Monday, April 30, 2012

Lotte & Vince

Capturing the special moments in a child’s life is every proud parent’s goal. Moms and dads save pictures, make photo albums, create scrapbooks and keep videos on their computers at home. Occasions arise when company comes that a thick photo album is dropped in the lap with either ‘mommy’ or ‘daddy’ inviting you to look at pictures of the kids. Probably no one minds looking at three or four pictures of someone else’s children, but after the fourth or fifth snapshot the desired comments begin to dry up. Unfortunately, few out there have both the talent and the equipment to put all those photos into a three-minute package that shows off twelve years of childhood like you’ve never ever seen before.
A father in Utrecht, Netherlands managed to film the growth of his children weekly over the years. Filmmaker and photographer Frans Hofmeester made short time-lapse videos of his daughter and his son and produced a whole new way of capturing special moments in the growth of a child. His latest is a film he made of his daughter starting with her birth in 1999 and filming her weekly for the next twelve years. Hofmeester used actual video instead of still photographs for the time-lapse sequence, which makes Lotte appear more alive, the transformation from newborn to big kid literally happening before your eyes. “It’s a bit spiritual,” says Hofmeester. “It touches your soul.” Have a look at his impressive short video, Lotte Time- Lapse: Birth to 12 Years in 2 min. 45.
Lotte Time Lapse: Birth to 12 years in 2 min. 45. from Frans Hofmeester on Vimeo.

When Lotte was three years-old her brother Vince was born. Hofmeester starting filming him as well. This one is called Birth to 9 years in 2 min. Time-Lapse Vince.

Along with a good representation of all his work, Hofmeester’s website has several wonderful short films, one of them so beautiful and interesting it lit up my Sunday morning. By all means check out the film of Hey you! What Song Are You Listening To? It was filmed, directed and edited by Hofmeester, asking random citizens of Utrecht walking or biking with headphones, what song they are listening to. Fascinating! As one person commented, “What a great, generous way of seeing random people on the street with instantaneous, personal depth! Bravo!” 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Easy Wind, Downy Flake

On rare occasion a poem will contain the qualities that make it as near to perfect as we can imagine. Feasible within a limitless set of themes and subject matter, if the poet’s heart and mind are turning in sync is it not then possible that the result will be a superior poem, whether one about trout fishing, refrigerator mechanics or the failure of love? Whatever the circumstances or subject matter, the quality of a poem will always depend upon the poet’s understanding of both his subject and his craft. Many will say that Robert Frost achieved this ‘near perfection’ in more than a few of his poems. And after all, it isn’t easy to win four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry with work that is less than superior.

On March 7, 1923 Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was published in The New Republic magazine. It was Frost’s favorite of his own poems, and one he called ‘my best bid for remembrance.’ Though it is a poem about winter, Frost wrote the poem on a warm morning in the middle of June. On one occasion he said that it was the work of just a few minutes, almost without lifting his pen off the page. Describing the process he said, “It was as if I’d had a hallucination.” Despite the claim, an early draft of the poem shows clearly that it was reworked several times.

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Frost himself told the story this way: He wrote the poem based on an experience he had one Christmas season. At the time he was troubled that he and his wife wouldn’t be able to afford Christmas presents for the children. He wasn’t a successful farmer, but scrounged up some produce from their farm, hitched up his horse and took a wagon into town to try and sell enough produce to buy some gifts. He was unable to sell a single thing. As evening came it began to snow and he headed home. Along the way he was overwhelmed with the shame of telling his family about his failure, and as if sensing his mood, the horse stopped. Frost sat on his wagon in the falling snow and cried like a baby. Eventually, the horse jingled its bells, and Frost collected himself and continued the ride back home to his family. He later told his daughter: “A man has as much right as a woman to a good cry now and again. The snow gave me shelter; the horse understood and gave me the time.”

Returning to the idea of how Frost wrote the poem, a few minutes examination of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” reveals a work that defies any claim to quick, uninterrupted composition. As a contemplation on escape and responsibility, the poem is a combination of language, sound and rhythm in which words are like actors in a drama. In the technical sense, the poem is a series of rhymed couplets in iambic tetrameter, sixteen lines divided into four lines with alternating rhymes. Taking the craft one step farther, Frost wrote each of the poem’s sixteen lines in precisely eight syllables. As example, look at the opening and closing lines:
Whose / woods / these / are / I / think / I / know
And / miles / to / go/ be / fore / I / sleep
Choose any of the poem’s sixteen lines and the syllable count will be eight. With everything else this is quite a feat. 

Poetry is writing that cries to be read aloud and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” couldn’t be a better example.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Art of Rakusan Tsuchiya

Japanese woodblock printing reached a pinnacle during the country’s Edo period from 1603 to 1867 with the genre we know as ukiyo-e, or ‘pictures of the floating world.’ After western influence entered the country in 1867 woodblock printing went into decline. In the early twentieth century artists were more interested in the concept of sosaku-hanga, or 'creative prints, which allowed for more personal expression, more freedom in subject matter.’ In spite of these creative differences and the use of a new term to categorize the art, woodblock printing was still a visible genre in the country’s art. During the first quarter of the twentieth century Rakusan Tsuchiya enjoyed a vigorous period of popularity as a woodblock artist.

