Thursday, March 21, 2013

Dinner: Basis of Society

This past Tuesday I had a dinner party.

It was just a very small one, for my parents and brother, but I decided to pull out the stops and served a main dish, two sides, bread, dessert and wine.  The evening was just the right length and full of delightful conversation. 

Afterwards, because I tend to analyze everything I do (an annoying habit sometimes, but mine nonetheless), I started thinking about the evening.  Besides realizing all over again how pleasant it was, I also came to several other important conclusions. 

1.      Good food puts everyone in a good mood

My father has a stressful job teaching at a university; my mom deals with the effects of osteoarthritis on an almost daily basis; my brother works a hectic restaurant schedule.  I myself spent the whole workday teaching, grading nine essays for my English class, and working up some averages.  It would have been perfectly understandable for all four of us to be grumpy and taciturn. 

Brave crocuses in March inspire talk of gardens!
However, I decided to make chicken rollatini (properly known in Italy as involtini di pollo), thanks to inspiration from The Lost Art of Real Cooking, a cookbook worth having simply for this recipe.  Basically you marinate thin chicken, dredge it in breadcrumbs, roll it around prosciutto and cheese and then bake it until delicious.  Very easy (if a bit time-consuming), with spectacular results.  I paired it with a truffle-oil, spinach and mushroom sauté and a rice pilaf.  My parents had a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape which we drank with it and it all went together perfectly.

With so much delectable food and that best of conversation-starters – good wine – my family happily talked and laughed and reminisced.  The jollity even lasted beyond dinner as we moved into the family room to watch videos and discuss gardening plans for the summer. 

2.      Friendship is fed by dinner parties

In Aristotle’s ethics, he argues that friendship is based on eating together.  He meant this quite literally, because only if you eat with someone do you take the time to make conversation and get to know them.  Granted, there are other activities which allow friends to know each other better, but it is true that over a shared meal the best conversations often emerge. 

The finer things are found at table!
I’ve been reading diet and food recently (it’s an abiding interest of mine) and the books I’ve chosen have all emphasized that Americans may have disordered approaches to food because frequently they don’t eat at a table with other people.  It is true that we’ll eat on the run or by ourselves or in front of the TV if it’s necessary – and sometimes even when it’s not necessary.  Perhaps this tendency does immerse us in solitude, make us unhappier, prompt us to turn to the food we’re eating for comfort.  Perhaps not only our stomachs but also our souls are fed when we eat with our friends and family and converse with them. 

Could a dinner party even be food for a new novel or story or poem?  It seems possible, even likely. 

3.      Happiness from friendship is curative

My dad has mild insomnia, but the morning after my little celebration he happily reported to my mom that he slept soundly all night.  He attributed it to the satisfying food, which indeed could have helped, but my personal theory is that after our delightful evening, he was truly relaxed and relieved from his work worries and could at last sleep in peace. 

Baby plants coming up everywhere!
I noticed this happy relaxation in myself, too.  I had received a Williams-Sonoma catalog for gardening and farming supplies in the afternoon before the party, so I showed it to my parents as a source of inspiration.  Everything at Williams-Sonoma is lovely, if perhaps not for the slim-of-wallet, but certainly looking at their beautiful catalogs can lead to all sorts of design inspiration and creative ideas.  For a half hour or so we discussed the use of found objects like ladders and washing-basins for gardening trellises and planters, plus tossed around chicken-farming ideas and debated what seedlings to start in the next few weeks so they’ll be ready for planting in late May.    

Even though I didn’t do any writing (usually the one thing I can count on to relax and uplift me), my mind felt awakened both by the creativity of cooking and by the sustained, pleasurable interchange with other people.  Society really is essential to human beings – it’s not for nothing that we’ve been defined by some philosophers as the social animal.  Our relationships create a network of minds wherein we grow and are nourished by the communication of ideas and emotions.   

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


The end of my trimester is approaching this Friday.  I also have six tests to grade before then.  All this means that last week I had to spend almost every free moment getting absolutely caught up on class preparation, so that I’d be able to handle the grading this week.    

Obviously, due to my paid work-load, my unpaid work-load (aka: editing) was completely neglected. 

However, on Thursday, I did have a half day at work, for a school festival.  My brother happened to be free also, so we decided to go out on the town for shopping, a movie, pizza and drinks.  I bought gifts (all my friends somehow are born in March); he bought a new suit.  We watched Jack the Giant Slayer in theaters, and even if the movie was a bit predictable, it was wrapped up in an agreeably mythic setting which pleased my inner literary critic. 

Posh Pizza!
Next we ate pizza at a newish artisan place near where we live.  I had pesto-chicken pizza; my brother had what was amusingly dubbed the ‘Honey Badger.’  As suggested by the name, it had a very slight drizzle of honey over the top which perfectly complimented the spicy salami and black pepper on the pizza.  Delicious!  Afterwards, dessert was required, so we walked to the local resort and had a dark chocolate cupcake with seriously an inch of ganache on top (that was mine), and a towering slice of limoncello cake with white chocolate frosting (that was my brother’s). 

It was a decadent and refreshing evening. 

Afterwards, I was thinking about my dearth of editing.  As usual, I wondered if I should feel guilty for not staying home on my free afternoon and working.  After all, I could easily have finished 6-8 pages in the time I spent gallivanting around town. 

Butterflies have exquisite balance!
However, I realized that putting so much effort into my school work had led to two results.  First I needed a break from the grind.  Going out with my brother offered the perfect opportunity.  Second, clearing away so much necessary work has actually left me with unexpected free hours this week, in spite of the grading.  See, even if six tests take about twelve hours to grade, and it’s a lot of intense work, that still leaves me with time every evening.  Since Monday already I’ve edited eight pages of my novel. 

