Thursday, September 30, 2010

Phileas Fogg’s Namesake

Starting to reach bottom in the collection of fountain pens entrusted to me for cleaning and evaluation by a friend. Today I looked at pen number eight, a Waterman Phileas in red marble, a design from the 1990s. The pen is named for the character Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s 1873 book, Around the World in Eighty Days, and from that name Waterman has managed to spin a tale connecting pen and book. (Neither Waterman nor fountain pens existed in the 1870s, of course.)

Waterman, along with several of their vendors like to say that the Phileas reflects the art deco look of the 1930s, but that claim is something of a stretch. This pen has what anyone would call a handsome design, a traditional design, but it does not really evoke anything of the art deco era. The barrel and cap are plastic resin with a brass liner. The ebony black crown on the cap looks especially good with the gold band and pocket clip. The Phileas comes in several colors. There is the solid black model, and then the designs in faux marble finish, either blue, green or red. The nib, in either fine or medium is a wide two-toned, partially gold-plated steel nib, with a gold fan motif just over the usual Waterman hexagon with ‘W’ in the center. This gold fan motif is repeated on the pen’s barrel band. The Phileas uses either cartridge or a Waterman piston-fill converter.

I have heard the pen described as a good starter pen for the beginning fountain pen user. You can never be sure how cheaply a certain pen will sell for on ebay, but buying the Phileas brand new is a little more expensive that what most beginners want to pay. Not too long ago I mentioned to a non-enthusiast that a certain pen cost only $60, and the reaction was closer to shock than pleasant surprise. My opinion is that the Waterman Phileas is too expensive to be called a ‘starter pen.’

To be brief, the Phileas fine point nib I have here writes well, rather closer to medium than fine. It’s very smooth and wet enough, though not too wet. The feeling is unlike other steel-nibbed fountain pens, or at least that was the case in the one page I wrote using Iroshizuku Ajisai (hydrangea) ink. Good behavior on the 90g Clairefontaine paper with this ink. I have to give high marks to Waterman for this good looking, smooth writing and moderately priced fountain pen.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Fickle Sky

The rumble of thunder wakens me early in the morning. Eyes blink open at the same moment a sweep of rain slaps against window glass, and a second later wind beats the palm trees into an angry clatter. Sitting up, I get a wide angle view through an unshuttered window that offers a view of sky, ocean and sand melting together, a view severely limited by the wet turmoil of water and cloud.

I stand at the window wondering about this stormy violence, trying to gauge a path or direction it might follow. In this climate weather is fast moving, here in a moment and blown away after a few agitated minutes. This time the storm has found a comfortable center, a place to stop and pound itself against land and water, flinging defiance at the smug assurances of local weathermen who smile and promise sunny beaches.

Thirty minutes pass before the wind and rain blow themselves out and off to a farther stretch of beach. It’s enough to fool me. I am unwilling to easily give up my routine walk and so hurry out to the soggy sand and point my feet south. From there the view is clearer, stretching away north and south. Apart from myself, not another person is in sight for miles in either direction. A half mile offshore isolated walls of rain stretch from dark clouds to a darker ocean, but rays of light have found a way through the gloom to etch portions of sky and cloud with silver lining. There is no rain now and I settle into an unthinking pace across sand that is smooth but spongy.

From behind, or far ahead—I can’t tell—a soft growl of thunder catches me off guard and eyes swivel in each direction looking for the flicker of lightning. Few want to be on a beach in a lightning storm, and I take comfort in the absence of any ominous winks or flares. Walking is still easy and seemingly safe, so I ignore a second roll of thunder and the light sprinkle of almost-rain that begins spotting my T-shirt.

A mile from home the light sprinkle has a sudden personality change, and instantly, magically becomes a torrential wall of water that drenches me in the blink of an eye. The rain pounds craters in the sand all around me and poor visibility takes away everything but the fifteen or twenty feet of space I stumble through. Still no lightning, but there’s little room for comfort in this predicament. And now I have the good sense to turn back toward home.

