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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Random Thoughts on the Season

J., our neighbour for twenty years, kept a house that was a daunting example of cleanliness and thoughtful good taste. J. and I got along well, despite the fact that we were exact opposites. When she and her husband moved from the street, I bought at their yard sale three boxes of apricot-colored glass Christmas balls, a total of 18 ornaments. Every year I think of her as I hang these pretty things around the house. This year half of them decorate our dining-room chandelier, while the others are strung as a little garland under the mantle. When I look at them I remember J. with fondness, but this inevitably leads to my next J. thought: without fail, J. cleaned her house from top to bottom before Christmas.

 

This is a beautiful idea, in theory—to face the holidays with a fresh, clean living space. But theory and practice don't always meet harmoniously in my psyche. I know I will never have a pre-Christmas window-washing session, or clean out any closets or drawers in honor of the holidays. But seeing all of J.'s apricot-colored balls this year has inspired me to make a tiny little stab at cleanliness and order. Today, as soon as I finish writing this, I will vacuum the whole house, top to bottom. I promise. But no windows.

 

There are two types of people in my world—those who delight in Christmas and those who cannot bear it. As usual, unable to make a lasting emotional decision, I manage to embody both of these views, though usually not at the same moment.

We all know the Christmas Enthusiast. This is the person who overfills an already loaded calendar, unable to resist taking on yet another burden as long as it is in the name of Christmas. Host the Christmas dinner? YES! Make the entire dinner, rather than parceling some of it out to willing relatives? YES! All obligations are warmly welcomed, as long as they bear the name of Christmas. That's enthusiasm.

 

I also know people who fervently hope that the whole season will just disappear. The tinsel and glitter and canned Christmas music (subtext: Buy more! Buy more!) are just too much for them. Sometimes these people can slip under the radar of Christmas and just spend a quiet day contentedly alone. Or perhaps they find happiness by cultivating their Jewish friends and going out for Chinese food and a movie instead of sitting in a family gathering simmering with decades-old tensions.

 

With all of this in mind, my hope for Christmas, every year, is, "A little balance, please!" I'm not sure how to achieve it, nor can I necessarily visualize just what it looks like. But I'll know it when I find it. It will involve genuine love, a continual re-grounding the moment we find ourselves spinning out of control, and the required amount of deep breathing needed to avoid insulting Aunt Tillie.

 

At the age of five, my grandson, Sam, came over to play. In his backpack he had a large, solid plastic wolf of ferocious mien, with a snout that opened threateningly and a hunched-over posture (this was an upright, bi-pedal wolf). Its arms dangled to the ground, ending in fully formed fingers with sharp talons. All in all, not a friendly looking wolf. But as he presented him to me, Sam pointed out that the wolf's mouth opened only so that he could drink hot chocolate. And his role in life (all Sam's toys are either good guys or bad guys) was benign. The wolf's long arms reached out not to grab and snatch, but to dispense, from his cupped hands, hot chocolate to all.

 

May the wolf at your door be the bearer of unlimited hot chocolate.

 
Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor   

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Making a Little List

Maybe making a list will light my way. A list different from the one I have with me right now (three oranges, one red onion, watercress, good black pants) and the one sitting on the counter at home (thank-you note to Mary, mail package, call Helen re lunch, water plants, etc.).

 

These are do-able tasks, which is why I like them. Sometimes I even pad them with notes like "file nails" just because it is so satisfying to cross off completed efforts. And, as satisfactions go, "file nails" is pretty easily achieved.

 

But a life list? Isn't it a little late to begin itemizing what it is I want out of life? ("Ask not what you want from life; ask rather what you are willing to put into it." But I paraphrase.) Many people make life lists of things they want to see or do. But nothing comes to my mind for such a list, except perhaps "see Aurora Borealis" and the closest I'm going to come to that is a video of it.

 

Okay. Make a durned list. Perhaps some good will come of this.

 

1.         Rediscover joy. (Yeah. And next, how about "hang on to it this time"?)

 

2.         Well. That was it. That's all I could come up with.  Too many phone calls yesterday. Talking to too many people discombobulated me. A relative described her current life as a "trailer park soap opera," which is close to the truth, if a bit dramatic. And then last night I learned that my oldest granddaughter has just been told she can go on point in her ballet class. Congratulations, my dear. But I didn't really want this to happen. I wanted her to become enamoured of modern dance or jazz dance before she got sucked in to the romantic, painful life of a ballerina. And then, by a strange coincidence, two of my brothers called.

 

3.         Really, this time. I'm determined to make this list, difficult as it seems to be. Okay. Figure out whether it's better to dwell on the current state of mind, with the goal of understanding it and being able to write about it for the elucidation of others, or to work like mad to get away from it, since it seems to be poisoning the well.

 

4.         This is utterly pointless. Okay. Here it is: Know why everything has shifted. Is that vague enough?

 

I hoped that listing things would clarify what's going on, what I need. But it's not working. Nothing's working.

 

I spent the last two days making four dozen gift bags, using up remnants of precious fabric I've saved for twenty years. I guess that was my admission that I'm not going to be sewing anything important in the future. My crafting days are over.

 

But it was fun to whip out bag after bag and throw each one on the floor beside the sewing machine. And then when I had run through all the fabric, I ironed each bag, ending up with a neat, crisp pile of gift bags of all sizes, ready to be sent out into the wider world.

 

That's the kind of thing I need to put on my list. Something concrete: make more gift bags!

 

Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor   

www.anntudor.ca
http://scenesfromthejourney.blogspot.com

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Colour of December

In early December I rounded the corner into a paved laneway and saw a smashed pumpkin, still freshly bright orange inside. Its thick pumpkin flesh was open to the world, and its different shades of orange depended on the light and the planes of the smashed pumpkin.

