Tuesday, April 30, 2013

I'm Leaving With Longfellow

It's over.

Today's the last day of National Poetry Month and this has been a delightful diversion. For me, anyway. I think I lost about 78.2% of my readers with the poetry thing. That's all right.
April is a woolly and un-spooly kind of month and visiting poems like old friends has been a nice break in things. Did you read any that you liked? Did you find some others that you'd forgotten about? Did you bake any pretzels? Oh, I did. Boy did I.

Listen, now. There's such music in life. Such rhythm and rhyme and a beat of some sort everywhere you care to look. Sometimes it's a funeral dirge. Sometimes it's a chaotic free-form jazz. Sometimes it's a lilting melody or an Irish jig. Listen for it and dance when you can. Poems are part of that music. They help the words to dance.

There were so many poets I love that I never got to: Angelou, Sandburg, Thomas, Cummings, and on and on. A poet for every occasion. Now here is something you can do if you get curious or bored: You can go here and check out this list of the top 500 poems. I suppose they are arranged by number of times searched or something, but there are some good ones on there. It's like a bowl of pretzel bites. You can munch a few and then come back later if you want.

Meanwhile, I'll leave you with this old chestnut. There's a reason it's a classic.

A Psalm of Life

Tell me not in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou are, to dust thou returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each tomorrow
Find us farther than today.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world's broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act, - act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o'erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sand of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o'er life's solenm main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us then be up and doing, 
With a heart for any fate; 
Still achieving, still pursuing, 
Learn to labor and to wait. 

- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1807-1882

Monday, April 29, 2013

Taking a Stand on 'Stand' and Inexplicable Shrimp

When my jBird was just learning to talk, I spent an afternoon amusing myself by teaching her to say "Listen! The greatest band in the world!" whenever an R.E.M. song came on. She got to where she could recognize a few of their songs and would perk up and say "Listen! The greatest band in the world!" like a little Pavlovian puppy and a good time was had by all.

It may have been a bit of hyperbole, maybe they weren't the greatest band in the world, but they are and have been one of my all-time favorites for decades now. When they broke up a few years ago, I was a little sad, but it was time. They had enjoyed 30+ years of pop-music acclaim and that's really more than one band can ask for. On the advent of their break-up, though, I discovered a dark and disturbing thing about one of my dear friends. He thought they sucked. He thought they broke up 30 years too late. He refused to acknowledge any of their musical qualities or their influence over grass-roots southern rock. We had a ridiculous 2-day long Facebook argument about it in which we both refused to concede any ground to the other (seriously, he was making an argument in favor of Phish and he compared R.E.M. to Hootie and the Blowfish!) until we decided to agree to disagree and to not-so-secretly believe that the other was insane.

To this day, I can't even begin to see his total rejection of R.E.M. I can understand how they wouldn't be his favorite band, how he might not own all their albums including bootlegs, how some of their songs might be a little to poppy for his tastes, but I can't understand how he or anyone could just reject them outright. Perhaps I never will understand.

I am exhausted today: physically, mentally, creatively, and spiritually. I have wrung it all out and feel very much like a smelly, used-up sponge. You know the crusty one that lives under the dark recesses of your kitchen sink? That one. In my line of work, exhaustion isn't a very viable excuse for not getting things done, so I've turned on some of my favorite music and have been shuffling around making an effort at things.

I was thinking about this interaction with my friend while I was listening to one of my favorite R.E.M. songs today and I had to laugh at the irony. We can't ever get into someone else's brain and understand why they like the things they do or why they reject the things we like. We can't ever fully understand another person's perspective, especially when it is so vastly different from our own. I don't think we can ever fully articulate our own perspective so that someone else can fully understand. But that doesn't ever stop us from trying.

Stand is one of my favorite R.E.M. songs and has been since it was popular way back when. Besides its incredibly catchy and dance-worthy tune, it has always spoken to me about this very examination that I was thinking about today. About looking up and around from your particular spot and trying to figure things out from as many directions as possible.

Your feet are going to be on the ground
Your head is there to move you around
If wishes were trees, the trees would be falling
Listen to reason, season is calling

Stand in the place where you live 
Now face north
Think about direction
Wonder why you haven't before

Now stand in the place where you work
Now face west
Think about the place where you live
Wonder why you haven't before

If wishes were trees, the trees would be falling
Listen to reason, reason is calling
Your feet are going to be on the ground
Your head is there to move you around

-from "Stand", Michael Stipe 1988

Maybe it's not about all that. Maybe it's just a nonsense dance tune that enjoyed some popularity for a while for reasons inexplicable. Maybe Michael Stipe is the charlatan and talentless loser my friend thinks he is. Maybe all of their songs have "no lyrical or musical merit" as my friend postulated. Maybe that is all true and I am completely wrong and I am only wishing it is so. I find these kinds of exchanges fascinating. And today, as I am walking around completely depleted on all fronts, it only seems appropriate that I stand and gaze out my kitchen window to "think about direction and wonder why I haven't before" as I hum along to one of my favorite pop songs.

And speaking of inexplicable: your recipe for today.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Cardboard Cookies, Consolation Pretzels and Carrying Quiet

Short and sweet today.

I was possessed by the brain of a good mom a few weeks back and told my jBird that she could have a slumber party for her birthday. In a few short hours, my house will be overrun by 9-year-old girls who will never go to sleep all night. There will be so much giggling that I will probably die. That is, if I don't die this morning from having to go to the mall. In the suburbs.

You see, I also told my dear, sweet girl that she could have one of those awful cookie cakes from the mall. This is what happens when you have a mom who used to decorate cakes professionally - you get bored with homemade custom confections and you think it's the biggest treat in the world to buy a cardboard cookie. And, when you have a daughter with big brown eyes and dimples and who remembers her pleases and thank-yous, you find yourself agreeing to things. So I'm chugging my coffee and steeling my nerves and preparing to head out into the fray.

