Monday, March 29, 2010

Be not afraid

Yes, I did write a long post about Life as a Cathedral Cantor but it's really about A Great Teacher.

Yes, I am the world's most imperfect and conflicted Catholic. There are times I'm pretty sure the label doesn't even apply to me anymore, at least by external standards.

No, you needn't be afraid there's any religion in there (though a Boredom Warning would probably be appropriate).

And finally, yes, I am humbly grateful you continue to read. Really, really grateful.
Love, love.

Learning like water (or Sister Patricia Recollection, Part 1)

Who've you learned something from? Something you've never forgotten, something you've so completely absorbed into your daily life that you almost can't remember having learned it? Have you ever had a teacher who changed your life with the persistence of water? I used to think of my voice teacher as no more resistable than the Colorado River on the Grand Canyon. Do you have such a person?

I am in a two-day training session this week, something work-oriented, something I'll probably share with colleagues and which will frame some of my work interactions. This has made me think about learning, and about expecting to learn one thing, while almost by accident learning something far more important. And since my teacher happened to be a nun, my subject was music and it's Easter week I thought I'd ask you.

When I started doing solo work at the Cathderal of St. Augustine an embarrassing number of years ago, the Director of Music was a formidable Dominican nun named Sister Patricia Eileen Consier, O.P. (The "O.P." are the words signifying one's vows given to St. Dominic's order, the Order of Preachers, as she would explain when asked.) She was a tall, sturdy person who nearly always wore Dominican white and black clothing but almost never in the form of a habit. She wore a wedding ring, as nuns do, but because of residual edema in her left arm after a mastectomy, hers was on her right hand. When I met her, she had a delicate touch of silver in her dark brown hair, a firm, no-nonsense attitude and a carefully controllled twinkle. She was the very personification of the word "indomitable"; slightly ironic, I know, but true. By all accounts she was a steadfast, if not stubborn person. Born an only child into a well-off Chicago area family, she seems to have been an affectionately indulged child who appalled her father by announcing at 17 that she was joining a convent. During her time in St. Augustine, she lived for a time with the Sisters of St. Joseph, a teaching order whose beautiful old convent downtown opened its quarters to her, but most of the time she lived on her own in one apartment or another because there was no local convent of her order. I think she missed her sisters in Adrian, Michigan, where she lives now, but her determination carried her through what must have been, at least occasionally, very lonely years. Not that she didn't have a social life. She was close to many of the members of the parish, the choir family, her students...she was probably busier, socially, than many of us, and she also happened to reside in the seat of the Diocese of St. Augustine, where our beloved Bishop Snyder was often in residence. She was certainly busy.

I had known her for some years, had been singing with Miss Judy and Miss Jo and Miss Tracy, and many other friends and beloved voices when Miss Jo and I had occasion to sit down for a drink with her. We'd walked to a local St. Augustine pub just down the street from the rectory and to my surprised amusement she ordered a bottle of Killian's without ado. Something, I can't recall what, prompted her to tell us the story of her reception of her doctorate, which she held in Music from Florida State University. She had embarked as a doctoral candidate under direction from her Mother Superior and was in the final stretch when she was placed under the supervision of a respected member of the Music Department's staff, directing the completion of her degree. He was Jewish, she was a Dominican nun still wearing a habit, and none of the irony or humor of the situation was lost on either of them. He was an exacting teacher, constantly challenging the limitations of her thinking and capabilities (in fact, the very sort of teacher she was becoming, herself.) Because she drove to Tallahassee (about a 3 hour drive, one way, from us), continued to serve as a school principal and was dealing with health issues, as well, the program began to take a toll on her. She wrote to the Mother Superior, explaining everything, and asking to be released from her obligation to complete her doctorate. No word came from Adrian. As the silence lengthened from weeks into months, she was a bit ashamed of herself for having complained, worked more closely with her advisor and was finally awarded the prestigious degree. About a month later, she received a letter from Mother Superior.
"Dear Sister Patricia," it began. "It grieves me to know that you are so unhappy and this program of study is adding to the drain on your health. By all means, please withdraw right away..."

She had been an instrumentalist, a violinist, a pianist and a respectable organist, but when she became a choral director she took every opportunity to expand her learning and especially to refine her ability to teach. Dominicans as an order have a great love of learning. Her best friends in convent had dispersed out to the world as doctors, college professors and law scholars. She took a parallel path, always striving for excellence, taking anything less as a sort of personal affront. When offered she did a seminar with Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony Chorus; she traveled most summers in pursuit of learning. And the results were amazing. By the time I started to sing with her, she had a wealth of teaching tools at her fingertips. She shared them generously but with discipline. If you wanted to learn, she would teach you, and you didn't have to pay her or display greatness or do anything else to qualify really, but you had to work very hard. And if you did, of course, it showed. Always at the heart of her work was that unwillingness to settle for anything less than excellence from herself. She taught herself a wide range of visualization techniques, for instance. She told me she'd found that a visualization that had proven highly effective for 10 singers might not work at all for the 11th. She had to have a teaching tool to help that 11th singer and most of the time, she did.

Music is an integral part of liturgy in today's Catholic church, and there is a role for a cantor, following the analagous role in synagogues where a soloist sings certain things alone and leads the congregation in singing other things together. People volunteered for the job, or more often, made eye contact with Sister during rehearsal and got recruited. The first time I had to walk out onto the floor of the sanctuary, which is mostly marble, I would have paid any price at all to have the ancient floor open up and swallow me. I suffered horrors at the thought I would walk out in front of all those people and throw UP, right in front of them. I thought I would die. But I walked out, and I sang the pieces I had to sing and lo, I did not die at all, my loves.

In fact, I did it so often and became so used to it that things like this happened and my blood pressure scarcely fluttered. On the night before Easter, the Easter Vigil Mass takes place at Catholic churches everywhere. It is considered to be the "queen of liturgies", because it's so beautiful and filled with symbolism. (It also takes a LONG TIME, starting around sundown and lasting about 3 hours. And parking in downtown St. Augustine was always a challenge for this one.) One of the sung parts of this liturgy is called the Intecessory Prayer. It's a lovely call-and-response thing, for us set typically in a Gregorian chant form, in which the cantor sings, "St. Augustine", and the people answer, singing, "Pray for us". The cantor may sing a long list of saints' names, depending on the circumstances. I once accidentally scrambled a bunch of pages, completely lost my place in the list of saints, and continued singing, putting in the name of whatever saint I could think of, blithely continuing while Miss Judy (who is not The Boss of Us for no reason) tried to re-shuffle about 14 pages of saints for me. But by this time, you see, years had gone by and I had thoroughly learned Sister's lessons of composure, which, more or less, were these:

Trust your voice, and Just keep singing.
People will rise to your expectations. Never lower them. Sing.
Do what you know to be the right thing, count your blessings, and when someone tells you how wonderful your voice is or what a great job you did, Just say, "Thank you", dammit. Keep singing.
Be honest. Be kind if you possibly can. Don't oversing the people who are singing with you. Oh, and just keep singing.

I spent several hours each week in her company, over the course of more than 10 years. My voice grew stronger, more confident. My range increased. I became capable of ambitious classical work I'd never have imagined without her. One Good Friday, Judy and I did much of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater in two voices, me having learned my part from a recording by Cecilia Bartoli (the soprano in the recording is June Anderson) and Sister's vocal coaching. All the effort and courage it took for me to sing, it takes many of us to speak in public. While I learned what I thought was the the hard part - the singing - from Sister, I found that public speaking became the easy part.

Some years ago, Sister developed a form of dementia and went home to Adrian to live in the mother house. However far her illness may have progressed, it is certain than she found comfort in the life of a religious community, one of the things she told me was hardest for her about living on her own. And however far dementia has taken her from memories of her enormous extended family of hopeful or budding or once-were musicians, it is also certain that she is present to many of us every day. When I speak to audiences at work of 20 or 30 people, when I speak at MadriGalz engagements to 1 or 2 or 10 dozen people, the confidence she taught me guides me always. And in music, she is poigantly with me all the time.

