Wednesday, September 29, 2010

An Inky Pinky

Vincent Van Gogh (who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1890) wrote copious letters to his adoring brother, Theo. About a year before the above-noted self-inflicted death, and right around the same time he was painting his contemplative "Starry Night" while in the asylum Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, he wrote the following:

"Perhaps death is not the hardest thing in a painter's life...[L]looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing the towns and villages on a map. Why, I ask myself, shouldn't the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star."

My one practical studio art class this semester is Pen-and-Ink Drawing, which incorporates lecture and lab periods on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It's a good thing I have it; insanity could prevail without it as an expressive outlet. On the other hand, insanity might prevail anyway just because I have it as an expressive outlet. Something I have always found liberating about art is the expressiveness that develops the more one gets familiar with a set of skills in a particular medium. Something that drives me insane is the frustration of failing repeatedly while learning to be expressive in an unfamiliar medium.

So it is with pen and ink. I met the Speedball pen and crowquill pen, which have to be dipped or filled from a bottle of what once was known as India ink. I practiced calligraphy as early as the seventh grade, and earned ten cents a piece by lettering all the junior high achievement certificates for our year-end assembly while I was forced to stay at home, recovering from red measles. In later life I have inscribed countless bibles given to countless Sunday school students with Schafer cartridge pens. Ditto baptismal certificates, deacons and elders ordinations, and sundry volunteer recognition certificates.

I never particularly gave much thought to drawing with pen and ink as an artistic expression. Artists like Durer or Daumier used it to great effect, but I mistakenly thought that a serious artist would only use the medium to sketch or plan the great paintings which would make the mark in history for that artist. After all, how many times was I told throughout years of artistic struggle that a drawing was only a plan, never a finished piece of art?

I am coming to discover that this assumption is not true; not true for artists or the viewers of art in post modern times. Not true for me, either, and thank you to Isabel Shaskan for teaching a motley group of community college students that dipping a pen into a pot of ink can take an artist to dots on maps like trains take us to Rouen or cars convey us to a picnic in the Sierras.

Even to the stars if we so choose. That's what happens when we fall in love with an outlet for our inner Creative, that part of ourselves that is the truest representation of God. I think that may be a pale insight into what happens when God creates, as well.

In his lifelong struggle with art and with religion, Van Gogh is often remembered for his pain, much of which was due to pushing himself against the limits of the art of his day, and trying amazing new things in expressing himself in a medium that he never felt he mastered. Shooting for the moon.

Unfortunately, he could never have heard Les Brown's advice a century later:

"Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss it you will land among the stars."

It's hard to tell, when embroiled in the struggle against our own limitations how landing among the stars could be even remotely possible. Yet it is done. The possibility keeps me going back to the pen and ink bottle, in motley communion every Tuesday and Thursday, hoping to land among the stars.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Happy Birthday, Old School Style

In my family, we have a tradition on my birthday: pineapple upside-down cake. In a time of $3.00 cupcakes and exotic fondant-smothered cakes made to look like anything but cakes, pineapple upside-down can truly be considered retro.

Well, I suppose it's appropriate. For, after the great many birthdays I have enjoyed, I could be considered retro, too.

I can't remember when I experienced my first pineapple upside-down, but it was very early in my childhood when we were still clobbering dinosaurs with clubs and Mom had to bake it in a mud oven outdoors. Suffice to say, when I was about four or five.

I'm kidding about the mud oven. She did bake it indoors in a gas oven she lit with a match, so we really did have great technology. It was part of the mysterious ritual of creating the legendary pineapple upside-down cake.

First there was the prep work. Mom didn't have fancy cake pans or Bundt rings, but she did have a great big pink earthenware bowl with a white rim that she could put in the oven, so she would get that out and inspect it for cracks.

She would take oleo (we never had butter back then) out of the 'fridge to soften. Sometimes she planned ahead and left a cube of it out on the counter the night before.

She lined up the cake mix, melted a little Crisco, and opened the can of pineapple rings and strained to open up the bottle of maraschino cherries. Double-checked the brown sugar supply and stirred it up if it had gotten hard. Set out a couple of eggs to come up to room temperature. Put the beaters in the tiny electric hand-mixer.

I got to stand on a kitchen chair and watch as she carefully laid out the canned pineapple slices and maraschino cherries on a clean dishtowel on the kitchen sink. While they drained, I sometimes got to eat a cherry from the jar.

Usually when you make a cake, the frosting and presentation are the final steps in the process, but with an upside-down cake it's sort of like Christianity in theory-the last shall be first. So the first step in the process of building the cake was to coat the bowl with the room-temp, soft margarine. If we were in the money at the time, Mom would use the whole stick of oleo.

Next, she lined the bowl with as much brown sugar as would stick to the margarine. It doesn't work well if the sugar is stale and full of lumps, and Mom used to guard her brown sugar supply carefully. Then came the decorating part-the drained pineapple rings laid out in a careful, symmetrical pattern in the bowl. Usually she managed to get all the rings from the can around the bowl and one in the center. A maraschino cherry (sometimes only a half of a cherry if we weren't in the money that month)was placed in the center of each ring, then the batter carefully spooned in.

An hour or what seemed like five hours of baking time ensued, during which time the house filled with aroma and neighbor kids would start asking if they could eat over. One sniff and you'd know how heaven smells.

Many times in my life as a single parent, I have baked this cake for my own birthday or for special occasions, and with the popularity of cupcakes I have even adapted it to pineapple upside down cupcakes, which are great fun but lack the magnificence of a full-size cake on a vintage glass cake stand.

Now it has become my son Sean's specialty to do a Bundt version for my birthday, and this year's effort was truly magnificent. Very fussy and particular in the kitchen, he also has an appreciation for the beauty of old school style.

We may no longer light the oven with a match, but there are just those wonderful retro things we ought to treasure and keep in our lives. I know that I will be able to recognize heaven when I smell it.

Here's how to do it old-school:

1 can pineapple rings, drained dry, juice reserved.
1 small bottle maraschino cherries, drained
1/2 - 1 stick margarine or butter
3/4 -1 C. brown sugar
3 eggs
1 pkg. yellow cake mix

Pre-heat oven to 350. Coat bottom and sides of a Dutch oven or Bundt ring up to within 1" of top with the butter or margarine. Add the brown sugar and coat the bottom and sides as far up as it will go, patting onto the sides of the pan if needed.

Line pan with the fruit rings, creating a symmetrical design. (If I have the space, I use all the pineapple rings and tuck extra cherries in empty-looking spots.)

Mix up the cake batter using the cake mix, eggs, and reserved juice with water added if necessary to provide the amount of liquid called for in the package directions. Carefully pour or ladle the batter into the pan.

Bake for about 30 mins. and begin checking with a toothpick inserted into the center for doneness. Depending on the pan used, can take as long as 45 mins. to 1 hour.

When done, remove from oven and immediately turn out onto a plate. Voila-old school!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


“We must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

It seems to be increasingly popular these past few months to grow less hopeful, more cynical, and angrier. Whenever I listen to or read the news, whether it is from the local network or one of the major newspapers, the most highlighted (and e-mailed) stories are those which emphasize how short we have fallen of achieving our hopes.

It doesn't seem to matter whether the source is CNN, the Washington Post, the L.A. Times, or even our little Davis Enterprise. The message, unfortunately, is consistent: When we voted in November 2008, we signed up for an economic turnaround, a return to a balanced budget, health care reform, the end to two wars, and lower unemployment, which we have failed to achieve to the degree to which many seem to believe we are entitled.

As we approach mid-term elections, incumbents everywhere are feeling the anxiety of this summer's discontent and with good reason. Obstructionist bi-partisanship, petty divisiveness, and the preference to lobbyists as opposed to the people's interests make incumbents the obvious target. Grass-roots campaigns to protect legislative majorities and embattled seats flood my e-mail inbox daily.

The toughest thing for me is that I am no longer in a position to be able to support candidates I believe in the way I once was able. I have not worked most of this year, and my husband works for the State of California and was once again rewarded for his efforts with a 15% reduction in pay through furloughs.

We are not starving, and we are still able to meet our financial obligations. Many people I know cannot. Therefore when I see unqualified candidates grabbing headlines and people pouring Wall Street or oil company profits into campaigns while I am unable to send $10 to any of the grass-roots campaigns whose pleas fill my inbox, I am both grateful for my blessings but fearful that this election cycle could result in the return to power of those ideologues whose loyalty to big business and deep pockets got us here to begin with.

The only way to hope is to keep our focus on the true sources of hope. Hope in the love of our families, through knowing we will continue to lift each other up in times of challenge. Our friends, who bear with us as we struggle and share our stories. And infinite hope, as we remember that the birds of the sky and lilies of the field are infinitely more glorious than all the elections money can buy.

So as we move through this season, knowing that on November 2 votes will be cast all over the country, I just hope that all of those folks who feel despair now remember that hope belongs to all of us, not to just a candidate or a party. Futures are decided by people who hope enough to show up at the polls, who hope enough to make sure that qualified, thoughtful, responsible candidates are elected.

Get out there and hope.