Sunday, January 31, 2010

Tikka and Dal

I don't make resolutions, but coming back from out trip to Los Angeles, I felt a real need to do some Middle Eastern and Indian cooking. As in, the need to learn how to do some Indian and Middle Eastern/African cooking. The one thing we don't have at all here in the St. Cloud area is a good Indian restaurant, and I've always wanted to learn to make good lentils. At Jim Sullivan and Beth Abels' house we'd gotten take-out from a local Indian place, six vegetarian dishes to top the rice and into which to dip the naan, all different and all delicious.

I've also always wanted to learn how to make a good kabob. Particularly a lamb or beef kabob. We do have a restaurant with good Middle Eastern dishes, but it's upscale, and also serves a wide variety of Mediterranean dishes (Steve says their paella is his all-time favorite restaurant dish).

I researched some Middle Eastern groceries in the Twin Cities, and was set to drive in last Saturday, but it was icy with blowing snow, so I thought I'd stay closer to home and try the Somali groceries in St. Cloud. We've eaten at a good Somali restaurant right over the bridge on St. Germain Ave. before, and it was mighty good.
I started at that grocery. It was a tiny place, but well-stocked with all kinds of sauces. It also had lots of Indian food ingredients, and even the large spongy bread you get at an Ethiopian restaurant. How fun would that be for a party?

Unfortunately, the spices were almost all in large quantities. I do not see myself ever using that much turmeric. I bought some of the smaller quantities of things, and also Ghee and a great little can of tandoori masala spice blend. There were three Somali men in the store, visiting. I asked the clerk if they had lamb. He checked the freezer and said, "No, we're out. But we have goat." "Uh, no, I don't think so." The other two men laughed.

I tried one more Somali grocery, even smaller than the first, which did have lamb but it hadn't been cut up yet-- a whole leg or nothing. I left with a 15-lb sack of basmati rice and a few more spices.

At the regular grocery, I got the rest of my spices, yogurt, pita and lots of lemons.

My beef kabob on spiced basmati didn't turn out so great, but today I had the opportunity to really do some Indian cooking. This morning I put the chicken in the marinade and on and off all day I explored and thought about dal recipes.

bon appetit arrived on Thursday with a page of basic recipes, including one for raita and one for chicken masala. Tweaking it with other things I had read, and using my tandoor spice blend instead of garam masala, the chicken was fantastic. In terms of the dal, there were a lot of options, and in the end I went with another masala recipe but changed up the spices and used ghee instead of oil.

The dinner would have held up in any restaurant, which was my goal, and Steve said he even liked it better than the paella at the Renaissance Cafe!

I'll make the dal several more times to get it down before trying another, but I'm feeling heartened. And the chicken can be a regular offering... and we had enough left over for delicious tikka wraps during the week!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Fish Tank

While in Palm Springs, we attended three shows at the Palm Springs Film Festival. The best of the three was Fish Tank, directed by Andrea Arnold. It's her second film, and I was already a big fan of her first one, Red Road.  Both films do an extraordinary thing-- humanize a man who does something bad, and make you see the toxicity of modern urban environments on good people. Both are dark films, but very real and not at all gratuitous, redeemed by their basic sense of human goodness and the power of mercy. In fact, I think Red Road is one of the best films about mercy-- which must be extended by both the principal actors-- I've ever seen.

Both films take place in what in the United States would be called "projects" but in the UK are called "council estates." Red Road takes place in Scotland (by far the most challenging thing about the film is understanding the dialogue) and Fish Tank in England. Much has been made of the performance by Katie Jarvis, a newcomer that Arnold supposedly discovered on a train platform where Jarvis was having an argument with her boyfriend. I doubt she's a great acrtess, but she's perfectly cast in this role. She is fierce, fearless and out of control. At the same time, she is awkward and confused about love and sex as only a raging teenage girl in the projects can be. The actor in the lead, Michael Fassbender, was equally if not more amazing in his role. He was also the best thing (in my opinion) in Inglorious Basterds, as the language expert helping the Americans negotiate in a German bar (the best scene in that movie).

I don't want to give anything away, but this film covers my favorite all-time territory, one of my primary themes. It is the fact that the world is basically violent, and that the violence comes from ordinary, even good people-- from where you least expect it. The violence is often invisible to us on a day-to-day basis, but expectations of it and experience of it color everything we see and do. We either flat out deny it in a way that doesn't make it any less real, or we accommodate it so that it doesn't stop us from moving forward. I don't mean to overplay it, but sexual violence, the violence of war, the violence of car crashes, are all around us-- if not in our own home, then in our neighbor's homes. Mia, Katie Jarvis's character, is an embodiment of this everyday violence, as is basically everyone in the film. How are these violent people going to carve out roles and ways of being with each other that are sustaining and life-giving?

