Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween is for Kids

I enjoyed Halloween until I was 12, although it was never my favorite holiday. I loved fall, with its pumpkins and colored leaves and early dark. I liked the candy and especially the time spent after trick-or-treating trading candy with my siblings. We gave 2/3 of our haul to the charity bin at the elementary school, so quantity was our aim. Luckily, there were enough peanut butter taffies, Mary Janes and Tootsie Rolls to put in the charity pile that we didn't have to go into our candy bar collection. Also luckily, my sister was a fan of 3 Musketeers and not a fan of nuts, so I could build up my Snickers collection.

Park Forest, Illinois, had a haunted house when I was growing up. It was in a small, brick two-story house that was built to provide training to the fire department. A few times a year they'd set it on fire and practice navigating the narrow hallways, tricky stairways and small rooms. For the haunted house, they replaced the limited bare lightbulbs with colored or strobe bulbs. I vividly remember going through that place one year, being pushed into a hay bale that housed a monster of some sort and fleeing through the back door-- terrifying. I think I was expecting fake haunted house carnival ride monsters, not real people dressed up and hiding, reaching out and grabbing us.

Mostly I associate Halloween with discomfort. The costumes, of course, but also plunging my head into a bucket of water and apples. My sticky face and hair after struggling to bite through a layer of caramel and into an apple. Although I loved being in plays, I never liked wearing costumes for parties or Halloween. It felt like too much pressure to come up with something good, and I was never satisfied.

My favorite Halloween as an adult was the year I lived in Brooklyn. I had successfully avoided all costume parties, and came home from work to a gorgeous fall evening, stopping at Happy Pizza for a slice. I went up to my apartment over the video store, only to be roused by the sound of a parade a half hour later. In 1989-91, when I lived in Park Slope, 7th Avenue was a major parade route. Beginning the first Saturday morning after I moved in with bagpipes and a parade of all the park district baseball teams, the were almost always led by bagpipes, and they were almost always a complete surprise to me.

I came down to watch the parade, what seemed like hundreds of kids in costumes marching down the street. Adults gathered on the sidewalk and called out and applauded the kids: "Hey, superman! Hey, hi there, ninja turtle!" Some kids worked the crowd, while others seemed surprised by the attention. All the store owners (except the new Korean noodle place that was also taken off guard) had candy at the ready to hand out to the children. It was almost like a mirror version of a 4th of July parade, with the crowd throwing candy to the marchers.

I have friends in Cold Spring who go to an annual adult costume party for Halloween. They look forward to it and go to great lengths to put together costumes. Last year they won the best costume prize for Thing 1 and Thing 2, and this year the plan was to go as the sexy cable repair guy and a "Real Housewife" of Cold Spring. Their three children-- yeah, they have costumes for Halloween too.

My Facebook feed is also full of photos of adult friends at various Halloween parties. I love the gnome and vampires and superheroes and all of it. But I thank the Lord I don't have to dress up. The last costume party I attended was in 1987, if I remember correctly. I came home from work to find the law students I lived with had spent the entire day preparing costumes. I dissolved in tears, until my friend Bob took me in hand and said, "Susan, there's always the hobo!" A flannel shirt, ripped jeans, bandana bundle on a stick and some charcoal and I was good to go. But I do remember how much that charcoal itched all night and made my face break out.

Friday, October 21, 2011


tamarack and pine trees I pass on my way to work

Throughout my adult life, there have been times I have been criticized for not being more engaged with nature. The harshest came from Denise Levertov, who thought it was the ultimate reason that I should not be a poet. I remember a conference with her when she said, "Susan, your interest is in human relationships. Poets care about nature. Why don't you write fiction?" I said to her, almost plaintively, "I'm going on a backpacking trip for four days starting tomorrow." She came very close to patting my knee, as if to say, "That's nice, dear, but it's not going to make you a poet."

Such a pronouncement is silly, of course, but Denise Levertov loomed very large and we students gave her a lot of power. In fact, she did have the power to make or break us, recommending her favorite students' manuscripts to publishers. When my poetry manuscript was a finalist for the National Poetry Series a couple of years later, she was one of the judges.

I grew up in Park Forest, a suburb of Chicago, a place defined, if by anything, but culture, by sociology, by human relationships. It is the subject of the book The Organizational Man. There was a forest preserve, and we walked in it, but in its deep recesses there was danger-- smoking and drinking and sex and violence. We stayed on the path and didn't go there at night. On a camping trip with the Campfire Girls we got deluged and ended up twelve whimpering, sodden girls in the back of station wagons driving home in the middle of the night.

I knew the names of a few trees: locust, maple, oak. Firs and pines were all "evergreens." The truth is, I didn't know anyone who knew the names of any plants beyond the most common. I loved summer storms and October weather, especially the early darkness and wind in the piles of leaves. I loved lilacs in June. I loved snow on the giant pine outside our kitchen window, framed by the carport.