So thinking about that, I realized that everything balances. 

At the time when you’re slogging through some work project (in my case, writing three history lessons, 12 grammar lessons, 5 vocabulary lessons and several tests), the lack of progress on writing can lead to some grumbling and bitterness.  In your spare time, you may crunch in some work, but the fact that you’re already tired might make it rather unprofitable and uninspiring. 

Based on my recent experience, my advice is:  Put your head down, get your work done, and don’t worry about other projects.  It can be a good feeling to have accomplished a lot at work, after all.  Besides, once you are done with the big push, you get to enjoy the virtuous feeling of writing without stealing time from anything else.  I don’t know if anyone else is guilty of this, but I certainly am!

I think to a certain extent we all borrow and steal from various parts of our lives so as to give other parts more time and importance.  I personally have no qualms about this – it’s part of a budgeted life in some ways – but still…every once in a while it’s nice to have the feeling that we’re perfectly in the right when we sit down to our creative endeavors. 

Life involves a lot of hard work (and some frustration to go along with that).  It’s good to have moments occasionally when we feel that we’re paid back for the efforts we make. 

Butterflies in the dark!
Such moments can be a sudden respite in the middle of a busy week when we spend time with friends and family.  On an outing, our eyes may be opened so that we glimpse something lovely that we might not have seen if we stayed home and worked.  This past Thursday, I saw a window of the local paper store glowing in the night with a hundred paper butterflies aflutter in long strands. 

Such moments can also be the feeling of satisfaction and peace that comes after a job well done.  Then we can turn to a new project – perhaps one closer to our hearts – with excitement and contentment.  At these times, we learn how life does in fact find its balance.  Then in the future when busy times return, we can survive them thanks to the wisdom we’ve gained.  

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Open Ears

The windmills I saw were modern, but I like all kinds!

February (which thankfully is done) is not my favorite month.  The grey weather combined with the generally deflated spirits of students in the middle of their school year does not make teaching a cup of tea for yours truly.  The sad thing, though, is that when work is blasé, it’s hard for me to find inspiring topics for a blog post. 

At last, however, intelligent life has been found in the cosmos of my brain.  I went to visit a friend this Saturday, and the long drive in more or less benevolent weather jumpstarted my creativity.  There are grand windmills on the particular route I took, and the sight of their immense white wings turning slowly, gracefully against the sky was too moving to resist.  Now I feel a poem bubbling up, but I have to let it ferment for a while longer. 

Also, while driving I thought about my experiences – such as they were – of the past couple work weeks.  During the course of two days, we had a student teacher attending classes for research.  She provided some very interesting lunch conversation, since she had studied art in college and is now teaching art herself. 

She explained that one of her techniques for getting her students both to enjoy art, and to realize the importance of form is what she called ‘the blind contours.’ 

Apparently, blind contour drawing is a training technique in which the artist puts pencil to paper and then draws an object without looking at his results or lifting the pencil tip from the paper.  Obviously, save for the very expert, the results of such an exercise are not going to be very good, but still the eye is trained to look to the reality of the object, instead of to the imagined shape in the head. 

A drawing can bring forth a poem!
On the particular day when the visitor was discussing the blind contours, I happened to be extremely tired and rather disengaged from the conversation.  However, I was listening enough that the phrase she used stuck in my mind. 

I’ve always had a fascination with blindness, so the idea of blind contours immediately spoke to me.  The words settled into my mind and I could feel them rooting there.  The roots and stem and leaves are now spreading: I’m waiting for what artistic result emerges from the idea of blind contours – a shape felt but not seen…an art guided by truth, not by the preconceptions of my mind.

Whatever comes, though, I’ve already had some benefit.  You see, thinking about the new idea our visitor introduced to me, I realized how fortunate it was that I had my ears open.  The creativity of an artist always has to be open, because who knows when an essential idea might filter into it and set it alight?

Over my mid-term break I spent some time with one of my former students who stands in needless awe of me.  We were talking about bluegrass music and she asked me how I could know so much (I could have asked her the same, since she has a sure and natural grip of science and math, both of which subjects are a bit hazy for me).  I was somewhat at a loss, but eventually said, ‘Well, I listen to what people have to say, and then, when I hear something interesting, I ask them about it.  Later, if I’m really interested, I go and read still more.’ 

That ability to listen to others can be a perfect fuel for inspiration, I find. 

Creativity is like agriculture!
It’s easy in dry spells to wonder if creativity will ever return, or if we can do anything to help revive it.  From my own experience, I’ve learned that often all I need to do is listen.  Even if we don’t realize it at the exact moment, through the open ears come so many thoughts and ideas which twine with our own and somehow catalyze them.  We live in an atmosphere of endless inspiration.  Certainly there will be fallow times, but eventually that atmosphere will bring about a new growth. 

I’ve been managing to keep up a steady pace with editing, so I’ve been feeling pretty calm about my writing, but still – there’s something much more satisfactory about new ideas and new work.  It’s been refreshing to feel my mind working over the idea of the blind contours, seeking the poetic significance of the words.  Perhaps they may become so integrated into my thought that they have an impact on my life.

Since the results can indeed be far-reaching when something slips into the creativity through our daily interactions, it’s a bit scary to live with open ears.  Maybe we don’t want to undergo a transformation thanks to a passing experience.  And yet, if we do resist, how shall we ever change and develop? 

As artists, even as people, we need the exercise of the blind contours – following the promptings of reality and for once surrendering our desire to control the results.