Up In The Air

I have a book review and menu post coming (preview:  A Land More Kind Than Home, Wiley Cash, snakes) but I could not resist posting from 10,000 feet up.

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Gogo informs me I’m in Air & Online; and so it appears to be.  A 4 a.m. wake up call, re-routing of the first flight, middle seat to Atlanta, long wait in Atlanta, middle seat to California.  After a two hour nap, I’m awake enough to have discerned how to purchase an hour of time on the gogo inflight net and check my email.  (No email from the publishers yet.)

Stuffed into the second middle seat of the journey, Delta adds insult to injury by placing the power pack for the seat back video systems at the floor space below — you guessed it — the middle seat.  And remember those free, cross-country movies?  Nope.  You have a video on demand system now.  More choices, but they all cost more money.  So does a moderately comfortable seat apparently.

As the herd of passengers boarded, I was struck by the number of people desperately talking on or texting on their mobile device.  Here they stood amid a throng of people they might never have a chance to meet or interact with again, and they were glued to a small piece of glass and plastic as if their lives depended upon them.  The recent sociological observation that those who spend more time on-line are lonelier makes sense to me.  If one is glued to one’s iPhone, blackberry, iPad, etc., then the only real relationship one is cementing is the relationship with the device.  (She typed ironically on to her MacBook Air.)

Even on-board the plane, it’s rare that one encounters the Chatty Cathy type of obnoxious seat mate for whom earplugs were obviously invented.  Although, on the flight from Lexington to Atlanta, I did have just one such person.  And although I didn’t particularly want to have a long involved conversation about her emergency room doctor daughter at 6:30 a.m., I suppose I admire her spirit.   

 

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The World’s Greatest College Weekend

            It’s not the Final Four.  Or the Rose Bowl.  It’s not even graduation from Harvard or Yale.  No,  Indiana University holds the distinction of hosting the World’s Greatest College Weekend and it is winding down right now.  

            Little 500; not just a bike race but a moment in time.  The bike teams, now including men and women, train for months in order to compete in this time-honored tradition.  And their friends train for months in order to hold up the party participation.  I remember sitting in the stands of the Little 500 stadium watching friends whoosh past, black flinty sparks flying up in the wake of their wheels.  I remember celebrating — not even victory, but completion.  Little 500 plays a part in a novel I’ve written and am hoping to publish.  Here’s the race scene:

Imaged

                 Eleven rows of three guys each stand holding a regulation bike. The bikes are one-speed; no toe clips, grips, water bottles, kickstands or add-ons.  The president of the University strolls onto cinder track and says a bunch of welcome stuff, how great the day is, and on and on.  The guys on the track are bursting to ride, the audience shouts for him to shut it and throw the starting flag.  Then everyone sings the national anthem and the IU fight song.  But what everybody is waiting for are the president’s words, the same every year: “Gentlemen, mount your Roadmaster bicycles.”   

                With that, thirty-three guys hit their bikes, and ride one parade lap around the stadium in formation.  When the riders come around the final turn, the crowd takes a massive breath.  Every man starts looking for a lane, an edge.  The group picks up speed and at the finish line, all hell breaks loose.  The crowd roars.  Somebody breaks out in front.  The pack forms.  That’s the beginning of the race. 

              One bike and four guys per team.  Only one bike, no matter what happens to it during the race.  Two years ago, CELTS team, short for Chi Lambda Tau fraternity, was Amos, me, Coors and Moose, riding in that order.

             I remember it exactly as it happened.  Amos rides the first 20 laps for us, I come on in lap 21, ride 30 laps.  Thinking of it, I’m right there in the midst of the race, waiting in the pit for the first hand-to-hand exchange with Amos.  I am ready to jump on as he jumps off.  The bike can’t bobble or we lose valuable seconds.

            Amos whirls around the final turn.  Cinder track crunching beneath the wheels, crowd roaring around me.  Amos isn’t slowing down.   I’m about to miss the first chance I have for an exchange and be forever humiliated.  Shit:  we practiced this thousands of times.  The bike gets closer, cinders fly up onto my legs but I don’t feel them.  I take four steps alongside the spinning wheels and put my hands on the bars behind Amos’ hands.  Just as Amos shifts his weight to the right, I launch into the air, flying into the saddle catching the bars on my way down to the seat just the way we had practiced thousands of times.  Perfect.