 

How it got there remains a mystery, but the thought skimmed through my brain that this pumpkin was the only bit of color in the whole area. Everything else was dark: grey, black, brown, dark blue, and colorless dead grass. It reminded me of a trendy store window I passed once. The entire stock was displayed in minimalist fashion, and every item—pants, jackets, tops, bottoms—was either black or dark brown. I tried to imagine who would be drawn to enter such a shop. Could anyone really say, "Oh, this looks like fun"?

 

Ideas flit, flit, flit through my head. Just like my hair, they're here today, gone tomorrow. Or, more precisely, here now, gone the next second. (Which reminds me. Have you heard this one? "Every moment is a gift. That's why they call it the present.")

 

Now where was I? When I was imagining how many thoughts pass through my grey matter, I was reminded of my writing group. Surely everyone has as many thoughts as I do. Surely we are all little idea-factories. Imagine the ideating atoms flying through the room when we meet to write. Fly, fly, flit, here, there, captured, not captured, gone, back again, ideas flying faster than the eye can see or the hand can record.

 

This fanciful idea echoed a recent newspaper item reporting that some scientific endeavor determined that each of us thinks 70,000 thoughts an hour. Of those 70,000 flitting ideas, only a small percentage make it to conscious thought. But—and here's the strange part—even those that don't make it to conscious thought become part of our memory, according to the scientists. Even your unconscious thoughts are stored in your memory, my dear. It's no wonder you don't have room to remember where you put your car keys!

 

Some 70,000 unthought thoughts settle into our memories without our even knowing it, taking up space. Can these thoughts ever be used?  How can you retrieve the memory of an unthought thought? How can you find it if you don't even know it's there?

 

Now I'm back to the flit-flit-flit phenomenon. I can't even remember or control the ideas I actually know about. And I haven't touched on the strangest part of all. How do scientists know that I have 70,000 ideas per whatever, and that these ideas go into my memory without my even having known that I was generating them? I certainly wasn't thinking those thoughts.

 

It's all too much for me. Just don't ever tell me that you've run out of ideas!

 

Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor   

www.anntudor.ca
http://scenesfromthejourney.blogspot.com

Sunday, December 5, 2010

December

Think red. Or green. Or green and red. There you have December.

 

Think one or two brilliant blue skies. Think 29 or 30 milky overcast days. (Add Vitamin D to diet.) And there you have December.

 

We used to visit Santa Fe often, when one of our daughters lived in New Mexico. That's where we first learned to order "Christmas". In local restaurants, your enchiladas or tamales are topped with a chile sauce, and you are asked, "Red or green?" The red one will be made from deep dark anchos or guajillos or some combination of half a dozen red chiles. The green one (actually more a dull, light-greenie/brown in color) is made from fresh green chiles. Those who have trouble deciding between the two can order "Christmas"—red on half of your order, green on the other half. My December includes both red and green.

 

And silver. I mustn't forget the silver. Tinsel, for example, or those little spiraling icicles made from old tin cans. Or my bright silver earrings shaped like miniature Christmas tree lights, a seasonal body decoration that once belonged to my sister Sari. (If I have enough Christmas parties to go to, I can alternate the silver tree lights with my own miniature, bright-red Christmas balls.) 

 

Anyone who has synaesthesia will morph instantly from color (silver) to sound ("Silver Bells"). Last year I managed to avoid all malls, department stores, and large public gatherings through the month of December, so I didn't hear a single recording of "Silver Bells," which is a song I actually like when it's sung in harmony by pretty women's voices. And while I was thinking about "Silver Bells," I realized that several Christmases have gone by without my encountering a single rendition of Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride." You remember that one, surely, from your high school chorus: "Outside the snow is falling and friends are calling 'Yoo-hoo'. . . something weather . . .something . . .for a sleigh ride together with you." I used to know all the words, and I revisited it almost every year for over fifty years. If I haven't heard it by December 23 this year, I'll have to download it onto my iPod—or I would if I had one, or wanted one.

 

And speaking of knowing all the words, shall we all now recite (or better yet, sing, in the Fred Waring arrangement) " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas"? That's the one that will keep me company if I'm ever thrown into solitary confinement and have to amuse myself with the contents of my own mind. I have to admit that this year I invited a nonet of friends to learn the SATB arrangement, and last night we sang it for a group of thirty or so neighbours, with me at the piano. It went very well. The guests enjoyed the moosemeat chili that we served as their reward for coming out in the cold to hear a little amateur singing group.

 

The exigencies of song-writing, I'm sorry to say, led to the removal of the best words of the poem: "As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, when they meet with an obstacle mount to the sky, so up to the housetop his coursers they flew, with a sleigh full of toys and Saint Nicholas, too!" What's not to like here?

 

With no further ado and no deep, hidden meaning—but with oodles of perhaps premature good will, I exclaim, ere I drive out of sight, "Merry Christmas to all, and to all: Good Night!"

 
Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor   

Sunday, November 28, 2010

On Grandmothers

Gramma. Nana. Gram. I never had one, myself, so I have no role model and no memories of sugar cookies. My children's paternal grandmother was warm and welcoming—an excellent grandmother who would take them blackberry picking and cook wonderful Southern meals for them. My own mother was not particularly interested in her grandchildren, presumably because her six had pretty much exhausted her.

 

What should a grandma do? 1) Sit on the floor and play blocks without ever saying, "Now I have to leave to go do (whatever). You just play by yourself." 2) Play the nighty-night game over and over and over without changing a word until he tires of it, not you. (In truth, you were tired of it after the third repetition.) 3) Walk at a child's pace without ever saying, "Come on! Hurry! We have to hurry now!" 4) Give unlimited cuddles. 5) Play "monster Nana" until he suddenly becomes really frightened and says, "No monster Nana. Just Nana." And then you stop being a monster. 6) Help him to move the cello bow while you play Twinkle-Twinkle.

