman to do photo advertisements for magazines. The campaign worked and for five years sales steadily rose.


More and more mail came in to Kimberly-Clark praising the product as a perfect disposable handkerchief, and more than something to merely wipe off make up. Men complained that it was not promoted as a manly convenience as well, while women griped that husbands were blowing they noses in their cold cream Kerchiefs. And then an inventor came up with a pop-up tissue box in which separate layers of tissue were folded in a way that allowed one tissue to be extracted, leaving the next tissue ‘popped up’ and ready for pulling out. The new box and its tissue was called Serv-a-Tissue, and almost instantly boosted sales.


Kimberly-Clark began to market their product as disposable handkerchiefs with multiple possibilities for use. An insert placed in Kleenex packages in 1936 listed as many as forty-eight uses for the product. Still, then as now its most popular use has been for blowing the nose.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Urban Realism

Reginald Marsh, born in Paris in 1898 was an American painter of the Social Realism movement known most for his depictions of life in New York City during the 1920s and 30s. He studied under Kenneth Hayes Miller at the Art Students League of New York, a teacher who admired Marsh’s awkward burlesque sketches and encouraged the artist to follow that line. Ten years before his death in 1954 Marsh wrote, ‘I still show him every picture I paint. I am a Miller student.’ In his younger years Marsh’s work was colored by the Depression and the divisions in social classes evidenced by the economic situation. His figures are more often than not of a type, the artist more interested in crowds than individuals. He was attracted to the burlesque, Bowery hobos, Coney Island, and the women of those milieus. He filled 200 sketchbooks with drawings done on the street, the train and at the beach, sketches that proved the very foundation of his art. While it is true that a Marsh canvas reveals something about ordinary people in street scenes, looking at a stack of his paintings it isn’t too difficult to discern that Marsh saw the American woman as a powerful and sexual figure.


Isabel Bishop was born in Cincinnati in 1902, but had moved to New York by the age of sixteen. She eventually drifted into study at the Art Students League where she studied for four years. Bishop, too had Kenneth Hayes Miller as a teacher, and from him adapted a technique similar to baroque Flemish painting. Her greatest strength was an extraordinary drawing ability. Her mature works depict the inhabitants in and around the Union Square area of downtown Manhattan, where she had a studio from 1934 until 1984. She focused her attention on the down and out men, the working-class women. Most often women, they are shown in workaday interactions, or private moments of straightening a hose or repairing make up. Color is most often muted and subordinate to the effects of light and luminosity.


Because they both studied at The Art Students League, and because they shared an interest in the same subject matter, Reginald Marsh and Isabel Bishop were lifelong friends. Both urban realists, they are often grouped together as members of the Fourteenth Street School. Their association was strong enough that In 1931 Bishop and Marsh, together with their teacher, Kenneth Hayes Miller traveled to Europe to study the Old Masters. Marsh once said about Bishop’s work, “Her people are what they are no more, no less. But they are very much what they are—they never are what they are not; for her perception cuts to the truth. Her art is at once original and traditional as is that of Thomas Eakins.”


Bowery Beauty (1946) by Reginald Marsh; Chinese ink and gouache on paper


Young Woman (1937) by Isabel Bishop; oil and egg tempura on masonite


Standpipe (1948) by Reginald Marsh; Chinese ink on paper


Tidying Up (1941) by Isabel Bishop; oil on masonite


Manhattan Skyline (1929) by Reginald Marsh; watercolor and pencil


Two Girls (1935) by Isabel Bishop; oil and tempura on composition board

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

From Tortellini to Tetrazzini

As far as children’s literature goes, I can claim only a small kernel of knowledge. Names of the most ‘famous’ children’s books published in earlier years are pretty much familiar, but only because they’ve been around for so long. There is one particular book written in 1964 for children between the ages of four and eight that made a strong impression on me—so strong in fact, I added it to the reading list in a literature course for university sophomores. The book is Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, one that has been translated into over thirty foreign languages and sold 5.6 million copies since its first printing. Anyone familiar with this classic will be quick to agree that there is enough in this small book to stir the thoughts of readers long past the age of eight. The writer died in 1999 at his home in Key West, Florida.


