Sunday, November 29, 2009

Norman Rockwell

I think like most people my age, I have mixed feelings about Norman Rockwell. Growing up, we had four framed Norman Rockwell prints over our living room couch. They were the four seasons, and a quick Google search shows they were the "Young Love" series-- still available on collectible plates. I saw them every day, and engraved on my brain is the one of the boy testing the buttercup under the girl's chin, and the one of him carrying her books to school. There is a dog in every picture. The kids are freckle-faced and belong to an idyllic "small-town" America.

I like Norman Rockwell's work, and like many was surprised to see his more socially conscious pieces later in life. I appreciate that he always saw himself as an illustrator-- he had a genuine lack of pretension in that way. I don't embrace his vision, though for the most part that may have to do with seeing too many of his images on collector plates. Still, I was surprised this morning to hear in a story on the photographers who took the photos he painted from, that one painting, "New Kids in the Neighborhood," was based on a story on integration in Park Forest, Illinois.

Of course, the models are in Vermont, where Rockwell lived. I don't know where the houses are from, but that is not Park Forest. In Park Forest, the houses in the neighborhoods are much closer together, the lawns end much closer to the street, and I'm assuming the houses are smaller. They're certainly not made of brick and stone. They're 1950s split-levels.

It's funny that I assumed I'd see my Park Forest in the painting. Rockwell painted it in 1967. Well, I was in Park Forest in 1967! I was three years old and living in the Co-ops. What I do like about this painting is that all the children are from the same class. They are all middle class children. In fact, the African American children are quite dressed up. They're making a first impression. One can write a back story to this. And the white kids are interested as anyone would be to have new children in the neighborhood. I still vividly remember the arrival of new children in both the Co-ops and on Farragut Street. The day Katie moved out was one of great sadness, and the day Michael moved in was one of great anticipation, some anxiety, and much joy. The first storybook I wrote was in sixth grade, and it opened with a moving truck bringing a mysterious and magical girl to the neighborhood, and ended with the moving truck that took her away.

I don't see my Park Forest in the painting, of course. This is the crux of Rockwell, I think, the blend of "realism" with his very specific vision of how people looked and what they were up to. Steve says the lasting value of his work is that it was narrative-- that back story I was talking about. And I agree. As long as we also realize that the narrative is fiction, not history.

Cranberry, Apple and Walnut Conserve

Steve and I were with my family near Chicago over Thanksgiving. I still made my Cranberry, Apple and Walnut Conserve, my new favorite Thanksgiving dish. I did buy two bags of cranberries before leaving, and a turkey (69 cents a pound, come on!) and some yams. I just love Thanksgiving and will cook up the turkey next weekend. I put two loaves of cranberry bread in the oven just now. The sky to the East is that charcoal gray giving way to white that suggests snow is on the way. The small pond has a sickly layer of ice and snow on it, the only remnant of the Thanksgiving snow we missed. I'm transitioning quickly into holiday mode.

Here, for those of you who can't get enough of cranberries, or bought an extra bag, or have some left over after stringing them for the tree (does anyone still do that?), is the recipe... the original makes about 12 cups, so I've cut it down a bit, with rough proportions. The key is to put the cranberries in the pot in stages, so you have different consistencies in the final product.

Cranberry, Apple and Walnut Conserve
3/4 cup water
2 cups turbinado sugar (raw sugar)
1 cinnamon stick (or teaspoon of cinnamon-- to taste)
1/4 teaspoon allspice
2 bags fresh cranberries (9-12 oz)
2 apples (gala), peeled and chopped
1- 1 1/2 cup walnut pieces, toasted
2 Tbsp brandy (red wine also works, or nothing)

Simmer water, sugar, cinnamon stick (or cinnamon), allspice and half of cranberries in heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes, until cranberries start to pop. Add half of remaining cranberries and cook 5 minutes more. Add apples, walnut pieces and remaining cranberries and simmer for 5 more minutes. Add brandy and simmer 1 minute. Discard cinnamon stick and serve warm or at room temperature.