 

What else? Be available. Be aware. Be in the moment with him (and how good is that for you as well?!). Listen. Slow down. Don't rush him. Don't have an agenda. Be there. Be there for him.

 

The final instruction for being a good grandmother is to make sugar cookies and put them in a big ceramic cookie jar shaped like a cat.

 

 

Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor   

www.anntudor.ca
http://scenesfromthejourney.blogspot.com

Sunday, November 21, 2010

One of the WHAT?

I've got to get this off my chest. Batten down the hatches for a small rant.

 

Have you noticed that otherwise excellent authors and journalists are now freely using the phrase "one of the only . . ."? Think about this. A restaurant, for example, can be "the only restaurant that serves a certain dish," or it can be "one of the few restaurants that serve a certain dish". But it can't be "one of the only restaurants. . ." Really, it can't.

 

I don't approve of defacing library books, but if I see that phrase once more I'm going to get out the red pen.

 

I'll admit that my intermittent concern for the difference between "lie" and "lay" (and their respective principal parts) is too nit-picky for most people. I'm willing to let that drop. But "one of the only" is such an offense against clear thinking that it has to be stopped before it spreads.

 

If you are one of those who use that phrase, I'm not demanding a public confession. I just want you to stop it!

 
Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor   

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Hog Capital of the World

Two years ago, our friends the Smiths admitted that they ate dinner in front of the TV. I was shocked. My husband and I always sat at the dining room table, providing us with an opportunity to talk, even on those evenings when we didn't take advantage of it.

 

But did you ever notice that discovering how someone else lives gives you tacit permission to do the same? Thus, over the space of several months, we began to take a tray upstairs to the small den and to eat, plates on knees, while watching the screen. This happened with no acknowledgment. We never discussed the fact that what seemed to be our principled decision to eat in the dining room was so casually subverted.

 

I need to say that we don't watch "TV." We watch a 1930s movie (last night it was Mae West and Cary Grant) or a BBC costume drama. We've seen all of Jane Austen's novels as filmed by the BBC in the 1970s, as well as "Middlemarch", which I have more than once tried and failed to read in its original novel form. So we eat to the beat of high culture, not the networks' latest sitcom.

 

Recently, just as we had begun to eat our spaghetti (awkward as the dickens to eat from your lap), my brother Jerry called from Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Jerry is laconic, but that evening he was delightfully chatty. I abandoned my cooling spaghetti and turned away from the paused shot on the TV screen showing Mae West as a lion tamer. Talking to Jerry is both pleasurable and rare.

 

Jerry loves to cook and he told me that recently he had bought a pork shoulder roast for a family dinner. As he removed the plastic wrapper from the supermarket meat package, he noticed the sticker saying, "Indiana pork." And then, in smaller print, the words "Product of Delphi, Indiana." Our home town, Delphi, Indiana, has reached the world stage.

 

It used to be that the near-by town of Flora, Delphi's rival for county seat, called itself, "Hog Capital of the World"—and proclaimed that honor on the revolving bank sign at the town's one stoplight. Now, apparently, Delphi has eclipsed Flora and is distributing its self-referenced pig parts at least as far as a supermarket in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

 

Today New Hampshire, tomorrow the world! Go, Delphi!

 

Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor

www.anntudor.ca
http://scenesfromthejourney.blogspot.com

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Being Thrifty

The era of thrift is returning, but it'll still be a while before those 40-somethings start darning their socks. For me, of course, the era of thrift never left. Some part of me still follows the guidelines of "How to Live on Practically Nothing" a book that was my bible during graduate school and then again when I was on my own with three kids in Denver. Roz Chast, the New Yorker cartoonist, once showed a woman hanging washed plastic bags on her clothesline. The tag was something like, "When the environmentally conscious meet the perennially thrifty." I saw nothing funny in that cartoon; that was my life.

 

Perhaps this background information will help you understand my story. I own four sweatshirts. Not one of them is less than ten years old. Although I've tried to keep the stains to a minimum, the cuff and waistband ribbings are looking very shabby, and the neck ribbing of my grey one is permanently soiled. So, though I hated the very idea of it, I decided to splurge: I would buy myself a new sweatshirt and pitch all four of my current ones. Would I actually be able to do that? To throw away four sweatshirts?

 

The search began. I hate to shop, but I did actually go into a shop to look for a sweatshirt. The closest things they had were zippered fleece garments of 100% polyester, made in China. I couldn't make myself buy one.

 

At first, I thought maybe I'd cut off and save the logos from the three of my four sweatshirts that have words on them. (The fourth one is the oldest, a coral-pink colour that I love, despite the fact that it has stretched to well beyond a flattering length.)

 

My black sweatshirt says, "Napoleon." I bought it in a fit of enthusiasm and chauvinism after we saw the premier of a locally written and produced Broadway-bound musical about Napoleon. It closed in London later (before Broadway), so I figure my sweatshirt is a collector's item.

 

My grey sweatshirt is from my home town, bought in 2004 when I attended my fiftieth high school reunion. In appliqu├ęd black and gold cursive, it says, "Delphi Oracles." I keep it not from nostalgia but from the still-unrealized hope that some day someone will say, "Why do you have a sweatshirt cheering on the Greek seers?"

 

And the purple sweatshirt, the one with the tattered ribbing, says, "Basketry Focus 1995," a souvenir of the international conference of basket makers that our local Basketry Network hosted all those years ago. I keep it—well, why do I keep it? To remind me, perhaps, of the ragged cuticles I sported during those five years when I made baskets from dyed and dampened reeds.

 

So you can see why, despite their shabbiness now, I am a bit reluctant to replace any of these with some polyester, made-in-China upstart. I marched all of them into the sewing room and attacked them with my best fabric scissors. Off came the black ribbing. Without a qualm I lopped off the sleeve cuffs of all four shirts. The neck ribbing of my Delphi Oracles shirt is now in the trash.

