Monday, December 31, 2012

My Strange Affair with the Impressionists


In high school, I was part of "academic decathlon" in which we took tests on ten subjects, one of which was art. My junior year the specific subject was the Impressionists. At the time, I didn’t know an Impressionist from a doorknob, and guessed every multiple-choice question, alternating Manet, Monet, Degas, and Renoir with random, offhand swipes of my pencil. Inconceivably, I won the category, but it certainly wasn’t through any affection to painting. Perhaps it was because I had no talent for drawing or colors that I had loathed "art" my entire childhood, preferring the latest technology and toys.

My hatred of painting and drawing seemed to feed a teenage devotion to photography. I snapped photographs by the hundred, capturing moments, getting across ideas when possible. "Painting," I would say, "was something people did before they had cameras." When college began, the profusion of Monet’s "water lilies" posters, usually bad copies that made these paintings look like muddy messes, did little to spark any interest in the other visual arts. "I hate Monet," I told my college girlfriend, who had the ubiquitous waterlily print on her wall. "You’re an idiot," she returned, annoyed. "Who do you like?"

I thought about it, studied some of the hated paintings, and determined grudgingly that I liked Salvador Dali. His uncanny paintings spoke to the phase of life I was in, the disturbed adolescence where the boundaries of society had been distorted by too much knowledge. The real world stretched like taffy and holes opened into alternate dimensions in Dali’s paintings, much as they were doing in my mind. Besides, they were of things that could not be photographed, of the universe of madness, of symbols, and of hyper reality. What I really hated, I decided, was that Impressionist twaddle that took the natural world and dipped it in blurry fish oil.

This preference continued until the millennium, when after spending New Year’s Eve in London, two friends and I traveled to Amsterdam. The Van Gogh Museum was one of our stops, and as we wandered around I was shocked at the thick, nearly three-dimensional paint that gave such texture and luminosity to the landscapes of Provence. I had recently read Irving Stone’s classic biographical novel, Lust For Life, and had been moved and impressed by the story of Van Gogh’s persistent toil. But now I saw that work’s results in all its glory, and it was not the fuzzy nonsense I thought it was. I stared and stared and began to wonder if I had been wrong all this time.

I framed a print of Van Gogh’s Wheatfield With Crows and hung it over my bed. I read art books, paging through collections of works at the library, and gradually absorbed enough to appreciate the differences, realizing that now I could pass that academic decathlon test without guessing. I visited museums near my home, expanding my appreciation and respect to other Impressionists like Camille Pisarro, Paul Cezanne, John Singer Sargent, and Winslow Homer. I found that for many years in the nineteenth century the majority of people had felt the same way I had as a child, and indeed some still did. These Impressionist paintings were like fine wine or cheese, something that the sugar-cravings of youth do not allow for, and only after my palate had been trained had I fully understood their genius.

I have even made my peace with Monet, coming to love his eye for color and light, finding new visual notes every day. My wife and I have included prints of three of his lesser known masterpieces in our house: The Boat Studio, Fisherman's Cottage on the Cliffs at Varengeville, and Fishing Boats at Sea, 1868. This turn-around is probably quite typical. Our maturity of eye parallels the maturity of spirit, and though art appreciation can be as fickle as the fads of technology and toys, the Impressionists have beaten the initial criticism and thrived for over a hundred years. There are reasons for that victory, for why great art lasts, and as adults we should try to discover them.

First published at Hackwriters.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Downy or Hairy?

The downy and hairy woodpeckers look nearly identical, but as you can see here, one is much much larger. The first time one of the hairy woodpeckers joined the fray at the feeder, I thought some mutant downy had landed. But the mystery was quickly solved, and now we have three woodpecker species at our house so far. (We also have flickers) As long as they are not banging on the siding, this is a blessing.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Brussels Sprouts Sandwich

Steamed then fried Brussels Sprouts on a toasted grinder roll, with capicola, spicy mayonnaise, and a poached egg. Delicious.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Finch

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Glorious Solstice, and an Acceptable Festivus to all!

