Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Year on "Finding Myself"

My friend Nan has a blog on which she discusses books, cooking, and life on a farm. A recent post introduced a meme--and, after some instruction from my Facebook friends--I'm an expert on memes, but I still don't know why this is a meme. It's more like a game. The idea is to take the first line of a post from every month of your blog over the last year. I went over mine and picked the first post of every month, and here they are.

January 1: I just love those montages of world events they put on tv at the end of every year, even the inevitable memorials to those well-known people we lost during the year. A year later, and I'm still talking about this. Guess I will always love those things.

February: Saturday afternoon the odd little bell-chime sounded telling me I had a text message on what I laughingly call my cell phone. This one was about my struggle with the new electronics, trying to learn how to text (and pretty much failing).

March: I've written two books about my home town, the utopian single tax community of Fairhope, Alabama. Shameless promotion of a third book that never was published.

April: I wasn't going to tell you this, but this is the month I'm gonna reinvent myself. Ah, that was a good month. I changed the way I eat, from fatty and lots of meat to mostly plant-based protein. Didn't lose any weight, but changed my cholesterol and feel much better.

May: Around the new year, New York Times contributor Stanley Fish published a column called the Ten Best American Movies. This post included my own choice of Ten Best Movies, which included none of Fish's favorites.

June: Two Months After Re-Invention (title) That title was come upon hopefully, after I received my borrowed Flip videocam in the mail. Here I took videos of myself showing that the weight was redistributed, but still there. I was enjoying posting videos of everything about this time.
July: It may not look like much from the outside, but with a little help from me, the condo on the first floor of this 1900 row house in Hoboken's old "downtown" neighborhood, is about to do its part in rescuing the sagging U.S. economy. I had made an offer on my new condo!

August: I watched "The Next Food Network Star" followed by "The Next Home & Garden Network Star" last night. My reviews of two of my favorite reality shows on television.

September: The beautiful Madonna Dei Martiri is the centerpiece of Hoboken's biggest, most Italian festival every year in September. Describing Hoboken's Italian festa.October: Good Old Biggie's (title) Looking south from my new condo on Madison Street you can see the local landmark.

November: All of a sudden the world changed, and it changed again. Back to electronics--this time recounting the history of the computer.

December: I expected it to be much colder when I got off the airplane. Returning to Hoboken after a trip home to Alabama, I attempt to describe the culture shock.

The meme provides a snapshot of blogposts of last year, not selected for their merit. It is interesting to me that the first day of every month almost nothing of interest happened. The blog posts do not even seem to reflect a cross-section of the kinds of things that happened to me. They were simply the first posts of each month. If your interest is piqued, however, you can find the posts in their entirety, and many others (better ones, just by browsing the lists at the top of the blog. I hope you found this blog in the past year, and that you'll stay with us for another. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Reflections on the Passing of a Year

New years set us thinking. Some people actually make a list of resolutions and have every intention of following them. I have never known any such person, but they exist, at least in our mythology. Saying you're going to lose 20 pounds does not count as a New Year's resolution, at least not in my book, since I've been doing that at least twice a year for the last 30. Keeping to any resolution is not something we do very well.

What we do do very well is look over the incidents of the outgoing year, with major television networks editing news clippings reminding us of the way we were in the past year, to say nothing of who died and what news events altered our times. We add to that our own personal achievements and awareness of losses, put them all in a box in our minds, and probably think of them very seldom as time goes by. Not that that's a bad thing. We must move forward.

This year was a sour one by most accounts. Hopes built up by a sterling new president were dashed as we had to face, with him, the reality of the job he was presented with. We found ourselves viewing everything that happened in 2009 through the lens of a looming economic downturn. I'm old enough to have seen these come and go, but many of today's wealthy are not, and to them the drop in finances was unfathomable and perhaps unacceptable. An unknown monster in the background was a kindly-looking old man named Bernie Madoff, who became a symbol of excess and corruption. It is not a visage we would like to encounter again. Suddenly Obama's picks for his financial team looked suspect, and we are not likely to know their true mettle until we can view their work in retrospect; all we can do is hope it's not too late. By the same token, all of the people surrounding the president seem somehow tainted and the mindless hope of his inauguration day is darkened if not crushed.

The capture of a terrorist in an airplane on our home ground is an ominous note upon which to end such a year. The more we learn about this, the more alarmed we become. It will be difficult for a State of the Union address to stimulate such a disquieted populace. We all know if anyone can do it, Barack Obama is the man--but I cannot think, with the 24-hour-news pundits in line to parse that speech, that he will achieve his goal with it. We have become jaded enough that the fact he can give a soaring speech is no longer viewed with awe by many.

It was a year of failed pranks--the balloon parents and the gate crashers come to mind. It was a year of failed deception--the governor of South Carolina and former politician John Edwards come to mind. It was a year of dashed illusions--Tiger Woods comes to mind.

Michael Jackson died suddenly. Walter Cronkite and Edward Kennedy were taken by illness. Jennifer Jones, Ricardo Montalban, Karl Malden, Pat Hingle and Brittany Murphy were also among those who left us this year. We were once again struck by the fleeting quality of life itself, and challenged to make our own mark while we could, which is what reflecting on the passing of a year is really about. I don't know what I'll do next year, but I am certain it will be a better year than the one we've just suffered through together.

I've been invited to a little New Year's Eve party, and that reminds me that the last one I went to was in ushering in the dreaded year 2000--remember when we thought the computers of the world might crash and throw all into blithering oblivion? This year's get together will be simpler, as we happily bid farewell to a year in which it seemed the news never got better. We'll toast the birth of 2010 with a glass of champagne and I have no doubt we'll all feel that it will be happier than the year we're leaving behind.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Pies of Christmas

Apple pie is appearing here and there in my life these days. My daughter is an expert baker of them, and Christmas with her and her family promises that I'll get a couple of chances to taste them. I have my own recipe; she has hers. My favorite was baked by the cook employed by a family friend in Alabama years ago. It had a lattice top, and seemed to us the perfect ratio of cinnamon to brown sugar. I find that in the North people are less likely to use quite enough of either for my taste, but I've spent a lifetime trying to duplicate that one I had so many years ago.

My favorite apple pie story came from Jim Adshead, my husband who died nine years ago. He was a G.I. in World War II, fighting in France and harbored in farmhouses, basements and barns with his buddies when the need arose. It must have been Christmas of 1944 that the guys were being sheltered by a sympathetic French farm family.

They were roused by the family with joyous cries in French that it was Christmas Day, and, although none of the boys could speak French, they knew they were being invited to the family's only day of celebration for years. It was a hungry and grateful group that joined the family to see the pride of the best feast they could scrape up, which was an apple pie. They could tell the mother, who was the cook, had prepared it especially for them, knowing that apple pie was an American favorite. They were thrilled to get any food at all, but the apple pie they were served was certainly not like any they'd ever seen in the States.

When Jim first told me the story he said it was a pathetic excuse for an apple pie, obviously made from dried apples and very little sugar--much less cinnamon, butter, or the spices they expected from an apple pie. But the boys were so touched by the gesture, and their hearts so warmed by the work involved, that they were effusive in their thanks and their gratitude for home-baked food was genuine and heartfelt.

Some forty years later Jim and I were living in Geneva and we were often exposed to the French version of apple pie. He then realized that this was the pie he was served that Christmas Day so long before--not, as it had appeared, made with dried apples, but the thinly sliced, artistically arranged, apples as preferred by the French, cooked with very little sugar and coated with apricot jam as a glaze. It's a pie, but it ain't American apple pie.

The French also make a tasty caramelized apple pie known as tarte tatin, which is tastier (if you like caramel) and made by browning the sugar in the pan, placing a crust on top, and then reversing the whole product using very deft hands. I've made it, just to see if I could, but the fact is I like to taste a bit of cinnamon in my apple pie.

And I did find a way to get just the right crunch of caramel on the lattice top of a pie not unlike that Alabama pie of years ago: You dot all the holes in the lattice with butter and sprinkle the top of the pie liberally with white sugar. The butter will melt and the sugar will brown and crisp--and the pie will be sweet enough for any Christmas guest you may have, even a barn full of half-starved G.I.'s.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Hoboken at Christmas, 2009

One of the things I love about living in the Northeast is the genuine change of seasons. This is difficult for many to understand, as they move to Florida as soon as they possibly can, and claim not to miss the cold weather for an instant.

It's not that I like cold weather, mind you. I'm told it's 20 degrees at the moment and that the high for today will be 30. I do have to go out--I have a doctor's appointment at 11:30--or otherwise I might just opt for staying in the cozy apartment all day. As it is, I've got that long walk to Washington Street, and while I'm there I might as well go to the bank and pick up some groceries. I'll wear lots of layers and duck into a warm building if necessary on my travels.

Everybody from Fairhope sympathizes with me about the cold weather. But this kind of cold adds to the feeling of Christmas, with God throwing in a few snow flurries as if for punctuation. Hoboken is dressed for the holidays, and for once I'm glad Frank Sinatra made so many Christmas albums--his gentle voice is piped into businesses all over town. I may pop into Albini's Pharmacy, a beautifully wood-paneled remnant of bygone days, just to hear its selection of Sinatra seasonal numbers. (I'll buy something innocuous to justify my visit.)

There is a sign at Our Lady of Grace Church that there will be a program of carols next weekend. The lights are up everywhere, and the A & P has its Christmas music piped in. Yesterday I was stopped in my tracks there listening to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," trying to decide if that really could have been Barbra Streisand, giving a restrained rendition for once. Anybody know if there is a singer with a similar voice who just sings the song and doesn't try to impress us with her acting virtuosity at the same time? Celine Dion? Susan Boyle? (That would be a great CD--Susan Boyle's Christmas!)

Week after next I'll travel to upstate New York to visit the daughter and grandsons for the actual holiday. In the meantime, I'm gettin more Christmas than I expected. I picked up a little bourbon and rum and made my own egg nog from scratch yesterday, and I keep thinking I brought fresh pecans back from Alabama and just might use them in something delicious.

A little Christmas is doing me good. I like that it's cold at this time of year. There is no snow on the ground here, and the puddles from a few days ago have dried up so there's no ice to worry about. There might be snow by the big day, and there is certain to be in Kingston, but, whether or not, Christmas is in the air. The gentlemen are merry and the nights are silent. The heart is full. Have a drink of egg nog--not prepackaged, please--and sing a song of the season.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A New Book About Fairhope

Paul Gaston at the Organic School Centennial, 2007

Paul Gaston is about so much more than Fairhope that I must introduce him to you. Sure, he was born and raised there, and his grandfather founded the town in 1894, but he went on to become an eminent scholar, professor, and leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the state of Virginia.

It's possible I write too much about Fairhope here, and should leave that to my blog Finding Fair Hope. But I just read Paul's book Coming of Age in Utopia and I can't say enough about it in enough places. I knew his family, (his mother taught me to type in the School of Organic Education), but by then Paul was already off in the larger world, achieving and working to change things in the South. I didn't get to know the man until about eight years ago when he was on one of his visits to Fairhope. I've given parties for him and his wife, heard more and more Fairhope stories from him every time we meet--and enjoyed his company always. He is my favorite lecturer--I've heard him speak a lot of times, and I've read most of his books.

Paul was a teacher of Southern History at the University of Virginia. He's retired now and has been working on his memoir for years. At last it's published, and you can read my review of it on the link provided above (just click on the blue letters that spell "Finding Fair Hope"). It includes a section about growing up in Fairhope, but its best stories are about his work at U Va. It has so many anecdotes, about his high school girl friends, his days at Swarthmore and in the Army, his courtship of the beautiful Mary, his nine-year-old son meeting Martin Luther King, his experience with the first sit-in in Charlottesville, and his commitment to opening the minds of tradition-bound Southerners who attended his classes.

He has lived an admirable life, and he is a man worthy of more books. I have no doubt that he'll produce a few himself. In the meantime, he has written one of the most interesting autobiographical works you'll find.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Me and Orson Welles--and Me

There are quite a few of us left who are fascinated by Orson Welles--his life and times, his persona, his work. When I saw reviews of the new film Me and Orson Welles, which basically said that they got it right this time, I knew I had to see it. With nothing special to do yesterday, I looked it up and found that it was playing at a few of New York's elegant little art cinemas, so I impulsively planned to go see it. I emailed a very New York friend, of my vintage, and also an aficionado of old-style theatre and films, and asked him to join me at the 3:40 showing.

Yesterday was one of those star-crossed days when nothing quite goes as planned. I didn't hear from the friend and figured he was too busy to check his email, but set off to the cinema palace on the Upper West Side where it was showing. The Light Rail was slow in coming, and then when I took the PATH train I had miscalculated and got on a "B" train when I probably should have found an "A;" that is to say, when I emerged from the subway I was on the wrong side of town and it was already showtime.

I still haven't quite gotten the hang of Manhattan yet. Maybe it's because I've been out of town for two weeks and my circuits are overloaded with information about Lower Alabama; maybe it's because they've changed some of the train routes since I lived here 20 years ago, or maybe--but probably not--it's just that my aging brain is not as quick at processing information, and after 20 years of not thinking about the map of New York City the medulla oblongata has shut down that valve.

I was discouraged coming out of that train near Rockefeller Center instead of near Lincoln Center, but I knew where I was, and after a rather harrowing train ride and walks through various subway stations, I just wanted to come home to Hoboken, by bus. That meant walking through Times Square and seeing all the happy people buying tickets to plays, the lights on the marquees, and all the hustle and bustle of the beginning of Christmas season in New York. My bus ride home was a relief.

Today I woke up wanting to try again. I got an email from the New York friend that he'd received my email in Chicago where he is visiting a sick friend, but that he'd seen the movie and loved it.

So I sorted out things at home and set off for a different cinema palace, which I was certain I could find, in the West Village. I decided to walk to the PATH train, and, timing that walk, discovered I made as good time on foot as I had yesterday on the Light Rail getting to the subway. Maybe better. I felt pretty good, because I knew that I would be only one stop from the movie. I did my homework and looked at maps of how to find it once I got out of the train--this may sound unnecessary, but the Village is a tangle of short, elegant streets peppered with interesting shops and romantic restaurants. It's easy to get distracted and lose your way.

It was raining today, and pretty cold, and the walk was much farther than I expected. At one point I asked an attractive young man where the Angelika was and he just shrugged; I then asked a pretty girl and she said, "Turn left at the next corner and then it's about ten blocks."

"Ten?" I must have looked askance.

"Well, maybe seven," she said. As I walked on I soon realized she was just trying to let me down easy--it was going to be ten blocks more.

That's one of the things I've gotten used to here, walking long distances to get where I need to go. I didn't do that last week when I was in Alabama; I was in a rented car. Walking is much better for my cardiovascular system.

Now I've gone off on a tangent. I was going to write a review of the movie. I'll have to encapsulate it by saying this: Me and Orson Welles is a trip back in time, to another place, another world really, when live theatre was grand and everyone was larger than life. Christian McKay, playing Orson Welles, had the man down to a tee but for the mellifluous voice that Welles used so theatrically even in small talk. MacKay has a fine voice, and all his mannerisms are very Welles-like, so I suppose this is carping. There are wonderful characterizations of other real people too, like John Houseman and Joseph Cotten, and it's a great escape to feel that you're back in the day when these people were young and vibrant.

Coming out of the movie, the rain was turning to snow. I had the long walk back to the subway, and all I could think about was that I was going to make myself some hot chocolate when I got home, and put some of the fresh mozzarella I bought at Fiore's yesterday on toast with some tomato sauce to rig something like a pizza for supper. Rather than walk all the way from the PATH station home, I took the Light Rail and got home and tucked into my comfort food, thinking about Orson Welles and his cohorts and the magic of the production of Julius Caesar in 1937 at the old Mercury Theater.

That's one thing about living in Hoboken--you're never far away from magic.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Finding Fair Hoboken

I expected it to be much colder when I got off the airplane. Had gotten used to the temps in the high 60's and low 70's in Fairhope, but ten degrees colder was not too painful. I tried to use the two flights and the time in the airports to regroup and get my mind in gear to trade Fairhope for fair Hoboken, but shaking off the culture shock and mentally processing the transfer was not automatic.

Cristina picked me up at the Newark airport and I chattered like a magpie about my feelings about Fairhope and my experiences there, but my ears were a bit plugged from the pressure on the planes and I hardly knew what I was saying.

When I got home all I could think about was picking up a plate of takeout pasta from Biggie's. Standing there in the queue help me with re-entry into my new hometown; I was surrounded by people I would never see in Fairhope, and I felt welcomed and impatient to try the broccoli rabe with sausages. Biggie told me for future reference that if I call and place the order they'll have it when I get there. Pasta is cooked to order. I'll remember that. The comfort food was much appreciated--and I have enough left over for at least two more meals.

I'll get back in my regular routine of trips to the gym, errands around town, walking everywhere, and get back in the swing of life here in no time. I'm planning a snowbird visit for the month of February in Fairhope. Christmas with Alison and the boys in Kingston, NY.

Back to normal. Back to Hoboken. It may not be the topic for a dynamic blog post, but it's good to be back. Wait til we see what happens next.