Wednesday, July 28, 2010

School Integration

I don't know if it was the blueberry pie or the discovery of the new muse (see last week's post) or the discovery of two new writing strategies, but in the past week, I have gotten deeply involved with the writing of my new novel, and I want to remain that way. So, I'll admit, when Wednesday morning rolled around, I was not sure how I felt about my commitment to this blog. It's not that I care less about the discomforts of diversity than when I began 69 posts ago (that's a lot of posts, by the way). And it's not that I had nothing to say. I actually had multiple ideas for what to write about (one thing about the discomforts of diversity: they never dry up). It's that I was thinking perhaps it was time to move on--to maintain my focus on the new novel, to dig in deeply to this new world I'm creating and avoid/resist distractions. 
     But I'm not the type to just disappear, or to abandon a commitment easily, so as I went for my walk today, I was mentally composing a farewell-for-now post. I had all kinds of things to say about the world of blogging and the world of novel writing and so on. But this morning, also on my mind were a couple conversations I'd been following on the Detroit Yes forum.
     I've mentioned this place before as a very active site that has been supportive of my novel. One of this morning's conversations was "Where were you during the 1967 riots?" which evolved into a conversation about what has happened to Detroit and why it hasn't recovered while so many other cities have. The other conversation was "What direction is Detroit heading?" with multiple views, including up, down, and sideways. I piped up on that one with a paragraph from the last page of my novel, from the perspective of Harry Levine, the main character, who comes to a realization that everything is always in a state of rebuilding and destroying, that it's a matter of proportion, and what you see depends on where you happen to be looking. Also, on this forum, someone had posted a link to an article saying that the Detroit Public Schools had come in last in the country on reading and math scores. Horrible to think about.
     Anyway, the conversation in all these threads eventually worked its way around to the troubled school system, and I participated in that, noting that even rumors about trouble in the schools (danger to one's children, or the possibility of lower standards) is enough to get people thinking about moving. It was certainly one of the factors in the white flight to the suburbs that took place in the 60s. At bottom, of course, it is related to racial fear. One of the other people on the forum responded (this was only part of her very-well-written response), "Seriously, what do people think that we're going to do to them? Do folks think that their K-12 education or their university degree is devalued just by the very presence of black folks?"
     I felt so embarrassed. I don't know who the white women are in that famous photo above (from Little Rock). Not sure whether their names are known at all. They may see things in a whole new light by now (we can hope). But I am certainly glad not to be any of them.  And I wouldn't want the woman on the Detroit Yes forum to think of me as anywhere in that ballpark. Not saying she did. Just saying . . .

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Blueberries for Sal


It's that time of year again. Meaning that my friend Patry and I bake a blueberry pie for our muses. For the full story, please follow the link in that first sentence. Although the recipe is the same every year, and for me, the pie comes out pretty much equally splendiforous every year (which is why I feel okay using a photo from a year past), there are always subtle variations: (1) What, in particular, I am hoping for from my muse. (2) Who I share the pie with.(3) How I'm feeling as I make and compose the various parts of the pie--the crust, which I always make from scratch; the blueberries, which I purchase from the local farmers' market on Saturday morning; how the berries look and how I feel about them as they begin to cook down in the pot; how the cream looks as it's whipping up and how I decide when to stop. (4) How the pie is received when I serve it and whether I feel comfortable telling the eater(s) about Patry and me and Marilyn Robinson and the muse and so forth.
     If I went into all of this, you would likely abandon me as too verbose, as I actually have a great deal to say on all four of those points, including my decision on how many blueberries to buy at the market, and the farmer instructing me on the best "price points," but me being afraid to take advantage of those price points because I might end up with too many berries and they might go to waste. And then there I was worrying about what the farmer must have thought of me because I chose to buy fewer berries for the same amount of money that would have gotten me more berries . . . oh, well, I really didn't intend to go into that.
    What I wanted to go into was the experience of the berries in the pan, which I have written about before on Patry's blog. The point is that you put the berries in the pot with sugar and corn starch and just a little lemon juice, and then you turn it on moderate heat and wait for them to "cook down." Every year, I get this same worried feeling, though, because the whole thing looks so dry, and I can't imagine that it's ever going to turn into anything other than that dry pile of berries. (You won't be surprised that I have similar concerns about my writing.) This year, however, with memories of past successes, I tried a new approach: watchful patience. Well, it was really a more auditory kind of patience than a watchful one. I lowered my ear to the pot and listened for burbling developments. I didn't stir prematurely. I didn't get overly anxious. I watched carefully, and I listened. And it likely took as long as ever for the process of "cooking down" to occur, but I felt differently about it. 
     The other thing I wanted to mention about the pie was that it got me thinking about my muse and who, exactly, my muse is. Many years ago, I wrote a poem (one of the few poems I've ever written) in which I envisioned my muse. And she looked something like my mother, sitting by the old manual typewriter, smoking a cigarette with her hair set with bobby-pins. I have written about my mother as muse elsewhere. This time, as an updated muse image, I have started to think of Sal, the little tomboy girl from the old book Blueberries for Sal. In the story, Sal is picking blueberries with her mother but dreamily wanders off and ends up following a mother bear instead of her human mother. It all turns out well for everyone, even if it's a little shocking at first. But I've decided now on Sal as my new muse. Kerplink, kerplank, kerplunk--that's the sound of the blueberries falling into Sal's tin pail. And here's Patry and me, the one time I met her in person, when she came to my house during her book tour, and I made blueberry pie for her (with frozen berries), even though it was St. Patrick's Day and berries were not in season.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Full Lunch

Continuing on the subject of food, I want to mention that about a month ago, an NPR reporter was traveling around the Midwest, talking to local business owners to do a story on the state of the economy. She interviewed a woman who owned a cafe/bakery in Iowa. The cafe sounded lovely. I'm sure I would love it if I visited it (the photo is not intended to represent anything they would serve at that cafe). The owner reported that she had been through some hard times, business had been slow, and she'd had to let some employees go or cut back their hours (I can't remember now with certainty which it was). But, she reported, things were looking up. How could she tell, asked the reporter. Well, she said, during the bad stretch, customers would come in, and for lunch they would have only a half a sandwich, a cup of soup, and a glass of water. Now, she said, people were ordering a complete lunch, including a drink and dessert. The reporter laughed, and indeed, that was a very clever and concrete economic indicator.
     When I thought about it over the next couple days, though, it made me think about interests--that we live in a world of diverse and competing interests (see, now I'm coming around to my blog theme: Discomforts of Diversity). Although I wish the cafe owner no harm, and I certainly want our economy to be vigorous and for small business owners to thrive--especially those who make lovely food from scratch and create welcoming atmospheres where people can gather--I am also consistently hearing about the obesity epidemic, diabetes, heart disease, and the drain on the whole economic and health care systems that these diseases pose. So the cafe owner who thrives when people order a full lunch represents one set of interests; a competing set of interests would argue that people might be better off with a half and sandwich, a cup of soup, and a glass of water. They (and the whole system) would also be better off if they skipped dessert. Which interest is more important? Moderation is likely the key here, but you see where I'm going.
    This brought me to think of other competing interests: The spotted owl vs. the loggers. The ban on deep-water oil drilling vs. the people who are out of work because of it. Closing military bases vs. people losing jobs. Even ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan means people will be out of work. Government budget cuts almost always translate into people out of work. It's a closed system. We're all in it together. Someone always has to pay. How do we decide who? 

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Food versus War

Last March, I was in Pittsburgh for a reading at the wonderful Gist Street Reading Series. I found Pittsburgh to be an interesting, rich, and wonderful place. And now, more news of Pittsburgh and its wonderfulness. I heard about this on the radio tonight, and had to report it here. Borrowing both the photo (above) and the text from their blog (below; all borrowed out of admiration and respect), I present you with this:
  Conflict Kitchen is a take-out restaurant that only serves cuisine from countries that the United States is in conflict with. The food is served out of a take-out style storefront, which will rotate identities every 4 months to highlight another country.  Each Conflict Kitchen iteration will be augmented by events, performances, and discussion about the culture, politics, and issues at stake with each country we focus on.
Kubideh Kitchen [the current iteration] is an Iranian take-out restaurant that serves kubideh in freshly baked barbari bread with onion, mint, and basil. Developed in collaboration with members of the Pittsburgh Iranian community, the sandwich is packaged in a custom-designed wrapper that includes interviews with Iranians both in Pittsburgh and Iran on subjects ranging from Iranian food and poetry to the current political turmoil.
Brilliant, yes? I do think that food is a welcoming and potentially persuasive way to enter into the world of another--even of a feared or hated Other. A way of breaking down barriers. A way of differentiating the people from the government/politics. A way of recognizing humanity. 

How about a bowl of chicken soup with matzoh balls? Which I mention only because it is a warm and welcoming (and, some think, curative) food. Also because it's associated with Jews, and a lot of people have problems with Jews.