Saturday, October 29, 2011

Seeing-eye Dog

We were at a dog show last weekend, reminiscing with a friend about Great Dogs of Blessed Memory. 
And I can never think of those stalwarts without thinking about the man I met one afternoon when I was walking my dog in Tours, France, where we lived at the time.
C’est un Schnauzer!”* the elderly gentleman said as he passed Loki and me.
Oui,” I replied, surprised that a Tourangeau** would recognize my dog’s breed. People were always stopping us, and saying “what breed is that?” or “is that a Fox Terrier?” so to have someone in Tours recognize Loki’s breed was unexpected. (We later learned that Standard Schnauzers are more familiar to Parisians.)
Loki trotted up to Monsieur and greeted him.
Monsieur gave him a warm welcome. “I used to have Schnauzers,” he said, scratching Loki on the back. “I had a very old one; he was blind, and every morning I had to walk him down the stairs into the yard, because he couldn’t see to get down them by himself.
“I got a puppy,” and here he gave me the puppy’s complete pedigree, while I nodded as if I knew the kennel names and recognized the excellence of the bloodlines. “When I brought the puppy home, I was worried about the old dog, because puppies can be rough, and the old dog was blind and very old and perhaps not much of a match for a youngster. But they seemed to get on well together.
“One day I got up to take the old dog down the stairs to the yard, and I couldn’t find him. The puppy was also not in the house. I looked in the yard, and they both were there. The puppy had taken the old blind dog down the stairs to the yard.
“And after that, every morning until he died, the old dog went down the stairs to the yard with his puppy leading him.”
Monsieur petted Loki some more and pronounced him “magnifique.” We chatted about what good dogs Schnauzers are, and then Monsieur took his leave, thanking me for the good memories we had inspired, and leaving me with my own good memories.

*“It’s a Schnauzer!”
            **Resident of the city of Tours.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Drumroll, Please

Best Signage Ever Ever Ever!
          I've been sharing my fave Euro signage (here, here, and here). I love 'em all, but the photo above, from the Bergen, Norway, airport mens' room is the best of the lot. I know it's been reproduced in every design mag known to man, but I have to post it—it's just too good.
          I also have to add, in all honesty, that the designer was not completely triumphantly successful on the women's version:

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Earth, Air, Fire, Water

©Nancy Banks
          I will yap about Iceland to anyone who listens, and many who don't.
          It's just the best.
          It's got great big sky doing interesting things, astonishing cataracts of water flinging themselves off high points just to run down and join the sea, vistas that stretch to the blue mountains back of beyond, and steaming, boiling, erupting, morning-glory-colored, sulfur-scented thermal features that remind me of home (I grew up near Yellowstone Park). But instead of yapping today, I'm sending you to this glorious little video that says it better than I can.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

More Keen Euro Signage

    I've mentioned my fascination with amusing signage here and here. I found this poor fellow in Rome, fighting the endless fight against interdiction. Good luck, signor.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Keen Signage, Euro Version

See the scottie?
          Previously on this blog, I regaled you with an Icelandic grocery store piggy. I love Icelandic grocery story piggy. Not to be outdone, Denmark countered with Danish grocery store Scottie. I love him too.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Artists Rule; Revolutionaries Drool

     Quick—What do you think when you see this image?
     A. That Che dude is too cool for school.
     B. Marxist martyr and hero of the revolution.
     C. Where can I get me a t-shirt like that?
     D. Artists rule the world.

