Saturday, October 31, 2009

Bright Star

While the three guys kept at the chicken plucking, Steve and I headed off to Edina to see Bright Star, Jane Campion's new film that completely rehabilitates John Keats.

This is no blond, curly-headed, pale, frail frilly-shirt-wearing, consumptive, sissy-poet John Keats. He is an ordinary young man, and a poetic genius. He has a sense of humor, is good with children, and in love in a very believable way. And he catches a very bad cold. Romantic, but with that innocence that belongs to the early 19th century. And Fanny Brawne likes fashion, but that doesn't mean she's not also serious. She pines like a girl her age, and is curious and earnest, but not silly. Played by Abbie Cornish, she's also just a bit understated and believable-- both parts are very well cast, if a bit on the anachronistic side, a little too contemporary. Ben Whishaw looked like he could be a British lead singer in a college band. I hope this doesn't make it seem like it's cool to be a poet! ;-)

I have to say it kind of threw me, to see John Keats so, well, healthy. His friend John Brown tries to keep Keats from any distractions, but Keats doesn't seem to suffer so much as languish while writing poetry in the study. Whenever Fanny comes to the door, he seems to be on the couch, so it's hard to see what she's interrupting. The quills are functional, not affectations, and the love-notes exchanged throughout the movie are endearing. All the characters, in fact, are fully realized in the film, and so we get the sense not just of the couple but of a whole family (Kerry Fox as Fanny's mother is particluarly good). Everyone is likeable, and even the tragedy doesn't feel terribly tragic-- well, then again, it was a foregone conclusion.
I did hear someone sniffle behind me, but what I liked best, and what Steve liked, was the tone of the film, not too artsy, not over the top in terms of romance or music, but a story of young love that is recognizable and enjoyable. And the sets and costumes are wonderful, too. I give Jane Campion a lot of credit, for the script and for keeping it simple. The scene where Fanny is in her room with the window open, letting the breeze blow the curtains out and lightly puff her skirts, in the clean, spare room with her beloved on the other side of the wall, will stay with me a long time.

Chicken Butchering

This morning, with a break in the seemingly endless rain, Steve let me know before heading out to the tree nursery that the Ebels were coming over to slaughter some chickens with Tim. Tim has had 30 chickens, and all of them have lived, so it was time to "thin the flock." As he said, they were getting too expensive to feed. The Ebels had fewer laying hens, but still too many to roost in the garage all winter. One of the boys told me these eight were the "bad chickens" who didn't stay in the yard. They are in a cul-de-sac where free range must be limited.

As usual on the farm, there was a well-set-up system for the butchering of the chickens. A line was strung, and the butchering station was set up at an ergonomically efficient height on the hay wagon. They were building a small fire to boil water for the dipping necessary to get the feathers off. The chickens themselves were in two crates, with no idea of their fate.

The butchering was efficient and seemed very humane. Temple Grandin would have been proud-- and Tim said he was reading her book the night before, Animals Make Us Human. The chickens squawked a little when they were taken from the pen, but once they put the wire over their heads, they settled down completely. The butchering was clean and over in a second. I couldn't have handled it if there had been a lot of flapping and squawking, but this was actually peaceful.

The guys, Tim Heymans, Tim Ebel and Alex Schleper, seemed happy to be there. It was a very "guy" thing, and to see them standing around the chickens plucking them, one could have mistaken them for guys at a tailgating party-- not that these particular guys would ever be at a tailgating party. The Ebel boys, Blaise, Joel, Eli and Henry, were more cold than anything. They sat by the fire to keep warm, then moved into the truck. Blaise and Joel spent some time chasing around the chickens who got to live. Eventually their mom picked them up to take them to get costumes for tonight's trick-or-treating.

For the complete slideshow, click here.  (NOTE: I've fixed the link so they should be accessible to all now...)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Hotel Poetry

OK, so more luxuriating than writing on my retreat. It was a good weekend, and I did read and think and even write a bit. I was reading Ellen Bryant Voigt, whose Messenger: New and Selected Poems I bought after hearing her read at the College of Saint Benedict last week.

It was a good reading, and she was speaking my language. I associate her with the early low residency MFAs, Warren Wilson and the one she founded at Vermont. Her name was around, but I don't remember reading her work as a graduate student in the late-1980s. The language she was speaking was narrative and lyric. She read some narrative poems, a poem she called a lyric that sounded like narrative to me-- it had a setting, characters, even a small action. She had spoken to a class earlier in the afternoon where she'd explained what she meant by these terms, and why she was referencing her poems this way.