Friday, December 21, 2012

ION - It's Only Natural

Went back to It's Only Natural, otherwise known as ION, in Middletown.
It's a famous vegetarian restaurant, and the decor is fantastic. We shopped for Xmas presents in the wonderful Middletown downtown. Find out more in the Insiders' Guide to Connecticut.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Cat on the Bookshelf

Django occasionally makes his home up on top of my highest bookshelf, right above my collection of 'favorite books.' He's a great addition to that selection.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Nuthatch Morning

Nuthatch taking advantage of one of our (and our cats') Xmas presents - a new birdfeeder by the bay window.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

At Fairfield University Bookstore

Thanks to the Fairfield University Bookstore (housed in the old Borders on the Post Road) for inviting us to talk about A History of Connecticut Food. We had a great time, and had dinner at Bodega Taco Bar a block away. Delicious. More on them in the future, I'm sure!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Yes, Poetry

Check out my wife's poem on page 8 of the bi-monthly Yes, Poetry magazine.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Pumpkin Soup

Here's a pumpkin soup, served in the shell, that my wife made recently. We softened the pumpkin in the oven first, and then used the recipe for squash soup in A History of Connecticut Food. Along with some roasted pumpkin seeds and a healthy salad with quail eggs, it made for a delicious meal. Try it out!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Mark Twain Is Connecticut

Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, is often thought of as a Missouri writer. He is also buried with his wife's family in Elmira, New York. But he spent most of his years in the state of Connecticut. He wrote most of his books here (including A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court). I was also born elsewhere - in Maryland, and spent years in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Everyone wants to claim Mark Twain as their own. But we have the best claim to him, and should make sure that everyone knows it.

The photo above is of his amazing house in Hartford. The billiards table is still there. Go check it out.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Robert Bly: News of the Universe

A good poet and a great thinker. I was impressed by Iron John, and it really helped me during my late twenties during a crisis of purpose. I was even more impressed when I met the man himself. I'm looking forward to this documentary!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Call Some Place Paradise, Kiss It Goodbye

There is a secret town that my girlfriend and later wife Amy and I found after two intense days. We had climbed a large mountain, seen frozen waterfalls, and fallen in love. The town itself was full of charming antique shops, pottery studios, and outdoor sculptures.

A huge monument stood on the edges of town, and a small elevator zoomed us to the small room at the top. From there, we could see the whole of the wide valley, the small friendly houses scattered around the urban center, the fields and meadows beyond, and the cup of the mountains enfolding all. A small college hid on the outskirts, and we talked of someday teaching there, of living in one of the brightly-colored Victorian houses. We would sit on the porch and read each other’s poetry, satisfied in the autumn of our busy lives that we had done the things we set out to do.

"Why keep the name of that town a secret?" One of my creative writing students asked me. The reason, I told her, is that this town isn’t sharable at all. I will persuade you to visit, and you will be disappointed. It is special to me for a complex set of personal and associative reasons. To others it may seem boring, or trite, or even ugly. Another writer who lived in that town for years believes it to be the most twisted place on earth, full of corruption and evil. Once, I was extolling the beauties of Florence, Italy to a colleague, and she laughed bitterly. "It’s rotten to the core," she told me. Who is accurate? Both, and neither.

Another of these favorite places appeared to Amy and I over a year later, after we had a fight. Like most fights, it was over something outrageously stupid, a difference of opinion that we had blown into monstrous proportions. We had woken up to a driving rain, and had cooked oatmeal and Turkish coffee in the tent. After taking down the sopping tent in the rain, we drove miserably through traffic down a long coastal road past fishing villages and sleepy tourist towns to a dock where we had fried fish for lunch. We boarded a ferry and after leaving the harbor, the captain announced that it might be a rough trip. It was the roughest we’d ever experienced, with six-foot swells and one enormous wave that whacked us and nearly sent the small boat tumbling end over end. I put my brine-soaked head between my legs and fought my nausea, wondering if all this was worth it.

We finally reached the island, and I collapsed on the dock. When I arose, I followed the steady Amy into perfection: small clapboard houses, flower gardens, and sailboats. Thousands of monarch butterflies landed on every flower, resting before heading south for the winter. Gulls and cormorants ranged around the rocky coast. There were no cars, no locks on doors, and no macadam roads. We stayed in an upscale hostel, with shared baths but a private room, from which we could see the harbor and the green hump of a steep grassy island on the far side. The next day after blueberry pancakes we hiked around the borders of the island, finding dozens of artists with easels en plein air, painting the island’s mystical landscapes. Amy picked raspberries and blackberries, and we scrambled over volcanic rock, shot through with limestone, and dotted with patches of orange lichen. We found an outcrop that we had seen in a famous painting, and sat on it and wrote, while the waves crashed far below.