Painter, woodblock print artist and printer, Rakusan was born Tsuchiya Kôzô in Hyogo Prefecture in 1896, his family moving to Kyoto while he was still a child. He showed a talent for painting as a boy, and with no introduction from influential supporters, his family still managed to get him accepted as a student of Kyoto’s most famous painter of the day, Seiho Takeuchi. After seven years with the master, Rakusan opened his own studio. During the 1920s and 30s he printed and sold his work from his studio until it was disrupted by World War II. In the 1950s his work was sold in the US by Walter Foster. Rakusan’s best known work is a series of 100 woodblock prints done between 1925 and 1929. The work is called Rakusan Flower and Bird Print Series and became so popular the artist went on to print second and third editions. He died in 1976.

This rough sketch from a Rakusan sketchbook was done between 1929-31 and later reworked into a color print. The flower in the sketch is recognizable as a Japanese iris which would be purple in the final print. The artist eventually destroyed his sketchbooks and without any available notes the bird is difficult to name.

Considered by the artist to be one of his best prints, and titled Tawny Daylily and White-winged Widowbird (Early Summer), this woodblock print was produced in 1930 from an original painting on silk. The day lily was originally a Chinese import, but it has been naturalized for centuries in Japan. The white-winged widowbird is an exotic African species often kept in aviaries.

Titled Dead Tree with Scarlet Kazura Vine and Laughing Thrush (Winter), this woodblock print was also the result of an original painting on silk dating from the late 1920s. The laughing thrush is not native to Japan and would have been an exotic caged specimen. Visible here are three small uncolored areas right of center, bounded by the vine growing above the branch—evidence that the woodblock was improperly carved.

Winter Birds Upon a Plum Tree (1930)

Cuckoo and Bracken (Early Summer) 1930

A few of the seals used by Rakusan

A photograph of Rakusan in his Kyoto studio, seated in the foreground

Friday, April 27, 2012

Bypass Burger

Miss Mary Teresa Sterling tapped her long fingernail on the menu, “And give me a margarita with that, too.”

It was the waitress’s first day at the Heart Attack Grill, her third in Las Vegas, and her head was hurting so badly under the harsh lighting she couldn’t remember if she had taken any aspirin or not. “I’m sorry, I want to be sure I have your order correct. Could you repeat what you said, please?”
“What’s your name?”
Still thinking about Manny saying she was too slow to be a waitress, that it was her looks keeping her in the game, she hardly heard the woman. Had she been asked something? She opened her mouth to speak and finally said, “I’m……Uh, let me just try and repeat back to you what I got down. You want the Double Bypass Burger with fries, extra mayonnaise…Is that right?”

The woman stared at the girl, flicked her eyes to the menu and tapped again on the photograph of the burger. Then she leaned forward a few inches running her eyes up and down the waitress’s uniform and seeing what appeared to be a nurse from Victoria’s Secret. “Yes, that’s right…Heidi,” reading the name off the girl’s name tag. “And don’t forget the margarita.” She pulled out a cigarette and tapping the filter against a lighter, called out to the retreating waitress, “Bring the drink first.”

Enjoying a deep pull on her cigarette and picking a fleck of imaginary tobacco from her lip, she looked out at the slots lined up in the lobby, her mind on work like always. She was a big, full-figured woman with dainty hands and beautiful features, hair a rich and lustrous shade of chestnut. Between thoughts of how she was going to make next month’s rent she noticed that the slots looked odd, like something you would see in a hospital room, heart monitors with pull down handles. She reached for the ashtray, not surprised it was a miniature bedpan in pink ceramic. Another time she might have been disgusted with the restaurant’s emergency room decor, but for now she just wanted her drink and a chance to work out the possibility of a bank loan. That was about the only thing that would give her the operating capital she needed to keep the doors open at her agency. She had four girls working in shows now and that brought in just about enough to put gas in her rusted out Coupe de Ville. A year ago she had girls in every show on the strip. Looking at the couple leaning toward each other at a nearby table clinking their glasses in a toast, she began to wonder if the waitress had forgotten her drink. After all, she had trouble taking the order. She turned her head and the waitress was standing there with a margarita in a pint-sized martini glass.
“Thanks. Listen, honey,” the woman said, deciding to have a little fun. “I know you’re busy but do you happen to know if this is an authentic margarita?”
“Huh?…Yeah, I think so.” Heidi had no idea what the lady was talking about but threw in as an afterthought, “The bartender looks like he might be from Mexico.”
“Oh, well if he’s from Mexico it must be authentic, right.”
“I guess.”

After delivering the woman’s drink, Heidi’s phone vibrated in her pocket. Turning toward the kitchen she tried to get straight in her head the orders she had in, all of it swirling in confusion along with whatever authentic margaritas were. Two steps inside the door and Manny was yelling at her. “Hey, you! You going to leave this food up here all day? Get it together. Take this milkshake out to fourteen and the Quadruple to twelve. Come back and I'll have that Double ready for you.” 

She grabbed the milkshake in one hand, the burger in the other and started back to the dining room, but staggered by the weight of the hamburger platter, she quickly put it down again. Stacked with two pounds of beef, eight slices of cheese, a whole sliced tomato and one sliced onion, all surrounded by a half-pound of French fries, the Quadruple was hell to carry. This one was the Bacon Quad that included eight slices of bacon. She cradled the platter in one arm, picked up the milkshake again and reeled away to table fourteen.

Back in the kitchen, the phone vibrating once more in her pocket, Heidi made a move at detouring to the ladies room but Manny caught her, ordering her to take a side of mayo to a man at the bar. “And here’s the Double for the woman at thirteen.”