 

Some people, before undertaking this drastic surgery, might have gone to the fabric cupboard to check the supplies. I know I have several lengths of ribbings left from a period 15 years ago when I sewed with knits. But I actually have no idea at all what I will use—what colors, what widths—to refurbish these old sweatshirts. So for the moment they sit on the cutting table, naked without their ribbings but open to any and all expectations of new life. Soon there will be a renaissance of sweatshirts on my shelf, logos intact, testaments to my thrift, ingenuity, and just plain pig-headedness.

 

 

Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor   

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Ultimately, Change

So four-year-old Sam and his parents are at the dinner table. Sam eats two bites of his meal and says, "I'm done!"

 

"Wait a minute," says his mother. "You need to eat more than that. Please eat four bites of this, and three bites of that, and then you can leave the table."

 

So Sam eats one bite of each food and says, "I'm done."

 

"No," says his mother, "not yet. I need for you to eat more dinner than that."

 

And Sam turns to her and says, "I recognize my own body, Mommy!"

 

Now there's a show-stopper! That's a pretty heavy thought for a four-year-old. I know some sixty-year-olds who still don't recognize their own bodies!

 

Of course, we don't know whether Sam actually does or whether he's parroting something he heard (and where on earth did he hear it?). Could his body actually be telling him that five bites of food will suffice to carry him through the night? Or is Sam just testing the waters again?

 

Olivia (Livvy) is now a very active eight-year-old with a beautiful smile. When Olivia is happy, she lights up the world. When she isn't, you know it. And the line between happy and unhappy is a very fine one.

 

Several months ago (Olivia was only seven at the time, if that makes any difference), Olivia's mother decided to rearrange the playroom. This is a large room at the side of the house that holds the computer, the television, a couch, and several containers of toys, including the dress-up box. Burton (11) uses the computer for his games (and he and Olivia have one of those Wii things as well). The computer is also used for all the restaurant accounts and to search the Internet for recipes, news, and ideas concerning the restaurant. You can see that the room is heavily used, and its furniture wasn't so much arranged as plunked in there on moving day. Olivia's mother wanted to create order out of chaos.

 

"No!" screams Livvy. "No! Don't change it! I hate it when you move things! Don't do it!"

 

She cried and screamed (big tears) for forty minutes, while her mother moved desks and couches and box after box of toys.

 

When the room was finished (and her mother doubly exhausted from having had to endure Livvy's protests at the same time), Olivia went into the newly arranged room and said, "This is really neat! I love it, Mommy!"

 

Rebuilding and redecorating after the fire at the restaurant (October 2006) took almost seven months. The children were busy with school and gymnastics and skating, so they didn't visit the restaurant very often as the renovation was happening.

 

Finally it was ready, and the family went downtown to see the new version of the family business: a moved entrance, new windows, a revised traffic flow, different placement of tables, and a whole new color scheme.

 

Livvy walked in, took one look, and began to cry. "I don't like it! I want our OLD restaurant! I don't want this one. I HATE it!" She cried for fifteen minutes, sobbing (big tears flowing from her lovely golden-hazel eyes). And then, as she and Burton explored the new terrain, she ran to her mother and said, "This is really nice! I love this restaurant!"

 

Very few people really like change, despite its inevitability. But children really don't like change. And Olivia really, really doesn't like change. But a few tears later, she adjusts to the New Reality and that becomes the solid ground on which she stands.

 

We adults don't have it so simple, since our ultimate learning is that the solid ground is only fleetingly solid. Even as we gratefully stamp our feet on it and say, "HERE's what I like," it is preparing its next shift. The earthquakes can be large or small, they come and go, and we eventually know that our "solid ground" is actually just another tectonic plate on the move.

 

Change: yet another person is gone, vanished. Get used to it. Last week I learned of the deaths of a friend's sister, a client's mother, and the husband of a dear friend. That's a lot for a single week. Here today, gone tomorrow.

 

Change, change. Lord give me the strength to deal with change, and the wisdom to accept that change is all I'm ever going to see.

 

 

Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor   

www.anntudor.ca
http://scenesfromthejourney.blogspot.com

Sunday, October 24, 2010

My New Toy

Hooray! Hooray! I have a new toy and it's making me happy.  Here's how it came to me. We make it a point to attend our local Junction Arts Fair every year, primarily so I can eat my fill of street food (especially the BBQ'd corn rubbed with lime and spices). This year I picked up a flyer for a "visual journaling" workshop offered by one of the exhibiting artists.

 

Now, I have to tell you that I hate journaling. Writers are supposed to keep a journal, but I don't. I did spend a year writing the dreaded "morning pages" recommended by Julia Cameron in The Artist's Way, but as soon as her prescribed time period was up, I stopped journaling. No more of that for me.

 

But, of course, I always think I should be journaling. Surely any fledgling writer needs to be keeping daily notes. Well, not me. But I was drawn to the flyer for "visual journaling" because I thought it might teach me to add drawings to a writing notebook, thus making the whole thing prettier and enticing enough to start a daily journal.

 

So I signed up. The workshop was small (only four of us plus the teacher). At each place setting was a complement of materials: a large sketchbook with 50 sheets of 11x14 paper. A tin of watercolors. A wide, natural-bristle brush and a small watercolor brush. Two charcoal pencils. A bottle of India ink and both a pen and a twig to dip into the ink. I hadn't expected such bounty: a starter-set of art supplies, to take home with me after the workshop!

 

The instructor gave us a few hints at the beginning: 1) She likes to start off with a watercolor wash, to eliminate the intimidating dead-whiteness of the page. 2) She likes to use matte medium to create a resist. And 3) she uses a hair dryer to speed the drying time between applications of paint or matte medium.

 

There were magazines to mine for images, if we needed a starting point. And then we were on our own, set free to play for the rest of the evening.

 

In our teacher's experience, doing this visual journal daily led her to great insights, to the solving of problems (both artistic and life), and to complete changes in the way she approaches her life. Obviously, the benefit comes from engaging, on a regular basis, the right side of the brain.

 

But for me the point of the exercise was this: I've never given myself permission to experiment in the field of the visual arts. When I was making things everyday, during my crafts period, it was all about product. I had no time to play around with process. Product was king.

 

So I've never had time to play with my art supplies. When I make things (cards, gifts), each one has to be a finished product. I don't allow myself the time to see what will happen if I start with an oil pastel and then watercolor over it. Or if I layer different colors, interspersed with the matte medium. No playing for me, please. I'm a serious person.

 

Part of the workshop was the suggestion that we commit to doing one page a day in our new sketchbook. Imagine that: a page every day. So here's what my day looks like now. Every morning, I work on a page for about half an hour, either before breakfast or just after. I sit at my table, turn on the good light, and begin playing. I date each page as I finish. I use every tool I've got: stamps, punches, fabric, colors of all kinds (acrylics, watercolours, stamp pads, gel pens, colored pencils), and the indispensable matte medium.

 

I have no illusions that this will change my life. Maybe it will, but that's not why I'm doing it. I'm doing it because it's a daily journal that is not painful. A written journal is an effort, something that I have to push myself to do (so I don't do it). But a visual journal is different. I start each day by engaging the right brain, and what could be more fun than that?

 

Every day I learn something new about how to move from a white sheet of paper to a beautiful (in the eye of this beholder) picture. It's like going to art school but without the angst. No pressure. No deadlines. Just play, play, play.

 

P.S. Anyone in the Toronto area who is interested in the workshop can reach the instructor at info@rhondanolan.com.

 

Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor   

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Leaf by Leaf to Reach the Heart

Mothers like to boast when their children eat vegetables, especially vegetables that are a bit off the beaten garden path. So I was quick to report, those many years ago, that my children loved eating artichokes.

 

What's not to like about an artichoke? You get to pull those leaves off one at a time and scrape the pulp from the base of the leaf with your teeth. Nowadays I enjoy that pulp for its own sake. But when the children were young I served our artichokes with little dishes of melted butter, one dish per person, and we dipped the base of each leaf into melted butter before eating it, which probably went a long way toward explaining their love of artichokes.

 

Eating artichokes is a lengthy affair. One leaf at a time we whittled down the big thistles, piling the scraped leaves into a bowl. (Sidebar: do not ever put artichoke leaves into your garbage disposal. My sister Sari did that once. The repairman who came to fix the mess said, when she told him the problem, "Oh, NO, Mrs. A-dair. Don't ever put artichoke leaves in the disposal! Oh, NO!" It took him hours to fix her mistake.)

 

After much eating of leaves, we inevitably reached the heart of the artichoke, so carefully protected by the hairy, feathery, inedible choke. It was my job as mother to cut out the choke for each child, leaving the smooth inverted dome of the heart, ready for eating. My son, the youngest of the three, however, liked only the business of plucking and eating the leaves, butter-drenched as they were. He said he didn't like the heart!

 

Some families might have auctioned that extra artichoke heart off to the highest bidder—the one who promised the best behaviour, say. Or some families might have allotted the extra heart to the parent who had patiently cut out the chokes from all four artichokes. But in our family I carefully divided the unwanted heart into three equal pieces and let my daughters have the first two picks. This meant that, if I had not sectioned that heart carefully enough, I would end up with the smallest piece. I was not a self-sacrificing mother when it came to eating artichoke hearts, so those three pieces were absolutely equal in size. I made sure I got my full share.

 

And we thanked the baby of the family, the son and brother, exuberantly as each of us plunged our extra mouthful of artichoke heart into the dregs of our melted butter.

 

The next day at work I would annoy my co-workers by bragging that MY children were just crazy about artichokes. Ah, the petty triumphs of parenting . . .

 

Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor   

www.anntudor.ca
http://scenesfromthejourney.blogspot.com

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Mind's Way

Peace of mind is mine for the taking—if I want it. But clarity of mind is something else. More and more I find that the words I used to count on are no longer at my beck and call. Wrong words appear instead. I recently told a friend that I love the fall of the year because you can scuff your feet through the sleeves. And then later I was looking for the word "faucet" but could only come up with "saucer." Close, but no cigar.

 

This is the Mice-in-the-Brain problem and, unlike some of the peculiarities of living in the Land of Old, there's nothing funny about it. What makes it upsetting, I think, is that it signals a lack of control. You spend some 70 years with a mind and you think you know it. But then you find that your mind has a mind of its own and is going off on a tangent without you. God help us all, there's not a thing you can do about it. Flax seed every day? Vitamin D up the ying-yang? Wishful thinking, my dears. The mice are here to stay. Oh, symbolism indeed! This fall we have been catching at least a mouse a week in our basement pantry. If I stop killing them, will their relatives stop eating my brain?

 

After all that kvetching, here's a more positive view of the topic. Ram Dass, while recovering from and adjusting to the effects of a stroke a few years ago, said in an interview: "It's amazing how little of the past you need for a present moment." And, as we know, the present moment is all that counts.

 
Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor   

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Starring on your Local Cable TV . . .

Kim was an ambitious budding journalist. While still in grade 12 she created a TV program to be aired over the local cable network. Being a cable show, it was seen by a dozen viewers at best, but Kim learned how to produce a show.

 

The show was about cooking. She asked her school friends to recommend mothers or grandmothers who had special cooking skills, and then she interviewed them (us) to choose appropriate guests for her show. When Kim called me I offered to demonstrate, on air, the making of cardamom coffeecakes. Great idea, said Kim.