             Now I ride.  My legs pump and the wheels churn.  I line up with three riders in front of me.  Thirty-three guys’ wheels within inches of each other.  Breathing together so it sounds like a train running loose down a track that’s disintegrating under the wheels.  On the corner turns, the pedals stop.  There’s a whirr of smooth noise for two or three seconds.  The pumping starts again.    

            On lap 51, I switch the bike to Coors.  On lap 52, we lose a tire.  When he’s on the far side of the track, the back tire blows and Coors rides to our pit on the rim. He leaps off the bike as soon as he hits the margin.  The crew grabs the bike, slams it on the rack.  Two guys pull the blown tire off and another two get ready with a new one.  The whole thing takes 10 seconds, but it’s enough to cost us the win.  You only get one bike – something goes wrong you gotta fix it.  Fast.

            I ride the last ten laps. Jim Mahaffey, in his senior year, is riding anchor for PhiDelt and prepping for the Olympic trials.  When the checkered flag waves signaling the last lap, Mahaffey is in front.  I’m just one-second back, but we finish sixth.

           I drop my feet from the pedals, heave gulps of air, cruise to the pit.  There’s no champagne popping but it’s respectable.  And there’s always next year.  We head back to the CELT house together, loading the bikes into a van.  And then it’s over.  I take a shower, Amos and Coors immediately grab a brew, and Moose falls asleep. 

            Mahaffey went pro; I stayed here and raced again.  But when I think of the race, I think of the night I met this girl with the challenge in her eyes.

            They call Little 500 the World’s Greatest College Weekend.  It started about thirty years ago as a way to raise scholarship money; college version of the Indy 500. Fraternities and sororities pair up for the race weekend – which means they sit together and party together.  That’s all most people know about Little 5.  Party.  Race.  Party.    A couple years ago, some local guys wrote a movie called Breaking Away and the race got more famous.

               But if you’re on the team, the race lasts an entire year. For some of us, it’s four years.  Some guys start in high school.  There’s even competition just to make a team.  And then the teams have to compete to be in the race.  Only 33 teams make it.  The fastest team in the qualifying races gets the inside pole position, the shortest route.  Just like Indy.

             My team trains every day, riding for hours in the hills outside Bloomington.  We have weight rooms in the house, bikes on racks to ride in bad weather.  For spring break, we go to Florida together and ride for hours every day in the heat.  We practice exchanges, repairs on the bikes and mainly just condition for hours.  All to win for a two hour race once a year and for bragging rights too I guess.  And the team jacket.  Mine is green with a bright yellow “CELTS” written on the back and my team name – “Banner” – on the front.  Yeah, it’s worth it.

 

Everything Old is New Again

There’s been no high school reunion this week, and yet I’ve encountered several once-familiar faces in new places.  Although the Facebook phenomenon must make these meetings much more common, Facebook hasn’t been responsible for mine this week.

What interests me most is that despite the gray hair on the boy that I went to kindergarten with, the addition of several pounds to the frame of the high school football player, or the $250 tie on the guy that drove the broken-down Karmann Ghia; they are pretty much the same people as they were at age 5, 12 or 17.

The snarky laugh of one, the warm hug from another.  Most prominently, the cocky confidence of my old kindergarten nemesis who swore that his dad’s car could go a mile a minute and that was faster than my dad’s car going a mile a second.  Of course, he must know something, because he has his own private plane now … and I guess I have misplaced mine.

I could see in their eyes too that I have changed.  I saw them recognize something in my face, enough for me to be familiar yet puzzling.  Something that makes them wonder what has happened to me over the years since we turned eighteen and wandered off into the world.  This week, despite the distances we have traveled since then, we found ourselves once again at home, and pondering how time can be both fast and slow, kind and punishing.  And how we can have changed so much and still, at the core, believe our dad’s car is clearly much faster than anyone else’s.

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Forging Art & History (& A MENU!)

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The Art Forger, by B.A. Shapiro, takes the true story of the burglary of five paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston and forges it with a fictionalized account of a painter who is challenged to reproduce one of the stolen masterpieces.  Along the way, Ms. Shapiro creates a new Impressionist masterpiece, an affair between Isabella Gardner and a famous painter and alters the architecture of one of America’s best-loved museums.

The novel is well-written and kept me awake finishing it until two in the morning.  The author’s description of the painting process itself was so detailed, I wonder if she is herself an artist.  It was written clearly enough for me to understand and appreciate the enormous amount of time and struggle and talent that is required even though I myself can not draw a crooked line.  Given that, it surprised me that her descriptions of the people, at least the modern ones, were sparse.  Most of the novel is written in first person and that may be one reason.  I knew for example the artist/narrator was “beautiful” and got a “stylish new haircut” but I have no idea what she looked like.  Isabella was more clearly described, even though her descriptions were too, for the most part, in the first person via a series of “letters” written by Isabella to her niece.