She got to the woman’s table with the Double but something didn’t look right about the woman. “I’ve got your burger. Is everything okay? Do you need anything else?” 
The woman sat with her chin in her palm, a cigarette clamped between two extended fingers, the other hand drumming nails on the tabletop. Her face was blotched and her voice dry. “No, I’m good.” She was staring again and before Heidi could turn away she said, “I think you’re wasting your time in this place. You ever think about doing something else?”
“I’m sorry?”
“Hey, I’m not coming on to you. I have an agency. I place girls in shows, you know, in the hotels and casinos…showgirls.” She looked down at the hamburger and fries. “You think about it. Think about it and if you’re interested I’ll give you my card.”

Finally able to steal a moment and head for the bathroom, Heidi telephoned Buddy and was astounded to hear that he had decided to leave town. “You drag me all the way across the country from Georgia to this desert town and three days later tell me you’ve had enough, you’re leaving? You don’t even have to say it, Buddy. What damn plan you got brewing in that hard head of yours this time?” Someone flushed the toilet in the next stall and the door banged open. “Hold on. I can’t hear you.” A second later someone banged on the stall door.
“Heidi, Manny’s looking for you. He’s pissed as usual. Better get out here.”
“Thanks, Rita. I gotta go, Buddy. I’ll call you later.”

She delivered another six pounds of food, wrote a check for one table, signed a free pass for another customer, bonus for weighing over 350 pounds, and was back in the kitchen to pick up four butter-fat milkshakes when Manny called her. Heidi found him at the bar and he whispered, “What’s with the lady on thirteen?”
“The fat lady sitting in front of the window. What’s wrong with her?”
“What do you mean?”
“Go over there and see if she’s okay,” the manager told her, worried because of an incident last month when a customer suffered a heart attack while being wheeled to his car after eating a Quadruple Bypass Burger. Yeah, the burgers were advertised as big enough to cause heart attacks but that happening on the premises didn’t help business.

“Ma’am, are you okay?” It was a stupid question considering that the woman was clutching her breast and gasping for breath. Her face was a sheen of oily sweat and Heidi could see a large pulsing vein in her throat. “Can I get you something? Should I bring some water?"
The platter in front of her was empty of all but a few uneaten fries, a cigarette smoldered in the mini-bedpan and a crumpled business card lay beside the empty margarita glass. The woman forced her eyes up and motioned to her business card. “Call me, honey. I can take you outta this deathtrap” she said, as her eyes flew wide and she slid to the floor between table and chair.

Watching from the bar, Manny covered his face with both hands, then picked up the telephone to call 911.

Before bending down to help the woman, just in case she was going to be okay, Heidi reached over and slipped the business card in her pocket.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Barbarian Chains

We’ve all known more than a few married couples who forego the custom of wearing wedding rings, such that it’s definitely a guess to assume an empty ring finger on the left hand means a person is unmarried. Customs are different around the world and some couples don’t attach much meaning to rings. Though it isn’t a rule, a great many Asian couples, especially those of earlier generations believe rings to be merely ornamental without any social or religious significance. And then there are those who don’t like to wear rings of any type.

The origin of the wedding ring has a couple of versions. First, there is an old story of the ring being symbolic of the chains used by barbarian men to secure the bride to her captor-groom’s home. If there is any veracity to that tale, modern couples who exchange rings are evidence of twenty-first century equality of the sexes. Another story has it that the exchange of wedding rings follows the ancient Egyptian thought that a circle or band, having no beginning or end signifies eternity—the rings symbolizing the joining of a couple for eternity. Gold rings were highly valued by the Egyptians, the first worn on a finger was around 2800 BC in the Third Dynasty of the Old Kingdom.

7th century Byzantine wedding ring depicting Christ uniting bride and groom

The custom of wearing gold rings on the fingers also became popular in early Roman culture. Archeology at Pompeii has unearthed many gold rings, among them a design that reappeared in Europe centuries later, as well as in the era of American Flower Children during the 60s and 70s. That was a design of two hands clasped in handshake that came to be known as a ‘friendship ring.’ Tertullian, a Christian priest writing in second century Rome described the average Roman housewife as proudly wearing her gold band in public but exchanging it for a ring of iron in the home. Another Roman design carried a key, a symbol that bore relation to Roman law stating that the marriage contract entitled a wife to half her husband’s wealth, and that she was free to help herself to whatever her husband’s storehouse held. Two thousand years later that attitude reemerged in modern marriages.

Wedding rings haven’t always been worn on the finger next to the little finger. The early Hebrews wore their wedding rings on the index finger, and in India there were worn on the thumb. It was the Greeks who started the custom of wearing it next to the little finger, their reason based upon an incomplete knowledge of the human anatomy. In the third century BC, Greek physicians erroneously believed that the vein they called the “vein of love” ran from the ring finger directly to the heart. Their thinking was that it must be the proper digit for a ring symbolizing heartfelt love. Not long after the Greeks, the Romans too adopted this notion. They took it a step farther by describing the ring finger as the “healing finger” and used it exclusively to stir mixtures of medicine. The idea was that the vein in that finger running to the heart would alert a physician of any toxic mixture, a danger he would feel in his own heart before administering the drug.