 

She told me how to find the studio, and we chose a date and a time. But that was pretty much the extent of the background information Kim gave me.

 

It wasn't as if I'd never made these coffeecakes; these were the ones I distributed to neighbours and friends at Christmas. Nonetheless, I made a couple of batches in advance, to get the recipe nailed down and review the timing. Then I showed up at the studio with coffeecake ingredients in one arm and a collection of coffeecakes-in-production in the other. Let's see. I needed a bowl for mixing up a new batch. I needed a bowl that contained an already risen batch (which I would shape into braids as the world watched). And I needed some finished and baked coffeecakes.

 

What did I wear? Did I put on make-up (or was I hoping there would be a make-up person at the studio?). I remember fretting about all this, but I don't remember the decisions.

 

Finally Kim and I were under the lights, my belongings arrayed on the table. I had envisioned myself alone with the camera (after Kim's introduction), during which time I would enlighten the viewers about all aspects of yeast breads. Well, I was alone for a while, but I was so efficient that everything was finished in the first fifteen minutes of the thirty-minute show. I had mixed everything that needed to be mixed, shaped everything that n eeded shaping, and shown all the finished braids I had brought to show. There now remained fifteen minutes of dead time to fill. Kim, who had been watching from off-camera, stepped in, as any good producer/host should, and began asking questions.

 

Those who know me know that I don't like doing research. In fact, it usually escapes me that any research is required. So when Kim asked, "So, Ann, what is cardamom?" my mind went blank. What, indeed? I knew that it was a relative of ginger (or so I remembered reading). So I said that. "It's a relative of ginger," I said. Kim looked at me, awaiting more details, but I had none to give her. Where did it come from? How did it come to be a staple spice of Scandinavian cooking? These were questions I had failed to prepare for. My hands twitched, vainly seeking some other table-task that I could perform to avoid further questions.

 

Kim was desperate to lengthen the conversation. So she picked up my jar of cardamom and said, "Oh, let me smell it and taste it, to see what cardamom is like."

 

She unscrewed the lid and put it to her nose and sniffed. "H'm-m," she said. "It doesn't have much of a smell at all."

 

Now, anyone who has smelled cardamom knows this isn't true.

 

Kim tapped a little cardamom into the palm of her hand and touched it with her tongue. "H'm-m," she said, "there's not a lot of flavour here."

 

Now, anyone who has tasted cardamom knows this isn't true.

 

I didn't know what to say. Was Kim deficient in taste buds and smelling receptors? As it turned out, she wasn't. As it turned out, my jar of cardamom was as old as the hills, and IT was deficient in both smell and taste. But at the time I didn't know that. I just knew that Kim and I had different experiences with cardamom, and I didn't know where to go with this information. On camera.

 

I lamely agreed with Kim, "Oh, it's a subtle flavour. It's easy to see why you can't smell or taste much. Yes, you're absolutely right. Cardamom is virtually odor-free and taste-free. Yes, indeedy, Kim, there's no reason at all to use cardamom in a recipe except just to be able to include the word in the title. It's a very pretty word, isn't it? Cardamom? Some people spell it with an "n", as in "cardamom," but it's really cardamom. With an "m" at the end. Not an "n". I didn't really say this, of course, but I did spout a lot of nonsense during the long minutes we lived through as the clock ran out. Kim joined in with her own version of the agreed-upon insipidity of cardamom.

 

And eventually we reached the end of the show.

 

The embarrassing part is that even thirty years later people (in the dozens) are still seeing reruns of these moments of public ignorance, since local cable shows are endlessly recycled. How many insomniacs have watched me blunder my way through this interview over the years? I hope they focus on the coffeecakes, which are quite good, rather than on my ignorance. And that when they make their own coffeecakes, they smell the ground cardamom before they use it, and run out and buy a new jar if theirs has no aroma and no taste.

 

Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor   

www.anntudor.ca
http://scenesfromthejourney.blogspot.com

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Stitch by Stitch

I learned to knit when I was 17. My mother, Eileen, didn't teach me to knit, because she hated knitting. It was hard to believe that this jack-of-all-trades, this champion seamstress, didn't knit. She told me once that she couldn't bear the thought of creating a garment one stitch at a time. One stitch. Another stitch. Another stitch. Finally, one row completed. No, this was not for my mother. She needed the whirr of her Singer sewing a fine seam in two shakes of a lamb's tail.

 

It just occurred to me that Eileen's sister, my Aunt Lil, was a crackerjack knitter. I'd forgotten. When I was born Aunt Lil knitted a white snowsuit for me: white wool leggings, a little jacket (with a zipper front), and a hat. I don't actually remember wearing it, but I have it on in an old family movie, and I remember the snowsuit making the rounds of my younger siblings. The next three of them were born in the fall of the year, so they were perfectly sized for that snowsuit come January and February. Indiana winters demanded snow suits for babies.

So I'll bet Aunt Lil's knitting skills contributed to Eileen's dislike of knitting. Don't know why it took me so long to figure that out.

 

It's clear that Eileen didn't teach me to knit. But Mary Lynn McCorkle did, my first year at university. I chose a complicated stitch and made myself a pair of beautiful yellow mittens that were perhaps a little tight because of my beginner's very tense tension. It was cold in Greencastle, Indiana, and I was thrilled to have those wonderful mittens. And it wasn't even a month later that I lost them. I had gone to the local college eatery—called what? The Double? The Den? The Dive? Something with a D. When I got back to the dormitory I had no mittens. I called the place, frantic, but no one ever found them. The fact that I still mourn the loss of those yellow mittens shows how special they were. Or how bizarrely selective my memory is.

 

But—give a man a fish, etc. So even though those particular mittens were lost forever, I had been taught to fish—that is, to knit—and my knitting career was launched.

