Friday, October 31, 2014

A 1960s Zombie cocktail, and the oddness of Halloween

It's a peculiar holiday, isn't it, this Halloween which no one any more spells with an apostrophe. For us moderns it is one word, just a thing like "truck" or "carpet." It is no longer Hallowe'en, the e'en (even, evening) before All Hallows', the feast of All Saints. Choose any saint you like. They each have their own day, but on All Saints Day they are honored in toto, from humble (one presumes) St. Margaret of Clitherow, patron saint of businesswomen, pressed to death in Elizabeth's Merrie Olde England in 1586, to the giants of heaven -- Michael the Archangel, John the Baptist, the Apostles. Everyone.

When we celebrate Halloween, we are not thinking much of a contemplative vigil the night before the saints' day. For us it is all about -- well, we will get to that in a minute. Let's say for us, the roots of it are all about more ancient pagan associations. No less a personage than James Frazier, of The Golden Bough, teaches us. In his section "the Hallowe'en fires" (from chapter lxii, The Fire-festivals of Europe) he says,
...when November opens, the harvest has long been reaped and garnered, the fields lie bare, the fruit trees are stripped, and even the yellow leaves are fast fluttering to the ground. [This point of the year], while of comparatively little moment to the European husbandman, does deeply concern the European herdsman; for it is on the approach of winter that he leads his cattle back to the safety and shelter of the stall. (The Golden Bough, 1 volume abridged, 1951.)
This means Halloween is allied not with farming and crop harvesting, but with animals, with settling in and drawing close. I remember reading once that the holiday may even date back to the days before animals were domesticated at all; it may reflect Man the Hunter's knowledge that deer come down from the mountains in the fall, to the warmer woods and valleys; this is why Halloween has a festive spring corollary, "Walpurgis Night" or May-eve, when (Man the Hunter noticed) deer return to the mountains for the summer -- and must be followed. Frazier thinks that ghosts come into Hallows' eve because, having learned new skills, Man the Herdsman busy putting his cattle into the barn for safety also would have wanted to act as kindly to his dear dead.
Throughout Europe, Hallowe'en, the night which marks the transition from autumn to winter, seems to have been of old the time of year when the souls of the departed are supposed to revisit their old homes in order to warm themselves by the fire ... could the good-man and the good-wife deny to the spirits of their dead the welcome which they gave to the cows?
Add in prehistoric [mostly Celtic] New Year rites, which Frazier thinks are part of the mix and which always include ideas of time-shifting, of protective mask-wearing and future-foreseeing, of the supernatural intersecting with life, and we have more reason to prepare for hauntings and witchery. We have more reason to set out treats of food for lost souls -- dear cow-souls, we might call them -- to light celebratory fires, and to generally savor the night's "glamour of mystery and awe -- attended by picturesque features and merry pastimes -- the gayest night of the year, invested with romantic beauty." 

I hope so, especially the mystery and awe and romantic beauty parts. I find Halloween interesting because Frazier's and all these ideas, if they are right, make the holiday truly a relic, projecting from remote prehistory into our day, carrying a freight of knowledge and rituals which our ancestors took seriously. Seriously enough to still affect us. Note what we still do or don't do, because of them. We don't, for example, make a Halloween dinner. We don't spend long days stewing and braising, and then sit down to a proper family feast in daytime. It is all treats or faux-food, treats disguised. The dead don't really eat.

As for romantic beauty, well. Again I hope so. Driving around and looking at decorations this week, I fear we probably could all take a lesson from our Celtic ancestors, who surely would have had better taste than to strew their homes and yards with pointless mannequins of bloodied brides, or effigies of human torsos hung from trees. Not very welcoming to the cow-souls, or cows for that matter. Aren't a few lights, pumpkins, hay bales, and the occasional black cat enough? Why the interpolation of evil and violence into "the gayest night of the year"? Modern people in comfortable societies might not go in for pretend horror at all, if they had any understanding that such scenes are real sometimes. Remember the four-day jihadi attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi? 