My consolation is that right next door to the cardboard cookie place is the pretzel place. You know the ones: the big soft, fresh ones that you can smell from the parking lot. The ones where you can watch teenagers in blue aprons expertly kneading and rolling and twisting them on marble counter tops in the back and you want to touch that dough and stroke it like a thigh as it lies in big, soft, floury heaps on the counter. The ones where you will stand in line to eat a "Sour Cream and Onion" pretzel just because it's the pretzel of the day and only a buck. When in the trenches of mall-warfare, we seek solace where we can find it. Don't judge.

As for the poetry, I cheated today. It's not a poem, exactly, but it's poetic. One of my favorite artists in the world - the whole entire world! - is Brian Andreas. He is most famous for his Story People. They are small and incredibly powerful stories illustrated with brilliantly colored, almost childlike drawings. He manages to plumb the depths of human existence with just a few short words and well-placed lines. I highly recommend you explore his art. There is really something for everyone there.

Today I will share a print that hangs in my kitchen that really explains better than I can why the shrieking slumber party, cardboard cookies and a trip to the dreaded mall.

Check out more of his work here .

Enjoy your weekends, my darlings.
Do things you'll never regret and carry the quiet with you.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Dickinson and Dairy Queen

My freshman and sophomore years in college were spent at a small, strict, private college down south. (A college I'm still paying for, I might add...) To say I had a good time would be stretching the truth a little bit.

One of the brightest spots of the whole time there was my friend, Sarah. She was from Texas, but whatever mental image has immediately sprung to mind from that bit of information, erase it. She was diminutive and taciturn and lived down the hall from me. I don't even really remember how we met or why, but I do remember that I instantly loved her. Her appreciation for the absurd surpassed my own and she had the ability to be quietly snarky while still being kind and generous. That is no small feat. She's one of the smartest people I've ever known and I doubt I would have survived those two years without her quiet, intelligent companionship. And, as if all of that was not enough, she had a healthy respect for a good hat.

We spent after-curfew hours doing things like making envelopes out of random magazine pages from old women's magazines. To this day, I still have the one I made of a picture of Angela Lansbury because it brings me such absurd delight and fond memories. One night we got grotesque temporary tattoos and stuck them all over ourselves so we would look like a biker gang. She had funny stories about growing up in a small town in East Texas. She understood feeling apart from things, aghast at things that were accepted without question.

I will always associate her with the poetry of Emily Dickinson. You would think it was because of the small and apart thing, but not so much. One night we were talking about Dickinson for some reason and she calmly said: "Did you know that you can sing all of her poems to the tune of 'The Yellow Rose of Texas'?" (OK, if you click on that link for the video, at about 31 seconds is Big Sam, the world's tallest statue of an American hero. I used to live a few miles from that and have climbed on his face. I am completely obsessed with that statue. I digress.) I am not terribly musically inclined, nor did I learn "The Yellow Rose of Texas" in elementary school (I was learning Robert Frost.) So she demonstrated for me. And there it was - completely sunk in my consciousness forever. You can, in fact, sing the poetry of Emily Dickinson to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas". Now the two can never be un-linked in my brain.

In spite of what you may think, this only increased my appreciation for Dickinson. I will admit that her poems had never really done much for me. I was fascinated by her person - her reclusive life, her unrequited love, her deep and intellectual correspondence with people - but I misjudged her poetry as trite. I think it was the rhyming couplets, honestly. I never really took the time to get inside and look around in her poems because of the rhyme-y-ness of them. My bad. They are such deceptively simple little verses that contain such wit and depth and sadness and ultimately, hope. I find I love them more, the older and more reclusive I get. It is merely a bonus that you can sing them, too.

The other bright spot of that two-year collegiate exile was Dairy Queen. There always seemed to be an endless supply of buy-one-get-one-free Blizzard coupons around and it was sweet release to go and sit on sticky Formica seats and listen to the whir of the blenders and the sizzle of the grease and eat the magical dairy dessert with chunks of hand-selected goodness mixed in. (Pause here and realize that this notion of mixing bits of candy bars into ice cream was relatively new at that time and it was like the whole world of frozen treats busted wide open for us at half price.)

I had not been to Dairy Queen in years until my Hooligan suddenly developed an obsession with it. They sponsor our city's soccer team and he saw the ads during the matches and demanded that we visit this magical place where one can procure not only a cheeseburger, but a Chocolate Xtreme Blizzard for a reasonable price. Now we probably go about once a month. This is how I happen to know that this month's Blizzard of the Month is the Choco Covered Pretzel with Peanut Butter Blizzard. Allow me to inform you that the advertising is true: It's so good, it's riDQulous.

So go pick up a frozen dairy dessert, chock full of chocolate-y, pretzel-y goodness and raise it in a toast for old friends who teach you new things and all the goodness of fond memories and finding a place to fit where none seemed to exist.

It was not Death, for I stoop up

It was not Death, for I stood up, 
And all the Dead, lie down— 
It was not Night, for all the Bells 
Put out their Tongues, for Noon. 

It was not Frost, for on my 
Flesh I felt Sirocos—crawl— 
Nor Fire—for just my Marble feet 
Could keep a Chancel, cool— 

And yet, it tasted, like them all, 
The Figures I have seen 
Set orderly, for Burial, 
Reminded me, of mine— 

As if my life were shaven, 
And fitted to a frame, 
And could not breathe without a key, 
And 'twas like Midnight, some— 

When everything that ticked—has stopped— 
And Space stares all around— 
Or Grisly frosts—first Autumn morns, 
Repeal the Beating Ground—

But, most, like Chaos— Stopless—cool— 
Without a Chance, or Spar— 
Or even a Report of Land— 
To justify—Despair. 