I can never listen to ANY part of The Messiah without hearing her voice and seeing her intensely focused direction, thinking of the first time I sang the choral sections at Christmas, holding hands during the Hallelujah Chorus with two more seasoned altos with tears streaming down my face, abandoning myself in the power of the music all around me, giving up any attempt at singing. There are many other pieces of music I can't separate from her: Mozart's Coronation Mass, the Requeim of Durufle, the choral music of Brahms...the list goes on and on. There is one dear old hymn, pulled out by our circle on every imaginable occasion, in which she seems especially present.

My life flows on in endless song, above earth's lamentation
I hear the real though far-off hymn that hails the new creation.
No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock I'm clinging
Since Love is lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?

Humble dreams came true under the care of a great teacher. I speak confidently, I have sung some of Western history's great music, and when called on I can even teach simple vocal techniques to other people. This last was among her own criteria for having learned something: you never truly learn something, she would say, until you've taught it to someone else. You know what? Come to think of it, Mac does this. He teaches people to play guitar. She would love that.

So who was your teacher, my friends, my teachers? Whose life carved a path in your very self that changed you forever?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Birds and flowers and a taste of spring

There's a considerable risk that you've become weary of looking at sentimental spring pictures on this blog. But there's so much to show and such abundance of perfect weather, carelessly scattered flora and tender new beginnings that I feel utterly helpless to resist the urge to post. It might be the same at your house; I do dearly hope it is. Here are the catbirds, or rather, here's one of the catbirds. They tend to be kind of bossy and since they're bigger than the finches they pretty much control the bird feeders when they arrive. Here, also, is one of the robins I've mentioned lingering past their typical annual flight time. According to the local newspaper (fondly called "The Mullet Wrapper"), it's been such a chilly spring that the Carolinas are too cold to call the robins home. Perhaps that's also why the catbirds are arriving later, and in smaller numbers, than usual. I know the photo's blurry, but I couldn't resist. If you look closely, you can see he's fluttering his wings, almost as though he's doing a spring dance.

Blooming, also somewhat later than usual, are the tiny wild violets I love, and of which Ms. Moon's grandson is such a connoisseur. Ms. Moon has some white ones; I have previously confessed my jealousy. Mine are all this delicate shade of purple. In warmer springs they bloom in the first week of March and are just about gone by now. And finally, you can see the Carolina jessamine, another of nature's town criers announcing the arrival of spring. This stuff curls itself around every kind of tree and bush close enough to the warm spring sun to give it hope. So small are its flowers that from a distance you sometimes just see a palm tree with a strangely yellow crown on its head, or a clump of scrub oaks and palmettos sporting an inexplicable cloud of yellow. When you get close enough, you can see these lovely little flowers. Because of the live oaks and water oaks around our house you often see the jessamine flowers climbing and trailing 50 or 75 feet over your head. Falling, they create spots under the trees that are starred with blossoms, pretty enough to lead a bride up the aisle. This last is something I've been trying to photograph this week, and as soon as I get the right image I'll share it with you.

I hope you have all the fixings for a fine big salad for your supper tonight, and some excellent homemade dressing for it. If you have some sliced almonds or chopped walnuts or pecans, toast them in a skillet or in the oven and toss them on top. Even if it's still too cold to eat supper outside, enjoy the fresh flavors and know that spring is closer than you think. It always is.

Eat Here photo credits: all images thanks to Rodney Christensen

Friday, March 19, 2010

Plant City strawberries

Along most major roads, not including interstates, fruit stands pop up this time of year in northeast Florida. Most of them are touting PLANT CITY STRAWBERRIES, like that, in homemade signs lettered in all caps. And mostly these strawberries are really good. If you don't remember the recipe for Cream Biscuits (commented on by Screamish), here it is again. Don't make the mistake of buying fresh spring strawberries and then serving them on those horrifying little pretend-spongecakes you find in the grocery store. Buy as many strawberries as you can. Slice them up and freeze, as appopriate. With the ones you're serving tomorrow afternoon, slice and refigerate, and then mix this up and bake according to directions. You'll want a touch of fresh cream, whether or not you whip and sweeten it. Make the Cream Biscuits.

Mix 2 cups of all-purpose flour, a teaspoon of salt, a tablespoon of baking powder and a couple of teaspoons of flour in a mixing bowl. Lighten and sift together with a fork and preheat the oven to about 400 degrees. Melt about 6-8 tablespoons of butter and set aside. Mix in a cup of cream, adding more as needed to make a nice thick dough (you might need up to 1-1/2 cups). When mixed, turn onto a floured surface and knead for about a minute; cut into biscuits as desired. Dip each biscuit into the butter and place on a baking sheet; bake for 15 minutes or so until they're nicely browned and have a lovely scent of "doneness". Serve as many thousands of sliced strawberries as you can. Pour a little cream over the whole thing, or make fresh whipped cream and serve that. It's not hard, it IS delicious, and from now until time ends your family will ask you to make it every spring.

Ah, spring. You will welcome it with this recipe every year.

Life and Alzheimer's, Part 2, and yellow houses trimmed in purple

Recently over at Just Eat It, some housecleaning was going on, and some pictures were posted of the beautiful yellow-painted, purple-trimmed house were posted. These pictures moved me strangely, because although this house is far away from us in the northern U.S., our friend Lulumarie's house, nestled into a lovely old neighborhood in St. Augustine, is has an almost identical, and clearly not completely unique, color scheme. I had to share some pictures of Lulumarie's house with Just Eat It and was too much fun not to share it here. I mentioned the unexpected coincidence of color to Lulumarie and we talked about the surprising colors in her quiet neighborhood of white and cream and pale-green houses.

"When I told the guy at the paint store what I had in mind," she told me, " I said that I was a little worried about the reaction of my neighbors." Her neighborhood is an old, diverse one, but not one where people paint their houses in the colors of the Caribbean. But the paint store guy looked at our dear Lulumarie and said, "Are you painting your house for you, or for your neighbors?" She pauses for a moment, recalling, and then finishes the story: "So I said, I'll take the yellow and the purple." We love Lulumarie for many reasons: she is both generous and kind, she has very high expectations and always delivers on them, and she loves with her whole heart. This story shows you a glimpse of the inner certainty we love, too, not to mention that unerring sense of artistry and color. Before we move on to the difficult topic of Alzheimer's in earnest, it's worth mentioning that Rodney's Uncle Sam (different family branch, but also afflicted with the disease) was a neighbor of Lulumarie's, and used to stroll through her neighborhood, seeing it through eyes fixed on a view of 20 or 30 years earlier. It's a funny old town.

Today I was asked, by a friend at work, about nursing home care and Alzheimer's and thought I needed to write more about this. Alzheimer's is far less fun to write about than yellow houses, but it has informational value that might change someone's experience, so I'm going to face it. Maybe you don't have to read it. Maybe you can come back to it when you think you do need it, or pass it along to a friend who may need to know. For what it's worth, here is Life and Alzheimer's, Part 2.

When Pop came to us, he had been hospitalized in the town where he lived, more than 300 miles from his family (the topic of another post, for another day). The hospital released him to Rodney's brother Rick, on condition that he be placed in a nursing facility for a 30 day evaluation. The hospital staff was concerned that he might not be able to care for himself. Rodney and his dad had been estranged before all this happened; Pop had also been estranged from his oldest son because generally speaking, Alzheimer's or no, he was difficult to get along with, stubborn and unyielding. Rick brought Pop to St. Augustine. We talked about it, and agreed the best plan was to get Pop admitted to a local nursing home, mostly because Bernice lived there.