The book is about 310 pages long and at page 300 or so, I couldn’t figure out how Ms. Shapiro was going to wrap up all the story lines without a sequel.  And I suppose she did and didn’t.  All in all, it was a fun read, I learned something about a subject I had no knowledge of and the plot was exciting enough to keep me up half the night.  It also had lots of good food.

For a book club menu:

Champagne!  (Champagne was brimming over at nearly every opportunity).  Champagne is a must.

Cashews in the bowl

Grilled cheese.  Get a loaf of nice, whole grain bread (or bake one.  I’m not a baker so I’ll just hop over to Great Harvest).  Melt lots of butter in a pancake pan and toast bread on one side.  Add shredded cheddar, fontina and mozzarella to one slice of bread and when it gets nice and melty, place sliced cherry tomatoes and a couple of fresh basil leaves on the melted cheese.  Top the sandwich then flip it to make it nicely browned.

Mac & Cheese.  There was a nice dinner with a very special macaroni and cheese with organic mushrooms and fancy cheese.  I don’t have a recipe for that but my mom always swore by Kraft Mac & Cheese.  And who doesn’t love orange pasta?

OR

Pad Thai.  Now, if you’re going with the Pad Thai (in lieu of the Mac & Cheese), order out unless you are a thai cooking specialist.  If you are, then your recipe is bound to be better than mine.

Playlist.  The book moves mostly among the modern art scene in Boston.  I’d choose something cool and jazzy like Miles Davis.

The image above is Anders Zorn’s painting entitled “Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice.”  Interestingly, the photographs of her later in life resemble Margaret Hamilton in her Miss Gulch costume — chin and all.  For the sake of romanticism, I thought it better to use Mr. Zorn’s painting.

Enjoy!

Secrets, Memories and Lies: A Book and A Menu

Joseph-Beth and WEKU host a book club discussion in the store’s Bronte Cafe each second Tuesday of the month.  Last night’s discussion featured one of the most intriguing books I’ve read in the past year:  Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending.  A mass of jumbled relationships ranging over half a century recalled by a completely unreliable narrator; the book has been the subject of speculation by everyone from the New York Times to dozens of blogs.  I don’t intend to de-mystify any of it here.  Let me just say this review, forwarded to me by someone from the discussion last night, is the best one I’ve seen:  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/13/books/review/the-sense-of-an-ending-by-julian-barnes-book-review.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

But the discussion did prompt lots of thinking, and even a dream or two last night.  Is everyone as much of a mystery to themselves as Barnes’ narrator?  How much of memory is a wished-for but unknowing revision of events?  What are the subtle clues, or even the overt ones, that we miss or ignore each day that might explain our own daily activities and relationships.  

As a book club discussion piece, you can’t beat it.  I think a menu of food that holds its’ own secrets would be a fun way to incorporate the book’s theme.

Goat cheese/pesto/sundried tomato terrine with crackers:  Use a hand mixer to soften goat cheese with a small amount of butter.  Line a small, 4″ or so, round dish with plastic wrap.  Place a layer of toasted pignoli nuts, then one of goat cheese, then one of pesto, then goat cheese, sundried tomatoes in oil, then goat cheese.  You can use the sundried tomato pesto and basil pesto from the grocery.  If you need more layers, continue adding alternating the sundried tomatoes and the pesto.  Refrigerate for several hours.  Unmold onto a place with the pignolis on the top.

Frittata or Omelet:  a must-have once you’re read the book.  Fill with something delicious.

Bundt Cake.  This marble recipe is from Food and Wine.

  1. Nonstick cooking spray
  2. 2 teaspoons unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder, plus more for dusting
  3. 10 ounces dark chocolate (60 to 70 percent cacao), chopped
  4. 3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  5. 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  6. 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  7. 3/4 teaspoon salt
  8. 2 sticks unsalted butter, slightly cool (not cold) and cut into chunks
  9. 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
  10. 1 cup light brown sugar
  11. 4 large eggs
  12. 16 ounces full-fat Greek yogurt
  13. 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  14. 3/4 cup nutty granola without fruit
  15. Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting
  1. Preheat the oven to 350°. Generously coat a 10-inch Bundt pan with nonstick cooking spray and dust it with cocoa powder.
  2. In a large heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water, melt the chopped chocolate. Remove from the heat and whisk in the 2 teaspoons of cocoa powder.
  3. Sift the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt into a medium bowl. In the bowl of a standing electric mixer fitted with the paddle, beat the butter at medium speed until very smooth. Add both sugars and beat until fluffy, 2 minutes. Scrape down the bowl and beat for 10 seconds longer. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, then beat in the yogurt and vanilla. At low speed, beat in the dry ingredients in 3 batches, until just incorporated.
  4. Scrape two-thirds of the batter into the chocolate and fold until no streaks remain (the batter will be very thick). Scrape half of the chocolate batter into the pan and smooth the surface. Dollop the vanilla batter into the pan and swirl with a knife. Scrape the remaining chocolate batter into the pan and swirl a few more times. Sprinkle the granola on top and lightly press it onto the batter.
  5. Bake the cake in the center of the oven for 55 to 60 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool on a wire rack for at least 45 minutes. Invert the cake onto a plate and let cool. Dust with confectioners’ sugar and serve.
 
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For music, I’d go with a mix of The Beatles, Herman’s Hermits, early Rolling Stones, British Invasion stuff.
 
Have fun and if you figure how why A—- ——–d, let me know.  

LuLu and the Authentic Mexican

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A couple of years ago, I went for a drive down Old Frankfort Pike on a lovely autumn afternoon.  A friend and I were headed to Wallace Station for a Monday night fried chicken dinner.  Along the way, we saw a sign for a restaurant proclaiming “LuLu’s Authentic Mexican.  I thought it was worthy of its’ own short story.  Here it is:

She never really felt like a “Lucy,” but that was what they called her.  By day, at tea parties with other debutantes and while shopping with her mother and grandmother at Pogue’s, “Lucy” seemed appropriate. “Lucy” was blue starched cotton and white kid gloves and Emily Post and hand-written thank you notes in opulent, navy blue ink on creamy Crane paper. 

But at night, her sun-burnished cheek crushed against a satin lapel smelling of Grey Flannel and horsehair, she couldn’t bear the sound, the feel, the touch of that name kissed into the cilia of her ear.  No, at night, she was no Lucy.   

Now as daylight seeped from an early autumn afternoon, Lucy tied her hair into a high ponytail and slipped a light green cardigan over her shoulder-baring halter hoping to avoid her mother’s censure.  She peeked into the kitchen where Margaret bent over the enamel sink.  She waved goodbye and winked at her to keep quiet.  Lucy slipped out the kitchen door, holding it from banging closed, then ran toward the converted barn and grabbed the keys to her 1957 T-bird off the wall.  Within seconds, she was on the road to Lexington, the top down and wind whipping her ponytail across her face.  As she turned onto the main road she faintly heard her mother calling her name but knew she was far enough away to claim later she hadn’t. 

Despite the October date, the wind was warm and dry.  Days without rain turned much of the grass brown but here, in the pristine farmland of Woodford County’s horse country, chestnut-colored yearlings ran along white fences, their well-manicured hooves nestled in lush, well-watered foliage.  The sun set among bands of charcoaled clouds shot through by prisms of color.  Lucy looked past the top of the windshield and felt the sky envelop her as if she was actually flying into the clouds instead of driving beneath them. 

She pulled the band off her ponytail and let her hair stream behind her like a yellow banner.  She checked her lipstick in the rearview mirror:  Strawberry Meringue. She needed something darker tonight though. Lucy pulled her handbag into her lap and dug around for the tube of Ruby Red, the same shade Marilyn Monroe wore.  Not there.  She tried again.  Nothing.  She knew it was in there.  Lucy glanced down and just as she located the cylinder, felt a shift.  The pavement was gone. 

Lucy watched as the tires lost contact with the pavement.  She flew above the steering wheel, into the open space above her head and saw the sky coming to meet her until a white fence interfered with the brief flight.  The car plowed through the wooden slats and came to a shuddering halt.  Lucy’s hair swung forward and for a long time, everything was dark and quiet.

She became aware of a sound coming to her across a vast distance and tried and failed to put her hand to her head.  She opened her eyes and saw blinking white diamonds in a black velvet sky.  She smiled.  How beautiful.  Then came that sound again, closer now but not so near that she needed to pay attention to it.  Must be her mother calling after her as she drives away.  No, no, this is deeper, darker.  But a voice, yes.

“Miss?”

Hmmmm, miss.  Miss what?  Who?  Oh, no, wait, the voice was talking to her.

