Monday, February 18, 2008

Dolmas and Dreamgirls

Now that I'm writing on three blogs, you might see that the frequency of my posts has decreased somewhat. Bear with me, friends: between the Bethany Davies story site and my own blog, I've been invited to contribute to my sister Amanda's new site on teaching called TeachAble. Her focus is on "teachable moments away from the desk"---often the ones that stay with us the most. Look for it soon on my list of links.

Tonight we had one of our favorite dishes, namely a cold platter of tidbits: smoked salmon, goats cheese, dolmas and fresh foccacia bread. A sunny walk to Pastaworks this afternoon supplied us with the delicious bright green Castelvetrano olives, which are relatively new on the olive scene, as far as I am aware. They are from Italy and have a fresh look and flavor, much like the Lucques or Bella de Cerignola, but only with the salt that Italian food is so known for. These olives are not smooth skinned, but remind me of the green asian plums often served in the bottom of a glass of plum wine. As you can tell by my raving and drooling on the keyboard, these are a new favorite.

Over dinner we compared some thoughts about dolmas, those little finger-shaped stuffed Turkish grape leaves. Joe and I usually get the vegetarian ones at Trader Joe's; they come in a pretty, highly reusable jar, and are consistently good, tastewise. Our common complaint is the tough, fibrous stems that usually end up distracting from the flavor of the lemony olive oil they are stored in. We discussed the available offerings of dolmas around Portland. Both Hagen markets and New Seasons tend to make fat dolmas with walnuts, feta and onion flavoring the rice inside, but the again, the tough leaf issue is a deterent to enjoyment. Aside from the dolmas at Nicholas's lebanese restaurant, served warm with yogurt, and the ones served at Hodas and Riyahd's (the only Middle Eastern restaurant that also serves fries!), it was unaninimous: the best take-home dolmas are to be found at Pastaworks. They come from a can; I know this because once they were out and I inquired. It turns out that the "dolma makers were on strike". For real. I'm left with an impression of a dark-browed woman scowling as she arrives in to work, saying "Time to make the dolmas" just like that poor Dunkin Donuts guy. I know, I know, it's horrible, really, but that's what I conjured up in my overimaginative head. If you really want your mind blown, check out Dolmas on Wikipedia, where you will discover how frighteningly slim the collective common US knowledge of Middle Eastern, Turkish, Greek and Armenian cuisine is.

Along with indulging in some great food, we watched Dreamgirls this afternoon, taking breaks to play with baby, feed baby, and all other things baby. Two Decembers ago, I'd sat in Peets, reading the New York Times' review of the movie and absolutely riveted by the article. People who know me can attest to the fact that I'm very curious about music (admittedly, not all music) and 60's soul has always been of interest to me. The Times presented a storyline that fascinated me: the building of the Motown Sound, and all the players. Of course, a musical can only be at best a fictionalized retelling, an adaptation of the truth and characters must be composites, for so many reasons, many of them legal. Especially when some of those main "characters" are living.

At that point in my life, Dreamgirls was somewhat of a myth, something I'd heard about in passing, yet never experienced. I had wanted to see it on the big screen, but today we rented it and, my, it was soooo worth it. Much more compelling, in my opinion, than "Chicago", "Dreamgirls" felt like it had a more cohesive story and the music!--just amazing. I haven't heard much of Beyonce Knowles, having an aversion to most top 40 radio these days, but I came away very impressed with her talent as a singer. Most compelling, though, was Jennifer Hudson's role as Effie White. I'm sure you've heard all this before, but there was something jaw-droppingly thunderous in her ability to rip her character's heart out and lay it bare. Needless to say, a Big Boo Hoo for me. (translated, "cue the tears") An unerringly brilliant storyline and score were made to connect the viewer to the tale of an empire built and crumbling; the theme of family, and the disintegration of that family, proved emotional and connected viewers in an empathetic way to not just one, but many of the characters. And I never read about it, but the last two minutes of the movie are what really made it for me. The look on Jamie Foxx's face as he makes a monumental discovery gave me chills; his character suffers several comeuppences in the film, but in those last moments, you can see the gravity of his revelation. I loved that it was a film where no one appeared to be "acting", and where the craft of acting really shone through. I now understand why it was up for so many awards.