-Emily Dickinson, c.1860

Monday, April 22, 2013

Walt Whitman and Whipped Cream

This picture is, itself, a poem.
My baby girl is nine years old today and every bit of it and then some.

She was born on Earth Day. She was due smack in the middle of National Poetry Month and waited a bit before she decided to come.

On her due date, I waddled forth in the shy new sun of springtime,
wrapped in a sarong and a small t-shirt.
I let her hang out the bottom in her belly-nest
for all to see so she could feel the warmth of that splendid, cherry-scented day.
Reveling in our last few days of just we two, my husband and I
went to a diner in the middle of corn fields and ate the breakfast of truckers and farmers,
letting the sunshine egg-yolk drip from our fingers and chins
and washed it down with strong black coffee as we threw out our prenatal diet and caffeine caution.
For that blessed morning, we were just ourselves.
Not nervous new parents-to-be,
not a few weeks from law school finals,
not a few hours from a house full of expectant and officious grandparents.
That day I was large and resplendent and the grass was so soft on my toes.

My baby never slept. She had too many things to learn.
So many, many nap-time hours, I spent reading whatever was around to my little bright-eyed baby. The cute little board books in bright colors quickly lost their charm with repetition, so I moved on to longer works.

My baby and I sat in the front yard in the sun and read Leaves of Grass for hours until Daddy came walking up the street after classes. A welcome and weary sight.

I have loved Walt Whitman since high school. I love the simplicity and elegance of his poetry. I love the idea that he was self-published and initially rejected by the literary community for his "new style" and his "questionable" themes. My love was even more deeply cemented in college when I sneaked into my friend's American Literature class after I had dropped out of school and watched a three-part documentary about his life. We call him Uncle Walt to this day. On that day, the day of the documentary, we vowed we would together "suck the marrow from life" and we have held to it, one way or another.

And now, whether she realizes it or not, Uncle Walt runs in my daughter's veins as well.
My Earth Day baby who felt the sun through my belly and burst into this world
with the daffodils and the cherry blossoms
is never more at home than when she's out in the trees,
climbing with strong legs, barefoot, and chatting with the birds.
Than when she's standing on the shore, digging for shells and crabs
and listening to the whispers of the water.
She's drawn to words and art and politics.
She's fierce in her causes and longs for the flavors of distant shores.
Before she could make the words come out, they were imprinted
on her heart and mind in all those waking hours of quiet poetry waiting for sleep.

  Come, said my soul,
     Such verses for my Body let us write, (for we are one,)
     That should I after return,
     Or, long, long hence, in other spheres,
     There to some group of mates the chants resuming,
     (Tallying Earth's soil, trees, winds, tumultuous waves,)
     Ever with pleas'd smile I may keep on,
     Ever and ever yet the verses owning—as, first, I here and now
     Signing for Soul and Body, set to them my name,

From "Leaves of Grass", Walt Whitman 1855

There are no pretzels today. Only a strawberry cake with strawberry whipped cream frosting; frothy piles of pink for my little girl. She has grown tall and strong; fed on sunshine afternoons and poems and more love than I ever thought I had to give.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Peace and Pretzels

Beth from Word Nerd Speaks is like the grand dame of blogging in my mind. When I first started blogging, she was everywhere, it seemed. She wrote for her fantastic blog, she runs GBE2, where bloggers can write and share and gain some exposure, she has hundreds of adoring fans. I almost fainted the first time she ever commented on my blog. She has taken a break from blogging of late as anyone who blogs can certainly understand, but what she has not taken a break from is being herself. She is a constant and encouraging presence still. She reads and writes thoughtful comments, she cheers us on, she encourages and she always has something interesting to say. And now, much to my delight, she gamely tossed her poem in the ring when I reached out for some suggestions. Everyone needs a Word Nerd in their life. Everyone.

She wrote to me:

"I'm sending along a poem I've loved since childhood. It's still a favorite. Even as a kid, I believed that our connectedness is our greatest gift and that simply caring for one another is a noble and worthy way to be. This poem pretty much sums up my take on what would make God smile."

Abou Ben Adhem

Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An Angel writing in a book of gold:

Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the Presence in the room he said,
"What writest thou?" The Vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord
Answered, "The names of those who love the Lord."

"And is mine one?" said Abou. "Nay, not so,"
Replied the Angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerily still; and said, "I pray thee, then,
Write me as one who loves his fellow men."

The Angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
And, lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest!

-James Leigh Hunt, 1784-1859

My favorite line in this poem: "exceeding peace had made Ben bold..."

Sometimes we confuse brash with bold. Sometimes we confuse weakness with meekness. Sometimes we confuse apathy with peace. We live in a time of shouting voices and anything-goes self expression. Sometimes it seems that the loudest and the proudest always win. Sometimes it seems like we have anything but peace.

When I was twelve or thirteen, I tie-dyed one of my dad's old T-shirts and wrote in puffy paint in a girly hand: "When world peace is unobtainable, strive for peace within your soul." (I'll pause for the eye rolling and laughing now. It's OK, I'm with you on that.) My little tie-dyed sermon-shirt may have been a cheesy and misdirected fashion move, but I still agree with the sentiment today. Maybe more than I did then.

The only peace we ever have any real control over is our own inner peace. It's easy to get discouraged with the unrest that surrounds us on so many levels. If you're like a lot of us, you despair of ever finding a way to change it. Sometimes the solutions we come up with run along the lines of lining people up for a nice, firm scolding, taking their toys away until they can learn to share. I believe the counter-intuitive move is to be filled with the "exceeding peace" that brings boldness. The boldness to question, to reach out to others, to accept, and to give. I don't think you can do any of these things effectively without an inner peace. But you do these things, and you end up changing the world.

Write me as one who loves his fellow man.