Later Christians had their own practice regarding the wedding ring and the ritual of its placement on the finger. The groom first set the ring at the top of his bride’s index finger with the words, “In the name of the Father.” He then moved the ring to the middle finger with the words, “In the name of the Son, concluding by slipping the ring on the bride’s ring finger and ending, “and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.” This ritual was called the Trinitarian formula. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Hogs in the Bush

Lamar was cleaning his gun, the kitchen table spread with oily rags, a can of Gun Scrubber, another of rust protector, dirty cleaning patches and a cleaning rod. The rifle was bought cheap at the flea market on Dixie Highway, a thirty caliber Savage Hog Hunter painted camouflage green and fitted with a Leupold Hog scope. So far, his only experience with the rifle was cleaning it and drawing a bead on targets out back, dry firing and mouthing a soft “pow.” Over the past five days a hundred mockingbirds, armadillos and a tree full of squirrels had blown up with nothing more than trigger clicks and whispered ‘pows.’

“Lamar, take that damn gun out my face and go outside if you gon’ play Rambo. And get all that stuff off the table so I can make my potato salad,” Edna stood at the sink looking into the barrel of the rifle Lamar had aimed out the window directly behind her.
“It ain’t loaded.”
“I know it ain’t loaded, but that don’t mean I like it pointed up my nose.” She turned back to the stove poking at the eggs boiling for the potato salad.
“I’m gonna pick all this up and go call that hunting camp out on Hoops Road off of 305. If they're open on Saturday you’re going with me, huh?” Lamar put the rags and cans in a battered cardboard box and took it out to a locker on the back porch. He sat down on the steps, took out his cell and punched in a number written on the back of his hand, hollering back to Edna, “You going with me?” 
“Yeah, I’m going, you damn fool. If I didn’t you might kill somebody out there,” she muttered, scraping mustard and chopped pickles into a bowl of boiled potatoes.

Lamar talked to the man at the camp and found out that Saturday was a good day, the hunting open from daylight to full dark, $45 per person with an extra fee tacked onto to any killed game. Later that night they decided to drive out early on Saturday and see about hunting some wild hogs. Edna didn’t hunt, didn’t like to even hold a rifle, but enjoyed getting out in the country with Lamar. He had special hunting clothes all colored up like the woods for both of them and she said she would make some ham sandwiches to take along with the potato salad. Edna normally worked on Saturdays, but called a friend who agreed to cover for her. She'd been a beautician at House of Beauty in Codys Corner for fourteen years, where the owner didn’t much care if a couple of the girls switched days now and then. As for going along with Lamar out in the woods to hunt, the only thing she worried about was stepping on a snake, but Lamar said they didn’t have snakes at Buster’s Hog Camp.

He had to work late at the meat packing plant on Friday and by the time Lamar got home Edna had everything ready to go except his rifle and ammo, which she wouldn’t touch. She had the two camouflage outfits out of the closet and was wearing hers while she packed the food and cold drinks in the cooler. She said to Lamar when he looked at her funny, “I wanted to try it out and see if it’s gonna be comfortable.”
“What are you wearing underneath?”
“You ain’t supposed to be naked under there, Edna.”
She flapped a wrist at him and started fixing her hair, like the mossy polyester required a special hairdo that wouldn’t scare the wild pigs. “Nobody can see through it, you know,” she said, giving the fabric a quick spritz of perfume.
Lamar shook his head, going to the closet to get his new Savage and a box of ammunition.

By eight-thirty on Saturday morning Lamar and Edna were somewhere in the middle of 5,000 acres of woods and palmetto scrub, crashing along unconcerned about the noise they made. Edna plugged in her iPod and lit a cigarette, Lamar walking ahead looking for big game while the back beat of rock and roll leaked from Edna’s earphones. They’d been assigned a blind to use, but had gotten tired of waiting inside hoping a wild hog might wander out of the brush and up to the door. They left the cooler there and ventured out to see what the landscape offered. Lamar got a whiff of Edna’s perfume on the breeze and said to himself, “Perfume over the smell of that L&M cigarette…pigs around here have to be deaf and born without a nose.”

Edna gave a sudden shriek and ran up to grab hold of Lamar. “I knew I’d come up on a snake out here! There’s one under that tree right there.” She held tightly to Lamar’s arm.
“Well, you’re okay. It’s not gonna chase after you.” After a while they found a fallen tree that offered a good place to sit and look out on a creek some distance down a slope of pine trees.
“You getting hungry?”
“No, I’m okay for now. Let me have one of your cigarettes.”
She passed over her pack and for the next hour they sat in the sun-speckled glade enjoying the bird sounds and the burble of water in the creek. Lamar pointed out birds, letting Edna look at them through the scope on his rifle.

There was no sight of wild hogs, no sign that they ever passed by this pretty gap in the trees so they went back to the blind, Lamar watching carefully through the blind’s front slats while Edna played a game on her cell phone, colored light flashing off the screen in the dimness of their cover. Without turning his head Lamar said quietly, “You got that potato salad about perfect this time, Edna. I don’t think my mama could make potato salad that good.”
“Mmm…Hey, Lamar, you wanna fool around?” Edna whispered like there might be someone outside listening through the slats. She laid aside the cell phone and purred, “Light me a cigarette, will you? Do it like they did in that old movie we saw on TCM the other night. Light two at one time and pass one over to me. Lord, that was sexy.”
“In a minute. I gotta take a leak. Hold on and I’ll be back in a minute.” 