It does seem also that Halloween, Celtic all through, passed via the Celtic countries, Ireland and Scotland, to arrive full blooded only on American shores. If you flit about on the internet googling Halloween in France, Italy, or Spain, for instance, you learn that these un-Celtic countries didn't know it much at all. They have recently begun adopting the American Halloween, complete with quite good-looking Italian zombies in Rome, but had no particular witches-and-broomstick customs of their own for the vigil before All Saints' Day. Curious, by the by, that for all the German immigration in our background, we never adopted Walpurgis Night, April 30. Possibly it was always a minor matter in the old country anyway.

As for Halloween's American growth, or what it is all about for us, it seems to have morphed strong within living memory. Deep in Project Gutenberg you can find old books for children from the early 1900s, in which an earnest narrator describes fun but odd Hallowe'en parties that call to mind a birthday, or April Fool's, as much as anything else. (Actually the party in Hallowe'en at Merryvale is a birthday, too.) Boys and girls pull taffy, bob for apples, and then sit down before a paper pie which they pull open with colored paper streamers, to reveal paper spiders and grasshoppers within. They eat ice cream and cake. A generation later, my father returned from the service after World War II to learn of a new custom. His mother handed out candy to children at the door on October 31. He had to ask her what was going on. (My mother, however, disputed this. She was six years younger than him. "Of course we all went trick or treating then," she scolded. Perhaps my father lived a rather sober childhood, or perhaps the age gap proved time enough for a new custom to develop sometime in the 1930s or '40s.)   

Today one can speak not only of an American Halloween industry, and of discrete sales of candy and costumes and party decorations and so on, but of such a thing as the Halloween Industry Association. Take a look at its website and be reminded of the way literature has crept into Halloween costumes: there among the stock ghosts and skeletons is Count Dracula, and Frankenstein. The HIA was incorporated in 2005, the same year that President George W. Bush signed legislation extending Daylight Saving Time by one week -- i.e., to barely scoop in the magical day -- after "intense lobbying" from "the candy industry" ("How Retailers Got American Kids an Extra Hour to Trick or Treat on Halloween," by Megan Willet, Business Insider, Oct. 29, 2014). Well and good, I say. Small-r republican representative government in action. If you object, run for office yourself, or form a lobbying group to outlaw businessmens' -- and -womens', à la Saint Margaret of Clitherow -- reacting to incentive, or candy.

An odd holiday. We eat non-meals, and rub shoulders with wraiths instead of people, or hope to do. Now would be the time to close with a typical Halloween treat, a comforting morsel for one's favorite cow-soul. I think you may have a cocktail instead. Below, from my dog-eared paperback Calvert Party Encyclopedia (all of 96 little pages, published in 1960), enjoy the Zombie.

Shake well with ice:
1 oz. dark rum
2 oz. "gold seal" [gold?] rum
1 oz. white rum
1 oz. pineapple juice
1 oz. papaya juice
juice of 1 lime
Strain into a highball glass, garnish with pineapple slice and cherry. Float Demerara rum (very dark, often high proof rum, often from Guyana) on top, sprinkle with 1 tsp. powdered sugar.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

2009 Esenzia Old Vine garnacha -- and Envy

The label below represents a memory of a past life, when I worked as liquor buyer for a small grocery store chain and had the authority to take a chance -- not that anyone was paying much attention -- on small scale products from very small distributors, or even independent brokers. I never quite understood whom brokers worked for, or how they made a living at all. The one who sold me this hung on valiantly for a long time, and only recently switched to another industry.

thick, opaque purple
grapey scent
very dry
earthy, bittersweet chocolate
rustic and tasty

Retail, about $10.

Talking of old vines, and industries come to think of it, brings to mind old things. Are old vines really better for the grapes? Are old cultures always better in the most important ways, more noble, dignified, wiser, more fun, etc. etc.?

I ask because I happen to be revisiting an old fascination of mine, and that is what I like to call the French Envy industry. My current exemplar for the subject, an audiobook I am listening to in the car, is Debra Ollivier's What French Women Know. Many years ago I enjoyed her Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding her Inner French Girl, of which, I must say, this newer book is something of a rehash. And I must say also that the next time Ms. Ollivier reads one of her own books for the public, I hope she changes up her delivery just a little. That "distinctive, upward American lilt" at the end of every sentence -- historian John Keegan, of all people, noticed this on our behalf in his Fields of Battle: the Wars for North America -- after a while becomes merely expressionless. Her voice is sweet and her diction nice, so there is room for improvement here. Perhaps even a second career if need be.

