Wednesday, December 30, 2009

...And Now for the Cookbook

In 1981 I was living in Houston and was absolutely broke. I planned to return to Pennsylvania for the holidays but that would leave me with no money for presents. So I got the bright idea to put together a cookbook from all the recipes I'd collected over the years. It was a bigger hit than I ever could have dreamed of! I hand-wrote most of it and included my Mother's recipe for baking breads and pies, recipes from my grandmothers and great aunts, as well as a few stories about growing up in our wild and crazy family.

My Mother absolutely loved the book. She made literally hundreds of copies of it and sold them for $3 a piece. When she came to visit me in Houston she brought me the profits and we used them for a trip to New Orleans.

In 1992 I decided to update the book and expanded it considerably. It contained a couple hundred recipes and more stories. I typeset it on the first computer I had ever used and it was a considerable improvement over the first one. It had recipes for rye bread, dozens of kinds of pickles, relishes, preserves, desserts, casseroles, and a huge section on sauerkraut. It became very popular among people who collected Pennsylvania Dutch recipes and a food writer, Fran Frye, from the Erie Daily Times got hold of a copy and wrote a total of three columns about it. My mother was in xerox-heaven!

Once the internet became a daily part of my life I made a web site that featured some of the most popular PA Dutch recipes and I got a lot of feedback over the past 5 years about it. One of the funniest things was an email I got from someone who said a guy in his office had made home-made keuchels (a PA Dutch fried dough) and gave him one to taste. He said it tasted just like the ones his mother used to make and didn't believe his buddy when he said the got the recipe off the internet. He went to the URL, found the recipe and looked at the accompanying picture and said, “Oh my God, that's my mother!” It was my cousin Jack Dippold. No wonder they tasted just like his mother's, they were from her recipe!

So, now that Each Angel Burns is published and I am a long way from the next novel I decided it is time to re-do the cookbook and include more stories and memories. This will be extra fun because two of my nieces, my brother Jack's daughter Amy and my sister Chris's daughter Tasha, are going to help. I've sent out a call to the family for more recipes and the book is well underway. I have an entire box of recipes I brought back from my mother's kitchen after she died and some of them are old Pennsylvania recipes I don't want to see be lost.

My late brother Jack had a notebook that he called his “recipe book”. It was filled with his recipes from experimenting making pickles, preserves, beer, wine and, of course, his famous sausages. I called Amy, his daughter, and asked whatever became of that book after he died. She said she's pretty sure it is still in the bookcase at her mother's house so I am hoping she will let me borrow it and add some of those recipes. It would be a wonderful way to honor him and god only knows what recipes are in it. We may find some new uses for groundhog or squirrel.

So we are hoping to have it ready by Spring. I don't know yet how many recipes will be in it but I can assure you they will either be very good or very interesting. I know there will be a section on soltz, elderberries, home-grown tomatoes, and,of course, sauerkraut! Stay tuned.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Three New Scarves & a very cool find....

In previous blogs I've talked about Seaman's Scarves. Over the holiday I got a lot of knitting done and I finished 2 seaman's scarves of my own design as well as another long scarf in the softest, yummiest cashmere blend I've ever touched. The seaman's scarves are the patterns I plan to make available for the fund-riser at Cape Ann Brewery. They are in two different styles - Click photos to enlarge.

1. Aran Style: This gray scarf knit from Laines Du Nord Maxi from Coveted Yarn is in an Aran pattern featuring cables that form a very handsome pattern. It requires 3 balls and is worked on #8 needles:

2. Guernsey Style: This green scarf knit from Laines Du Nord Maxi from Coveted Yarn is in a Guernsey pattern which is a little hard to see. I enhanced the contrast in the closeup to give a better idea of the design. It requires 3 balls and is worked on #8 needles:

3. Blue Cashmere: This scarf used six balls of Knit Pick's Ambrosia in "Horizon". It was knit on #5 needles and the pattern is a combination of stitches. It is 72" long and very luxurious.



And finally, this has nothing to do with knitting but my friend Leslie gave me this scarf that she discovered among her mother's things. It is gold silk charmeuse embroidered with a pattern of winged horses. I have never seen anything like it. I washed it by hand and am not sure what I am going to do with it but it is so beautiful I just had to share the picture.

So that's what I've been doing. I'll be working on writing up the patterns and let you know when they are ready.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

My Stollen Christmas

Growing up in Pennsylvania I always looked forward to Christmas. We usually had a good deal of snow and, because I come from such a large family, there was always a lot of activity. The neighborhood I lived in was rural and there were lots of kids and we took Christmas seriously, especially caroling. Every year a gang of us would devise our caroling plan of attack fully cognizant of which houses were most inclined to pass out cookies or candy for our efforts.

The church we belonged to, Queen of the World, was about half a mile away and there was a lovely woods with an old logging trail that we could walk through. I have a lot of memories of walking to Midnight Mass with my friends Kathy and Sue through those woods all dusted with snow. Of course once boys entered the equation there were snowball fights both coming and going. I remember one Christmas when I had this fabulous hat. Of course it got pummeled with snowballs on the way to Mass and I sat through the Mass with melting snow running down the back of my neck. All of that was a very long time ago.