Bernice was the Nicest Person in the World, Ever. I am not making this up. She was Pop's wife, the step-mother of Rick and Rodney, the mother of six of her own lovely kids and as sweet a person as I've ever known. After she retired, she wanted to live near her children and came to St. Augustine; Pop refused to move with her. When she agreed with her kids that a nursing home would be best for her (she was diabetic and needed dialysis several times a week) she moved into a comfortable, homey local facility. Pop divorced her about that time, because he didn't want to be liable for her medical expenses. (I know, I know.) But as his dementia progressed, he lost any memory that they'd been divorced. He only knew that he missed her, and woke up in the middle of the night looking for her. Before Rick brought him to St. Augustine, Pop would call us or Rick or anyone else he could think of, sometimes at 3 or 4 in the morning, out of his mind with worry: he didn't know where she was. He thought she was out on the town, cheating on him. It was so absurd it migh have been funny if it hadn't been impossible to imagine her doing any such thing.

So: we thought we could get him to stay in the same nursing home. Bernice was there; he wanted nothing more than to be with her; we had at least the 30 days Medicare would pay for to get him cared for and figure out our next steps. We filled out all the paperwork and checked him in, and went home to try and recover from the stresses we had never expected. At about sundown, the nursing home called to tell us Pop was standing alongside the busy highway, refusing to come back in, waiting for someone to pick him up and take him home. He absolutely would not stay.

I'll skip some of the details and compress the timeline, but it came down to this: how do you make someone submit to medical care for a medically-requested assessment? In the state of Florida, the answer is, you can't. There is no control short of a plenary guardianship in Florida by which you can compel someone to get medical treatment they don't want. We went to our family attorney for help; we needed to control Pop's location and care, we needed to figure out the maze of Medicaid (his retirement was far too small to cover the costs of private care), and we needed to get some kind of mental health relief. We were all pushed beyond the limits of daily stress, into some state of panic I can hardly put into words. To our horror, we realized that our very competent family lawyer had no idea how to deal with the details of geriatric law. While we waded through this, Rick and his family faced eldercare health issues with his wife's family. I agreed to serve as guardian, thinking (naively), How hard can this be? I thought the same thing about applying for institutional Medicaid to pay for nursing care for Pop. Are you kidding? How hard can it be? I'm a smart person. I can do this. It's painful to even think back on it. I was so wrong.

The best advice I can give to anyone dealing with eldercare issues is this: find a lawyer in your area who specializes in this area. Trust him or her with everything. Pay the money. It might cost you as much as 2 or 3 thousand dollars or more out of your own pocket. For us, it did; it cost more than I can tell you and much more than Pop had. Pay the money. If you have to hock something, pay the money. This may vary in your state, but I still believe in paying for the initial consultation to be sure. And no matter what you do, there may be another price to pay in the currency of your own family. For us, there came a breaking point for Rick that took Rodney and me completely by surprise.

We'd placed Pop in a nursing home where they could control his ability to leave, and I'd been appointed guardian, pending the final decision of the court. We'd passed through about a year of unbelievable stress on ourselves, our children, our friends. But there was breathing room, it seemed, until Rodney happened to run into a mutual friend of his and his brother's. The guy said, "Wow, how about Rick selling everything and moving to another state; freaky, huh?" Rodney mumbled some response and came home to tell me that without a word, Rick had sold his business, his trucks and other business assets, his house... and had moved hundreds of miles away, to another state. We haven't talked to him since.

Alzheimer's is a terrible affliction for the sufferer. It takes memory and personality, and it is ruthless and always ends badly. But while victims of the disease go slowly away from their loved ones, those same loved ones suffer the torments of another hell. If you're one of these people, or in line to become one, be strong and brave. Get a lawyer, and get one who knows about elder law in your state. And you can always talk to me. It has changed us forever.

A final, much more positive note, of spring in the air: I've noticed the tightly closed azalea buds in our neighborhood finally beginning to open their petals to the warming air. As I noted the other day, the violets are in bloom, and we've seen the catbirds; this year there seem to be a small family group. There is a hermit thrush nesting nearby, a red-throated woodpecker and we've even seen a pileated woodpecker family. These guys are elusive and careful, but stay tuned for photos. For tonight, one of our tiny wild violets will have to serve to take us back to Lulumarie's tranquil house and connect us to the lovely house of our friends at Just Eat It.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

No mean people allowed (or, a Dog Meeting for Olivia, Rose, Maxine and Elijah)

Here is one of my favorite photos of our Meg, which we call "Sitting Meg", because she actually does sit this way. Tonight is about dogs, and about being polite and about kindness. As I may have mentioned, Ms. Moon is a frequent source of inspiration at Eat Here. So is Gatorbone Studios, so is Blogging is for Dorks...don't get me started on Your Aunt Becky. So are you ALL, every single one of you, dear readers. You are, as Aunt Becky points out, a community I've come to value, respect, share inspiration with and treasure FAR more than I have words to tell you. But tonight I have to talk to four BIG small people, and you can read along if you like. The people are Elijah, Maxine Jane, Olivia and Rose and they had a generally BAD day recently. This post is to try and make up for part of it in a tiny way.

So Rose, Olivia, Elijah, Max: you saw a lady walking with 2 big dogs and you guys wanted to meet them. And this lady not only did not stop and let you meet her dogs, but continued along without even exchanging a smile or a wave. Well, please meet Meg, who is happy to meet you. The lady might have had a reason for walking on, maybe a good reason: her dogs might be learning to be helping dogs, or learning to walk on leashes, or learning to be nice to kids. She might have needed to keep them in forward motion, for some reason. But she could have smiled and called out to you: "Hi! Sorry, in training, hope to meet you again when the dogs can visit..." It would have been easy to shout as she approached, and could have trailed it over her shoulder. As someone who believes in rescuing animals and serves as a foster parent for Boxers in trouble this makes me crazy. One day, I hope one of you will save the life of a dog (or a cat or bird, or maybe even a person) and I believe we can learn ALOT about being good, kind people by doing this.

Back to meeting Meg: If I'd been the lady walking past you with Meg, I know Meg would have ducked and pulled away and tried to hide from you because she is desparately afraid of strangers. Something happened to her as a puppy - we don't know what - and it makes her very shy. I would have stopped and held her leash, with her struggling to run away, and explained it to you quickly; it's part of my job to help Meg learn that she doesn't have to be scared of everyone. And it would have been generous of you to help me teach her that lesson. I would have told you she is a Boxer, she only knows one trick and it's really, really dumb and you would have laughed. (Her trick is that she can hop up and stand on narrow things like balance beams. She is VERY proud of this accomplishment, and puts her nubby tail high in the air and waits to be admired. Well, I told you it was dumb.) This is what she looks like close up, and you can see that she has a very silly face, which we laugh about all the time. And if you came to our house, and she got used to you for half an hour or so, she would sit in your laps and lick your faces and wiggle her little tail, and you would all love each other.

Here is Calvin. You can't tell from his photo, but he is a FAT Boxer. He has a trick of losing 20 pounds in every photo (I have no idea how he does it) but you'd laugh at the way he kind of waddles, and his stubby tail is actually kind of fat, and he has a big smiley dog face. If I walked him past you, he would stop and visit with you, lick your faces and fingers, ask you in dog language if you didn't have something nice to eat. You would ask me how he got the big scars on his back. I would tell you that the rescue group I work with thinks, sadly, that he might have been used as a fighting dog, but that he's been rescued from that and will have a happy, safe life, finishing up everyone else's food forever. We'd have stopped to chat about it, though. Calvin is too friendly to let me just pass by without a word. "Look!" he would have said to me in the unspoken language animals use if you listen closely enough. Not barking or making any sound at all, but easy to understand if you pay attention. "Look! Kids! I LOVE kids! We have to stop!" We would have stopped and you would all have gotten Boxer kisses from top to toe.