Lamar crawled out of the blind taking the rifle with him just in case. He walked a ways over to a tree and unzipped. In mid-stream he heard a rustling in the palmetto behind the blind and suddenly excited, peed on himself hurrying to tuck it in. Snatching up the Savage Hog Hunter he crept back toward the bushes where the noise had come from. There it was again, movement and what sounded like the snuffling of a big pig. Taking slow deep breaths, Lamar sighted the rifle on the place the fans of palmetto were shaking. His thumb slipped the safety off and letting his breath out slowly he squeezed the trigger splitting the silence with the crack of a thirty caliber round exploding from the rifle.

“Edna! Edna come out here. I think I got one! Come on and help me round him up.” Without waiting he ran over and began crashing through the stand of palmetto he had fired into. He stumbled deeper into the swampy green, his ears alert for the dying grunts of a wild hog. 

Then he was through and upon his quarry. But instead of a hog Lamar gaped at the sight of Edna standing by a tree naked, pants around her ankles. Speechless in the first moments, Lamar found his voice, shouting, “Edna! What the hell are you doing here? Why are you standing there with your ass in the wind? I could a killed you!”        
“Well, that’s just what I would expect of you, Lamar. Shoot me dead while I’m taking a pee. Thank the good Lord Jesus you’re a lousy shot. Evidently me and the hogs around here are safe for another day. Now gimme that gun. If we sight a hog I’ll give it to you and make sure I’m standing behind your sorry ass.”

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Nature’s Consolation

The work of Japanese poet and painter Tomihiro Hoshino is something of a recurring thought in my mind and on three occasions his poems and paintings have been featured in the pages of this blog, the last as recently as last month. A return to that theme so soon is only because on my recent trip to Louisiana I was lucky enough to come across in a New Orleans bookstore Hoshino’s fourth book, Journey of the Wind, published first in Japanese in 1982, with an English translation following six years later. But each time I sit with a book by this artist a sense of freshness and renewal lifts off the pages and into my heart. His words, as well as his pictures are the very essence of simplicity, but perhaps it is that humble plainness, the spareness of his art that engulfs the reader.

To recap briefly, Hoshino suffered a paralyzing accident as a young man of twenty-four and spent nine years in the hospital before regaining the strength and abilities to make a life at home possible. During those years in a hospital bed, able to move only his head he taught himself to write and paint holding a brush in his mouth. Even to this day forty-two years later someone must assist him by holding his palette within reach of the brush in his mouth. He has inspired a generation of Japanese and others around the world.

In Journey of the Wind Hoshino opens his forward with these words…
‘I am very happy to begin a new journey to faraway places by means of the brush held in my mouth.
The winter mountains are ranged before me. Covered with the fallen leaves of trees, they are warm-coloured like the tail of a squirrel. Perhaps this is Nature’s consolation to us in the cold weather.’

Pear Blossom (1980)

Camellia flowers, I hear,
drop down like severed heads
People say that under cherry trees
dead bodies are buried
Gold-banded lilies, I hear,
like the sound of people moaning
People say that the spider lily
blooms best in grave-yards
Flowers, beautiful as you are,
why is death so near you?
What are the bonds between beauty
and human life?

Sasanqua, or Japanese camellia (1981)

I felt someone was looking at me
I turned my wheel-chair
A small flower was blooming there

Cherry Blossoms (1977)

Pushing my wheel-chair under a cherry tree
my friend pulled down a branch in full bloom
burying my face in blossoms
With a surge of ungovernable joy
I bit off a mouthful of blossom
eating the pink-white petals
munching and munching

The links below are to other poems and paintings by Tomihiro Hoshino.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Pig Shoulders

Hungry teenagers coming home from school aren’t always particular about what they shove in their mouths. In my day the number of snack foods wasn’t anywhere near what it is now, and we usually ‘made’ something from what we could find in the kitchen. One day it might be nothing more than a mayonnaise sandwich, two pieces of Sunbeam white bread with Kraft mayonnaise spread between, and on other days some sliced tomato added. Along with a glass of milk, it filled the stomach and in our minds was the next best thing to a hamburger. And then there were the afternoons when Mamma brought out the big guns and served out a deluxe sandwich: toasted white bread, mayonnaise and two slices of fried Spam. Whatever we say about that now, in those days before the diet craze, reading labels and worrying about health it was a great favorite with everyone.

Spam was first released on the American market in 1937. Hormel Foods Corporation was originally a meat packing company in Austin, Minnesota that brought out canned ham in 1926. By the early 1930s, a number of companies were producing canned pork in large containers, but when other companies imitated his product, Hormel added spices to make theirs distinct. The competition included lips, snouts and even ears in their meats but Hormel refused to use these parts of the animal, using only the shoulder of the pig—a cut rarely used because of the time it took to remove it from the bone. Hormel’s meat was a superior grade and more expensive than the competition’s, but still it looked the same. The company considered ways to distinguish their product from the rest and came up with two ideas: reduce the size of the can so it was family-sized and design a distinctive label.

Production of Hormel’s canned pork slowed temporarily while the company came up with a new type of container and a clever name. There was some dispute over the name at first, but Spam seemed perfect—a combination of the words ‘spiced’ and ‘ham,’ even though the original recipe contained no ham. Hormel later added ham to the mix because so many thought it was already a main ingredient. When the new product hit market shelves it was not an instant seller, but a good many shoppers were happy with Spam’s value and convenience.