Water sloshes in my shoes, trunks and T-shirt like a second skin plastered tight against my body, and I am worried now the water is going to wreck the iPhone in my pocket. Phone be damned, it’s the loss of pedometer, camera and half a dozen other functions that unsettles me more.

Some distance ahead I vaguely make out the palm trees that landmark home. The rain is no longer pelting, less a curtain than ordinary hard rain. I notice that the birds, the sanderlings and the willets are untroubled by this weather and without pause go about their business of darting through the receding surf, eye out for a sand hopper or small pigfish. Sky once more morphs into puffs and swirls of clouds doing a light and dark waltz. The light wins out and then with the flick of a switch the rain stops. I am fifty feet from home.

I climb the stairs relieved to have something more substantial than sand under my feet. For a minute I stand and stare out at the settling face of ocean and beach. Looks like it might be a beautiful day.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Captain’s Table

‘All flesh is grass: and it has been said that the man who finds out how to make two blades of grass grow where one grew before serves the republic admirably well.

It may also be said that a woman who causes two dishes to stand upon an American table is more valuable than the hero of any election. This is particularly true when the second dish is that noble pudding, a spotted dog, gleaming on its plate and accompanied by true egg custard.’ — Patrick O’Brian, France 1997.

These words come from the Forward of a delightful companion book to Patrick O’Brian’s twenty-one volume collection of novels. The book is called Lobscouse & Spotted Dog—Which It’s a Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey-Maturin novels. One of the many joys of reading the 6,510 pages of O’Brian’s series is the detail surrounding the food and meals eaten on a 19th century English sailing ship during the era of the Napoleonic Wars. In their book, Anne Chotzinoff Grossman and Lisa Grossman Thomas have compiled a collection of recipes for the numerous and often humorous dishes served to captain and crew, as well as honored guests in the pages of the Aubrey-Maturin anthology. The description of the meals, the pervasiveness and importance of food entranced the two O’Brian fan-writers, as it probably has many, many others. Like most of us, they wondered about things like lobscouse, burgoo and spotted dog. Their book is the result of that curiosity.

‘Bless me,’ cried Jack, with a loving look at its glistening, faintly translucent sides, ‘a spotted dog!’

‘We thought as how you might like one, sir,’ said Pullings. ‘Allow me to carve you a slice.’ — from The Ionian Mission


The authors describe this as a handsome object, brown and appetizing; it has a moist, dense, cake-like texture; it is sweet but not too sweet, spicy but not too spicy, and altogether satisfying.


4 cups flour

¼ cup sugar

½ teaspoon salt

1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

1¾ cups dried currants

½ pound suet, finely grated

1 cup milk

2 eggs, lightly beaten

Preparation: In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugar, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Stir in the currants. Mix in the suet. Add the milk and eggs, and work the mixture thoroughly with your hands. Scrape the batter into a greased 6-cup pudding basin. Tie a well-floured cloth over the pudding. Place the pudding in a pot of boiling water, cover and steam for 2 hours. Unmold and serve hot, accompanied by custard sauce.


A terrible sounding concoction from the section on condiments from the galley and ship’s hold…

This ‘condiment’ is not supposed to require refrigeration, but after a few weeks it grows a fur that can be skimmed off, whereupon the ketchup is perfectly usable.


1 pint strong stale beer

10 anchovies, or 1 can of fillets, rinsed

4 large shallots, peeled and coarsely chopped

5 ounces large flap mushrooms

1 two-inch knob fresh ginger

1 teaspoon pepper

½ teaspoon mace

10 whole cloves

Preparation: Put all ingredients into a saucepan, bring to a boil and simmer gently about 30 minutes, or until liquid is reduced by half. Strain and bottle.

