24 December 2009

We were lucky...

We went to London the week before the bad weather.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to one and all!

23 December 2009

Why I am not a Painter

by Frank O'Hara.

This has got to be one of my top 10 favourite poems. This is exactly how I feel when I write.

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
"Sit down and have a drink" he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. "You have SARDINES in it."
"Yes, it needed something there."
"Oh." I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. "Where's SARDINES?"
All that's left is just
letters, "It was too much," Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven't mentioned
orange yet. It's twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES.

22 December 2009

Odete, Jacqueline & a Little Bit of Hope: Chapter 3

Picking up from the end of chapter 2... (And in case you've missed any of the earlier chapters, here are Chapter One (part one and part two) and Chapter Two.)

Jacq hadn’t forgotten that her sister was coming that day but there was somewhere more important that she’d had to go. Arriving only moments earlier, she now stood in the centre of the atelier, drowned in the fragrance of magnolia from the tree just beyond the open window. At her feet were dozens of small paint tubes, their colours squashed and squeezed from them until only their silver shells remained. Against the far wall, next to stacks of CDs and paintbrushes were an easel and canvas, concealed by a sheet. Strangely, the paintings that normally covered the walls were missing, and the web-like cracks in the plaster were now revealed in all their intricate glory.

Jacq kicked and stepped, and kicked and stepped repeatedly, creating a small path for herself through the tubes on the floor towards the hidden art. Without hesitation she reached, pulled the sheet to the ground, and gasped.

Directly before her was a goddess ready to take flight. On a rock outcrop above a turquoise sea, with indigo satin wrapped between her legs, an angel-woman had extended her bountiful wings and was waiting for the wind to free her. Her naked body was full and curvaceous with hips and breasts that had clearly lived and enjoyed life.

“Do you like it?”

Startled, Jacq spun around. She met Marc’s gaze but said nothing.

“Do you like it?” He repeated.

“You know I do.”

“Do you recognize her?”

Jacq looked again at the painting, and what she hadn’t seen the first time, she saw now. The strong chin, and slightly less strong Roman nose, seated above sad but determined thin lips. “I am no beauty.”

“I disagree.” Marc smiled. “And you know my father would disagree.”

Like a sneeze that won’t come out, Jacq’s tears were there, behind a dam that she didn’t have the energy to destroy. She sighed loudly and then spoke, “You asked me not to go to the hospital, and I didn’t. But Marc, I cannot agree to your last request. I must go to the funeral. I need to go to the funeral.”

Marc crossed his arms over his chest and slowly walked to the other side of the studio before replying, “I’m asking again, please don’t go. Do you want me to beg? My father loved you. You know that. I know that. And unfortunately, my mother knows that. The woman has just lost her husband of thirty years, let her mourn him and move on. With happy memories. Your presence will only remind her that the last couple of years were a fraud.”

Although her eyes were dry, Jacq knew that her grief, and anger, were still clearly evident. “Marc, look at me. Really look at me. What about me? What about what I need?”

“What about you? You had him in life. Let my mother have him in death.” Marc wiped his hands over his face – trying to wipe away the tears and frustration that were starting to form. “Jacq, I know you’re hurting. I know my father was important to you. I don’t doubt that you love him as much as he loved you,” Marc took a deep breath and then exhaled loudly. “I never really understood your relationship. Watching you together, it often seemed that you were as much his daughter as his lover. I know that I will never completely understand. But I do know that you need to find another way to let go of your grief.”

Jacq’s knees began to feel weak and she let her body collapse into a nearby chair. She wanted to fight, not just with words, but to punch and kick and hit Marc until he was pleading for mercy. But she didn’t have the strength for any of it. She sat back and rested her head against the wall. “Sometimes, when I was with your father, I felt suffocated. But it was also that very suffocation that made me feel happy, and in a strange way free. Philippe gave me the safety, the normalcy that I needed to live… we talked about it a lot, he said that I felt like that because I had grown up without a father… Marc, I need to honour him and what we had. I need to see him one last time.” Her desperation was palpable.

“Then do it. You don’t need my permission.” Marc reached over to the CD player and turned it on.

Jacq immediately knew the voice. Pavarotti. And the song. La Boheme - Che Gelida Manina. It was the sound of hope, and happiness. And as Philippe often used to say, also of utter beauty. Like father. Like son. Jacq closed her eyes. She could see Philippe next to her on the bed. His voice booming, his hands gesturing, drowning out the opera star. Pavarotti and Philippe had always sung to her after they’d made love.