Maybe don't write it in puffy paint on a shirt, but write it in your life. Write it with words, with your actions and your interactions. Write it with pretzels and a nice, warm hug. Or chocolate kiss, as the case may be.

Beth's one of those people and she's changing the world. Just a little bit at a time. Just enough.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Pretzel Dreams

Graciewilde from In Search of a Title is no stranger around this blog. We run in the same blogging circles and our blogs were babies together. Gracie's blog is a go-to for me when I want to think about something from a new perspective, when I want a glimpse of the inside of a mind that races as much as my own. She questions, she writes, she reads, she paints, she takes amazing photos and she's always, always thinking things through. Gracie now holds and even special-er place in my bloggy little heart because she's nearly as excited about the whole poetry thing as I am. Thank you, Gracie, for sending this poem over and for all of the steps along the way that you've been around.

She writes:

"It was the first poem that sprang into my head - perhaps because it was memorized a good 45 years ago?
If I think about the choice of one poem , I will be paralyzed into writing nothing. There are SO MANY I love....."

I hear that, Gracie. I am frequently paralyzed by the word "favorite" when it comes to many things. There are so many things to love, and so many reasons why. It is rare that I find something that is one-size-fits-all for all seasons. This poem from Langston Hughes comes pretty close. Like Michelle's it's a poem that made an early and permanent mark. There are things in life which become basic building blocks of who we are before we ever even get a chance to realize it. 

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams die
Life is a broken winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

-Langston Hughes, 1902-1967

In hunting around for a pretzel recipe to include with this post, I found an interesting article on dream symbols. Apparently if you dream of pretzels - have you ever dreamed of pretzels? - it symbolizes devotion and life's sweet rewards. Alternately, it can mean preoccupation with a difficult question you are trying to work out. Imagine my delight in such a perfect companion to this poem.

Mr. Hughes, himself, has provided our recipe for today for life's sweet rewards. 

Hold fast to dreams... 

Not the weird ones where you're in an airport with an old friend, being chased by the FBI and hiding in potted plants and restroom stalls. The ones that drive you to paint, to write, to read, to take photos and share them. The ones that have made early and permanent marks on your soul. The ones that help you work out the difficult questions in life.

Hold fast to dreams...

Keep dreaming those pretzel dreams.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Butterscotch and Magic Beans

Michelle from Buttered Toast Rocks is one of my oldest and most loyal readers. She writes poetry and sneak peeks at her daily life that usually make me laugh and almost always, on some level, make me cry. Her love story with her husband is one of my favorites and her kids seem like the kind of teenagers I hope mine grow up to be. Her blog is like having a cup of coffee with a very comfortable and entertaining friend. She contributed her favorite poem for today. Thank you, Michelle!

She wrote me this the other day:

"After thinking of this most of last night and waking up thinking of it, and all day thoughts on it, I know what my favorite poem is: Shel Silverstein's "Invitation". There is something about the call to all dreamers and wishers and liars and hope-ers and pray-er's and magic bean buyers that calls to me and has since the first moment my 4th grade teacher read it to the class. I love spinning my own flax-golden tales and if it has a rhyming rhythm, even better!"

I could not agree more, Michelle. It seems that really speak to us when we are young and open tend to be the things that we keep around. Shel Silverstein is one of those poets who write deceptively simple verse, a lot of it silly on the surface, but continues to delight children, generation after generation, with the richness of his poetry. In a world that offers so much that is too much, too inappropriate, too insipid, too, too, too to our children, it is a refreshing comfort to know that people like Shel Silverstein took the time to paint the important things in life into silly rhymes and simple black and white line drawings. I hope these gems never lose their appeal to generations of children and the adults they become.

Michelle sent me this recipe for No-Bake Butterscotch Pretzel Bars which sum up these ideas of richness and simplicity and childhood in one tasty package. They are not elegant or trendy dining, they are not haute cuisine. They are sweet, yummy, easy, comforting goodness that children will love and adults will sneak bits of all day long to remember the sweetness of childhood.


If you are a dreamer, come in.
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
a hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer...
If you're a pretender, come sit by my fire,
For we have some flax golden tales to spin.
Come in!
Come in!

-Shel Silverstein, 1974

Friday, April 12, 2013

Hummus and Heavy Metal

This one is for Tara, who insists upon being difficult and I love her for it.

When I get tired of chips and queso (it happens), my other go-to snack is pretzel chips dipped in hummus. Actually, just about anything dipped in hummus is all right by me. My finger dipped in hummus is delicious. I used to believe that there was no such thing as bad hummus. There was good hummus, better hummus, my favorite hummus, and hummus that is so good you want to bathe in it and build edible castles out of it.

That was until I made my own hummus.

I am a pretty good cook. I enjoy messing up the kitchen and making things from scratch. At a certain point in my life I decided that hummus is so straightforward, comprised of such simple ingredients, that I should really make my own. I found a few recipes, looked them over, fired up my food processor, and created a paste that looked like newborn poo and tasted like bicycle tires. If you are not familiar with hummus, this is not how that should all go down. It is disquieting to create something vile when you are going for simple and delicious. I have discussed this problem with people who know about such things and they have consolingly sent me their "foolproof" recipes. With renewed confidence, I produced more bicycle tires. I have given up. It's probably cheaper to make your own hummus, but when you have to discard batch after batch of inedible glop, it starts to add up and your time is better spent looking for a good sale on Sabra.

My brother and I have had an on-going disagreement about what constitutes "good" music since childhood. While we both enjoy an eclectic array of all kinds of genres, he generally hates whatever I love and vice versa. He has perhaps never been more dismayed in this regard as when he came home for Christmas from college my junior year in high school right smack in the middle of my love affair with Metallica. "There's no way you actually like that," he ranted. "It's just noise." Being a good little sister, I just turned that noise up.