And our oldest dog is Tyson (also called Ty For Short) who is now about 10 and has been with us since she was 5. If we'd passed you on the street, she would have wiggled SO HARD all over her body that you would all have fallen down from laughing so hard. She is so happy to see everyone, especially kids who are happy to see her. In this picture she's snuggled up to take a nap with Rodney but she loves to go for a walk and she loves to meet new people. She's not so great at walking on a leash because she gets so excited about seeing people and smelling smells and walking and butterflies and birds...well, you know the feeling. But Ty would have learned from you, you would have learned from her, and the kindness we all showed each other would have helped us all grow. So we would all have been happy to meet you, grateful for your attention, and glad to answer questions. And I'm really sorry the dog person you saw today didn't do those things.

I hope you all keep learning from your parents and each other, because it seems to me that you all have kindness at your hearts. This doesn't mean you're not REALLY mean to each other sometimes, because that happens to all of us. But it does mean you know how to be kind, how to be polite and certainly in Rose's case, how to use your sense of humor to keep your balance. Finally, here's a picture of a hat your mom made, with Rodney in Boxer costume and Meg keeping him honest. I included it because it's a picture of senses of humor in action: your mom, who good-naturedly made it, and Rodney who is actually brave and funny enough to wear it out in public, and friends like Debra, who are good enough to notice it and comment on my blog.

I hope you guys liked meeting the dogs. They send lots of love, and dearly hope to meet you, walking down the street one day, with a chance to say hello, wiggle their Boxer bodies, maybe give some kisses, and almost certainly learn a tiny, precious lesson about being kind. Thank you, Rose, Olivia, Maxine Jane and Elijah, for being kind enough to forgive or overlook the unkind people who crossed your path. Thank you, Blogging is for Dorks, for sharing. Tiny, precious lessons. What a gift.

Eat Here credits: Ultra Cute Crochet by Erin
Photos by Angie, except
Sitting Meg (c) Rodney Christensen, 2009

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Law enforcement: a respectful hippie perspective

Funny thing about cops: I used to have a sort of reluctance to deal with them, an aversion probably based on my wild, misspent youth (umm, and er, middle age, and sort of...well, my whole life, actually). In the last two years some things have happened to shift my perspective, some ordinary, everyday things, and some dramatic, heroic things.

One of our neighbors is a young cop. He's a dedicated, hard-working guy. He's friendly, approachable, and like most cops and teachers, almost certainly underpaid. He has that hopeful, not-yet-cynical look of a young man beginning a career. Something about his view of himself as man, as a cop, as a young professional gives me hope. Come to think of it, it gives me the same feeling I have when I sing at a wedding, the just-about-to-cry feeling. People don't cry at weddings because weddings are beautiful, though they are, or because they're evocative of nostalgia, though they are. I believe people cry at weddings because they are profoundly moved by that unvarnished faith in the future you see on the faces of the marrying couple. I've stood in front of groups of wedding guests of less than 20 people, and crowds numbering in the hundreds. We've been together in churches, cathedrals, public spaces and back yards and even on the beautiful green of the Castillo San Marcos. Almost every wedding guest has at least a few seconds of misty sweetness, because of the power of that unvarnished faith. It is people saying to each other: "I believe. I believe in you; I believe in me; I believe in us. I believe we can make this commitment, for as far as I can see into the future." This is the face I see on our young neighbor, who takes his yet-to-become cynical self to work every day, being a cop, doing his best to protect us from ourselves.

Falling into the category of dramatic and heroic is a cop whose brother is one of the people I work most closely with at the office. The cop, Jared, is a guy who may have been born to be a cop; by all accounts he wears it well. He, too, is a dedicated, hard-working guy. My guess is that he's also underpaid, not for any personal reason but because, in my very humble opinion, our society undervalues the work done by teachers and cops and firefighters. We underpay them and cross our fingers that they'll find the work satisfying enough to be its own reward. Teachers often have to supplement their incomes with second jobs; so do cops. In Jared's case, he was providing security at a shopping mall when a shoplifting episode took a frightening turn. There was a foot chase, a horrifying encounter with a suspect in which shots were fired, and had Jared not been wearing a bullet-proof vest, he would have been killed by the mutiple shots fired at his chest. You can read the details, but the part of the story that remains in my memory is this: having taken several non-life-threatening shots, Jared awoke in the hospital, unable to speak because one of those shots hit his jaw. He still managed to ask two key questions: Were his wife and family okay, and had he conducted himself in the most professional manner? That feeling I talked about that makes people cry at weddings? That breathtaking faith in the future? This story makes something altogether new out of that impulse. There's a thread of dark humor here; I don't imagine cops ever see themselves even being tempted to cry at weddings. They almost certainly begin to see everybody as a potential dirt-bag because that's what the job prepares them for. But they get up and go to work every day. That says faith to me, even if it has dark overtones and more darkness lurking underneath.

In perhaps the most selfish example of Cops Making Life Better for Me Personally, I have to take you back to our much ballyhooed Guana Reserve. Because of Guana's geographic location (the Ponte Vedra-area beach geography, specifically; not the Matanzas area section which lies some miles to the south) and its access configuration, you park your car in one of 3 lots on the west side of A1A, and walk across the highway to access the beach. Because it's justifiably considered to be a somewhat under-utilized recreational facility, and because the parking areas are tucked a bit out of sight in the native scrub oak and palmetto brush...and perhaps because some of the well-to-do beach house residents might prefer their solitude to having people like Rodney and me walking up into what they consider their front yards, there is ever-increasing pressure on the state's law enforcement arm to ensure security. To this purpose we rely on the state's Department of Environmental Protection's law enforcement team. As Rodney and I are there virtually every weekend, and as often as weather and timing permit during the weekday evenings, we see this law enforcement first-hand. And it is very, very present.

As development continues in the delicate ecosystem of northeastern St. Johns County, I imagine those who are able to afford to live on the beach and enjoy the solitude offered by the proximity of Guana. I imagine they might be motivated to suggest that the 3 parking lots aren't safe, that cars are broken into and inappropriate sexual activity facilitated by the seclusion of the park, that crossing A1A isn't safe, that beach access should be restricted in the public interest. But I can tell you that more that one state cop, and many local deputies, are actively engaged in ensuring safety, preventing criminal behavior and actively enforcing the law, and ensuring the safety of those who take advantage of this beautiful, pristine spot. We've become friendly with one such DEP cop, John, whose presence puts us at ease every time we see him.

Like the other cops I've talked about, John is hard-working, personable, and believes in his work. His presence prevents the breaking of car windows and stealing of valuables, provides vigilance in a relatively remote park where some people feel safe doing things no one really wants to think about, and ensures the safety of residents like sea turtles and North Atlantic Right Whales, not to mention people. And in John's case, you have the sense that his territory really belongs to him: he can give you directions, information about the rules on everything from fishing to camping to whale-watching, because he knows every corner of the park and takes care of it like his own backyard. Which, come to think of it, it is. So thank you, J.J., and thank you, Jared, and thank you, John. It can't be easy to do what you do, and we are so often unappreciative.

Lest I leave you without your supper, here's a photo of the chicken enchiladas Rodney and I made this evening. They're from a sort of basic recipe Lis gave me, and now they get made at our house all the time, out of every sort of leftover. Start with shredded chicken or leftover roast pork or beef, or red, black or pinto beans you've already cooked. In your cast iron skillet, cook a chopped onion in some olive oil until tender, add the protein, a cup or so of prepared salsa and one of those little cans of chopped green chilies. Simmer until the flavors marry and adjust seasoning to your preference (I like cilantro, but if I add it I'm the only one who will eat it) may like cumin or red pepper, for instance: throw those in. When this has simmered to your liking, add 8 ounces of cream cheese (or the lower-fat variation, neufchatel) and cook until the cheese melts and the whole thing is creamy and delicious. Heat corn tortillas until they're flexible; fill the tortillas and place seam-side down in a casserole dish. Cover with salsa or enchilada sauce (or a mixture of both); top with grated cheese and bake at 325 for half an hour or so. Trust me on this.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Life and Alzheimer's, Part 1A

Last night I wrote about Alzheimer's disease and its dread cold touch on my family. The post was refracted through a lens Ms. Moon provided to us when she wrote about the scripts we follow as people in long-lived relationships. There are other lenses, of course. I mean to look at this thing again through some of them, but spaced out and relieved by the prosaic happy things I like to write about like light and natural beauty and friendship. This is partly because I can only take Alzheimer's in small doses, and partly because my guess is that you feel the same way. So tell me how you feel. Until I figure it out, I'll just push on. Rain is coming, the weather people tell us, coming with a change in the barometer tomorrow. Rodney is a pretty reliable human predictor of such changes, and his readings seem to be falling. So I talked to a couple of colleagues today and bargained my way into taking part of this afternoon away from my computer for a beach walk, and was able to finish my work this evening after the sun went to bed. Thank you, work pals.