Not that she'll need a second career, because as long as she can keep writing for the French Envy industry, she'll be fine. As to that: or, "that said," as she says much too often -- anyone can look at the shelves of an American bookstore or library and see that, for a long time, publishers have been making lots of money selling lots of books to American women instructing them that French women are all happy, beautiful, and at peace and we are not, but we can try to be. It all seems to hinge on their not denying themselves frivolous pleasures as we would. Butter, flowers, expensive lingerie. Nude models on political billboards and anatomically correct dolls for children also have something to do with a simple acceptance and enjoyment of what life looks like, so good probably for everyone's emotional health. But I decided these books represent an industry, capital I, both on the strength of Debra Ollivier's first one being shelved in the Self-Help section, and on the strength of she herself telling us that this unacknowledged project seems to have begun at least as far back as the career of our grande dame novelist Edith Wharton. She wrote French Ways and Their Meaning in 1919. I read it. After some perfunctory nods to large matters, even she focused rather uncomfortably on lessons for American women. We are apparently the problem children, emphasis on children (wide-eyed, easily hurt, badly dressed) of the human race. Since 1919 other titles by other women seem never to have stopped flooding on. Ultimately, the mystery, the unattainability of all this Frenchness must be vital. If one never really masters l'art de vivre, then there will always be a need for more books about it.

Ollivier's audiobook kind of goes on and on. I have taken to pulling out one CD and putting in another at random, depending on how well I can hear anything over the roar of trucks on the expressway. Last night at the beginning of Chapter 6 -- I was in a parking lot and could hear everything -- she told a really funny joke. And it made me turn the entire long project of the French Envy industry on its head.

The joke concerns people of ten different nationalities stranded on ten different deserted islands, two men and one woman per island. "After a month, the following has occurred: the Italian men have killed each other over the Italian woman; the French men and French woman are happy in a ménage à trois; the Japanese men have faxed Tokyo for instructions; the British men are waiting to be introduced to the British woman," and so on. Last of all, the two American men are contemplating suicide because the American woman will not shut up about what the sun is doing to her skin, the essence of feminism, her relationship to her mother, how her last boyfriend respected her more, the nature of commitment, how the palm trees make her look fat and why didn't the two men bring a cell phone so they can call 911 and get the hell off this island so she can get her nails done and go shopping. (There's more.)      

Ollivier says "you won't hear this joke in France," so I assume she means an American thought it up. She seriously worries that it's stereotypical and politically incorrect. What she doesn't admit is that it's gorgeously pungent, and that though only a joke, the most interesting character in it by far is The American Woman ... who is then supposed to go out and buy books about how to be more happy, beautiful, and at peace. Like the French. Of whom, the first lesson we learn is that they don't care what anyone thinks of them. Circle upon circle. The Envy Industry grinds away. Would it not be delicious, ironic, if at some future date cultural historians, or perhaps visitors from another planet, look back at us and say, "Pah, they were all dull as tombs, except for American women. Ah, those women! There was a place called Hollywood, where a few of the finest were kept -- of course there were millions more, incredible -- one could die of joy -- ." And anyway -- that said, and back on the earth of today -- may we ask why there is, for example, no Spanish Envy industry, publishing books on What Spanish Women Know? We remember we began our talk, above, with that nice Spanish wine.

Perhaps the envy industry is solely French because Louis XIV really is responsible for permanently turning l'état's economy to the production of luxury goods, so that for all time to come, all civilized people who wanted a dose of the divinely sensual in life would have to pay for it in francs. Joan deJean says so in The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour (2005), another light and pleasant cupful poured into the flood. Along with unattainability of course it's the lightness and the fantasy that matter throughout. Not a one of these women writers gazing wide eyed at the Eiffel Tower will tell us about anything as gritty as the banlieues, the Muslim suburbs ringing every French city, or about besieged French synagogues. Debra Ollivier won't connect France's generous-chic social welfare policies to high taxes, low birth rates, and unabsorbed immigrants (see: banlieues). Never mind that French women are supposed to be cerebral and aware of their world. That's not what we are after.

