Archive for July, 2008

Playing with Vegetables

I have been reading a lot of books lately, but I don’t especially feel like writing about them, so I won’t.  I have been trying to be a little more creative with my cooking, almost entirely because of the bounty of vegetables we have been getting from our CSA.  Today I made a very tasty pasta sauce almost entirely out of CSA produce.  Here is how to do it:

Pour a very generous puddle of olive oil into a crock pot or slow cooker of your choice.  Chop up four pounds or so of fresh tomatoes and toss those in the pot.  Clean the mud off of your frighteningly fresh onion, chop it up, and add it to the mix.  Then take a moist bulb of fresh garlic, clean it, and peel the outer layer.  Chop up all of the cloves and mix in.  Pick out the fattest yellow squash and zucchini, clean them, and chop them up before adding to the crock pot.  Hack apart a green pepper and throw it in the pot.  Then wash the sand off the fresh oregano, mince the leaves and mix the herbs in.  Toss in some salt and pepper, and turn the crock pot on high.  Let it simmer for a few hours.  If you are carnivorous, brown some ground beef with a little salt and white pepper and add it in about two hours before you plan to eat.  After the sauce has simmered for several hours, you have an almost unbearably delicious topping for the pasta of your choice.  The salt, pepper, olive oil, and beef came from the store, while everything else came from the farm.

The CSA produce is quite delicious.  I am not a very good boy when it comes to eating my vegetables, but there is something about getting fresh organic produce straight from the farm that works for me.  I think the vegetables were so fresh they didn’t realize they had been picked yet.  The stuff just tastes real–full of subtle flavors that our hybridized modern agriculture has lost.  The tomatoes, for example, are oddly shaped and unevenly colored and thus would look terrible in a supermarket bin, but they are full of juice and taste like something other than water and vague tomato flavoring.  Try this out–it’s worth the effort.

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Fine Art

I was not expecting to be able to go with Dorothy to the museum today because I received that dreaded envelope in the mail a couple of months ago–the one that says “Jury Administration” on the return address.  However, last night I called the number they provided and learned that my juror pool was canceled and my jury duty fulfilled.  That’s what I call serving my civic duty.

This meant my day was free, so Dorothy and I drove to Katonah, where we met a friend for lunch and a trip to the Katonah Museum of Art.  As we sat down, the friend seemed to be trying to say something.  She sort of stammered and waved a Bed Bath and Beyond bag around vaguely, and I figured that she was trying to ask Dorothy something without actually asking it.  Dorothy’s face suddenly lit up in recognition, and she turned to me.  “Remember when I said I had another birthday present for you but it wasn’t ready yet?”

I did remember, now that she mentioned it, though my birthday was nearly two months ago.  “Well, this is it,” she said and our friend handed over the bag.

I opened it and pulled out a large picture mat.  When I turned it over, I saw that it was a pencil portrait of Muttboy.  As it turns out, our friend wanted to find some project to keep her mother occupied.  She heard from Dorothy that my birthday was approaching, so she suggested that her mother could put her artistic talents to use in drawing a portrait for me.  Dorothy found a good photo of Muttboy and passed it on.  Some things got in the way–our friend’s mother moved from new York to Connecticut, for one–but the portrait was finally ready.

I really love it.  I immediately recognized which photo Dorothy had chosen: one where we are hiking near Bear Mountain in northwestern Connecticut.  Muttboy is staring off in the distance with that long-suffering but eager look that says, “I know you need to stop, but I need to keep hiking, so could we please, please get going again?”  It is probably a little silly to have a portrait of your dog, but I think it is perfect.

After lunch, we headed to the museum.  There are several small museums like this one around our area, and they are really perfect for a quick afternoon visit.  The Katonah Museum is small enough that you can see the full exhibit, and spend a lot of time carefully looking at the paintings, but be finished in a couple of hours.  Although I love the Metropolitan Museum of Art more than I can say, I get a serious and painful case of museum back after spending too much time wandering the halls.  The smaller museums do not overload you with too much of a good thing.

