Saturday, March 31, 2012

Corn Cakes & Hadacol

Unexpected things sometimes come from unexpected places. On the other hand, junk shops more than other stores do tend to collect surprising tidbits from far and wide. One of those tidbits, probably stashed in a cardboard box and tossed in the trunk of a car made its way from a small town on the east coast of Florida to a small inland town 700 miles west in the heart Louisiana’s Cajun country. Driving south from Baton Rouge on Friday we headed to Breaux Bridge, a small community north of Lafayette.

We were looking for Hadacol glasses. My guess, nine out of ten people will automatically say, “What are Hadacol glasses?” It’s been a long time since any of us have seen either Hadacol or a set of glasses bearing its name. Hadacol was an old patent medicine of the late 1940s and early 50s, a “vitamin” drink containing twelve percent alcohol and concocted by Louisiana State Senator, Dudley LeBlanc, man with neither medical or pharmacist degree. For a time it was a hugely successful patent medicine with many spinoffs, one being the Hadacol glasses. Nothing fancy, just small clear drinking glasses with the name Hadacol in blue letters. An example is seen in the lower right of the photograph below.


Sure enough, a set of five glasses turned up in one Breaux Bridge store and just as I was reaching for my wallet, the proprietor said the glasses were $60 apiece; $300 for a set of five. Even a longtime desire for those very glasses was not enough to bring that amount of money forth, and unfortunately the glasses were not anything the seller was willing to bargain over. It was goodbye to the Hadacol glasses, but rummaging through the big main street junk shop made for a fascinating hour.

R and I later adjourned to the Café des Amis a few doors down the street for a long and lingering lunch of Bloody Marys, shrimp and okra gumbo, cornbread with crayfish étouffée and seafood salads. A light lunch, you could call it. Later we resumed our look through the shops along Rue Pont Est.


In one store, pawing through the stacked items on a back table, I came upon a cookbook compiled by the ladies of New Smyrna Beach, Florida, circa 1934. The book is not an original copy from that time, but a later reproduction of pages found in a local estate sale. The recipes are not for dishes found outside the average mother’s kitchen, but a collection of breads, savories, desserts and preserves most popular in home cooking of the time. Here’s one for hot corn cakes.

HOT CORN CAKES
2 cups meal (yellow corn meal, clearly)
1 level teaspoon soda (baking soda)
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups buttermilk
1 egg

Sift salt, soda and meal together. Break egg into this and add buttermilk. Bake in small cakes on griddle. Should be thick enough to bake with a lacy edge. If too thick add a little buttermilk and a pinch of soda.


The photograph above shows the 1901 Breaux Bridge Bank Building on the town’s main street, Rue Pont Est.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Tin Foil & Rabbit Ears

He’s totally blind in one eye and has three color TVs in only one room of the house. During the football season each set is tuned to a football game in three sizes, large, medium and small, according to importance. On an average viewing day the main screen, a forty-two inch high definition Vizio with 1080p plays the prime show, usually pre-recorded for viewing at a more convenient time. On the smaller screens, and always without sound are MSNBC and a women’s sporting event, something like the professional bowling tour or the LPGA Kraft Nabisco Championship (the old Colgate Dinah Shore Classic) from Rancho Mirage.


Dudley opted for Cox Cable and has every plan they offer, including 200+ channels ranging from Fishing Christians to Swamp People, Toddlers & Tiaras to the Real Housewives of Atlanta. His remote-guided options allow him to skip commercials, meaning that a three hour football game can be viewed in ninety minutes. Then there is the bonus of pausing the main screen to turn up the sound on set No. 2 and catch a juicy moment of another broadcast on a smaller screen. But Dudley admits that the favorite feature of his set up is being able to view the Rose Bowl Parade through three different network broadcasts with unlimited stop and starts.


For those times when the provocative images of lady bowlers or goal line sacks become too wearing, Dudley likes to dim his smaller screens and turn the big Vizio to one of the thirty music channels, choosing from a global menu of sounds that includes Mexican, rap, light classical, hymns and Lady Gaga. Of course the sound is not limited to one room but spread throughout the house with the help of a forty inch Samsung a few rooms away.


Dudley’s Cox Cable contract also includes telephone and Internet and an array of remote control devices with buttons enough to confuse the TV repairman. All for the low, low price of $260 a month.


Mine is a leaner plan, which includes one remote device that controls little more than on/off, volume and channel selection. To preview upcoming shows means clicking to the TV guide channel and studying the roll call of shows revolving tortoise-like down the screen. The roster of available channels includes all three of the major networks, with of course, CNN and FOX and Telemundo. But my television desires are more muted than Dudley’s and I’m happy with my color console as long as I can get the foil just right on the rabbit ears and Jerry Springer isn’t pre-empted.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Old Roots

On most mornings the thump and crash of waves hitting land, the moan of wind and the whir of a sprinkler head are the sounds that come first through walls and windows shaking me from sleep. By now these sounds are ingrained and perceived almost as a soundtrack, and on those occasions of waking in a different setting I open my eyes confused by the silence. That happened this morning in a Louisiana bed that for some time at least I can call my own.