Monday, November 23, 2009


Wisdom is the beginning of knowledge. This quote is from the opening of Proverbs, and also prominent in the Rule of Benedict. I like it because it reverses something I usually think: that wisdom is deeper (and thus comes after) knowledge. That only in reflecitng and probing knowledge do we get to wisdom. But really we need to have wisdom first, as our foundation.

I gave a talk last week on Wisdom and the Wisdom Books of The Saint John's Bible. I was really happy to go back and think about the illuminations in that volume again, and more particularly to think about Wisdom, a character in those books of the Bible, a female character, to be sought after and wooed and won. She is the architect of the universe, present with God at creation, the one who gave specific shape to everything. In this view, God is the big Creator, whose order is more abstract and large, but not penetrable by human beings (as suffering and death are not penetrable by human understanding). Wisdom made things visible. Wisdom is the breath God breathed into the earth-- which means she is the life-force itself, and an Old Testament version of the Holy Spirit. Wisdom is at the heart of human creativity-- what joins us to God, what informs our vision of the world, what infuses art with its "transcendence."

It is interesting to think about what that means-- that maybe the part of God that we are made in the image of is Wisdom, a woman, or even moreso, the artist/creator. If that is the essential way we can be said to reflect God, to bear in ourselves the image of God, doesn't that turn conventional wisdom (and the foundation for priests being male) on its head?

There was a woman at the talk who was in tears a lot of the time. Afterward she said it was because she was sad that she'd never heard about Wisdom as an image of God before. As a friend says, she is in the hard process of "healing her God image." She's learning about God beyond what she experienced as a child, the Old Testament judge, that triad of men.

I recognized those tears. During the years spent in an Assembly of God church, I saw a lot of tears. I've shed my own, though not for the same reason as hers, but as I've struggled to reach God and in the process to love myself, understand what it means that God loves me. But many of the tears people shed in church  were joy at finally being given the "God image" of Jesus being presented there-- Jesus as personal savior, as friend and beloved, as God you could have a relationship with. It was not a good God concept for me, actually. I spent a lot of time trying to connect with that Jesus, and in some ways I found him, but that image was never very helpful and, it seemed, too easily diminished by the culture. In some ways, my earliest image of God-with-me (Emmanuel), Jesus, was the Eucharist at First Communion, and that image was real when I was seven and continued to be real (as odd and abstract as that seems even in saying it).

But I think going from the Catholic Church to the Assembly of God Church did a lot for me in terms of seeing that our images of God can be flexible. It seems like the opposite of what was intended, but I know it was there that I came to know a large God, much larger and more real than I had before. In metaphor, in images-- as many as my mind and heart could fathom-- I could find and continue to find, God. That is why, I think, Wisdom was an exciting revelation to me, and rather than displacing some other image of God, Wisdom adds to what I know of God and of myself and my place in the world. That I am a woman and an artist doesn't make me a god, but makes God here with me. If that makes sense. And this is for me the continuing joy of reading the Bible.

I'd like to direct folks to the Sisters' blog, which has a good entry on the 1919 influenza epidemic by Sister Dolores Super.

And if you'd like to read much more about what I have to say about Wisdom Books, here is the book I wrote, Art of The Saint John's Bible: A Reader's Guide to Wisdom Books and Prophets.

photo above of Wisdom by Cari Ferraro.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Music Dillemma

There was an article last week in the St. Cloud Times that really bummed me out. It was about local businesses getting in trouble and facing possible fines because bands were playing music in their establishments without securing proper licenses. In other words, cover bands. The result will be that some locales will stop having live music unless the artists write all their own songs or obtain proper licensing for what they're performing.

I'm sympathetic to musicians and songwriters, and certainly think they should get paid for their work. Steve's daughter's boyfriend Homer is a successful drummer. He gets paid for session work, for touring with the Dap Kings, and also for production/producing work he does through the studio he opened this past year, Dunham Records.  He said the money for him and other musicians is probably better and more long term in producing in the studio. If you produce a hit or for someone established, you're likely to draw more money and continued royalties. It's also good to write and place a song with a major artist or have a song picked up for a television show or film. [Can't resist posting this link to his recent performance on Jimmy Fallon's Late Night with Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon. You have to scroll to the end of the program.]