To my great delight, the museum’s special exhibit was called “All Things Bright and Beautiful: California Impressionists” (running through October 5, so go soon).  The paintings, all done in the first 25 or 30 years of the 20th century owed an obvious debt to the French Impressionists, but the scenes, the light, the palette, were all quintessentially Californian.  I did not recognize any of the artists’ names, which probably says more about my poor training in art history than anything else, but I was completely taken by their vision.  The scenes of the rugged, squared-off rocks jutting into the Pacific mesmerized me with the deep turquoise and cobalt of the sea against the harsh geometry of the stone.  Several artists showed their deep fascination with the California poppy, and one landscape (sadly, not one shown on the museum website, so I can’t give you a link) showed the California hills covered in oaks and eucalyptus in the distance, with the foreground a rich mixture of the golden poppies and dark lupines.  A trail winds through the flowers, and the artist got the color of the soil–that ruddy brown sandy soil of the coast–exactly right.  I found myself growing homesick for a place that does not exist any more.  It was more than a little sad to think that the landscapes depicted in the paintings are now covered with subdivisions and strip malls.

Sometimes I think that is the real reason I can’t go back to California.  California has always had that dream-like quality; there is something not quite real about it.  Even when I was a little kid, I felt that the best California was something not quite reachable, something strangely remote and ineffable.  For me now, even that semi-real, semi-dream state is gone and I can only mourn the loss of a place I knew as intimately as I know myself, but a place that nevertheless remained as aloof and unquantifiable as an old, half-forgotten acquaintance.

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Book, Soup

I thought some might be interested in hearing more about my book project, so here goes.  A few months ago, I received a letter from an academic in California who was editing an anthology of essays on ecofeminism.  He had read my dissertation (which shows a certain amount of initiative, since it is not published and must be ordered through University Microfilms) and thought either of two chapters would work well in his anthology.  I had already published a version of one chapter, but the other had potential.  To make things even better, the chapter with potential was closely related to another article coming out in another ecofeminism book.  I agreed to send in an article and quickly returned the contract.

Because I was a latecomer to this particular book party, I only had a little time to get the article into shape.  I signed the contract in early April and agreed to get the first draft in by June 15.  With classes and the beginning of race season, I didn’t have a lot of free time until after graduation, so I started writing in the middle of May.  I made my editor very happy by turning in an article by June first, and it exactly matched the word count he requested.  Yes, I am an editor’s dream.

The editor also tried to put together a round table panel for the MLA convention, but the MLA convention only accepts boring panel proposals, so we did not get in.  However, the press he is working with wants to publish an entire series of books on ecofeminism, and asked the editor to query the contributors about possible book contracts.  Of course, I jumped at the chance and said I would love to have a book contract.

Here is where it gets even better, and shows that this editor is quite a stand-up fellow.  When he queried me, he asked if it would help my tenure plans, or if it was too late.  When I told him I had to turn in my file by September 15th, but I could add things to it as late as October 15th, he said he would push things to get me a contract in plenty of time for my file.

He then sent me the link to the publisher’s NBO (new book order) form and told me to send it back to him when I was done.  I had it back to him in less than a week.  He made a couple of suggestions to link my project more firmly to the series theme and gave me another week to finish it up.  I had it back to him in two days.

So, the book will be an analysis of the manner in which sentimental rhetoric, the language of feeling, emotion, and empathy, can be used to promote an ecological theme.  I’ll be looking at a number of authors from Susan Fenimore Cooper to Rachel Carson, Barbara Kingsolver, and Michael Pollan.  In the NBO, I set September 2009 as my finish date.  I am hoping I can get a student intern to help out during the year so I can work as quickly as possible.  Here is the press that I’m working with.

And on a completely different note, I made soup tonight with vegetables from the CSA we belong to.  The CSA is a lot of fun, as we get to drive up into the wilds of southern Litchfield county to pick up our share, and we even get to pick some of the things ourselves.  We got strawberries for a couple of weeks, and lately the fresh herbs are ready for picking.  I made a huge batch of pesto with all of the basil we cut.