Out of bed, I wander out to the back patio of Raymond and Dee’s house to sit for a few minutes and absorb the notes and chords of a different soundtrack, this one composed of the chinwagging of unfamiliar birds, the whoosh of tires on pavement and the splash of frisky koi in their tree shaded pond. A cardinal sits on the nearest bird feeder and in his eagerness rattles the seed from its spout. He stuffs himself with safflower, thistle and cracked corn for one guarded minute, until a fat and also hungry squirrel approaches from the limbs above. Three cats twine between the chair legs, occasionally coming by to polish my feet and beg for a scratch under the chin.


Sitting in this arbor of green among Eden-like lushness, it takes a moment or two for my ocean-shaped vision to adjust, to bring into focus a palette not dominated by blue and white. Here it’s all brick and stone against the spreading green of fox tail fern and Louisiana iris. The shrimp plant and angel wing begonias splash their red and green at the foot of a loquat tree and nearby stand their neighbors, the lemon, fig and satsuma trees. It is a setting very unlike the spare and distant perspective of Florida’s ocean shore and a welcome change from the salt and glare that mediate everything there.


Each time I return to this place that colored my childhood, the sense of connection is strong in spite of now unfamiliar streets and development. There is something about it that arouses a feeling of being lost at home. The names on street signs trigger a flash of memory, a teenage face, a 1957 Chevrolet. The missing oak trees on Steele Boulevard, a onetime alley of ancient drooping limbs and extruded roots remind me of Robert R, a schoolmate of those days. The oaks were all cut down after residents along the street complained of giant roots pushing up through the asphalt surface, their road constantly broken by those grandfatherly roots. The house here on Lobdell is several miles east of those absent oaks, in a neighborhood also rich with the remembered tokens of childhood and youth. Goodwood Elementary was the site of many after school basketball games, few of which we won against those red and white clad Cardinals. And at the northern edge of Goodwood only a short walk from this patio is the old municipal airport (now a park) where piper cubs took off and landed.


And so the feeling is like coming home, but to one where I can’t remember well what’s in that old hall closet or where the back bedroom is. A place familiar in so many ways, but brimming with hidden facets that promise to reveal themselves in the coming weeks, a delicious scavenger hunt with old friends among old haunts. Raymond and Dee asked how long I wanted to stay and I suggested a time frame from two weeks to two years.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Homegrown Michelin Stars

Tuesday was something of a busy day of closing up the beach place, running errands and packing the needs for two or three weeks in Louisiana. By mid-afternoon all was ready and with the car packed I headed for my sister’s home in Maitland, about an hour’s drive west. The plan was to have dinner there with family, spend the night in my mother and father’s old bed and head off early Wednesday morning for the charms of my old hometown, Baton Rouge. Long way between central Florida and there, a drive of at least eleven hours.


But before those long hours behind the wheel there was another grand dinner of my sister’s cooking. I’ve mentioned before that her skills with cookery would garner a few Michelin stars. I asked what was on the menu, suggesting that I put up a description and a few photos here, but a part of that was hard for the cook, since she doesn’t follow recipes and has to guess at the measures to include in a list of ingredients, I had to wrestle the amounts out of her. She makes everything by taste and has to think hard to explain exactly how much of this or that. Nothing elaborate about the name ‘seafood pasta’ but it would surprise me to find a seafood pasta as delicious as this one in places outside my sister’s dining room. Here’s a try at her recipe…


Seafood Pasta (serves 6-8)

INGREDIENTS:

2 pounds of uncooked shrimp

1 pound of mahi-mahi cut into bite-sized pieces

4 cups chopped sweet onion

2 cups green pepper chopped

1 cup sweet red pepper chopped

½ cup sweet yellow pepper chopped

4 cloves garlic finely chopped

1 bunch chopped green onion with tops

1 box angel hair pasta


Sauté the chopped vegetables in ¼ cup of olive oil starting with the sweet onions. Allow the onions to cook about three minutes, holding the tomatoes aside, add the other vegetables sautéing an additional five minutes.


½ jar of sun dried tomatoes in olive oil

½ jar pimento stuffed olives drained

½ jar Greek Calamata olives drained

2 medium tomatoes chopped, the seeds removed

¾ cup toasted pine nuts


Holding the pine nuts and tomatoes aside, add the other three ingredients to the sautéed onions and peppers. Next add the mahi-mahi and cook about four minutes. Add the shrimp and the chopped tomatoes cooking another three minutes seasoning generously with Zatarain’s Creole Seasoning. Just before serving toss in the toasted pine nuts.


Serve over angel hair pasta cooked al dente. Garnish each plate with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and a sprig of parsley. Serve with a green salad and hard rolls.

Bon appétit!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Pot Falls in 2B

For a brain addled by the bedlam that comes with spring break in these parts, the imagination sometimes collapses under the storm of ruckus and clamor. What’s next? Will it be another rearrangement of the furniture overhead? A scrap at the shuffleboard court? Maybe a herd of eight children in clogs stampeding down five flights. I keep a notebook for scribbling random poems I come across here and there, poems that usually fit a particular mood or situation. Seems like without knowing it at the time, one day last December I copied a poem that fits spring break at the beach like a glove.