I had the good fortune of growing up in a home that was full of love. It was something I took almost completely for granted for most of my childhood. Sure, we had our share of squabbles and annoyances. I got in trouble for plenty of things (which were obviously not my fault) and sometimes I bit my brother, but the underpinnings of everything were the sort of love that was dependable and reliable and demonstrated daily in both word and deed. I used to believe that there was no such thing as bad love. There was good love and better love and best love.

Then I reached a certain point in my life where I tried to manufacture loving relationships outside the bonds of family and friends. From my perspective, it was so simple: you have affection for someone, you express it. I somehow managed to make baby poo and bicycle tires out of it all.

Master of Puppets is, on first listen, a diabolical, angry drug anthem. Perhaps it is on second, third and fourth listen as well. But remove the notion of cocaine for a moment. I find it's almost always easier to see things more clearly once you've removed the notion of cocaine. We've discussed this before: it is a given that all rock songs are about drugs except the ones that are about sex. If they are heavy metal, they are about drugs or the devil. Since those are all a given - let's look past the surface, shall we?

Master of puppets, I'm pulling your strings
twisting your mind and smashing your dreams
Blinded by me, you can't see a thing
Just call my name, 'cause I'll hear you scream
Just call my name, 'cause I'll hear you scream

Have you ever had a gigantic, unrequited crush on someone? Have you ever lain awake at night and wished so hard you sweated that they would just notice you? Have you ever spent far too much time imagining that the object of your affections was out there pining for you and just waiting for you to make that first move that you could not, would not force yourself to make? Have you ever? I'm going to go out on a limb here and say probably most people have, at some point, been blindingly, ridiculously in love with the idea of someone. It's like an addiction, it consumes you, it owns you for a while and it makes you a little bit crazy.

To my fifteen-year-old, combat-booted self, that's what this song was about. I suddenly found myself in a place of complete inexperience, making a foul-tasting botchery of something I had always believed to be simple and comforting. I was unprepared for failure and I took it hard. Because I'm me, I produced loads of terrible poetry on the subject to no avail. Friends would offer advice that rendered equally dreadful results. My parents tried to offer perspective, but I refused to accept it (I was fifteen, remember.) Being young, somewhat sheltered, and extremely naive, I was dealing with the disproportionate emotions of teenage love without any real frame of reference. Enter Metallica. I discovered that I could release some of the rage through mighty bouts of head banging and stomping along with music that sounded like what it felt like inside my head. I couldn't explain or clearly express my own emotions, but boy howdy, I'd found someone who could do it for me. I'd found my sale on Sabra.

I don't listen to Metallica very often any more, except for nostalgia's sake. I have been more successful in love than in making my own hummus, it would seem. But I think part of that success has come from knowing when to recognize it's time to hand the hollering over to the professionals and just head-bang along for a while until the notion passes.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

My Love-Hate Relationship With Allen Ginsberg and Strawberry Jell-O

Howl is possibly one of the greatest American poems. Even my husband, whose eyes seek shelter in the back of his head at the mere mention of Allen Ginsberg, will concede this. My senior year in high school, some friends and I recorded my voice reading Howl over the top of the soundtrack to the movie, Glory, with some occasional guitar riffs and bongo beats for our Audio Visual Technology class project. We were pretentious nitwits and giant geeks, but it still stands that the juxtaposition of Ginsberg's rambling poetic treatise on American life against the soaring orchestral pieces that formed the backdrop of a movie about racism and integration was pretty heady stuff.

Picture it, please.
Me: scrawny, bad perm, probably a large protuberance of a pimple somewhere completely unconscionable,  smattering of black eyeliner and a variety of ethnic clothing, perched on a stool in front of a giant sound board, with headphones and a microphone, bellowing. [Press play on this now.]

What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up 
their brains and imagination? 
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Chil- 
dren screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old 
men weeping in the parks!
Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Mo- 
loch! Moloch the heavy judger of men! 
Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jail- 
house and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judg-
ment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned govern- 
Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running 
money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast
is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!  

Now imagine our school headmistress, a proper British schoolmarm if ever there was one, walking in amidst the bellowing - "Mo-loch!" - and feigning complete shock. "My ears are burning!" Good times. We got an A.

I didn't have the slightest idea what half of it meant. I still don't, honestly. But I loved it. I still love it. Back in the pretentious nitwit days, I wasn't even living in America. I was a sheltered little 3rd culture kid in a private school making broad statements about a place that, from a distance, seemed gritty and glamorous. Even when I did live in the States I had lived in a small town, far away from "the negro streets at dawn" and "the tenement roofs illuminated". But I wanted that. I wanted to feel it, to see it first hand, I wanted to meet the "angel headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the / starry dynamo in the machinery of night." Howl was published in 1955, but I read it like a road map to a grand chaotic future just outside of high school. Like I said, nitwit.

I love it now for almost opposite reasons. I've gotten out, gotten around, lived a little, I have "sat up smoking in the / supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of / cities contemplating jazz" and it has lost its luster. I read Howl now from the other end. Rather than with excitement and soaring orchestras, it's more with a sad recognition of "the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving / hysterical naked". It's a cautionary tale, an elegy. 

Either way, the magic is in the music of the language. Not all of it makes sense. A lot of it is comprised of inside jokes and obscure references. But it crescendos and crashes and whispers and growls and paints a muddy picture of such vividness that I can't help but be moved by it - whether giddy at the prospect of self-destruction or shaking my head in sadness over wasted lives. It must be read aloud, it must be performed, it must be ingested. Probably not recorded over cheesy orchestral movie scores, but let us not speak of that again.

