Tuesday, January 24, 2006


My sister is a writer. These last few months, she's been working on a book about Morocco. In her background reading, she ran across a lovely poetical work called Desert Divers, by Sven Lindqvist, translated from the Swedish into English by Joan Tate. Desert Divers is part travelogue, following Lindqvist's journey in the latter part of the twentieth century across North Africa, mostly in Morocco and Algeria. It's also a reflection on personal and political memory, the ways in which we supress some things, lie about others, and aggrandize the rest. What sustained my interest, though, is that he tells his story through an exploration of a handful of French writers who were drawn to the Sahara, which reaches up into North Africa, during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

One of these writers was Andre Gide, whose book L'immoraliste takes place in part in Biskra, Algeria. A novel about liberating the self from societal constraints, it's a book I remembered reading in graduate school twenty years ago. I became dissatisfied relying on Lindqvist's retelling and interpretation of Gide's desert drama, so I ran upstairs to the study to pull out my copy of the book from my lawyer grandfather's bookcases, which I've inherited from my mother. As I thumbed through the well worn copy of the book, reviewing the notes I'd scribbled to myself years ago in the margins, I was caught by this passage, which defines what it is to be an artist:

J'ai toujours cru les grands artistes ceux qui osent donner droit de beaute a des choses si naturelles qu'elles font dire apres, a qui les voit: "Comment n'avais-je pas compris jusqu'alors que cela aussi etait beau..."

In English, this more or less means:

I've always believed the great artists to be those who dare to give the right of beauty to everyday things, which lead those who see them to say afterward, "Why did I not understand before that this, too, was beautiful..."

By these standards, I think my mother was an artist. I have a vivid memory of her making toast for me one morning many years ago in her apartment. It was a lengthy process, and I marveled then, as I do now, at the way she held everything required for toast making in complete reverence--the slices of homemade bread, the toaster, the creamy butter and the knife she used to spread it with, the white Limoges plate she chose to put the toast on, the crisp linen napkin she spread across my knees. It seemed so easy and natural with her, and when I went home after that visit, I tried to replicate the experience on my own. But, without her there to promote the artistry, it wasn't possible. All these years later, I see that I have inherited something of her eye for beauty. And I try to stay true to her intuitive understanding, expressed so succinctly by a Frenchman before her, that art and artists lie right before our very eyes.

Sunday, January 22, 2006


Every now and again, I play cards with three former colleagues with whom I used to play cards at lunch every single workday. We would gather at the kitchen table with our sack lunches at precisely 12:30 and play for an hour. Known for too much table talk and stretching the rules wildly, we paired off and bid our tricks, screeching with glee as we trumped our competitors or caught them short a trick. One coworker, who never joined in the game , routinely complained to our supervising editor about the noise we made. Periodically, email reprimands would come our way, and we would play cards in whispers for the next few days. But invariably, the sheer fun of the game caught up with us, and we were back to our noisy antics.

This weekend, the four of us gathered for cards for the first time in about a year. We all have demanding jobs and live far from each other in the farflung corners of the metropolitan area. One of the group, who has two young children, drives in for cards from a neighboring state, where she and her husband are refurbishing an old farmhouse. She's the most serious card player among us, and loves to win. I'm always nervous when she's my partner at cards. I'm a somewhat sloppy player, no good at counting cards and prone to erring on the side of risk. She, on the other hand, knows where every card is and wins by careful calculation and cautious but accurate bidding.

The friend who hosts our card parties is very generous. She always serves lunch and rarely asks us to contribute to the feast. This time, though, we volunteered, and she suggested I bring the dessert. At first, I thought about bringing the chocolate-apple tarte I'd learned to make in Paris this fall. But SJG tells me it's on the unusual side, and these friends have conservative palates. So I decided to bring my favorite American dessert--oatmeal caramel bars. It's a recipe I begged one of my neighbors to give me. She's always reading church cookbooks and the glossy recipe booklettes at the grocery store check-out counter. A steady flow of marshmallow bars, bakeless pies, and cookies with every chip imaginable come our way from her, and the oatmeal caramel bars are my favorites.

Over lunch, as we talk about my culinary trip to Paris, my card-playing friends compliment my blog but agree that all the recipes were way too fancy for them. "I didn't even know what half the words meant!" says the serious card player. We laugh, and I think of my paternal Aunt Lina, who said the same thing. I'm glad I brought the bars. They're a hit, and this time, I'm on the winning team at cards.

