Archive for the ‘Entertainment’ Category

I went to see “The Artist” the other day as part of my efforts (not very strenuous) to see the Oscar contenders and buzzed-about movies. Occasionally I digress for the purpose of guaranteed mindless big-screen entertainment, as when I went to see “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” (excuse me, is it just me or is Jeremy Renner looking absolutely fabulous?) But I digress…

I wasn’t sure how I would feel about the film. I have middle-brow tastes when it comes to movies and I can scarcely be called a film buff. I love to look at color, although I have an appreciation of the beauty and mystery of black and white photography. I also traffic in words and none are spoke in “The Artist,” a love letter to the late twenties and early thirties and the entertainment that preoccupied America.

I loved it; loved the attention to detail; in the curl of a mustache or the arch of an eyebrow. I adored both the overt and sly references to classic movie tropes of the era: the highly choreographed scenes, the grand theatrical acting. Some of the references were out of the time period (defined as 1927-1932): I recognized a bit of Alfred Hitchcock; the lush score brought to mind the work of renowned film composer Bernard Herrmann and the supremely talented Jack Russell terrier put me in mind of Nick and Nora Charles and their beloved dog Asta. Wait: maybe I DO know my film history!

I noticed these oddities but I wasn’t bothered by them: this was a film about a film star and the culture he inhabited during a transitional time in American history. “The Artist” was captivating in every way and the symbolism evinced by the successful actor pushed out of his chosen profession by the advances of technology is certainly a parable for our time.

One thing that struck me was the absolute silence of my fellow viewers. It’s not just that no one spoke; I doubt my smart, sophisticated audience would have put up with that. But we were treated to plenty of cues about how audiences react to silent films via the film itself; we saw them laughing or clapping or gasping or murmuring at various moments during the plot. The silent-movie audience was vocal, not in an effort to impede the flow of the movie but in expression of their appreciation. Watching “The Artist” in a theater that was completely quiet except for the music was odd. No coughing, no crackling of paper; in fact, no laughing out loud, although I caught many smiles. No, we were reverentially still, as attending a concert.

Maybe the difference is in the present-day movie-going experience itself, which doesn’t teach us how to watch a movie without distraction. Maybe it’s the novelty of being several layers removed: a present-day audience watching actors who portray a long-ago audience using the same exaggerated style as the rest of the movie’s characters.

Or maybe, at least in this instance, it was just such a blessed relief to be free of the cacophony that surrounds us every day: to surrender to the music, to watch the action unfold on the screen, to marvel at the comic and dramatic elasticity of the actors and not need to have anything explained, enhanced or interpreted. We sat back and let the rich sounds of (relative) silence guide us.

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We’re So Vain


Once upon a time, when Carly Simon sang her hit song, “You’re So Vain (You Probably Think This Song is about You)”, fans tried to guess which of her former lovers she was essentially calling a pompous, self-regarding ass (Mick Jagger? Warren Beatty? Kris Kristofferson?).

The current crop of performers are singing their own tunes, thank you very much, reminding their audiences just how hot, how sexy, how empowered and yes, how pissed off they are. Now three psychologists who’ve been checking out Billboard’s Top 100 have made a discovery: in 2011, we’re all so vain.

image: baby pictures.org

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The three—Nathan DeWall, W. Keith Campbell and Jean M. Twenge—conducted a study of song lyrics over the last thirty years and noted an evolution (or devolution) in pop music. Where in the 1980s, most singers sang about love, togetherness and peace, today’s tunes are ego-driven. The doctors cite lyrics from performers like Beyoncé and Fergie of Black-Eyed Peas. They claim the self-absorption manifest by the singers is reflected in the generation of fans (primarily college age). “Late adolescents and college students love themselves more today than ever before,” says Dr. DeWall. Adds his colleague, Dr. Twenge, “In the early ’80s lyrics, love was easy and positive, and about two people. “The recent songs are about what the individual wants, and how she or he has been disappointed or wronged.”

Twenge, who along with Campbell also published a book a few years ago called The Narcissism Epidemic, sees the current crop of young people as far more narcissistic than previous generations. The authors take as evidence the results of an annual survey—The Narcissism Personality Inventory—that’s been administered to college students over the past several decades.

Narcissism has been in the news lately. Last winter’s recommendation from an advisory board to leave out Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) in the upcoming version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (psychotherapy’s diagnostic Holy Grail) was met with outrage by many in the psychiatric community. A Boston Globe article at the time noted that “narcissism has been done in by its own success. Because so many narcissists are thriving—at the expense of the rest of us—it’s hard to classify ‘narcissism’ as a disability.”

Small wonder in the age of “Brand Me.”

If certain levels of vanity, selfishness, entitlement and an exaggerated self-regard are becoming more acceptable, the implications for society are profound—and not just because we are confronted with the likes of Donald Trump, the man who would be king of the world. An increase in ego-centric behavior is bound to affect (if it hasn’t already) the way we conduct business, make policy, view social services–or communal activities or charity—and build and sustain relationships.

As a certified amateur/armchair psychologist, I’ve joined many others in writing about (and worrying about) our national predilection for self-absorption. A great many of our fellow citizens young and old seem to have difficulty separating what they need from what they think they ought to have. We talk about what we deserve or we are owed. We demand not just our rights but also attention. We get angry when we’re denied our due. It’s all about us, each and every one of us.