I keep Allen Ginsberg around for Howl. I like some of his other poems, but honestly, the man was so prolific that I don't know if I could ever read all of his poems if I wanted to. They all seem, to me, to be riffs on this same theme anyway. A lot of them march right into scatological, nonsensical or maudlin and are somewhat repellent. Taken individually, a lot of them seem tedious, but I noticed something the other day as I was skimming through his last book of poetry published before he died. The individual poems left me a little cold. They didn't fare that well as stand-alone pieces, but as I kept reading, one piled upon another to paint a picture - quite outside their lines - of a man confronting his own mortality and imminent death. That's his genius. The crescendo, the big picture that's larger than the words themselves. He seems to invite you magically and against your will into his insatiable appetite for everything and forces you to dwell there with him through every shaking breath.

I came across this recipe for Strawberry Pretzel Salad a while back and sent it to my friend with whom I have a long history of mocking foodstuffs. She wrote back: "It's actually kind of good in a gross sort of way."  It is complete sacrilege to call it a "salad", it involves strawberry Jell-O and frozen strawberries. The crust (yes, the "salad" has a crust) is made of crushed pretzels and butter and sugar pressed in a pan. There is Cool Whip in it. Looking at the ingredient list made me gag a little bit. I would never purposely eat any of those things on their own, but I know exactly what my friend was talking about when she said: "It's actually kind of good in a gross sort of way."

Sometimes a combination of things that are unappealing on their own can work together to create something that makes you uncomfortable, but keeps you coming back for more.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving
hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn, looking for an angry
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the
starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the
supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of 
cities contemplating jazz,

-opening lines from Howl, Allen Ginsberg 1955

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Recipes and Robert Frost

Joe said he was excited about the recipes. Do you know Joe? He's in Vegas. Read his blog. It's fascinating in the way that a gentle recounting of everyday life in a city that most associate with wild partying and go-for-broke vacations can be. Try not to be jealous of his kitchen remodel, though. The recipe is for you, Joe. Put those twin convection ovens to work.

 These pretzels have become a standby in our house. They involve a lot of butter. Real butter. But no mayonnaise. Enjoy. The recipe comes from an older episode of Paula's Home Cooking with Paula Deen, whom I love without reservation. She's like a big, warm, Southern hug and I know her recipes are mostly bad for you, but nobody eats kale all the time even if they say they do and I'd rather make my horrible junk food from scratch, you know? My mom was raised mostly in the South and tried very hard to overcome her roots and her accent in her young adulthood, but there are vestiges in her demeanor and bearing like a sense memory and they speak to me on a completely non-verbal level. I am terrified of Southern women and I love them like a school girl crush. Hence, Paula Deen.

I was not raised in the South. I was raised all over the place, but I spent grades one through eight in northern Vermont, in a very small town without a stoplight. We lived on old farmland that had been divided into ten acre parcels with our dogs and cat and garden and tree house. With skiing and sledding and ice skating in the winters, swimming holes and fishing in the summer, it was an idyllic sort of childhood that I have since come to realize is rather uncommon. When I was five, my parents were living in the middle of a bunch of concrete and tire factories in Akron, Ohio and decided they wanted to go back to the land, to a simpler, slower way of life. So we did and the shale and maple sap of that time still runs in my blood.

I have had a school girl crush on Robert Frost since I was about nine. He was our poet. With his simple wording and vivid descriptions of rural New England life, we memorized his poems in elementary school and knew he was talking about us, about our lives, our fences, our woods. Fourth grade was a terrible year for me, socially, but it was also the year that we studied Vermont history. I did a report on Robert Frost and it's the first time in my life that I felt the thrill of immersing myself in research and accumulating way more material than I needed for the project. (Because I am just that nerdy.) I devoured his poems, even the ones I didn't understand, and to this day, fragments and lines from them float around my subconscious.

He is the smell of the cold on my dad's wool jacket when he came in from chopping wood. He is the juice of the potato beetles my brother and I picked out of the garden and threw at each other. He is the sweet of a freshly mowed hay field. He is the crackle of ice that formed on the dogs' water bowls in the fall. He is soccer practice in the dew, he is jumping off the rocks in the quarry. He is wood smoke and maple sugar. He is the sweet decay of autumn in blazing splendor, he is lake mud between my toes. He is chilly nights in the yard under the stars. He is growing up, he is a changing world. He is simplicity and youth. He is home.

In re-reading a lot of his poems for this post, I realize his influence on my own writing. It's not a connection I would readily have made before. It's as if, like my mom's Southern-ness, my rural Vermont roots have clung to me in vestiges and sense memories. As if, after more than 25 years away - around the world and back - "I end not far from my going forth."

A Late Walk

When I go up through the mowing field,
The headless aftermath,
Smooth-laid like thatch with the heavy dew,
Half closes the garden path.

And when I come to the garden ground,
The whir of sober birds
Up from the tangle of withered weeds
Is sadder than any words

A tree beside the wall stands bare,
But a leaf that lingered brown,
Disturbed, I doubt not, by my thought,
Comes softly rattling down.

I end not far from my going forth
By picking the faded blue
Of the last remaining aster flower
To carry again to you. 

-Robert Frost, 1915

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Pretzels and Poetry

First, let's get this out of the way:
Pretzel porn
I was not kidding about the National Soft Pretzel Month thing. Not kidding at all. Check out the recipe I used here. They are heaps of fun to make and eat and are very much like poetry in their properties.

In the immortal words of Dutch euro-pop dance group, 2 Unlimited: "Ya'll ready for this?"

Some people (myself included) don't care for the pretzels that come in a bag from the grocery store because they are dry and dusty and kind of too much trouble to chew. 

Some people think they don't like poetry for the same reasons. We've all sat through the classes that deconstructed Homer and Byron and fallen asleep and drooled all over our Robert Frost. We've been there while the moisture has been sucked from our eyes and brains and the symbols and the feet and the meter and what does it all mean? Right? Archaic, incomprehensible, tedious. Very much like the grocery store pretzels.