The past week, the farm had carrots, zucchini, yellow squash, fresh garlic (and if you have only had the dry-husk variety that you buy in the supermarket, fresh garlic is a revelation–it’s so plump and sweet it will knock you over), and herbs.  I decided to make a soup out of it that was remarkably simple to make.  Here is what I did:

Dice up some chicken (optional) and saute in olive oil in a large soup pot.  Don’t be stingy with the oil.  Toss in some chopped onion and a lot of the chopped fresh garlic.  I used almost an entire head of garlic.  When the chicken is cooked, dump in a bunch of water.  How much?  Enough to make soup.  Chop up the squash, zucchini, and carrots and toss those in the water.  Corn is not ripe yet, so I had to cheat and use a can of corn.  In a couple of weeks, we’ll have real, fresh corn, and I’ll have to make some more soup.  Let the whole bunch simmer for a while, adding salt and pepper.  I used a mix of white pepper and black pepper because I like the added bite of white pepper.  At the last minute, toss in some chopped fresh herbs.  I used sage and marjoram, though you can use whatever fresh green things you have.  It was quite delicious.

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What Happened?

I just spent half an hour writing a post about my new book project and WordPress deleted it.  I am very annoyed.  Anyway, I have a new book project.  It’s academic.  It’s about ecofeminism.  I’m hoping to have a contract within the next month.  The book will be due in about a year.  My editor likes me.  That about sums it up.

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Some Kind of Fairytale

Emily, who knows how I like stories with a good scare in them, sent me a copy of John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things a few weeks ago, and it was quite a satisfying take on how fairytales permeate our lives.  The main character is a boy named David, whose mother has died and his father (cue ominous music) has remarried.  To make matters worse, the new stepmother, Rose, soon gives birth to David’s half-brother, Georgie.  To make matters even worse than that, David and the rest of his family must relocate to the English countryside to escape the German Blitz at the early stages of WWII.  The house they flee to is the ancestral home of Rose’s family, and David dislikes living in Rose’s house almost as much as he dislikes Rose.

So far, we have all of the necessary elements for a fairytale: dearly departed mum, possibly wicked stepmother, the little usurper in the form of Georgie, and dislocation to a strange and possibly hostile place.  Following in the tradition of another modern fairytale, Connolly presents us with a C.S. Lewis-like other world accessible not through a wardrobe but through a small gap in the stone wall of a sunken garden.  When David hears his mother’s voice coming from inside the hole in the ground, he hesitates following it, but the fiery wreck of a German bomber tearing out of the sky decides him, and he ducks into the hole and through the looking glass.

Once he is in the other world, David encounters all manner of fairytale types.  There is the mysterious Woodsman, a protective figure.  Trolls, werewolves, harpies, and countless other terrifying beasties lurk under bridges or chase David with bloody intent.  David soon realizes that he must take part on a quest to find the king, a diminished and failing character reminiscent of the Fisher King.  Behind all of the dark deeds stands the trickster character, The Crooked Man.

The careful use of fairytale and legendary archetypes works well, and makes this more of a postmodern fairytale than anything else.  When Connolly introduces a character, there is the hint of a wink, as he expects his readers to recognize at least some of the characters and situations David encounters.  Connolly also has a great deal of fun playing with the archetypes and twisting the stories in various ways.  When David stumbles across the seven dwarfs, he quickly learns that Snow White is not the beautiful, gracious girl he has been taught to expect, but is a grotesquely obese harpy.  The dwarfs are all communists, hoping for the arrival of a workers’ paradise, and bitterly unhappy with their lot in life.  They have been sentenced to care for Snow White because it was they, and not a wicked stepmother, who tried to poison her with the apple.