This is what it looked like. Could you just lose yourself in those colors of blue? That perfect clarity of air, those tiny, breathy wisps of wind-streaked white clouds? But perhaps you live in a place where beaches, when warm enough to be habitable, are crowded with blankets full of people. Maybe your beaches actually find themselves dusted with snow in the coldest part of winter; maybe people don't even allow themselves to think of beaches when the wind howls around their houses. And if this is true for you then you, perhaps more than my readers who are fellow southerners, truly understand the nature of my endless fascination with the beach: it is the best hiding place of all. It is chapel and yoga mat and therapy session; it is nature walk and meditation and beautifully shared consciousness with my life's partner. It is fresh with each visit and as timeless as time itself. It is healing. God lives there, and so does the Goddess. And all this was taught to me, very slowly, by the plodding work of Alzheimer's on the patient fabric of my family's life. There were other things, too, of course, including Rodney's medical stuff. But I can say without the least shadow of question that I took refuge from every worry during Pop's illness at the beach. And this was the kind of worry that woke me at 3 or 4 in the morning with horrible, heart-pounding anxiety. But not at the beach. So I took refuge there, and I think Rodney did, too, in his way. There's more to tell, but as I said, I think it's a tale best told in small chapters.

Tomorrow? Something completely different. Rodney took pictures of our tiny, beautiful wild violets, and I have yet to share those. And I was thinking about the next installment of The Booksmith Stories, one in which Gamble Rogers comes into the store and featuring my extended family's views on the hagiography of Will McLean, a Florida folk hero in a wholly different category. I was thinking of Miss Ada Mickler, the only woman I knew in my own lifetime who went home and cooked supper for herself and her sister on a wood stove every night, not because she wanted to but because that's how she grew up cooking, and it was easiest and most natural for her. I was thinking of the Old Red Brick Road, which was once U.S. Highway 1, and was just wide enough for a Ford Model T car in the days when there was little chance of a car passing from the other direction. That made me think of our bridges (not the beloved Bridge of Lions, in downtown St. Augustine, whose lions will be replaced about a year after the restored landmark re-opens) but the ones that used to connect us to our beaches via narrow wood plank construction that would scare you to pieces to drive I guess local lore has been on my mind. And then there's the red beans and rice we made this week. Red beans and rice always gets people to talking.

Perhaps you'll share something of your own; there are certainly better cooks of red beans than me (although these were damned good red beans) and much experience of caring for beloved family members who have gone off their heads, off their feed, off the rails. Memories and legends of your own local lore: there must be a wealth of this, if you need inspiration look at The Surly Writer's recent photographic recollection of an artifact of Pittsburgh-area history. There is much to talk of, my loves: shoes and ships and sealing wax, and whether pigs have wings. Much to talk of, indeed. For now: love, love.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Life and Alzheimer's, Part I

The beautiful golden hour faded later this evening, because of the whole pretend-time thing. (Why don't we agree on one time or another and stick to it? Twice a year I find it impossible to be at work on time.) It was cloudy, sadly, because I did want to show you the tiny wild violets blooming in one corner at my house, but they photographed poorly in the gloomy light. Happily, though, clouds are what make a beautiful sunset so here's this, partly because it's simply lovely and partly because it serves as an allegory for aging, which is what I really want to talk about.

I was thinking about Ms. Moon's lyrically beautiful post about the script of finely seasoned relationships: we have mastered the delicate footwork of the dance together because we understand the spoken words and movements, as well as the subtext with all its nuance. And then I was thinking about the things that can alter this script, this life work, this magnum opus upon which we have labored, we two, whoever we are, lo, these many years. If our center is strong, we may survive despite any changes. But we are inevitably changed, like the bottom of an ancient river, like the sculpting of rocks around that river: inexorably refined and polished, if we're lucky, by the forces of nature upon our surfaces and our underpinnings. And if for any reason whatever The Light should fail to shine upon us, we may be undone by these forces; we, and the lovingly crafted magnum opus - the shared dialog of love - on which we have built so much of our foundation.

Here is one of the many things that may unstring us: the effects of aging. In my family, these cold fingers of threat were those of Alzheimer's disease. Rodney's dad was a victim of this dread thing, and in truth so were we all; it is an indiscriminate destructor, my dear ones. It is a terrible thing. There is much to not remember, but I remember this: someone said, Get a copy of The 36-Hour Day, and read it. A few weeks before, Pop had been delivered to us a few weeks after he was released from the hospital because of overdosing himself on his daily medications: because his short-term memory was gone he couldn't remember that he'd just taken his medicine. This was just one aspect of the Groundhog Day-like theme his life began to take on. He would take the medicine, a considerable handful of this and that, paying careful attention to the prescriptions. Ten minutes later, he would just as dutifully take it again. And again. And again. So when he arrived on the doorstep, there were Rodney and me, and Mac and Dylan (15 and 13, respectively) and a couple of Boxers. And Pop, whose behavior had become incomprehensible to us. We were restrained from saying so by two things. One: in the South, you don't just come out and say to someone, "You are making a complete ass of yourself and should probably shut the hell up," especially to an elder, however complicated your relationship. And two: it didn't make one damn bit of difference what you said to him. Minutes later, he had forgotten it. So the four of us sent him to bed one night, and gathered in Rodney's and my room and I began to read out loud from The 36-Hour Day.

It describes a sort of composite person and uses her imaginary situation to describe a common Alzheimer's experience. The person gets sick with something unrelated to any symptom of dementia, and they're taken to the hospital and it becomes adundantly clear to everyone that the patient has no idea what's going on. He or she may have successfully covered the symptoms for months or years or even, as in Rodney's dad's case, possibly even decades. This is complicated, but essentially, they figure out ways to compensate as they feel the memory slipping away; if I found one piece of paper, big, little, even miinscule scraps of paper, with Rodney's or his brother's phone number scribbled thereon, I found a thousand. I am not making this up. Pop was said to be master of the art of "confabulation", a clinical description for the ability to pull obscure details together from random memories and put them together into a plausible story, pretty much at the drop of a hat. So we read The 36-Hour Day until we were all, and I mean all four of us, crying our heads off. I cried for hours; I don't even know how to begin to put that moment in words. And that was the beginning.

But tonight's topic isn't Alzhimer's (though I have many more posts in me on this one, folks). Tonight we're talking about the complex science that lies beyond our scripts, the dramatic changes that can be wrought by unexpected wind and water. ALL the scripts, not just the one Rodney and I have refined over 25 years, but the ones by which our sons operate with us and each other, and the ones by which we and they relate to people older than themselves, are changed. Rodney and I are changed. I notice things and do not say, "That reminds me of your dad," or I notice things and DO say, "Never say that again; you sound like Pop". Or something may be delightfully fine, and one of us will think but carefully NOT say, "That was fine as frog hair," because Pop said it all the time. No one ever uses the verb "cogitate": a Pop verb, always used to convey, crafilty, "I don't know, but I will after I think about it", except of course he never did. And these are superficial changes; these are the wind gently moving grains of sand around making small changes, barely visible.