Born in Kansas City, Missouri, poet James Tate has published seventeen books of poetry, most recently The Ghost Soldiers in 2009. He won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for his collection Selected Poems, and in 1995 the National Book Award for Worshipful Company of Fletchers. For many years he has taught at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Talking about the process of writing poetry, Tate has described how he plays with phrases clipped from newspaper articles, bits of history, anecdotes, or ordinary everyday speech, and through a process of assembling, cutting and pasting, attempts to put together a tightly written body of lines that will unveil a peculiar insight into the craziness of human nature.


“Flight” is from his 1992 Pulitzer Prize winning book, Selected Poems.


FLIGHT

Like a glum cricket
the refrigerator is singing
and just as I am convinced

that it is the only noise
in the building, a pot falls
in 2B. The neighbors on

both sides of me suddenly
realize that they have not
made love to their wives

since 1947. The racket
multiplies. The man downhall
is teaching his dog to fly.

The fish are disgusted
and beat their heads blue
against the cold aquarium. I too

lose control and consider
the dust huddled in the corner
a threat to my endurance.

Were you here, we would not
tolerate mongrels in the air,
nor the conspiracies of dust.

We would drive all night,
your head tilted on my shoulder.
At dawn, I would nudge you

with my anxious fingers and say,
Already we are in Idaho.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Tourists vs. Ovenware

My 730 days here have taught me a little about the seasonal fluctuation in this beachtown paradise. Someone asked the other day what time of year is best in this sandy spot on the eastern seaboard. The answer was easy; for some of us non-commercial residents, the off-season weeks from mid-September to late December are the most comfortable in a town that earns its keep off the tourist trade. Those are the days when this setting comes closest to what it was before development arrived. Apart from the ocean and its fringe of beach, clearly there is little that has truly escaped the developer’s reshaping, and signs of ‘commerce’ are prominent in every quarter, but between the ninth and twelfth months of the year a good part of that business is asleep. It becomes a quiet and sleepy little town with storybook weather and long stretches of empty beach.


But nothing of that in late March, when a breakout of beach-starved tourists takes advantage of spring break to shatter the calm and desecrate the near holiness of white sand beaches. Things get rowdy about now and a big part part of what is good about living on the beach turns sour. Hard especially in the case of an oceanfront location because that means all the shouting, the raucous play and midnight revels happen in window-rattling proximity. Sometimes you have to get away.


While the quiet was still in place early Sunday morning I considered the soon-to-come awakening of tourist hordes celebrating spring break, and realized escape was the best alternative. Thank God for Sunday flea markets. It had been a while since my last visit to the big flea market on US 1 halfway between here and Daytona, so that was the perfect escape. Hoping to get away while things were still quiet, I jumped in the car un-showered and unshaven, pointing the wheels toward the treasures of secondhand heaven.


Finding a parking place all too easily, I wondered, were all the flea market dealers at the beach? Early enough to expect the lanes and aisles to be packed with junk-filled tables, the empty spots were something of a surprise. It didn’t take too long to realize that a couple of my favorite dealers were taking a holiday. Sure enough, many of the familiar vendors were there with their old records, broken watches, Elvis memorabilia, chipped dinnerware, and Danielle Steele paperbacks, but there were lots of empty spaces.


Making the rounds a few times I managed to spend five dollars on a couple of things I would have paid more for. Wish that I knew a little more about what I bought, but the pieces themselves offer few hints and the people I bought them from clearly had little notion. The first find was a white stoneware dish made in Japan and marked ‘OVENPROOF’ on the bottom. At first glance I thought it might be an oversized soap dish (long without soap and filthy), but a look at the underside quickly proved that wrong, since soap dishes are rarely ovenproof. I can only guess that it is a piece of kitchenware made in Japan sometime around the 1950s or 60s. Whatever its history, it is a handsome little piece and one that thrills my junk-shopper’s soul.


On a second turn around the tables another white something caught my eye, a container of sorts that could be used for almost anything. My immediate thought was that it would be a handsome cover for a potted plant, something you might sit the plastic pot inside of. But then it could just as well serve as a soup tureen or a container for boiled corn on the cob. Whatever its original purpose, it is interesting for its odd marking of ‘Haberdashery’ and the illegible shield-like marking under the last letters of Haberdashery. Another curious feature is the way the piece was made. It’s clear in looking at it that the two halves were crafted and then joined before being fired. First time for me to see that particular technique. (The little green bowl in the photo is one of my own making during the Japan days.)


By the time I got home the Sunday rave was in full swing.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Lure of O’Brian

Around the end of February I once more jumped into the Aubrey/Maturin series of novels by Patrick O’Brian. Like many other O’Brian fans, I have never grown tired over the years of returning to these books for another reading. There seems no end to the thrill and fascination of them, coming back to me each time as fresh as wet ink. It is a long series, but one so rich in period detail filled with colorful characters, history of the Napoleonic Wars and life aboard nineteenth century sailing ships, all composed in the nearest thing to perfect prose—it’s easily my choice for what to take to a deserted island. I finished another reading of Post Captain, the second book on Saturday.