She felt like her body was completely turning to jelly. Her arms slid down and dangled at her sides, and very calmly and very quietly, to the sound of Pavarotti, her tears finally flowed. It hadn’t taken force but peace to knock down the dam.

It seemed like two hours to her but it was really only twenty minutes when she opened her eyes to see Marc seated on the floor at her feet, pencil and sketchbook in hand. “Don’t worry, I’m not capturing your grief. I’m capturing your love.”

She smiled softly.

“This probably won’t make you feel any better, but Ted’s not going either.”

“Why not? That doesn’t make any sense. I’ve been so focused on myself, but I know that you need support too.” Her voice trailed off and she leaned forward and caressed Marc’s cheek with the back of her hand, and then tucked his dark shoulder length hair behind his ears.

“Jacq, my mother doesn’t know. Only my father knew.”

“What? How can that be? You and Ted have been together for years.”

“Five years. My mother can’t handle the truth. My dad and I decided a long time ago. It’s better that she doesn’t know. And especially not now. It would kill her.”

Jacq shook her head. “What mother would not want to hear that her son is loved, and in love? Does it really matter what she thinks? Why do you care?”

Marc closed his sketchpad, and placed it and his pencil on the floor before slowly getting to his feet. Towering above her, he spoke, “The answer is simple Jacq… it matters because she’s my mother.”

Jacqueline gingerly rose from her chair and upon moving very close to Marc, wrapped her arms around him and pulled his body into hers. His heart was thumping rapidly, and his smell reminded her of Philippe. She stepped back slightly, and gently took his face between her hands. His broad nose and dark eyes were nothing like his father’s but she thought that he was still handsome in his own way. After pressing her lips against each of his cheeks, she whispered in his ear, “Blood is not thicker than love.”

And then, with the agony and ecstasy of La Traviata in the background, Jacq left the atelier.

The story continues in 2010.... Stay tuned!

18 December 2009

Beautiful Soup

I was feeling like crap so I made chicken soup. Why does everyone complain about making soup stock? It's the easiest thing in the world....

Dead Easy Chicken Stock and Soup

for the stock
1 carrot
1 leek (cut in half, thick green end discarded)
1 onion (peeled and quartered)
2 cloves
forgot the garlic, but should have put in a couple of cloves
1 yellow turnip (aka swede, in BrE)
2 stalks of celery, leaves and everything, cut into manageable size
parsley (wished I had the flat leaf kind but never mind)
bay leaf
salt and pepper -- 2-3 peppercorns would have been good
4 or 5 chicken wings (a neck is also good if you can get your hands on one)

Put all ingredients into a saucepan or pot and add a couple litres of water, until ingredients are just covered. Bring to boil and simmer for about an hour.

for the soup
the stock, sieved
cooked chicken, cut into small dice
1 carrot, also cut into small dice
1 stalk celery, again, cut into small dice
a couple of handfuls of small pasta
some corn (BrE sweetcorn), if you like
ideally, chopped dill or parsley to make it pretty
salt and pepper to taste

Put the sieved stock -- can we call it broth now? -- into a saucepan or pot. Add the diced carrot and celery, and the pasta, and simmer for 5-10 minutes. Then add the cooked chicken and corn, which doesn't need to cook so much as warm through. I like flecks of green in my chicken soup and I especially like dill so I add some of that if I have some. If you don't want to eat this right away, it will keep for hours.... I ladled some out and took it to work, heated it up in the microwave and it was bliss.

16 December 2009

Food again

It's been mostly about food for the past week or so. First there was the red velvet cake for Helsinki's class party. Then there was the rugelach for my office lunch. Then there were the dozen crêpes I promised for Clover's school's Marché de Noël. Enough. I went happily off to London for a whirlwind 24 hours with Lichfield, but returned to a bona fide cold snap which sent me down to the kitchen Monday morning to make a pot of chili -- this one, without the topping. And since Helsinki is having exams, I made her some potato pancakes to have with the chili for lunch. Then, while I was standing there frying, I couldn't resist adapting part of the grated potato so that I could try Smitten Kitchen's zucchini (courgette) latkes. Enough already! (But some seriously good latkes.)

14 December 2009

How to bake in American when you live in Metric - And vice versa

It was the butter that started it.

Almost all American recipes call for butter measured in sticks, because in the US, butter is sold in sticks, wrapped in a label with marks for 8 single tablespoons (one US stick of butter is 1/2 cup is 8 tablespoons). But in butter is not sold this way in Europe. In Belgium (and the Netherlands, and France, at least), butter is generally sold in 250 gram blocks. No sticks. No tablespoon markings. If I wanted to make a recipe that called for a stick of butter, I had find out how many tablespoons that was (8 in this case), and fill my single tablespoon measure with butter 8 times. Now I don't know about you, but I found that pretty tedious, and fiddly (the measure is a hemisphere shape) and my fingers would get all buttery and slippery.