3/4 cup butter, melted
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 cup flour
1 cup finely cut oatmeal
32 caramels
5 tablespoons cream or millk
1 cup chocolate chips
1/2 chopped nuts (I like pecans)

1) In a mixing bowl, combine the butter, brown sugar, salt, baking soda, flour and oatmeal. Stir until butter is absorbed.

2) Pat about 3/4 of the mixture in the bottom of a 9 x 13 baking dish and bake for 10 minutes at 350 degrees.

3) Meanwhile, melt the caramels and the cream.

4) Sprinkle the chocolate chips and the nuts on top of the oatmeal base. Cover with the melted caramels and then the rest of the oatmeal mixture. Bake 20 minutes more.

Friday, January 13, 2006


My father turned seventy-five this month. He likes to think of it as three-quarters of a century; it sounds more momentous that way. My sister, SJG, and I had a small dinner party to mark the occasion, complete with party hats, noise makers, and a sparkler candle on the birthday cake. As a way to tap his thoughts about what it means to be seventy-five, we asked questions about his life, some serious, some not. Here are his reflections from that evening.

FAVORITE FOODS: bananas, coffee, and fruit pies. “I’ve always liked comfort,” my father says, reflecting on a weekend Boy Scout trip in Milwaukee in the 1940s where he was the only one who came with his bathrobe, coffee pot, and galoshes in tow. It rained the entire weekend.

FAVORITE ACTRESSES: Anouk Aimee, Madeleine Carroll, and Catherine Deneuve. He still gets a faraway look in his eyes remembering a chance encounter with Anouk Aimee and Albert Finney on the streets of Paris in 1970, when we, the children, were all little. He loves that Anouk and Albert turned around to stare at us, and he spent the rest of that trip roaming the streets near where we’d seen the star couple, calling out, “Anouk! Anouk! Where are you?”

FAVORITE CHAIR: A low-seated wicker chair known as a “cannibal” still sits on his front porch. He bought it in Salisbury, Maryland, in 1957 and loved it because it was a little unusual, yet very comfortable.

FAVORITE SPOT ON EARTH: The Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. He heads to the center of the garden where children play with rented wooden sailboats in the pool of the garden’s large fountain. He remembers trying to rent a boat there himself many years ago, and the concessionaire said the boats were only for children. When my father said he had his children with him, which he did, the man replied, “Then bring them over here!”

CREDO: Cherish good memories and forget the bad ones.

FUNNY MEMORY: In 1963, my father was teaching in Ada, Oklahoma. One day after lunch, he went out to the garage and there, standing on top of our 1957 blue Buick was a stray goat. It had wandered off from someone’s farm, and my father was somehow able to return him to where he belonged.

FAVORITE SUIT: A brown wool suit from Gimble’s department store in New York, where he lived and went to New York University in the 1950s. It was a single-breasted suit that cost $13. He wore it everywhere, to work, to social outings, and even to bed. Many years later, our mother threw it out.

FAVORITE BOOKS: We asked the standard question: If you could only take three books to a desert island, which three would they be? He chose:
--The Leopard by Giuseppe de Lampadusa, the biographical story of the Prince, Don Fabrizio, who is moving into his old age as the Italian state begins to form toward the end of the 1800s. It’s a story of how individuals face historical transitions, and my father admires the Prince for knowing that his time has come and gone, and that the future belongs to the next generation.
--the Bible (mostly the Old Testament and Revelations). He likes the monotheistic pagan God of the Old Testament--capricious, vengeful, unpredictable, funny—as a reflection of the vagaries of human nature.
--Shakespeare’s histories. Like the Old Testament, the histories seem to him an accurate reflection of human nature.

PROFESSIONAL ACHIEVEMENT: He is most proud of the ways in which he acted as a check on the powers of the central administration at the university system for which he served out his professional career as a professor of political science. Power is a force, he says, which, without checks and balances, corrupts.

FAVORITE PETS: Melek (Leki), a German shepherd we had in the 1960s, and his cats Kanga and Roo. He says he loves his cats because they are companions and love to sleep on the couch as much as he does. And, he got them from the humane society as a two-for-one bargain. They had been at the humane society for so long (several months) that the humane society—which wanted to adopt them out as a pair since they had come in that way--reduced the adoption fee by half. In the end, it wasn’t the bargain that convinced my father. It was the fact that, as he was walking out of the building, having come there for a dog, Kanga reached out of the cage and batted my father as he walked past. The cats chose him, not the other way round.

FAVORITE MEMORIES OF HIS CHILDREN: There are three of us, and we each have classic moments in family lore that my father cherishes.
Me—I’m the star of a family movie from the 1960s in which I try for several long minutes to pull a wagon out of the garage by the handle. The wagon is somewhat blocked by the car on one side and the wall of the garage on the other. Lacking sophisticated spatial relations, I go at it unsuccessfully from every possible angle, while my sister sits patiently in the wagon itself. Eventually, I tire of my fruitless maneuverings with the handle and manfully drag the wagon out of the garage by pulling at the sides.
My Sister—is renowned for pulling up a peony plant by the roots at my fifth birthday party. We were each meant to pick a peony flower, which are always in bloom for my June birthday, for my father’s movie camera. Dressed in a layered chiffon dress, I carefully pick a bloom from the row of plants and turn to smile at the camera. My sister, in a matching dress, tugs at the bloom, which will not cede. She continues tugging, harder and harder, pitching backward onto the ground as the plant comes out of the ground. She stands up grinning proudly for the camera, holding an entire peony bush—roots and all—in her hands.
My Brother—My father remembers him as a small child, beating happily on pots and pans with a wooden spoon under a table in our dining room on Orton Court, one of the early family homes. About his children, my father says that we are like clocks. We all tell different times.

Friday, January 06, 2006

(for SJG, who helps me with the obvious)

My neighbor Bill across the street puts up outdoor Christmas lights the day after Thanksgiving every year and promptly takes them down on New Year’s Day. I’ve begged him to leave them up a little longer, at least until Epiphany, when the Magi reach Jesus in Bethlehem. But he doesn’t see the logic in my reasoning and climbs up on his aluminum ladder every New Year’s afternoon to take down the lights while his wife disassembles the artificial Christmas tree indoors.

I’m always saddened to see Bill’s lights come down. At this time of year in the Upper Midwest, with only seven or eight hours of daylight, the ropes of light strung along gutters, draped over bushes, and placed in windows are testaments of faith, of awareness that the darkness is only temporary. Light, and the life it brings with it, will return.

Two years ago, SJG slipped on ice and tore the quadricep muscle of her right leg right off the knee. The diagnosis was slow to come, and in the period between the accident and the surgery to reattach the muscle, SJG spent many days at home, unable to bend or raise her leg unassisted. One evening, to lift her gloom, we drove slowly through the neighborhood to see the holiday lights. Our favorite display was a large house by the park, the house with the “Protect the American Family” sign on the front lawn that summer. Every bush and tree was strung with cream-colored lights; giant red plastic candles glowed from each window; and all the gutters, downspouts, and porch railings shown like green frames into the night. We returned home feeling hopeful.

Like many people in our neighborhood, that family leaves the lights up well into the spring, as a sort of insurance policy against eternal darkness. They counterbalance Bill and his eagerness to get his lights back into their box in the basement. And they are reminders that light can be a kind of choice, an act of will.

My siblings and I cleaned out our mother’s apartment together after her death. At first, we were frightened to enter her apartment, fearful of what we might find there, the memories, the forensic detritus, the mountains of possessions. Yet, over the days ahead-- a kindly neighbor bringing coffee and treats each afternoon--we fell into a routine, laughing one minute, weeping the next as we made our way through the layers of our mother’s life. One afternoon, the music blaring at full volume, we came together in a desperate clutch, like magnets, my sister in the middle, my brother and me on either side. We went wordlessly back to our tasks, and eventually, we’d emptied the apartment—dropped off charitable donations, placed mounds of trash curbside, loaded the rental truck with precious items to bring home. As I took a final swipe of the wet mop across the kitchen floor, the sun began to stream into the room, filling it with a golden glow. My mother had spent years filling every corner of her apartment with belongings, blocking the light with plants and window coverings. It had always seemed such a dark place, and in that moment, I realized, with surprise, that it was not naturally so.

In the years since that day, I’ve come to think that we make our own light, and it takes care and attention and a good dose of faith to maintain the flame through the dark hours until the morning comes.