 

I knitted sweaters for our children when they were small. I remember a set of three: a teal cardigan for the oldest, a yellow pullover with a cabled front for our middle child, and for the youngest, a camel-colored pullover with a pouch pocket and a hood. Oh, he was so cute in that. Some forty years later I still have the pattern for that kangaroo-pouch sweater.

 

Just after we had moved to Kansas for my then-husband's next round of graduate school, I decided to buy a knitting machine. I found a used one in Kansas City and spent the next three years making the ugliest items imaginable. The learning curve of the knitting machine was too steep for me to climb. But I kept the machine.

 

I have no glittering tales of my life in knitting? Does it all really come down to "knit a stitch; knit another stitch"? Was Eileen right all along?

 

Years later, I bought a Brother Bulky knitting machine and found my machine-knitting comfort level doing intarsia work. For the next ten years I used it to make one-of-a-kind sweaters. I became a craftsperson. Several of my articles were published in (can I say "international"?) fibre arts magazines. All day every day I sat at my table, improvised from a door and a couple of large wooden boxes, and "painted" intarsia sweaters on the knitting machine. I bought yarns until my stash dwarfed the inventory of many yarn shops. Once a year I held a crafts sale with half a dozen other craftswomen and we sold everything we'd spent the year making. I made just enough, at these sales, to finance my yarn purchases, and then I'd spend the next year knitting again, all day, every day. Evenings were devoted to hand-finishing whatever I was working on, knitting or crocheting ribbings and button bands by hand.

 

After ten years of constant knitting I suddenly said, "No more. This is the end." And it was. I sold off most of the yarn at a garage sale. I hated to say good-bye to my Brother Bulky, my workhorse companion for so long, but I gave it away to a group that was creating a crafts space for homeless teens. While I was demonstrating for them how to use the machine, I realized that it was indeed time to let it go—the carriage was so heavy I could barely move it across the needle bed. I had obviously grown too old and feeble to use my favorite knitting machine.

 

 

So now what? I could still knit by hand if I wanted to. My

friend Sally knits constantly, follows several knitting blogs, and enthusiastically turns out garments and baby blankets. Why am I not doing this? H'm-m. I think it's because I don't want to. Any projects I've started in the last fifteen years have been abandoned after a few inches. It just seems overwhelming to try to create a garment stitch by stitch, one knit stitch at a time. Does that sound familiar?

 

Could I knit a sweater now? I don't think so. My fingers ache just thinking about it. It was fun while it lasted, but my knitting days are over.

 

Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor   

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Adventures on Public Transit

When I reached the subway platform this morning, I silently thanked the horde of waiting commuters for having done my waiting for me. The train arrived, much more crowded than usual for the time of day, made even more crowded by the group of us who got on at this stop.

 

All seats were taken, so I stood. Because there was still plenty of standing room, I didn't feel squashed. I was able to hold the pole with one hand and my book in the other, and I began my reading, paying no attention to my surroundings.

 

After three stops, the woman seated directly in front of me stood to leave. Hurrah, I cheered, I'll be able to sit. But as I made a move to sit, the woman standing on my right, without looking me in the eye, slipped in (shoved in?) ahead of me and took the seat. Once I realized what she was doing, I backed away slightly and made a "be my guest" gesture, which she didn't acknowledge. She certainly had my attention now. The first thing I did (pretending to read) was to check her age. Perhaps she was even older than I and thus was entitled to the seat. But she was about 50. Her hair was dark, worn in a pageboy, and she wore large, black-rimmed glasses. As she sat in my seat she took out a book and began to read. I returned to my own book, though I was no longer in the mood for fiction. Oh, I thought, pretending to read, maybe she's wearing high heels. I'm happy to let a high-heeled woman sit, because I know how very uncomfortable it is to stand on the subway when your feet hurt. But Ms. Pushy-Pushy was wearing flat-heeled boots.

 

She got off after three more stations, and I spent those minutes imagining why she had felt so entitled to my seat. (At no point was I curious about why I felt so entitled to her seat. That must be a different story.) Perhaps she was ill with some degenerative disease and was unable to stand. Or she was recovering from knee surgery.

 

At any rate, she held at least half my attention until she left the seat (which I took immediately) and the train. In the meantime, while I was still standing, a small man had boarded and stood beside me. He was abnormally short, a hair over five feet tall, reaching not as high as my shoulder. We carry with us a template of "normal" in our mind's eyes, and the slightest deviation from that template triggers our attention. We don't stare or judge or necessarily reach a conclusion—but some little part of us notices. That's how it was this time. I noticed that he was extremely small. Otherwise he seemed perfectly normal (whatever that is), though I didn't turn to look or otherwise investigate. He wore a jacket and tie and a tiny topcoat.

 

When I took over the seat (my seat) vacated by Ms. Pushy-Pushy, he moved over to stand beside me, the way subway riders shift position when space opens up. He stood beside me as I had stood beside Ms. Pushy-Pushy—but closer. Much closer.

 

I have heard of men who take advantage of crowded conditions to cop a feel or otherwise get their jollies under the justification of involuntary proximity. It wasn't that crowded, I assure you, today. He stood nudging my shoulder, invading my space, and making me extremely aware of him (paying me back for having noticed his stature—or lack of it?). I tried to read but was too distracted. Finally, I made up my mind that if he hadn't moved away by the next stop, then I would stand up and go to the far end of the subway car, even if I had to stand up for the rest of the trip. I do think he was reading my mind, for before we reached the next stop he had moved down the car, behind me. I don't know whether he got off, found a seat of his own, or simply found a younger, prettier woman to squeeze against.

 

We reached Yonge Street Station, the chief transfer point for those going downtown, and the car emptied. As I lifted my glance, a large man lurched past me to the seat across the aisle (we were both facing the front of the car, not each other). His face as he passed me was as grey as a dirty sheet. He looked like a very ill man. I wondered what ailment he had and whether it was as serious as it looked. And then, before I even finished that thought, a man in a red jacket came up to him and began to talk. Seats were available, either beside or at right angles to the Grey-Faced Man, but Red Jacket didn't sit. He stood in the aisle beside me for the next five stops, chatting loudly with his friend the Grey Man. I never did get back to my book.