American butter. © Denzil Green

Because of the metric system, European recipes are given in grams and so instead of a set of measuring cups, you use a scale when you bake things. One gram is the same as one millilitre, so you can use the scale for liquids, too. I got hooked on British cooking, largely via Ready Steady Cook, and Nigel Slater's column in the Observer, and discovered the ease with which one can bake by using a scale to measure the ingredients. And I mean a proper scale, like this:

Not one of these silly flimsy ones:

So, anyway, it started with the butter. The next time I baked an American recipe, I measured out the amount of butter that was required, weighed it, and made a note.

Soon I was doing this with the flour, sugar, and everything else, too.

I realized the other day that after 10+ years, I have a pretty good set of equivalencies that no one else seems to have.

And so to you: I hereby present my cross-cultural-cooking Christmas gift to all of you, whoever you are, who find yourself on the Internet looking at an absolutely gorgeous recipe, and thinking that you cannot make it because the measurements are all in cups and tablespoons -- or all in grams and millilitres. I've been there. Enjoy the fruits of my labo(u)r. Happy baking.

1 tablespoon = 13 grams
1 stick = 4 tablespoons = 1/2 cup = 104 grams
half a stick = 2 tablespoons = 1/4 cup = 52 grams
1 cup = 2 sticks = 208 grams

1 cup = 225 grams

1 1/2 cup grated = 160 grams (not sure how many, might be about 3 medium)

Canola (Colza) Oil
1/2 cup = 90 grams
(note: corn oil is heavier, don't assume it is the same)

Chicken Broth
1 14 1/2 ounce can of chicken broth = about 500 millilitres

1/2 cup = 52 grams

Courgette - see Zucchini

Creme Fraiche - see Sour Cream

Flour - Plain, White
1/4 cup = 33 grams
1/2 cup = 66 grams
3/4 cup = 99 grams
1 cup = 132 grams

Greek Yogurt (Plain)
1/2 cup - 125 grams

Oats (as in, Quaker rolled oats)
1/2 cup = 42 grams

Pecans - see Walnuts

1/2 teaspoon = 3 grams

Sour Cream (the thick kind, not the pourable kind) - Creme Fraiche Epaisse
1/4 cup = 56 grams
1/3 cup = 75 grams

Sugar - Confectioner's, Powdered
1 cup = 130 grams

Sugar - White, Granulated
1/2 cup = 100 grams
1 cup = 200 grams

Vanilla Extract
1 tablespoon = 13 grams

Walnuts or Pecans
- Chopped
1/4 cup = 20 grams
1/4 cup = 20 grams

1 cup = 225 millilitres

1 small-medium, grated = a little more than 1 cup = 195 grams


1. All measurements are based on me weighing actual butter, flour, etc using my standard American spoons and cups. This leads to some discrepancies with the standard equivalency charts... for example the charts like to say that 1/2 cup of butter =4 ounces which, if you use the 28,3 equivalency rate to get grams, gives you 113 grams. But I routinely note that 1/2 cup of butter, measured into a 1/2 cup measure and then weighed, weighs just over 100 grams which works with my base measurement of 1 tablespoon of butter = 13 grams (1/2 cup = 8 tablespoons = 104 grams).

2. Flour: I am using plain flour, farine patisserie, un
less otherwise noted. This is my standard substitute for American all-purpose flour, and it works just fine, except in chocolate chip cookies, which seem to require gold medal flour. I don't know why.

11 December 2009

And the winner is...

Thank you to everyone who participated in our humble Happy Accidents prize drawing. You are all winners to me, but there can be only one book winner and thus I am pulling a name out of my Muji tote bag right now and it is.....

Jane Steen.

Congratulations, Jane! If you email me (see my profile for the address) I will send your copy of Happy Accidents out in time for Christmas!

09 December 2009

Winter Wolvendael

The car battery died so ho, ho, ho, down to the chaussée d'Alsemberg I go to the mechanic. This is about one of the last things I wanted to do with €100 but at least on the way back I got to walk through Wolvandael Park.

And see all the pretty colours...

And the snake-rooted trees....

For about ten years I went to this park nearly every day, and for the last of those years a brisk walk through it every morning. When at last I moved the girls to another school, the thing I missed the most was that walk through the park. It marked the end of a certain time of my life...

Happily, the path still beckons.

08 December 2009

Odete, Jacqueline & a Little Bit of Hope: Chapter 2

Picking up where we left off....