I remember reading once that publishers estimate one-fifth of all guidebooks to Paris are bought by people who have no intention of traveling to Paris. We support the industry, and we want our fantasy pure. Purity has endless nuances. Corruption is just the one thing. Besides, maybe we're too busy being interesting to go.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Linus Larrabee (Humphrey Bogart) explains capitalism

YouTube has a way of combing through hoi polloi's uploads, and removing those that violate copyright. I was enjoying watching full episodes of Joan Hickson's 1980s era Miss Marple, until they vanished. (Thank heaven I was able to file away the ejaculation "That's a non-starter, Murgatroyd!" -- from A Murder is Announced -- in my repertoire just in time.)

For the moment, someone has been allowed to upload Linus Larrabee's (Humphrey Bogart) one-minute defense of capitalism from the movie Sabrina. I'll paste it here, but if I too am found out, just know that the nub of it comes at about the 30 second mark. "By a strange coincidence," Linus says, after factories go up and a harbor is dug in an undeveloped area, "people who never saw a dime have a dollar, and barefoot kids wear shoes." And what's wrong with that?

If you watched the movie for Audrey Hepburn's eternal poise amid small tragedies, or for her Givenchy frocks, then this little lesson will come as a pleasant, cerebral surprise. I also like the old father, who when scolded that This Is the Twentieth Century, scoffs "I could pull a century out of my hat, blindfolded, and get a better one!" Also so true.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Apples and lemons, and events of the day

This will be very unpolished; but you will forgive me I think. Although, spending part of the day driving around doing errands and listening in the car to an audiobook biography of J.S. Bach, makes one tremble at the idea of producing any writing or photos, or doing any activity whatever that is not the most refined and perfect possible. Such a travesty of a waste of the time God gives us. Did Bach ever dash anything off in a hurry, and say, "well, I've just finished a big cantata (or what have you), let this be a tad unpolished"? 

I don't know. I do suspect that the good people at Naxos, who made this Life and Works 4 CD set some years ago, have made a mistake in their attributions however. The narrator, surely, is the amber-voiced John Shrapnel, and it is someone else voicing "Bach" in letters and so on. I was so convinced of this that I felt I had to comment about it on the chat boards at the Naxos site, and only then did I do a bit of perfunctory sleuthing on the movie site IMDB. I learned that I am a little confused as to which amber-voiced English actor named John played a small role in I, Claudius, -- and which did not. Anyway I still think they've made a typo on their CD case and enclosed booklet. [Full disclosure -- they didn't make a typo, this mistake is all on me. You can make yourself look entirely ditzy, sometimes, even though you're really not. Nevertheless -- ] Somewhere in the depths of Angela Thirkell's oeuvre a character says, "My dear mother thought the most extraordinary things and she never dreamed of supporting them with a shred of proof," or something like that, and so I take her as my witness that it's all right to do that. I also like the way she sprinkles her narratives with confident and completely non-sequitir-ish, omniscient-narrator "we's." "We think that was the right thing for Tom to do," and so on. Angela Thirkell in The Duke's Daughter also gives the most perfect description of a baby's skin in all English literature: she compares it to "gossamer jelly."  

Anyway I did better research later this afternoon when it came to the matter of finding out who is the soprano who sings "Bist du bei mir" (Art thou with me) on the second CD of the Life and Works. All sopranos are wonderful as we know. But this voice had such an effortless, eerie, yet strangely metallic quality that, singing as she did after the narrator had just told us of Anna Magdalena Bach's fine soprano, I felt almost as though I were listening to a voice from the remote past. As if to Anna herself, at her harpsichord in a little room in a house in Leipzig. I felt I must know who this soprano is.

If I have researched aright, she is Ingrid Kertesi, born in Hungary. I know nothing else of her that you might not also learn in a few minutes on Wikipedia -- except I suppose that she would not be flattered to know that a musical Neanderthal like me finds her voice eerily metallic.

I've also been exploring the world of e-publishing today. You do find extraordinary things. I am not impressed with Smashword, sorry. Years ago James Michener said that when he was starting out he had no fear of getting lost in any slush pile, because he had worked in publishing and he knew exactly what kind of competition was in the slush pile with him. I don't see Smashword in any fairer light. (I once started a sort of epublishing firm of my own, and it's still there.) HarperCollins' Authonomy seems better, so I chose to upload, ahem, the Whole Thing there. Do you think the people who actually, incredibly asked me to send them "a few chapters" will withdraw the invitation if they learn I've done that? I reason that Authonomy's soup is very thick, and that the chances of simultaneous acceptances are astronomically more remote now than they were twenty or thirty years ago.