 

A subway ride may not be stranger than fiction, but it is at least as interesting.

 

Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor   

www.anntudor.ca
http://scenesfromthejourney.blogspot.com

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Deer Creek

A black-and-white photo of Deer Creek hung on our living room wall when I was growing up. It was a picture of an anonymous waterway (so why do I know that it was Deer Creek?) with thick banks of trees on either side overhanging the creek. I don't know why we had the picture, or who took it. Certainly no one in our family took artsy nature photographs. And yet there it was, from my earliest memories: Deer Creek on our wall. Was either of my parents particularly attached to Deer Creek? Not to my knowledge (though I have to point out that there were many things they never bothered to reveal to us). Neither of my parents was a fishing fanatic. They ate fish but they didn't fish. Like most people in our town, both of them loved those small local catfish rolled in cornmeal and deep fried to a fish-y crispness, so that even the wafer-thin tail was delicious.

 

But water? Or banks of greenery? Nature in general? Nothing. If it was any less manicured than a golf course, Nature held no interest for them.

 

Of course, all of my knowledge of them comes from the years after they began having children. Once they found the on-button for that procedure, they seemed unable to figure out how to turn it off, and that made them much too busy to be floating down Deer Creek in a canoe, taking pictures.

 

So perhaps our black-and-white picture was a reminder of earlier romps in the woods, of old swimmin' holes, of the free play of their before-family lives.

 

It's not easy to discover our parents' secrets.

 

Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor   

www.anntudor.ca

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Three Legs of the Stool

Despite some opinion to the contrary, I am not a very good cook. I am careless. I am usually more concerned with convenience and efficiency than I am with cooking. Although I love to eat, I do not have a nuanced palate and thus am perfectly willing to substitute one ingredient for another at my whim.

 

So where does the reputation come from? To start with, I do cook. I cook all our meals and always have. I don't own a microwave and would leave my husband in a New York minute if he ever brought one home as a surprise.

 

So the first leg of the stool is that I do indeed cook. The second leg is that I read a lot, retain about half of what I read, and thus can talk a good game. Ask me about something culinary. Go on, ask. If I don't know the answer off the top of my head (or if I can't manufacture a plausible answer), then I can find it for you quick as a wink (and not on the Internet). So I sound as if I might be able to cook.

 

The third leg of this milking-stool story is that I cook from scratch. My husband says that our back room is full of large bags labelled "Scratch," into which I dip as I begin to prepare a meal. I pride myself on making my own this and my own that. (Someone spoke to me recently about letting go of my "pride"—and I scoured my brain hunting for instances of pride. Well, I just found a major one!) My own ricotta. My own catsup. My own pancetta. My own lard. My own bread.

 

Anyone could do this, since it isn't difficult cooking. It takes a little time, but not much talent. I've always done it. This is who I am. So the question is, why? Why bother?

 

Have you inferred my politics from things I've previously said? It isn't as if I don't wear my heart on my sleeve. Politics is why I make my own lard and ricotta. I have always distrusted the corporate world, and I've seen nothing over the years to change my opinion.

 

Here's my view.  Imagine a baker named Susie Q. When Susie made cakes in her kitchen, all those many years ago, she made very good cakes. When she turned her cake-making into a small local business, she made very good cakes. When Susie Q went corporate, her responsibility was no longer to her customers but to her shareholders. Susie's cakes began to decline in quality. Using all butter, which was more expensive than other fats, cut into the profit margins. Powdered eggs were cheaper than fresh eggs, and much less labour-intensive. Susie's mixer, which made three cakes at a time, was replaced with industrial mixers that made 3000 cakes at a time.

 

The bottom line is this:. Susie Q's cakes are no longer what they used to be--and might not be what you want to put into your mouth or the mouths of your children. Susie Q no longer has control of her product; it's all about shareholders and profit.

 

I make my own lard because lard from the supermarket is hydrogenated (though why they need to hydrogenate lard I don't know). I like to cook with lard, and I want animal fat, not genetically modified oils that have been hydrogenated. So I make my own.

 

I make my own ricotta because I can, and because I've never found a source for ricotta made from organically produced milk. It's easy and it gives me a by-product of whey, which I use in making soups and breads. (I could be buying powdered whey supplements instead, but see the Sara Lee story above.)

 

My point is that because I am so cynical about our corporate world, I have no choice but to make as many food items as I can. The corporate concern does not include my health or my nutritional intake. Their concern is their own bottom line, and I refuse to contribute to it.

 

Substitute "agri-biz" for "corporate world" and you will understand why I buy as much produce and meat as I can from small family farms. Three cheers for the Dufferin Grove Organic Farmers' Market!

 

I must tell you, however, that when I eat out—whether at a cheap-and-cheerful place, at a high-end restaurant, or at the home of friends—all bets are off. I eat what's put in front of me.

 

Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor   

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Spider-Watching

As I sat in my chair

a tiny movement caught my eye.

Turning my head, I saw a minute house spider.

Suspended from a single silken filament,

she stared at me, eyeball to eyeball.

 

We have an arachnid-friendly house,

but that does not extend to

such intimate interaction.

 

I rose from my chair.

 

Reacting to my movement,

the spider climbed up her home-spun lifeline,

just a few inches.

I waved my hand beneath her

and she climbed higher, gobbling up her thread,

climbing, climbing.

We played this game a minute more,

me waving her on, she climbing to save her life,

until she reached the safety of the ceiling.

 

I returned to my own safety

of sitting still in my chair,

satisfied at the non-violent outcome.

 

Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor