Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sunday Celebration

The sounds of bells, birds, breaking ice make for a lovely Sunday morning.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

What's Beautiful Yesterday Is Deadly Today

Like the gingerbread house in the Grimm fairly tale, freezing fog masquerades as a delicious fairyland.

Up close, the witch's cackle drips, cracks, snaps.

Friday, January 29, 2010

What's Beautiful Today

The snow arrived, preceded by ice and followed by ice, rain, sleet, and slush. But while it was snow and only snow, it was hard not to stand at the window, and stare, and stare, and stare. What is it about the falling snow that makes each of us feel like a child?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The J Peterman of Cards and the Parody of Dwell

At Christmas, a friend admired my cards for sale in The Lemon Fair. She especially complimented the photograph of the praying mantis
eating the grasshopper, but then offered a small complaint.

there be an explanation?"

"Sure," I said. "I can write what the bug is and where the photo was taken."

"No," she said, "I mean information about the praying mantis as a bug and its habits. You know, the J Peterman of cards."

I have been thinking about Faye's suggestion ever since she offered it. I have even begun drafting:

"Oh My God!"


"I can't look!"

Bugs in their bugginess digust people, who won't look closer.

Look closer now: the praying mantis eating a grasshopper acts on the instinct to survive. It makes no value judgments; it doesn't run in fear. Instead, the mantis, a female with visible eggs, methodically decimates every particle of food to prepare herself and the developing mantises for what is to come.

A zero draft, nowhere near as exciting and intricate as the mantis and grasshopper.

I do not have the talent for witty imitation that others demonstrate.

Like The Unhappy Hipster,
whose send-up of Dwell magazine reads like a postmodern novel or New Yorker cartoons.
Maybe I should re-imagine the text for my cards like this:

Just before its beheading, the grasshopper thought, I knew it would be too hot in this sun.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Honey Crisp

My virtual friend, blogger/gardener/photographer Everett (Toonmoose Garden Blog), recently named the plants on his growing list: Fish Peppers, Bloomsdale Spinach, Red Cored Chantenay Carrots, Detroit Dark Red Beets, Nero Di Toscana Kale, Triumphe de Farcy Bush Beans. To his list, so musical it sounds like a symphony, I add my afternoon snack -- Honey Crisp. The apple sweats sweetness and snaps in the teeth like a soft snare drum. the rhythm beneath his seeds.

Oh, the joy of names.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Zebra Windows

Rain splotches
windows, leaving
zebra tracks --
wet puddleprints.

The Power of Nature

In this blog, I have at times romanticized naturet, with pictures and posts that celebrate the power of its beauty.

But nature has cruel beauty, too -- in its wanton, indiscriminate, unpredictable power of destruction. Witness the horrifying earthquake in Haiti, where, as of today, more than 120,000 corpses have been estimated. Witness the recent tsunami in American Samoa, where a former student lives. Witness the even more destructive tsunami in Thailand several years ago or Hurricane Katrina, which wiped out (permanently) much of New Orleans, my hometown for more than 20 years.

Thursday evening, Sewanee witnessed this beauty when an F1 tornado skipped from location to location, leaving uprooted trees and damaged homes. When the siren wailed, I thought Another warning for a tornado we won't see, but I was wrong. I had no idea of the damage till the day after, and the day after that, I drove myself through the affected neighborhoods.

On occasion, people and other animals respond to this power with grace, as folks in Haiti are doing now and as my neighbors were doing yesterday. In Midway, neighbors gathered up and down the street with chainsaws, clearing and cleaning yards and homes of debris.

And this community is also part of the power of nature.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Fog Again

I do not know what it says about me, but I have grown to love fog. Like a muffler around the neck, I could wear it every day for comfort: misty objects that recede and float into view, silence, cool air -- the shadowy seduction, all of it.

Give me more of it.

Yesterday's Post

was delayed by rain and storms and tornado warnings. I took no photographs, but I did close the curtains and doors when the siren wailed. Here's why.

Picture Stories by Stephen Alvarez

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


A dissertation present from Olivia, the ballerina in my Sharon Yavis painting leaps on sturdy legs, weighed by gravity to ground. She makes me smile and remember my writing, the Ballets Suedois and their ground-tied modern-dance ballets, and Olivia, whose deep voice, easy laughter, and warmth made her the delight of every party (most of which she threw).