I do think musicians have to be creative in how they earn their money, and that as with so many things, more people will be able to be in the business, but fewer people will make the "big money." Record companies and distributors are in crisis. I bought a song tonight on Amazon for 99 cents. Singles are back (and Homer's studio, along with its predecessor, Dap Tone Records, is known for making singles, on wax, mostly old-school funk, with analog equipment).

But I think there should also be room for these local bands playing in small venues. The local businesses reevaluating their music programming are coffee shops, a couple brew pubs and bars, and a local sandwich shop called Bo Diddley's. One of the bands affected will be my favorite local band, whom I won't name because I don't want to get them in trouble. I first heard them play, covers of Americana/folk/bluegrass, at the Farmer's Market. Then I heard them play at a Democratic fundraiser at Fisher's Club, the local set-up club in Avon that specializes in walleye, ribs and rhubarb pie. We also went to hear them play at McCann's, a local brew pub where one of the bandmembers is also the brew master, and again on my birthday at the White Horse in St. Cloud, a bar with an incredible, self-taught cook (last week when we went the special was an Indonesian beef dish that had been marinated for 12 hours and slow-cooked for 6 more, though I had the crab cakes, which are the stuff dreams are made of). The only bad thing about the White Horse is that the "booths" are giant slabs of plywood with benches that are actually church pews-- you feel like you're far from the table and far from the person you're sitting across from.

What I'm saying is, these places are providing a public service by having local bands come in and play a few sets of excellent music, and they're operating on a shoestring. Our friend Nancy plays mandolin and violin in an excellent band, Random Road, that plays at the Local Blend, a  St. Joseph coffeehouse that has finally come into its own after three different owners, mostly because of the connection to local musicians. Random Road is not likely to get in trouble, since they mostly play Irish traditionals and public domain folk songs. But it seems sort of crazy to me that they would be scrutinized or the coffee shop owners would be fined if they played a song without proper licensing.

These are not really concerts, you see. This is one step above playing a wedding or in your neighbor's garage. And why can't there be an exemption for this? Can't we sing and play music for each other, sometimes, for free? We're not selling CDs or putting it on the internet or even selling tickets (though donations are often welcome, and you're encouraged of course to buy a beer or some fresh produce from the vendors). And I feel so lucky to live in a place with such a lively and active music scene.

I feel much the same way about this issue as I felt about the fees I used to pay to show foreign films to community college students. It cost $300 to show an obscure film to the 10-20 students who would show up for the series. Well worth it for the cultural experience, I believe, but also kind of crazy, since they could (but wouldn't) rent most of these at their local video store for $1.99. And the value added was my perspective and brief post-film discussion, which-- my hope-- might make them into lifelong film watchers, or at least not afraid of subtitles.

I hate to say it, but I also feel this way about church music. I know composers write the stuff, and put their time and energy into it. But to charge churches for their congregations to sing a song together on a Sunday morning just doesn't sit right with me. We have a popular composer in the monastery, and I'm very glad she gets paid for her work. But I still think it would be better if all the music we sang each day in liturgy was free. It doesn't sit right with me. To record it, yes, or publish it, yes, but that should be the hymnbook publisher's cost. Once you buy the book, you should be able to sing anything in it anytime you want. But it doesn't work that way. In the Assembly of God church of my youth, this was a major issue. We used an overhead and projected "worship choruses" onto a screen. Pretty quickly that was a licensing issue, and a system was set up to license the songs per use. To this day, my parents' evangelical church projects lyrics via PowerPoint and pay the licensing fee-- no need for books or worship aids printed up for everyone. And licensing fees are paid. I certainly see the rationale, and I'm not even disputing it. It just doesn't sit right with me.

It's music. It's meant to be performed. Everyone should sing! And singing should be free.