That evening after naps in our breezy room with its simple rocking chair, we ate dinner at the island inn: chilled blueberry soup, pineapple salmon, corn on the cob, mussels, crème brule, lobster, and glasses of "Perfect Stranger" wine. By the time we finished, the sky was dark, and without streetlamps or flashlights we made our way back on the road in absolute darkness, with the only light emanating from the thick Milky Way outlined in a billion stars overhead. On the ferry the next day, the sea was glassy and full of seals. It was a place, not to live, but to summer in, to live slowly and purely, to create and to absorb, to make of life something better, and to keep a perfect secret.

This place felt like mine, because I found it, without any help from travel guides or travel writers. I looked at a map and said "I want to go there." Later, I discovered that other writers had already realized the singular nature of that place. But it still feels like mine, because my experience predated that knowledge. In fact, that fact made me question the very nature of my work, the usefulness of travel writing as inspiration and guide. Maybe, instead of listening to what I have to say, you should head out and find your own. Maybe that is the true purpose of travel writing, to encourage rather than direct, to point in all directions, instead of just one.

I want to not tell you about one last place, a place I don’t want to write about, for fear of ruining it, for fear of drawing more people there. It is a place you all should see, though I don’t want you to. It is a place that would die if more people came there, if my stories brought the hordes, or maybe even one more person. It is a secret valley that first appeared to me when I was sick and tired. I had just completed three days of difficult hiking though cold rain and hot sun. My stomach had rebelled against dehydration and I didn’t eat all day. After a long downhill slope from a long cliff, my friend Ryan and I reached the river. One of the many waterfalls that made up the thousand-yard cascade was on our left, with two young girls bathing in the pool at the base, like mountain nymphs greeting us at the entrance to a hidden godhome. The waiting mountain hut welcomed us and enfolded us in piney arms, as Ryan and I spent a restful day on the rocks of the waterfall, talking with a beautiful hut girl known only as "five-star," and recovering our strength and balance.

After that I tried to return every year to this cabin and the magical landscape that surrounded it. The long view from the hut’s porch down a glacial notch toward breadloaf mountains seemed to etch green onto my soul. Once, in early May I hiked down that notch, finding bear tracks and swollen rivers full with spring thaw. Jack-in-the-pulpits peeked their ministerial heads into the bright world. Moose shouldered through the forest, leaving evidence of their enormous passages. Two friends who mean a lot to me, Chris and Alison, hiked with me over the unknown ridges to the east another year, through mossy-floored forests and over a wide pass, away from this secret home, which by that time I had acknowledged as one of my favorite spots on earth. But even with this awareness, I had not lost that sacred feeling of hope and purity that made it so.

Once in a while, my heart becomes full of the world’s many problems and I retreat to that forest to renew my strength. I wander the hills and dales, my walking stick grasped firmly in a sturdy hand, at last finding the rushing river that spills down from the high places in a seemingly endless cascade. Near the base of this river by a friendly mountain hut, the view opens once again to fairy-tale mountaintops at the end of a long carved canyon. My muscles ache with the exertions of tramping these steep mountains, but the hut crew blesses me with a hot cup of soup and a mug of tea. I sit on a boulder in the center of the river, just above the slippery lip of the largest fall. The roar of the river drowns thoughts and carries away feelings, until I am empty as a hollowed cave, smooth like polished granite, and clean: born of water and sound.

First published on Hackwriters in February 2008.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Connecticut Muffin

Visited Connecticut Muffin the other day in Brooklyn. It's so often that here in CT we get "New York Bagels" or "Texas Barbecue" that it was nice to see us exporting something, even if it is only our name. To the residents of Brooklyn perhaps Connecticut is a magical place, with rolling hills and trees, where fresh-faced bakers create the day's pastry in colonial fireplaces, and the morning smells as sweet as the country air...