The big changes swirl around the foundations under the dark surface of the water, like waves washing around the underpinnings of a dock. For us, so far, so good. The script has been tuned. The underlying equation has changed, too, but who knows: is the equation all that different from family to family? Do its subtleties work their changes similarly? I don't know. Perhaps you have some thoughts about this; perhaps you'll be generous enough to share them. I really do have much more to say about The Effects of Alzheimer's On Those of Us Who Have Not Strangled Their Family Member, because I can tell you unequivocally that we wanted to strangle Pop more than once. I'll tell you the tales if you're interested. I'd rather hear yours, really. Share them if you can.

Before you go, here is a picture of a script re-write. In this one, the people have changed around, so that it's not me making the cake. It's Rodney. It's the butter cake I mentioned the other day. And a script in which he was baking a cake is NOT something I'd have imagined 20 or 10 or even 5 years ago. But here we are: the riverbed has been slowly changed and the script is different, and for now, deliciously so. Enjoy.

Blog credits for tonight: I took all the photos and Dylan wasn't available to proof. And so it goes.

Did I thank you today?

I did not.
And yet, I owe you every pleasure I get from writing this blog, which is pretty considerable. Without Ms. Moon, I wouldn't even have considered it. Without the generous, encouraging comments of my friends Lorie and Lauren, and Miss Inga, and Katie and many others, I wouldn't have stayed with it. Without the unexpected blessings that fall from the sky in the form of comments from readers I've never even met, I'd have doubted myself as a writer far too much to work in the environment. Rodney's hat, complete with Boxer ears; a genuine request to hear the MadriGals simple music; help with the composition of the blog itself...I owe this to you. I owe you the fullness of my heart when I've written something I rather like, especially when you like it, too.

So thank you. I'm off to write about something profound that I'm pretty sure will blow into my head in the next 10 minutes or so. Or perhaps I'll tell that sweet potato recipe that serves as one of the Eat Here cornerstones. Whatever it is, thank you for reading, for talking back, for sharing your joys and hearts and aches and pains and love.
Love, love, love.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The circles are small, small

Some time ago, I began to volunteer for a rescue organization called Boxer Aid and Rescue (BARC). Most of you know this. Most of you also know that Rodney joined me willingly and the rest of the family came along genially, for the most part. One of my friends told me she was impressed; she'd long been engaged in dog rescue in central Florida, and knew BARC by reputation. They're tough, she said. I asked what she meant, and she said they're known to be one of the strictest organizations of this kind in the state. They look very carefully at foster and adoptive families, and take very seriously their stated organizational rules and guidelines. She was right, as it happened. Since that time, we've fostered 10 different dogs and been enriched far beyond our expectations. But here's the interesting thing: the friend I mentioned, Cathy, became part of our small circle via Gatorbone Studios. I don't see Cathy often enough, but we share friends, loved ones, music and of course dogs. Cathy was busy with her own life, and very focused on helping to run an organization in central Florida called Paws in Prison, a program currently on hiatus because of the daunting challenges such initiatives face. (We weren't able to get one started in our county, for instance, because the County Commission won't sanction it. Presumably the liablity is too high for them. But that's another topic.) And I was busy in my little corner of the world. We connected occasionally via email or music news.

This week the BARC membership was asked if anyone could volunteer to conduct a home visit for a prospective adoptive family. I noticed that the request was in the same small town where Cathy lives, and mentioned casually that though she's not a BARC member, she's an extremely capable dog person, and has all the right tools to be able to help assess a home situation with an eye to its ability to provide a good adoptive environment for a dog. I mentioned it in passing, really, because as I said, Cathy had turned out to be right about BARC's high standards and its consistent adherence to them. To my surprise, I was asked to make the connection between our coordinator and Cathy. I sent her a note: would she consider doing this favor for our organization? She replied: It would be her honor.

And so the circles are small, my loves, holding us all close together in our little orbits, reminding us to cherish our friendships, even those in varying states of distance, old and fading or embryonic and not yet fully awakened. It's a fine old world.

In fact it is such a fine world that I have 2 quiches in the oven. And while I grant you there are people with a true arist's gift for quiche (think Giselle at Le Pavillon) they are easy enough for all of us to enjoy at home, especially if you're a rotten cheat like me, and keep a couple of frozen pie crusts around for just such occasions. This afternoon I had a beautiful bowl of pale green asparagus, steamed for dinner and leftover. And I had a bit of frozen spinach. And a shallot. Here's what I did, after thawing out and doing a little repair work on the pie crusts.

In a small skillet with a little olive oil, cook finely chopped shallots and a bit of finely chopped red onion. When the spinach is drained of as much liquid as possible, toss it into the sam skillet over very low heat, just to dry the moisture out. (I put the asparagus in the skillet, too.) Season with salt and pepper. When it's all pretty well cooked together and there's no more moisture, put this mixture into the pie crust and dsitribute evenly. Sprinkly with grated cheese. I think Giselle uses Gruyere, but Irish cheddar was what I had, so that's what I used. Whisk together about 3 eggs, a good dollop of cream if you have it, and a cup or so of milk. Season with salt, pepper and a touch of nutmeg. Pour this gently into the pie crust, too, and bake at about 350 until it's lightly browned and tests done with a toothpick. Ta da!

Make a big salad and gather your circle around. The circle will be small, small, my loves, and exceedingly happy.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Welcome, Gatorbone Studios! P.S. Thank you, Save Our Bridge

Eat Here Eatery is a wholly imaginary place. In the mind of our family, it means The Food We Love Most, preferably eaten with The People We Love Most, and although it only exists in our minds it has a full menu's worth of recipes and that roster of people we love is pretty firmly fixed in reality. Eat Here has vague antecedents in the real history of restaurants in St. Augustine, however. The Chimes, Le Pavillon, Cafe Alcazar, The Zanzibar, P.K.'s Cafe, The Monson Motor Lodge, and the Ponce de Leon Lodge are all cousins of varying degrees of distance. The Zanzibar was once owned by Eat Here's beloved pal Lis Williamson, whose history includes many musical and culinary tales, triumphs and joys. Her past and present are well-known in St. Augustine, but perhaps her future has only begun to reveal itself.

Here's part of it: she's one of the principals of Gatorbone Studios, which made its BlogLand debut this week. There could scarcely be a warmer or more heartfelt welcome than that offered by Ms. Moon, whose long friendship has been richly celebrated throughout the life of Bless Our Hearts. To Ms. Moon's and those of the many readers who have already left comments and affectionate words of welcome, Eat Here adds its voice: WOO dot HOO, and A dot MEN.

One of the revelations of writing a blog is this: rather than the bunch of political or other topical crackpots and loonies you expect, you find an enormously thoughtful, funny, ordinary and extraordinary collection of everyday people giving voice to things you've always thought, and maybe even more voice to things you never even considered. The range of diversity is only exceeded by the reassuringly human overlaps and unexpectedly strong personal connections. This very minute Rodney is wearing a hat made by someone I know, B2B (blog to blog); Ms. Moon has earrings about which she has a similar story. I have an envelope ready to mail to Just Eat It, with music to share. I suspect many more of us have such a story than do not. And the landscape keeps getting better and better. If you haven't already settled down in a lawn chair or on a blanket to listen to the music of Gatorbone, be good to yourself and tune in.

One of the things I'd like to improve about BlogWorld, or at least my little spot therein, is the fact that comments and responses are associated with a specific post. This means they're sort of buried, unless you think to go check on them, or are yourself directly part of the dialogue. Worse, the comments get buried right along with the "Older Posts"; who ever reads these? For instance, I got a lovely, unexpected comment from Screamish about the Cream Biscuits. It would have made you laugh, but you probably didn't see it.