Now, re: fashion. I watched Funny Face last night, since my new computer takes in Netflix and everything. If there is a more gorgeous piece of clothing than Audrey Hepburn's first Paris gown in that movie -- the stark floor length white sheath with utterly stark, straight pink velvet cloak -- then I shall be glad to know what it is. It's curious to look at photos of Edith Head's designs, and photos of Givenchy's, and to realize that knowledgeable people consider the one to be much more sophisticated than the other; but which is which? That is a matter for more of your own research.

Finally, apples and lemons. You may call it an "Arc de Triomphe," or you may call it an Apple Brandy (or Calvados) sour. Either way, here it is. "Why does everything have to be sour?" my gentleman friend asks. "Because I like sours," I say.

Arc de Triomphe or Apple Brandy sour

In a mixing glass, stir, with four ice cubes:
the juice of half a lemon
sugar or simple syrup to taste (about half a teaspoon to start, or equal parts to the lemon juice if you like things less sour)
one jigger (1 and 1/2 ounces) apple brandy or Calvados
Stir well and strain into a cocktail glass. Enjoy with your next Audrey Hepburn movie. Or Bach.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Gourmet's pumpkin apple bread

My intentions were to find a fancier version of Beer and Jalapeno Cheese Bread, if such a thing could exist; a co-worker had given me an excellent loaf of the bread, and I had found what seems to be the only recipe for it, repeated many times over on all the cooking sites of the internet. Nevertheless I wondered whether some professional had perhaps improved the recipe with additions of some glorious cheese, or some glorious heirloom jalapeno or fine expensive beer.

Thumbing through the index of my trusted paper-and-binding Gourmet cook book brought me no closer to what I wanted. Perhaps beer bread is beer bread. But something else caught my eye there. "Bread, pumpkin apple," sounded very nice.

It is very nice. Gourmet (2004) credits the recipe to Rebecca's Gourmet Bakery in Cary, North Carolina. 

For the topping:
1 Tbsp. flour
5 Tbsp. sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 Tbsp. butter, softened
Blend together flour, sugar, cinnamon, and butter in a small bowl with your fingertips until the mixture resembles coarse meal.

For the bread:
3 cups flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 and 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp. ground allspice
1 (15 ounce) can solid pack pumpkin
3/4 cup vegetable oil
2 and 1/4 cups sugar
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 granny smith apples, peeled, cored, chopped*
*Query, can we steep them, or perhaps even flame them in the Calvados we just bought?

Butter 2 9 x 5 inch loaf pans. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Sift together the flour, salt, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice in a bowl. Whisk together pumpkin, oil, sugar, and eggs in another bowl. Add the flour/spice mixture to the egg/pumpkin mixture, combining well. Fold in the apples.

Divide the batter between the two buttered loaf pans. Sprinkle half of topping evenly over each loaf. Bake until a wooden skewer inserted into the middle of the loaf comes out clean, about 50 minutes to an hour.

Cool the loaves in their pans for about 45 minutes, then turn out onto racks and cool completely.

Little luscious treats like this are so very right in fall, with its abundance of harvest goods that go right into the bakery oven and the long-cooking stewpot. Pumpkins and apples here, nuts, cranberries, squashes, spices, and cream everywhere. We must do a little study of Halloween, you know, and find out why all its foods are treats and tibits -- but why no one sits down to a formal Halloween dinner. It seems to have something to do with the prehistoric Celts.  

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Well, thank heaven for that

Thank heaven it was stored upright for more than two years. Calvados. Apple brandy from Normandy and only from Normandy. Karen MacNeil, of The Wine Bible, says that all Calvados, along with cognac and armagnac, must be stored upright because if it is "laid down" on its side, like wine, the high alcohol content will eat away at the cork and cause the development of unpleasant flavors. I have always wanted to try real Calvados, and since the customer who wanted a good apple brandy some years ago rejected this because the label did not say apple brandy in English, well, -- we have been sitting on an over-supply of it. Stored upright. Retail, my fatheads, about $50.