You know who seems to unanimously and universally love the pretzels from a bag? Children. Bring a bag of Rold Gold pretzel twists into a kindergarten classroom and you are a rock star. They immediately start licking the salt off of them, sticking their fingers through the holes, stacking them up, biting them into other shapes and lining them up on their desks to stage great dramas. 

Children seem to intrinsically love poetry as well. From the rhythm of sing-song motherese in their little cradles (or smack in the middle of my bed) to the rhyming of early readers and nursery rhymes. One of the best children's authors of all time, Theodore Geisel, wrote almost entirely in iambic pentameter. The good Dr. has appealed to children for decades with his Cat in his famous hat. Put a pin in this idea; let it wiggle around like a caterpillar there for a little bit.

You know what makes those crunchy, dusty, troublesome pretzels delicious and addictive? Toppings. Taking the product that on its own is maybe not that appealing and then adding any number of your own flavors to it turns it into a whole other kind of experience. Chocolate? Yes please. Mustard? Of course. Queso? Obviously. Peanut butter, yogurt, caramel sauce, ranch dip, more chocolate? Yes. (Don't mix all of those together, though. Yick.)

One of the things that makes poetry delicious is chucking out the idea of singularity of meaning. Possibly more than any other genre, poetry elicits a dance between the writer, the words on the page, the reader and all of the readers' ghosts and phantasms of assorted toppings. Add your own flavor, find your own meaning, and all of a sudden these dusty poems are delicious conveyances of flavor - enriched and enhanced in a mutually symbiotic relationship with the toppings you choose.

Let us discuss soft pretzels, though. I am not sure if I've ever met anyone who doesn't like soft pretzels. For some they conjure very specific memories: ball parks, malls, fairs, biergartens in Munich, and so on. Warm, buttery, soft, yeasty, crunchy with salt and a tang of baking soda from their bath before baking. They become a whole experience that envelops the senses and the memory for a while. 

The most accessible form of poetry in our culture is song lyrics. I am not sure if I've ever met anyone who hasn't been moved at least once by the lyrics to a song. Be it a hymn, a ballad, a tears-in-my-beer country song, an angry acid rock manifesto, or a hip-hop dance number - people are moved by songs. A song that speaks to us is like that all-encompassing buttery crunchy goodness. It involves all the senses and drags in our memory to dance as well. This is literally poetry in motion.

Take your pins out of the caterpillars now. I think a lot of the poetry-phobia that exists has something to do with the packaging. It is put on a shelf, inaccessible except if your mom gets it down and doles out a small cupful for you to munch on at her discretion. (I think my kids possessed me and wrote that last line, but I trust you caught the metaphor.) But here's the thing. While we were doodling 2-gether 4-ever in the margins of The Odyssey, our ancient Greek counterparts were eating it up with gusto. Homer and his seeing-eye dog roamed around reciting these great epic poems because they appealed to the common man. They were relevant adventure stories, full of intrigue and love and adventure. Ditto Shakespeare. We sit in classrooms and libraries and memorize soliloquies for extra credit, but when those babies were live at the Globe, the penny arcade was there weeping and gasping and having pig's blood splashed on them. 

Poetry is a visceral experience. Sometimes it paints vague pictures that we fill in with our own suffusion of emotion. Sometimes it tells a story that draws us in. Sometimes it describes a moment, a thing, an emotion. Even if it's one to which we can't completely relate, there's something to the rhythm, the cadence, the beat that mimics the beating of our own hearts that appeals on a level deeper than the words themselves. Children understand this intrinsically, I believe. They are lulled by rhythms from before they are even born. They are closer to the ground, closer to the heartbeat and primal rhythms of life. They love the literature that mirrors these all too familiar beats. One, two, buckle my shoe. The content isn't the deepest, but its rhythm alone touches a deeper part of us that makes us alive. Kids don't think about this, they just dive in and lick the salt off and make shapes and create their own versions and own it, gobble it up and make it theirs. Somehow we get that taught out of us. Even so, the 2-gether 4-ever's we doodled while tuning out our English teachers contain a germ of that primal rhythm that infects all poetry - both in its actual cadence and the concept it evokes.

Extra credit: make your own pretzels. The making of soft pretzels is a labor of love. From waiting patiently for the yeast to proof, to the kneading and kneading of the dough to the perfect earlobe-elastic consistency. A little more flour? Not too much, knead some more. To the simmering alchemy and the counter-intuitive step that makes all the difference - the boiling baking soda bath. It's what turns them from ordinary bread into pretzels. The wash of egg and the crunch of salt. And then the quick blazing heat of the oven to make them golden. It's a laborious and intricate, somewhat unforgiving process, but there are few things worth tasting like a soft pretzel warm from the oven. Don't want to mess up the kitchen? Write a poem. It's much the same process. 

Listen to your favorite song, dance around the room. Headphones are best because then it's right there in your head with you. Feel the poetry of everyday life. Eat a soft pretzel.

Monday, April 8, 2013

National Awareness Awareness Month

It is now officially National Poetry Month.

I wonder how these things are decided.

It is also:
National Sewing Month
National Lawn Care Month
National Child Abuse Prevention Month
National Multiple Birth Awareness Month
National Mental Health Month
National Soft Pretzel Month
Jewish-American Heritage Month
National Soy Foods Month
Pets Are Wonderful Month
Women's Health Care Month
Thai Heritage Month
National Pecan Month
Alcohol Awareness Month
National Parkinson's Awareness Month
National Older Americans Month
...and the list goes on and on.

My personal favorite is that April is also Stress Awareness Month. I think that one just about covers all the rest. Well, that and the soft pretzels.

I'm taking a step back from Awareness this month. While for some, this makes me a monster, I am finding it necessary to be less acutely aware of everything in the whole world. Because that's actually when I become a monster - when I get overburdened with a crushing sense of personal responsibility for all that ails the world.