HarperCollins released yesterday a new book of never before seen Shel Silverstein’s poems selected by his family from his archives. The book is titled Every Thing On It and contains over 130 poems and drawings edited out of earlier books, not because the author didn’t like them, but felt instead they didn’t fit into the order he was looking for in a given collection. Working closely with the poet’s family, and following the methods of Silverstein familiar for many years, editor Toni Markiet sought the same balance and pacing common to the earlier books. From those books she absorbed Silverstein’s knack for creating an interesting page no matter where the book is opened, and to always create a right-hand page that encourages a child to turn the page.


Markiet explains that the book’s title and accompanying illustration were perfect for a cover because of the curious stack of things in the boy’s hands, a mass of oddments piled on top of a hot dog. The press release for yesterday included two poems from the new book. Both poems are good, but the second in particular cries to be read aloud.


EVERY THING ON IT

I asked for a hot dog

With everything on it,

And that was my big mistake,

’Cause it came with a parrot,

A bee in a bonnet,

A wristwatch, a wrench, and a rake.

It came with a goldfish,

A flag, and a fiddle,

A frog, and a front porch swing,

And a mouse in a mask—

That’s the last time I ask

For a hot dog with everything.


ITALIAN FOOD

Oh, how I love Italian food.
I eat it all the time,
Not just ’cause how good it tastes
But ’cause how good it rhymes.
Minestrone, cannelloni,
Macaroni, rigatoni,
Spaghettini, scallopini,
Escarole, braciole,
Insalata, cremolata, manicotti,
Marinara, carbonara,
Shrimp francese, Bolognese,
Ravioli, mostaccioli,
Mozzarella, tagliatelle,
Fried zucchini, rollatini,
Fettuccine, green linguine,
Tortellini, Tetrazzini,
Oops—I think I split my jeani.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Forgotten Ink

For those with a passion—some call it a malady—for the collecting of inks, the hobby has in some ways blown itself out of proportion. What does that mean exactly? It is by no means a dart fired at the makers of fountain pen ink, for they are only following customer demand and produce exactly what the market will allow. Rather, the numbers of available colors in bottled ink have gotten unwieldy for the collector and consequently outstanding shades of ink get lost in the shuffle. There was a time I could look at an ink and recognize the name at only a glance. As the reds and greens and blues multiplied, the browns proliferated, the purples mushroomed and the oranges snowballed, that sort of quick-read identification has become near impossible for anyone but the person who mixed the individual inks, and even they might be fooled on occasion. Most of us now have stacked on shelves inks of exquisite color that lay forgotten behind the heaped bottles of newer mixes.


Say hello again to one of the forgotten. Rummaging through the bottles accumulated on shelves and drawers here, I came upon one from the Caran d’Ache Colours of the Earth series, a red called Sunset. Don’t ask me to count through the different bottles of red ink on those shelves and in those drawers; anybody with a level head wouldn’t hesitate to say, “Too many! You’ll never use all that.” Quite true, but as stated above, a malady is involved. I have so much red ink that the beautiful Sunset ink from Caran d’Ache got lost in the jumble.


Let me paraphrase what this Swiss company says about its line of nine different inks…

Caran d’Ache has drawn on its expertise and mastery of colour to offer lovers of handwriting a collection of inks in nine original tints. These nine inks offer the natural colours of the earth in a rich assortment ranging from sombre to tender to vivacious. The colours are an inspiration, expressing a mood, adding an emotional dimension to words, or marking a special moment—each colour finding its own nuance, with pen playing in perfect harmony.

There is very little exaggerated hype in this product copy. Most of us who collect fountain pen inks would quickly admit that the copywriter has hit the nail on the head in appealing to a customer base. For a look at the nine different tints in the Colours of the Earth series, click here.