We topped this splendid evening off with a 2004 bottle of Coppola Diamond Collection/Yellow Label Sauvignon Blanc. If you are ever shopping for a really great white that features a splendid balance of floral, fruit and crisp grape, you won't be disappointed. Not overly dry, this wine rounded out our delicious evening. I've got a glass waiting for me upstairs, so I'd better go before Joe drinks it and blames it on the baby. Cheers!

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Time to Write

The last time you might have caught up with me, we were wrapping up our trip to Florida. So, in the interest of time, let's fast forward a wee bit: Joaquin is crawling all over the place; my parents had a nice visit with us this last week; Belmont Station is now serving Top Sail, Full Sail's smoky Bourbon Barrel-aged Porter (yes, it's worth writing about!), and the Giants have won the SuperBowl in an upset bound to be forgotten too soon by those of us who just don't care (sorry if you were rooting for the Patriots, but remember friends, it's just a game!). These were the highlights of a week and a half that has left me by turns happy, exhausted and ultimately too busy, with too little time to write.

What did I do instead? I read a great book, Helen Slavin's "The Extra Large Medium". I won't go into the plot, but to say it's about the life of a medium, Annie Colville, who sees the dead, easily identified by wearing chocolate brown, from an early age. Her life is riddled with spirits who want her help wrapping up "unfinished business", most often the messages have something to do with where the old shed key is, where the old collectible tea sets are, and sometimes, a more personal last word or two to living loved ones. I fell in love with Annie, concerned for her and her eccentric life that keeps her from finding acceptance and comfort in the land of the living. Her journey and the events that befall her kept me turning pages until a most satisfying conclusion was reached and it felt safe to leave her on her own again. Funny how a book can do that.

Anne Lamott talks in her book, Bird by Bird, about how the act of writing doesn't always make us great writers, but it does make us better readers. I must agree that I enjoy books more, for deeper reasons, than I did before I deciding that writing should be something I do as often as possible. It's safe for me to say that I am not a great writer: far from it, sometimes I am a shitty writer, writing just to please myself, which is about as self-indulgent as you can get. And if you've ever edited your own (or someone else's) work, it's often true that the self-indulgent, super "This is brilliant and so witty I can't believe it, I love myself so much" kind of stuff is often the first thing that you need to cross out and throw into the fire. And I'm sure this, and my other writings, are probably riddled with kindling.

But, if the payoff is that it makes me a better reader, then it's a good one. Reading is such a pleasure to me. Unbelievably wonderful.

So, if you are wondering why I have neglected dear Bethany for a little while, life has been grabbing me by the collar and forcing my nose into a book. I take away a little something that I'm sure I'll use in my own writing, somewhere. Books fill me up and put something in my writing bank. I came away with the sense that I want people to care about Bethany the way I cared about Annie. More goals, more sense of what drives me to write. Serving the character, being concerned about all the people in her little family. I don't know how her story ends yet, but I'm interested to see how it turns out. This is what keeps us turning pages. I think this is also what keeps some of us writing. Our created people are our friends, or enemies, but we have to know how their story plays out. Good readers and disciplined writers have something in common, we work toward a conclusion, even if it's only an illusory one. Even if we have to fill in a lot of blanks, or gather together the evidence and conjure one up ourselves. We wonder what happened next after the snapshot is taken and the shutter closes to black. Our imaginations kick in. We must know.

It's this compulsion that feels most definingly human to me. I think this is our stumbling block as to accepting the Mystery of the Divine Spirit, and it's our most fearsome downfall, our desire to know all and our certainty that what we know is right above all other answers. This is where we really screw ourselves, our pigheaded belief that our way is the right way, the only way. From the biggest of questions to the smallest of actions (how to cut an onion, when to brush your teeth)...we all have our own way/how/when of doing things, a myriad million of 'right' ways that most of us would never even consider. We know these ways through our personal experiences, and we tend to forget that the personal is not global. Our way, our "right" answer doesn't work for everyone. Once we understand this, the better off we all will be.

Wow. Don't know where that came from. The brain gets excited like this--and maybe, in a nutshell, this is why I write. Not just to tell an story, but to see which words are going to come next. It feels good. Perhaps, (very, very) self indulgent. But I love it.