Odete had always liked airports. The energy of the crowds, the hushed anticipation as everyone waited to see who would come next from the security area, the joy and laughter as families and friends were reunited.

She was so happy to be there waiting for her eldest daughter. It had been a year since she’d come home, and then for a very sad occasion – the funeral of Odete’s mother.

“The flight’s on time, so we should see people soon.” Simon smiled and wrapped his arm around the shoulders of his mother-in-law. Even at fifty-five she was still a very beautiful woman. Petite, dark curly shoulder length hair, and full, red lips. Over the years, he’d seen men stare at her, both old and young, but Odete had always seemed oblivious. To her daughters, it had been strange that their mother had not had a boyfriend or even seemed to want any male “companionship” after their father had left.

One day, almost twenty-years ago, the girls had come home from school to find their father there waiting for them. He kissed them both on the head, and told them that he was going on a long business trip. He gave the babysitter a letter for their mother and left. As days turned to weeks, and weeks turned to months, they tried to get some idea of when exactly they would see Daddy again. But their mother just shrugged her shoulders and smiled – “I don’t know. When he’s ready.” As the years began to pass, the girls just stopped asking and accepted that their father might never be ready.

Simon remembered all the confusion very well. He’d been 11 years old at the time, and had often played Frisbee, and road-hockey with the girls and the other neighborhood kids. After their dad had left, Odete often came over, girls in tow. Simon’s father asked him to be nice and kind and to make an extra effort. Little had Simon known that one and a half decades later, he and Jacq would get married.

“Oh, the door’s opening, they’re starting to come.” Odete jumped a little and lightly clapped her hands together.

A small trickle very quickly turned into a steady stream of weary travelers and it took only a few minutes before Hope appeared.

Hope was a younger version of her mother. Even her mannerisms, right down to the gentle, flowing way in which she waved her hand were identical.

“My baby…” Odete rushed towards her daughter and with watery eyes turning into flowing tears, pulled her into her arms.

Simon stayed back and let the private reunion unfold. There was this connection between mothers and daughters that he could never quite understand – at times it seemed like utter love, and at others, utter hate.

Odete pushed Hope’s hair away from her face. “You look tired, and a bit pale. Are you eating okay? Why did you stay away so long? How’s Tim?”

“Mom? Are you okay?” Hope wasn’t accustomed to this sort of attention from her mother.

Odete responded with a confused stare.

“Never mind. I’m fine. Tim sends his love. He wanted to come but he couldn’t get away from work.”

Hope then quickly turned her attentions away from her mother and gave Simon a warm embrace. “Where’s Jacq? I thought she was coming too?”

Odete jumped in, “Your sister’s not feeling so well.” She took her daughter by the hand. “She’s resting and will see you later. Let’s go home. You must be hungry.”

Continue with chapter 3, scheduled for 22 December....

06 December 2009

Windhover, for Ruthie

On one of the evenings at Arvon we read out poems and my roommate, Ruthie, wanted to find this one but couldn't. I wanted to add a photo to it but haven't. I'm posting it anyway. It is by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Caught this morning morning's minion, king-
dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

05 December 2009

Anybody else for a Happy Accident?

Lichfield has suggested that the time I gave to leave a comment for the Happy Accidents prezzie drawing was too short. Two people have commented and I am more than pleased to send one of these two loyal readers the prize book. But I'm a little disheartened by the lack of turnout. It's starting to look like a poetry reading around here....

So. I'm extending the time till the end of the weekend -- it isn't as though I'm going to do this before Monday morning anyway. Click on the link above to participate!

04 December 2009

Still time to get in on the prezzie drawing!

There's still time to leave a comment in the first ever official ceci prezzie drawing, here. If your name is drawn I'll send you a bona fide accidentally ordered extra copy of Happy Accidents by Tiffany Murray, and I'll send it to wherever you happen to be in the world. If you're shy and don't want to leave your name just go anonymous, and I'll identify you by the name of your favourite book!

How to Craft a Cello From Parts You Have

I cannot take credit for that title. It is the title of a lovely poem by Tanya Laramie, which I first read when it was published in the Guardian's online workshop.

Within the confines of a solitary place, sit upright in a wooden chair.
Wait patiently while your hair grows to reach the ground....

Yes, that's how it feels, learning to play. Of course the waiting isn't passive, because you are playing. But you do have to be patient. And it does feel like your hair will end up growing to the ground.