Monday, November 16, 2009

My New Grocery Store

I don't ever remember being as excited about the opening of a business as I am about the fact that on Wednesday our town is getting a Coborn's grocery store. Not when IKEA opened in the Chicago area, or even when Trader Joe's opened in Minneapolis. I mean they were nice, but neither changed my life. But living in a town with no real grocery store (there is a dusty old market downtown and two gas station mini-marts, but that's it) has been a total pain. Have I mentioned how important cooking and food are to me? The nearest grocery store right now is a fifteen-minute drive away, and I know that isn't much, but when you live in a small town it seems very far away. It is in "town," and means going into town. Town is St. Cloud, where there's traffic and too many stoplights, and basically aggravation. Going into town is a trip. When I come home from work, which is 5 minutes away, the last thing I want to do is go to town!

Wednesday, we'll have a major chain grocery in St. Joseph. I can send Steve to pick up things (in the last month we've had an urgent need for barley and for black beans, for which I've been lucky to have Annie to borrow from next door). I can stop there on the way home. I need not worry when I go on the weekly shopping trip that I'll forget something important.

It's seriously like entering civilization. Now all I need is for our renter to move out so I can do laundry in the house, and I'll be set.

Of course, it will mean the end of Loso's, the dusty market downtown. It's a beautiful building, and Loso is a founding name in this town. I've maybe bought things there four or five times. Overpriced, not-the-right-brand things. I have very little sentimentality when it comes to basic needs. And despite the fact that the overstocked shelves of bright, shiny too-many-choices and too-much-to-consume grocery stores have caused me more than one anxiety attack, I'm so glad one is moving to my neighborhood.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Monastery Blog

The monastery has launched a blog, with eight Sisters signed on to write once a month (one is on for the fifth Tuesday of the month, so really there are two holes in the schedule if we want every Tuesday and Thursday covered). So far, two entries have been posted. As communications director, I set up the blog template, put in the basic information, and did an orientation for the bloggers.

I've also offered to sit with them and help them post their entries. I'm certain that at least four of them will pick it up almost immediately, and it will probably only be a regular thing to help three of them. And it doesn't take long and is really a pleasure to get a visit once a month from some of these Sisters to post their entries. I'll fill in here and there with other entries, things I have access to or that work best on a site where I can post links-- and hopefully drive people to our Web site. I am a communications professional, after all.

Today I watched a free webinar on public relations through social media. It was a little overwhelming. The speaker works for major clients as a public relations expert and introduced not just the concept of publicizing businesses through use of social media but also these crazy, complex online press releases. It was for Anheuser Busch, promoting a video they were releasing that was a behind-the-scenes look at the making of their Super Bowl commercial. The release included a Twitter post, a "summary" that was basically the release, had video clips down the side, and had links to all kinds of things-- interviews with the makers of the making-of video, to the video site, to a promotion site for the video, e-mails to all the people involved and a variety of other organizations, links so you could easily "share" the content of that very press release, YouTube embed codes you could paste right in your blog if you wanted to include one of the clips, etc. Everything you'd need as a blogger or online media outlet to link to this promotion.

He also had some high-power graphics of social networking relationships-- how he identified people in a certain target industry tho were all loosely interconnected in terms of their discussion of issues and yet who reached all kinds of different niche audiences. With this chart of connections and connectors developed, you'd have a really powerful list for submitting your PR press release. And you could build buzz and seriously promote something...

Home for lunch I heard an "Intelligence Squared" debate on NPR on the proposition: "Good riddance to the/mainstream media." I love these debates, mostly because they remind me of teaching rhetoric. But unlike many of these "Oxford-style debates," which are always quite civilized and stable, this one devolved right away into heated discussion, shouting even. What was clear was what was at stake. The representatives of mainstream/traditional media are in complete emotional crisis mode over the impending death of their industry. Right away I'd been slightly offended by the way the proposition was phrased. It seemed so callous. Could anyone think that the death of newspapers and magazines in this country is a good thing, long overdue?

I think it's inevitable, given the huge technological transition we're in, but I also think it should be attended with respect and even some sadness. You know, like the death of the record album. Or even the death of the CD. MP3 files are not very high quality, and albums are basically dead as a form, replaced by digitized libraries full of singles. I'm happy to have digital music, and in fact downloaded a CD yesterday (the whole thing, not just the songs I really like-- but I also bought another one by the same artist used online because it was cheaper and I'm thinking will last longer than my next system crash). Still, I know it's not as good as the old technology and I know we're losing access to what was a truly formative experience for me: listening to records, then to CDs, one at a time, in their entirety, on music systems with good speakers or headphones.

