Monday, May 31, 2010

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

Sometimes car-followings go on in this series of books by Alexander McCall Smith, but no car-chases. Not so far. If you're looking for action, action, action, go read Tom Clancy. Better yet, watch a movie based on one of his books.

It's easy to say why I like the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books so much. I've come to know and love the characters, especially Precious Ramotswe, the number one lady detective. She is smart, wise, kind, and loving, but feisty when she needs to be. Her assistant, Grace Makutsi, is also smart, though prickly, and very fond of shoes.

Beyond the characters, I love the setting. Smith makes us feel the heat of a Botswana summer, the relief at the first bank of rain clouds. He shows us the beautiful cattle that make up much of the country's traditional wealth. We also come to know the Kalahari desert which covers much of Botswana. Of more interest to me are the cultural observations. Botswana makes me think of what the early U.S. must have been like as it began to get firmly established and comfortable:  a combination of tradition and change. The old values that built a nation still exist, but many people prefer the comforts and  conveniences of modern technology, money, casual sex. The ravages of AIDS, a disease often mentioned, but never by name, weave their way through the novels.

But mostly I like the way the novels have a solid moral center while they avoid being preachy. And they are so gentle. The stories can be intense. Not all is sweetness and light -- did I mention AIDS? There's also witchcraft, murder, adultery, theft, and other evils. The books are always interesting, often funny with a subtle humor. But the tone is gentle, civilized, as if to say, "Yes, these regretable evils exist and must be dealt with. But they need not diminish our humanity. They need not corrupt our souls."

Every novel ends the same way, with a single word repeated nine times in a diamond formation:

africa
africa africa
africa africa africa
africa africa
africa

A litany of joy and love, a song of praise to the beauty of a continent, a nation, a people.

Photos  from http://africanphotos.gm/.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Poetry can matter

Dana Gioia asked the question in an issue of the Atlantic in 1991:  "Can Poetry Matter?" This is the lead essay in his book Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture. If you have somehow or other missed that wonderful essay, please read it here. In summary, the answer is "Yes." Of course. It has to.

Speaking to a poet friend once, I wondered how people live without poetry. Many, if asked, will probably answer, "Very well, thank you." I think the answer comes from lack of understanding what poetry, what all art, is about and is supposed to do for us:  enrich our lives.

Dana Gioia's philosophy of poetry, simply stated, is that it be accessible to everyone, not only college professors and intellectuals, but to plumbers, farmers, coal miners, homemakers, secretaries, and store clerks. Poetry won't get you out of debt -- ask a poet. A painting won't fix the oil belching into the Gulf of Mexico every moment of every day for the past month. A novel won't keep a family from being swept away in a flood. What art will do is show us that we're not alone in our turbulent lives. We are not the only ones who ever lost beloved family members. We aren't the only people who care about the pelicans and herons and sea turtles, and the wetlands and nesting grounds, being drenched in oil, dying. We're not alone. All is not lost.

Today an era ended in my town. A book study club, the Lyceum of Lake Charles, formed in 1955, held its last meeting. Not an earth-shattering event. Compared to the daily tragedies that fill the news, not a flicker on anyone's screen but ours. The club president asked me to read something I had written, but I read Dana Gioia's "The Lost Garden" instead, in tribute to the wonderful times our dwindling group had enjoyed together over the years and how sad we were those days were gone, never to return, like many of our members. The poem spoke to our loss. The fact that someone out there understood it, from losses of his own, gave us comfort.

Our feelings and our lives, our losses and gains, aren't only our own. So often, if we bother to look, we see them in a poem like "The Lost Garden" or a painting like "Girl with a Pearl Earring" or a novel like Cannery Row.

Art doesn't put money in our pockets and won't get us that job in the hospital or the supermarket. It doesn't enrich us that way. Art enriches us. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think more people used to understand that. Educators used to grasp and base their teaching on it, so that students were prepared, not only for the job market, but for life.

The best poetry doesn't live in an ivory tower. Give Dana Gioia a chance, and you'll find out. If you pick up something and find it too deep or convoluted or just plain bad, put it down and look elsewhere. It doesn't matter if you like Shakespeare or John Donne or Joyce Kilmer. Give poetry a good, honest try and see if you get what I'm saying, and what Dana Gioia said better than I.