One of the more enjoyable aspects of the book, for me, was the manner in which David becomes engrossed in books.  He begins having strange fits, and his father takes him to a psychiatrist.  David cannot tell the psychiatrist one of the real roots of his problem, which is that he can hear the books whispering to each other all of the time.  The words in the books, and, more importantly, the ideas that animate these words, are alive and literally speak to David.  When he begins his quest in the alternate world, we see that his ideas, and the voices of the books, influence the appearance of the fairytale world.  The communist dwarfs, for example, have developed their political convictions because a volume of Marx was shelved next to a book of fairytales, and the books speak to each other.

At the end of the novel, Connolly presents us with a lengthy appendix with some of the early published versions of the fairytales or creatures that show up in the story.  I found this interesting, especially since I have always loved the real versions of the tales and not the sweetened, bowdlerized mess that usually shows up in the Disney versions.  My only real complaint was the level of authorial interpretation Connolly provides.  He explains, perhaps too completely, how he incorporated fairytale themes into his own version of the stories.  It felt a little condescending, as if he wanted to make sure that his readers really could see that David’s reaction to his stepmother has elements of Oedipal conflict, just as Bruno Bettelheim argues in The Uses of Enchantment.  I had already picked up on that, and the self-explication felt a little frantic and forced.  However, it is easy to skip the appendix and focus on the worth of the tale itself.

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A few mornings ago, Muttboy and I were walking on one of our usual paths through the big park. The trail followed a serpentine route around a few trees that had blown down in a freak thunderstorm and tornado that ripped through here a little over a year ago. Suddenly Muttboy perked up and started sprinting purposefully in a large arc around the blowdown. He clearly was not chasing a squirrel, I could tell, because his attitude, facial expressions, and speed are very different with that target. It wasn’t a deer he was after, either, because he is rarely interested in them unless they stand perfectly still until we get close; then he barks and lunges at them as if to tell them that they are prey and he is a hunter, so they’d better start flashing those silly white tails and take off. This chase was different: more intense and focused.

I saw him veer off and start to run back across the trail and toward the small hill in the distance. At the same moment, I saw a small animal running worriedly through the dead branches and start down the trail right where I was standing. It saw me and immediately turned off the trail and into the underbrush. I looked carefully at the little critter and was awestruck. It was a smallish coyote pup, about two and a half to three months old (coyotes whelp in April). I looked back to Muttboy, who was streaking away at the side of a furry blur in the distance. I called him and he immediately returned. When he got back to me, he sniffed eagerly at the path the other pup had taken. He looked expectantly up at me, but I knew it was best for us not to harass the little pup any more than we already had, so we walked on, Muttboy panting excitedly and glancing up at me with his eyes glowing.

The thing about this incident that keeps coming back to me is that moment when Muttboy began his chase and I knew instantly that he was after something more interesting and exciting than we usually encounter on the trail, and I was not all that surprised to see the little coyote pup running past me. Muttboy’s body language–everything about his posture, gait, expression, and pace told me as clearly as words could what he was after. When he returned, we communicated with no words, but we seemed to understand each other perfectly: he wanted to keep chasing, but he knew I didn’t want him to do that. It reminded me just how close the bond between humans and dogs can be that we can understand each other without speaking. I almost said “that we can understand each other without sharing a language,” but that is not quite right: we do share some sort of language.

Which brings me, in a rather circumlocutory manner, back to David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Edgar’s family raises dogs, and they breed the dogs based on his grandfather’s partly scientific and partly Romantic notion of what dogs could and should be. Instead of breeding for AKC standards of appearance, the Sawtelles breed for less tangible personality and behavioral characteristics. The dogs in the novel are eerily in tune with their humans, and one dog in particular, Almondine, is a touching model of the intimacy of that bond.

Edgar, who is around 14 during the main action of the story, was born without the ability to speak. He can hear, think, nad communicate perfectly well, but he can make no sounds. Language, then, becomes an adventure that for him is markedly different from the adventure that most of us experience when we begin to shape language for ourselves. Perhaps because language for him is something that separates him from others in some ways, Edgar is fascinated by words. In one early passage in the novel, he goes to the small metal box where the family stores all of the important papers, including an old Western Union telegram from their farm’s original owner, agreeing to sell the farm to Edgar’s grandfather.