Things are changing. For real.

Four of the Sisters wrote their first blog entries right away, and even found photos/artwork for them. They wanted me to proofread the entries and advise them on length and content. Two are holding onto them until their day-- the week of Thanksgiving. The Sisters are nothing if not perfectionists, which will make it hard for them to really get into blogging. But they'll also enjoy having their writing "out there" right away and for an audience. It's my job to build an audience, I think. It's my job, certainly, to help them get what they've written onto the blog itself.

It's hard to say what my job is. I work with an organization that is in some ways slowing down, but which is still constantly courting new ideas. Many of these Sisters want to find a way into the future-- giving online courses, retreats and webinars of their own. They want to share their wisdom and have someone help them navigate the world of technology. In some ways, however, the line between programming itself and promotion of that programming becomes blurred, because there aren't many Sisters who can actually make the transition on their own-- give me something to promote using the new tools of "my" profession. 

After lunch, a Sister dropped by to hand in a profile she's written for the next magazine. I'll have to retype it because, although she did create it on her computer, she's forgotten her password and can't get back on. Then I met with a Sister who is ramping up one of the monastery's traditional programs, a scholars-in-residence program, and starting a new initiative to sponsor students for a year of service living with Benedictine communities after college in needy areas of the world. She needs a bookmark and two brochures. We made a plan, looked at sample text and pricing. This, I told her, is something I can definitely do.

Tomorrow I'm off to the Archives to try to find an image of the 100-year-old grotto with snow for this year's Christmas card...

Saturday, November 7, 2009


Last night, sort of by default, Steve and I watched Unforgiven. Neither of us had seen it before, and it's been more than 15 years since it came out. I am a big fan of Westerns and the Western genre, but I'd never gotten around to this one. Mostly, I think, because I don't like Clint Eastwood. (Bridges of Madison County kind of did me in on Clint.) More than that, however, I think maybe I just don't "get" Clint Eastwood. We both hated Gran Torino and found almost no redeeming qualities in the movie whatsoever. I knew Unforgiven was a revisionist Western, and was interested to see what we'd find. Also, the film has a 96% approval rating on That is incredibly high-- universal praise.

The movie left us puzzled. Basically, we were on the sheriff Little Bill Dagget's (Gene Hackman) side, and we were pretty sure the film was not.

As far as revision goes, I'm not sure what was being subverted. Clint, as Bill Munny, is a former assassin, a man paid to kill. He was domesticated by a good woman, whom he married and who got him to give up drinking whiskey and settle into life as a farmer. His partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) married an Indian woman and likewise settled down. Feminine=domesticity=emasculation. His wife is dead of small pox, and after twelve years out of practice, Munny can't shoot straight or seat a horse, and is a poor pig farmer with two small children. That's standard Western stuff.

He leaves those children more or less to their own devices to set out to get his manhood back and take on one more job. Ned needs no arm-twisting at all to join him.

They're going to kill two cowboys, one of whom slashed a prostitute's face because she insulted the size of his penis. Again, emasculation by women. At the time of the incident, the sheriff intervened and, given the argument by the saloon owner that the cowboy had ruined his valuable property (the prostitute), he passed sentence: the two brothers were required to pay the saloon owner 7 horses in the spring. Fair? No. An insult to womanhood? Of course. This is 1880. Prostitutes have no rights, although the woman is well cared for by the others and even is kept on at the saloon to do cleaning (is this beneath her? do we feel bad that she isn't attractive enough to get paid for sex?). When the men return with the ponies in the spring, they bring along an 8th one and offer it to the woman herself. She seems moved by the offer, but the other women chase the men off.

By any estimation except a politically correct, anachronistic one, this is good lawing by Bill Dagget. The women don't agree, and they put up a reward for whomever will kill the two cowboys. This is what Munny and Ned are after.