I also got a comment from Theresa Segal, one of the founders of Save Our Bridge, a group that organized around the simple desire to preserve a living artificat of St. Augustine's history, The Bridge of Lions. This relic of turn-of-the-century design was slated for destruction a little more than 10 years ago. Because of Theresa, Lis and other dedicated folks Theresa talks about in her comments, the completely restored Bridge of Lions will open in just a few days. Theresa adds perspective I didn't have when I posted, but because she added it as comments to my post, this valuable isight is easy to overlook.

Perhaps you have a better way to integrate blog comments into the dialogue. If you do, please let me know. While you're thinking it over, give your troubled spirit a rest at Gatorbone Studios. You may be quietly amazed.

Eat Here credits:
Photo courtesy of Rodney, 2006
Proofreading & editorial consultation courtesy of Dylan

The color of light, v.2

From about October until late May, northeastern Florida is released from the oppressive, humid air that grips us through the rest of the year. During these months the sky is likely to present stunning variations on a theme of blue, polished to gleaming by the clarity of the air. Not always, of course; low pressure changes everything and there are lots of other reasons for haze or clouds.

But during these gently changing seasons, before the unforgivingly abrupt, rapid-cycle, winter/summer seasonal gear shift common to the sub-tropics, we have many days of near-perfect light. In the relative atmospheric civility that governs late fall to early spring, the color of light purely takes your breath away. More accurately, the colors of light: there are so many colors they positively defy my ability to articulately name or describe them. They're present in the azures and greens of the sea and the red-brown and gold colors of the sand; in the sharp white contrast of the clouds; in the many shades of emerald and moss of our tiny forest. You can see them reflected in the clear water, and in the pale color of spring's tiny violets. The glorious, almost-but-but-not-quite visible color of light is apparent to me in almost every photo I've taken this year, and most of the ones I've shared with you. It seems to me one of the most generous gifts of nature, too abundant and freely given not to share, especially since some of you are buried in snow or freezing drizzle, waiting for the smallest hint of the breath of spring. The photo on the right was taken about 3 weeks ago during a very low Atlantic tide. The water is little more than 60 degrees, but so clear you can see right through it to the coquina below. The hard west wind was blocked by the dunes from reaching us but managed to riffle the water's surface gently. I hope it feels to you like a tiny bit of a beach vacation, basking in the color of light.

The relationship of light to time is changing tonight as we re-set our clocks into the (for me, at least) hated "spring forward". For comfort, I believe in fresh Florida strawberries. These are best with creme fraiche, homemade whipped cream lightly sweetened and perhaps scented with lavender (this last is delightful and way easier than you think) or just fresh whole milk. You can serve them on the very naughty Cream Biscuits or you can make Butter Cake.

Yes. It is as wonderful as it sounds. It's extremely easy to make, and has its roots as most of my cake recipes do in Susan Purdy's wonderful cookbook, A Piece of Cake, my copy of which is quite literally falling to pieces. I've adapted it a little over the years and it's favored by my family, and the imaginary customers at Eat Here Eatery. I'll tell you how I make it, and if you want to understand the balance of art and science of baking, and why homemade cakes are really not any more work than cake mix-made cakes, do yourself a favor and buy and copy of Ms. Purdy's excellent book.

Cream together about 2 sticks of softened butter and about 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 cups of sugar. When they're very well blended and begin to take on a lovely lightened color, add 2 regular eggs, or 3 eggs if yours are small. (It depends on the hens. You've learned that from Ms. Moon by now, right?) Add about a teaspoon of vanilla extract. If you used less sugar, you can use a little more vanilla. (You can use Grand Marnier instead of vanilla extract if you have it. Subtle but wonderful.) Cream all this together until the mixture is very light; you'll recognize the look when you've made a few cakes from real ingredients.

To this mixture, alternate dry ingredients and milk, beginning and ending with milk. The dry ingredients are 2 cups of flour, 1 teaspoon of baking powder and 1 teaspoon of salt (I mix these in a small bowl with a fork to lighten them. True confessions? I haven't sifted flour in 20 years). You'll need about 3/4 cup of milk. When you finish mixing them together, put in a tube or Bundt pan, carefully sprayed with Pam and dusted with flour, and bake in a 350 oven for about an hour. I test at about 50 minutes, and monitor after that. After you take it out of the oven let the pan rest for 5 minutes or so and then invert on a serving plate. Top with fresh strawberries and cream to taste.

The lavender cream? Here's the secret: you can BUY lavender flowers in a spice jar at your local grocery store. Yes, really. Who knew? If you can find them, put about a cup of cream in a saucepan and heat gently until it's just ready to boil. Remove from heat and add a couple of tablespoons of lavender flowers; stir in a couple of tablespoons of honey, to taste. Refrigerate overnight. Note: I left out this step in v.1. Strain the cream to remove the lavender flowers and refrigerate until you're ready to use. When you're ready to serve, whip the cream lightly with a hand mixer and kiss plain old whipped cream good-bye forever. I know. Love you.

All kidding aside, get yourself some fresh strawberries and put them on SOMETHING. Cream biscuits, butter cake or a crisp butter lettuce salad. You can put a tablespoon of brown sugar in a cup of yogurt and dip strawberries in that. You can blend them into a smoothie or just wash them and eat them with your fingers. The most important thing is that they'll bring you a taste of spring however you eat them. The taste will last into the summer, depending on where they're grown, but for right now, what we all need is spring. We need the taste of strawberries. And the color of light.
Love, love.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Reflecting on the winter's golden hour, and tomato gravy

This is more or less what it looked like in our back yard this past weekend. (Michelle, I am sending small, quasi-rural energy to your Big City Writer life.) The light was a little different since this photo was taken in the fall and we are now approaching spring light. It's a small but very important difference; the photo you see is at the angle the sun takes as it seems to withdraw itself from the earth. A photo taken at this time of year would show the hope of spring: we would take it fully an hour later, and the light's angle would be different but beautifully, reliably the same year after year. So does our little sapphire planet gleam in the light of our glorious sun, and so do our humble lives spin along.

Since I was looking for comfort food last week, I thought I would again share the familial "tomato gravy" recipe. I think I've given it to you before, but it fits with my lingering winter mood, and last week's sniffling quest for comforting food requiring virtually no effort.

Tomato gravy is my family's reference to something I think Italian cooks have a glamorous name for, but in simple southern cooking comes down to this. In your cast iron skillet, slowly cook some finely diced bacon (or, if you're fancy and can get it, pancetta). This should be cooked to a delicious crispness, as allowed by your particular batch. The vegetarian version of this recipe just skips over this step, and uses olive oil to cook the onion. If your bacon or pancetta or ham or whatever you have is cooked (or you're taking the vegetarian path) remove the bacon from the skillet. Dice a lovely onion, like a big fat red one, and cook it slowly in the bacon fat (or olive oil). You can add finely diced garlic, if you like. When the onion has softened and begun to brown, deglaze the pan with a touch of wine or broth. Add a large can of whole tomatoes. The key to this is - how you say in your language? - smushing the tomatoes in your fingers, removing any possibly bitter bits, and allowing the juice and all to reduce down slowly. Add the bacon to the tomato sauce. This whole reduction of the tomatoes shouldn't take more than 20 minutes or so.

Meanwhile (I think I say that in every recipe; what kind of recipe writer am I??) cook some pasta you like, preferably a durable one like ziti or penne, about a pound of it, and leave it in the colander until you're ready to combine. When the tomato gravy has the consistency you want (and if you don't know, don't worry: it will take care of itself) toss the two together in a nice big pot. Garnish with a little fresh basil or rosemary or whatever you have on your windowsill. If you got not a thing on the windowsill, toss a little dried parsley on top and watch it come back to life, or shave a little fresh Parmesan or Gruyere on top.