You know what Constable said of painting his favorite things:
But the sound of water, escaping from mill dams, & c., willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts, and brickwork, I love such things.  …As long as I do paint, I shall never cease to paint such places. They have always been my delight…
I can't give you slimy posts and brickwork -- actually, probably I could -- but I can give you one of October's last hollyhocks amid a lush desolation of fallen mulberry leaves and God knows what, plus the ornament of a single Chinese lantern, down in the corner. I even hear a robin, just now. Probably a juvenile bird, confused about when April starts.

Would you believe some people can look at a wine as black as ink, taste thick flavors that go beyond mere "jamminess" and blueberry-chocolate caramels, and then pronounce it flat and watered down, and decline to buy? What else are they drinking?

It's very good, though I am not sure I want it with a meal. Think of it as a cocktail, or dessert. Retail, about $10 on sale. I like to imagine that the ancient wines we know nothing about, except we know they were prized, must have tasted like today's hot-climate New World reds. Why not? Egypt is hot and Rome is hot, and the Romans loved their Falernian and of Egypt, Hugh Johnson writes that certainly we know enough about their production methods to produce wine as they did, but in doing so we "would not expect wine of any quality. ... Yet to dismiss what people of such culture as the Egyptian aristocracy described as good, very good, or excellent, took such trouble in making and pleasure in drinking, clearly cannot be right" (Vintage: the Story of Wine, 1989). Why shouldn't a lot of it have been Carnivor-style delta fruit bombs?

Do you know what else occurred to me? I wonder if the human passion for control of one's fellow man -- control of his major life options, control of his neighbors' attitudes, most subtle -- has been so horribly thwarted by a few centuries of pantywaist democracy that now the passion is simply coming to its full flowering, or rather to its autumnal slimy decay and blowsy seed-scattering, not with physical violence but with a kind of moral violence? I am talking about our own experience of judicial fiat overturning realities that the stupid "People" want to enshrine in their laws, or of the global warming mania that has crawled its way actually into the idea of the military. In a way, we are lucky. The same clerics (essentially they are) who enforce today's catechisms would have had the power to burn non-believers at the stake five hundred years ago, and might have thoroughly enjoyed doing it. At least today, pantywaist democracy still keeps them in some check; but I wonder if the moral violence they do will at some point prompt a really violent response that everyone will claim to be shocked by.   

Sunday, October 12, 2014

I've decided to immerse myself in the 12th century

And what better day to start than Columbus Day, day of rejoicing in exploration, discovery, and Western triumph?

My idea was to do some research for a little project investigating why today's hijab for Muslim women looks so much like the habit of a nun of ages past (and some contemporary ones, still -- I especially like the "Pink Nuns," the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters), and so to start off I consulted my own bookshelves and found The Divine Order: Western Culture in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance by Henry Bamford Parkes (Knopf, 1969). Another public library withdrawal. In its introduction, I found this:
The twelfth century, which marked the apex of medieval creativity, was the century of the chansons de geste and of the poems of the troubadours. These displayed no understanding or appreciation of the Christian ethic, warfare being glorified, but in their emphasis on the necessity of self-control they had a profoundly civilizing effect. They were thus important influences in the movement forward from barbarism. But the twelfth century was also the age of Abelard, who began the process of rationalizing Christian dogma, and of St. Bernard, who gave it new life by transforming it into deeply felt personal experience....

This fusion of traditions was unique in history, and has given to Western civilization its unrivaled spiritual richness and complexity. ...No other civilization has been endowed with such a rich supply of memories ....
Well, you can't read that and then not immerse yourself in the twelfth century, right? I mean --- I say -- dash it all, as Bertie Wooster might put it. A little more brief research into the matter might bring you to a Wikipedia page in which you find the names not only of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and Peter Abelard (who suffered hideously for his romance with the beautiful Heloise) but also Hildegarde of Bingen -- I actually owned a reprint of her Scivias once, and gave it away thinking "I am never going to read this" -- and all kinds of other names, too. Eleanor of Aquitaine, St. Francis of Assisi, Frederick Barbarossa, Anna Comnena, Maimonides. To me, this is adventure: plunging into the rich supply of your culture's memories. You can keep your deep sea night dives off Hawaii's Big Island, although I am sure that experience is so strange and the sights so ethereal that it adds to the general richness, too.