Back to the forgotten ink, Sunset. The maker suggests in a further note of copy that the writer ‘Sympathize in Sunset.’ It sounds good, but that particular verb does not come to mind when I look at a sample of Sunset red, or when I see a written passage in this color. I might be more tempted to say something like, ‘Celebrate in Sunset,’ but the next person might also have another idea. There is for sure a good bit of ‘sunset’ in the color, but look at it long enough and several more associations will come to mind. A little of the tropical, of the Hawaiian Punch or the romantic, seasonal, and I can’t help adding, lipstick. Anyone telling you it is a totally unique shade of ink is pretty much out of the loop. A quick comparison reveals that Iroshizuku Momiji, Diamine Classic Red and J Herbin Rouge Bourgogne each come close to the Caran d’Ache Sunset. But that shouldn’t take anything away from the specialness of Sunset.


The sample page of quotes here was written using a Montblanc Generation with a 14 carat medium nib. Just as the copy says, the pen works in perfect harmony with the Caran d’Ache ink, writing smoothly without skips, spits or drag. A short sample of handwriting it is, but looking back at longer pages written in other notebooks with the same ink and the same pen show a smooth flowing curl of ink unwinding prettily down the page. On the downside—though perhaps not for all users—Sunset is a slow drying ink. On a separate page of tests, in writing single characters there was no difference in dryness between three seconds and fifteen. A short phrase of five words required a full minute to dry thoroughly, but then a dryer nib may produce a shorter drying time.

Monday, September 19, 2011

An African Childhood

Not more than three days ago I complained to a friend that his recommended book wasn’t holding my attention. Of course, there are dozens, hundreds of books that grab the reader from the first page, which if nothing else displays the writer’s talent for devising a grab-hold start. Then there are an equal number of books and stories that start off with a bang but drift into an ultimately slow and turbid telling. Happily, the one that didn’t hold my attention a few days prior suddenly caught fire and swooped me up into an almost tactile surge of life, love and growing up in Africa. The book is Alexandra Fuller’s 2002 memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dog’s Tonight, and along with being a chronicle of the author’s and her family’s attachment to Africa, is also a gritty but loving portrait of an amazing and astonishing mother; and add to that, caring portrait of a remarkable and uncommon father.


The years of Alexandra Fuller’s childhood and youth were spent first in white Rhodesia, which after independence became Zimbabwe, in Malawi and finally in Zambia. Most of those years were lived under constant threat from guerrillas or corrupt soldiers and officials, not to mention a landscape of utter harshness. By early childhood she had learned how to use an Uzi, smoke cigarettes and drink beer. Most times, in driving to the nearest town they were required to travel in guarded convey in armor plated cars, forced to hire government spies as houseboys and required to kill spitting cobras nesting in the kitchen pantry. Yet beneath all that was a deep and undisguised connection to the land. Fuller’s father was a jack-of-all-trades, farming tobacco in one place, managing cattle in another and often called up as a reserve soldier to fight guerrilla forces. An extremely capable man, nothing was able to get the better of or defeat him in overcoming whatever was placed before him. But apart from the African landscape, the real star of Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight is the author’s mother.


As a character, she is a giant of modern literature, a woman of such vibrancy and life, of such passion and devotion, it is little surprise that her mind is finally unable to handle all the drama of her life, sending her into collapse and a long spell in a mental hospital. Not easy for anyone, man or woman to lose three children, one to meningitis, another to drowning and the last stillborn, and suffer that while hacking out a life behind razor wire, drought and no electricity. Beneath the weight of those conditions she manages to raise two girls, assist her husband in the tobacco fields, decorate Christmas trees, offer first aid to the nearby blacks (despite her strong racism) and to care for the six or seven dogs always sharing their home.