One of the things my family took pride in was making a lot of our own Christmas gifts. Every year we had a party on Christmas Eve to exchange our family gifts and it was always exciting to see who made what. Knitted and crocheted scarves and mittens, quits, home-made edible treats, hand-stitched samplers and ornaments. I have a vivid memory of my sister Chris hiding in the bedroom frantically crocheting trying to finish an afghan before it was her turn to present it to the lucky recipient.

Even after I moved away I came home at Christmas time loaded down with stuffed animals, homemade dolls, hand-knit sweaters. It got to the point where it was ridiculous. One year I baked dozens of delicious coffeecakes that I wrapped in colored cellophane and tied with ribbons. Problem was they didn't keep well and by the time they were transported 1500 miles and unwrapped they were coated with green fuzz --- festive but inedible. And then there was my stollen...

Christmas stollen originated in Germany in the fifteenth century. Stollen is generally made from a butter-rich yeast bread which is loaded with candied, marinated fruit. I was living in Marblehead when I decided to make a Christmas project of homemade stollen. I decided I would make all the fruits to include and started in October by filling a huge jar with golden raisins and warm apricot brandy. I let it sit in the sunshine overlooking the ocean with the thought that perhaps some of the scent of the sea would soak into them. I found directions for making candied orange and lemon peel which was absolutely delicious.

My friend Trudi and I took a trip in to the North End to look for glacé cherries and the marzipan I wanted to put inside. Trudi had lived in Italy for many years and knew about such things. It was quite an adventure and we came home with cherries, marzipan, three different kinds of nuts, and some beautiful silk ribbon to wrap the loaves.

The making of the stollen was quite an operation. The dough was beautiful, silky and rich. I kneaded into it all the goodies I had collected and, after the first rising, made loves wrapped around a core of marzipan. I do not have words to describe how delicious the house smelled as they baked. All the while I was working on them I was thinking about our family Christmas Eve party and what a delicious treat they would be. We always had the same food Christmas Eve. Mom made a big batch of her “whopper” soup and homemade rolls. Jack brought his home-made smoked venison sausage. Anne made Wedding Soup, Lisa made her cheese and broccoli soup. Chris & Beth made different soups that were always delicious. One year Beth made a cold apple-cinnamon soup that I still remember. I was very much looking forward to adding my home-made stollen to the festivities. I just knew everyone would think it amazing.

So the stollens were dusted with powdered sugar into which I had sprinkled some silver sugar to add sparkle. They were garnished with the cherries and wrapped in tissue. I delivered smaller stollens to friends in Marblehead and packed the biggest one, the one that would earn me all kinds of Christmas praise, to make the journey to Pennsylvania.

When I arrived at my parents' house it was mid-afternoon of Christmas Eve. The only person home was my sister Beth. Her husband had taken their two boys somewhere and everyone else was either out doing last minute errands or had not arrived yet. While we gabbed I arranged my magnificent stollen in the middle of the huge kitchen table in my mother's bright kitchen. Beth had just made a pot of coffee and we sat down to chat.

Beth is seventeen years younger than I am. We have never really lived in the same house together because I went off to college before she was even walking. But, of course, we are still sisters and it was wonderful to have some time, just the two of us, to catch up. So we drank coffee and gabbed and then --- well --- we decided to sample the stollen. And sample it... and sample it... and sample it. It was every bit as delicious as I knew it would be. We were both very impressed. I told her the whole story of the making of it and we decided to see how it tasted with a glass of wine. Let me tell you, it was even better than with coffee!

It was a delightful afternoon and as the sun went down over the snowy hills outside the kitchen window people started arriving loaded with presents and soup and treats and goodies. And what they found in Mom's kitchen was two inebriated sisters and about 3 inches left of stollen. Three measly inches...

Well, I'm sure it was a lovely Christmas Eve. I'm sure everyone had good time and that all the food was delicious. And I'm sure everyone believes me when I tell them how wonderful the stollen was. Maybe some year I'll try to make it again. This time I'll mail it to them.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Brilliant Article by Blogger Frank Schaeffer

Excellent interview with Frank Schaeffer on Chicago Public Radio: Atheism and Christian Fundamentalism Miss the Mark on Faith (in the interview he talks about Daniel Dennett who is an atheist I admire).

Someone just sent me this and I thought it was so excellent I wanted to pass it on. I've long admired Frank Schaeffer, his book Crazy for God is an eye-opener. I love this article:

Obama Will Triumph - So Will America

By Frank Schaeffer

Before he'd served even one year President Obama lost the support of the easily distracted left and engendered the white hot rage of the hate-filled right. But some of us, from all walks of life and ideological backgrounds -- including this white, straight, 57-year-old, former religious right wing agitator, now progressive writer and (given my background as the son of a famous evangelical leader) this unlikely Obama supporter -- are sticking with our President. Why?-- because he is succeeding.

We faithful Obama supporters still trust our initial impression of him as a great, good and uniquely qualified man to lead us.

Obama's steady supporters will be proved right. Obama's critics will be remembered as easily panicked and prematurely discouraged at best and shriveled hate mongers at worst.

The Context of the Obama Presidency

Not since the days of the rise of fascism in Europe, the Second World War and the Depression has any president faced more adversity. Not since the Civil War has any president led a more bitterly divided country. Not since the introduction of racial integration has any president faced a more consistently short-sighted and willfully ignorant opposition - from both the right and left.

As the President's poll numbers have fallen so has his support from some on the left that were hailing him as a Messiah not long ago; all those lefty websites and commentators that were falling all over themselves on behalf of our first black president during the 2008 election.

