Classical music

Bach in the DC Subway

November 30, 2011

Photo courtesy Jonathan King
It’s likely that if you found the original handwritten manuscript of T. S. Eliot’s groundbreaking poem, “The Waste Land,” you wouldn’t be able to trade it for a candy bar at the Quick Shop on your corner. Here’s a poem by David Lee Garrison of Ohio about how unsuccessfully classical music fits into a subway. [Introduction by Ted Kooser.]

Bach in the DC Subway

As an experiment,
The Washington Post
asked a concert violinist—
wearing jeans, tennis shoes,
and a baseball cap—
to stand near a trash can
at rush hour in the subway
and play Bach
on a Stradivarius.
Partita No. 2 in D Minor
called out to commuters
like an ocean to waves,
sang to the station
about why we should bother
to live.

A thousand people
streamed by. Seven of them
paused for a minute or so
and thirty-two dollars floated
into the open violin case.
A café hostess who drifted
over to the open door
each time she was free
said later that Bach
gave her peace,
and all the children,
all of them,
waded into the music
as if it were water,
listening until they had to be
rescued by parents
who had somewhere else to go.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2008 by David Lee Garrison, whose most recent book of poems is “Sweeping the Cemetery: New and Selected Poems,” Browser Books Publishing, 2007. Poem reprinted from “Rattle,” Vol. 14, No. 2, Winter 2008, by permission of David Lee Garrison and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.

Everyday adventures

Pomegranate Season

November 28, 2011

When I was a child, every Thanksgiving my mom and I would make the drive from our Southern California home to visit my grandparents in Cottonwood. Aside from the game-playing and family fun, I looked forward to getting my fill of one of my favorite fruits: the pomegranate. My great-grandparents, who lived across the street from my grandparents, had several pomegranate trees so my grandma always had at least one big box of the sweet, juicy fruit. I remember often eating more than one a day, prying the ruby-like seeds, called arils, from the bitter membrane, liberally decorating my clothes with hard-to-get-out juice spots, and turning my fingernails purple.

I just learned today that November is National Pomegranate Month, so in honor of that, I decided to learn a bit more about one of my favorite fruits. If you like your food to come with a story, then pomegranates are the fruit for you.

Pomegranates are one of the earliest cultivated fruits, and can be traced back to 3000 B.C. They’re linked to health (scientists have discovered they’re full of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that may help protect against heart disease, cancer and age-related maladies), fertility, prosperity and rebirth. Hoping for a second life, some ancient Egyptians, including King Tut, were buried with pomegranates.

However, my favorite pomegranate story is the Greek myth featuring Persephone, Hades and Demeter. In one version of the myth, Hades, god of the underworld, abducted beautiful Persephone to be his wife. Persephone’s mother, Demeter, the goddess in charge of crops and the harvest, didn’t know what had become of Persephone, and began to neglect her duties as she mourned and searched for her daughter. When crops withered and died, man begged Zeus to intervene and get Demeter back on the job. Zeus finally agreed, but said that if Persephone had eaten anything while she was in the underworld, she would be bound to return to Hades and the underworld for half the year (some versions of the myth say a third of the year). Alas, Persephone had eaten some pomegranate seeds offered to her by Hades and was thus bound to spend part of the year with him, and part of the year with her mother. Therefore, the pomegranate is one of Persephone’s symbols.

Pomegranates were originally grown in Persia (Iran) and other areas of the Middle East and Asia, but most of the pomegranates we eat here in the U.S. are probably grown in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Pomegranate season usually starts in October, with peak season in November and December. At my grocery store, they cost $2 each on sale (so far), so I don’t buy as many of them as I would like. (Oh for the days of eating them for free at my grandma’s!) I’ve always just eaten the fruit plain, but you can also add the seeds to yogurt, salads, ice cream or cereal, and there are a number of recipes that call for the addition of pomegranate seeds. When buying pomegranates, look for a fruit heavy for its size, with a smooth, bright skin. You can keep them in the fridge for up to two or three months.

Pomegranates might require a little patience and tenacity to eat, but to me they’re both a simple pleasure and an everyday adventure. Even though they seem expensive, they are cheaper than a bag of Doritos, and much healthier for me! Even if they do leave me with purple fingernails.

(Check out this video demonstration for a neater and easier way to get the seeds out.)

Note: The New Orleans travelogue will continue in future posts.



November 23, 2011

“Gratitude is the inward feeling of kindness received. Thankfulness is the natural impulse to express that feeling. Thanksgiving is the following of that impulse.”
Henry Van Dyke

I am grateful for so much this Thanksgiving—family, friends, good health, and my wonderful readers and followers. Thank you for sharing yourselves with me these past two years. I hope you have a marvelous Thanksgiving!

Everyday adventures

While I Was in the Shower

November 21, 2011

Saturday, my husband left half his chicken parmesan sandwich for me on the kitchen counter. When I came into the kitchen, the paper plate was on the floor, the meat portion of the sandwich was gone and my 12-year-old Jack Russell Terrier, who spends most of her time sleeping, was licking the tile.

This is the kitchen counter (it's not usually so clean).

This is the dog.

She usually looks like this:

Do you think she’s just lulling our suspicions?

Everyday adventures

Out on the River Road

November 18, 2011

Tuesday morning, our Tours By Isabelle guide, John, drove us from the French Quarter to a plantation called Oak Alley. Oak Alley is about halfway between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and on the way there, we took a road running along the Mississippi, lined with sugar cane fields and old plantations in various states of repair.

Sometime in the 1700s, an unknown settler built a small house, where the plantation house now stands, and planted two rows of 14 live oak trees, forming an alley leading from the house towards the Mississippi River. In 1839, a wealthy Creole sugar planter bought the property and built the home that now stands to please his young wife. However, according to our Oak Alley guide, though the planter himself loved plantation life, his wife preferred town living and escaped back to New Orleans every chance she could. Eventually, after the planter died, his wife and then his son tried unsuccessfully to run the plantation. It had to be sold to cover the family’s debts, and later fell into disrepair. (We were told that at one point, cattle broke into the home seeking shelter!) In the 1920s, Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Steward began the restoration of Oak Alley, the first example of ante-bellum restoration along the River Road. Oak Alley is now a National Historic Landmark, run by a non-profit organization. The land around it is still working acreage, leased to local farmers. In addition, a number of movies, videos, commercials and TV shows have been filmed there (for instance, Oak Alley is Louis’ homeplace in Interview With the Vampire).

View of alley from second floor balcony
After our tour and lunch, we had time to sketch. We scattered over the grounds, set up our stools, and began. (We were not allowed to sketch or take photos inside the house.)

Oak Alley was my first real taste of artistic frustration on this trip. I still consider myself a beginner at sketching on location, but found myself disappointed by my lack of ability to produce the images I had in my head. I know that is something that will come with time and practice, and I tried to adjust my expectations to fit what I was able to accomplish right then. I loved seeing my fellow travelers’ journal pages, trying hard not to be embarrassed by my own, while holding out hope that someday my own pages would look something like theirs. It’s hard to accept limitations—hardest when you think you should be able to perform a certain way. (I finished one page, and began another, so at least I didn’t give up!)

Kettle used to boil sugar cane
Oak Alley’s graceful house and peaceful grounds made a great contrast with the brilliant modernity of Mardi Gras World the day before. Maybe next time I visit, I’ll be able to do the sketch I visualized!


Like Coins, November

November 16, 2011

Photo courtesy stock.xchng
 I love poems in which the central metaphors are fresh and original, and here’s a marvelous, coiny description of autumn by Elizabeth Klise von Zerneck, who lives in Illinois. [Introduction by Ted Kooser.]

Like Coins, November

We drove past late fall fields as flat and cold
as sheets of tin and, in the distance, trees

were tossed like coins against the sky. Stunned gold
and bronze, oaks, maples stood in twos and threes:

some copper bright, a few dull brown and, now
and then, the shock of one so steeled with frost

it glittered like a dime. The autumn boughs
and blackened branches wore a somber gloss

that whispered tails to me, not heads. I read
memorial columns in their trunks; their leaves

spelled UNUM, cent; and yours, the only head. . .
in penny profile, Lincoln-like (one sleeve,

one eye) but even it was turning tails
as russet leaves lay spent across the trails.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2008 by Elizabeth Klise von Zerneck. Reprinted from “The Spoon River Poetry Review,” Vol. XXXIII, no. 1, 2008, by permission of Elizabeth Klise von Zerneck and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.

Everyday adventures

87,330 Steps, More or Less

November 14, 2011

What is it about New Orleans—especially the French Quarter? I returned Friday night from my second visit to NOLA, this time as part of Laure Ferlita’s Imaginary Trips Made Real painting holiday, and I’m more enchanted than ever. The city continues to reveal new aspects of itself, tantalizing me with glimpses of seductive alleyways, the old and the new living side by side, snatches of music on the air, and delicious food aromas (and flavors). Despite sampling nearly every New Orleans culinary specialty, I managed to avoid gaining weight—probably because we walked nearly everywhere, racking up an average of more than 10,000 steps per day (or 87,330 steps according to my rough estimate). Just for kicks, I brought my pedometer with me and wore it every day to see how much ground we covered. (Our high: 18,877!)

Eight artists, including me, joined Laure for the trip. Though we’d never met in person, I “knew” several of the women through blogging. The camaraderie of the whole group was magical, a term I heard several people use about this experience. Laure had lined up a number of tours with opportunity for sketching afterwards, and made reservations, when possible, at some of NOLA’s iconic restaurants. I’ll write more about the trip in future posts, but to start with, I’ll share our first destination, Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World.

The artists at Mardi Gras World work on props and floats for Mardi Gras parades year round, beginning the day after Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras is the last day of Carnival, which begins on the Feast of Epiphany Jan. 6 and ends on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras parades can take place any time during Carnival. Mardi Gras World produces about 600 floats per year, for about 40 of the 54 parades thrown by the New Orleans krewes each year. Each krewe chooses a different theme for its parade every year, so the only float that stays the same is the krewe’s signature float. Below are pictures of parts of the signature float of Harry Connick Jr.’s krewe, Orpheus:

"Smokey Mary"
Mardi Gras World also makes Styrofoam and fiberglass props for restaurants, billboards and other businesses, as well as props and floats for parades around the world. A few more shots of props-in-progress:

Diagram of float
Mardi Gras World was a great choice for our first day of sketching, because everything was larger-than-life, brightly-colored and just plain fun—a great atmosphere for those of us who were a little nervous about pulling out sketchbooks and watercolors and sketching in public where someone might see us. It was easy to get lost among the giant dragons, giraffes, seahorses and whatever this thing is:

If you ever find yourself in New Orleans (and I sincerely hope you do), the trip to Mardi Gras World is worth your time. Even if you don’t pull out a sketchbook.

Mardi Gras World was just the beginning of our adventures. We ate lunch at Antoine’s the second oldest restaurant in the French Quarter (opened in 1840). Antoine himself invented dishes such as Chicken Creole, Crayfish Etoufee and Shrimp Remoulade. His son Jules created, among other things, Oysters Rockefeller. We spent the afternoon taking a walking tour of the French Quarter with a guide from the Friends of the Cabildo and later walked to dinner at Mother’s.

And that was just Day 1.

Everyday adventures

I'm Off Again

November 04, 2011

(Some people say I’m “off” all the time…)

I’m in New Orleans with Laure Ferlita, attending Imaginary Trips’ first “Imaginary Trips Made Real” artist’s painting holiday. In between sketching on location, we’re exploring the history, culture and food of the Crescent City.

Hope you have a great week, and I’ll report in soon!


Life is Short...

November 02, 2011

“I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find that I lived just the length of it. I want to have lived the width of it as well.”
—Diane Ackerman