But before they arrive in town, it seems to be what a cruel-hearted, dastardly, cowardly braggart of an Englishman is after as well. He breaks the town's ordinance against carrying firearms (again, a reasonable ordinance in the Old West, it seems to me). Dagget disarms him and then beats him up rather mercilessly and throws him in jail. OK. I still haven't turned against Dagget. He is a braggart, and may not be fighting "Old West" fair, but he's sending a message to criminals to stay the hell out of his town and don't bring any guns around.

When Munny and Ned and their other sidekick, a short-sighted (in more ways than one) young man with dreams of being a gunslinger, come to town, they get more or less the same treatment. However, they also manage to shoot the two unsuspecting cowboys. And they carry out the hits in the most cowardly way imaginable. These acts of violence turn the stomachs of Ned and the young man, who just don't have what it takes to be cold-hearted killers. Munny, however, is back in the saddle, and carries out one more bloody rampage before heading home to his children. This time it's to avenge the death of Ned-- which we're told quite clearly is accidental and unintentional-- at the hands of Little Bill Dagget. I don't think we're supposed to cheer for Munny, and this is clearly a dark Western and he is an anti-hero. However, I think we're supposed to respect Munny, and also we're supposed to think the sheriff "had it coming to him." (After the shooting of the unarmed cowboy in an outhouse, the young gunslinger says, "Well, he got what he deserved," and Clint says, "We all deserve it.")

OK, so no one is without sin here. But it's just hard for me to see what the sheriff did wrong. I don't think he deserved what he got. I think he was a good sheriff! Looking over the plot, I just can't see where he crossed the line. There were many places in the plot he could have gone wrong or stepped over the line, but in all instances it seems the script goes out of its way to show him behaving appropriately. Yes, he beats Clint within an inch of his life, but Clint has come into his town, refused to give up his weapon, and with clear plans to kill two citizens working at a local ranch whose debt to society has been paid. Hmmm. What's a sheriff to do?

It's a good, complex film. But to go to and read reviews about the little tyrant Bill Dagget and the individualist who puts him in his place, well, it just makes me wonder. When I read reviews about Clint Eastwood in this movie "redeeming" his earlier career in Westerns and rising heroic once again, albeit with more honesty about the nature of violence and his character, I am confused. Did the critics get it? Did the audiences get it? Do we have a philosophy that allows us to get it? Or is the myth that guides the Western in some ways too resistant, too unassailable, for us to overturn it? In the end, does the gunslinger, outsider, manly individualist who refuses to be permanently domesticated the only one who gets away with murder, who needs no forgiveness?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


I'm not a good dieter. I don't find abstinence from food to be a worthy virtue or one I'm interested in pursuing. After the first few weeks of good, solid, daily exercise, and the rewards of two more weeks combining the exercise with diet, I've come to that terrible point where it's time to "institutionalize" the changes. Self-control and hard work toward a goal is one thing, but when it becomes clear that I need to do this another four weeks to reach the goal, and after that to basically keep doing this to maintain it, I'm crabby. Really, really crabby.

I don't like thinking about weight this much, and I don't like working out. But more than that, I love to cook and to eat, and these weeks of eating small amounts with little variety is getting to me. I am officially no longer interested in eating any more broccoli. Tonight a dish of kale and beans that tasted delightful last week had much less flavor (I was out of sherry, clearly a key ingredient not replaceable by a little shot of red wine).

In the end, I am-- and knew this about myself--a binge person. I do well in spurts, not in the dailiness of work routines and working out in gyms and eating right. (This is why teaching suited me-- 18 weeks of intensity followed by a break to write.) I don't think it is that I am easily bored. I don't have a short attention span. I just bristle against routine and against spending my energy toward being thin, fit or making money. I recognize fully the value of all three of these things, and the way being thinner would contribute to my health and well-being. I know that abstaining from most sugar and from caffeine and alcohol, dairy and bread, as I have for the past month, makes me feel more clear, more awake, less sluggish during the day.

It just takes my attention and makes me feel pinched and stingy, unattached to the joys of life. But then again, winter is coming, and discipline may be a good way to direct one's attention in these pinched, cold, dark months. In the end, I will buy new clothes, bright and charming.