Life is so beautiful, my friends. If we lose sight of that, we have nothing to fall back on but despair.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

John Lennon

He had one of the most beautiful voices in the world. Maybe the universe. I didn't always agree with his politics, his causes, or the way he expressed them, but I did admire that he lived what he believed. He spoke out and took action. People hated him for it. Interviewers laughed in his face.

No criticism or derision stopped John Lennon. If he believed in something, he acted on the belief. The only time I remember him pushing back (I'm sure there were other times) was when someone called Yoko Ono ugly. Whoever did so was attacking Lennon and obviously didn't like his taste in women. Rightly, John said, "For one thing it isn't true. She isn't ugly. But even if she was, that's uncalled for." *Not an exact quote.

I remember John Lennon when I'm sitting around grousing with my friends about this or that situation I don't like, or get horrified at something going on in Washington, D.C. Do I take no action and keep quiet because I'm truly helpless to remedy what's going on? Or am I just afraid of being derided and scorned?

John Lennon had the maturity and commitment to stand up against his detractors and face them down. In that sense, I want to be like him when I grow up.

Photo copied from http://www.freeclipartnow.com/people/famous-people/entertainers/beatles/John-Lennon.jpg.html

Monday, May 17, 2010

Beans for thought

My friend Luke Saucier reminded me gumbo isn't the only all-seasons goodie. What tastes as good on a scorching summer day as on a wintry morning? Coffee. I'm getting used to an occasional frappe, but steaming hot will always be the way I prefer coffee. I guess it's all in what you learn.

I used to load my cup with sugar, but now I don't, and I refuse the abominations that pass for it. I still take half and half as an alternative to heavy cream. I do not pollute my coffee with that powder that passes for cream. Unless I'm at somebody else's house, and I don't have a choice. I never learned to drink coffee black.

To thwart my insomnia -- as far as possible -- I learned to like decaf, which I know is an abomination to others. Maybe one day coffee will give me up, as it gave up my father. In his latter years he didn't touch the stuff. For now I love exploring the different brands and flavors, though I always come back to plain dark roast. And it has to be strong. If you can see through it to the bottom of the cup, it ain't coffee.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Honest to God Gumbo

Got chicken gumbo boiling on the stove today. It's best on a bone-chilling, rainy day, but it's good anytime. In summer, just turn up the air conditioner.

I'm talking about Cajun gumbo, not Creole. I sometimes put okra in my gumbo. It tastes good, but more often than not I don't. I guess some people who make Cajun gumbo think it's okay to put tomatoes or tomato sauce or whatever in their gumbo. Not me. No way, cher. If it's got tomatoes in it, it ain't Cajun gumbo. It might be perfectly delicious, but it's not Cajun.

I learned to cook from watching my mama and eating her food. She and I, naturally, cook a lot alike. Gumbo is a simple affair. First, make a roux. A dark roux. Never mind those who tell you to stop when the mixture of equal parts oil and flour (3/4 cup each for the average dish) turns golden brown. Stir it nonstop till it gets dark brown, but don't burn it, or you'll have to start over. Speaking of burning, DO NOT let any of the roux splash onto your skin! DO NOT. Stir carefully. You don't know hot till you've had a roux burn.

When the roux is almost dark enough, turn off the heat and keep stirring till it cools. Help it cool off by stirring in onions and celery. If you use celery. Mama didn't. We never had the stuff when I was growing up, so it's a fairly recent variation for me. Anyhow, stir in a cup or so of chopped onions and chopped celery (to taste, I like no more than 1/2 cup) and let them soften up and cool the roux at the same time. Some people use garlic in gumbo. Ew.

Then, if you're cooking the gumbo in the same pot, add water. DO NOT add cold water to smoking hot roux. (See prior capital letters.) About 1 1/2 - 2 quarts. Or add the roux to the water in another pot. Same diff. I like to use chicken broth for part of the liquid or add a chicken bouillion cube or two. Add meat. You be the judge of how much. If you like chunky gumbo/soup, add more meat. If you like it brothy, add only a few pieces. If you want to make a shrimp gumbo, use a lot of shrimp and make your stock thick, because shrimp release a lot of water. Season to taste. I prefer just salt and pepper, but use any Cajun-style seasoning mix you want, as long as you know how it's going to taste beforehand. When making shrimp gumbo, use a good seafood boil seasoning.