What Arnold does in her films is make us jump to conclusions, then undermine those assumptions, and continue to complicate those assumptions until we see life as it is, at least in these places where poverty and social fragmentation and toxic cultural elements like rap music permeate the lives of everyone.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Snow makes a desert of the wetlands

I finally got my repaired/replaced snowshoes back yesterday, and today I headed out. It was raining, and the snow had an icy crust on it that quickly gave way. It felt great to be out there. I almost forgot how much I love snowshoeing on our property.

Because the desert is still on my brain, I was really struck by how similar this was to walking in the desert. Of course, the snowshoes make the walking difficult, and I make a ton of noise crashing around. But I love the simplicity of the landscape. What is lush and complex and impassable in the summer just lies down at my feet this time of year. Stripped of leavesa nd flowers, there are only a few kinds of plants, and they change from zone to zone.

I really like that I can walk right through/over/on top of the wetlands. The grasses are all pushed down and under a layer of snow. A few cat tails stick up through the ice and snow, and there was one gorgeous, sharp, rain-slicked cluster of reeds I can't identify. They were walnut brown and looked like they would make great arrows, but when I went to break one off it folded like grass.

There are thorns to weave through, but well-clad, they're no problem. I went all the way to the back of the property, through the grove of pines that mak us think we have less land than we do. There's a broken-down fence at the border, and then another piece of open land. Someday it will all be houses in there, thanks to the construction of the grade school across the road.

I follow deer tracks and make my own path and, much like that long hike in Joshua Tree, I feel certain I can get back home, like there's an absolute limit to how lost one can be in the world.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Joshua Tree poem

Of my previous visits to Joshua Tree National Park, it is clear that I have one singular story that will forever dominate in my memory.

It is of the Thanksgiving Day I spent there with my ex-husband, as our marriage was ending but about a month before I really knew it, lost for four hours. We went there to camp, but of course, arriving on the morning of Thanksgiving Day, all the spots were taken. I'd wanted to come down on Tuesday night to try to get a space, but there had been arguments. In fact, he wanted to go to Death Valley, but I was so tired from commuting I just didn't want to spend six hours in the car each way for a long weekend trip. He would only go at all because I'd said he could go to Death Valley on his own the following weekend. It was odd that he seemed to think he needed my permission for this, or that it was a negotiation.

We decided on a longish hike we found in a book of hikes that was decidedly unhelpful. The book was about 5" x 8", so the maps, such as they were, were small and lacked detail. It had a rough line drawing of the elevations and the terrain, and directions that read something like this: "follow the trail among the rocks about 700 yards, then veer left beside the wash. After about half a mile, the trail turns right between two rocks and climbs for about another quarter mile." Well, if you've ever hiked in the desert, you'll know that it is nothing but rocks and washes and what look like trails but might turn out to be ancient goat tracks. Also, it's impossible, ever, to figure out how far you've walked. George was moving fast, distracted, wanting to climb up things and see the views, always ahead of me and my book. I struggled to make sense of the directions, but probably quite soon we were lost. Not admitting it and back-tracking, however, we got deeper and deeper into the park. At some point we probably left the park boundary. Up and down massive rock and scrub landscapes we went.

We'd chosen this hike thinking it would take more or less exactly until dusk. Suddenly it was dark (late November), though the air was really pleasant and the overcast sky kept the temperature from getting too cold. I was suprirsingly comfortable. And once we got to a point where I could actually see a little ribbon of road with its beads of headlights in the distance, I was surprisingly peaceful, too. Now it was just a matter of walking until we hit the road. And when we did, we got to a Medical Center, and called from there for a taxi back to the park and our car-- a $15 cab ride if I remember correctly.

George and I hardly talked the whole time, but I just can't explain how peaceful I felt. I hadn't felt that calm for months. I still think of it as a really good memory. Even later, when he said he was wishing he was with his girlfriend instead of me the whole time, that didn't diminish my feelings about that day. I just felt really safe and confident and good. Sure, my feet hurt and there was one panicky time when we were really, really lost, down in a canyon with no clear ascent out, but overall, it was so, I don't know, more manageable than I would have expected. So not scary. We had water and food in our backpacks, and if we needed to we could have just lay down and gone to sleep.

I wanted to write a poem about Joshua Tree for a long time. I thought I would try to write a sestina. I think "outdoor" stuff like this makes for good sestinas, because in a sestina the last word of each line repeats so you have to keep reusing the same six words. And in the desert, as I mentioned in my last post, there are about six things. There's something elemental about it. I also like sestinas because, since they have long lines and are such long poems, they tend to have a narrative push to them, a narrative appeal. They have to go somewhere and keep moving through the structure. In this way they are the opposite of villanelle's, which keep circling back to the same spot.  For those of you new to sestinas, notice the end words (in some form-- the variations are most of the fun for me) are the same in each stanza: desert, empty, lost, carry, water and trail.

It was two years later that I wrote this sestina about the desert, and it took a turn to this story, as did my talks with Steve in Joshua Tree last week. It's still one of my favorite poems, though I never did find a magazine to publish it. I sent it to the "sestina editor" at McSweeney's who wrote back a really nice e-mail saying he LOVED it, but that the editors thought it wasn't witty enough. Witty, it is not.

Desert Sestina

I feel at home in Joshua Tree’s desert.
There’s peace in the vast emptiness,
the illusion that you could never get lost
because you can see so far, and sounds carry
over desert like they carry over water,
alerting others to your presence on or off the trail.

Have you ever noticed how two women on a trail
will talk and talk, never running empty,
but couples are more quiet? In the desert
they stop briefly to share a bottle of water
as if time together allows them to be at a loss
for words, or many ways to show they care.

I pay attention to these things now; I care
what brought these people to the desert,
and wonder if it makes them feel full or empty,
the barren rock beneath a sky the color of water.
I know it’s hard for anyone to stay on the trail
and in the world, as in the desert, easy to get lost.

Two years ago my husband and I got lost
following a wash we mistook for the trail.
Four hours we walked in the dark in the desert,
each ridge we climbed showing us more emptiness.
My husband was worried. He tried to take care
of me. I told him it was warm and we had water.

Finally we saw the lights of the highway, like water,
an oasis of cars, and we walked toward it, far from any trail.
I felt oddly peaceful in sight of town. I didn’t care
how far we had to walk through the emptiness.
I didn’t know that my husband was already lost.
Finally, we reached a medical center, nearly deserted.

It would be less than three months before he would desert
me and our good marriage, leave me like a fish out of water,
flopping. I was left to find my way, build a new trail
out of my grief over so large a loss.
Watching him go down so fast, that he didn’t care
enough to try, left a deep, vast emptiness.

I revisit that loss, working it out in the desert.
I stay on the trail and carry plenty of water.
I know in the big emptiness there’s also clarity, bedrock.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Desert Vacation

Steve and I have returned from our longest vacation together-- an entire week in Southern California. We went to visit his friend, Father Joel Kelly, who lives in Morongo Valley, California. It is about a half hour outside Palm Springs, where they were holding an international film festival, and that was part of the attraction-- and definitely the reason we scheduled the vacation for last week. More significantly for me, he also lives a half hour from Joshua Tree National Park, one of my favorite places in the United States.

On the plane, Steve, a landscaper and lover of prairies, said he was looking forward to the landscape of the desrt-- all the new plants an interesting landscape designs to explore.  I told him not to get his hopes up too high.  "There are six plants in the desert, and you'll see a lot of them." Sitting outside in the yard of St. Michael's, the priest retirement home where we were staying in Morongo Valley, he said he counted seven plants-- pretty close.

Of course, there is variety in the desert, but I think it's this simplicity of plant life and all other things that I like most about the area. Steve thought the towns-- Yucca Valley, Morongo Valley, 29 Palms, Joshua Tree, looked not so much like towns as debris fields from airliner crashes. There is no order, and there is also no cover-- you see everything. The houses also don't seem to pretend that they are where they are supposed to be. The desert is not a place that can sustain much human contact, and that is evident everywhere. I find this refreshing, as I did when I used to drive out from Long Beach for respite, for the nothing I could rest my eyes on, for a break from too much civilization and too much pretending that 4 bedroom houses are worth a million dollars and that there's just no end to water and Birds of Paradise and new cars.

The desert was my only suggestion of winter. It gets cold there-- though it was quite warm during our visit. It is comparatively empty, and it is quiet like nowhere else I've ever been-- except Minnesota under cover of snow.  You can see everything-- there's a clarity to that.