You can't make any mistakes here, and there's comfort and good taste. Of course you can add spinach or greens or anything else you like. I wish I could make it for you. Enjoy, my loves.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Meanwhile, in your cast iron skillet (or, Spring Springeth Slowly)

Spring flowers, courtesy of The Garden at Gatorbone last year (or the year before, or maybe the year before that...?)Whatever the year, perhaps a touch of spring color will brighten your evening and make up for my winter-cold-or-flu-induced absence. Certainly the touches of spring from other pals, including the gorgeous camellias I've been seeing from Ms. Moon's garden, have been welcome here. Not that I should complain about the weather, of course; we had a beautiful weekend here. It was cool but the sky was that clean, shocking blue I always rave about. Still, one is always eager to see the azaleas waking from their long sleep. And birds, working hurriedly on new nests. We have cardinals and wrens here year-round, but about this time of year we start to see goldfinches and other species we consider to be rather exotic, for no better reason than the brevity of their annual visits.

My friend Sue and I always remark on the migration of the robins. Their arrival reminds us of the lengthening of the days, though it doesn't herald spring's arrival in any reliable way. Still, they arrive, as always, and the days lengthen, as always, and the eternal rhythm is a comfort when the chill lingers in the air of late winter. (It may be me, but they seem to have stayed longer this year. I saw one today, and I'm just about positive they were gone this time last year. Remind me to ask Sue about that.) The goldfinches seem to travel in large but amiable gangs of birds, who descend on the little sock-shaped feeders we fill with black thistle seed and squabble with one another for most coveted feeding locations. Some years, we're fortunate enough to see painted buntings; the sightings are rare, quick and usually don't happen more than once or twice in a matter of days before the visitors leave our gardens behind. Their visits stay in our memories, though, because they have those absurd combinations of primary colors, so eye-popping on the males, much muted on the females.

One year late in April, we saw a family of indigo buntings. Talk about lingering in your memory...I don't think I'll ever forget those birds. They seemed to be a family of mature and recently-fledged babies, and there were about half a dozen of them sporting the eponymous color. If you've never seen one, look them up. It's sort of like seeing someone with hair so gorgeously, richly red that you can hardly believe it's real, hair with highlights of gold and copper and deep low lights no hairdresser could replicate. Except it's blue: breathtakingly, perfectly blue. It took me awhile to recover, as you can tell.

How are things with you? Any birds at the feeders, or in the yards or gardens? Any signs of spring, keeping your hearts alive?

I'll finish tonight with a reminder about Chicken Soup, because I was sick this week and didn't feel like cooking and tried all sorts of artifical remedies, all in search of this simple fix-all. My friend Diana's mother, Hortie, made a version of this called Chicken and Veg-e-table Soup, in her New York accent. It was wonderful, and I don't think this will come close to it, but I do have confidence in you, and yours is probably even better. If it is, you have to share the recipe.

You can start the soup with cooked chicken (you can use a cup or so of boneless skinless chicken breast, cooked for some other purpose and leftover, along with store-bought chicken broth) but it's best if you start with a leftover chicken carcass. So if you roast a chicken for dinner one night, or make Cornish game hens and have one or two leftover: that's perfect. Put them in your big stock pot with enough water to cover them, season as needed with salt and pepper, rosemary, a whole lemon, know what your people like best. Boil this gently until the meat falls away from the bone, and then set aside until the chicken is cool enough to handle.

Meanwhile, in your cast iron skillet saute some chopped onion, celery, carrots and garlic in olive oil or butter, or a combination. You can add other vegetables, of course, depending on what your people like. When the vegetables are cooked though, deglaze the skillet with a little white wine. (Remember what Julia Child said: if a wine isn't good enough to drink, it's not good enough to cook with, so use whatever wine you're drinking, or that open bottle you have in the fridge. And if you don't have white wine, water or chicken broth will do nicely.) Set the veggies aside.

Return to your cooling chicken and broth; remove the chicken and all the other solid things, like the lemon pieces, from the broth. Pull the chicken off the bone and return to the broth. I usually set aside the big pieces to chop or pull into bite-sized pieces, but either way, all the chicken meat goes back into the soup, and you can save the skin and any other gross-looking bits for your dog or cat (and be sure to throw away all the bones). When you have a nice strong stock filled with tasty bites of chicken, add the deglazed veggies from your skillet and return to a simmer. Taste and correct for seasoning. Besides salt and pepper, I use marjoram, rosemary and parsley in the soup. When someone has a cold, I add fresh or ground ginger. Whatever tastes good to you is perfect.

When you have the simmer going, add a package of egg noodles and boil gently until they're cooked through. Depending on the yield of your chicken broth (ideally, you add the noodles to 2 or 3 quarts of liquid) you may need to add water. Remove from heat, correct for seasoning, add any final touches (cooked spinach, a touch of grated Parmesan) and serve.

What's your chicken soup recipe?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Ordinary dreams: go to the beach, eat mashed potatoes, dress like a Boxer

Ordinary, everyday dreams come true. Go to the beach, if you can. Certainly life is too short NOT to eat mashed potatoes now and then; I haven't included a recipe here but I will if asked, as you well know, my dears. It was a lovely weekend here in northern Florida, so good, in fact, that by sundown Friday I was embarrassingly sunburned. Saturday was gloomy and cool, with a bit of rain. It was a good day to read and nap And nap. By Sunday the beach beckoned again. The sun showed the way toward spring, and we were grateful. Here is my old boyo, dressed for the chilly west wind, marveling with me at the many blues of the firmaments of the heavens and of the earth. It doesn't matter how many times we go, how many miles we walk, how many fossils we find, how many porpoises we see. You just have to go and see it for yourself, our beloved Guana. It is arguably the least appreciated natural resource in northeast Florida. I know you must be bored, seeing it over again and again. But it's like the myriad shades of green they say you can see in Ireland, only these are colors of blue. The aqua and robin's egg and turquoise shades of the sky, and that stunning clean blue of fall and winter and even sometimes spring in our part of the world. That ultramarine and blue topaz and shadowed grey green the ocean shimmers back at just have to see it.

Of course even the simple magnificence of the beach in winter is eclipsed by Big Events. When your boy comes home from the Navy to eat and sleep and get ready to go far away for more schooling and other big Navy doings, you cook. At least, if you're Angie at Eat Here, that's what you do. You probably can't see it, but he's been away long enough that he got grilled steak and marinated chicken and a big salad with some truly decadent mashed potatoes. These last may in fact constitute a venial sin, but I'm not sure and in any case, I'm pretty sure he thought it was worth it. He leaves at the end of the week, for far-away Connecticut, and I'm pretty sure those of you who kindly read this blog will remember him in your thoughts and prayers and wishes and general petitions to the Great Spirit: all this warmth I gratefully accept.

And one more really delightful thing happened this week. A present I ordered for Rodney arrived today. I gotta tell you: go to Blogging is for Dorks and check out the work. When she says Ultra Cute Crochet, she ain't kiddin'. I saw a sweet little hat she'd made with tiny kitty cat ears, and asked her if she could make a Boxer hat, along the same lines, and sent her a pretty terrible picture of one of our rescued Boxers so she could approximate the ears. Here's Rodney in the hat (look closely for the ears).

Now let me be perfectly clear: our dear friend Lis, she of The Voice, she of the many talents not the least of which is the revival of a hundred-year old tradition of wearable ribbon art, which you can see for yourself, but beware: you will be's breathtaking. I lost my train of thought here, but what I was trying to say was, Lis made Rodney a hat he loves, one he wears to the beach on cold, windy days. (See? It didn't make sense when I posted it; with any luck it does now.)

But sweet bald men cannot have too many hats, and who doesn't need to look like a Boxer now and then? Well, okay, I hear you. Still, for someone who rescues Boxers from fates that hardly bear thinking about, this is a good hat to have. Thank you, Erin, from your devoted dork fans. And thank you all for waiting for this post which seemed to take me a week to write. Where do the hours go?

Finally, here is a slightly fuzzy picture of one Boxer tentatively welcoming another. The one on the right, of course, isn't a real Boxer but does occasionally play one on television.