You can add some sausage to the gumbo, whether it's chicken or shrimp. If you're not sure how much is too much smoked flavor, use a little piece. Use andouille if you can get it. Don't use a type sausage that has a strong flavor other than Cajun smoked. I.e., don't use Italian sausage. The plainer the better if in doubt.

Let it all boil together until the meat is tender. Shrimp cooks faster, so get your broth and onion and celery cooked before you add the shrimp. When you pick a shrimp from the pot, and you're willing to eat it, it's done.

Another thing you can add is eggs. Break them right into the gumbo when it's almost done and let the eggs cook through. I'm serious. If you're Catholic, and it's Friday, or if you're vegetarian, but not vegan, you can even cook the gumbo with only the eggs, no meat at all.

Gumbo is one of those dishes that's better the day after it's made, so feel free to make it ahead of time. The next day heat the gumbo and enjoy over fresh-cooked rice -- brown rice if you must. White is better, but that's just me and several thousand other people. Eat it with potato salad, on the side or in the same bowl with your rice and gumbo.

Gumbo isn't an exact science. You can buy roux in a jar at the store. I've used that. But roux from a jar doesn't dissolve well. Roux without oil -- there is such a thing -- is okay, but good luck getting your gumbo thick enough. Maybe that's just me. If you don't want your gumbo thick, suit yourself. Experiment. Find what works for you. Go on and add that garlic if you really, really want to. But I'd say start simple first, then experiment with adding flavors. Gumbo's too good to ruin, especially if you invest 45 minutes and all that stirring to make the roux yourself. Don't be discouraged if you miss the mark the first time. Practice, practice, practice. Gumbo's worth it.

Bon appetit, mes amis.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

There's something to the idea that you ought to write a story when the idea's still fresh. You can't pick up where you left off. Over a year ago I put aside novel A to do novel B at a time when A's characters were jumping and  yelling their stories at me. But novel B intruded, just as urgent, new, exciting.

So I wrote B. I wrote it in, for me, record time. And went back to novel A. My story was where I left it, but I wasn't. And my characters weren't. No longer eager to get my attention, they sort of shrug when I try to call them back to life. They're not pouting, they're faded like something left too long in the sun.

We make choices. We pay prices. Sorry, characters. Maybe I was wrong. But I'm back now, and I really want to tell your story.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

NYCER

Who says hospitals can't be fun? I had the (mis)fortune to end up in a Brooklyn ER last October with bloody diarrhea -- yes, it is relevant to my tale. Son and I spent 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. in a 12 x 12 two-bed cubicle. The entire department was three or four times the size of one ER in the town where I live, and somehow or other all the security guards and the occasional call for additional security guards needed didn't make me feel all that secure. Nevertheless, I got intimately acquainted with the looooong walk to a bathroom I would've driven across state to avoid if I'd had any choice. But the whole day wasn't a total waste.

The fun began when my doctor asked me a list of questions, including how much alcohol I drank in general and in particular how much I'd had in the last 24 hours. I had to admit that the night before I'd had one beer (Corona, if you're interested) and a few sips of red wine.

"Is that your usual consumption?" she asked with a slight smile.

"No," I replied firmly. The beer and red wine had nada to do with the diarrhea, but having drunk in such a way the night before a visit to the ER -- well, wouldn't it just happen?!

Next, a couple of paramedics rolled in a well-dressed, elderly lady of Russian extraction -- yes, it is relevant. At the time my privacy curtain was open. One friendly paramedic informed me I had a new neighbor.

"She's a very nice lady," he assured me.

Meanwhile, I was trying to judge how much time I could afford to rest before I faced that bathroom again. I thought, but was nice enough not to say: "Mister, I'm lying here with the bloody shits. What do you think we're going to do -- exchange recipes?"

Son, perhaps judging the look on my face, pulled my curtain closed.