“Miss?  Can you hear me?”

It came again but sounded funny.  She giggled a little bit and tried to move her hand to her head again.  This time it worked.  Aha!  She sat up and the diamonds gave way to a dark male shape sitting directly in front of her. 

“Miss.  Hello?  Miss?”

“Yes,” she said, “Yes.  I am.”

If it is possible to hear a person smile, she thought, I just heard this one.  She smiled in return. 

“How may you be feeling, Miss?”

“I’m ok, I think, I’m ok.  Who are you?”

“I am called Carlos.”

“Carlos?”  Lucy didn’t recall an angel named Carlos from Sunday lessons at First Presbyterian Church, but she generally didn’t pay too close attention.  Maybe her car had flown and actually landed in some other country.  “Carlos?  I don’t know anyone named Carlos.  Are you an angel?”

Now the man actually laughed.  “No miss.  I was riding home and I have watch your automobile fly across my fence.  I am come to see that you are well.  My name is Carlos de Leon.  I have just purchased the farm onto which you have landed.”  Now Carlos moved to Lucy’s side and she saw for the first time his white teeth grinning at her. 

“Now, may I have the pleasure of knowing your name?”

“Me?  My name is Luciana.  But you may call me LuLu.”

 

 

River Runs

Rivers fascinate writers.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A River Runs Through It, the novels of Wendell Berry.  Casting a wider net, The African Queen, Heart of Darkness, and any book about Lewis & Clark.

Once Upon a River, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s second novel, tells the story of 15-year-old, stunningly beautiful (even when dirt-encrusted) sharpshooter Margo Crane; raped, orphaned and raped again.  Margo wants to be Annie Oakley.  She fishes, hunts and then in graphic detail, kills and skins her prey.  She occasionally steals vegetables too.  She kills deer out-of-season because she has no way other than pulling a trigger to let her emotions escape.  She rarely speaks; but like Helen of Troy, men are inevitably drawn to her (generally gritty) extraordinary beauty. All I know is she has green eyes.

Ms. Campbell’s writing eloquently conveys the natural world of Northern Michigan through the changing seasons and Margo’s symbiotic relationship to it.  But the relationships between Margo and the men of the book left me at best skeptical and at worst hostile.  Margo is seduced by an older male relative in an “I’d sort of rather not do this but it’s not all that bad” kind of way.  She adores the man and wants to please him.  Margo chooses an older lover or two who will provide her with the necessities of food and shelter and she revels in these adventures.  I’ve seen reviews praising the book for the unabashed sensuality of the female heroine.  I just don’t think that’s necessarily a glorious role model.  Whether forced to have sexual intercourse physically or by physical necessity, force is involved.

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All in all, I’ve gotta say I identified much more with the deer than with the girl.

Should you choose the book for your book club, I suggest the following menu based on the book:

Welsh Rarebit:  When I was growing up we always thought this had rabbit in it.  It doesn’t but you can fool a couple people.  And it’s good!  (Mark Bittman’s recipe below)

Homemade cinnamon bread

A big salad of whatever you can steal.  Or a salad of mixed baby greens, chopped apples and diced avocado tossed with a simple olive oil and lemon juice vinaigrette.  You don’t need much oil, the avocado spreads into the salad to create the perfect complement to the lemon juice and tangy apples.

Venison stew.  I’ve never fixed it so I can’t recommend any particular recipe.  Or you could buy ground venison and make chili.

For dessert, pie.  Whatever your favorite is.

Welsh Rarebit

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons flour

1 tablespoon mustard powder

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

3/4 cup dark beer

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1 pound Cheddar cheese, grated

4-8 pieces of lightly toasted bread

Melt butter in saucepan over medium heat, adding flour as it melts.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown and very fragrant, 3-5 minutes.  Stir in the mustard and cayenne, then whisk in the beer and Worcestershire.

When mixture is uniform, turn to low and stir in cheese, stirring until smooth.

Spread mixture on toast, place under broiler until bubbly and the edges of the bread are crispy.  Serve immediately.

Although Once Upon a River takes place in Michigan, this is not the book for a Motown soundtrack.  I’m thinking Hank Williams Jr., Willie Nelson and Tobey Keith.  Anything at all about sitting around shooting things and drinking beer.  And specifically this:

Redneck Woman, Gretchen Wilson

Bitch, Meredith Wilson

She’s Country, Jason Aldean

Man I Feel Like A Woman, Shania Twain

The soundtrack to The Great American Trailer Park Musical

Now, where did I put my copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn …