Thursday, September 4, 2014

Essay into poem or poem into essay? Or try it as flash fiction...

This weekend I wrote an essay about a lavender labyrinth; I feel the writing was good but I still wonder if it would make a better poem. This kind of cross-genre hopping helps me figure out what is the most essential way to tell something. If I try it as a flash fiction, a poem, or short story and it doesn't feel more deeply itself, then the first form is probably the right one. But the exercise of writing from another angle reveals more of what can be said.

Here it is as an essay, poem to come soon:

The Lavender Labyrinth Named Laverinth, on My Ex Husbands Farm

The 180 small plants are finishing their first year after a hard winter. The lavender, or more exactly the Lavandin Phenomenal hybrid (Lavandula x intermedia 'Phenomenal') are now the size of cabbages, but soft and prickly as fir needles. In a couple of years they should reach above my knees. They flowered earlier in the summer. The silvery green leaves and stems release a gentle floral and bitter camphor scent when I rub them with my finger. I remember the same aroma rising from my grandmothers dresser drawers where velvet gloves, buttressed girdles, yellowing handkerchiefs, and partial dentures rested in honorable rows. My husband Jim and I follow the path of clover through four quadrants in eight rings; our feet the beating rhythm that speeds the crickets and briefly flattens the white and purple clover blossoms. This is no maze where all but one path dead ends, too grim for contemplation, this is one path to the center of all things, under a shifting sky of cloud and early September light. 

The labyrinth is next to a quiet country road. As we turn the bends, our elemental spirit, the dog Sadie, at first follows on the tarp covered curves, where small bushes of lavender poke out of diamond cuts. She takes off and wants to cross the street to investigate the neighbors horses, and we call her back. She bounds, the size of a barn cat, long body leaping on short legs. She finds a musky spot between lavender and clover, and rolls in it, her black and tan limbs upside down dancing the joy of being. 

We talk and pace, taking photos, watching the sunlight and clouds alternately illuminate and cloak fields and barns, while our hosts bend and weed the 2,908 lavender plants (Lavendin Grosso, with less floral scent and a higher oil yield) in the fields on the hill behind their stone farmhouse. Once the plants mature, this will be the largest or second largest lavender farm in New York State. Dave, Diane, and our daughter Natalie tend the straight lines with mowers, scissors, and gloved hands. 

What should I contemplate in this curving artery of plants? My life plan no longer numbers in decades...I may have several years, or months, but the hope of a cure, or stasis, keeps me living less elegiacally. I embrace Dianne's wish I take a contemplative walk. I can accept there is this day, this turn on the path, this scent of evaporating dew released from leaf and earth. The air tastes fresh and the view is clear. My loving companion is just behind me. Our shoes and pant cuffs grow damp. The dog sniffs her journey. The crickets declare, "here now, here now," to lure a mate before the frost. They don't know this is their one season, they're hardwired to fiddle their desire. The sun heats my neck and shade cools it. Around and around, I begin to hear folk songs I once listened to on vinyl records. The Celtic music we play when we're feeling romantic. And around. I think of The Secret Garden, a novel that made a garden one of the main characters and made me want both children and roses to thrive. I hope to see this labyrinth grow to its full strength, just as I hope the Allen's make a success of their livelihoods here in the Adirondacks. I want my grandchildren to run or crawl through this clover, even if I don't get to greet them at the end or lead them in at the beginning. It may seem impossible I am friends with my ex and his wife, we defy convention. They are so better suited to each other than we were. Me a farmer? Never. My husband, my Jim, is in synch with me. We claim membership in the artist class, bohemians, or as my grandmother said, lives of genteel poverty. I have no regrets, Dave and I raised daughters who have become admirable women. We have good partnerships. Natalie and Caitlin will walk these pathways alone or with their loves. The same sun will warm their arms and ears. 

Whatever makes the clover spring back from footsteps is strong in me. My fingernails are tree rings showing bands for each round of chemo. Each time I must recover strength, appetite, sleep, laughter, and a desire to walk, write, draw, and take photos. Each time I must travel this path and recenter myself. Leave regret at the entry, not worry about what waits in the future, feel my weight shift from foot to foot, breathe in and out, until end of the path appears. 

