mercredi 30 décembre 2009

The day before the last day of the year

I'm not a fan of all the Christmas holiday hoo-hah, and like New Year's Eve even less. It has something to do with being locked into things, forced to celebrate, give thanks, give and receive gifts. I prefer spontaneous feasts, laughter, gifts given for no reason.

But whatever. It is possible to have fun anyway, your way, my way. This year, we spent Christmas Eve with my siblings and cousins and their families. I have five siblings and four cousins and most of them have children, so when this gathering happens it always produces a houseful. Also gauranteed: my Aunt Janie's scalloped potatoes from Safeway. Neko loved it all, especially all the food dropping from plates to the floor and all the squealing over gifts during the white elephant exchange. She threw up about 3 am, and didn't stop until she had dislodged a walnut. It looked as if she had swallowed it whole.

My friend Nawal arrived on Christmas Eve around 11 pm. She is here to see her son, who lives with his father in Renton. It's complicated. Okay?

On Christmas Day, we had Jo's homemade cinnamon rolls on the beach at Seola. Gorgeous day. Crisp, clear, mountains standing at attention. Then a walk. Then it was time to roast a duck. We had dinner at home with Nawal and her son, Rachid. Nawal nagged Rachid and Rachid rolled his eyes. He's 17.

Now, here I am in San Francisco until New Year's Eve. San Francisco is a food lover's paradise and a walker's dreamscape. We just finished a thrift shopping spree -- I got a really cute pair of black boots for 30 bucks and a prada duffle bag at Salvation Army for 40 bucks! -- and lunch at home. Lunch was five different cheeses, including a bleu des causses and a st. nectaire, some really good bread, olives, Dahli's sun-dried tomatoes and wine. Now we're sitting around and watching Amadeus. Ah, Mozart! But it is time for a walk on the beach.

And then dinner.

Don't let me forget to tell you about Emmie's Spaghetti Shack, Le Zinc and the movie Sherlock.

Tomorrow night: Nawal is cooking a Moroccan feast and no one who was invited à l'improviste has refused. So it will be a fun full house! And best of all, I get to stay home on New Year's Eve and have a party. The last two years, we have gone with Sean and Caroline to Whidbey Island, but this year they are in France and Switzerland with Caroline's family.

samedi 26 décembre 2009


Noël au balcon...

Skype magically brings the spirit of Alison to Seola Beach

Catherine, Patty and Nawal -- after a long journey from Paris -- enjoy the Christmas sunshine

mercredi 23 décembre 2009

The gift that keeps on giving

This year my Christmas present to everyone I know is the biggest donation I can afford to the folks at Rolling Dog Ranch in Montana. You have probably seen them on television. But did you realize what privileged and interesting lives in Seattle they gave up to care for disabled animals in need? Click on the title and you'll find out. Alayne Marker and Steve Smith, you rock!

Rolling Dog Ranch has its own youtube channel, where you can see some of the amazing creatures they have saved. There is one video showing two cats like Munchy.

As everyone knows, we have a disabled cat named Munchkin (aka Munchy) who probably suffers from cerebellum hypoplasia. Suffers from is not quite right, though, because she is not in pain. She just has trouble doing certain things. She brings us a lot of joy and shows us daily how attached she is to life. When we got her, she was slowly dying of starvation because her mother had stopped feeding her. We gave her milk at first, which was a huge mistake. She nearly died of dehydration because of that. Then we found substitute mother's milk and that saved her. We fed her from a little dropper. After a few days, she began to eat solids. Here she is, taking her first bite and her first steps.

Bean and farro soup, yeah!

This is a wonderfully soothing and filling winter soup that is a meal unto itself. I served it with a salad of wild greens anyway, and had fresh bread on hand along with cheddar cheese. Click on the title for a link to the recipe, which appeared in this week's NY Times.

The recipe calls for squash, but I decided to use a sweet potato instead. No complaints from the crowd were heard.

Also, in addition to the bouquet garni I added some turmeric and some cumin, just a smidgen for a little extra flavor.

The green cabbage could be replaced by savoy cabbage.

As for the beans, I used great northern white beans but pinto or kidney would work just as well.

What makes the soup is the addition of whole canned tomatoes simmered in garlic and rosemary. I used San Marzano tomatoes, which are considered by many chefs to be the best for making sauces. Many chefs are right! They are relatively expensive (4.99 for a 14-oz can), but worth every penny.

The farro is cooked separately and then added at the very end, giving the soup a little added heft.

If you live among carnivores, you could also add Italian sausage to this soup. But my carnivore was quite satisfied without it.

Martha Rose Shulman, who provided this recipe, is one of my favorite vegetarian cookbook authors. Many years ago, I asked a friend from Canada who was coming to stay with me in Paris to bring a couple of good vegetarian cookbooks along. I was tired of Moosewood and not finding anything to my liking in French. She introduced me to Shulman, who now edits the recipe column of the NY Times' Health section.

French vegetarian cookbooks, at least at the time, tended toward elaborate recipes that took ages to make. My favorite source of recipes in France was the fiches recettes in the back of every issue of Elle magazine. There were four recipes every week, presented on one page. Each individual recipe could be stored as a separate card (fiche). I must have collected hundreds of them over the years. Unfortunately, they mysteriously did not make into the container ship that brought my stuff across the ocean.

But that's okay because I just noticed two new recipes in the NY Times; one for provençal tomato and bean gratin and the other for strata with mushrooms and chard. Strata is like bread pudding, kind of.

dimanche 20 décembre 2009

Life on the farm

Munchkin's favorite morning ritual involves clawing her way to the couch, where I sit with my blanket and coffee, and snuggling in for a session of purring, drooling and kneading with her claws. They say that cats who are weaned too early do this their entire lives. Munchkin joined us when she was 6 to 8 weeks old, after her mother stopped feeding her. She is the most loving cat I have ever encountered; but nobody sees this except me, Walt, Pushkin and Neko, because Munchy heads for one of her many hiding places when other people come around.

When she wakes up, one of us carries her downstairs and feeds her. Pushkin follows on silent cat feet. If we sleep for too long after that, Munchkin manages with great difficulty to climb onto the sofa, from where she looks up and plaintively wails in the general direction of our loft.

During the day, she usually sleeps in a little igloo that I bought and put next to my desk.

Pushkin is our Protector. Squirrels constantly try and break into our house. But for Pushy we would be overrun. As for Neko, she just likes to hang.

mercredi 16 décembre 2009

Home fitness center

Neko, in the backseat on a recent Saturday, ready to roll. Photo credit: Walt Cougan.

It's that time of the year again. Most people love this time of year, or say they do. I am not one of them. The thing is, I like to get my semi-aerobic exercise in the great outdoors, preferably with my dog Neko. She never flakes out on me. In fact, her enthusiasm is downright touching. When I pick up her harness, the tags on it jingle ever so slightly. No matter where she is sleeping (she moves around during the day, like a living sun dial), she gets up to survey the scene. If she's upstairs, she refuses to come down unless I continue to jingle the harness while giving encouragement. She has me trained. After about 30 seconds of watching me make a fool of myself, she stretches and then descends the staircase with theatrical nonchalance. But then, as I start to put the harness on, she goes all wiggly and excited on me, and inevitably starts chewing on the harness I'm trying to clip in place. And rain or shine, Neko is ready to go. She keeps up a good pace and will walk as long as I will.

Then there's me, her co-owner. A reformed runner, who wishes she had never done that to herself but who is still absurdly proud to be able to say she ran only one marathon but in less than 3 hours and 40 minutes, she loves to walk but not when it is freezing cold. In Paris, this was not a problem. The architectural density made walking in winter possible; the lack of car and location in the center of the city of lights made it necessary. Seattle is different. Public transportation pretty much sucks; one needs a car to get anywhere; all walks within walking distance of our house expose me to the cruel elements.

But I promised Neko she would get her hour walk as long as the weather was not beyond horrible - meaning not too cold. So today she'll get her walk. But in the meantime, we had to take action. The combination of inclement weather and holiday force feeding can be devastating. I started doing my daily non-aerobic routine at home as soon as we moved to this wonderful house. I need floor space and the YMCA just doesn't cut it. The floor space at the Y is about 5 square feet in front of a mirror and, at certain times of the day, it is where everyone wants to stretch. A woman with a stick doing an hour-long routine is not appreciated. Actually, the other reason I started working out at home is that too many people asked me what I was doing and if I could teach them this intriguing fitness routine. No, the answer is no. I have devloped a highly idiosyncratic but really effective routine; but it is not aerobic.