Difficult to single out one particular aspect, but my greatest attraction to Patrick O’Brian’s books is probably the language. I well know that there are millions of readers who shy away from the kind of prose found in O’Brian, calling it archaic, difficult, affected and thick, and I offer no defense for that. I just happen to like it. There’s always something to make us laugh (or cringe) in the Aubrey/Maturin books and looking for a spicy example from Post Captain to share, I took a hint from another fan of the series. Here is a passage, a brief medical diagnosis. Dr Ramis is addressing his friend, Stephen Maturin…

‘You speak of loss of weight. But I find that you yourself are thin. Nay, cadaverous, if I may speak as one physician to another. You have a very ill breath; your hair, already meagre two years ago, is now extremely sparse; you belch frequently; your eyes are hollow and dim. This is not merely your ill-considered use of tobacco—a noxious substance that should be prohibited by government—and of laudanum. I should very much like to see your excrement.’


On another occasion Dr Maturin could give tit for tat, but in this case he merely assures his friend that he would be happy to oblige. And it is through the mouth of Stephen Maturin that O’Brian launches his most entertaining floods of humor. Another passage from Post Captain includes this exchange:

‘This is an ugly stretch of road, with all these disbanded soldiers turned loose. They made an attempt upon the mail not far from Aker’s Cross. Come, let me have your pistols. I thought as much: what is this?’

‘A teratoma,’ said Stephen sulkily.

‘What is a teratoma?’ asked Jack, holding the object in his hand. ‘A kind of grenado?’

‘It is an inward wen, a tumour: we find them, occasionally, in the abdominal cavity. Sometimes they contain long black hair, sometimes a set of teeth: this has both hair and teeth. It belonged to Mr Elkins of the City, an imminent cheesemonger. I prize it much.’

‘By God,’ cried Jack, thrusting it back into the holster and wiping his hand vehemently upon the horse, ‘I do wish you would leave people’s bellies alone. So, you have no pistols at all, I collect?’

‘If you wish to be absolute, no, I have not.’


Reading something recently about the origin of old expressions, I learned an interesting tidbit about the beginnings of the example, ‘pin-money.’ Some may not remember or be familiar with it, and without much thought I always supposed it referred to money set aside. Later in the day I was reading the O’Brian book and with what I suppose is serendipity, came across a passage wherein a gentleman is entrusting his female charges into Captain Aubrey’s care:

‘Oh, never mind them. They are only girls, you know—they can rough it—don’t put yourself out. Think what you will save them in pin-money…’


In the late Middle Ages, to remedy a pin shortage and the hoarding of pins, the British government passed a law allowing pin makers to sell their pins only on certain days of the year. On the specified days many women flocked to the shops to buy pins, many of them taking their carefully saved ‘pin money.’ At the time, pins were relatively expensive, but when prices dropped following industrialization of the pin making process, the expression ‘pin-money’ also got devalued and came to mean something along the lines of pocket money, or a small amount.


At least the delights in reading O’Brian are never a small amount.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A Disconnected Invasion

One Japanese tradition was quick to capture me the first weeks of my long stay there and happily it is one that has taken hold of many Americans since the arrival of large bookstores with cafés, armchairs and sofas. Bookstores in Japan do not allow coffee or drinks and sitting down is out of the question, but apart from those restrictions customer-browsers are welcome to stand at the shelves and read books, magazines, or comics all day long. They call it tachiyomi, a compound verb that literally means ‘standing and reading.’ A common exchange among friends is something like, “Hey, what have you been doing?” “I’ve been in Kinokuniya reading magazines.” Reading a new release yesterday, Fuminori Nakamura’s The Thief, I wondered with its fast-paced story and short page count how many in Japan will enjoy this book tachiyomi style.


Fuminori Nakamura is young writer who at thirty-five has already won four of Japan’s most prestigious literary awards, most recently the 2010 Kenzaburô Ôe Prize for his novel The Thief. It is the only novel of Nakamura’s to be translated into English thus far and is one fans of noir crime fiction will revel in, especially those curious about how contemporary Japanese writers treat the genre.


The main character of The Thief is a distanced Japanese pickpocket who wanders the streets of Tokyo slipping a skilled hand into pockets and bags and often as not giving away as much as he keeps. We don’t even know the man’s name until page fifty-three, and then it comes out almost as a slip—a very clever device on the writer’s part, a way of holding the reader at a distance from the book’s protagonist in exactly the same way he himself is isolated from the people around him. It is a crime novel, but it is equally a story about modern disconnection and isolation. Nishimura is a master pickpocket, best on his own, but still nursing a student’s attachment to his teacher, the wizard of pickpockets, Ishikawa. It is his nostalgic fondness for his old teacher that ultimately leads Nishimura down a dangerous path.


He agrees to take part in what at first seems a simple house robbery with the potential for a big score. The boss however is a man named Kizaki who is soon revealed as a sociopath most happy boasting about the extent of his power to control and hurt others. Nishimura is quickly caught in the tangles of a criminal elite who see his existence as a game of cat and mouse.


Away from Kizaki and his dark threats, Nishimura has defined his own actions by a moral code, though one with scant relation to the law. In a store one day he notices a young boy shoplifting under the guidance of his mother. Near to being caught, he warns the two and once outside speaks briefly with the mother. Some days later he sees the boy again, this time shoplifting on his own. He sympathizes with this young boy and tries to stop him from stealing, telling the boy that pickpockets and thieves grow up to be loners separated from society. The boy touches something in the professional, who almost reluctantly begins to teach him how to pickpocket and shoplift successfully. It is a compelling aspect to the pickpocket’s character that he tutors a child forced to steal for his mother. In his thoughts on the boy we learn much about the art of picking pockets from the narrator's interior monologues, and in his instructions to the young boy learning the craft.