We learned to identify clearly these plants: Pinyon Pine and Red Pine and Joshua Tree and Juniper and Mesquite and Cottonwood with giant nests of Mistletoe on their branches, and California Fan Palms, Yucca and Creosote and Cheese Bush and Cholla and Arrowweed.

In some ways, the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve was the biggest find. Just up the road, it had lovely trails and wound through beautiful, distinct zones of plant life: marsh, canyon, ridge, etc.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Park Forest Public Library

The Park Forest entries have gotten such a good response, I've been meaning to sit down and write about Illinois Theatre Center. I just have so much to say about it, it's not really blog-length in my head. So let me just give the preface here. It is no small thing to say that of all the special things about Park Forest, and there are many, my favorite things all had to do with the Park Forest Public Library.

In the early days, there was the children's reading room. It had little kids' tables with slanted tops covered in extremely pleasing formica. The tops came together like little tents, and you could rest a picture book on the ledge and turn the pages at your leisure, reading without craning your neck. The reading room also had window seats, along the length of a big picture window, with pillows, where you could curl up on a rainy day. Those window seats made me feel like I was in a castle, not a library.

It wasn't long before I graduated to reading "chapter books." The "Y" section, real bookshelves that went up at least six feet, were our first experience with the card catalogue. The fiction was alphabetized by author name, and I began, of course, with "Alcott."  My mother had read Little Women to us already, so I went for the sequel, Little Men, and then Jo's Boys. In a recent PBS special on Louisa May Alcott, they interviewed a few well-known women writers who said that Louisa May Alcott was their first inspiration. I'd have to agree that Jo was my first model as well, and without her, I might not have been able to imagine myself becoming a "real" writer. The fact that she wrote when she was young, for her sisters and for the sheer pleasure of it, was exhiliarating. It gave me permission to take myself seriously, and to give myself over to books.

When I hit junior high, there seemed to be a greater emphasis on being physically active, probably as I became more bookish. My mother wanted me to go outside, but when I'd take a book and set up on a lawn chair, she'd prefer I "did something" like housework. Going to the Aqua Center was an approved alternative, however, a 2-mile bike ride from our home on Farragut Street.

The Aqua Center was next door to the library. So it was that I'd go off in my suit and shorts, park my bike at the Aqua Center, and walk instead over to the library-- sneak over to the library-- on a summer afternoon. I was through with the youth section by then, but had no real guidance for where to go next. It was easy to find the adult fiction, but it was also daunting. I really wish I'd met a nice librarian at that point, to recommend some books for me. As it was, I went to the place on the bookshelf where there would be books by me. Sink. It was empty, but just in front of "my" space was the good company I would have: Isaac Bashevis Singer.

This is probably where my love of Eastern European and Russian literature began. I started with Shosha. Then I read some yiddish fables he edited, and Enemies, A Love Story. I'm sure I read more, but those are the ones that stuck with me. I wish I had discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald then, or John Steinbeck.

I read randomly, and don't remember most of it. I remember mostly being confused and intimidated by the shiny novels that looked very adult. I avoided the ones with the skull and crossbones stickers (mystery), or the little magnifying glass stickers (detective), which were mostly the books my father read. He was an avid library patron, too. It felt odd to be looking for books in the same section as him.

I didn't find poetry until high school, doing research papers on the other side of the library. The reference section, along with the "800s," drama at 821 and poetry at 822, got my attention in high school. At that time we'd all go to the library to work on research papers, filling out slips to request magazine articles that had to be retrieved from the basement. When you got them, more often than not they didn't fit your topic, and you'd have to keep digging through the Reader's Guide to Periodicals. At some point, I also found 821 and 822, and started reading poetry and plays.

I'd hide out in the carrels along the outer side wall. In addition to anonymity, those carrels had another benefit. Sitting there, you could often hear the rehearsals at Illinois Theatre Center coming up through the floor. The Illinois Theatre Center, an Actor's Equity theater right there in Park Forest, Illinois, run by Steven and Etel Billig, opened in the basement of the Park Forest Public Library in 1976. I was twelve, and must have taken a class there as soon as it opened. My parents, and my friends' parents, were early subscribers (and my parents have subscribed to all 34 seasons).

How I remember the windowless basement accessible only by a steep staircase nearly hidden along the side of the building. It smelled of cigarette butts and paint and wood shavings and costumes with make-up and sweat deep in their period lace and ruffles. It was at the complete opposite end of the library as the children's reading room, and it was equally as magical. For me, for awhile, it was a door to a much larger world beyond that of my family. It was a fulfillment of the promise I'd always seen in the Park Forest Public Library, it's last and best offering.