The left's lack of faith has become a self-fulfilling "prophecy"-- snipe at the President and then watch the poll numbers fall and then pretend you didn't have anything to do with it!

Here is what Obama faced when he took office-- none of which was his fault:

# An ideologically divided country to the point that America was really two countries

# Two wars; one that was mishandled from the start, the other that was unnecessary and immoral

# The worst economic crisis since the depression

# America's standing in the world at the lowest point in history

# A country that had been misled into accepting the use of torture of prisoners of war

# A health care system in free fall

# An educational system in free fall

# A global environmental crisis of history-altering proportions (about which the Bush administration and the Republicans had done nothing)

# An impasse between culture warriors from the right and left

# A huge financial deficit inherited from the terminally irresponsible Bush administration…

And those were only some of the problems sitting on the President's desk!

"Help" from the Right?

What did the Republicans and the religious right, libertarians and half-baked conspiracy theorists -- that is what the Republicans were reduced to by the time Obama took office -- do to "help" our new president (and our country) succeed? They claimed that he wasn't a real American, didn't have an American birth certificate, wasn't born here, was secretly a Muslim, was white-hating "racist", was secretly a communist, was actually the Anti-Christ, (!) and was a reincarnation of Hitler and wanted "death panels" to kill the elderly!

They not-so-subtly called for his assassination through the not-so-subtle use of vile signs held at their rallies and even a bumper sticker quoting Psalm 109:8. They organized "tea parties" to sound off against imagined insults and all government in general and gathered to howl at the moon. They were led by insurance industry lobbyists and deranged (but well financed) "commentators" from Glenn Beck to Rush Limbaugh.

The utterly discredited Roman Catholic bishops teamed up with the utterly discredited evangelical leaders to denounce a president who was trying to actually do something about the poor, the environment, to diminish the number of abortions through compassionate programs to help women and to care for the sick! And in Congress the Republican leadership only knew one word: "No!"

In other words the reactionary white, rube, uneducated, crazy American far right,combined with the educated but obtuse neoconservative war mongers, religious right shills for big business, libertarian Fed Reserve-hating gold bug, gun-loving crazies, child-molesting acquiescent "bishops", frontier loons and evangelical gay-hating flakes found one thing to briefly unite them: their desire to stop an uppity black man from succeeding at all costs!

"Help" from the Left?

What did the left do to help their newly elected president? Some of them excoriated the President because they disagreed with the bad choices he was being forced to make regarding a war in Afghanistan that he'd inherited from the worst president in modern history!

Others stood up and bravely proclaimed that the President's economic policies had "failed" before the President even instituted them! Others said that since all gay rights battles had not been fully won within virtually minuets of the President taking office, they'd been "betrayed"! (Never mind that Obama's vocal support to the gay community is stronger than any other president's has been. Never that mind he signed a new hate crimes law!)

Those that had stood in transfixed legions weeping with beatific emotion on election night turned into an angry mob saying how "disappointed" they were that they'd not all immediately been translated to heaven the moment Obama stepped into the White House! Where was the "change"? Contrary to their expectations they were still mere mortals!

And the legion of young new supporters was too busy texting to pay attention for longer than a nanosecond… "Governing"?! What the hell does that world, uh, like mean?"

The President's critics left and right all had one thing in common: impatience laced with little-to-no sense of history (let alone reality) thrown in for good measure. Then of course there were the white, snide know-it-all commentators/talking heads who just couldn't imagine that maybe, just maybe they weren't as smart as they thought they were and certainly not as smart as their president. He hadn't consulted them, had he? So he must be wrong!

The Obama critics' ideological ideas defined their idea of reality rather than reality defining their ideas-say, about what is possible in one year in office after the hand that the President had been dealt by fate, or to be exact by the American idiot nation that voted Bush into office… twice!

Meanwhile back in the reality-based community - in just 12 short months -- President Obama:

#Continued the draw down the misbegotten war in Iraq
(But that wasn't good enough for his critics)

#Thoughtfully and decisively picked the best of several bad choices regarding the war in Afghanistan
(But that wasn't good enough for his critics)

#Gave a major precedent-setting speech supporting gay rights
(But that wasn't good enough for his critics)

#Restored America's image around the globe
(But that wasn't good enough for his critics)

#Banned torture of American prisoners
(But that wasn't good enough for his critics)

#Stopped the free fall of the American economy
(But that wasn't good enough for his critics)

#Put the USA squarely back in the bilateral international community
(But that wasn't good enough for his critics)

#Put the USA squarely into the middle of the international effort to halt global warming
(But that wasn't good enough for his critics)

#Stood up for educational reform
(But that wasn't good enough for his critics)

#Won a Nobel peace prize
(But that wasn't good enough for his critics)

#Moved the trial of terrorists back into the American judicial system of checks and balances
(But that wasn't good enough for his critics)

#Did what had to be done to start the slow, torturous and almost impossible process of health care reform that 7 presidents had failed to even begin
(But that wasn't good enough for his critics)

#Responded to hatred from the right and left with measured good humor and patience
(But that wasn't good enough for his critics)

#Stopped the free fall of job losses
(But that wasn't good enough for his critics)

#Showed immense personal courage in the face of an armed and dangerous far right opposition that included the sort of disgusting people that show up at public meetings carrying loaded weapons and carrying Timothy McVeigh-inspired signs about the "blood of tyrants" needing to "water the tree of liberty"…
(But that wasn't good enough for his critics)

#Showed that he could not only make the tough military choices but explain and defend them brilliantly
(But that wasn't good enough for his critics)

Other than those "disappointing" accomplishments -- IN ONE YEAR -- President Obama "failed"! Other than that he didn't "live up to expectations"!

Who actually has failed...

...are the Americans that can't see the beginning of a miracle of national rebirth right under their jaded noses. Who failed are the smart ass ideologues of the left and right who began rooting for this President to fail so that they could be proved right in their dire and morbid predictions. Who failed are the movers and shakers behind our obscenely dumb news cycles that have turned "news" into just more stupid entertainment for an entertainment-besotted infantile country.

Here's the good news: President Obama is succeeding without the help of his lefty "supporters" or hate-filled Republican detractors!

The Future Looks Good

After Obama has served two full terms, (and he will), after his wisdom in moving deliberately and cautiously with great subtlety on all fronts -- with a canny and calculating eye to the possible succeeds, (it will), after the economy is booming and new industries are burgeoning, (they will be), after the doomsayers are all proved not just wrong but silly: let the record show that not all Americans were panicked into thinking the sky was falling.

Just because we didn't get everything we wanted in the first short and fraught year Obama was in office not all of us gave up. Some of us stayed the course. And we will be proved right.

Merry Christmas (or Happy Holidays, depending on your point of view) to everyone!

PS. if you agree that Obama is shaping up to be a great president please pass this on and hang in there!

Frank Schaeffer is a writer and author of "Patience With God - Faith For People Who Don't Like Religion (Or Atheism)."

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Two Sad Movies --- Plus Observations

When it comes to movies I seem to go in streaks. I'll go for months or years without seeing a current movie (I'm not counting those that come on a DVD) and then I'll see several in a row. Recently I saw two movies that are in the theaters now and, though they were very, very different, they were also very, very important --- and sad.

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire has gotten a lot of press and critical acclaim and chances are I would not have seen it if my niece hadn't urged me to do so. It is the story of one young African-American woman who has managed to survive for sixteen years in New York without much good in her life. She has endured incest, abuse, ridicule, disdain, poverty --- the list is endless. It is tempting to imagine this is another one of those triumph-of-the-human-spirit movies and in some senses it is but there is one aspect of it I wasn't prepared for.

I thought I would not be able to get through it because the subject matter was too painful but the filmmaker did a very clever thing that not only makes the movie highly watchable but adds a depth and a charm I hadn't been prepared for. Throughout the movie, when Precious, the heroine, is facing the worst things in her life, she retreats into fantasy and the filmmaker shows us these escapes in delightful detail. When the worst abuse is happening, Precious imagines herself in a BET music video and we suddenly see the actress Gabourey Sidibe dressed in glamorous gowns, fully made up and gorgeously coiffed singing, dancing, flirting. It is such a treat to see this poor girl looking so gorgeous, even if it is only in her imagination, that relieves the tension and made me root all the more for a girl who could cherish such dreams.

Because I was the sort of kid who escaped the same way (albeit from far less ugly problems), I loved Precious for being able to see herself that way. I wanted to see her like that in real life, too.

The second movie, though totally different, was, in my opinion, even more heartbreaking. The Messenger stars Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson who is always worth watching. The story is about two soldiers who have a horrible job, they have to visit the families of recently deceased soldiers and give them the bad news. It is a slow, thoughtful movie and, in its own way, one of the most painful movies I have ever seen --- and one that everyone should see. Because the previous administration banned media from covering the caskets being returned from Afghanistan and Iraq, it has been possible for many to not see the human face of the thousands of lives lost. In this movie, woven through the storyline, we see family after family being given the worst possible news --- their beloved soldier has been killed. The NOK (Next of Kin) react in different ways, anger, shock, grief, disbelief, and the two soldiers delivering the news have to maintain their professionalism and keep their objectivity. It is not an easy thing to watch.

It's a strange thing but I kept thinking about the two movies for days after seeing them. Both are sad. Both deal with things that just should not happen. Both are about subjects most of us prefer not to think about --- especially at this time of year. Yet both are important. What I finally realized is that of the two, I found The Messenger the more disturbing and the more horrible. What happened to Precious was awful and nothing one would ever want to have any one to endure. But at least we can all agree that it was horrible, terrible, an atrocity, an outrage. We can all agree that abuse like that is a disgrace and something that no one should ever have to endure. She was wronged, deeply, horribly wronged.

But the people who received those visits from “the messengers”, what about them? They were told their loved ones were heroes, were admirable, were a credit to their country and they were --- but they were still just as dead --- many in a war that never should have been fought. What I feel is that both movies told stories about situations that are very, very wrong. But only one had the dignity of acknowledgment of that wrong.

I believe that there is evil in the world. And I believe that it is the responsibility of every right-thinking human being to do what they can to stand up to evil. Young people dying, by the thousands, for an illegal war is a very, very great evil. I think it was very brave of The Messenger's filmmakers to show us that in such a non-partisan way.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Archangel Gabriel as Superhero

Years ago I had a dear friend who was the mother of five children. She was a well-balanced, positive, and wonderful person but she always had severe bouts of post-partum depression after her babies were born. When I mentioned hormones she shook her head and said, “No, that's not it. When I'm carrying my babies they are all mine. But once they are born they belong to others and I feel such a sense of loss.” Since I have never been pregnant, let alone borne a child, I can only imagine. Unless...

One of the most interesting things about publishing a new book is the questions you get as soon as people start reading it. When a writer is engaged in the writing process he/she is spinning a world into being and that world makes sense to them. But the minute that world is put into the hands of readers things shift. Hopefully, in good ways. Now that Each Angel Burns is out in the world and readers are reading it (thank you, God) and sending emails I realize how what was once my baby is no more. I was particularly interested in a comment made by a young man who was in the middle of the book. He said, “My girlfriend is really into angels and I was going to tell her to read this but I don't think she'd like it. Your angel Gabriel is one scary dude.” I loved that.

According to the Catholic lore that informs my writer's imagination the archangels were God's warriors in the battle with the Evil One. Gabriel, which means “God's Strength”, was not to be messed with. Those who remember Bible stories remember Gabriel as the angel who announced to Mary that she was to be the mother of the son of God but in the Old Testament Book of Daniel Gabriel appears and, according to Daniel, was so terrifying that he fell on his face in fear.

A lot of New Age thinkers believe that Gabriel was actually female and always use the pronoun “she” when referring to Gabriel. This may be partially because of Gabriel's association with maternity in announcing the births of both John the Baptist and Jesus.

In Islamic lore, Gabriel is responsible for dictating the Koran to Muhammed. And one night when Muhammed was weary it was Gabriel who provided him with a potion ( many claim it was coffee) which gave the prophet the strength to defeat 40 horsemen and satisfy 40 women. What an angel!!!

In Talmudic tradition Gabriel is the fierce defender of priests and is said to be the mightiest of all God's warriors. It was this latter claim that fired my imagination in the creation of my story. I suppose I could have used any angel but it was Gabriel, protector of priests, that best suited the story.

Angels have become very popular in recent years. I've read good many of the books that have been published on the subject and, while some are charming, the angels they described were a little too fluffy for both my personal beliefs and for my story. It is important to remember that Lucifer was once an angel and he is the most formidable of all foes. Regardless of how you feel about angels there is no denying that there is both great evil and great good in our world. Angels, whether figments of one's imagination or embodiments of archetypal energies, are as powerful as the forces they represent.

In the story Father Flynn, the Jesuit expert on the missing statue, while talking about the sculptor Giovanni Dupré (1817-1882), says that he sculpted all three of the archangels: Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. While Dupré was a real figure in history, the only archangel I am aware that he actually sculpted was Michael, whose head (below) appears on the books cover. That statue is in the Church of San Lorenzo in Florence. The Dupré statue of Gabriel in the book is purely a figment of my imagination but I suspect that if Dupré had sculpted him he would be much as described in the story, complete with lily and flaming spear. Many contemporary illustrations of Gabriel show him as a fearsome warrior, not the gentle figure portrayed in traditional church icons (top left).

So, in response to the comment made by the wonderful young man who is reading my book, “Yes, my Gabriel is fierce indeed --- he needs to be.”

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.... to Knit

I doubt Hemingway ever gave much thought to that but it is important to those of us who just aren't happy unless we have a knitting project nearby. Preferably in hand. Last night was Cape Ann Brewing's first Knitter's (k)Night and it was absolutely delightful.

First I want to say that Cape Ann Brewery's Brew Pub is an excellent place and I'm certain Hemingway, or at least Nick Adams, would love it. The place is conveniently located, for me anyway, right down town at the corner of St. Peter's Square near the Chamber of Commerce Building. It is light, bright, cozy and friendly with long wooden tables and benches, an abundance of rocking chairs, a bar shaped like the hull of a boat, and lots to do. I've been there before for meetings and for Joe Ciaramitaro's Beer & Blog. It has all the charm of a neighborhood bar back in the days when there were the kind of neighborhoods that cherished a local bar. There's a lot to do and seemed to be a lot of people doing them --- darts, games, board games, etc. They have a free popcorn machine and last night I noticed a big urn full of hot chocolate there for the taking too. The menu features some local specialties like Sebastian's Pizza (best pizza in town!) and Sasquatch's Smoked Salmon among other things. The menu cards say that pizza is free to kids under 15.

And, of course, there is the beer. Their Fisherman's Brew has become a local classic in no time but I've developed a fondness for their Pumpkin Stout which is hearty, spicy, and, frankly, delicious.

So, anyway, last night was the first knitting night and there were six of us in our group but I saw needles clicking away at other tables. It was actually great fun to be sitting in a pub knitting, talking and watching all the other activity. It was quite a busy place last night.

I talked to Kate, the bartender, who organized the evening and she has lots of plans for other knitting nights. We are going to pursue the Seafarer's Scarves project so I'll be posting more about that later. The knit nights will resume in January, every other Tuesday night. I'm sort of looking forward to snowy evenings in that bright, warm, friendly place with good people, excellent beer and, of course, knitting.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

What Can You Do With An Old Mink Coat?

I got a phone call this morning from a friend who read my blog about the Wearable Arts Show and she said, “I have an old mink coat that's coming apart at the seams in some places but still has a lot of beautiful fur. Do you want it?”

Do I want it? Is a bear Catholic? Does the Pope... well, never mind. One of the joys of attending an event like the Wearable Arts Show is I come away with ten times as many ideas for making cool stuff as I had before. My head is buzzing! One of the best things I saw was actually being worn by a beautiful woman who said she bought it in a wearable arts shop in Cambridge. It was a coat with very simple lines and huge pockets made of the most gorgeous, lush tapestry fabric. The lines were very simple but what made it special was the way it was finished with a bias-cut binding of an iridescent taffeta that complimented the tapestry perfectly. The woman wore it with a lavish, sumptuous, luscious scarf of pale rose silk shantung. And, before she left the Show, that scarf was being held in place by one of Jackie Ganim-DeFalco's clips made of milky, opaque sea-glass trimmed in pearls. The whole outfit was just jaw-dropping.

What excited me about it in particular is the fact that I have several yards of a very soft, heavy-weight embossed chenille from France in a deep taupe that would look perfect made up like that coat. And I also have several yards of silk charmeuse in the same shade of taupe and two lengths of silk velvet in a similar color. My brain is swimming with ideas.

On Sunday I spent some time online looking up wearable art sites and found a few that I had to bookmark because they have such beautiful things (i.e. Bellagio, Renaissance Room, and Lee Andersen, see the jackets at left). My sewing room has bins of pieces of fabric that are just waiting for the right inspiration to become something beautiful. In one bag there are three pieces that are destined to go together, just how I'm not sure --- or wasn't until I looked at those sites. There is a piece of velvet burnout that has a black background and black, red and gray roses, a large piece of red duiponi silk, and about a yard of the strangest velvet I have ever seen. It is black but the ground on which the pile is set is dark red so when the velvet folds, as velvet does, the red shows. I think I've finally figured out how to combine the three pieces into a jacket.

So anyhow, back to the mink coat. In the past I've had other beautiful fur garments handed my way and always had great time making use of them. One was a black fox coat that had one damaged sleeve. I transformed it into an outerwear vest and it is still one of my favorite things to wear on very cold days. Another is a plum-colored rabbit skin swing coat with a worn out collar and shoulder area. It really is going to become a jacket one of these days. So many ideas, so little time.

The first idea that popped into my head was a lavish collar that could be worn over anything. I have some iridescent silk in rose and olive that make a perfect lining and a big bow to tie the front. Then, of course, there are winter headbands. I saw lots of those on Saturday made of all sorts of furs. They keep your ears warm without smashing your hair. And nice, lavish cuffs for gloves... The ideas won't stop. I just need to find more time....

By the way, for the opening reception Friday night I did get to wear my black and silver "Solstice" coat (above). I made it several years ago for a Solstice party. I'd collected three beautiful pieces of fabric --- black velvet with silver trees embroidered all over it, silver silk velvet, and silver georgette with black leaves printed on it. I've only worn it four times but I feel so elegant whenever I do!

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Photos from Yesterday's Wearble Arts Show

It was a wonderful day with lots and lots of visitors. I had a great time --- sold and signed books, demonstrated lace knitting, and met several people I formerly knew only online. Thanks to all who were part of it!!!


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Operation eBook Drop

How is this for a brilliant and wonderful idea? Author and entrepreneur Edward C. Patterson (formerly Spec 5 E. Patterson USArmy, 6th Batallion, 60th Artillery, 1966-68) has developed a program called Operation eBook Drop run through the eBookstore One of the things our troops overseas value the most is eReaders, you know those gizmos like Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, etc. They are light, portable and can store many, many books with ease, a big improvement for them over carrying around a stack of books. But the cost of eBooks can start stacking up when you are reading a lot. So Ed Patterson got this idea, he would invite authors to contribute their books in e-format, free of charge to the troops.

He proposed the idea in Amazon Discussion forums and also on the Kindle Message Board. Immediately authors started offering their work. As of this morning over 300 books have been added to the library of Operation eBook Drop. That includes three of mine.

It's really kind of exciting. I had to submit the three books I am offering to Smashwords in DOC format and they have the most amazingly clever gizmo that uploads the file and then distills it into ten different formats. The formats are available for purchase to the public but a discount coupon is created which gets sent to the troops and they can access the books in whatever format works for them. Clever.

So this morning I sent out my discount coupons to the troops signed up for the program and, within a couple hours, I had already received a couple emails thanking me for the books and saying kind words. It really made me happy to think some young soldier in Afghanistan or Iraq is escaping the place for a little while with one of my books.

So thank you Ed Patterson for creating this excellent opportunity. Any pleasure one of our soldiers gets from reading one of my books is minor compared to my pleasure in giving it.

On another matter, yesterday my blog stats sky-rocketed. Whenever this happens I'm possessed until I find out why. Which I did in no time. Writer Anne Rice, whose latest book I mentioned in yesterday's blog read the blog and posted a link to it on her Facebook page. DO YOU KNOW HOW THRILLED I AM??? Ms. Rice wrote one of my favorite books of all time, Cry To Heaven. I went to the Facebook page and read the discussion there. I'm just..... words fail me.

So, well, today I feel like a writer... It's a good feeling.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Allure of the Dark

Lately I've become fascinated with a BBC television program from few years back, Wire In The Blood. It is based on the novels of Val McDermid, one of my favorite writers. The series follows the work of psychologist/criminal profiler Dr. Tony Valentine Hill (brilliantly played by Robson Green, left) who helps the police in the fictional town of Bradfield on the Scottish border. For such a remote area they sure have a lot of serial killers up there but I'm a firm believer in suspension of disbelief. The series is very dark. Very, very dark and Dr. Hill, for all his boyish charm, is the darkest part of the series. In the books Tony was severely abused as a child by the evil grandfather who raised him. The years of abuse have left him hyper-aware of the evil mind. It has also left him sexually repressed which is bad news for the female detectives he works with who are always falling for him.