Fuller’s memoir draws its title from a line in a poem by English writer and humorist, A.P. Herbert:

“Come,” said he—“a night for dancing,
Lips alight and bright eyes glancing.
Come!” the young man cried;
“Youth should never pause from pleasure,
Fill the cup and trip the measure!”
But the girl replied—

Don’t let’s go to the dogs to-night,
For mother will be there…

The reader has to wonder if there is a connection in this to the fun loving parents who sought every opportunity to fill a cup and dance the night away. Wonder too that all the drinking didn’t pull them down or prevent them from accomplishing the work ahead. There is comedy aplenty in Fuller’s stories, one of the best a Christmastime party and the crowning Christmas cake dosed daily with injections of brandy by Mother. Startling enough that any of the soused guests at the party were able to sit upright with a plate of cake. With Mother too wobbly to light a match to flambé the cake, a guest offers to help and blows the cake up, raisins, nut and bits of cake sliding down the walls. The unfortunate explosion didn’t seem to hamper anyone’s enjoyment of eating the bits and pieces off the walls.


Perhaps the richest treasure in Fuller’s pages is the bringing to life a beautiful, yet cruel land, whose fumes, fragrances, mud, dust and flowers overflow every page of the book. There are passages that crinkle the nose with the force of one or two word descriptions in perfect economy. When a pet dog is sliced up by offended blacks wielding pangas, Fuller’s mother carries the dog in her arms and you almost expect bloodstains to appear on the page. There is a brand of quirkiness nearly always delightful in the writer’s prose, but the basics of her style are never less than impressive.


Fuller’s is a memorable story of family, awakening and the love of a hard, primitive land.


‘I can hear men around the campfire singing softly, taking it in turns to pick up a tune, the rhythm as strong as blood in a body. The firelight flickers off the blue and orange tent in pale, dancing shapes and there is the sweet smell of the African bush, wood smoke, dust, sweat. My bones are so sharp and thin against the sleeping bag that they hurt me and I must cover my hip bones with my hands.

I make a vow never to leave Africa.’

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Rings of Being

Every now and then my eye hits upon a copy of The Essential Rumi there in its third-from-the-bottom-on-the-right-hand-side shelf of books and I pull it down to spend an hour or so with the only whirling dervish of my acquaintance. The book is a translation of works by thirteenth-century mystic poet Jelalluddin Rumi. The translator is Coleman Barks, whose English interpretations have sold more than half a million copies worldwide. In 2006 Rumi was the best selling poet in America, surpassing even Whitman, Dickinson and Frost. Five years later and he is still one of the most widely read poets in the US.


The Persians and Afghanis call Rumi “Jelalluddin Balkhi.” He was born in 1207 in Afghanistan, at that time a part of the Persian empire. His family emigrated to Turkey while he was still a boy, from where the name Rumi, meaning ‘from Roman Anatolia’ comes. Rumi has been called “the greatest mystical poet of any age.” He composed over 70,000 verses of poetry of divine love and ecstatic illumination. In his early life he was a pillar of the Islamic faith and a scholar who never touched alcohol, until he met a wandering dervish and was transformed into an enraptured lover of God. From that time forward Rumi moved from a dependance on knowledge to one of vision. He reached a rare level of intimacy with God, and his poetry—often described as ecstatic poetry—is a spontaneous flood of love for God.


Ecstatic poetry is grand in both theme and scale, with an intensity not of mind but heart, or what can be called the opening heart. The poetry seems to break forth spontaneously from an inspired speaker often in an altered state of consciousness. It involves transcending the mundane and limited self to merge with something greater. Rumi passionately believed in the use of music, poetry and dance as a path to God.


The poem below is taken from the early pages of The Essential Rumi.


A COMMUNITY OF THE SPIRIT

There is a community of the spirit.

Join it, and feel the delight

of walking in the noisy street,

and being the noise.


Drink all your passion,

and be a disgrace.


Close both eyes

to see with the other eye.


Open your hands,

if you want to be held.


Sit down in this circle.


Quit acting like a wolf, and feel

the shepherd’s love filling you.


At night, your beloved wanders.

Don’t accept consolations.


Close your mouth against food.

Taste the lover’s mouth in yours.


You moan, “She left me.” “He left me.”

Twenty more will come.


Be empty of worrying.

Think of who created thought!


Why do you stay in prison

when the door is so wide open?


Move outside the tangle of fear-thinking.

Live in silence.


Float down and down in always

widening rings of being.

About Me

My photo
Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America