     Me, I go for option D. Because if Alberto Korda hadn't taken the photo that Jim Fitzpatrick turned into a poster, millions of kids searching for an image to demonstrate their ideological superiority while also freaking out the parentals would be without not only a logo, but also the gear to demonstrate their affiliation. Art not only rocks; art rules. Literally.
     I remember the first time I saw this iconic poster. I was very young, and I thought this guy with the idealistic gaze and the fashion-correct beret must be something really special. And he was obviously TOTALLY COOL. Because the image of him is totally cool. So he couldn't not be cool, if a cool  poster featuring his beautific face existed. Right? Okay, okay—show a little compassion; I was very young, and my logic circuits weren't fully hooked up yet.
     Funny, though, how adult people (who presumably have all logic circuits up and functioning) manage to make the same mistake I did as a child.
     If all we had to remember Che by were his writings, he would be pretty much a footnote at this point, because when you look at what he actually accomplished, it turns into Not So Much, Really.
     He genuinely cared about the downtrodden and dispossessed (which is a mark in his favor, and yet you don't see the face of Mother Teresa, who also was all about the downtrodden and dispossessed—and managed to offer many of them more actual aid and comfort—on nearly as many t-shirts as you do the face of Che). He truly believed Marxist revolution would make their lives better. He had one successful Marxist revolution, with Castro in Cuba*, and then kind of a long fizzle. He traveled to Africa and South America, among other countries, fomenting revolution, but it never took. He was executed in Bolivia by the government he was trying, unsuccessfully, to overthrow. And most of us would never know about him  (because let's face it, Marxist revolutionaries are just so last-century) if it weren't for a couple of artists who made him into an icon.
     Korda's photo captured the implacable idealism in his gaze, and Fitzpatrick's rendering stripped out all the unnecessary detail, so what we are left with is an image that conveys pure idealism. I'm sure you can get that same sense from his writings. But so few people actually read them, and so many people saw—and still see—the poster or t-shirt or bobblehead or belt buckle or lighter**. Che would have been a footnote in history—the guy who helped Castro overthrow Batista—without artists.
     Both Korda and Fitzpatrick admired Che, and so it is deeply and deliciously ironic that the idealistic anticapitalist icon they created has gone on to become the idealistic anticapitalist icon of capitalism. Viva la revolucion.

*But you really have to qualify that success, as it's not completely clear that the proletariat in whose name said revolution was undertaken actually profited from it.

**There exists a thing called The Che Store. This makes me giggle. 
The little bat asks Che, "Would you still prefer to die standing than to live forever kneeling?" Che replies, "You know, I really don't care! Today I just wear a trendy t-shirt!"

Monday, October 17, 2011

She Can Bake a Cherry Pie, Quick as a Cat can Wink an Eye

Previously on this blog, there was some whingeing about Cherry Pie. Rest easy; the Cherry Pie Disaster is now solved. Cherry Pie is now—again—a success. But on the way there, I tried almost everything. If you have pie fail issues, you may care to read on. If you don’t, just look at the pretty picture and salivate.
Let’s start by debunking the myth that flour is useful as a thickener. Hah! I say. If it works for you, you may ignore this, but it never has for me. Next.
Cornstarch. I did a lot of research on this, and read many suggestions to take some of the cherry juice (some sources suggest a percentage of the cherries as well) and either mix with cornstarch and cook till thick or leave out the cornstarch and cook the cherries and juice down until they’re thick. In either case, you mix the cooked mixtures with the rest of the cherries and proceed merrily with your pie-making.
This is an egregious misinformation perpetrated upon innocent pie-makers. The remaining juice in the remaining cherries dilutes the thickening power of the thickened concoctions and leads to a supremely soupy pie.
Tapioca flour is deemed by most sources to be the best thickener. I used the maximum allowable amount and ended up with a layer of cherry tapioca glue on the bottom, and cherries swimming blithely in soup on top. (I will say, in its defense, that it’s generally successful in apple pie.)
I had long suspected that this whole soupiness business had something to do with the fact that I was using frozen cherries. I think that freezing them causes them to exude more juice when they are thawed than fresh cherries do, thus creating the soupiness problem. In my pre-pie-fail days, I’d been using fresh cherries from our own trees. But we moved and had to leave the cherry trees behind, alas, and you can’t get fresh pie cherries here, not even in season. They’ll ship in Rainier cherries from goodness knows where, but the stalwart pie cherry is ignored. That’s Missouri for you.
What you want to do is purchase a product called Pie Filling Enhancer and follow the directions on the package. It works. As you can see. You can get it from King Arthur Flour ( Tell them I sent you.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

My Kind of Book Club

Just add literature

A friend was telling me about his book club. “It's a men's book club,” he said. “We read books and we talk about them and we don't have to sit around talking about FEELINGS.”
I wanted to join immediately.
I bet they have beer, too.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Dream Vacuum Cleaner

I spend three days out of the week vacuuming. Not because I love vacuuming with the passion that dare not speak its name, but because we have a large house and I have a very small tolerance for vacuuming, and so must break it into “manageable” chunks, although I confess my actual idea of a manageable chunk of vacuuming is something on the order of 30 seconds. Thus the ironic quotation marks.
I fear this is a character flaw; if I lived in a coat closet, my tolerance for vacuuming would be much smaller than the actual square footage of the closet.
I have tried valiantly to make vacuuming endurable. Yes, getting the model with a HEPA filter and a really long cord and the motorized brush is definitely an improvement. The problem is, you still have to VACUUM with it. You still have to drag it around behind you, accidentally banging table legs, running over your toes, and smacking it into the wall. You still trip over the cord, which, being longer, is more treacherous and seems to desire far more human mayhem and injury than the average inanimate object. You still have to kick a heavy, balky canister out of the way constantly because it utterly refuses to follow obediently behind like a well-trained dog. You still end up saying words that would make a longshoreman want to wash your mouth out with soap.
What I want is to chop the cord off and get the blasted canister off the floor and out of my way. I want a device that floats, that has a weak gravitational attachment to me and so will follow me from place to place, while being simultaneously repelled by walls, lamps, doors, et cetera because what is the point of replacing an appliance that smacks into everything on the floor level with one that smacks into everything six feet off the ground?
I want a device that bobs happily in my wake without ever, ever touching me as I pass the business end of the wand over the floors and carpets. Preferably while wearing pearls, high heels, and a really snappy cocktail dress. I want a device that runs on a solar cell or pixie dust or even a small-but-sincere nuclear reactor so I never have to deal with another cord grabbing my ankles and refusing to let go.
"My new Atomic Dream Vacuum Sweeper is so handy. It even glows in the dark!"
I want POWER. I want SUCTION. I want NEGATIVE DECIBEL LEVELS. I want the vacuum cleaner that the Jetsons would have.
It really is too bad that soldiers don’t vacuum as part of their normal military duties. If they did, the Pentagon would have developed my dream vacuum (armored, of course) at least a decade ago, and would now be introducing the Drone version, which doesn’t require a human operator. Sigh.
And now, alas, I must go fire up the Not My Dream Vacuum Cleaner. The dogs have disappeared and I fear the dust bunnies have them trapped somewhere.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Can She Bake a Cherry Pie, Billy Boy?

I used to be able to. I used to whip out delicious cherry pies with gay abandon.
Pie outside. Soup inside. NOT correct.
            And yet, my latest effort, in addition to the several earlier efforts, was more cherry soup than cherry pie. Now mind you, the crust was excellent—flaky and crisp and wonderful and of course created entirely by these two hands—but it contained not cherry pie innards but cherry soup.
            Is it disturbingly retro that I care so much about how my pie turns out? Am I some drooling Betty Crocker zombie?
No. (And let's face it, even if I were, I would deny it.)
This, however,  is a family pride issue. The women in my family DON’T FAIL at pie. Even my sister, whose feeling about cooking is that it’s something best left to the minions (and Santa, if you’re reading this, she would very much like a minion or two for Christmas), always WINS at pie. Before this cherry soup disaster thing started happening, I have always WON at pie. It’s encoded on my DNA. My mother is a GRAND MASTER of pie. My great grandmother was a JEDI MASTER of pie.
            A failure at pie besmirches my family name. It won’t be tolerated. Pies will be baked until the technique for a cherry pie in which the filling has thickened the way pie filling should is revealed.
In the meantime, K has his spoon ready.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

I’m Sorry, I’m Not From Here. No, Really.

So K and I are walking down the street in Selfoss, Iceland, looking for the post office, and this guy driving by slows down, rolls down the window, and asks us, in Icelandic, if we can tell him how to get to wherever he’s going. 
The Icelandic grocery store pig is not lost.

My Icelandic is nonexistent, but I have been stopped and asked this question in almost every country I’ve visited, so I’ve come to recognize the international symbols for “Excuse me, can you give me directions to….”
This happens to me often when I’m alone, and also often when I’m with K. I assume it’s because we look harmless, native to the area, and knowledgeable. Only the first is fully true. We are harmless.
The last is partially true. K is knowledgeable. I, on the other hand, am always pathetically willing to help, but usually ill-equipped to do so. Not being…you know…a native. The only time I was generally successful in my desire to give people directions was when we lived in Paris. I carried a pocket map of Paris with me everywhere, did often know where I was and where I was going, and when I was stopped on the street or in the M├ętro with a request for directions, I would take out my pocket map and show my lost compatriot how to get to his destination.  
On rare occasions I would venture out without my map, and invariably someone would ask me for directions. I would have to tell them that sorry, I didn’t know; I wasn’t from the neighborhood. I joked with K that I should get a t-shirt made with, “Don’t ask me, I’m not from around here,” in every modern language, to wear when we travel.
Before we lived in Paris, we lived in Tours, which is in the Loire Valley—and if you would like to know how to get there, I can give you directions. 
People asked me for directions there, too, and I could help them, if it was something in our immediate neighborhood. One night at about 10 p.m., K and I were walking the dog when we were approached by a small group of Japanese tourists. They were looking for a grocery store, and I was overjoyed, because I could help them. There was a 7j (like a convenience store, but with somewhat more in the way of groceries) that was still open, and it was just a block and a half away.
Because the group’s leader had addressed us in French, I replied in French, telling him he just had to go a block and half and it was right there on the same side of the street as we were on, and look, you could even see the sign from here. See, the one that said 7j?
Polite but total noncomprehension. Obviously his French was a little shaky and I was speaking too quickly. So I tried again, more slowly. Just go up this street, cross the street—I was blinded by a flash as a member of the group immortalized the moment on film. It took me a minute to get the flash afterimages out of my eyes, and in that minute, K, who had been watching this entire episode with much amusement, said to the Japanese gentleman who was so valiantly trying to understand my directions in French, “Do you speak English?” 
Turns out he did. I let K tell him where the store was.

Friday, October 7, 2011

How to Drive a 1949 Willys Jeep

This isn’t actually about how to drive a 1949 Willys jeep. So if you’re looking for that information, let the google take you elsewhere, and good fortune to you.
This is not a Willys jeep. But these gentlemen would know how to drive one.
This morning I saw a venerable Willys jeep driving through the neighborhood, and was immediately overcome with a double blast of nostalgia.
I never paid attention to the name as a kid, but there were a fair few Willys in my hometown. It’s hard to believe that seeing one could inspire a full-fledged bout of nostalgia, but there you are. Proust had his madeleines; I have a Willys jeep. When you grow up in the rural west, you make do with what’s available.
So I was taken back in memory to where I grew up. In winter, for some reason—which, even bathed in the glowing light of nostalgia, is not the best time to visit my hometown. Oh—it was hunting season. That’s when the Willys were out and prowling.
In my mind’s eye, I see my hometown at its second most depressing time of year, during hunting season*, and simultaneously I see the spring of a certain year—graduation season is approaching, and as an alumna I’ve been asked to be one of the judges of the high school writing contest. There’s scholarship money offered to the winner. There’s an awards ceremony where the winner is named and honored. It’s kind of a big deal.
That year, the winner of the contest was a student who wrote an essay titled, “How to Drive a 1949 Willys Jeep.” I may have the date wrong.
It was an exceptional essay: clever, witty, and well-written, which is not an easy trick to pull off when you’re writing a “How-to” essay. About how to drive a jeep.
I don’t know who the writer of the essay was, but I’ve read a lot of things since then, by people who do the writing thing for a living, and that essay has stayed in the catchall drawer of my mind even as other, more commercially successful writing has faded to dust. I come across it every so often when I’m looking for something else, and I have a moment’s pleasure remembering the writer’s fine, laugh-out-loud sense of humor, his obvious affection for a cantankerous piece of machinery, and his skillful writing. I hope he’s both famous and happy, but one thing I know: he was successful. It’s been more than 20 years and I still remember that essay.
If, by some wild chance, you know him, you should tell him that his words live.

*Just to be clear, I’ve eaten too much venison to be depressed because of the hunting part—it just comes at the dying time of the year, which in my hometown is one of the grimmer seasons.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

I'm an American

My grandmother told me this story when I was in grade school, and too young—and too callow—to understand its pathos.
She was a second-generation German-American, born in 1911, and so she entered first grade the same year the U. S. entered World War I.
When Germany became our enemy, German-Americans immediately became the enemies of America too. Propaganda posters of the era depicted Germans as bloodstained brutes:

My grandmother understood the danger of being German at that time; everyone in the German-American community did. It wasn't a particularly difficult conclusion to draw, when you're depicted as a bloodstained horror and an impaler of babies. So no one spoke German in public, and everyone kept their heads down, trying not to make waves, not to call attention to themselves, not to provoke a fight or a beating or worse. German-Americans lived in fear in their own country.
It’s not clear to me why, in those circumstances, a teacher would instruct her new first graders to stand up, introduce themselves, and tell the class their nationality. But that is what Grandma’s teacher did.
When Grandma told me this story, she was still agitated and frightened about being forced to declare her German background in a hostile setting. At the time I didn’t understand her fear, because I’d never had the experience of being hated solely for where my parents and grandparents came from.
Grandma was in agonies as, one by one, the other children stood up and told their names and their ancestors’ countries of origin. She couldn’t lie—that was sinful. She couldn’t tell the truth either—that was dangerous.
And then a little boy stood up. She knew him; knew where his grandparents had emigrated from. And he told his name. And then he said, “I am an American.” And when Grandma’s turn came, that is what she said.
I wish I still lived in a world where I didn’t understand the sorrow of that story.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers— That perches in the soul—”

Emily Dickinson said that.
And although I suspect she was envisioning a smaller, cuter, much more finch-like feathered denizen, my soul shelters a red-tailed hawk.
Nancy Nehring/Photodisc/Getty Images

There is a red-tail resident in the park where I walk the dogs, and I have been so fortunate as to get quite close to her a couple of times. She has no fear of humans. In fact I suspect her thoughts on our first meeting, while I was memorizing her size and markings so I could go home and look her up in Peterson’s Field Guide, tended more toward working out whether I was tasty enough to be worth the effort of attacking me.
Every time I see a hawk, it adds to my fund of hope.
When I was a kid, I thought I would live to see the extinction of all raptors.  The DDT that was so widely used at the time had entered their food chain and interfered with their ability to reproduce by making the shells of their eggs so soft that the females smashed them when they tried to incubate them. Folks who paid attention to such things thought raptors would be extinct in their lifetime. They thought that anything that could be done would be too little, too late.
I’m not going to go all Pollyanna New Age here, and start talking about how we can be the change we want to see and invoking pie in the sky peaceable kingdoms and lions lying down with Lamborghinis. I was born and raised in the intermountain West, and I am constitutionally a realist tempered with a dash of cynic. We humans tend to do as much harm as we do good. As a tribe, we are reactive, not proactive. A lot of what we do when we finally build enough consensus to react, is too little and too late.
And yet. And yet.
There are still raptors in our world. And the value of that is above rubies.