My old blog and web page were among the casualties of this difficult year. No great loss. My writing about the place where I live elicited peculiarly intemperate responses from some of the local citizens. In the cosmic sense, these citizens matter very little. I reached the age when tilting at windmills becomes a spectator sport. Enough said.
This is a chance to start over. Books, food, and flowers will be recurrent themes in this new venue, as they were in the old blog. Social problems and local politics will not. Those I will save for stories I will be writing this winter unless I spend all my free time reading Balzac, who skewered provincial buffoons, the new rich, bloated bureaucrats with incomparable grace. I am no Balzac, but I know what he meant when he said,
“Madame Bovary, c’est moi. I am Madame Bovary.” I also know what Baudelaire meant when he wrote,
“…hypocrite lecteur,– mon sembable,–mon frere. Reader, hypocrite, my twin.”
It is this sense of shared humanity that separates good writers from mediocrities. Good writers may skewer, dissect, laser-cut boors but they never forget that there there is a boor in each of us. I understand that and yet fraternal chumminess, unconditional compassion and kindness elude me at the moment. I am not my brother’s keeper and neither do I care to be nice just now. Better to write about food than to put his character flaws under the knife. Trouble is, food writing has its pitfalls. Raymond Sokolov, Calvin Trillin and Jeffrey Steingarten to the contrary, food writers belong in the pink collar ghetto of lifestyle pages. They are known as kitchen table journalists, recipe writers, diletantti.
“I write about hunger,” said food writer M F K Fisher to a critic who meant to demean her work. The critic is forgotten while Fisher’s continues to enchant its readers. As a freelancer, I was once eager to leave the on the fringes of food writing for the more challenging business of political reporting. I remember only too well the swagger of the hard news guy whose advice I sought. He delivered himself of this pearl of wisdom as we ate a big lunch,
“You wanna write about politics, you gotta toughen up. If you can’t play with the big boys, get outta the sandbox.”
I paid for lunch, figuring that he had earned it. Sadly, in this implacable new century during which the print media has lost much of its relevance, that big boy bags groceries for a living. I can say, in all humility, that it coulsd not have happened to a better lout.
The political writing I eventually did was all local. I can say now that I am happy to leave the sandbox to the big boys. My needs are modest. The corner of a university library where acquisitive academics stash ethnographic tidbits will suffice for my disquisitions. If, in a century or so, a social archaeology student researching the way we live in this obscure part of the world digs up my notes and has a bit a fun that will suit me fine.
What does not suit me is the crawling pace of this endless year and the heartache it brought me, such as the death of one of my beloved friends. It is no consolation to know that death freed her from the nightmare of being dependent on strangers in a country she never learned to like. I feel as if I will never be through mourning her. Much as I want to reach the stage where I can celebrate all the good memories I have of her, I cannot seem to reconcile myself to her absence. She would have loathed that. She hated sentimentality, self-pity, wimpiness, whining. Whenever I was in low spirits she would command me to snap out of it,
If that failed to lift my heart, she would say, as if life were a battle,
“Allons, du courage!”
The love of good friends, that most reliable of safety nets, was always there. It still is. I shall leap. Eventually.
Better Homes and Gardens magazine has a good website where readers can find useful recipes, learn about garden design, crafts and interior decoration. Unfortunately, when it comes to remodeling projects, BH & G seems to be stuck in the ’80s when was conspicuous consumption was comme-il-faut. Its editors apparently value remodeling for the sake and they rely on cutesy headlines such as “Stuck in the ’70s” to justify replacing a supposedly outdated look for one that will will most probably be just as unfashionable within a decade.
There are those who say that writing is a gift bestowed by divine power upon the lucky few. If so, they reduce writers to puppets whom a capricious deity manipulates when the mood strikes. When the mood does not strike, happy is the puppet whose strings keep him tautly yoked to his work.
There are those who claim that writers must write or die. They exaggerate. I have known writers who became teachers, cab drivers, daycare center aides without suffering any more angst than if they had been lumberjacks manque.
Then there are those who say that writers open their veins and pour their life’s blood into their work. That is nonsense. It is self-evident that daily hemorrhages require the kind medical intervention few writers can afford. Nevertheless, there are writers who buy into this moth eaten mythology. They talk themselves into a write-or-die state and next thing you know they are unburdening themselves of stories best kept untold. Oh, I know that they sacrifice for their art. I know that they tell their stories hopeful and honestly when lesser fools would count the number of trees they could save with their silence and turn to a cleaner profession, such as fish mongering.
Alas for me, the writer I am honor bound to review–her publisher sent me a free copy of her book–would have done well to save a few thousand trees.
These days, there are so many exotic ways of finding balance that to choose gardening and cooking instead of Pilates or Qi Gong may seem implistic. No matter. I find that both are meditative, calming pursuits. They help me reach a place where the clamor of the world around me recedes into a subdued hum. They help see frantic activity as an effort to silence serious questions. An acquaintance’s desperate search for public approval, another’s relentless social climbing, yet another’s quarrelsome disposition recede into the distance. I cannot choose who lives near me nor can I alter their behavior. I can only choose how I react to them and best of all, I can choose productive ways to spend my time. Often I choose to grow something beautiful and to to cook something delectable. It works.
1 package yeast
6 cups unbleached flour
1 cup oatmeal
2 cups water
1 tablespoon salt
4 tablespoons sugar
Mix yeast with three cups flour and oatmeal. Reserve three cups flour. Place water, sugar, salt and oil in a pan and heat to 120F. Combine dry and liquid ingredients and beat, using a dough hook, adding remaining flour as needed. Place kneaded dough in an oiled bowl and cover it. Allow it to rise twice. Shape into three round loaves and bake at 350F for 30 minutes.