To ensure a good aerobic element during the shitty days of winter, we decided to buy an elliptical machine and put it in the basement mother-in-law apartment. We found a really good one at a reasonable price that actually folds up. It is now installed in front of the flat-screen television we got for 300 bucks. That screaming deal left us with enough to buy a base for the iPod. All we need is a second black box from Comcast and I'll be able to watch TV5 Monde while I sweat on the elliptical machine. I was partial to the treadmill at the gym, but this elliptical is great.

But what about poor Neko? I can tell she understands what is going on. She hates the elliptical and gives it dirty looks. She lies on the sofa as I work out and sighs, like a long-suffering martyr. I feel bad, but not too bad. She will have her day in the sun, and many days just like it. She is about to go out for a walk. It isn't raining hard; the temperature has shot up since the weekend; I have no excuse. And Neko doesn't even know what that word means.

Click on the title for a link to a NYT blog about the benefits of walking with dogs as opposed to humans.

WEATHER UPDATE: We did not escape the rain. However, the infernal trio (rain, cold, wet) was avoided. It is actually quite warm. But very wet. The canine social scene was dead, though we did run into our old friend Deisel, an adorable black shi-tzu who is Neko's age, and Marcia, his owner.

vendredi 4 décembre 2009

Happy 80th Birthday, Jo Cougan

Jo Cougan, sitting at her usual table at Canlis, blows out her birthday candle

Happy 80th birthday to one of my favorite people on the planet, who just happens to be my mother-in-law.

Who loves Jo Cougan? Everybody!

dimanche 29 novembre 2009

So you think you're suffering from Bored Housewife Syndrome? Read this and your problems will be solved!

I actually read this on a blog of some sort. Here it is in its entire glory, comments included. (My annotations are in parentheses and in italics.):

Many women choose to remain (remain where? on earth?) as a housewife to take care of their children. Some may have given up lucrative careers. Others turn housewives (turn into housewives? like turning into pumpkins at the stroke of midnight?) immediately after leaving school (due to lack of lucrative career options? boredom?). Whatever said and done(when all is said and done? whatever is said and done?), they have to spend time at home (there is just no escaping that one is there?). Initially, it may be exciting and very romantic (such are the dreams of the everyday housewife,who gave up the good life...). But in (the?) course of time, with children coming along, the responsibilities increase (don't you just hate that?). A routine life sets (in?). One may just get bored as a housewife (but there is so much to do!). How to make life interesting in such a situation?

How to Overcome the Bored Housewife Syndrome?

•One must avoid following the same routine day-in-day out (and out too). A change in household chores helps (like deciding not to do them or deciding to do them all wrong - this will wake the family from its inconsiderate slumber)
•Try to be an interior decorator. Change the style of the house whenever you feel bored. Set up a theme. Work on it. It will excite you and make you want to innovate things (for example, change the furniture around every day; put the bed in the kitchen, for example, the phone in the oven and the television in the back yard). New decorations add glamor to the house (and keep the economy going)
•Play games, both indoor and outdoor with your husband and children (see above, about changing the furniture around daily; you can also put clean clothes in the wrong rooms and drawers). This will improve your relationship with them (though it could also backfire and annoy them, especially if the game entails moving furniture around). At the same time you will have something interesting to do
•Go in for blog writing. Vent your feelings. You can improve your writing skills also (why, just look at how well written this blog entry is!)
•Organize regular parties and invite friends over. It is an occasion to socialize and exchange views (bitch about husband and children)with others. It is always better to interact with others apart from your immediate family (just don't get too drunk during the week)
•Do not take your husband for granted. Always make an effort to keep the relationship alive and interesting. Maybe an outing with him, away from the regular routine will help. Also getaway from the children for a while. Spend time on yourself and your husband. Relive your romantic days again
•Exercise and diet. Keep good health. Be energetic. Boredom can get to you and you may feel lethargic. Avoid this. One must be physically and mentally active (keep moving, never look back, don't sit still)
•Go on a trip with your family. Travel refreshes the mind. Let the trip be exotic. Choose a place that interests you (never mind what works for others)
•Read. Keep abreast with what is happening around the world. The mind does not get stagnated (huh?)
•Learn new things. Cook something new or read the latest novel in the market (in the novel market?). Keeping in touch with what is happening around you makes you feel part of your surroundings. You will not get lost in drudgery of household chores (unless you move the furniture as I have suggested)
•Communicate frequently with your children. You can learn a lot from them. You remain in touch with the outside world (is being a housewife like serving a prison sentence?)
Being a housewife can also be interesting (I see). One need not get bored of life. One can continue to be innovative and creative. Do not get bogged down with household chores. Have a gala time (a gay old time? a yabba dabba do time?) with your family.

4 Responses to “Overcome Bored Housewife Syndrome”
1.reena Says:
July 22nd, 2009 at 8:52 am
sorry not a single point can help me out from this boredom as my hubby is busy in work and kids in theie studies they dunnt have time to communicate no time for outing we cannt change routine as it effects children
how many times we can change decoration yess i can cook new things but nobody has time to taste or to praise i dunnt thing any of ur points are practical (but the blogging as a way to improve communication skills couldn't hurt)

2.Monica Says:
July 29th, 2009 at 12:06 am
Redecorating the house? Humm that sounds like more of a chore than fun…besides I’ve already done that, there is only so much decorating one woman can do! I understand you are trying to be helpful, but really, your suggestions are not helpful! (how about having a gala time with your family?)

3.This article is ridiculous Says:
August 18th, 2009 at 2:33 am
Are you crazy? How can you go out with your husband and have a romantic life when you have no family to watch the kids and can’t afford a babysitter?! Your suggestions are completely ridiculous! Don’t you think we wouldn’t be lonely housewives if we could get a date night out?!?!??!! (whoa! time for another martini!)

Go on a trip? Does money grow on trees? I would give anything to go on a trip. Any trip. Even go to a movie. Wanna come watch my kids so I can follow your advice?! HA!

Do not take my husband for granted? Excuse me? On his days off he goes to ballgames and goes hunting. Why should I not take him for granted when I’m busting my behind every day and I never get a break. (Can this marriage be saved?)

4.Marisa Says:
September 4th, 2009 at 11:06 pm
I hear ya Reena!!!

Wow, this is a tough crowd! How about rethinking the whole housewife thing if it is making y'all this miserable?

vendredi 27 novembre 2009

La maison où j'ai grandi

My mom sold her house. It comes as no surprise that the buyer is an architect. Our house was built by a team of architects in the mid-1960s, and was considered to be radically modern at the time. Built partly on stilts, it overlooks a steep and wild ravine and Puget Sound. It has five decks, a partially open plan and a spiral staircase made of huge planks of burnt wood. It originally had a fireplace platform made out of these same planks of burnt wood, but unfortunately that got removed at some point. Many of the inside walls are made of stained wood. It is a really, really cool house. Apparently, many potential buyers were worried about it from a safety point of view for small children. My mother raised six kids in this house, and not one of her nine grandchildren nor her great-grandson has ever been injured, fallen down the stairs or fallen off one of the decks. Once I fell down the stairs. I was carrying a basket of laundry and could not see my feet. I was fine.

Now my mom lives with her husband Ron in a condo that overlooks the Ballard locks from the Magnolia side. It has a swimming pool. We tried to get her to sell her house for years and move into a condo, but she resisted. She liked her neighbors, she said. But now it is done. I'm happy for my mom. I'm happy that she has a full and happy life with many friends and lots of interests. She is part of a theater group and has been in the same book club for a million years. She plays tennis and swims. She misses her house and her neighbors, but not enough to remain stuck in the past. I'm happy for our old house in Fentonwood too. It found the right buyer. He and his wife sent my mom two dozen orchids when the deal closed and invited her to come and visit once they are settled in. They said they really liked the neighbors too.

My older brother Charlie wrote a note and hid it in the house. I know where it is hidden and my lips are sealed. But some day, someone may find this note and the two photos he included with it. Here's what the note says:

Hello. We are the Ganongs. This was our home from 1965 until 2009. Jim, our dad, worked at Westside Ford, and later had a jewelry shop in the West Seattle Junction. He liked to read books, and even wrote one.