But the telegram was what interested him most–a thick, yellowing sheet of paper with a Wester Union legend across the top, its message consisting of just six words, glued to the backing in strips: OFFER ACCEPTED SEE ADAMSKI RE PAPERS. Adamski was Mr. Schultz’s lawyer; his signature appeared on several documents in the box. The glue holding those words to the telegram had dried over the years, and each time Edgar snuck it out, another word dropped off. The first to go was PAPERS, then RE, then SEE. Eventually Edgar stopped taking the telegram out at all, fearing that when ACCEPTED fluttered into his lap, his family’s claim to the land would be reversed.

For Edgar, language is something powerfully talismanic. The metal box in which the papers are stored is an old ammunition box, and the two sides of language become evident here. Words can be the seeds that grow into the Sawtelle’s dog breeding venture, of they may be the ammunition that destroys lives. Either way, they are too powerful to be tossed around carelessly. Edgar, since he does not speak, conserves his words and deploys them, for the most part, very carefully.

There are other words lurking in strange places. When Edgar and his father take out a wall to replace a rotted-out window, they find things the old farmer Schultz had written on the beams: an apparently meaningless sum, a list of things to buy from the store. Yet, despite the language that is literally written upon the structure of their lives, the most dramatic scene in the novel is a bit of dumbshow, where Edgar has used his uncanny ability to communicate with his dogs to teach them to catch the conscience of a king.

Ah, Hamlet. The novel is quite clearly and unapologetically a retelling of Shakespeare’s play, but it manages to transform the material as smoothly and dramatically as Jane Smiley did with her transcendently beautiful reimagining of King Lear in A Thousand Acres. Like Hamlet, who strives to see through the hypocrisy and cant of mere “words, words, words,” Edgar tries to read a world he does not completely understand and act in a situation where no action is effective.

Hamlet finds himself cut off from all of the other characters; he becomes opaque to all of his friends, including Horatio. Edgar’s closest bond is with the dog Almondine, who realizes when Edgar first comes home from the hospital that her job, her sacred calling, is to be Edgar’s voice, and more than that, his soul. Here is Almondine reacting to the new baby and his lack of voice:

While Almondine pondered this, a sound reached her ears–a whispery rasp, barely audible, even to her. At first she couldn’t make sense of it. The moment she’d walked into the room she’d heard the breaths coming from the blanket, the ones that nearly matched his mother’s breathing, and so it took her a moment to understand that in this new sound, she was hearing distress–to realize that this near-silence was the sound of him wailing. She waited for the sound to stop, but it went on and on, as quiet as the rustle of the new leaves on the apple trees.

That was what the concern had been about, she realized.

The baby had no voice. It couldn’t make a sound.

Almondine knows at that moment that she is to be Edgar’s voice. She wakes Trudy to alert her to Edgar’s infant distress, and from then on the dog and the boy are intertwined. For me, the most heart-wrenching moment in the novel, the moment I had to stop and put the book aside, afraid I could not finish, was when Edgar, in his grief and anger over his father’s death, rejects Almondine, and the dog, unsure of why her soul has pushed her away, begins to pine. Only later does Edgar realize just what he has done in rejecting the dog. He has torn out his soul, and he has torn out his ability to speak. From this moment on, his failures to communicate build to the tragedy.

I will take a chance now. If this novel does not at least make the Pulitzer short list, there is something dreadfully wrong with the prize. That is all. Go read it–don’t wait for the paperback.

For an interview with Wroblewski, check out this article in today’s Times. And here is the book’s website, with convenient links to several online booksellers.