She also talked about getting tired of writing narrative and consciously switching to lyric, and then going back. At the end of the reading she read new poems, without punctuation, packed with words and association and ultimately seeming like more work than they were worth. I'd have to see them on the page, but afterward a friend summed it up saying, "What is it with contemporary poets piling on words?"

My favorite of the poems she read were a series of monologue sonnets set during the 1919 influenza epidemic. The poems were elegant and detailed, evocative and believable. I asked after the reading why she'd written so many about this epidemic, and whether they were based on research.

She said they weren't based on research, as her research had turned up no stories of the influenza at all. One book on the subject full of facts, but no stories, no mention in literature except for one paragraph by Willa Cather. How all those authors could have lived through something that decimated the population and not leave a creative record was beyond Voigt's understanding, and is beyond mine. I'm interested in collective memory and more particularly in collective forgetting, so this was equally interesting to me. Voigt said the lack of a record gave her creative license to "make it up," focusing just on not being anachronistic and fully imagining each situation.
Her starting point was a story a friend of the family had told, a country doctor, who had traveled during the time of the influenza with an empty bag, seeing the ravages of the flu but unable to offer any treatment or relief. I can certainly see how helplessness like that could take hold of someone and result in poetry. And once you're in that place, and exploring that story, other characters speak to you-- if you're lucky.

I fed on her poems, on the language and lines, and attempted something. I made a heading: "Garden Poems" and started to try to write about vegetables. I wanted to make them one by one, carefully drawn like illustrations on old-fashioned seed packets or calendars, or traced on cloth to be embroidered. That would make them lyrics, I think, crafted pictures, standing alone. And it would depend on music and shape, on craft. I started with carrots, and moved on to peas. And for a few days I kept that image of the carrot in my head. When I read the poem again today, it seemed oddly perverse, sort of darkly sexual, in a way that made me embarrassed. Not at all like the image on the side of the seed packet. But not far off Roethke's root cellar.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Grand Hotel

About a month ago, I decided I really needed a break. I also wanted to get away and write. I sent off an e-mail to Sisters Kay and Annette Fernholz, Notre Dame Sisters who have a yurt on their Earthrise Farm in far Western Minnesota that can be used for retreats. I've been there once before, on a cold November weekend. It was quiet and warm and I was fairly productive. They weren't around that weekend, so it was a good solitary retreat for me. The one major drawback is that there are no bathroom or even outhouse facilities there, so you have to make trips to the nearby farmhouse to use the bathroom. That worked OK, since no one was in the farmhouse, but I got the impression after meeting them and having brunch with them on Sunday morning that if they were around, it might interrupt the solitude.

The yurt reservation fell through after they got a request for someone who wanted to stay a whole month. But things at work have been very difficult, and there have been weekend and evening obligations as well. My anxiety level has been high, and I knew if nothing else that I needed to "get away" for a break.

Of course, I'm now very in touch with the religious retreat options throughout the state. Every order has a guesthouse or retreat house of some sort. It would not be hard to reserve a room for a quiet, individual retreat. But due to my job, I just really wasn't relishing the idea of a religious retreat. I want to get away, after all. Thinking about what I would like, I realized that what I would like more than anything else would be to stay at a luxury hotel. Something old and classic, with a comfortable bed and deep tub. I went to Orbitz and looked around. After all, I've been an urban person most of my life, and I do miss cities, just being in them. And I feel like I know Minneapolis less well than any other place I've lived. (do I sound defensive? Yes, I feel a little embarrassed about this whole extravagent thing!)

So it is that I am spending two nights at the Grand Hotel, a 4-star hotel in Minneapolis. It has the added attraction of one of the city's best sushi restaurants and a world class fitness club (used by all sorts of people in the city, two floors, to which I have access).

I am trying not to put pressure on myself to write, but just to be-- to read, to relax, to continue my fitness program (18 days of Jillian Michaels workouts on the way to 30 days!) and the detox diet I've been on (adding miso soup and high quality raw fish to the regimen of broccoli, brown rice, oatmeal and a few fruits shouldn't throw my system off too badly). And now that I'm here, it clearly is a spa vacation more than a writing retreat. I'm trying to let myself have that, as I think it's exactly what I needed.