One interesting—perhaps amazing and altogether unbelievable—list offered in this book is one taken from the sixth book in the Aubrey-Maturin series, The Fortune of War. Suspected of espionage by his American captors, Captain Aubrey offers explanation of some questionable papers:

‘These are victualling notes,’ he said. ‘compiled according to a system of my own. You will see that they add up to a yearly consumption of one million eighty-five thousand two hundred and sixty-six pounds of fresh meat; one million one hundred and sixty-seven thousand nine hundred and ninety-five pounds of biscuit and one hundred and eighty-four thousand three hundred and fifty-eight pounds of soft tack; two hundred and seventeen thousand eight hundred and thirteen pounds of flour; one thousand and sixty-six bushels of wheat; one million two hundred and twenty-six thousand seven hundred and thirty-eight pints of wine, and two hundred and forty-four thousand nine hundred and four pints of spirits.’

Monday, September 27, 2010


Jonathan Franzen just might be the hottest name in publishing this month. His long-awaited new novel flooded bookstore shelves at the end of last month, with people lined up to grab a copy of Mr Franzen’s first book since his 2001 National Book Award winner, The Corrections. Nine years is a long wait, but I will waste no time in saying that it was worth the wait. The new book is Freedom, and should surprise no one if it too racks up a list of prizes.

But why the nine years between books? Some of the reasons come out in the Time magazine cover story by Lev Grossman, which appeared last August 23. Franzen described the writing process as even more difficult than the seven years he spent writing The Corrections. In his words, “It was a bitch. It really was.” There is always some backlash to success, and Franzen’s post-National Book Award days were no exception. His situation was also complicated by a flap he had with Oprah Winfrey after she picked his book for her book club. He took a beating in the press for what commentators described as disrespectful remarks about Ms Winfrey. In the end, she uninvited him from her show, though left her all-important ‘Oprah’s Book Club’ seal on The Corrections.

Progress on Freedom was further held up by problems of theme and voice. The writer began with the idea of a novel about the environment written in the first person. That didn’t work for him, so he dropped it. It may then have been the death of his best friend, novelist David Foster Wallace that lifted Franzen over the hump and gave him the energy and inspiration he needed to finish Freedom.

This is a huge novel in the sense of its characters and its themes. Again, as he did in The Corrections, Franzen builds his story around a family. But the singular is misleading here, because the incredible depth of the story involves the people of four families. Basically, Freedom is the story of Patty and Walter Berglund, their long marriage, their emotional struggles and the myth of ‘freedom’ that we Americans hold so dear, and by which our values have become so ignominiously distorted. It is a novel too, of politics and environment, and how one has mercilessly plundered the other.

To employ that word again, huge is an apt term for Franzen’s canvas. It is almost misleading to say that the book is about Patty and Walter Berglund, because Franzen’s lens is so wide. He gives us not only the minute facets and multi-layers of their lives, but their entire culture, political conditions and social history as well. Grossman in his Time interview used a particularly good phrase to describe the Franzen perspective: ‘…a devotee of the wide-shot, the all-embracing, way-we-live-now novel.’

Franzen has the rare skill of making his characters and pages gripping without resorting to slam dunk plot maneuvers. He writes in a way that puts the reader on tenterhooks in merely following a description of someone boiling water or setting out the cups and saucers. The writer shapes his words and story fully aware of the need to hold onto his reader, that the distractions for a reader today are pounding on every door and window. Television, cell phones, email and Internet are the novelist’s competition in today’s world, and Franzen seems well equipped to take them on. The characters in his books are densely, almost microscopically conceived, in a way that we never for a moment question their authenticity. There are times when their presence on the page is as real as the person on the other side of the bed. It is these characters that bind us to a story sprawling, diverse and crossing decades as effortlessly as state lines.