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Another Blog

I decided to follow Dorothy’s lead and create a blog just for my training and cycling.  I have not really been satisfied with the various other ways I had to log all of my training, so I decided that a new blog would be the best way to do it.  With the blog, I can record all of the data but also say a little bit about the ride.  This might come in handy when I want to know what to wear, for example.  I can look up an old ride, see that at a certain temperature I wore a particular combination of clothing.  When it gets cold, I never can remember what works best, and I spend the first half of cold weather cycling saying to myself, “Now, what do I usually wear when it’s 45 degrees and calm?  Knee warmers?  Tights? ”

At any rate, I’ll still post some cycling-related stories here, and I’ll probably cross-post race reports.  If you’re a cyclist, and you want to see what others are doing, you can follow me over at Hobgoblin Rides.

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I’m not a terribly social person.  I think it comes from moving around a lot when I was younger (I’ve moved over 40 times in my life), and finding a decent substitute for a whirlwind social life in books.  When I have taken the personality assessment tests, I always score as an introvert, and, at parties, I usually end up spending almost half the time playing with the hosts’ pets instead of talking to people.

However, contrary to the technophobic naysayers’ dire predictions, I have found a good, and bizarrely interconnected, group of friends online.  It all started about two years ago when a Nutmeg state telecommuter recognized some of my descriptions and asked me if we were neighbors.  We weren’t, quite, but we did live less than 30 minutes away from each other.  This person, of course, is Emily, and our friendship has grown since then.

Then one day I was looking at cycling blogs and I found Sprinter Della Casa.  The writing was fun, informative, and engaging, and the name was familiar.  I realized that the Sprinter is the promoter of a great race series that takes place less than 2 miles from my house.  We emailed a couple of times, I bought a set of awesome wheels from him, and we’ve hung out at a couple of races.

One day he posted a link to another Connecticut cycling blogger, the Suitcase of Courage.  Since the racing community around here is generally pretty friendly, and not terribly huge, we met each other online and realized that we had gone to a lot of the same races, but had managed to miss each other every time.  Eventually, we did meet IRL, at the Hartford crit.  Later, at the Nutmeg games, a lot of us got together–the Suitcases, the Della Casas, Dorothy, and even Muttboy–and watched the races and ate barbecue.  When he and his wife decided to host a Tour de France party for the opening stage, we were invited to join in the fun.

Now here is where it gets strange and everything comes together.  Mrs. Suitcase knows Emily.  She works for the same company, in fact.  This is the same company that half the people in my mystery book club belong to, and the same company where one of my best students interned.  Mr. Suitcase knows one of my colleagues from the History department, who was also invited to the TdF party.  I’m just waiting to find out that Mr. Suitcase and I are actually cousins or something like that.

On a related note, the Tour de France party was great fun.  The Suitcases are wonderfully warm and friendly, which seems to be the norm for everyone I have met through my online connections (and who said the internet is a mean and heartless place?).  The Sprinter and I amused the missus (Mrs. Della Casa, that is) by the depth of our geeky obsession with the Tour minutiae (we were trying to spot which riders were equipped with the brand new 2009 components and who was still riding 2008 components).  And the Grand Boucle was, of course, exciting and fun to watch.  Valverde’s kick at the end to take first maillot jaune of the Tour had us all at the edges of our seats and cheering.

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Literary Agony

I’m going to write more about this book later, because at the moment I am in no condition to write at all coherently.  David Wroblewski’s debut novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is the most powerful novel I have read in a very, very long time.  As I sit here struggling to say something about it, I am also fighting a losing battle with the tears the book unleashed.  I can’t remember having that kind of emotional reaction to a novel, and at the same time my intellectual reaction to the novel is awe at the power of the language and the deep beauty of the prose.

Perhaps it’s the theme.  Edgar, the young boy of the title, loses his father, and his need to understand and accommodate the conflicting emotional tornadoes raging within him after this drive him.

Perhaps it’s the dogs.  Wroblewski has managed to capture without cute or clever anthropomorphizing how dogs act, and, using that, he has extended his considerable powers of sympathy to dream inside the minds of the dogs.  Almondine, the dog who is, perhaps more than merely metaphorically, Edgar’s soul, presents one of the most beautifully realized portraits of love and strength I have read.

As I have said, I will have much more to say about this book when I have recovered some equilibrium, but for now, all I can say is read this book.

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