During my two stints in California and my year in Reno, I worked very hard to absorb the natural world. Backpacking was just the start. The fact is, it was foreign terrain. In Reno, attached to the Literature and Environment program at the University, there was so much talk about the various ecosystems. Basin and range. Watersheds. Elevation and its effects. Lake Tahoe and its clarity and fragility. Walking in the public lands, which seemed barren to me, I have to admit I loved the rusted out shells of old cars people had pushed over ridges and the sound of people shooting tin cans. But I worked hard to pay attention to the plants as well.

Which brings me to the tamarack tree. This fall it has made an impression on me. Two weekends ago we were out at the Kluesner log cabin, which was built on our property and moved to a lake near Wadena, Minnesota. It was a gorgeous, unseasonably warm October weekend, so we went kayaking both days on the lake. On one shore was a large tamarack grove, right along the swampy edge of the lake, backed by black-green pines.

Tamarack is a pine tree whose foliage turns yellow in the fall before it loses its needles. They're feathery and I'm sure I thought they were just drought-stricken, sickly trees in the past (not noticing they grow in or near water). But this year I saw them along that lakeshore in all their glory, and now I see them on my way to work, small stands sometimes glowing in the morning sun or stark against green pines. They only grow in northern climes, mostly in Alaska and Canada, also in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Connecticut and Maine, dipping down as far south as the "extreme northern end of Illinois." 

I remember standing with my sister on a corner in Atlanta when she helped me move there after college. She wanted to know what kind of tree we were looking at, a large tree with smooth bark, gnarly branches and large, waxy green leaves. It hadn't occurred to me to wonder. It turned out to be a magnolia, and then I started seeing them everywhere. I wish she could have been there to see them in bloom. Later I learned about dogwoods, from a poster for the annual dogwood festival, and started looking for them. I learned what azaleas were.

I read about jacaranda trees in a poem, and then looking for them in Southern California after living there two years. They bloom in April, and if you look for them they are everywhere. But you have to look-- amid the shopping centers and concrete. You have to go into the neighborhoods and slow down. In fact, you can see them best from an airplane at that time, making a light-purple canopy over the area. They are native to South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. They are exotic, like the bamboo, birds of paradise and lemon trees in my Long Beach neighborhood.

Nature is a tricky business, and mostly, it is local. In Park Forest, I loved the rattling seed pods of the locust trees, the helicopter seeds of the maple. More than anything I loved the weeping willows that grew along a creek behind the public library. I loved Queen Anne's lace with its black dot at the center. When I was very young and living by that forest preserve,  I thought the black dot was a baby ant, the queen. I loved black-eyed Susans, with whom I shared a name. To share a name with a flower seemed quite magical.

Now I live with and love the purple aster, droopy cone flowers and bergamot. I look for the sumac and, now, the tamarack groves.   

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Thai Curry Butternut Squash Soup

I apologize for not having a photo of this one, as it was a beautiful soup, but my camera battery is dead!

I do want to make this soup again (Steve says is up there with gumbo and potato leek as the top three), so I'll get the recipe down even without a photo. Also, it is a unique soup. I couldn't find a recipe quite like it and ended up improvising a bit.

I'm not a fan of butternut squash, which I think is bland and takes way too much preparation work. However, they're REALLY easy to grow and I have a lot of them. In past years they've gone mouldy and soft in the basement, so this year I am determined to do a few things differently. First, I will cut up two at a time when using one and freeze the leftover squash for later recipes. Second, I resolved to find a butternut squash soup I liked.

I knew I wanted a curry soup, but couldn't find one with Indian curry powder that sounded very complex or interesting. The curry powder seemed like an afterthought, and the recipe couldn't help adding nutmeg as well. I know nutmeg is used in Indian food, but I really wanted to avoid the whole pumpkin pie squash thing. Having used the technique of throwing in curry powder to spice up a potato-cheese soup, I didn't want to go that route.

I did find an interesting curry squash soup recipe in Asparagus to Zucchini, a cookbook produced by the Madison, Wisconsin area CSAs. It was too complex, with kaffir limes, curry leaves and lemongrass, which I don't generally have, but it was a start. Here's what I made in the end, and it was really exceptional-- beautiful, tasty and not difficult once the squash was diced.

Thai Curry Butternut Squash Soup
1 Tbs vegetable oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 Tbs red curry paste
5 cups diced butternut squash
1 can chicken broth (or vegetable) plus 1/2 cup water (approx 3 cups)
1 cup coconut milk (my coconut milk was pretty separated... I used maybe 1/2 cup and then 1/2 cup regular milk)
1/2 cup fish sauce (Don't leave this out! I am squeamish about it, so gave a first good shot, then tasted and added another long squeeze of the bottle.)
salt to taste
cilantro (for garnish)

Saute the curry paste in the vegetable oil for 30 seconds in a soup pot and add diced onion. Saute until translucent, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, in a large pot of boiling water, boil the diced squash for 8-10 minutes until soft. Drain. Add squash, broth and coconut milk to the pot. Simmer for 10-15 minutes, then puree with an immersion blender (or in batches in a regular blender) and add fish sauce. Simmer another five minutes and add salt to taste. I did also add a few shakes of a "Thai seasoning blend" I got on clearance when World Market went out of business in town. I believe it has ginger and red pepper mostly, maybe also some lemongrass powder. Lemon grass powder (or whole) and ginger would be good additions to this soup in small measure.

The color of the soup is light, creamy and golden, and it has just the right kick and just the right tang of Thai food. It's still somewhat delicate, so we took the opportunity to open a good Pinot Noir. With good bread, this could easily be a meal. (We had no bread, so I served it with rice, which we dipped in spoonfuls into the soup.)

The best thing is, I have 9 cups of cubed butternut squash in the freezer, so next time I will cut most of the prep!

Thursday, October 13, 2011


I didnt' have much interest in seeing Moneyball in the theater until a friend told me about his experience seeing it in a major metropolitan area (not Oakland). At the end of the movie, the audience stood up and gave it a standing ovation.

Standing ovations are odd things in themselves. They have become expected, ubiquitous rituals at a theater, and I square it by telling myself that I'll happily stand up and clap for anyone willing to entertain me in person for two hours. In a movie, it doesn't make sense, except as the audience affirming an experience shared with the others in the theater. Moneyball, then, was about something that could make people rise to their feet and applaud rolling credits. Perhaps, I thought, it has something interesting to say about America and about this moment in our history.

It turns out, it does. The movie is wonderfully entertaining, with excellent acting performances and a cast of characters that clearly includes many real athletic scouts (their acting is not excellent, but it's always fun to see real people in a movie). But what is the story? What kind of American hero is Billy Beane?

He's a failed professional baseball player who chose the major leagues when he wasn't ready, when he should have gone to Stanford on a scholarship. He looked like a great player to the scouts, who analyze players in a certain, romantic way, and who are looking for stars. In that system, he failed miserably.

As a general manager for a team that has one of the worst budgets in the Major Leagues, the Oakland Athletics, the game as it is played also isn't working. He can't win with the best players he can buy. It doesn't work to identify young stars and develop them, because as soon as the stars help the A's get close to a championship, they're bought off by teams with bigger budgets. As he says, he doesn't want to be a farm team for the Yankees.

So he changes the questions he's asking and changes the way he plays the game. He enlists a Yale economics graduate and they assess players differently. According to the system they're using, they choose players according to their ability to get on base (as determined by their stats). Rather than saying, "We need a star first-baseman to replace Johnny Damon," they say, "We need three players, and they all need to be guys who can get on base a large percentage of the time." They find undervalued players and recruit them.

However, they also (according to the movie) train and change these players to provide strengths that others didn't see in them. They get the players not to look at their shortcomings but to see themselves realistically and play from the strengths that they have. They teach a catcher to play first base, because they need his hits. Beane wants them to stop doing the thing they were originally assessed for and supposed to be great at and concentrate on what the statistics show they actually can do.

More than putting together a budget team, Billy Beane puts together a team whose parts work together to produce wins. Lots and lots of wins. According to the film, it's this change in thinking that leads the Red Sox to finally win a World Series in 2004.

It's an odd thing, really. In one way, it's a cold, heartless system, based on mathematics and statistics. On the other hand, the current system of player analysis seems just as cold and heartless. It is more romantic, building young men up with lavish praise of their talent and skills, and it provides the stories we hear in baseball commentary and tell each other over baseball cards and fantasy baseball leagues. But when they don't live up to the hype or promise, they're discarded and, the movie suggests, real damage is also done to their psyches.

The movie is not romantic, especially for a baseball movie. It embraces its inner geek, and although Brad Pitt is beautiful, charismatic and chews tobacco, there is surprisingly little baseball action in the movie. The games are mostly played out in documentary-like fashion. They are collections of hits, runs and scores, not feats of superhuman ability or "heart."

So what would make an audience get to their feet? Maybe it is Billy Beane's desire to do things totally differently when facing a situation he can't win, the big money market of professional baseball. Maybe there is a recognition that we, America, are not the high-budget team of all-stars we once were.

Our budget is low and we're not living up to our potential as stars. We need to change the game. We need to be realistic about what we can do as individuals. We also need to nurture new skills, the things we can do, and play our parts so we can get the most runs. Not every time, but enough times to be in the winning column. The truth is, this movie is not about the big winner. It is a movie trying to convince Billy Beane that falling short of the big win doesn't make his whole season and its successes meaningless. What he does counts. What he does turns baseball on its head and yet serves up a game that is wonderful for the fans to watch and satisfying for the team to play.

In the end it's surprising that the movie is offering people hope on a grand scale. It might be a good sign.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Ten Years Later

On September 11, 2011, I woke up in Madison, Wisconsin, where I was visiting friends on my way back from a visit to Chicago. You couldn't escape the day, the anniversary, if for no other reason the media had turned over an entire week to commemoration, follow-up, analysis, revisiting, and basically any story they could come up with related to 9/11.

After Mass at Holy Wisdom Monastery, just three miles from where my friends lived, I headed home to central Minnesota. At noon, I turned off the radio and observed a couple minutes of silence, the landscape rushing by, my mind of course still fully engaged with driving. I couldn't stop-- and this feeling of hurrying forward seemed to me somehow related to the country's response to 9/11. Ten years of hurrying forward.

When I got home, I jotted down a draft of this poem, which I've returned to a few times since. I have a sense that it is already not timely, that events keep moving forward almost too quickly, without enough reflection or, more importantly, connectivity between them. I think that's what I like about the poem-- that it captures the sense of rushing on, and in this particular historical moment ten years later, of our fragmentation as Americans, our inability to come together and make sense of our country and our world situation.

Ten Years Later

by Susan Sink

I’m driving through Wisconsin
as fast as I can, watching for troopers,
annoyed by those too close behind, those
too close in front, when I shoot
under an overpass and standing there
is a woman with a blond pony tail
holding a large American flag,
alone, her head down, looking at nothing.

In Minnesota, passing under another bridge,
a more exuberant group—adult chaperones
and ten or twelve children with flags waving,
children who weren’t even born then—
make this a day of victory more than mourning.

In the rush of traffic, I think about the quiet skies
in the days after that day, the two wars,
the children growing up in a curious wartime,
the young widows, alone, with flags,
and like the many stranded years ago,
I want only to get home.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

House of Prayer

In mid-September I started a new job. I moved from being the communications director for the Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict, the largest community of Benedictine women in the United States, to the part-time administrator of a 13-room, 17-bed retreat house, the Episcopal House of Prayer. The distance between these two places is only 10 miles. The Sisters' monastery is in St. Joseph, Minnesota, and the House of Prayer is on the campus of Saint John's University and Abbey in Collegeville.

I am right down the street from where I started in this area, in 2005, when I moved here from Southern California to be a scholar at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research. After that year, I worked for two years as an editor at Liturgical Press, which is also on the campus of Saint John's and a ministry of the Abbey.

The House of Prayer came out of the great ecumenical spirit of this place, a collaboration between Episcopal Bishop of Minnesota Bob Anderson (1934-2011) and Abbot Jerome Theisen 21 years ago. It builds on the great beauty of this part of the state as well.

One of my misgivings about not working for the Sisters anymore was a sense that I'd be moving away from the deep German Catholic heritage of this area. I'm really taken by the culture, particularly the old farmers and those who grew up on farms, hard-working and completely engaged even in their 70s and 80s.

I need not have worried. The first person I met here was Dennis, one of our two house cleaners. He turned 78 years old last year, having had a long career as a dairy farmer and another as a college custodian before retiring 11 years ago. He tells charming stories about "the wife," and "the boy" and "the girl," his children. He has one of the thick German accents I love to hear and am quite aware are not going to be heard in another 10-20 years.  He reminds me of my own grandfather, who was too social to retire and went to work in a produce department in his 70s just to stay active and continue to interact with people. 

Today, though, while the women of St. Victoria's Parish held their retreat in our fireplace living room, an older man came in from the parking lot. I met him in the lobby and asked if he'd just stopped in to take a look. He said he's often passed the sign, "House of Prayer," and thought today would be a good day to stop. I saw he had a rosary wrapped around his hand. "I'm not far from Albany, where I'm going, but it's such a nice day, I thought I'd see this house of prayer."

"Let me open the oratory for you," I said, taking him down the hall. I explained that we're a retreat house and that he was welcome to pray in our prayer space for as long as he liked. I unlocked the space and explained that we usually take off our shoes before going in. "That's fine," he said. He looked in curiously at the circle of chairs, the meditation mats and cushions on the floor. I have to say that the light in there at that time on this October day surprised even me. It made the whole place glow orange.

I asked him his name, and he said, "Norbert. Norbert Overman."
I told him mine, and he looked quizzical. "Zink?"
"Sink, like the kitchen sink," I said, and he chuckled.
"Stay as long as you like," I told him. He started to take off his shoes as I left.
"Thank you," he said, his rosary still wrapped tightly around his hand, the light from the open door flashing off his purple shirt.