As I have been watching each episode I am aware of two things – the sexual tension is almost unbearable at times and the darkness of the minds of the killers that Tony can enter with such facility is utterly, utterly fascinating.

I have been thinking about why we are so drawn to darkness in entertainment. The popularity of the Twilight books and movies is one example. The decades of books from writers such as Anne Rice is another. Some months back I got involved in an online discussion forum which involved a number of discussions about Catholicism. Ms Rice is also a member of that forum and we got into a rather exciting (for me) discussion of darkness, its allure and its meaning, very much framed within the traditions of the Catholic Church. Both of us grew up Catholic, spent years rejecting our Catholicism and have, in recent years, felt drawn back in to the Church. Her last several books have been very Catholic in theme, two about the life of Jesus and her latest, Angel Time, the first in a series called The Songs of the Seraphim. After years of writing about vampires, witches, and other paranormal subjects, she has chosen to now write about angels which has caused some of her long-time fans to be upset but has also gained her a new fan-base, people who appreciate the new tone of her books.

I recently started Angel Time and, though I am only a few chapters into it, I can tell you none of the delicious darkness she is so good at is missing. The story, briefly, is about an assassin who is steeped in his own darkness when he encounters an angel named Malachai who sets about helping him to atone for his sins. The whole concept is clever and delicious and I'm enjoying the story. The thing is while I was engaged in our discussion, I realized something I've always known but had never been consciously aware of, the Catholic Church makes a place for darkness and, in doing so, provides a place for redemption. Darkness is the entry point of redemption and I am beginning to think that is a large part of its allure.

Throughout the centuries the redemption that pierced so much of the literary and cinematic darkness was, of course, love. This dark and brutal creature, hideous in all his perversity, is saved by love - “'Twas beauty that killed the beast.” And whether it is a damaged man with the power to enter into the mind of serial killers, a handsome vampire who longs to be good, or an assassin like Toby O'Dare, we are tantalized by the darkness. Darkness is not the same as blackness. Blackness is full rejection of everything redeemable. But darkness longs for redemption. Darkness is lush and sensual and filled with transcendence. Darkness is infused with Eros and, though in recent decades Eros has come to be synonymous with sex, that is not its full meaning. Eros is fertile, fecund and, above all, creative.I recently wrote about Pope Benedict's invitation to artists --- the Church has a long tradition of recognizing the fecundity and transcendence of creativity.

We live in times when people have polarized opinions about religion. Some despise it and call it useless and corrupting and others use it as a means of bullying and controlling and belittling. Neither is correct nor ultimately satisfying. People are hungering for something they don't even understand and so they are drawn to the tantalizing, lavish, mysterious darkness. I suspect they long to be pierced to the core as St. Theresa (right) describes in writing about her ecstasies.

As a writer I've always been in love with that darkness. Over and over and over readers have told me how luscious they found the dark, dangerous character Baptiste in The Old Mermaid's Tale. He's every woman's dream and every woman's nightmare. Now, as I am impatiently awaiting the debut of Each Angel Burns, I try to imagine how readers will react to the darkness and eventual redemption at the core of that story, too. I can only wait and hope....

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Golden Boys: Sometimes slow and quiet is just perfect

There was snow on the ground when I woke up this morning. I put on a pot of coffee, added cinnamon to it and decided to watch a movie while working on my third Seafarer's Scarf. And I stumbled upon this little jewel, The Golden Boys, a perfect match for the mood I was in. Let me preface this by saying this is a quiet little comedy which takes its time and yet, sometimes that's just the thing you need. It was originally titled "Chatham" but for some reason they changed the name --- possibly to contrast it with the old TV show "The Golden Girls".
Set on Cape Cod in 1905 it is the story of three cranky old sea captains who have retired from the sea, purchased an old house where they can "live cheap" together but it soon becomes obvious they are in bad need of a steward. They are all slobs who can't cook. Lacking the funds for a steward or housekeeper they decide on a desperate measure: one of them has to take a wife. They toss coins and the loser --- well, as one of them says, when a shipwrecked crew is starving one of them has to be sacrificed for the good of the rest.

The trio are played by three veteran actors, David Carradine, Rip Torn, and Bruce Dern, who is, in my opinion, one of the most terrific actors of his generation. Nobody could make being psychotic or just plain crazy more terrifying than he. They take their time with their lines, and with everything else but that adds to the authenticity. Anyone who has ever listened to an old guy spinning a yarn will appreciate their deliberation.

The opening scenes are worth the watch alone. Taken from archival film from various Cape Cod historical collections the grainy black and white films show schooners, tall ships, fishermen and life saving procedures including footage of the breeches buoys carrying men to shore from wrecked ships. The breeches buoy, which figures in a later scene in the movie, was an interesting invention composed of ropes, pulleys, and a small cannon --- well, you just have to see it.

The movie was filmed entirely on the outer Cape and some of the shots of the dunes, the seashore and the lighthouses are just plain gorgeous.

So, anyway, the "boys" decide to advertise in a Boston paper and they receive no shortage of answers including one from the efficient, and ultimately highly desirable, Mrs Snow (Mariel Hemingway) from Nantucket. There are the usual mixups, confusions, and silliness but it's all so quietly paced and charming it seems perfectly natural.
I've always loved quiet, slow little movies with lots of atmosphere and no shortage of colorful characters. This movie is such a one. There are plenty of cameos by old character actors (including Charles Durning and Julie Harris) but the real heart of the story is the three old salts, especially the late David Carradine --- who knew he could actually act?

So, if you're looking for a quiet movie for a quiet time, try The Golden Boys. I loved it and I got a lot done on my latest Seafarer's Scarf. It would look perfect on any one of the "boys". And, for my fellow knitters, it is worth watching just for the knitting. On Ravelry there are a few threads where knitters are always discussing the shawls, sweaters and scarves spotted in movies. There's plenty to drool over in this film --- from David Carradine's black turtleneck to a gorgeous light lacy square shawl worn by one of the women in a couple scenes. Good excuse to watch this little jewel again.

Thanks for reading.

Just found this:

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Christmas In A Time of Loss

Within the last week I've had conversations with three people who are dear to me and close to my heart who all said the same thing, “I wish I could just take a pill and wake up on January 2nd.” I know how they feel. When your heart is bruised and broken from the loss of someone dear to it, getting into the “Christmas Spirit” is difficult if not impossible. Within the last few years I've lost a number of people I dearly loved. Perhaps not coincidentally they were all men --- big, strong men --- who were meaningful to my life. There's a big, huge hole inside and I can neither ignore it nor get over it.

I talked to my sister-in-law, my brother Jack's widow, and she is hurting. She says she feels grateful that she has her children and her 2 new grandchildren but that in no way compensates for my brother being gone. I understand. Believe me, the thought of the world without him in it is hard to comprehend.

And I talked to my friend Sharon whose dear husband David died this past summer. She is still in shock, it is still all unreal to her. She still listens for the sound of him pulling in the driveway. I understand that --- I still listen for the sound of the backdoor opening early in the morning. These memories are visceral, they live in our gut and are hardwired into our souls. They do not go away.

It's a funny thing because I do know women who have lost the men they loved and seem to get on just fine. One woman told me she signed up with an online dating service four months after her husband died. She seemed quite proud of herself. “I've always been a strong person,” she told me. It's a thing I cannot comprehend.

Years ago I read Thomas Moore's Care of the Soul. In it he has a wonderful section on loss and grieving in which he says that wounds to the heart are something our society no longer honors. We take pills and join groups and do everything we can think of to not experience the intensity of pain that great loss brings. But as long as we fail to honor the wrongness, the injustice of our loss, our soul remains raw and aching. I've thought a lot about that.

Here is the thing I have learned, the very act of loving someone comes with the awareness that you can be hurt. Love is not love if it doesn't involve a surrender of separateness. Vulnerability is part and parcel of loving. And the loss of the beloved in a real possibility that we pretty much avoid thinking about because, well, because it would just hurt too much. And when it happens it does hurt too much. It hurts much too much. But, as unpleasant as it is, the pain also serves as a reminder that we once experienced something deep and beautiful and soul-filling. The gaping wound inside that comes with the loss of the beloved shouldn't be easily dismissed. It shouldn't be something you can just get over. Rather, you try to reshape yourself into a new you --- a you that is someone you once hoped you'd never have to be.

Christmas is hard. My young niece and I were talking recently. She is very much in love and thrilled about the holidays which she will spend with her love. I'm happy for her. She, however, cannot comprehend what I m feeling. “I ORDER you to enjoy Christmas,” she said. Okay, I told her, that will fix everything. It won't but she can't understand that nor should she.

I don't know... part of me thinks I couldn't survive losing someone I'd spent 30 years with like my sister-in-law, like Sharon. And part of me thinks how lucky they were to have all that time with someone they loved. Sometimes it's difficult to hold back the feeling of being cheated, short-changed by having just a very few years.

Every person's grief is their own. No one can tell them how to feel...

Sharon sent me this poem today. It's one of those things you read and sigh over and then put aside because it helps --- but not enough. And you just keep going:

I see the countless Christmas trees, around the world below; with tiny lights, like Heaven’s stars reflecting on the snow.
The sight is so spectacular; please wipe away that tear;
for I am spending Christmas with Jesus Christ this year.
I hear the many Christmas songs, that people hold so dear,
but the sounds of music can’t compare with the Christmas choir up here.
For I have no words to tell you the joy their voices bring,
for it is beyond description, to hear an angel sing.
I know how much you miss me; I see the pain inside your heart, but I am not so far away, we are really not apart.
So be happy for me, dear one, you know I hold you near; and be glad I’m spending Christmas with Jesus Christ this year.
I send you each a special gift, from my heavenly home above;
I send you each a memory of my undying love.
For after all “Love” is the gift, more precious than pure gold; it was always most important, in the stores Jesus told.
So please love and help each other, as my Father said to do; for I cannot count the blessings of love He has for you.
So have a Merry Christmas, and wipe away that tear, for I am spending Christmas with Jesus Christ this year.
I can’t tell you of the splendor, or the peace here in this place; can you just imagine Christmas with our Savior face to face?
I’ll ask Him to lift your spirit, as I tell Him of your love; so then pray for one another, as you lift your eyes above.
So please let your heart be joyful, and let your spirit sing; for I am spending Christmas in Heaven, and I am waking with the King.