With the crime boss Kizaki, the pickpocket is ultimately forced into a series of trials that are really no more than a test of his skills, with failure bringing the promise of death. In a situation beyond his control the question arises of whether true freedom is something only those with the most power enjoy. Nishimura finally fulfills the demands made upon him, but it is a result meaningless to the one who imposed those demands. The story ends without a clear resolution as to the pickpocket’s fate. He is told that none of it matters, that his life is meaningless and on the brink of a bloody end. Left to bleed out his last minutes in an out of the way Tokyo alley, Nishimura tosses a coin toward a passing pedestrian at the mouth of the alley. We are left to wonder if the coin toss alters his fate to bring help.


Nakamura’s writing is clipped and plain in the way we expect of noir. The cityscape of Tokyo is anything but bright, and is instead a bleak, dirty and dark place of rain and clouds, a cold urban setting in which people are nothing more than marks or ghosts, unconnected phantoms in modern exile. A place where everyone is anonymous, everything soiled, dank and for sale. Apart from Nishimura and the young boy, the characters are each and all types we normally cringe at and lower our eyes in passing.


A final thought: After reading ten or so pages of The Thief it puzzled me why the translators, or publisher decided to use ‘thief’ as a choice for the English title. The original Japanese title of Suri more aptly translates as ‘pickpocket’ and describes a large part of the story and the main character’s psychology. He is after all, a man on the outside of society who spends his days putting his hands into the coats and pockets of others—a disconnected invasion of intimate places.


‘…I stood behind him as he waited for the train. My heart was beating a little fast. I knew the position of all the security cameras on this platform. Since I only had a platform ticket, I had to finish the job before he boarded the train. Blocking the view of the people to my right with my back, I folded the paper as I switched it to my left hand. Then I lowered it slowly to create a shield and slipped my right index and middle fingers into his coat pocket. The fluorescent light glinted faintly off the button on his cuff, sliding at the edge of my vision. I breathed in gently and held it, pinched the corner of the wallet and pulled it out. A quiver ran from my fingertips to my shoulder and a warm sensation gradually spread throughout my body. I felt like I was standing in a void, as though with the countless intersecting lines of vision of all those people, not one was directed at me…Little by little I breathed out, conscious of my temperature rising even more. My fingers still held the tension of touching a forbidden object, the numbness of entering someone’s personal space.’

Friday, March 23, 2012

Drowned Hogs

Thumbing through another of the several Garrison Keillor anthologies of poems on Thursday, nothing much held my attention until I turned the page to discover a poem by New Yorker, Eleanor Lerman. In only a few lines the reader is smack up against moral dilemma, natural disaster, the collapse of cities and finally to that emotion which murmurs closest to the heart, the mystery of love.


Eleanor Lerman is a poet, novelist and short story writer who has always lived in New York. Her first book of poetry, Armed Love (1973), was published when she was twenty-one and nominated for a National Book Award. The New York Times called it X-rated with an implication that young women were not supposed to write books about sex, drugs and rock ’n roll. She tried again two years later with a collection more muted and melancholy titled, Come the Sweet By and By. Once again the experience was less than satisfying and it was twenty-five years before she wrote another book of poems. In 2001 she published The Mystery of Meteors, following that in 2005 with Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds, which won for Lerman the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets. She was granted a 2007 Poetry Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 2011 received a Guggenheim Fellowship. She published her first novel, Janet Planet last September.


The poem below is from the 2001 collection, The Mystery of Meteors.


WHAT THE DARK-EYED ANGEL KNOWS

A man is begging on his knees in the subway. Six-thirty
in the morning and already we are being presented with
moral choices as we rocket along the old rails, through the
old tunnels between Queens and Manhattan. Soon angels
will come crashing through the ceiling, wailing in the voices
of the castrati: Won't you give this pauper bread or money?
And a monster hurricane is coming: we all heard about it
on the radio at dawn. By nightfall, drowned hogs will be
floating like poisoned soap bubbles on the tributaries
of every Southern river. Children will be orphaned and
the infrastructure of whole cities will be overturned. No one
on the East Coast will be able to make a phone call and we
will be boiling our water for days. And of course there are
the serial killers. And the Crips and the Bloods. And the
arguments about bilingual education. And the fact that all
the clothing made by slave labor overseas is not only the
product of an evil system but maybe worse, never even fits

so why is it that all I can think of (and will think of through
the torrential rains to come and the howling night) is
you, sighing so deeply in the darkness, you and the smell
of you and the windswept curve of your cheek? If this
train ever stops, I will ask that dark-eyed angel, the one
who hasn't spoken yet. He looks like he might know

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Feathered Punk

One bird common to this stretch of coastal Florida has for a long time caught my eye, most of the time raising a smile with its punk rock feather-do. Not at all a rare sight most months of the year, it mingles freely with the more common gulls and is visible on most walks up and down the beach. I have wanted for some time to find out more about this bird, but have been stymied by lack of a name to start with. The other day, during a visit with nearby friends, I was invited to have a look at a bird book laying out on the coffee table. No plan, no thought, the book fell open to a page showing this familiar bird of the wacky crown. “So, that’s what it is!” I exulted, “a royal tern.”


In my case at least, shyness or aloofness in any creature of legs or wings tends to heighten curiosity. Try to creep a little closer and they edge away, or approach within even slight proximity and see them dash or flitter away. The royal tern is perhaps the shyest of birds and won’t stand still at any advance. Without a telephoto lens, good photos are hard to get. In most situations I swear by the camera on my iPhone 4S, but it’s next to useless in capturing a good close up of the royal tern.


The appearance of the royal tern in both sexes is similar. It has a white face, neck, breast and belly, with black legs and a thick bill of bright orange. The back and upper wings are pale gray, the rump and tail white, often with dark edgings. The tail is long and deeply forked tail. Average wingspan in an adult is 51 inches (130 cm). Length is from 18–20 inches (45-50 cm) from beak to tail, and average weight anywhere from 12-16 ounces (340-450 grams). The royal tern’s most interesting feature is its black cap with the spiky crest at rear of its head, or what I call punk rock spikes. This spiky cap is more prominent during breeding season and in winter becomes a little patchy, a sort of ornithological call for Rogaine.


Feeding is sometimes in small secluded bodies of water like estuaries, mangroves and lagoons, but the royal tern will also hunt for fish in open water, typically within a hundred yards of shore. When feeding in open water the bird dives from heights near thirty feet, usually alone or in groups of two or three. When tracking large schools of fish they can be seen feeding in large groups. Most often their prey is small fish such as anchovies, weakfish, and croakers. Fish is the main source of food but they will also eat insects, shrimp, and small crabs swimming near the water’s surface.


The females lay one or two buff or whitish colored eggs with brown blotches in an unlined shallow depression in the sand. The eggs are incubated approximately one month. After the eggs hatch the chicks remain in the ‘nest’ for about a week. About two weeks after hatching the chicks gather into groups called a crèche and are fed primarily by their parents who recognize offspring by voice and looks. When the chicks are a month old they start to fly.


With a dab of new knowledge about these standoffish and spike-headed denizens of the water’s edge, my enjoyment of their presence on walks can only be enhanced. There is the sense of a small opened window that will now widen my appreciation of one more feathered member of this sandy environment.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Montblanc and…Montblanc

For the next several days a few hours can happily be devoted to reading the latest issue of my favorite magazine, Stationery Hobby Box, or Shumi no bungu bako. Volume 22 arrived on Monday, thanks to my ever faithful friend Kumiko and now a smorgasbord of new and upcoming stationery treasures are mine to dream about. It continues to be one of my regrets that life outside of Tokyo has made the riches of this magazine a painful tease, reminding me that what was once available a mile or two from my front door is now mostly out of reach. But in their way, stationery dreams are good too.


Surprisingly, on first look this issue does not have a whole lot that excites me. There have been times when my desire for a new release of ink, pen, or notebook has been hard to bear, knowing that none of it will ever reach me in this Florida beachtown un-attuned to the ways of pen and ink. So far, little in the sumptuous pages of Volume 22 has set my head spinning, but the satisfaction of just looking at pictures and reading the stories brings an agreeable buzz.


The cover this time shows a picture of the new Aurora Mar Tirreno fountain pen, a limited edition of only 480 in a green that is said to reflect the Tyrrhenian Sea and the forests that grow along Italy’s western coast from the island of Elba to Sicily. Most interesting so far is the article on pen cases and those chosen by a handful of prominent Japanese writers and illustrators. It sent me searching online for Japanese stores offering a particular pen case, the oddly named Delphonics Carrying model. More often than not the articles list a store or website that offer the item on display, but not this time. I managed to find the pen case on one site, but then found it excluded from the store’s online inventory. Good side is, that exclusion will save me $68.00.


The picture above gives a partial view of the Delphonics pen case, one that is quite a bit larger than the average pen case. The large Japanese characters at the bottom of the picture mean pretty much what the small English and red arrow to the left say: Check out [this] pen case!


Listed at $4,000, the newest addition to Montblanc’s series of famous name fountain pens is the Alfred Hitchcock, shown in the picture below. The pen also comes in a rollerball version for a little bit less than the fountain pen. These photos strike me as not quite up to par, since they offer no view of Mr Hitchcock’s signature, a feature standard on all of the famous name pens from Montblanc. Not a very inventive photo layout, very surprising in a magazine renown for its high quality and artful photographs.


The third thing that caught my interest is also from Montblanc, and is another of their new ink releases. This too is called Alfred Hitchcock, and is a bottle in the smaller size of 30 milliliters, but at the usual price of $25.00. This small size is not anything new with Montblanc ink, and usually indicates a limited edition. Experience tells me that in three months or so this ink will be sold out and hard to come by. Maybe a trip to the Montblanc store a couple of hours away should be added to the calendar. The color is exceptional, even for one already swimming in red ink.


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Spicy Ink

It won’t surprise anyone to hear that I stumble almost daily over bottles of fountain pen ink and that keeping up with so many different inks can be a problem. Basically, it’s because my system of arrangement and storage doesn’t allow them to be easily seen one by one, but it’s also because I have too many bottles. Even with optimum display and quick access to each bottle and color, the numbers mean that a few are going to get lost in the crowd and likely ignored for long periods. Favorites are always placed in spots easy to reach and easy to see, but managing as many as ten shifting favorites also gets unwieldy.