So after last night's workout, I soaked in the perfect tub, watched television and went to sleep early. This morning I got up, read the paper, went to breakfast (oatmeal, herb tea) at my favorite local joint, Moose and Sadie's, and took a walk over the Stone Arch Bridge that spans the Mississippi. Now I'm off for another workout, after which I will read some poetry and maybe write a little. The rules for myself are No Facebook and No E-mail (my boss always sends messages on Saturdays, and often others do, too). What I want to do is think creatively. What I want to do is feel good in my body, in space, and not have to clean, cook, garden or grocery shop. I think that will be very possible.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Autumn Light

It is clear that fall is all about light. All of September was very warm-- our summer finally-- but it was undeniably fall because of the light. Steve talks about humidity and dry air as his signs of seasonal change, but it is about light. For the first two weeks of October we've had cold and rain-- complete cloud cover, freezing ground, even those two days where snow fell and fell and fell. It felt like November; it felt like March. Without the sun we were unmoored from the season. Green leaves were falling from the trees. The pond had a skim of ice on it. Geese may have been flying overhead, but I didn't see or hear them because the house was closed up tight and I didn't go out much. The transition to the long months of going to the car, the office, the car, home.
But this morning, even with ice on the railing and the lawn chair on the balcony, the sun was shining and it was obvious that yes, this is fall. There is a coppery, metallic hue to everything, and layers upon layers. It is so far from death, this season, even as it portends death-- or maybe there is no death, and we have thought about the seasons all wrong.
Just this morning I finished Sister Mara Faulkner's book Going Blind about her father's blindness from a genetic disease that also afflicts her and many in her family. In it she quotes memoirs of other blind adults, including Stephen Kuusisto, whom I met when he was at a pretty low point in his blindness, at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. He wrote a memoir called The Planet of the Blind and both Sister Mara and Stephen imagine a world rich in compassion and empathy and simple, common-sense kindness, as well as one of rich imagination in a world of the blind. Her view is not of replacing the sense of sight with sharpened other senses, but of seeing the blind world in a new and positive way-- as rich in itself and life-giving. I wonder if we could-- or if I already do-- accomplish this with fall and winter.

There is a coppery fullness, a rich, warm texture, an inner life of fall, to be followed by the quiet depth of winter, that is life itself.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Backroom Deals

I have to open with a SPOILER ALERT. I want to discuss in this entry a documentary and a play I saw last weekend, both of which took up pretty much the same issue in more or less the same way. The bad guys are developers and the good guys are folks using property -- in the form of a community garden and a historic property-- that may be taken away due to a backroom deal. And I just can't figure out a way to do it without giving away the ending. The Garden, a documentary about a community garden in South Central Los Angeles, is worth watching whether you know the ending or not, but a lot of what keeps you watching is wondering whether the group of Latinos who have been gardening the 14-acre site for 12 years are going to get to keep it. So if you don't want to know, don't read this review. Radio Golf by August Wilson, which we saw last Sunday at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, is about whether or not an African American developer with a good heart and hopes for his community will in the end do the right thing by a homeowner on the lots he has to develop. I'm also going to say here what he does in the end. If you just want to read my review of the play with the ending revealed, click here.

OK. I literally saw the documentary on Friday night and attended the play on Sunday afternoon, which intensified my connection with this basic story. In the case of The Garden, the story of the land went this way. The city of Los Angeles claimed the 14-acre plot through eminent domain to build a trash incinerator on after the 1992 riots. They paid $5 million for it to the owner, g A local activist led a successful campaign to stop the incinerator, and a local woman worked with the city to turn the plot into a community garden. A community of Latinos reclaimed the land from concrete and farmed plots for 12 years, turning the acreage into an oasis of green and of food, including papaya trees. It was an amazing place. They didn't sell the food, but consumed it within their community of families.

Then one day they arrived to find a sign saying the land had been purchased and the garden would be removed in three months. This time it is the community that mobilizes, eventually getting assistance from some social justice lawyers. The lawyers probe how the land was sold, and it turns out it was sold to the original owner, a developer, for the same price the city bought it for 12 years before-- with no public posting, no chance for the gardeners to bid on it, etc. Involved in the deal was his promise to turn part of the lot into a community soccer field (a project of the local councilwoman and the aforementioned activist).

Before you know it, Darryl Hannah and Danny Glover are involved, and a councilman who is interested in saving the garden has become mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa. Through pressure, the developer says he will sell the property to the gardeners if they can raise his asking price: $16 million. There's a high-profile concert fundraiser and more celebrity visits. In the end, they raise an impressive half million. Then the Annanberg Foundation steps in and agrees to provide all the rest-- and together they make the offer of $16 million.

And that's when the astonishing thing happens. The developer turns it down. He sends bulldozers instead and in a horrifying scene, with riot police surrounding the plot and dragging off gardeners, they flatten the garden. The voice over is of the developer saying he wouldn't sell it to that group for any amount of money. They seemed to feel they were entitled to it, and didn't recognize the rights of the owner. He didn't like them and didn't like the way they were acting. Who did they think they were? He owned the property and could do with it what he wanted. And he wanted to build warehouses there. As of 2008, two years later, not a thing had happened on the lot. The gardeners were able to buy 80 acres in Bakersfield, where they garden (I have no idea how they get there and back) and market their produce at farmer's markets, including the one in Los Angeles. They also got a plot of land under some high voltage wires, and some concluding footage shows them working to get the concrete slabs out of it and bring in dirt so they can start over.

Radio Golf, the last play in his decalogue portraying African American life in each decade of the 20th century, was really delightful. What I liked about it was that the main character, Harmond Wilks, has a very clear conflict. He is the son of a rather ruthless real estate agent, and is running for mayor of Pittsburgh while running a "redevelopment" company. His goal is to gentrify the Hill District, and he has bought a property and already signed on Starbucks, Whole Foods and Barnes & Noble for the ground floor retail of an apartment and medical complex. The problem arises when a wise but somewhat derelict man wanders in claiming to own a home on the property. The home is slated for demolition. In defending his title to the land, Harmond realizes that it is "one of the properties" he was able to buy before it went to public auction, so was not listed in the paper. He didn't follow the rules.

Harmond redevelops his redevelopment plan to fit into the larger complex, and defends the importance of the house-- and of fairness in not taking advantage of his backroom deal. But his wife and business partner are in touch with the major businesses, whose contracts are contingent on the original plan. Nobody wants a "raggedy old house" in the middle of a new development. In the end, Harmond holds his ground and his partner gets rid of him-- a sort of hostile takeover-- and moves forward with the bulldozing. There is some good theatrical symbolism, as first one of the advocates for the house, and then Harmond, paint their faces with red house paint as if they are Indians. All I could think of was, "THE INDIANS ALWAYS LOSE!" I've been reading about the Mandan Indians of North Dakota as well, in Sister Mara Faulkner's memoir Going Blind, and it's the same story-- cash for complete loss of land and livelihood, and no real choice. The writing seems to be on the wall for me when they choose to be Indians. The odds are on the cowboys.

The odds are on the developers, the ones with the power, even if they got it through backroom deals. I was kind of shocked in both cases that the corruption won out, though in both cases it did not need to. And in both cases it came down to individual greed and ego, and a lack of commitment to the common good.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

October Snow Makes One Think About the Future

Woke to snow
Green leaves blown
From ash trees

October Snow
Dry coneflower stalks bending in wind,
one squash left in the garden bed.

Last night I was reading a blog by someone I knew in college. In the last year she's left the place she lived her whole adult life and moved to San Francisco, where she bikes the hills (we're talking 300 miles in 3 days in one instance, competitive biking), wakes up with coffee and a view of the ocean, has a new lover, spends her mornings writing and her afternoons doing project work and is clearly quite happy. She's living the life she imagined, and her blog is full of great, brief entries encouraging transformation. If you can be clear about what you want, the line of thinking goes, you can make it happen.

One of her techniques is to write out "An Ideal Day." From morning to night, what would an ideal day consist of? After reading hers, I had trouble thinking of my own. Eventually I started imagining two. One is wintery and involves snowshoeing on the farm and writing and a good meal. Another involves giving a reading in a city, waking up in a nice hotel, meeting with friends in that city, giving a reading at a sweet-smelling bookstore, a good meal, the hotel room with a view of the city.

I was surprised that the day would include fulfillment of writing ambitions, though maybe I shouldn't have been. I am not doing the kinds of things that would make that dream come true, like serious and disciplined writing or more serious submissions to magazines. I did send an idea for a non-fiction book past my agent last week, and she was actually kind of excited about its possibilities, but it is a book that is a project, not really the book I want to represent me as a writer in the world. It is a book I probably could write, but not my passion.

Still, what does it take to get that ideal day/ideal days? I had those days very regularly when I had a year off in 2005 and was at the Ecumenical Institute finishing the memoir and a book of poems. It was not sustainable, but maybe it could be in a few years, when Steve's daughter is out of college and his businesses are established enough to provide some breathing room for me in terms of work.

I am actually quite clear about the way I'd like to be living my days. I do realize that I'm losing faith in myself slowly but surely in terms of writing, but I know what it takes for me-- time and attention. And I know that I am still "reading the signs" all around me, as avidly as ever. I also realize the courage it would take at this particular moment in my life to make a change and live my days that way. Lucky for me, making a change, especially in service of my writing life, has always felt more like necessity than a choice.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Gourmet No More

Back in May, in one of my periodic rants about the lack of "wake up and smell the coffee" change in response to the deepest recession since the Depression, I did a little commentary on Gourmet and bon apetit magazines. Click here if you want to refresh your memory. My feeling is that the recession has been masked and even packaged in a rather meaningless way, with a "budget/value" issue telling you how to make macaroni and cheese (with five kinds of cheese of course) and across the way an ad for culinary adventures in exotic locations. Basically, when golf courses close, I'll start thinking that we might not remain a superpower for long. The poor always get poorer, but the rich, well, when are they going to start to suffer? (I do hear a government program is being put in place to retrain all those folks displaced by layoffs in the financial industry.) I still feel that way, especially with the media united in saying the recession is over (more or less, at least not going to get worse, and on its way back to normal) even as the jobless rate is about to top 10%, and worse in some states. A jobless recovery is not really a recovery, is it? Were we only worried about Wall Street and nothing else? OK, but let me get to my point.

Then, in yesterday's newspaper, I gasped to read that Gourmet is closing its doors after the November issue. Has the advertising market for $10,000 ovens and Subzero fridges and exotic travel really dried up so completely that there will be no more Gourmet magazine? I quickly adjusted my thinking to seeing the move as more about the slow death of published media-- as newspapers and magazines struggle to keep afloat in a changing technological universe. Most people can get recipes online. (However, again Gourmet seemed so well-placed to capitalize on even this transition, with a popular and really well-designed and run web site.)

Gourmet was unusual. It wasn't just about the food porn-- it had great writing! It was in Gourmet that I encountered David Foster Wallace's amazing and hilarious essay, "Consider the Lobster," later the title of his collection of essays. The columns by the Sterns were always wonderful, and there were great essays about families in Spain and Italy and France and Sonoma with photos of sun-kissed outdoor eating or giant tables with half-filled carafes of wine. OK. It was more lifestyle porn.

bon apetit, which Conde Nast will continue to publish, has good recipes, but it is so, well, Hollywood. The back page always features some celebrity talking about their favorite cuisine (Italian, Spanish, French), where they like to travel (Italy, Spain, France) and what they cook at home. Soooo uninteresting. And there are no photos of food being served up in an actual ice palace on ice plates and bowl and cups in, where else, Iceland. I can see how that kind of photo shoot required a higher-than-average budget.

I have two small notebooks that I've filled with recipes from Gourmet over the nearly ten years I've been a subscriber, and other recipes stuck into the appropriate section of other cookbooks. Reading the magazine taught me easy and elegant ways to cook green beans and scallops and shrimp and potatoes and gave me the recipe for the mango salad that is the first sign of summer and red-and-yellow tomato soup. Much of what I know about combining herbs and various food, much of what I am as a cook, I owe to Gourmet. I have learned when you just have to use shallot or a sweet onion, and when a regular white or yellow will do. I am not afraid of curry powder, and have a much better understanding of the virtues of sage and tarragon. Reading this magazine over this many years, patterns emerge, and before you know it you actually have ideas of your own-- you know how to cook. I am not afraid of cranberries and know how to make an amazing turkey and stuffing.

So I'll read the November issue from cover to cover, and cut out more carefully the recipes from the remaining issues on my breakfront before sending them off to be recycled. And I guess I'll have to settle for that pedestrian alternative, bon apetit. But it just won't be the same... I'll miss you, Ruth Reichl, and your mane of hair and smiling, urban, aristocratic face that promised me that with ordinary things like chicken and potatoes, the good life was to be shared by all.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


I developed a headcold -- as did many people who attended the wedding -- and have been a laid a little low. In addition to making me tired and stuffy for a week, I'm finding that even into the second week I'm having trouble thinking. It's also been gloomy and raining and cold for almost a week straight, and this sudden onset of November weather at the beginning of October has made me feel like hibernating. So although I've been aware of the blog out here wanting some new entry, I just have literally had nothing much to say.

If Mad Men becomes a soap opera and persists on taking up most prominently the issue of sex and the way men of that era wield their power in this arena (even extending to a very ambiguous handling of whether the neighbor's au pair was seduced or coerced by Pete Campbell), they will probably lose me.

Saint John's University won the homecoming game against Bethel in the final seconds with the longest field goal in the school's history; it was made all the more dramatic because the same kicker missed a routine extra point two minutes before the end of the game.

Brett Favre continues to lead the Vikings toward glory.

The garden is pulled up and there is one container of tomatoes left, some peppers and carrots, a half dozen butternut squash, and everything else is in the freezer or canned. Steve plowed up a big area next to the boxes to extend the planting space-- it made me tired to see it, truth be told.

I hope we get a few more warm, dry stretches, because May is a long way away!