Sally, our mom, made 12,960 school lunches for us over the years—without once using a Zip-lock baggie. We didn’t care. Each one was made with love. She was also a librarian, counselor, yoga teacher and a hundred other things mothers do. She married Ron in 2009 and motored happily off into the Lake Cavanaugh sunset—driving the boat, even.

That’s me as a senior in high school in the flattering overalls. What was I thinking! I guess I didn’t have time to change for the photo. I’m amazed we all managed to stand still long enough for it to be taken. Wonders never cease!

Next to me are my twin sisters, Peggy and Cathy. Cathy has her arm around Carl. “Baby Tow,” we called him—until he got big enough to sock people. That’s Janie on the right—the “middle child.” Or was that “meddle child?” Just kidding. And baby Carolyn, what a joy! How cute the way she cut her own bangs—already training for her future profession.

Well, that’s us. Or, that was us. Nothing and nobody stay the same: we’ve grown up, moved out and moved on, and must finally let go of this place we once called home. We hope you like it here, and create as many fond memories as we have taken with us.

Oh, and if you ever put up a basketball hoop over the carport: be prepared to spend a lot of time on the roof.
Here's Charlie, with his grandson William

jeudi 26 novembre 2009

Il n'y a pas de Gainsbourg sans fumée

This advertising poster/billboard for Joann Sfar's upcoming film about Serge Gainsbourg has been banned from the corridors of the Paris métro system (le RATP)because it appears to show Gainsbourg as he absolutely was in life: en train de fumer une clope. Among other things, the Loi Evin (named for Claude Evin, who was ministre de la santé when it was passed in 1991) places severe limitations on the use of cigarettes (and booze) in advertising.

Ceci n'est pas une clope

The funny thing is that the poster does not even feature a cigarette, a conscious decision that was made to comply with the law in question, according to the film's director in an interview with L'Express: "Nous avons créé cette affiche avec une équipe d'artistes et nous avons mis un point d'honneur à respecter les consignes sur le tabac. Dans l'affiche, ni cigarette, ni mégot ne sont visibles. Il y a juste de la fumée (...) Je trouve qu'interdire la fumée de sa clope c'est une façon d'infantiliser le public."

However, I'm not sure the director has correctly interpreted the law. In fact, it prohibits all direct or indirect advertising that promotes the use of tobacco. Where there is cigarette smoke, there is probably a cigarette.

Don't get me wrong. I think the non-smoking world has gone way overboard in its attempt to rid the world of the faintest hint of cigarettes. But I think the poster does violate French law as it currently stands. On verra bien!

mercredi 25 novembre 2009

Gluttony and Sloth scheduling nightmare

Otto Dix - les sept péchés capitaux

I like Dante Alighieri's version of the seven capital sins, from The Divine Comedy:

1.luxuria (extravagance)
2.gula (gluttony)
3.avaritia (avarice/greed)
4.acedia (acedia/discouragement)
5.ira (wrath)
6.invidia (envy)
7.superbia (pride)

Nowadays, we talk about lust instead of luxuria or extravagance, and sloth instead of acedia.

The seven deadly sins are inter-related and form a nice little vicious circle once you get going. But has anyone ever noticed the particularly tight relationship between gluttony and sloth? I always notice it at this time of year. This week is the kick-off for an onslaught of gluttony and sloth that will culminate, as in years past, on December 31, with a wicked hangover for many and a set of resolutions. Burp!

Let's talk about the traditionally heaving table laden with Thanksgiving food. It is a starch fest. Stuffing AND mashed potatoes AND dinner rolls AND pie crust, just in case you were worried about getting enough slow-burning carbs. The Thanksgiving meal is not one of my favorites by a long shot. I don't really like turkey much (but boy do I love a good capon or goose), unless it is smoked, in which case it is tolerable.

The stuffing thing has always bothered me too. I don't like croutons either. It all tastes like stove-top stuffing to me. Except for one recipe, which calls for dried apricots and grand marnier. I used to make that one alot when I lived in France. Speaking of, I much prefer a good French farce, which tends to be heavier on minced veggies, meats and fines herbes and generally devoid of bread. Once I made a turkey with truffes, which I sliced real thin and placed under the skin. The truffe cost about a million dollars and came in a tiny jar. I felt like I had the crown jewels, or one of them, in my grocery bag.

Inevitably, after eating a meal like this, all you really want to do is unbutton your pants (some people wear sweats with an elastic waistband so they don't even have to spend a hard-earned calorie on the task of unbuttoning) and lie on the sofa. Some people fall asleep right away; others say the triptophane in the turkey keeps them awake. Some say it puts them to sleep. I say that all of them are in thrall to a kind of temporary diabetic coma or near coma.

Sometimes gluttony and sloth feel good. It is nice on occasion to eat too much and then sit around digesting. I would just choose different food, for the most part. For example, roast duck. I made a great one last weekend. It was moist and flavorful. I put an apple in the cavity, along with salt and pepper. The secret is in scoring the duck so that it renders all that nice duck fat during the roasting process. We made a gratin de pommes de terre (also known as pommes dauphinoises)and spicy sautéed greens (chard, kale and mustard greens). As an appetizer, we roasted some figs and served them with a balsamic reduction, marcona almonds, parmesan cheese and good bread from Bakery Nouveau. Thanks for the idea, Tom Douglas. I think the tastiest dish was the carmelized shallots. I just sauté the shallots in a little unsalted butter and then add some brown sugar and some apple cider vinigar. Don't ask for proportions. Anyone who has ever cooked with me knows that I don't generally measure anything. This may be why I don't make desserts. We skipped the salad (it would have been arugula, pears, dried cranberries and gorgonzola) and moved directly on to dessert. Naturally, it was pumpkin pie. I am not a fan of PP and never have been. But this one was good. I have just never understood the appeal. I would rather eat pumpkin soup.

After this delicious meal, we went for a ten-mile walk on the beach. Did you believe me, even for a second? Actually, we played a very rousing game of Scrabble. There were winners and losers, tears were shed, challenges were issued, names were called. And someone really regrets challenging me on the word "ecu". (Don't you, someone?) Dahli brought her Scrabble dictionary, which is the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen. I always make fun of it. But it did contain the word ecu, so I was happy to have it on the table.

I am thankful for many things, and thankful for them every day. Being alive is something to be thankful for. Having work is another. Having friends is another. Having animals is a source of unending joy. Having love is the best damn thing of all.

I am thankful for duck fat, which is the upside of having duck.
I am not sure about duck farts, which are definitely on the downside. And you don't want to be downwind from someone who is processing them.

vendredi 20 novembre 2009

The Man Who Came to Dinner

The clip is from the 1942 film version starring Monty Woolley and Bette Davis. Here are Jimmy Durante and Mary Wickes as Banjo (based on Harpo Marx) and Nurse Preen, respectively.

A professional contact and friend of Walt's named Gordon played the lead role last night in the Edmonds Community College production of this wonderful play, co-written by George S. Kauffman and Moss Hart. The cast is very good, with Gordon in the title role kind of directing his young ensemble from the stage. Gordon is a graduate of the Yale Drama School, so he knows his stuff. He is a delightful actor and person.

Nabokov famously hated live theater. He said it was because the actors seem to have more fun than the audience. Sadly, this is often true. Not so with this play and this staging. Perhaps because of the intimacy of the setting (the seats end where the stage begins and the front row is on the same level as the stage), the audience is part of the fun. The dialogue is sharp and fast and funny.

Support community theater. Go and see this play tonight, tomorrow or Sunday. You will be surprised at how much fun it is.

lundi 16 novembre 2009

Hey! Guess what? Sarah Palin has a new book out!

Just remember you heard it here first. Huh? What do you mean you have already heard that Sarah Palin has a book to promote and that Oprah agreed to give her a leg up in exchange for the straight scoop on Levi Johnston and Katie Couric?

I love this clip from some ABC talking head/punditry program. David Brooks calls Sarah a potential talk-show host; Gwen Eiful refers to her as a bright shiny thing like the balloon boy; George Will likens her - disparagingly, of course - to three-time loser William Jennings Bryan.

And someone - I forget who - notes that this country has serious concerns that merit its attention, and that Sarah is not one of them. She has traded in maverickness for rogueness. Think about the term rogue nation and what it means. Who wants a rogue politician and a bloomin' dingbat, with a laugh that is as awful in its way as Jeff Bezos's, to lead America anywhere? Someone else noted that her appeal to the world's nobodies - the Mr. And Mrs. Joe Sixpacks of American - should not be underestimated or ignored. That's a scary thought.