Only I am not crafting a cello, but starting the process of buying one. So the real title should
probably be something like, How to Buy a Cello From Money You're Scraping Together. (And oh, how we are scraping.) But I am certain it is worthwhile. Ultimately the cello will be Helsinki's. I will be able to play it (and not have to continue to rent one) while she grows. Cellos, even student-level ones, are expensive (even the renting). They are usually hand-crafted and I believe the ones I'll be trying are. It is not about brand names -- in fact, I don't know what brands of cellos exist and don't want to. I will decide based on budget and sound and my teacher's recommendation.

Imagine the sound of spaciousness.

Lichfield wonders why cellos are so much more expensive than guitars and I think it is largely because (1) cellos are big; (2) they must be made of good wood, spruce and maple, on top, back and sides; and (3) craft is required. Cheaper cellos are factory-produced and can have laminated, lesser-quality wood for top and back. But the cello is all about vibration, and each kind of wood vibrates differently so it is important to have the good wood partout. Cellos are also fragile -- when I see how Lichfield handles his guitar compared to how we've been shown to handle out cellos, it's really hard to take! (Note to Lichy: if it makes you feel any better, apparently cello strings are also much more expensive than their guitar counterparts).

Imagine what you most long for.

I realized this the other day: the significance of this purchase is not just the cello, is not just Helsinki, but has to do with loving to play an instrument, and the Small Me that wanted so very, very much to play the piano. Small Me was granted the cello instead at the ripe age of 37 and I will always be grateful to Helsinki for opening that door, which I have to admit surprised me at the time -- my little Helsinki! that big, deep instrument!

The other day my teacher complimented my playing. It meant a lot because I've often felt he hasn't taken me seriously -- like I'm just another Euro-wank parent with more money than sense, who wants their child to play an instrument because they think it brings them status. Well, he's gotten to know me a little bit.... Has seen the worn lining of my pocketbook.... Has seen the choices I've made. What would I rather have done with all those half-hours, those fifteen- and ten- minuteses? He said, "If all of my students played their Dotzauer like that, I would be so happy."

Invisible to him, deep down inside me, Small Me felt positively shiny.

image credit
Cello Practice IV - Jenny Armitage

03 December 2009

Too good -- A Man Is Only As Good....


A man is only as good
as what he says to a dog
when he has to get up out of bed
in the middle of a wintry night
because some damned dog has been barking;

and he goes and opens the door
in his vest and boxer shorts
and there on the pock-marked wasteground
called a playing field out front
he finds the mutt with one paw

raised in expectation
and an expression that says Thank God
for a minute there I thought
there was no one awake but me
in this goddamned town.

Note: This poem is this week's Poem of the Week from Poetry International. I liked it so much when I read it yesterday morning that I had to share it.
You can listen here to the poet reading. And there's also Pat Boran's page on Poetry International.

© 2007, Pat Boran

02 December 2009

Two Happy Accidents - And One Could Be Yours!

I recently ordered all of the books I was encouraged to read before my Arvon course, namely those of the tutors and the special guest reader. Better late than never, eh? Well, one of these books was by tutor Tiffany Murrary and its title is Happy Accidents. And when the order arrived I discovered a happy accident had indeed occurred, for I accidentally ordered 2 copies instead of 1.

What to do with an extra book? Sending it back is so boring.... not to mention what that would do to Tiff's Belgian sales spike. So I've decided to do the first ever official ceci n'est pas une cuisine prezzie/prize drawing. All you lurking readers out there, be brave and leave a comment telling us what is your favourite book -- and I mean your honest favourite, highbrow or lowbrow -- and I will do a drawing and send one lucky reader this extra copy of Happy Accidents. Woo-hoo! Drawing will take place this weekend so make your comment (one each, please) by midnight on Friday.

PS It is a fun, funny book!

01 December 2009

A showcase of literary delights...

...which I found via Scott P at Me and My Big Mouth. People are always sending him stuff -- you know, I'd be happy to help him with some of that, if it's getting too much to deal with. Scott already showcased this handbag (US: purse) from The Literary Gift Company but it is so fab that I want to show it, too:

That's the Principles of Genetics book handbag, in case you're curious. How about an inside view?

Yes, a little blurry but you can tell it's cool. 100% cotton lining. It has now been officially added to my list of Covetable Items.

On the other hand, the George Bernard Shaw Correspondence version is also very tempting:

Classy, non? The handles on the Genetics one are better but GBS has red lining!

On the jewellery front, there's the Banned Books Bracelet:

(Special hint to Lichfield: stocking stuffer.)

There are also book cover posters, Greek scrabble cuff links, and other tempting lit-treats in all shapes and sizes. So thanks to whoever sent Scott the Haruki Murakami quote pin!