But at least this inefficient system of storing ink makes for an occasional happy surprise. That was the case two days ago when I uncovered an old bottle of Noodler’s Cayenne ink and realized it hadn’t been opened in at least seven years. There is a reason for that apart from its being lost in the crowd around here, but more about that later. Buying ink in Japan always comes with the privilege of trying out a particular ink in-store before purchasing it. Shopping one day in Shosaikan, a pen and ink store in the Aoyama district of Tokyo, I first discovered Noodler’s Cayenne ink. Not hard at all to describe, since the color of the ink is a perfect match to the brownish orange of everyday cayenne pepper. 2005 was a time when brownish orange ink was something of a rarity. Not too many ink manufacturers had yet come up with the idea of creating an ink color from the spice rack. The Noodler’s Cayenne intrigued me. I remember sampling it in Shosaikan and being impressed by the color, but uncertain of the ink’s lubricity. In the pen offered to use for sampling, the ink didn’t show a great deal of smoothness. Scratchy was the feeling I got. Still, I bought the ink for the simple reason that the color was gorgeous.


At home, the ink went immediately into my freshly washed Sailor Professional Gear pen. My thought at the time was that the sample pen at Shosaikan was a poor match for the Sailor, and that the Cayenne ink would flow from the Sailor nib like butter onto glass. That proved not to be the case, even on various kinds of paper in several notebooks. I told myself not to jump to conclusions, to go on using the Professional Gear with the Noodler’s Cayenne for at least a week. At the end of the week I decided to try the Cayenne in a Pelikan Souverän 600, a fountain pen that turns all ink into silk, but after a few days the verdict was unavoidable, and it wasn’t good. And so the Noodler’s Cayenne ink got relegated to the back row of ink bottles, and in time forgotten.


The other day I uncovered that Cayenne ink and for a moment wondered why it was hidden at the bottom of the pile. Without a moment’s pause I grabbed it up and brought it together with a Lamy AL-Star and a Bexley Limited Edition. It didn’t take more than a few lines from the Lamy and its fine nib to know that the nib and Noodler’s Cayenne were not a good match. I continued to use the Lamy hoping that the Noodler’s ink would eventually smooth out, but hope proved insufficient and I switched to the broad nibbed Bexley. In my opinion, the Bexley fountain pen will never be the pen a Lamy is, especially one designed by Wolfgang Fabian, but in this case the Bexley’s broad nib was enough to tip the balance. The Noodler’s Cayenne is much better with the Bexley, the flow and smoothness an improvement over the Lamy, but still not exactly hunky-dory.


The sample on the left above, a short poem by Pablo Neruda, was written with the Lamy AL-Star and a fine nib. It looks okay after the fact, but there was little smoothness to those thirteen lines. Despite that, the color of the ink is superb. The example on the right—a journal excerpt—was done with the broad nibbed Bexley and was much closer to the smooth flow of ink most prefer. Personally, I prefer larger nibs, and the Bexley example exhibits better saturation and shading than the Lamy sample.


The excerpt from Kerouac’s On the Road above is one more done with the fine nibbed Lamy AL-Star, and something about the writing of this sample was easier than the first one in the Neruda Poem. Could be the paper, which is no more than an inexpensive memo pad from a Tokyo stationer.


Despite my reservations about this Noodler’s ink, for the time being I’m happy to have it once again in my weekly menu of colors. I expect that continued writing with this ink in whatever fountain pen—say something in excess of five full pages—might become wearing. We all like that which allows us to forget the collaboration of ink, nib and paper and apply our thoughts to the content uninterrupted, and I’m just not sure this particular and exquisite shade of ink will permit that.


For anyone interested in this ink, you can do no better that seeing it, sampling it and buying it at Goulet Pens.

Monday, March 19, 2012

A Familiar Face

When most of us think of African-American images in advertising, the faces that come immediately to mind are Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Rastus—all three icons of the food industry. The first two images were developed in the nineteenth century, and the third image of Rastus, the Cream of Wheat Chef, was a face and product that came out of the country’s World War II economy. No question there are elements and insinuations in all three that are stereotypical and insulting to black Americans, but we should remember that each is the creation of an earlier age that over time has been altered to present a less discriminating picture.


A box of Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix from the 1930s


America’s first commercially successful pancake mix is the well-known Aunt Jemima, going back to a milling company in St Joseph, Missouri, 1889. An editor from The St Joseph Gazette, Chris Rutt, loved pancakes for breakfast but hating making them from scratch and came up with the idea of a pre-mixed self-rising flour. He put together in plain brown paper sacks a formulation of flour, phosphate of lime, soda and salt and began selling it to grocers, but it didn’t catch on and sold poorly. At the theater one night Rutt saw a minstrel show done in black face with the actors performing a New Orleans cakewalk to a tune called “Old Aunt Jemima.” The actors performed in aprons and red bandanas, the traditional attire of a southern female cook. The idea appealed to Rutt and he took the song’s title and the image of a southern “mammy” to use on his pancake mix.