As a matter of stress relief, I will be returning to my twin loves of poetry and soft pretzels. While I can't share the pretzels online, I will do my best to share some poetry.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Quoth the Maven

It is no secret that I love words.

Here is a little idiosyncratic secret: I don't like decorating with words. Not my clothes, not my skin, not my walls. It's just my odd personal preference. I would never get a tattoo that says anything, I don't care for shirts that require reading (although, I have a few) and I don't like giant quotes on pallet boards stuck to walls. I know this is very trendy right now. I know that to spell things out, larger than life across walls and pillows and windows and whatnot is the decorating thing to do. Mark my words (heh heh - pun), in a few years all this stuff is all going to end up at Goodwill.

Dream. Imagine. Love. Create. These and other admonitions are barked like commands in spray-painted cardboard letters in homes all over America if Pinterest is to be believed. [OK, brief confession: I just clicked over to Pinterest to copy a link for this post and got completely sidetracked by a carrot cake cheesecake recipe which I must eat very soon. To combine carrot cake with cheesecake is like a divine marriage or something.] I don't object to the sentiments, it's just not my style. My style is more along the lines of scribbling things on post-its and putting them where they're relevant or writing reminders on the backs of old receipts and sticking them in my wallet. Not spelling them out with buttons and hanging them in my living room. To each their own.

Case in point: this little gem came with our house.
Come summer, this sucker is gone.
Right there on our front door, greeting the meter reader and all of our guests, is this darling aphorism. I don't object to the sentiment, particularly. I do, however, object strenuously to cliche and triteness. And I think that's beef number one with the whole quote craze. It takes rich and multifaceted concepts and boils them down to rhyming couplets. If my front door had been carefully painted with a whole manifesto, I might have left it.

My darling Chief Lou, ever the trickster, wants to paint over this quote on the door with a quote from Dante's Inferno: "Omnes relinquite spes, o vos intrantes." The translation in English, of course, is "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here" but he wants to leave it in the original Latin, done in fancy script. This is my husband's sense of humor. I am married to an incredibly silly man, but he proves my point for me. As long as it's pretty, we can put any old quote up on the wall and hey presto! we're in vogue.

That leads to beef number two: context. You would probably have had to be in a coma for the last few years to have missed the whole "Keep Calm..." thing. I don't know where it started in recent years and why it has been such a fad, but do you know where the originals started? Great Britain in World War II. They were propaganda posters that were meant to be hung around to get the people who were scared to death of having the ever-loving snot bombed out of them to go about their daily lives. Keep calm and carry on. Again, not a bad sentiment, but not exactly a cheerful memory to hang on the wall. It wasn't too many soccer practices and meetings at work that originated this advice; it was death, mayhem and destruction like the world had never known to that point. 

Oh, Tangled Lou, you are such a grump. They're pretty. What's the big deal?! There may be no big deal. It may be nothing more than a (in my humble opinion) tacky fad that will come and go and we'll look at it in a couple of years like we do peach and teal balloon valances now: shake our heads and wonder what on earth we were thinking. But because I love words and the ideas they represent, I get a little sketchy about all this. Words have amazing power for something we just toss around freely and stick to the walls. 

Words can be beautiful, inspiring, encouraging and uplifting. They can also just become part of the scenery, lost among the clutter of everything else, faded with the passage of time and eventually discarded in favor of the Next Big Thing. To be able to sum up a large thought in a simple sentence is one of the joys of playing with words. There are great thinkers and philosophers and writers who, throughout history, have said and written things that bear repeating. But when your ultra-conservative friend posts a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche about the madness of love on her Facebook page, you get the impression that she's not terribly familiar with Herr Nietzsche's body of work or she might not so readily agree with him. 

The important things in life are so much larger than rhymed couplets. Overcoming fear to reach out toward personal goals cannot be reduced to a decal of the word "Dream" stretched across the living room. The concepts of life itself, of happiness, contentment, of fulfillment and joy are two-faced monsters who, by necessity, are fraught with heartache and peril and pain and emptiness that don't make for good aesthetics in the home decor department. The things that matter most to us are frequently the things that we find we can't put into words adequately. Certainly not words that are purchased at Target and hung in the hallway where we stash our muddy boots. 

It's important to dream and to create and to live, laugh, love. If you need a poster or a painted pallet board (chalkboard paint!) to remind you, knock yourself out. But I wonder sometimes if all this decorative verbiage defeats its own purpose. If I copy someone else's project that has been pinned a thousand times by all my friends, how much "creating" am I doing? How much thinking am I even doing? All the photoshopped signs and greeting cards and T-shirts and up-cycled Dollar Store plates tell me: "Just Be You." How "me" can I be if I'm just jumping another bandwagon - even if it is a nice, happy feel-good one? Will I forget that the tangible materials that were used to build my house don't really make it a home if I take down that wretched sign and give it to Goodwill?

It's possible I've thought about this too much. But it seems to me that by commercializing certain concepts and mass-marketing them, it takes the power away from the words themselves and gives it back to some more unpleasant things that we'd rather not advertise about ourselves. No one wants a decal that says "Crowd Follower" over their sofa. How about "Consumption Born of Insecurity"? Or, more directly: "Please like me."

Lest you think me a complete curmudgeon, I came across these quotes that I may paint and hang as inspiration in my writing space:

Do not compare yourself to others. If you do so, you are only insulting yourself.

That's good, right? How about this one?

If you want to shine like the sun, first you have to burn like it.

Inspirational, no? This one, too:

And I can fight only for something that I love, love only what I respect, 
and respect only what I at least know.

All good words to live by in their own ways, don't you think? Like a good writer, I'll remember to include the attribution when I paint them and hang them in my house:
Adolf Hitler.