Anyway, when I heard that laugh of hers, I wanted to run screaming from the room. It was when Oprah asked Sarah if Levi was coming over for Thanksgiving dinner. Or maybe it was when Oprah asked her about the Katie Couric interview. I forget which. You know why? Because I was not really paying attention to what she was saying, or to what Oprah was saying. Because in my book, and in my bookclub, Oprah is just a big fat joke. Powerful, yes. An empire builder, yes. But a big fat joke nonetheless.

Carmina Burana and the Dahlia Lounge

Even if the words "Carmina Burana" mean nothing to you, you will be familiar with O Fortuna, the music that begins and ends Carl Orff's masterpiece, Carmina Burana. This is the best version of it I could find on the Internet -- having rejected the version with Michael Jackson visuals and the version with still photos of Hitler -- and was conducted by Seizi Ozawa. It is quite impressive. But Seattle's own symphony, with Gerard Schwarz holding la baguette and backed by its chorale and two guest ensembles, did a wonderful job.

So what is Carmina Burana exactly? And who is Carl Orff? Let's start with Orff who, as fate would have, it shares my birthday, July 10. But he was born in the late 19th century, in Munich. Orff's genius lies in taking a manuscript that was found in a medieval Benedictine monestary in Germany in 1803 and turning it into a complete work of art spectacle. One of the most amazing things about the manuscript is that it was not a religious document at all, but a collection of 12th and 13th century songs, many of them drinkings songs. Some of the songs mock the clergy, others are about love and lust. They were written in a mélange of Old French, Middle-High German and Latin, probably by a variety of "authors". I use the term "authors" tentatively because authors did not really exist at the time these songs were written down, and they probably were not written down by their creators. Moreover, the scribes who did actually write things down had a tendency to make changes. Setting aside this problem and getting back to Orff, he put them all together in a monumental show that is hard to resist. I'm not one for bucket lists of any kind, but if I were, seeing Carmina performed live would have been on the list. Now I can tick that one off and move on. I just wish my hubby could have come along. He was home watching reruns of Law & Order, under doctor's orders to stay in bed until the nasty swine-flu like thing had run its course. I made him a kick-ass vegetable soup with lentils and tomatoes and several grilled cheese sandwiches, and also bought a jug of Welch's grape juice, always useful in a medical emergency. He's doing much better.

He also missed Tom and Jackie Douglas's twentieth anniversary party for the Dahlia Lounge. Too bad for him! Dahli and I went and stuffed our little faces with amazingly delicious things. Dahli knocked back a few special cocktails, which had pomegranate in them, while I stuck to red wine. I was driving. We sampled blinis with succulent duck, plum sauce, pickled cucumbers and cilantro, miso with spinach and sesame seeds, salmon with roasted vegetables (I spied florets of caulflower), roasted figs with chunks of flagship cheese and delightful bread from the Dahlia Bakery, crab and fresh oysters.... Dessert consisted of beignets served in paper cones and miniature coconut cream pies (that's a Tom Douglas specialty). And how could I forget, speaking of paper cones, the servers walking around with paper cones filled with pommes frites and some kind of mustardy sauce. Delicious! We got gift bags too, and they contained Tom Douglas turkey rub, a bottle of red wine created for the anniversary and a calendar. Thank you, Dahli! Thank you, Tom and Jackie! After stuffing ourselves, Dahli and I went out into the rainy night in search of my car. We agreed it was near Blanchard, but that's about it. So we wandered around for awhile - 30 minutes or so - playing with various options. Well, one, which was to call my ailing hubby and have him come and pick us up. It was actually good to get out and walk after all that food. Tom prepared a special box just for Walt, who loves coconut cream pies more than baseball.

samedi 14 novembre 2009

On Armistice Day...

Heidi's bronze relief work

Neko's dirty face

A splendid late fall day

Red Heidi, posing not too far from Red Square
On November 11, the University of Washington held a ceremony to honor war veterans and also to commemorate the Medal of Honor Monument that my friend Heidi Wastweet had been working on for three years. In addition to being a red red redhead, Heidi is an amazingly talented, self-taught maker of sculptures and medals. Here are a few photos taken on November 11, which turned out to be a splendid fall day in spite of what had been forecast. Neko marked the occasion in her own way, furiously digging a hole in the ground.

My sister Carolyn did Heidi's hair just before the event, turning her back into the vibrant redhead she is deep down. Notice how great her hair looks with her cool red suede coat and against the remaining fall leaves and red brick building.

I was amazed at the turnout, as well as at the number of VIPs in attendance. Washington's own Governor Grinch was there. I actually like our governor, who ran circles around that dolt Dino Rossi in their gubernatorial campaign debates. She is super smart. But there is no denying it: she looks like The Grinch.

The day before the event, as I scurried across campus in the pouring rain, cursing the wind and hoping I would make it to my 1:30 class without losing my cheap H&M umbrella, the VIP seating section and stage were being set up. I was having second thoughts about attending, but wanted to be there for Heidi's big moment. I breathed a sigh of relief when the sun rose the next morning on a clear day.

The ceremony itself was quite moving, as these types of event tend to be. War and killing always put a lump in people's throats, don't they? November 11 is a much bigger deal in Europe, at least in France, where it is a bona fide holiday that commemorates the Armistice that ended the First World War. The ceremony in Paris, repeated on a much smaller scale throughout France, is always solemn and well attended. Part of what makes it so moving is the relighting of the flame of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. And because each year sees a diminishing number of "poilus", the name given to French combattants in WWI. The last living poilu died last year, at the age of 110. This year, for the first time, a representative of the country that France defeated in 1918 -- Germany -- was present at the ceremony in Paris. More amazing still, this year's commemoration came on the heels of the one marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. And the head of state standing by Nicolas Sarkozy's side, Angela Merkel, is from the "other" side of that Wall. The Prime Minister who came in from the cold.

So why is the 11 novembre such a big deal for Europeans? Well, for starters, the war was fought on their soil and divided them bitterly. In the space of four years, more than 10 million people died and more than 20 million became disabled. Empires fell, nations realigned, the precursor to the UN was created in a futile attempt to prevent future wars on this scale. Less than 20 years later, Europe was once again plunged into the dark night of war. The reticence of most European nations to resort to arms as a way of settling conflict needs to be understood in light of this experience. And sadly, it all too often is not understood over here, where we still tend to romanticize war and the call to arms from a very safe distance. For us, war is "over there". And we are "over here".

mercredi 4 novembre 2009

The passage of time

Last night we went to see John Irving talk about the craft of writing and read a short passage from his just-published novel, Last Night in Twisted River. As the Seattle Times book reviewer set the stage for his entrance, from where we sat I could see him off to the side of the stage. It is remarkable how little he has changed with the passage of time. When I last saw John Irving, Monday through Friday for the length of a college quarter, we were both 34 years younger. He was, and still is, a small and compact man, who looks exactly like you would expect a wrestler to look.

In 1975, he and I began our respective careers at Mount Holyoke College. I was a wide-eyed, terrified sophomore transfer student from Occidental College; he was a published author (with 3 novels already under his belt but virtually no name recognition), hired at the assistant-professor level to teach English at Mount Holyoke, one of the Seven Sisters and one of the few that has held out as a women's only institution. I was struck last night by how much he hasn't changed: as a teacher, he was often funny, in a dry and sometimes withering way, but he seldom laughed or smiled. There was something almost grim about him, or so it seemed to me. In fact, he was just deadly serious about literature and about the writer's craft. I nearly laughed out loud last night when he evoked the names of his nineteenth century masters - Dickens, Hardy, Melville, Hawthorne - remembering how passionately and eloquently he spoke of them to a group of young women who were miles behind him and struggling to keep up. I also laughed when he mentioned being a stickler for punctuation; I believe he reinforced in me a tendency that was already well-developed; to anyone who claims - as many have - that I overuse the comma, the semi-colon or the colon (not to mention dashes and parentheses), I have only one comment: fuck you! Kierkegaard wrote about "punctuating" reality: how can you capture it if you fail to use these marks, whose appearance in print is both conditioned by and the condition of silent reading (along with spaces between words, which predates the invention of print)? But I digress.

John Irving the teacher was demanding but fair. He expected students to come to class prepared and ran an efficient classroom. He was not all that approachable, which I now understand to be related to his need to carve out and defend two hours a day for his writing. He was working on The World According to Garp, the novel that would make him a household name in America, a writer of international stature and independently wealthy. One night, he was scheduled to give a reading and made it clear we should be there. We went. To a packed house in the tiny Western Mass town of South Hadley, he read what would become the first chapter of that novel. What I remember from that reading was, first of all, how he peered out at the audience almost combatively, and second, how his reading of that chapter made the crowd laugh out loud. We read his first three novels, either as part of the coursework or just because he asked us to - I don't remember now. They were (and are) amusing and full of promise; Garp, however, was on a different level altogether, and I think John Irving knew it as well, way back in 1975, when the novel was in its early stages. It was published in 1978; I was back in Seattle by then. I bought a hardbound edition, and tremember the thrill of reading the first chapter silently, hearing his voice, seeing that room at MHC, imagining the lights, the podium, and the feisty yet calm man behind it, reading his own prose to the delight of his audience.

One of the things I most appreciated about John Irving the teacher was that he did not suffer fools. I don't think this has changed. Last night, he did not open up the floor to a question and answer session and did not make himself available to sign his book or any book. I usually leave when authors or experts allow the audience to ask questions. I am not there to hear what they think, and everyone knows what inevitably happens when a microphone is made available: fools rush in and bores step up to deliver windy, self-important and often rambling statements or personal manifestos, only casually ending with a question mark inflection to signal that they are paying lip service to the rules of the game. Instead of putting himself through this tedious exercise that everyone secretly despises except the foolish bores (or boorish fools, take your pick), he asked that the audience submit written questions. Most of them he looked at quickly and brushed aside. He let us know that they were lame questions; but he did so in a way that made each person in the audience feel as if he was mocking someone else -- not you, not me, but someone else.

Before Irving began to speak, I was tapped on the shoulder by a woman who was standing behind me. Her gesture suggested she had mistaken me for a waitress or bookstore staffer. She nudged me and thrust an index card and pencil in my hand when I turned around, telling me to give it to whoever was collecting questions. At first I was confused, since no one anywhere near me was collecting questions and I was not sitting anywhere near the aisle. My bulky coat was folded on my lap and I had a coffee cup in my hand. It would have been just as easy, if not easier, for her to submit her question. In terms of distance from the question collector, we were about even and she was already standing up. I looked at her in disbelief; she glared right back at me. So I looked at her question ("What are you reading now?") and then back at her. Her face was contorted in anger. How dare you not get up and submit my question she seemed to say. And I hope she read my look, which meant: You want me to get up and walk halfway up the aisle to submit this lame question? And no, John Irving neither answered nor even bothered to dismiss her lame question. I was tempted, as a joke, to write a question of my own. I would have written this question, beginning with a self-important utterance: "I was your student in 1975 at Mount Holyoke College. Do you remember me?" It would have been funny to submit it like that, unsigned. And then not say anything.

But John Irving has a complicated relationship with his readers, in part because he has attracted the kind of fan base that he so aptly described for one of his fictional characters in Garp. He understands the creepy side of this kind of obsession, and I bet this is the subject of one of his fear zones. He talked about the relationship between his deepest fears and writing last night. It was actually a very intimate moment of self-disclosure, delivered from behind the mask of the writer. So I'm glad I decided not to write that smart-ass comment/question on an index card. I also felt it was quite brave of him - in America, no less - to simply state that he is not religious, in reply to the moderator's question about fate and whether he believes in it.

Many readers have noted the recurrence of certain themes in Irving's fiction, and the wikipedia article about him even presents a table of overlapping themes. Incest, sex between a younger boy and an older woman, absent father, the writer's life, etc.

When Irving's previous and most straightforwardly autobiographical novel to date was published, the reading public learned more about his most private past. Irving's biological father divorced his mother and signed away all visitation rights when John was 2 years old. His mother remarried four years later, and Irving was quite enamored of his step-dad. "My life got better from the moment he came into it," he has said. He never really forgot about his father, though, and hoped that he was watching him. The plot of Until I Find You is partly driven by this fantasy.

When John Irving divorced his first wife (in 1981), his mother apparently gave him a bunch of letters that his father had sent her during World War II. In those letters, he explained why he had decided to end the marriage but also expressed the hope and expectation that his soon-to-be ex-wife would allow him to maintain contact with his son. Apparently, this request was denied. Irving was perplexed by both his mother's refusal and his father's acceptance of it.

What is most amazing to me is how he manages to weave these biographical facts into his fiction like variations on a theme (or set of themes) that never gets old. The best writers repeat themselves, he noted last night, citing another writer. They can't help it. I remember him telling us, his students at Mount Holyoke, that getting at the truth required exaggeration. I remember writing that down in my notebook and putting a big dreamy circle around it.

Not everyone who took his class that term liked him. In fact, my roommate loathed him and his books. Why is he making us read this crap?, she would say, puffing on a Virginia Slim. She was from a veh-ry wealthy San Francisco family -- indeed, I cannot reveal the name without violating her privacy -- and spent most of her time lost in the binge/purge cycle or on the phone with her therapist. She had the SF Chronicle delivered daily to our room. She would read the society pages and comment on the antics of the people in them -- her friends, or so she said. Débutante balls and so on. One day, she said of Patty Hearst, who had been kidnapped a year earier and who had apparently joined forces with her aggressors, that she had never really liked Patty anyway. She wanted to be an actress, but lied to her theater professor to avoid taking a mid-term by saying that her beloved grandfather (whose family has tons of stuff named after them in SF) was on his death bed. This was pure invention. I wonder how she felt two days later when he suddenly died of a heart attack. Unbelievable but true. Actually, I remember how she felt. She announced the news to me one evening when I returned to our shared room, falling back onto her bed and moaning But what will become of the estate at Woodside? In case you don't know, Woodside is south of San Francisco and one of the wealthiest communities in the world. Yes, the world. I often thought she must be joking, but in truth I fear that she never was. In addition to drama, she was addicted to valium, and this turned her into two of the seven dwarves for the first six hours after waking: Grumpy and Sleepy. That's why she never went to class and why she had to invent death agony for her beloved grandfather to avoid an exam.

Before heading home to SF for the holidays, she decided that she needed to lose 20 pounds in a hurry and that she needed my help to stay on this diet she had tried before with success (or so she said). It was simple. It involved drinking a bitter mixture of molasses and lemon juice and hot water three times a day. That's all. No food. I agreed to do it with her. Within a week, I felt and looked like a ghost. But she was struggling to lose a few pounds. That's because, though I didn't know it at the time, she was hoarding food and eating it in the dead of night, then throwing up.

After I moved back to Seattle, I lost touch with her. She drifted back to San Francisco. One day, out of the blue, I got a call from XXXXX. She chatted me up for a few minutes and then asked if I remembered the exact proportions of the lemon juice and molasses in that old diet. I said you're not going to try that again are you? And she said, yes, because I might have a small role on a Norman Lear sitcom and I need to lose 20 pounds in a hurry. I rolled my eyes, wished her well and hung up. The next day at work I was telling my fellow cocktail waitress Carol about the strange phone call I had gotten from my old Mount Holyoke roommate. At some point, reminiscing about how weird she was, I mentioned her first name. Carol, who was from San Francisco and about ten years older than me, gasped and said: "Did you say XXXXX? Not XXXXX YYYYYYYYYYY?!"
When I replied in the affirmative, Carol nearly lost it. I used to be her governess, she said. John Irving could not have invented a more implausible plot twist.

lundi 2 novembre 2009

Daylight savings time memo

Apparently Pushkin and Munchkin cannot tell time, and/or they did not get the memo about Daylight Savings. You know, the whole spring forward and fall back thing. In the morning, they eat at between 5 am and 6 am. But in the evening, 5 pm is the sacred hour. They prepare for this auspicious moment by following me everywhere from about 4 pm on. If I am in my office, they just sit and stare at me. Their concentration and devotion are such that they often remind me of the animals gathered round Baby Jesus in the manger. Today, I had to feed them at 4 pm. They refused to listen to any explanations about the benefits of Daylight Savings Time and scoffed at my suggestion that they get used to it. When Munchkin started in with the self-mutilation bit, I resisted, even when I heard her head hit something hard, which I believe was the corner of a wooden table. But when I heard a crash in the kitchen, I knew I would have to give in. This bowl -- former bowl, I guess -- is made entirely of recycled plastic. I'm sure I paid too much for it, because I bought it at Metropolitan Market. It was on sale, I hasten to add. What appealed to me was the size and the total plastic-ness of it. Perfect for those occasions when you go to someone else's for a meal and they ask you to bring a salad. I found some really great pistachio-colored tongs to go with it, also entirely plastic.
I don't know what Pushy was trying to prove. But I resent her lack of remorse, which is evident in the first photo. I picked up every shard of broken plastic and put the broken bowl on the table. I'm not sure my purpose was to shame Pushy. But it was not to encourage her to go and sit next to the desolated object with that look of absolute contentment, mingled with defiance.

vendredi 30 octobre 2009


Happiness is not having to think up or wear a Halloween costume this year. I am done with that. I spent 22 blissful years living in cultures where the whole Halloween thing is either non-existent or reserved for a very small percentage of the population, generally young children.

In America, adults carry on the Halloween tradition. No wonder the French call us "grands enfants". The first Halloween I spent back in Seattle, we were invited to a Halloween party. On the day of, we decided to spend no more than two hours on costumes. I went as Patty Smith, and Walt went as Roy Orbison. Our decisions were based on what was in the closet and what could be cheaply purchased at Fred Meyer. I bought a pair of black skinny jeans and orange converse high tops, wore a white blouse I already had, borrowed a skinny tie and an electric guitar, and had my sister Carolyn cut a black wig into a Patty Smith-like hair style. Quelle simplicité!

The best thing about this costume was that it came pretty close to being normal clothing, so I didn't feel the discomfort that comes with wearing a constricting costume, elaborate make-up or giant wings or other appendages.

The next year, we were also invited to a party. We decided on our costumes about five minutes before leaving. Walt put his bathrobe on over his clothes and wore a pair of slippers. E basta! I put on a black dress, black boots and black stockings, and we stopped on the way and bought a black witch's hat at Bartell Drugs for about 5 bucks. There was actually another person at the party wearing her pyjamas (she actually had curlers in her hair).

We have no Halloween party to go to this year, but the World Series is on television. Anyway, I would probably not wear a costume even if I had a party to go to.

The best costume at the first Seattle Halloween party I went to was that worn by my brother-in-law Terry. He decided to "be" Truman Capote and I do mean "be". In addition to looking like Truman Capote, he had worked hard to imitate his voice and mannerisms, and had even memorized a number of Capote's famous quips. Best of all, he resolutely stayed in character all evening. He just became Truman Capote, embracing all of the existential implications. His wife, my sister Carolyn, went as Mrs. Robinson from The Graduate. She stayed in character too. They inspired me to "be" Patty Smith all night. Of course, I had to explain to some of the youngsters who Patty Smith is (!). There was a photo booth at the party, so we did a lot of posing. Someone I have never met, who lives in NY, told the hostess of the party that I looked so familiar to him. She told him I was "Patty Smith" and he said, "That's it! She does look like Patty Smith." It's all in the attitude, as expressed in the pout.

Click on the title for Martin Scorsese's top 11 horror films of all time. It's from the Daily Beast and includes video clips from each one.

mardi 27 octobre 2009

You wanna live forever?

According to a recurring MSN article (click on title), here's all you need to know:

1. Maintain a relatively flat belly after menopause (if you're a post-menopausal woman and your waist measures more than 35 inches, it is time to take action)

2. Embrace technology: iPod, iPhone or Blackberry, Kindle or Nook-e-book (say it out loud), Twitter, Facebook...

3. Skip cola (even diet cola)

4. Eat/Drink purple foods; they're full of polyphenols (even red wine)

5. Stay away from burgers (and red meat in general - no more than 18 oz. a week - and stuff with nitrates, like hot dogs)

6. Get a little breathless for 40 minutes a day (run, swim, walk like you're being followed by a masher, avoid television or any other activity that tends to sink your butt deep into a chair for hours on end)

7. Walk instead of drive (if you drive, park as far away from your favorite retail habit as you can)

8. Clean your own damn house (and make your own dang quesadillas)

9. Be a flourisher, not a languisher (glass half-full kind of thing)

10. Be in a drama-free marriage or relationship

11. Hang out with healthy people (happy and physically active)

12. Be someone who was a healthy weight teen (not much anyone who isn't a teen can do about it now)

From a recent article in Le Figaro, we learn that from 3,760 in 1990 the number of people over age 100 in France rose above 20,000 in 2008 and could climb as high as 60,000 by 2050.

Autrefois, les centenaires faisaient figure d'oracle avec leur siècle d'histoire sur les épaules. On les auscultait à la recherche du secret de la longévité. Ils n'étaient qu'une centaine en 1900. Quelque 3 760 en 1990. Désormais, ils sont plus de 20 000 selon les chiffres divulgués aujourd'hui par l'Institut national d'études démographiques (Ined) dans son portrait annuel de la population française. Au cours des prochaines décennies, leur progression sera freinée, car des classes d'âge moins nombreuses gagnent les sommets de la pyramide. Mais les centenaires restent promis à un bel avenir.

Ils pourraient être 60 300 en 2050, selon l'Ined.

As tempting as it is to think so, I'm not sure this list holds the key to longevity. For one thing, the item about getting 40 minutes of exercise a day actually stipulated running, which is not good for aging joints. There are many ways to get aerobic exercise that do not involve running or putting undue pressure on the joints (tennis and other racket sports are killers); swimming and cycling are two examples.

And in France, one of the world's leaders in terms of producing "centenaires", people do not go in for running and self-punishing forms of exercise the way Americans do. People tend to walk more, get outdoors more, eat smaller portions, eat better quality food, etc. When I lived in Paris, I walked at least an hour a day without trying. I shopped for food daily, and walked to my neighborhood shops. And I had access to a much better healthcare system than in the US. This makes a huge difference. Plus, the French eat a lot of red meat, or at least eat it often. Our friend Joe, who with his wife Karen goes to France at least twice a year, says eating in France is like being on one of those protein rich diets. Lots of meat, deliciously prepared. Who can resist that?

There is nothing on this list about taking time to enjoy small wonders or simply taking time to do nothing but enjoy the silence. For some people (not me), contemplation is tied to religion and church-going. Whatever does it for you. But I think it is important to set aside some time to do nothing, every day.

Look at GG (top photo), who is going on 104. What's her secret to longevity? Running for 40 minutes a day? Are you kidding? Never! Embracing the latest technology? I think she decided to stop once she mastered the remote that controls the television. Maybe she just got the right genes. In any case, there is something to be said for resisting the temptation to hold grudges and judge others. That requires a degree of generosity and humility that may be the real key to happiness. And this attitude towards life may not lead to a longer one. In the end, it is about genes and generosity of spirit, regardless of what the list of 12 imperatives implies.

lundi 26 octobre 2009

Send a silly love song to the one you love, or anyone

Here is a funny little web site called Let Them Sing it for You. You can type in any words you want and your computer will sing them back to you, using voices that may sound quite familiar (because they are). It was created by Eric Bünger, as an interactive Web project for the Internet art platform SRc of the Swedish National Radio. Try it, you might like it.

dimanche 25 octobre 2009

Bizarre pool incident

So we get up to the YMCA for a swim, only to realize that a swim meet is going on. After being told the meet will go on for some time, but before we walk out the door, we are told that the meet is in fact "over". We take a look. People appear to be rushing out the side door and into the blinding light. So we take the obligatory shower and walk out to the pool area, where we are told that the pool will not open immediately: it has to first be vacuumed out because someone threw up in it. I guess that explains why the meet suddenly ended.

Overcoming a strong urge to barf ourselves, we decide to wait in the hot area while the pool is being vacuumed for vomit. For one thing, we need a quiet place to contemplate the very concept of vacuuming the bottom of a swimming pool. My doctor told me a couple of weeks ago that the YMCA pool has enough chlorine in it to kill any germ, so I'm not too worried about catching something like swine flu by accidentally swallowing an errant speck of vomit. But still, it is kind of icky to ponder. So we sit in the hot pool, enjoying the jets of water on our aching joints, and waiting for the clean-up to happen. Then we're told it will take until 6 pm to get the vomit out, at which time the pool and the Y close (always early on Saturdays for some reason I don't understand). Bummer. We take showers and dress without getting a workout. When we get to the front desk, we see people heading for the pool. It turns out that someone has now decided the pool will open before closing after all. But it's too late for us. The moment and urge have passed.