I will let you know how I get on. Meanwhile, because I did not entirely neglect Hildegarde even then, here is something of hers to introduce us to the era of our immersion. Also, later you can have a glass of wine.
I am that supreme and fiery force that sends forth all living sparks. Death hath no part in me, yet I bestow death, wherefore I am girt about with wisdom as with wings. I am that living and fiery essence of the divine substance that glows in the beauty of the fields, and in the shining water, and in the burning sun and the moon and stars, and in the force of the invisible wind, the breath of all living things. I breathe in the green grass and in the flowers, and in the living waters .... All these live and do not die because I am in them .... I am the source of the thundered word by which all creatures were made, I permeate all things that they may not die. I am life. 

It may seem a tad anticlimactic, but after all wine is a part of life, too. Dona Paula Los Cardos malbec, very good. Retail, under $10.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

2013 La Petite Perriere sauvignon blanc

Fresh, tart, and delicious when you are in the store in your last week at work, buying in a "three-stack" of a new, inexpensive wine as one last favor to your favorite salesman. Customers tend to shy away from French sauvignon blancs, opting instead for the blandness of California versions or the bright and almost obnoxious grapefruit effects of the New Zealand style. However, at $7.99 and with a subtle French crown on the label, this one might work.

Speaking of work, I felt I had to pay a visit to my peeps (sp.?) at an old blog, and show them the below picture first, because -- well good grief, because there seem to be quite a few of them there. I had no idea my Pond's cold cream saga still helps pull in 1,100 page views a month. What I showed them, below, is the result of what I have been working on for the last three years. It's done.  My tell-all divorce novel/memoir. This was what I was talking about, when I said I had finished "It" and that now my posts here might be a bit unpolished, as I relaxed for a while and just wrote what I felt like without overmuch proofing and fussing.

Funny story: last night I was telling my gentleman friend that I agreed it was important, when you are leaving one job for another, to "play till the whistle," that is give of your best up till the time you punch out on your last day. Another salesman had told me this motto, as he continued to take orders and tell me of three-stack deals up until 5 o'clock on his last day. He was an ex-school athlete, as you might have guessed. Anyway the attitude was noble and sensible, I thought and I still think.

But my gentleman friend always has to have the contrary point of view. "Whose whistle?" he barked after a moment's thought.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Cicero grows grapes

Natural dignity: is this then a duck, because both swim in ponds?

I suspect that men and women will devise new marriage rituals; they will dispense perhaps with the ring on the fourth finger, or the white gown and the large attending party. So long as human dignity exists, it will quietly rebel at being told that up is down, or that a giraffe and a lamppost are the same thing, because both are tall.

I have a great fondness, you know, for old bits of knowledge that peep out of anywhere. Here is Miss Marple, in her old world garden, internally lamenting the behavior, the deep moral laziness, of her gardener:

"He was all in favour of syringing roses for green-fly, but was slow to get around to it, and a demand for deep trenching for sweet peas was usually countered by the remark that you ought to see his own sweet peas! A proper treat last year, and no fancy stuff done before hand" (Agatha Christie, The Mirror Crack'd, 1962).

So it seems you must "deep-trench" your sweet peas. Also you must read Cicero.
Need I mention the starting, planting, and growth of vines? I can never have too much of this pleasure -- to let you into the secret of what gives my old age repose and amusement. For I say nothing here of the natural force which all things propagated from the earth possess -- the earth which from that tiny grain in a fig, or the grape-stone in a grape, or the most minute seeds of the other cereals and plants, produces such huge trunks and boughs.

Mallet-shoots, slips, cuttings, quicksets, layers -- are they not enough to fill any one with delight and astonishment? The vine by nature is apt to fall, and unless supported drops down to the earth; yet in order to keep itself upright it embraces whatever it reaches with its tendrils as though they were hands. Then as it creeps on, spreading itself in intricate and wild profusion, the dresser's art prunes it with the knife and prevents it growing a forest of shoots and expanding to excess in every direction.

Accordingly at the beginning of spring in the shoots which have been left there protrudes at each of the joints what is termed an "eye." From this the grape emerges and shows itself; which, swollen by the juice of the earth and the heat of the sun, is at first very bitter to the taste, but afterwards grows sweet as it matures; and being covered with tendrils is never without a moderate warmth, and yet is able to ward off the fiery heat of the sun.

Can anything be richer in product or more beautiful to contemplate? It is not its utility only, as I said before, that charms me, but the method of its cultivation and the natural process of its growth: the rows of uprights, the cross-pieces for the tops of the plants, the tying up of the vines and their propagation by layers, the pruning, to which I have already referred, of some shoots, the setting of others. I need hardly mention irrigation, or trenching and digging the soil, which much increase its fertility.

As to the advantages of manuring I have spoken in my book on agriculture. The learned Hesiod did not say a single word on this subject, though he was writing on the cultivation of the soil; yet Homer, who in my opinion was many generations earlier, represents Laertes as softening his regret for his son, by cultivating and manuring his farm. Nor is it only in cornfields and meadows and vineyards and plantations that a farmer's life is made cheerful. There are the garden and the orchard, the feeding of sheep, the swarms of bees, endless varieties of flowers. Nor is it only planting out that charms: there is also grafting -- surely the most ingenious invention ever made by husbandmen.

I might continue my list of the delights of country life; but even what I have said I think is somewhat overlong ....

Cicero, On Old Age

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Thinking inside the (wine) can

"Well, that's pretty low brow," a customer muttered as she stopped and looked at the shelf. She was gazing unimpressed at a display of Underwood pinot noir, from Oregon, and yes, in 12 ounce cans. 

The nice salesman told me that the Chicago area is a test market for the packaging. I tried it and liked it (they also make a pinot gris, yes, in a can), and agreed to take a chance. It's selling. The pinot noir is so delicate as to make one question, a little, in this world of jammy "fruit bomb" wines, what is the difference between delicacy and meh-ness? Not that Underwood is meh, not at all. In fact I wonder if the winemaker is not sharing with us all a very sophisticated joke -- a pinot noir as ethereal as possible, in a package that the uninitiated will call "low brow."

And I say uninitiated for a reason. The customer who wasn't impressed also probably wasn't impressed by other innovations in the drinks industry, which she now buys happily. I am thinking of flavored vodkas, cocktails in foil pouches, screwcap-closure wine bottles, Beaujolais Nouveau for Thanksgiving, and so on. She got initiated. And at some point, she will buy wine in a can because it makes sense for a certain need. Just for a start -- it's unbreakable, light-protective packaging in a perfect size for two people on the go. 

It is a fascinating glimpse into human nature, though, to see people rear back and instinctively reject something ... and then slowly come around. In some matters they never do come around -- wasn't there that car, the Edsel? -- in some matters they have to be coerced (the mercury-filled CFL light bulb) -- in some matters they shouldn't come around at all. But that's another story.  

Flowers, amateur and professional

My fatheads! When was the last time you saw the fuzzy yellow caterpillar of your childhood? Here he is. I forget what butterfly he develops into. This one may not have developed into much of anything, because when I came out to give him a better look a few minutes after taking this picture, he was gone. Either he developed a tremendous burst of energy and went somewhere, or he went into the fixings of some bird's dinner.

He had been exploring the tall fronds of a cleome gone to seed. They are the lovely "spider flower" of midsummer, seen in shades of pink, magenta, and in white, with their long green spokes striking out from the delicate flower head and the upper stem. When was the last time, also, you saw a moonflower in bloom?

I'm told that once these settle in, -- being perennial -- they become rampant, which is fine with me as perhaps then it will help hide an ugly garage back.

You do have to position yourself judiciously to get a good photo of some of the things in your backyard garden; at least I do. Below, some decorative grasses and black-eyed Susans.

One is all the more impressed with a professional effort. Below, a bit of the ever changing beauties of the Lincoln Park Conservatory. Just think, they have the same light as I do. It's the glass walls and the heat and the humidity and the staff and the knowledge and the sourcing and the professionalism that make the difference.

My favorite room in the Conservatory is the Fern Room. My gentleman friend thinks it's boring. I like the huge but subtle variety in all these ancient plants. Some of them are huge, really. Scale is difficult to see, but an adult could stand in the base of these fronds and they would almost reach his head.

 Up close, you see the various species' delicacy.  "A small dinosaur would be at home in this room," the sign says. That is part of the fun, too.

After the Fern Room there are the sumptuous and garish and profligate orchids. We like those, too.

Their faces move

It pleases me to imagine that, in a very small way, I understand the experience of St. Paul in the agora -- that is, in the public square, b...