The original ingredients were chopped pork shoulder meat with added ham, salt, water, modified potato starch as a binder, and sodium nitrite as a preservative. Today about ninety percent of Spam is pork from a pig’s shoulders, the remaining ten percent from buttocks and thighs, better known as ham. This ratio varies according to ham and pork prices. The US Department of Agriculture does not permit any non-meat fillers in lunchmeat, and no longer allows pig snouts, lips, or ears. The second ingredient is salt, added for flavor and for use as a preservative. A small amount of water is used to bind the ingredients together, and sugar is included for flavor. Finally, sodium nitrate is added to prevent botulism, acting as a preservative as well. Sodium nitrite gives Spam its bright pink color, and without it the meat would turn brown. The gelatin glaze so common to Spam is a result of the meat stock cooling.

During World War II it was difficult to get fresh meat to soldiers on the front but that problem proved to be a huge boost to Spam sales and GIs began eating Spam for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Some of the jokes that passed among soldiers called the canned luncheon meat “ham that didn’t pass its physical” and “meatloaf without basic training.” By 1941, Hormel had sold forty million cans and throughout the war supplied Allied troops with fifteen million cans of Spam per week. Despite the jokes among soldiers, it was Word War II that brought Spam to tables around the world.

Hormel sold its seven billionth can of Spam in 2007, and by 2008 sales were on the rise. On average, 3.8 cans are consumed every second in the United States. Two American plants produce 44,000 cans of Spam every hour. Hawaiians eat four million cans per capita of Spam a year and are crazy about Spam sushi.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Book Bag

Away from home for three weeks, Saturday was a day for getting things back in order around the house. During the time away family members drove over a couple of times to spend a few days here in my absence, a good deal because they could check on things and give the place a look of occupancy for anyone looking over the fence. And surprise to me, I returned to find a near-full refrigerator and the place bedecked with fresh flowers and a few potted plants as well.

All that being well and good, there were a few domestic mysteries about what and where that had to be solved before everything was just where I like it. Where was the fountain pen washing machine? Where was the plant that used to be in the bedroom? What to do with all the fancy Italian gelato in the freezer? None of it major or cause for alarm, but merely a process of putting home in the order accustomed to. That aside another larger ‘task’ was on the settling-back-in list.

This place is about three inches from being out of room for anymore books, and already some areas require a careful tread to avoid knocking over a stack. That thought never entered my head during the time in Louisiana and I bought a little over ten books per week while there. Most of the backseat of the car was stacked with books on the drive home. On Saturday all the books got lined up for inventory with thought to where they might fit in among others.

It’s a job any book lover enjoys—pulling out books purchased recently and once more turning through the pages, reading random lines, breathing in the smell of old paper and ink, and enjoying all over again the first thrill of discovery on some dusty shelf. Books brought home from Baton Rouge and New Orleans are too many to list here, but that doesn’t mean I can’t share a few titles and points of interest along the book buying way.

Hard to ignore others, but here is a list of fifteen books that tickle the fancy this time around:

1. You Are Not I, a portrait of Paul Bowles by Millicent Dillon; several stories and novels by Bowles are familiar, and though I knew he lived for many years in Morocco, much of his life there is a mystery and I bought the book with an eye toward learning something about the writer and Morocco as well.

2. Boy on the Step, poems by Stanley Plum; this signed 1st paperback edition was a gift from my good friend and host in Baton Rouge, Raymond. Both the poet and this collection are unfamiliar to me, but the book is sitting at the top of my list of books to read.

3. When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka; hardback 1st edition picked up in New Orleans, a 2003 book about the US internment camps for Japanese-Americans during WWII. The writer’s latest book, about Japanese war brides (The Buddha in the Attic) is now making waves.

4. Isle of Joy by Don Winslow; unfamiliar paperback of an old 1996 book by a writer I have long liked.

5. Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters; admittedly, John Waters is someone many look at with trepidation, but his nuttiness has always given me belly laughs. Who else quits smoking because of the difficulty of childproof lighters and because butts on dessert plates are repulsive?

6. Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, by Carlos Baker; a writer I want to know more about, and a book recommended by a friend.

7. Act One by Moss Hart; a 1959 1st edition of the well-known playwright’s novel about putting his plays together for Broadway. This book too was a gift from my friend, Raymond, one we both read in high school.

8. Embracing Defeat by John W.Dower; hardback of the 1999 book about Japan during its post-war period from 1945 to 1952. I have a paperback of this excellent book, one that covers every aspect of Japan’s defeat in WWII, and the country’s resurgence.

9. The Prince of Frogtown by Rick Bragg; 1st edition of the 2008 memoir, third in a trilogy.

10. While England Sleeps by David Leavitt; 1st edition of a 1993 book that was recalled by its publisher and pulped in mass over legal discrepancies later resolved. This copy is one that escaped the pulp mill and replaces a paperback copy on my shelves.

11. Heart of the Journey, a 1985 novel by Greg Matthews; another book bought on recommendation.

12. Travels with Virginia Woolf, edited by Jan Morris; 1st edition by a writer I enjoy on occasion.

13. Me and My Baby View the Eclipse: Stories, by Lee Smith; 1st edition of a 1990 collection by a writer who makes me laugh out loud again and again.

14. The Final Solution by Michael Chabon; another 1st edition of a book I already had in paperback. In my opinion Michael Chabon could make a grocery list sing.

15. Journey of the Wind by Tomihiro Hoshino; a rare hardback edition of a 1988 book by one of my favorite Japanese painter-poets.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Back with the Pelicans

There are any number of constants about the ocean and beach, sights that become familiar over time when they are the first sight upon waking in the morning. No question that I’ve become accustomed to it over the twenty-four months of living here, not an unexpected lapse into a regularity where one day at the beach becomes pretty much like another. But then, that’s not really true at all. Look hard enough and you'll find a handful of things that are new and different with each sunrise.

Being away for a stretch of days, in my case almost four weeks, is a reminder of the specialness that colors this spot on the edge of a continent. Surrounded by luggage, and a bag of groceries, exhausted, I fell into bed last night thinking I might sleep through Saturday, ocean and beach be damned. Didn’t quite work out that way and the light of a rising sun creeping up over the Atlantic pulled me from sleep. With hardly a pause I went outside, walked down to the beach stairs where the sight of everything about this place filled me up all over again. There again were the pelicans soaring a foot above the rolling crest of a wave, a track of sunlight jittering on blue-gray water, a sudden growth of wild grass and sea oats against the seawall, and nothing to distract the ear from the steady roar of surf. There it was all again, but with one or two small changes that made it all seem new again.

Driving from Baton Rouge back to Florida on Friday started out well but in the afternoon, a couple of hours into the Florida panhandle things got nasty. It was my luck to fall in behind a long line of cars creeping along behind a double-wide load that extended across the whole of the Interstate highway. Led by a state trooper and two pick up trucks all with flashing lights, trailed by another state trooper and two more flashing pick ups, there was no way around the wheeled leviathan for a distance of about 200 miles. Hard to tell what was being hauled such a distance, a giant piece of machinery of some sort. At times the speed increased and the highway became a dangerous gauntlet, a three-lane sandwich of cars all moving nose to tail at a high speed. Altogether possible it was a situation that would have given Mother Teresa road rage. I Finally got around the wide-hipped monster about eighty miles from home.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Trading Magnolias for Sea Oats

Friday is another long day on the road back to Florida. The time in Louisiana has been all that I hoped for—refreshing days and nights with good friends, cousins, incomparable food and the late night talk of catching up, remembering and laughing over pranks we played. There are a hundred things I'm sure will be missed in leaving Baton Rouge and its ocean of trees for the distant white sand and blue water of the Atlantic.

A fond goodbye to the patio and its redbirds, and to the splashing koi in their pond

Part of my Thursday preparations for the return to Florida included shopping for some goodies to take back for friends. Four pounds of crawfish tails on ice in the cooler, a few bags of Louisiana coffee with chicory and a box of pecan pralines for my friend with the sweet tooth.

Pralines are a traditional Louisiana sweet that folks here pronounce “praw-leen,” unlike the northern pronunciation of “pray-leen.” The origin of pralines includes various stories, probably as many as there are recipes for the sweet confection. One of the more widely-accepted versions begins in the home of a French diplomat. Legend has it that in the 1600s a chef in the diplomat’s kitchen created a sweet from almonds coated with a cooked syrupy sugar. This early confection eventually traveled with Frenchmen to their new colony on the banks of the Mississippi, a land where both sugar cane and nuts were cultivated in abundance. In local kitchens, Louisiana pecans were substituted for the more exotic almonds, cream was added to give the candy more body and a southern tradition was born.

Before the Civil War and Emancipation, selling pralines was a way of making a living for free women of color in New Orleans. The Daily Picayune offered a picturesque description of the pralinieres, or older black women, who sold pralines on the streets of the French Quarter. They were often seen selling their sweets on Canal Street near Bourbon and Royal streets, and also around Jackson Square in the shade of alleys adjacent to St Louis Cathedral. In the 1930s, Louisiana folklorist Lyle Saxon wrote in Gumbo Ya-Ya of praline sellers dressed in gingham and starched white aprons and head wraps, fanning their candies with palmetto leaves and calling out “Belles pralines!” to passersby.

Here is a simple recipe for trying your own hand at this traditional New Orleans specialty.


1 cup light brown sugar, packed

1 cup granulated sugar

½ cup light cream

1 ½ cups pecans, halved

2 tablespoons butter

Combine the brown sugar, granulated sugar and cream in a heavy 2-quart saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Stir occasionally with a wooden spoon until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture forms a thick syrup. Add pecans and butter and continue cooking over medium heat, stirring frequently until a small dollop of the mix will form into a ball in chilled water. Remove sauce pan to a heatproof surface and let cool for 10 minutes. Use a tablespoon to drop rounded balls of the mixture onto a sheet of wax paper or foil, leaving about 3 inches between each ball for pralines to spread. There should be enough for about 12 pralines. Allow to cool.

The magnolia, Louisiana’s state flower and one of the many blooms seen along Baton Rouge streets.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Flight to Freedom

For as long as he could remember Ronaldo had imagined himself a woman trapped in a man’s body. Though he admitted it to no one he often dreamed in lipstick and high heels, drifting through midnight fantasies of bubble bath and wifely duties, waking in the morning to a flat chest and hairy legs. He suffered the usual family pressures and Catholic shame for these secret reveries, but lived among people who would have no understanding of such repressed desires and would cast him out, a shunned pariah left to fight for his life in a cruel society of unfortunates and dangerous drug runners. And so he woke each morning, laid aside the marabou dreams and donned the masculine role expected of him.

Like many in his downtrodden neighborhood of Bogota, Ronaldo made his living as a drug mule, moving white powder from supplier to middleman, sometimes riding shotgun on longer trips to bring blocks of the drug from a jungle lab to a city warehouse. He had developed a catalog of gestures and postures to go along with the dangerous work, rough masculine movements and words that left none suspecting Ronaldo to be anything other than a rough customer.

On Friday morning, Ronaldo’s boss, Juan De Carlos “Cheeks” Otero picked him up at home explaining that they were heading up to the factory for a pick up, to bring the gun and tell his wife to expect him late.

Adoracion watched the men drive away. Turning back to the house she caught sight of a dainty woman’s handkerchief in the rutted street and bent to pick it up. She wondered where it had come from, never thinking that it was something that had fallen unnoticed from her husband’s pocket.

The handkerchief was in fact the single thing in Ronaldo’s daytime life that carried the nighttime fragrance of his dreams. It was a stolen touchstone he snatched up one day when he accompanied his wife into a downtown ladies store on the Avenida Jimenez, quickly stuffing the dainty square into his pocket while Adoracion and the store clerk whispered together over blouses. He kept it hidden from his wife, washing and drying it himself every few days, adding a spritz of La Vida. Countless times during the unpredictable and perilous days of hauling cocaine with savage men, Ronaldo slipped a hand in his pocket to grip his handkerchief, a feminine talisman against harm and ultimate arrest.

“Cheeks” was heading the car past the edge of Bogota when Ronaldo realized he didn’t have the handkerchief.

Four hours later the car’s side panels were loaded with cocaine as Ronaldo rounded a curve, “Cheeks” dozing in the seat beside him. The turn opened up to reveal a row of three uniformed officers standing in front of a barrier, rifles across their chests. Ronaldo’s foot slammed against the brakes, the roadbeaten old Mercedes jitterbugging to the verge. The sleeping “Cheeks” slammed forward, splitting an eye on the dashboard. From the rearview Ronaldo saw more officers and another barrier slide into place behind them.

By early evening Ronaldo was in a jail cell wondering about the chances of escape. From a small window high in the opposite wall he could see a grassless lot with other prisoners milling about, smoking cigarettes, throwing dice and playing samba on makeshift instruments. The lot was surrounded by a high fence that looked flimsy enough to push over with a hard rush.

Hearing a guard shout “Visitors!” the next morning, Ronaldo was surprised to see Adoracion walking through the door of his cell. She’d gotten a message late the night before from someone on the street telling her that her husband was being held at La Modelo Prison. Not knowing the reason or circumstances of her husband’s plight, she arrived with spare clothes, toiletries, a basket of food and a wad of cash given to her by the messenger. Asking no questions, she sat beside her husband on the filthy cot, sobbing, her eyes fastened on the ceiling mumbling prayers to heaven through dingy prison walls. When the shout came that time was up, a file of wives, girlfriends and sisters passed down the walkway headed out. As she stepped out of the cell, Ronaldo grabbed his wife’s arm, pulled her close and in a frightened whisper told Adoracion to return the next day with a set of women’s clothes in her bag. She looked at him with new eyes.

That night Ronaldo slowly shaved his legs, chest and arms, then paid careful attention to scraping away the rough beard on his face. With money funneled in by the messenger, he bought a long black wig and painted glue-on fingernails from a transvestite in the next cell. When the shouts and quarrels of 200 incarcerated men faded into troubled sleep, Ronaldo revived his dreams and began prancing the confines of his cell, a nighttime woman practicing the airs, pouts and moues he would employ to get past guards the next morning. At long last his true self would emerge, a woman with reddened lips confounding the men with guns on their hips. He fell asleep to dream of Hermès scarves.

Adoracion arrived with a cache of feminine items the next morning and watched while her smooth-skinned husband crammed himself into a brassiere, a blue dress open to the waist and a pair of white patent leather high heels a size too small. He applied a slash of red across fevered lips, clapping the black wig on his head and asking his wife to straighten and fluff the jailhouse angora into a Salma Hayek look. As she teased out the wig Ronaldo whispered, “Hurry! Hurry! Time is almost up. I never realized the time required to become a beautiful woman.”

As the women passed out of the cells shouting their goodbyes, Ronaldo pushed his wife out first, waiting a few beats before joining the line in a sinuous promenade. By the time he got to the first checkpoint his feet were killing him. It occurred to him that some adjustment in his step would be needed to manage four-inch heels in a size made for petites. He reached the outer gate in agony, trying to pass off a wobbly limp as girlish affectation. But the press of women around him served as camouflage and got him out to the street unnoticed. Tortured toes and scraped heels be damned, he lit out in double time for the bus station at the end of the street hoping to lose himself in the crowded depot.

Feminine wiles forgotten, Ronaldo staggered down the street in a grimace of patent leather pain, sure that his high heels were by then spotted with blood. Unfortunately, in the fear and excitement of escape he failed to remember that bus stations routinely have at least one policeman on station, scanning the crowd for perverts, skells and runaways. Bored with the ordinary assortment of travelers, the policeman this time was quickly drawn to the unshapely would-be maiden staggering along on shiny white shoes, frantic eyes signaling desperation.

In the next moment a motorbike pulled up to the curb at the station entrance. Seeing his chance, Ronaldo made a clumsy dash for the bike, hoping to jump on the back and speed away. In his haste he lost a shoe, and stopping to scoop up the precious footwear, the policeman stepped in to clamp a hand on Ronaldo’s neck. His hand come away holding a frazzled wig and Ronaldo made a last leap for the motorbike. But it was too late. He was caught and dragged away, wigless, his lipstick smeared, limping along in the policeman’s grip, his right pump left behind as a metaphor of freedom. Ronaldo’s brief dream-come-true melted away as the policeman shoved him roughly into the backseat of a patrol car.

About Me

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