This labyrinth is a shifting vista from the plants and insects at my feet to the 360 degree view.  Staying aware of the present moment, with my senses, takes practice. I am so used to tuning out conversations and sense distractions around me. I sink into the thin attachments of friendship in social media, exist in the chaotic replay of music fragments and to do lists, automatic analysis of type kerning, composition, and color (the side effect of being a graphic designer), rerun old hurts or difficult conversations, and replay scenes from miniseries and novels; that is my conscious mind. I am calmer and become a better writer when I live in the heartbeat of time. All the senses flow through the labyrinth. It can travel with me, if I need to relax. I can recall the cricket song, sun heating my skin, sharp sweet scent, an echo of clambering into the private spaces within hedges as a girl, small wind cooling my scalp, the crunch and rustle of my man and dog pacing behind or ahead of me, seeing the barn, horse, road, old schoolhouse filled with hay wheels, van, farmhouse, gigantic maple tree, lavender rows, hill, mountains, cloud, sun, and feeling my own body still carrying me, step by step, breath by breath through this chambered green heart on a hillside in Washington county.
Laverinth: a lavender labyrinth for meditative walking.

My dog Sadie bounding through the labyrnth.

A cricket sings from the safety of the lavender leaves.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Croissant and Viennoiserie Diary

August 2014
As I left a meeting with my oncology nutritionist, on Manhattans Upper East Side, I noticed Gotham Café advertising Balthazar goodies inside. I've been craving a gluten treat ever since my daughter Caitlin sent an email from Paris describing the perfect crunch, chew, and buttery savor of a superb croissant. Granted, sweet carbohydrates weren't on the doctors recommended foods list; but I have been eating gluten free for years and wanted a bit of carpe diem during chemo. I'll soon be eliminating carbo sweets, except for rare occasions, and embracing cruciferous veggies within a Mediterranean diet to better improve my chances against the cancer. But this week...I'm on a farewell spree...

Balthazar Almond Croissant
It smelled buttery and almondy as I bit the end to ascertain the quality of the dough. It was texture perfection, lofty and well layered, flaky crunch outside, softer but maintaining tender layers inside, and a perfect golden brown. The flavor was good, butter and flour were fresh, but the taste didn't leap to heavenly. My next bite, with base and topping, sent me into bliss. The majority of the croissant had toasted almonds slices set into a thin frangipani coating on the top. The almonds amplified the crunch and shatter of the outer crust. The marzipan flavor was perfectly calibrated to the ratio of dough in a mouthful. Sweet but not too sweet. As I waited for my bus and took bites I must have looked like an addict scoring a hit. It was the best almond croissant I've ever had. Balthazar has a commercial bakery in New Jersey supplying many cafés in the city and a walk in bakery at 80 Spring Street, in SoHo, NYC.

The delicious Balthazar almond croissant is sold in many locations.
Yes, the inside of the Balthazar almond croissant is as good as it looks, crisp and tender buttery  layers, lofty and light.

Balthazar Chocolate Croissant
Having read online that Oren's Daily Roast, in my Columbia University neighborhood, sold Balthazar baked goods, I waited on the long line as my husband and dog regarded me mournfully through the window. The rack held a line of chocolate croissants that were uniform and squarish with a shiny top layer that proved to be a thin brush of egg glaze. Unfortunately the croissants were dark and appeared to be over baked. They looked factory produced, while the Balthazar almond croissants have more variety in shape, giving them a hand crafted appearance. The over baked proved to be true, when sniffing them there was an smoky scent. The multilayered dough had a dry slightly bitter burnt flavor. The real surprise was in the chocolate filling, deliciously bitter sweet and respectfully subdued in quantity so as not to overwhelm the other flavors. I wished I could have experienced one baked correctly and I need to do so to make this a fair review. But even so, I suspect this chocolate croissant will only prove to be good but not memorable. My husband said good layers, burnt flavor.

Balthazar chocolate croissant, over baked.

Balthazar chocolate croissant, lovely texture, chocolate restraint.

La Toulousaine Raspberry Croissant
I discovered there was a French bakery nearby on 942 Amsterdam Avenue (between West 106th and 107th Streets). I got there with Jim and our hound by 8:30 am to have a large choice of fresh offerings. The raspberry croissants were large long irregular rectangles, lavishly dusted with confectioners sugar, and smelled delicious. Despite being somewhat flat, there were many layers inside. The crust didn't have quite as much crunch as I like but was tasty, well layered, and baked to a golden color. The inner layers were soft, due no doubt to the wet influence of jam during baking. The filling was thick and very sweet but not over powering. It was utterly delicious and earns the reviews it gets online. Bring a wipe or napkin for the powdered sugar and sticky jam that will trace a smile around your mouth.
La Toulousaine pain aux raisins on left and the amazing raspberry croissant on the right.
La Toulousaine raspberry filling, just the right amount of goodness.

La Toulousaine Pain aux Raisins
The circular raisin ring had been treated with a thick pour of clear sugar glaze and a central sprinkling of chunky sugar crystals. Both choices worried me, these are treatments I'm used to from vending machines and Dunkin' Donuts. The dough wasn't sufficiently flaky. In taste it was superior to commercial products but fell far short of what I'd expect from a real French bakery. I took only two bites. My daughter Caitlin, just returned from a month Europe, where she became an expert consumer of pain aux raisins, said it wasn't bad, she's had worse, and only took one bite. If you prefer your pain aux raisins extra sweet and soft, you may like this, but for me it was only passable due to the fresh ingredients.
La Toulousaine pain aux raisins interior. Too sweet?

La Toulousaine Almond Croissant
It is clear the pastry chef at La Toulousaine prefers the Viennese approach which adds creamy fillings to the interior. This almond croissant appeared limp on the rack and looked insufficiently baked inside. I found the overall flavor to be decent but had no desire to eat more than a third of it. The interior was unappealing, it tasted like wet under baked dough. The outer crust didn't shatter or crunch although it had a good flavor. The next day I stopped by and said the croissant had been under baked, "oh no,'" said the woman server, "it is the filling." I had not experienced it as a filling, only clumpy gooey dough. Another rack of damp defeated almond croissants waited on the shelf. I wouldn't recommended this when such better alternatives exist; do order the raspberry croissant.
La Toulousaine almond croissant
La Toulousaine almond croissant interior.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

I am interviewed in my role as book designer!

Mary Mackey, author herself, interviewed me about designing book covers. Here it is:

Saturday, April 26, 2014

More inking fun on 1 train commute

I love drawing with my Japanese ink brush pen. I do a quick pencil sketch and expand it with wet ink line. I realized, it was a flash really, that I don't have to anxiously keep bobbing my head around to keep one person in view to do a portrait. Or gently nudge someone so I can see past them! As people move on and off the subway, or get obscured, I simply look for someone a bit like them at nearly the same angle and keep drawing. I had people on the left and right of me watching eagerly as I discovered this and they too were swiveling around to see who would model an ear or mouth or jacket. So now I've invented the composite portrait. Ta da!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Quest for Jello

Today I was on a clear liquid diet in preparation for tomorrows colonoscopy. I went out at lunch hour and bought a chicken broth from a sushi place and began searching lower midtown Manhattan for another approved item on the list, Jello. It has the illusion of being a solid. 

At the corner convenience store the manager said "Yellow? Yellow?" as I said "Jello, Jello?" We did this a few times. He clearly didn't have any.

I next tried the upscale healthy mini-lunch, artisan coffee, artful minimal decor place. There the terribly buff and shellacked looking guy said "Noooo, we don't sell...Jello." You know, as if I'd asked for beef jerky or a jar of pickled pig trotters. "I'm on a liquid diet today, I really need to find Jello!" He sniffed. I left.

I tried and tried, diners, bagel shops, delis, a pizza Jello.

Finally, realizing there were several bar/eateries on the street, I waddled into the first one wearing my Nepalese knitted cap, two coats, pink scarf, and neon red plastic knee high boots. Brisk walking just is not possible in an ice storm wearing this gear while carrying my take out bag with the soup. I asked the wait staff "do you have Jello, like in Jello shots?" They sort of backed away from me. "Actually all I want is the Jello part?" They glanced at each other and with barely smothered smirks said "no."

In the second bar I asked the hostess if they had Jello shots. She stared at me for a moment and said "we don't serve Jello" and when I pleaded "but I'm on a liquid diet today," she looked at me with something like pity and said "no Jello, we don't serve that here." She glanced meaningfully at the exit.

I gave up. Midtown is officially a Jello-free zone. And I don't even like the stuff.