Neko was overjoyed at the news, as this meant a long, brisk, workout walk for her on Alki. And how can anyone complain about Alki on a clear, crisp fall day?

samedi 24 octobre 2009

Bizarre gardening accident

This is a good day for gardening. It isn't raining but it isn't too warm. Fall is here. Time to trim away the dead growth; time to get rid of the clay pot that exploded for no reason on the deck and replant the fabulously fragrant catnip mint that was growing there.

I understand why retired people excel at gardening and I don't, however. Gardening is above all a question of time and patience. You have to set small, achievable goals and accept that the job is never quite done. I find I don't have much time for gardening. Work, school, teaching, books to read. Luckily, I don't have any television shows that absolutely need to be watched by me.

I'm about to go to the pool and realize that I am sore from all this gardening activity. I think I injured something hauling dirt. Or maybe it was climbing over the deck rail to get onto the eco-roof, where I've got some verveine sprawling. In any case, the term bizarre gardening accident comes to mind. Speaking of which, you can't make this stuff up. Click on the title, which links to this true story:

A former drummer for the Swedish pop band ABBA was found dead with cuts to his neck in the garden of his house on the Spanish island of Mallorca. Police said Monday an autopsy showed it was an accident.

A bizarre gardening accident. Life imitates art.

lundi 19 octobre 2009

One Love

Happy Monday!

Playing For Change | Song Around The World "One Love" from Concord Music Group on Vimeo.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

by Robert Frost

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Leavenworth, Sleeping Lady (Early Fall 2009)

Seattle, Ballard Locks (Late Summer 2009)

lundi 12 octobre 2009

It's academic: ranking the universities

This is always controversial. THE (Times Higher Education) annually ranks the world's top two hundred universities and also does more refined rankings - for example, the world's top two hundred universities for the arts and humanities. The University of Washington comes in at 146 for the arts and humanities, which probably sounds fairly mediocre until you begin to look at the list and realize how many prestigious institutions there are in the US, not to mention the world. Harvard comes in at number one, which it always does.

So what are these rankings based on? THE uses six indicators with differential weightings:

1. Academic Peer Review: 40%
Composite score drawn from peer review survey (which is divided into five subject areas). 9,386 responses in 2009 (6,354 in 2008). 40%

2.Employer Review Score based on responses to employer survey: 10%
3,281 responses in 2009 (2,339 in 2008).

3. Faculty Student Ratio Score based on student faculty ratio: 20%

4. Citations per Faculty: 20%
Score based on research performance factored against the size of the research body

5. International Faculty Score based on proportion of international faculty: 5%

6. International Students Score based on proportion of international students: 5%

As for the weightings, we learn that "they are assigned by Times Higher Education based on their opinion of the importance of the measured criteria balanced against the appropriateness of the indicator to evaluate the intended measure."

In other words, it's kind of subjective and primarily based on a questionnaire that is sent out to a selection of the world's academics. Notice that by far the most important criterion is academic peer review - in other words, academics voting on which universities they think are the best. Based on....? This year, there were 9,386 academics who completed and returned the questionnaire. Basically, they were asked to make a list of the 30 best universities in the world in their area of expertise. So this is an opinion poll or a popularity contest. They can't cite the university that employs them, but what is to prevent them from citing the one that awarded them the PhD or even the prestigious BA/BS that got them into grad school? What does any of this have to do with the quality of the education a student might hope to get? That is an open-ended question, by the way. It sure doesn't seem obvious to me.

In fact, when you look at some of the other criteria - the number of citations, for example - it is hard not to conclude that the old maxim of "publish or perish" has not lost any of its power to shape minds and dictate behavior, and that the quality of the teaching provided counts for absolutely nothing, unless a link can be made between teaching ability and the ability to write articles that get published and, once published, cited by others in one's field.

So forget about teaching and forget about research. Focus on getting published. Focus on publishing articles "dont l’écrasante majorité n’apportera pas grand-chose à notre savoir collectif mais dont la multiplication dans des revues « savantes » et confidentielles permettra d’asseoir pour les gagnants de ce nouveau jeu la notoriété, les primes et les promotions qui, désormais, y sont associées. Ainsi, un chercheur en sciences humaines devra renoncer à écrire des livres, qui ne sont pas recensés par les bases de données bibliographiques, mais tronçonner sa thèse à l’infini en ne gaspillant pas d’un coup ses munitions intellectuelles”. [Translation:"...the overwhelming majority of which will not offer much to our collective knowledge but whose multiplication in the academic reviews read only by the initiated few will, for the winners of this new fame game, provide the basis for the prizes and the promotions that are associated with it. Accordingly, a researcher in the humanities would be well advised to forget about writing books, which only get cited listed in bibliographic databases, and focus instead on endlessly cutting up and dishing out his or her thesis, so as not to spend all of his or her intellectual artillery in one shot".] Incidentally, the quotation comes from an article that was reccently published by French historian Jacques Marseille on the French educational system. The citation was provided by Pierre Assouline (see blog list on the left on his literary blog La république des livres, in an entry on this year's THE rankings.

Judging by this year's rankings, it looks as if higher education is a pretty good mirror of economic trends. The US continues to predominate, but the Asians are making a serious run. Among French universities, Pierre Assouline finds it amusing (and so do I) that La Sorbonne is ranked 21st and Ecole Normale Sup 45th. Well, it's true that everyone has heard of La Sorbonne, while outside of France ENS (whose graduates include modern intellectual luminaries such as Sartre, Foucault, Bergson, Aron, Durkheim...) is apparently not such a household name, even inside academia.

If you click on the title, you will see the rankings. For the global rankings, the top three are Harvard, Cambridge and Yale. What a surprise! Not. The UW comes in at 80, sandwiched in between the universities of Glasgow and Adelaide, while WSU (at 366) is just behind Portugal's Universiy of Coimbra and just ahead of the University of Showa in Japan. It seems to be tied with Université Paris V, Descartes.

vendredi 9 octobre 2009

jeudi 8 octobre 2009

Encore un homme par qui le scandale arrive

Polanski and Letterman have nothing on Silvio Berlusconi (pictured above), with whom Michelle Obama refused to exchange more than a cold handshake. After shocking Italy with his antics involving underage girls and prostitutes, Berlusconi has lost the immunity that has protected him from prosecution since he became, for the third time, Italy's prime minister -- in part by cynically playing on xenophobic fears. One of his very first acts as prime minister was to get legislation passed protecting himself and a few select other politicians from legal action while in office.

Yes, it seems that Silvio too has a roving eye and loves the wild, wild life (Déjà fragilisé par le battage médiatique autour de ses aventures présumées avec une mineure et des call-girls, selon Le Monde). He is definitely down, right now, but I would not count him out just yet. Neither does the correspondent for Le Monde (click on title for link to article).

Nonetheless, if he loses immunity he could find himself once again before a judge (he claims to have been involved in more than 90 cases since 1994 and to have spent nealy 170 million euros to defend himself) for any number of pending matters, all of which involve actions far worse than referring to the Obamas not once but twice as "tanned":

– Television rights: he was indicted for falsifying accounting documents and corruption in connection with the purchase of television broadcasting rights.

– Subordination of a witness in connection with the lawsuit for the purchase of television broadcasting rights. Berlusconi is suspected of having bribed David Mills (a British lawyer) in exchange for false testimony. Mills was sentenced to 4 and a half years in prison last February.

- Berlusconi may also end up being indicted once a pending investigation in Rome wraps up. In this case, he is suspected of trying to buy votes in the aim of bringing down the government of his predecessor, Romano Prodi, who had only a weak majority in the Senate, between 2006 and 2008.

One of his call girls taped a conversation they had about his sexual performance. It seems the 72-year old PM ascribes his own prowess to genes. The 42-year old call girl from whom Berlusconi extracts some perfectly perfunctory compliments (a young man would ejaculate immediately, and she hasn't had it this good since she broke up with her boyfriend) has since been making the rounds on television. Which is funny, because if Berlusconi's attempts at bribery, corruption and cooking the books had actually worked, then Big Boss probably would have seen to it that she stayed far from the glare of the cameras.

mercredi 7 octobre 2009

Tel père telle fille

I figured it was only a matter of time before someone brought up Frédéric Mitterand's 2005 autobiography entitled La Mauvaise Vie, in which he writes about paying for sex with young male prostitutes in Thailand. Now he is Ministre de la Culture in Sarkozy's government and, from this pulpit, recently expressed indignation over the arrest in Switzerland pending extradition of Roman Polanski, for an "indiscretion" he committed 31 years ago on a then 13-year old girl. Notice the symmetry: 31 and 13. Angelica Huston weighed in on Polanski's misadventure, noting that the 13-year old was no dupe, but most people are horrified at the thought of a grown man drugging and raping a 13-year old, right? Am I right about that? So of course it is only natural that many people would be shocked by Frédéric's ardent and indignant defense of his friend Roman, though surely not surprised. Marine Le Pen stepped in the big steaming pile of doo doo first (see video clip), by passionately (almost hysterically) denouncing la mauvaise vie de Frédéric; she was soon followed by the official spokesman for the Socialist party. It is not surprising that Marine Le Pen, looking and sounding more and more like her father, would take advantage of such a grand opportunity to criticize the current government. It is cowardly of the Socialists to have waited for the Marine before taking a stand. But that's just politics as usual in France (and elsewhere, for that matter).

The trouble is, this ethical issue has now been usurped by the politicians, and the old left-right cleavage is all we can see. I hate Marine Le Pen, just loathe her. Even more than that, I hate finding myself in agreement with anything that comes out of her big mouth. It is not quite fair to say she started it; Mitterand should never have loudly defended Polanski. One of the commentators under the Le Monde article noted that whenever a French politician gives in to the literary temptation, his or her words come back to bite. There may be some truth to that. Given Mitterand's avowed sexual past, he probably should have just passed over Polanski's arrest in silence, or stated for the record that the matter was now in the hands of the US authorities seeking extradition. Now that Marine has brought his book to our attention, it is hard to see his earlier defense as other than self-justifying to some extent. When Mitterand's book came out, it was quite well received as an honest, well-written account of a man grappling with his own demons and doing so in a dignified way. He was interviewed on numerous cultural programs and praised for his candor on more than one occasion. His "mauvaise vie" was out there for all to see, brought to public attention by le concerné. What now?

I think there is something else going on as well. This whole business has created or revealed an ongoing malaise in France. The French are seemingly more comfortable talking about sex than - for example - we Americans are. To oversimplify, the French talk about sex with the same ease we Americans show when we talk about money. Every Frenchman is a libertin at heart, or feels he ought to be. Don't forget that the Marquis de Sade was a Frenchman. There is a tradition to uphold, and a reputation. There is both a sexual and a religious component to this: the libertin is first and foremost a free thinker who does not follow the laws of religion. And many, though not all, of those laws concern sexual conduct. I doubt that this philosophical stance translates into actual libertinage of the sort associated with de Sade. But it does translate into a societal compulsion to withhold judgement about the sexual conduct of others. However, when this conduct involves thirteen year olds or sexual slaves in third world countries, la liberté des uns se trouve face à face avec la liberté des autres. On what grounds does one defend the sexual liberty of Roman Polanski when its expression entails the coercion of a minor? How does a lover of liberty justify paying for sex with underage slaves, who are often kidnapped and held against their will?
That's the real French paradox!

mardi 6 octobre 2009

Don't fall in the bathtub

It seems that every year, when fall rolls around on schedule, people love to say that it is their favorite season of the year. I love fall, but I also love spring, summer and winter. Well, spring and summer at least. Winter is pretty grim, at least in Seattle. Paris is relentlessly grey in the winter, but there is so much going on, so many beautiful lights, and so many distractions and pretty things in shop windows that you can forget about the weather. And you can walk everywhere.

Back to fall. It is a lovely season, as seasons go, especially when it begins with an extended Indian summer, like the one we seem to be having here. But there is a downside: spiders. My tomato plants are a favorite place for spiders to build their webs, and so is my deck and the span across the front porch. Yesterday, I almost walked through a spider web and a big spider in my carport. They were blocking my car. I believe the spider had set a trap for me and/or Neko. Luckily, Neko is too short and I am too smart. Two weeks ago, I got behind the wheel of my car and nearly fainted when I saw that a small brown spider had built a web overnight between my steering wheel and my gear stick. What nerve! A week later, I came downstairs one morning to heat water for coffee and discovered a spider and web spanning the space between my faucet and the compost pot on the counter just next to it.

But the worst and most common spider experience, endlessly repeated and always traumatic, is when you push aside your shower curtain and discover a large spider lurking in the tub. I am always reminded of the scene in Annie Hall, where Alvy Singer says "Honey, there's a spider in your bathroom the size of a Buick."

I know exactly what he means.

The spider in the photo above just happens to be a wolf spider, which is the species referred to in the clickable article in the blog title, which takes you to a National Geographic article from last spring. If you fear and loathe spiders like I do, then you might find it interesting. According to Danish researchers looking at wolf spiders in Greenland, their increase in size and hunting season (YES, SIZE AND HUNTING SEASON) may be due to global warming. No wonder that spider staked out its territory across my compost pot. It's all part of a vast conspiracy to keep me away from the bathtub.

lundi 5 octobre 2009

School Daze, Veggies and Indian Summer

Eat your vegetables!

I was asked last week how the vegetarian challenge was going. Well, it's going pretty well considering I live amongst carnivores. Neko has communicated in no uncertain terms that she vastly prefers steak, cooked on the outdoor grill, to all other forms of animal flesh. Okay, got that. The Big Carnivore is getting his meat on the fly and playing along with the vegetarian thing. I have some kind of meat (usually chicken or fish) at least once a week. It's all good.

Last week, TBC made his fabulous marinara sauce on one of the nights I had to teach. It was wonderful to come home to the aroma of lovingly braised garlic and those pungent San Marzano tomatoes, bubbling away. I made a tofu stir-fry one night (flavored with chorizo sausage for TBC) and butternut squash tacos another night. I had some leftover squash, which I had cut into cubes and roasted with olive oil, salt and a spice mixture (cumin, coriander, turmeric, red pepper flakes and other flavors) for the tacos, so I used it as the central ingredient of a soup. The secret to good soup is in the vegetables. I braised crisp celery, organic carrots, onion and parsnips in a little butter and olive oil before simmering them, and added the squash at the end.

The only meat night was after the great Mariner's game on Tuesday night. We went to Circa and I had the BBQ chicken salad. But they make it a special way for me, with the chicken grilled instead of marinated in the BBQ sauce, with the sauce served on the side. On Saturday night, we were invited to the neighbors for an evening of pizza and pool. We got two pizzas: a veggie pizza for the ladies and a meat-laden carnivore pizza for the men.

I'm soaking some black beans right now, but haven't decided what to do with them yet.

Do your homework!

School started last week. I love being back on the UW campus, and fall quarter is especially intense and exciting. Okay, so I'm older than the professor by at least a decade. And most of the students are a quarter of a century younger than I am, except for one fellow graduate student who seems to be in her 30's. I would sit in a classroom with adolescents if it meant being allowed to read Victor Hugo AND the Wall Street Journal. The subject is, roughly speaking, the first new media, which was print, and its social, cultural and political effects on France and Europe. We will be focusing on the notions of authorship, intellectual property and censorship. We begin with Victor Hugo's famous text, Ceci tuera cela, which in fact is a chapter in Notre Dame de Paris that was added in 1837. Basically, Hugo argues that the book will replace the cathedral. The implications are huge.

Carpe diem!

For now, the Indian summer is holding in the Pacific Northwest Temperatures are dropping, but the sun continues to prevail. Yesterday, we went for a long walk in West Seattle that took us along Sunset Avenue, down Bonair and up Admiral. The justly named Sunset Avenue features exceptional views of Puget Sound. There are many old "estates" that were built in the 1920's. One for sale right now has a 1.5 million dollar price tag. And a million dollar view. There is one vacant lot for sale - the last one on Sunset - and it is offered at a million dollars. The lot measures 7,300 square feet.

On the Seattle side of Sunset, a modern, sleek structure just sold for 3.6 million dollars.

It must be nice to have an unobstructed, glorious view of downtown Seattle, but it that worth 3.6 million dollars? I don't think I would want to live in a house like that. I would spend all my time feeling guilty about the lack of affordable housing for hard-working people and foreclosures on subprime loans.