The nice lady was accompanied by a nice, equally well-dressed elderly gentleman friend who was hard of hearing. I nearly became hard of hearing myself when one of the nurses walked in and greeted the new arrival as if they were on opposite sides of the universe. I was tempted to peek around my curtain and ask her to please use her inside voice, but again I held my tongue.

The nice lady was there several hours, and lots of people were in and out to see her, including a soft-spoken aide who had to ask the questions I'd answered hours earlier. Including the one about the drinking. You think my answer was interesting!

The lady asked her gentleman friend, "How much vodka do I drink?"

"What?" he answered.

"How much vodka do I drink?" she asked in a louder voice.

"What?"

"How much vodka do I drink?" she shouted.

He didn't know.

By that time, Son was rolling his eyes, and I was stifling guffaws as tears ran down my face. Yet again I was nice and didn't yell, "Lady, if you have to ask."

Oh, my. I guess no trip to NYC is complete without a tour of at least one ER.

Everything came out okay, BTW.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Rare birds

Why is it rare to find a man who likes women -- likes women as opposed to simply preferring them sexually? It isn't that most of the men I know dislike women. It's more that, when I meet a man who likes and enjoys being friends with women as much as with men, I'm startled. They stand out in the crowd. (Men at the other extreme do too.) And they make me feel glad to be me, glad to meet them, and sorry I've met so few -- I can count them without using all my fingers.

Thanks, guys! You know who you are.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Reaction to Church Thoughts

I got more comments, here and at Facebook, on this post than any other so far. Good to know I'm not the only one who's a human magnet or the only one who gets annoyed at people's behavior in church.

Other peeve: cell phones! No, people, God does not want to hear your "Voullez vous coucher avec moi" ring tone in the middle of Father So-and-So's sermon.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Church Thoughts: Pet Peeves

What a time to get irritated. You're sitting in a pew, making a sincere effort to pray and settle yourself down for an hour of worship, and before the mass even gets started, someone ticks you off.

People chitchatting is not such a big deal. The times I get annoyed are when people crowd my space. My dad had to sit on the end of the pew. None of this scooting over toward the middle for Austin Rider. No, someone who wanted to sit in the same pew with him had to edge past his knees -- and Mom's, my sister's, and mine. I don't mind leaving room for a couple of people next to me. You'd think three or four feet would be enough to accommodate an average-sized person, but apparently not.

I usually sit in the same place every weekend, and many times the same woman sits next to me after I settle in. She always sits right next to my purse. Every time she plunks down, I've got to move my purse to accommodate her. Even though she's got plenty of room to spread out. I could sit elsewhere -- that's probably what you're thinking, but, believe me, it isn't that simple. Read on.

She's hardly the worst offender. One Easter Vigil Mass I arrived early and sat near the back of the church. I sat very close to the middle. There were at least eight feet between me and the end of the pew. You'd think that was plenty of room.

But nooooooooooooo. In came a woman who sat down with her purse in my lap. I am not kidding. She traversed eight feet of pew and sat down with her purse in my lap. I sat there and stared at her. She looked around and got on her knees to pray and all that and never even glanced at me. Maybe I was invisible that night. I should've checked. Meanwhile her husband sat at the end of the pew. Eight feet away. Figure that one out, please, and then explain it to me. (She did stuff her purse onto the seat between us, but my hip and that purse got to be real good friends, because I wasn't going to move for anything but dynamite.)

Then there are the folks you can see you'll have to give more room. So you move over. And they move over with you. So you move over some more. And they follow you again. What's that about? If they wanted to sit at the other end of the pew, why didn't they?

The worst experience I ever had with that kind of thing was when I found myself sitting near a woman who kept coughing. Sorry to be disgusting, but it was disgusting -- she had a sick-in-her-lungs cough. The kind you can smell. Not wanting to breathe that in, I moved over.

You know what happened next, don't you?

What is the matter with people? Have they no sense of personal space? The pews where I sit are not crowded. We all have plenty of room to spread out. If you crave intimacy during mass, sit in the crowded pews. Am I going to have to stop wearing deodorant and perfume???

Dad, I understand why you sat so implacably on the end. For the sake of my immortal soul, I may have to do the same.