Beneath all the supporting themes in Freedom, more driving than sub-themes of environment, celebrity, gentrification, politics and personal freedom, is the love story of the two central characters. In the words of Patty Berglund, theirs is “a terrible confusion of the heart,”

This is a great novel which will probably win for Franzen another armload of awards—Oprah has already put her sticker on the book, passing out copies to her studio audience—but it must be said that portions of the book slip into soap box sermonizing by the author. A number of Walter’s passions are those of Franzen himself, and we see the writer behind the Walter persona. Anyone who has read one or two Franzen interviews could most likely tell you that the writer, like Walter Berglund, is vehemently against such things as free roaming bird-killing cats, consumerism, iPods and texting. But these sometime appearances of the writer speaking through his characters is not anything that seriously impairs the achievement of an impressively crafted novel of astonishing dimension.

Buy it or borrow it; read it and then try to convince someone you were bored. Little likelihood such will be the case.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Boots & Bras

Forty-five minutes of walking on the beach will yield a bucketful of either trash or treasure. On Tuesday you may stumble across a left shoe (usually the wrong size), and on Wednesday wonder at the slightly sandy and very salty brassiere that catches on a toe when eyes are focused on other than the sand. On those pristine beaches where we see few or small numbers of people, the bits and pieces are more often than not something natural and organic to the area, but it just may be that such unblemished beaches are more and more a product of Hollywood fantasy. The ugly footprint of humanity is fast becoming the dominant signature on white sand everywhere.

I live on what anyone would describe as a clean and beautiful stretch of white sand beach, a long shimmering ribbon of foaming surf, sea turtles, countless birds and seashells—a national park under the protection of not just county and state, but federal government as well. It is monitored daily by the Beach Patrol, marine biologists and trash collectors as well. Each day that I walk on the beach I encounter all three. My point is, the beach is not left to itself, but is patrolled and well looked after.

Unfortunately, it would take more personnel than is possible to keep it all looking like a retouched postcard or vacation brochure. The thing is, a large number of people are either careless or uncaring during their time at the beach. No, certainly not everyone, and thankfully not anywhere near a majority. But you might be surprised at what a weekend crowd can do to soil a beach. Technology being what it is today, most of the litter is in the form of non-biodegradable materials—plastic bottles, caps, bags, Styrofoam, twine and cigarette butts. One of the regular trash collectors explained that the largest amount of litter is in the form of plastic bottle caps, and the labels, also plastic, on water and soft drink bottles. It’s my guess that from his elevated seat on the dune buggy he drives, he either misses or ignores the ever-present cigarette butts. No question in my mind that butts are the most prevalent form of litter, on either beach or street. I’ve yet to see here in the US the little device that is growing in popularity in Japan. It is a small, lightweight, fireproof pocket-sized butt case for use on streets and in parks, and helps to keep public areas free of discarded cigarette butts. No reason this handy little item couldn’t be used on beaches as well as streets and parks.

Might not be a bad idea to strive toward lessening the human footprint everywhere, beaches or otherwise.

The photos…

Top photo is an example of the natural beauty that can be found on a thirty minute beach walk; bottom photo is also the fruit of thirty minutes collecting on even a ‘clean’ beach.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Poet, Painter, Cruciverbalist

Every now and then you come upon a poet or a poem that strikes a chord somewhere in memory or experience. I have never picked pears from anywhere other than a market bin, have never stood high on a shaky ladder amidst fruit and branches, and so I think it must be the grandmother’s portrait that so warmly held my heart momentarily. Turning about one hundred and eighty degrees, the poet has me pondering a vocabulary of chicken verbs and laughing at the way his crossword art leaps over fences to create a charming ode to that most familiar of farmyard fowl.

Gary Whitehead is a poet with more than a few prizes, a painter of some renown, a teacher, and on top of all that, a cruciverbalist—a creator of crossword puzzles. In addition to three chapbooks, he has published two collections of poetry, The Velocity of Dust in 2004 and Measuring Cubits while the Thunder Claps in 2008. His crossword puzzles have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and USA Today. His oil paintings are in private as well as corporate collections in the US and Great Britain. He currently teaches English and creative writing at Tenafly High School in northern New Jersey.


I stand on the top rung and the step ladder
shakes; above me the winter pears just out
of reach, clean and strung heavy along limbs
and swaying like my grandmother’s aprons
hung on the line to dry. I drop one into
the bag she holds open below me. She grins,
and I’m drawn into the embrace of her gaze—
down into handfuls of earth, seasons, the empty
cup of a lost daughter, a lost breast.
I’m stitched into miles of quilts, curtains,
tablecloths, hems of pants, skirts.
I’m held to her like a button on a shirt pocket,
and I smell soap, tomatoes, chicken soup,
Portuguese sweet bread, goat cheese, pears…
and I lower myself out and around the gnarl
of branch, down the ladder to take the full
bag of the fruit I love, warm from
the sun and spotted like her hands.

“Picking Pears” was featured on The Writer’s Almanac yesterday, and is from The Velocity of Dust.


There should be a word for the way

they look with just one eye, neck bent,

for beetle or worm or strewn grain.

“Gleaning,” maybe, between “gizzard”

and “grit.” And for the way they run

toward someone they trust, their skirts

hiked, their plump bodies wobbling:

“bobbling,” let’s call it, inserted

after “blowout” and before “bloom.”

There should be terms, too, for things

they do not do—like urinate or chew—

but perhaps there already are.

I’d want a word for the way they drink,

head thrown back, throat wriggling,

like an old woman swallowing

a pill; a word beginning with “S,”

coming after “sex feather” and before “shank.”

And one for the sweetness of hens

but not roosters. We think

that by naming we can understand,

as if the tongue were more than muscle.

“A Glossary of Chickens” was published in The New Yorker magazine on May 24 of this year.

The attached paintings

The top canvas is called Still Life with Fish, and is oil on canvas board; the second painting, A Pair of Mackerel, is oil on canvas.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Old Pen Reborn

Three or four weeks ago I received an unusual and very special gift from my friend, Joan Mary, whose work as an appraiser sometimes brings her in touch with interesting objects. No information on just where she might have laid hands on it, but the gift was a beautiful antique sterling silver dip pen.

The spiral shape of the shaft is particularly striking, and I wonder if the design is uncommon among dip pens. There is also a name engraved on the lower part of the shaft, just above the nib, or ferrule. As best I can read the fine engraving, it says ‘M. Miellez ’96.’ The pen measures 18.5 centimeters (7.28 inches), including the nib.

Not surprisingly, the pen came to me without a nib, so I spent some time finding out what was needed and where to get it. Knowing next to nothing about dip pens, I contacted Julie at Whatever, and she put me in touch with Sam at Pendemonium. Sam was most helpful, explaining that from the look of the photograph, I needed a gold nib of a certain size, and would get the best results from John Mottishaw at Classic Fountain Pens. So, I contacted John and struck pay dirt. He had a Crown nib that he thought might be the right fit, and two weeks later a Crown semi-flexible fine .497 arrived at my door. Eager to try the old dip pen, but unaware of the surprise in store I started dipping. Don’t really know why I failed to imagine the unique feeling and difficulty of writing with a dip pen, but my first few words and lines were a squiggly, spidery mess. Quite a new experience for me.

As it turns out, writing is somewhat slow and difficult because the pen is very slender, very light, and the nib does not have what feels like good, solid seating in the pen’s ferrule. It tends to move or shift slightly after a few words, prompting me to stop and readjust or straighten the nib. The feeling I get is that the nib needs to be properly ‘installed’ by someone more knowledgeable than I, and that perhaps the ferrule requires some repair. But it’s going to take a little time to get a good and manageable handle on this pen. Definitely a pen that will require some practice in using.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Visconti’s Van Gogh

Visconti is an almost new member of the fountain pen brotherhood, only beginning in 1988 to handcraft writing instruments in Florence, Italy. By the time I first discovered Visconti pens, I was already devoted to Pelikan and Montblanc pens from Germany, and Sailor pens from Japan. In this light, Visconti had a rough time attracting my attention. Once or twice in various pen shops I sampled a Visconti fountain pen, but never had the inclination to buy one. Always had trouble with their nibs, which impress me as hard and inflexible. I would like to think the 14K gold nibs write more smoothly than the steel nibs, which all seem to have an unbending resistance I don’t care for.

I have here in my possession now (temporarily at least) a Visconti Van Gogh Maxi in the tortoise shell design. The Maxi comes in a range of about seven colors or designs, and the tortoise shell version, for some reason is the least visible. It appears that a good many of the US online dealers don’t carry the Van Gogh Maxi in tortoise shell. The one I have here in front of me came from Shosaikan in Tokyo, a pen boutique with a huge inventory of fountain pens.

If I were buying a Van Gogh Maxi for myself, the tortoise shell just might be my choice, but hopefully one with a 14k gold nib, instead of steel. Interesting choice of options to my mind, but Visconti makes the Maxi with a 14K gold nib, as well as a steel nib version. Not sure I understand the reasoning behind that.

A little about the creation of the tortoise shell and other designs…

Visconti came up with a process they call ‘press mould’ using natural resin and vegetal components to produce colors of great depth and translucency. According to Visconti’s boast, patterns vary from pen to pen and no two are the same. This I cannot see myself, but they also brag that the press mould gives the illusion of being hand-painted, recalling the impressionist paintings of Vincent Van Gogh. I have to draw the line there. These pens evoke the impressionism of Van Gogh about as much as Andy Warhol soup cans. Just another example of ad agency bull. No need really, because the colors and patterns in the Van Gogh Maxi series are all beautiful without allusion or pretense to impressionist art.

One interesting thing about the pen is its pocket clip, which opens rather wider than most. The description says that the wider opening makes putting the pen in your pocket easier. Maybe so, though I myself don’t generally put fountain pens in my pocket. There is a somewhat large screw on the back of the cap which secures this wide-mouth clip.

Writing with the steel-nibbed Visconti, even on my favorite paper—Clairefontaine 90g—is sometimes a struggle. Too many skips on downstrokes and on the curve of more than a few letters. I don’t seem to have as much trouble with the steel nibs on my Lamy pens, and the feel of the Visconti nib is altogether different.

The Van Gogh is a handsome pen, and there are things I like about it, but for it to ever be a fountain pen I am likely to pick up often, a nib change would be necessary.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Love with the Proper Pasta

I love pasta. My friend Kumiko would eat Italian food seven nights a week if it were allowed, and I wouldn’t be far behind. Were it not for a spectre of the Michelin Man hovering over my shoulder, I’d gobble a side dish of pasta every night.

Well, I met a plate of pasta last Saturday that could be my dinner date any night. At a local potluck lunch, there wedged between the potato salad and a pot of Sanka was this dreamy bowl of pasta and vegetables, and beautiful colors. A pasta salad. Being the Italian food-aholic that I am, I sidestepped the chocolate cake, slipped around the hot dogs and fell in love with a bowl of pasta.

It would be selfish not to share this recipe.


What you will need:

1 box of tricolor rotini pasta

2 cups of broccoli florets

2 cups of cauliflower florets

½ of a large green pepper, sliced

½ of a large yellow pepper, sliced

(red pepper too, if you like)

1 small summer squash

1 small zucchini

1 large tomato, chopped

¼ cup of sliced green olives with pimento

¼ cup of halved Greek calamata olives

4-5 leaves of red leaf lettuce for garnish

a few sprigs of parsley for additional garnish


Olive oil, fresh lemon juice, 1 teaspoon of chipotle sauce, salt and pepper.

The how-to on this one is uncomplicated. Cook the pasta, drain, then toss it in 2 tablespoons of olive oil and refrigerate. Steam the broccoli-cauliflower, the squash and the zucchini for 4 minutes. Let it all cool and mix it together with the pasta and other ingredients.

I’m nuts about this one, though it’s a pretty ordinary salad except for one thing—the teaspoon of

chipotle sauce.

Go figure; pasta and Tex-Mex.

Was hoping to add two additional photos to this post, but apparently Blogger doesn’t like pasta.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Montblanc Brothers

Looking at the two fountain pens side by side on my desk, the only noticeable difference is in the caps. The older pen has a black cap with gold clip and three gold bands; the cap on the other pen is 925 sterling silver, with a pin striped finish and an individual serial number on the gold pocket clip band. The three gold bands at the base of the cap are the same, and the engraving is the same. The nibs are different only in that the silver capped pen has a nib with a rhodium inlay. Otherwise, both are the same 18k gold nib showing the famous “4810” mark indicating the height in meters of Mount Blanc.

The older fountain pen is a Montblanc Meisterstück 146, which I have owned for about twenty-five years. The silver capped pen beside it is a Meisterstück Doué Sterling Silver fountain pen that I am cleaning and evaluating for a friend.

Apart from the obvious difference in the two caps—black precious resin and sterling silver—there is a big difference in the two nibs as well. Both are the same M size and both 18k. The difference is in the flexibility and smoothness. Despite being a more expensive pen, the Doué nib is practically unused and has none of the worn, settled glide and flow of the older 146. Little surprise over this, since the Doué has spent most of its life resting on a velvet pad in a glass showcase, never inked, never even once dipped into a bottle of ink. In my experience a nib only gets better with use. My friend enjoys looking rather than writing, and there lies the drag.

But the Doué is a beautiful fountain pen, is it not?

A note about the Montblanc 146…

If you are interested in the definitive review of this classic Montblanc fountain pen, see what Lady Dandelion has to say in her thorough and superb review.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Tools

One of the books on my shelves is a 2005 reprint of Natalie Goldberg’s 1986 million seller, Writing Down the Bones. The book contains sixty-four short chapters designed to help and inspire writers, with reflections on dozens and dozens of thoughts, methods, disciplines, and places and things that might inspire. I am quick to admit that I find some of Ms Goldberg’s suggestions a tad odd, or overboard, but her goal is worthy, that writers ‘…come to know themselves, feel joy in expression, trust what they think.’

The first chapter in Writing Down the Bones is called, “Beginner’s Mind, Pen and Paper.” I won’t go into what Ms Goldberg means by ‘beginner’s mind’ here, but want instead to focus on the pen and paper part of her chapter. I found this paragraph interesting:

‘First, consider the pen you write with. It should be a fast-writing pen because your thoughts are always much faster than your hand. You don’t want to slow up your hand even more with a slow pen. A ballpoint, a pencil, a felt tip, for sure, are slow. Go to a stationery store and see what feels good to you. Try out different kinds. Don’t get too fancy and expensive. I mostly use a cheap Sheaffer fountain pen, about $1.95. It has replaceable cartridges. I’ve bought hundreds over the years. I’ve had every color; they often leak, but they are fast. The new roller pens that are out now are fast too, but there’s a slight loss of control. You want to be able to feel the connection and texture of the pen on paper.’

Well, despite what this paragraph suggests, my choice of writing tool for a first draft is always a pencil, and slowness related to that is never an issue. I wrote the first draft of this post with a pencil, very comfortable throughout, no feeling of it holding back my thoughts. As for a $1.95 Sheaffer fountain pen, is there really such a thing? I suspect this is a 1986 price, but even still seems low.

About paper or notebook the chapter continues…

‘Think, too, about your notebook. It is important. This is your equipment, like hammer and nails to a carpenter… Sometimes people buy expensive hardcover journals. They are bulky and heavy, and because they are fancy, you are compelled to write something good. Instead you should feel that you have permission to write the worst junk in the world and it would be okay. Give yourself a lot of space in which to explore writing. A cheap spiral notebook lets you feel that you can fill it quickly and afford another. Also, it is easy to carry…’

‘The size of your notebook matters too. A small notebook can be kept in your pocket, but then you have small thoughts. That’s okay. William Carlos Williams, the famous American poet who was also a children’s doctor, wrote many of his poems on prescription pads between office visits by his patients.’

I would like to introduce Natalie Goldberg to the Rhodia Webnotebook.

Writing Down the Bones at Amazon; and at BetterWorldBooks.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

In Vino Veritas

As far as judging fine wine goes, I have little or no pretenses regarding my own ability to wax eloquent about a good grape, a heady bouquet or flavor related to environment. I enjoy a glass of wine, but am pretty much in a muddle when it comes to choosing something reputable. If truth be told, unless it’s a gift bottle meant for someone else, I am pleased enough with either red or white table wine that has an acceptable flavor and doesn’t require a stop at the ATM. If the conversation turns to the finer points of a good wine, I am content to listen to the opinions of others from the background. On the shopping end, a bottle of wine for $6 or $7 dollars will suit me just fine.

The other day I was talking with some friends who brought up the subject and seemed to know what they were talking about. They were excited about a California wine they had recently discovered, and urged me to try a bottle, especially when they learned that I usually didn’t spend a lot for a bottle of table, or party wine. The wine they recommended comes from Oak Leaf Vineyards in Ripon, California, has only been in production for three years and already been recognized as outstanding. In 2008, the Oak Leaf Chardonnay won a gold Medal at both the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and at the Florida State International Competition. The merlot and the cabernet sauvignon won bronze medals in the San Francisco competition.

The Oak Leaf wines are all nonvintage wines made by Mario Pulido, winemaker for Turning Leaf Vineyards. According to Mr Pulido, the fact that the Oak Leaf wines are nonvintage offers him a greater leeway in using grapes, most being on the low-alcohol side, about twelve percent. This is considered not bad for a party wine.

Now comes the surprise, or certainly the need to stretch your notions of wine, maybe good wine and the vendor who carries it. The Oak Leaf wines are made exclusively for…are you ready? Look for it at your local Wal-Mart. Oak Leaf Vineyards produces wine for none other than Wal-Mart. Because of federal wine laws and other unstated considerations the Wal-Mart name does not appear on the label. And the price? All of their wine is $2.97 per bottle. Most experts agree that these wines would be a bargain at three times the price. Looking at the Cheap Wine Critics website, I found 121 reader comments which speak highly of these wines, some of them from wine connoisseurs.

The Dallas Morning News tested the Oak Leaf wines, inviting a panel to sample four of the wines, poured of course from unrecognizable bottles. Here are a few of their comments:


Rating 6 out of a possible 10

Price: A bargain all over the map from $5 to $30.

Taste Notes: Blueberry-strawberry, lively red fruit. Nose is an earthy European terroir. Color is clean and clear. Short burst of a finish with a lingering aftertaste.


Rating 5.9

A bargain at $10 to $15.

Notes: Clean nose with pineapple, cream, a bit of eucalyptus (ever so slight). Nice color, with a clean finish.


Rating 6.6

A bargain at $5 to $30, with most at $10 or $15.

Notes: Muted black berries. A bit cloudy. Earthy terroir of a European nature. Soft finish that lingers. A wine that grows on you. Has an aged quality, but also feels young.


Rating 5.8

A bargain at $10.

Notes: Nice nose, crisp initial taste. A bit weak on the mid-palate. A little lime, kiwi, rose petal. Nice pool wine, with a bumpy finish.

I have tried all the reds, including the shiraz. No connoisseur, but I like them all. I recommend you give the Oak Leaf a try. After all, what have you got to lose? Three dollars? If you are having people over and are afraid your guests might recognize the Oak Leaf label as a Wal-Mart wine, then serve it in a carafe and no one will be the wiser.

About Me

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