The new image increased sales, but Rutt soon sold the business to the Davis Milling Company. Chicago hosted a big exposition in 1893 and Davis took advantage of the occasion to promote his Aunt Jemima pancake mix by way of a trend-setting advertising ploy—bringing a trademark to life. For that he hired a black woman named Nancy Green, a storyteller, cook and former slave. Green was introduced as Aunt Jemima at the World’s Columbian Exposition, where it was her job to operate a pancake-cooking display. Her good-natured personality and her talent as a cook helped establish the product. She served visitors to the exposition more than a million pancakes and required a detail of policemen to prevent the crowds from rushing the concession. From that time on, marketing for the pancake mix centered around the stereotypical mammy archetype.


Nancy Green, the original Aunt Jemima


By 1914 the image of Aunt Jemima was so popular that the company was renamed the Aunt Jemima Mills Company. In 1926 the Quaker Oats Company purchased the Aunt Jemima Mills Company, and a few years later took Aunt Jemima to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Nancy Green, The original Aunt Jemima had died some years earlier, and this time the character was played by Anna Robinson, a large, gregarious woman with the face of an angel who continued to promote Aunt Jemima at expositions, state fairs, stores, and in television commercials until her death in 1951. Over the years legends were created to promote the idea that Aunt Jemima was a real cook who made the best pancakes in the south, but in reality it was simply a clever promotional strategy that made the company one of the most famous in the world.


Today the legacy and brand name continue to be strong but Aunt Jemima is no longer presented as a caricature which evokes negative emotions among the African-American community. The Aunt Jemima image was revamped in 1989 with the image above—the head bandana is gone, pearl earrings have been added and the face is much younger. Some will still find the image offensive, but Quaker describes Aunt Jemima as someone standing for ‘warmth, nourishment and trust—qualities you’ll find in loving moms from diverse backgrounds who care for and want the very best for their families.’

Sunday, March 18, 2012

All is Blackness

Circumstances of how it came to me are forgotten now, but way back years ago at a time I was living in New York there was a record album in my home stack that got played on rare occasions. I was trying hard then to shed a thick southern accent and a part of that was taking ‘elocution’ classes at the well-known HB Studio on nearby Bank Street, where one of the names on this rarely played LP was teaching. Maybe the familiar name had something to do with my having the record. Regrettably, most of my friends groaned at the first sounds from this unusual Broadway cast recording of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, an adaptation that had a short run from September 1963 to January of ’64. Even now I can hear my friend Norman’s reaction at the first chords from that dark drama…“All is blackness!” which indeed were the words of one character in the play.


American poet, biographer, and dramatist Edgar Lee Masters was born in Kansas in 1868. His family eventually moved to Illinois, settling in Lewistown. The people and society of Lewistown, including the town’s cemetery at Oak Hill, and the nearby Spoon River were inspirations for many of the writer’s works, most notably Spoon River Anthology. Masters wrote verse throughout his life, publishing collections from 1898 until 1942, but he is remembered chiefly for Spoon River Anthology (1915), a collection of interconnected poems about a fictional town in western Illinois. He began the poems about his childhood experiences in that small town, writing under the pseudonym Webster Ford. The series of poems first appeared in the literary journal Reedy’s Mirror, and in 1915 were bound into a volume and retitled Spoon River Anthology under the poet’s real name. Masters died in 1950.


I owe a debt to that old original cast recording of Spoon River Anthology, something that in those greenhorn days was to me little more than a novelty. But somehow or another a seed was planted and years later I remembered that scratchy old record with its wail of “All is blackness!” and bought for 25¢ a stained and wrinkled paperback copy of the poems. Each poem in the series is a spoken monologue, an epitaph of sorts, delivered by the deceased, with his or her peculiar observations of life, each revealing secrets long swollen by the pall of silence. With no reason to lie or fear of consequence, the stories paint a picture of small town life stripped of pretense. Below are a three excerpts from the complete series of 246 poems.



JUDGE SOMERS

How does it happen, tell me,

That I who was most erudite of lawyers,

Who knew Blackstone and Coke

Almost by heart, who made the greatest speech

The court-house ever heard, and wrote

A brief that won the praise of Justice Breese—

How does it happen, tell me,

That I lie here unmarked, forgotten,

While Chase Henry, the town drunkard,

Has a marble block, topped by an urn,

Wherein Nature, in a mood ironical,

Has sown a flowering weed?


TOM MERRITT

At first I suspected something—

She acted so calm and absent-minded.

And one day I heard the back door shut,

As I entered the front, and I saw him slink

Back of the smokehouse into the lot,

And run across the field.

And I meant to kill him on sight.

But that day, walking near the Fourth Bridge,

Without a stick or a stone at hand,

All of a sudden I saw him standing,

Scared to death, holding his rabbits,

And all I could say was, “Don’t, Don’t, Don’t,”

As he aimed and fired at my heart.


WILLIE PENNINGTON

They called me the weakling, the simpleton,

For my brothers were strong and beautiful,

While I, the last child of parents who had aged,

Inherited only their residue of power.

But they, my brothers, were eaten up

In the fury of the flesh, which I had not,

Through making names and riches for themselves.

Then I, the weak one, the simpleton,

Resting in a little corner of life,

Saw a vision, and through me many saw the vision,

Not knowing it was through me.

Thus a tree sprang

From me, a mustard seed.

About Me

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