The Suedois startled their staid Parisian audiences, even when those audience members numbered themselves among the avant-garde of the '20s art world. Equally startling to me is that Yavis is now considered a "folk artist." With a master's degree in art, she was anything but naive or untrained. I suppose some folks mistake the charm and whimsy of her fascination with Botero-like women for something primitive.

I revel in her boldness of color and shape and charm of line and design, just as I revel in the Swedish Ballet's bold commitment to experimentation and Olivia's bold commitment to joy in relationships.

Neither Sharon Yavis nor Olivia knows (and certainly neither Jean Borlin nor Rolf de Mare could possibly know) how much bold pleasure this graceful little charmer brings me every day.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Abbo's Creek wears shades of tan and gray, too.

Monday, January 18, 2010


It is the season of camouflage.

The bark, grasses, goldfinches crowding the feeder, and the deer match: all fawn and sable and deep gray. So camouflaged are fauna that they are indistinguishable from tree and ground cover, until, that is, someone moves.

Something moved a while ago when I walked up to the deck after filling the bird feeder -- a small herd of seven deer. They scavenged the ground and then arranged themselves against a fallen tree for more sleep.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


Emailing a friend today about Flow and its author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, I rediscovered two things: the source of pleasure in creating (ecstasy) and TED, an online treasure of stimulating lectures.

As I listened to Csikszentmihalyi's lecture, I remembered being lost as a child with a piece of graph paper and a 4-click ball point pen with colored ink, as a teenager with my guitar, as a young adult acting, as an adult writing poetry or taking pictures or researching in a library. Flow feeds me.

And TED feeds me, too, by filling me up with stimulating presentations like this one: "What makes a life worth living?"

Saturday, January 16, 2010


Three times in my life, art and the artist left me speechless:

Rome's Cornaro Chapel by Bernini; a painting-filled hallway at Myrtice West's home in Centre, Alabama; and Howard Finster's Paradise Garden in the mid-1980s. Two of those wondrous sites live now only in books, photographs, and memory. Finster's Paradise Garden wound beyond his Folk Art Church along twisting paths of concrete and broken dishes, mirrors, tools, broken bits of trash, into heaps of rusted bicycle parts, over a measly stream, under shades of twisted vines and kudzu. In the middle of glade-like spot sat a small mirrored chapel like a fairy story's enchantment. At times, unexpectedly, like this afternoon, I catch a glint of sun in mirror, even in my car's side mirror, and remember that tiny hall of wonder, shimmering with vision no less inspired than Myrtice's paintings of Revelations and Bernini's sculpture. Oh, the drama of their art, the pleasure of creative inspiration.

Solar Rainbow Maker

The Lemon Fair has a new toy: a solar rainbow maker. Hang it in a bright window, wait, and watch, as I did yesterday for half an hour. What a lovely little toy providing hours of color and movement.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Photographer Photographing the Photographer

All photographs are distortions, some consciously composed and others accidental.

In a reflection, even a self-conscious photographer can look beautiful.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Memory Capacity

1990: Macintosh Plus: cost about $2000; weight 16.5 lbs; memory 1 MB

2010: Seagate FreeagentGo; cost about $80; weight 0.35 lb; 320 GIG

320 GIG = 320 000 000 000 bytes

Happiness at living in the information age: infinite

Friday, January 8, 2010

A Wintry Day

In early morning before sun fully penetrated cloud cover, I finally became frustrated that I could not conquer the challenge of photographing the Chapel and its surroundings.

On the way back to the car, I stopped briefly at a holly tree. My camera battery froze up, but not before I managed one picture of something remarkable. Ice crystals, or at least some of them, really do look like the Christmas star design I have always known from light strings and Nativity sets -- slender stem, six points, and all.

Now I will look for them everywhere, not as signs to some holy place but as the holy things themselves.

The Royal Riviera Pear

On its website, Harry & David says this about the pears my friend Alice sent: "Harry & David has spent 75 years perfecting our Royal Riviera Pear -- a comice pear so juicy you can eat it with a spoon."

Elsewhere, I discovered that European royalty has "long enjoyed" the Comice pear for "its smooth, creamy texture and exquisite taste" (

Still another site offers advice about checking for ripeness: "apply [. . .] gentle thumb pressure near the stem end, and when the fruit gives slightly, it is ready to eat" (

I'll try to remember this advice tomorrow. Today, I just grabbed one from the box (the reddish one to the left in the photo), took it to work, and ate it happily, accompanied by a couple of slices of cheese. So maybe it wasn't soft enough for a spoon (I used to eat these pears with a demitasse spoon as a child, a habit picked up by watching my father use a teaspoon) and maybe it didn't drip down my chin, but it was still exquisite (worthy of being sought out, according to the Latin roots).

You don't have to be royalty. You need only have a friend who makes an annual, most welcome gift, as exquisitely delicious as she is kind.

Seek one out -- a Royal Riviera or such a friend -- and you too will feel like a queen (or king).

Thursday, January 7, 2010


Since getting a haircut Tuesday, I have been thinking about faces.

My own face has changed dramatically over my lifetime, thanks to anatomy and medicine.
When my teeth first came in, I had an underbite. That is, my lower jaw jutted forward of my upper. My mother took me to the "best" local orthodontist, with the result that at 6 I wore a space age chin guard (a metal cup with leather straps in which I slept at night, which was supposed to move my jaw backward). I also wore braces. Years later, my right temperomandibular joint ruptured.
After the disc rupture was arthroscopically repaired, my lower jaw swung to the left dramatically, and when I closed my back teeth, my front teeth were still separated by several millimeters. I experienced serious pain and discomfort, and I was unable to eat or speak normally for some time. Following more than five years of treatment (including several surgeries, braces, and retainers), my three doctors -- dentist, orthodontist, surgeon -- agreed that my problem had arisen from an anatomical anomaly rather than from sudden bone loss. A grueling day-long surgery reshaped the roof of my mouth, so my teeth now enjoy a relatively normal relationship to one another. However, my chin has retreated into my neck, and my inherited chin dimple is all but gone. Folks who did know me in childhood, youth, and early adulthood do not know how different I look, but I do. I am forever surprised by my own face to the extent that I avoid photography whenever possible. That admission is ironic, given my pleasure in photographing people I love.

Here we are, some of us -- me over time, some of them over time, and those I love who never knew the old me.Faces for the folks inside them are one thing; for those of us on the outside, something else entirely. Aren't they lovely?

Monday, January 4, 2010


Bugs scurry. People hurry. Only snow flurries.

Smart bugs and people scurried and hurried all day to escape bitter cold. When I woke at 4:30 AM, the temperature was 11 degrees according to my thermometer. At 10, it was 16. Right now, at 5:13 PM CT, it's 22, just about as high as it got.

All the while snow flurried, sometimes lightly, sometimes heavily, making tiny ice prints wherever flakes landed. I was content to see the swirling snow-wind beyond the windows -- kitchen, shop, car -- and stay mostly inside, enjoying cleaning accompanied by scattered chatter and beautiful music (thanks to the Chicago Symphony), preparing and smelling fresh sausage and lentil soup, reviewing papers online, drinking hot tea by the potful.

Silent snow still flurries and whips sidewise in wind in my otherwise silent neighborhood, all gone home now to nest.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

People and Their Pets

One neighbor acts as a kindly way-station keeper for strays. Recently a boxer was the subject of spirited discussions on the community classifieds system, with some insisting he was a menace to small children and other folks (posters began referring to him as Cujo) while others claimed him to be gentle of spirit. I met him last week with his Sister Teresa, and he was sweet and velvety soft. Thanks to her and her husband, Butkus now has a home with a new family in Chattanooga. All are happy with the results, and I am admiring of Lynne and her determination.

Another neighbor sent a photograph this morning of her two dogs and one of her cats (three others were elsewhere) sleeping, stretched out on the heated tile floor, before a space heater. Her email title said, "Our house is really really cold." Indeed, it was 14 when I got up this morning. Jill and Ronn, her husband, had a motley collection of 4 feline and 2 canine companions who rule the roost and charm their visitors.

Later today, an email arrived with a link to a posting by a pet babysitter with whom my former canine neighbor spent Christmas. Cheyenne, the blind dog intended to be a seeing-eye dog, is lovingly described in the 7-part story. Indeed, reading the series made me miss her and her family, who moved to Baltimore two years ago. A clever and sweet dog, Cheyenne never made one feel sorry for her, as this writer has made clear:

As for my own companion, Lucy snuggled all night last night moving against my lower back every time I moved. She's a slugabed in winter, content to sleep under the covers all day and on top of them all night, purring and stretching, her fur filling with static upon petting. I too accommodate her peculiarities -- as we all do who love our pets -- misunderstood, motley, blind, or lazy.

On a cold winter day, it is good to remember the furry ones who warm us.

Saturday, January 2, 2010


Albert Einstein said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge."

Throughout my teaching, I posted this quotation in my classrooms. Students found the words provocative, and our resulting conversation through the year proved fruitful. Some adults, however, who prized "objective" knowledge, took me to task. They argued that Einstein was wrong.

I know those adults are wrong. Without imagination, there can be no knowledge because imagination fuels the desire to discover and re-discover, resulting in new knowledge, which is always tentative, no matter how certain it seems.

What has this to do with ingenuity? Ingenuity results when imagination faces conflict. Recently, the value of ingenuity was brought home to me when a carpenter came to to resolve a problem with my dining room hardwood floor. A leak had left a stained area, which meant that the planks had to be replaced.

Michael looked at the saved box of unused planks, but knew there would not be enough to finish the job. We discovered that if I wanted more, I'd have to buy a box with 25 square feet of planks (for more than $100). I needed only enough for an area about 3 feet x 3 feet.

While I was discussing my dilemma with folks at Lowe's, Michael disappeared for a few minutes, reappeared, and told me not to order the box. I hung up. He asked, "When was the last time you looked at the floor in the back of your hall closet?"

Oh, I like how he thinks. The floor is repaired, with the contents of the box and the help of two lengths of hardwood from the closet. The dining room floor looks terrific, and the closet does too. I moved the contents back into the closet and am now on a quest for something close in color that he can use there.

Meanwhile, I am enjoying my renewed certainty that imagination (and ingenuity) is indeed more important than knowledge.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The New York Bagel

The dictionary defines the etymology: "Yiddish beygl, from Middle High German *böugel ring, from bouc ring, from Old High German; akin to Old English bēag ring, būgan to bend" (Webster's).

The Atlantic describes its history: "The bagel's known history goes back at least a good six centuries, and, in practice, probably more than that. While we know them in the here-and-now of 21st-century America, the bagel's likely rollout to the world probably began in Poland. In her excellent new book, The Bagel: the Surprising History of a Modest Bread, Maria Balinska shares a couple theories of their origin.

"Balinska first suggests the possibility that they came East to Poland from Germany as part of a migration flow during the 14th century. At the time, pretzels (the thick bread of the German variety, not the American kind that comes in plastic bags) were making their way out of their original home in the monasteries and being made into readily available
feast day bread. German immigrants, brought to Poland to help provide people power for building the economy (immigration was then encouraged, not discouraged), brought the pretzels with them. In Poland, that theory goes, the German breads morphed into a round roll with a hole in the middle that came to be known in Poland as an obwarzanek. Written records of them appear as early as the 14th century.

"They gained ground when then Queen Jadwiga, known for her charity and piety, opted to eat obwarzanek during Lent in lieu of the more richly flavored breads and pastries she enjoyed the rest of the year. While that might seem like quite a step in the context of Marie Antoinette's later 'let them eat cake' comments, take note that, although Jadwiga was apparently pretty down-to-earth as queens go, obwarzanek at that time wasn't exactly the kind of inexpensive street food that bagels became a few centuries later.

"Lent, then as now, was, of course,
a period during which devout Christians consciously chose deprivation -- but what constitutes 'deprivation' is relative. What the queen chose for her daily bread was, at the time, actually rather costly, as it was made from wheat, which was not cheap. Most Poles at that time could barely afford the cheaper, coarser breads from rye flour, so white wheat was pretty much off the table for all but the wealthy. Obwarzanek was primarily the province of princes, nobles, and men and women of means, but generally not for the poor.

"Still one other version dates the first
bagels to the late 17th century in Austria, saying that bagels were invented in 1683 by a Viennese baker trying to pay tribute to the King of Poland, Jan Sobieski. The king had led Austria (and hence Poland as well, since it was part of the empire) in repelling invading Turkish armies. Given that the king was famous for his love of horses, the baker decided to shape his dough into a circle that looked like a stirrup -- or beugel in German."

I say: if bread is the staff of life, then the New York bagel is the quintessence of that staff. Sturdy, yeasty, seedy, doughy, crunchy, chewy -- the bagel is the delicious bread-ring of life.