On the other hand…

Maybe we’re not suffering from mass narcissism, or at least not to any degree greater than previous age groups. Each generation has something to say about the one that came before and certainly the one that came after. As a baby boomer, I’m beginning to take umbrage with the spate of articles castigating me and my fellow boomers for our selfishness. Meanwhile, we are not without suggestions for ways to curb our self-regard. In recent weeks, New York Times columnists David Brooks and Ross Douthat have both proposed that we Americans add back a little hellfire into our religion. We’ve apparently got it too easy with our relaxed acceptance of a benign Supreme Being. Brooks and Douthat suggest we need the threat of eternal damnation. Nothing like cosmic intimidation to keep us humble.

As for college kids, that they’re self-serving and self-regarding and prone to posturing should be no surprise to anyone. Perhaps it’s become more socially acceptable to flaunt your hotness or sexiness or to tell people you don’t like to go f-ck themselves. Maybe it’s more permissible, or even necessary in this hyper-competitive age, to let people know how important you are—even when you’re taking a survey that measures your self-regard.

The students are also angrier and more depressed, according to the results of a survey last January I reviewed at the time. Like the study of song lyrics, the survey is one that takes into consideration only the past twenty-five year period. Since my memory extends back twice that far, I can’t help but suspect that we are in some kind of cycle wherein our nation mood coincides with our recent history.

Moreover, we’ve always been entertained by large personalities, as long as we don’t have to hang out with (or live with) them. Performers may have “come out” in terms of broadcasting their fabulousness but ego has long been a staple of the entertainment industry. The word “diva” has morphed from being a female opera singer of surpassing skill to a female vocalist with a big voice to a woman with an outsized ego—a bitch. Lyrics that express pride in being a bitch (or a bad-ass) among female singers are more common, but again, no surprise. After years of singing about busted promises and broken hearts, the women have been kicking back for at least a decade. Somehow the message seems less about self-centeredness than about empowerment. Who wouldn’t want to take a Louisville slugger to the beloved car of a low-life two timer as Cary Underwood does? These days, though, I prefer Sara Bareilles’ approach. If “King of Everything” were what my daughter listened to, I wouldn’t worry a bit about whether she thought the song was about her.

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 My early teen years were a struggle, to say the least. I was ungainly, unsure and decidedly uncool. Eventually, I would  attain the even teeth, the carefully ironed long hair,  even an  acceptable body shape.  But in 1964, I wanted to look like my older  brother’s cheerleader girlfriends. More seriously, I wanted to be
someone else–anyone else except me.

I was miserable at school. I couldn’t hide my smarts or keep my mouth shut; couldn’t get my footing  or find my place. Ripe for teasing, I tried to stay clear of the mean  girls and sought refuge in music and books. Then, beginning September  22nd of that year, I had a chance to latch onto a debonair chap and his sexy partner, the stars of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

UNCLEThe show was both an homage to and send-up of the popular James Bond movies and starred Robert Vaughn and a young Scottish actor named David McCallum. They played agents of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement (UNCLE), an international organization dedicated to stopping THRUSH from exercising its evil plan to take over the world.

The casting was impeccable, the setup fantastical and the details were  inspired. Vaughn’s character, Napoleon Solo, was the classic spy in the 007 mold: suave, clever; with a fondness for the good life and a weakness  for women.  He was cool in an old-fashioned sort of way; a throwback to previous decades.

But it was McCallum’s character, the elusive Illya Kuryakin, who caught and held my attention. The Beatles had landed in the U.S. a few months earlier and like so many girls my age, I was drawn to the safely boyish Paul McCartney. But in Illya, I found my soul-mate: a mysterious,
educated (Masters degree from the Sorbonne; PhD in quantum mechanics from University of Cambridge) Russian whose hip calm exterior hid, I was certain, a treasure trove of passion. He seemed to own a wardrobe of swoon-inducing black turtlenecks.  Best of all, he and Solo were working in a spirit of global cooperation to defeat terrorists, anarchists and the like in the middle of the Cold War.  I was hooked.

My mother, in a display of solidarity and support, took pictures of our television set when the show was on and gave me the images. I can’t tell you what that meant to me; it was like having your mother approve of your first boyfriend.

“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” lasted four years and took me through high school. Even after I grew out of my ugly duckling phase, I remained loyal to the intrepid spies and to the attractive Illya.   Encountering McCallum in recent times on another show that has saved me–NCIS–is like  olderMcreuniting with an old love. McCallum’s Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard is a little fussy, but also funny, smart and sensitive, with a soulful side
that probably owes to his Scottish origins (okay, I’m projecting). He’s not quite the sexy Kuryakin I remember–except perhaps for the twinkle in his eye. But he seems wise in ways that matter. I’m sure he’d forgive my crush on  Mark Harmon’s character. I like to think we have a deeper, more meaningful relationship. He was, after all, my first love.

sources: IMDb; Wikipedia
images: nnbd  firstachurch, photobucket

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I’ve been thinking about a movie I saw recently: Source Code, starring Jake Gyllenthaal. This science fiction cum action thriller (with a dash of romance) had a fair amount going for it: stellar cast, great special effects, tight plot; even the requisite happy ending.

I liked it. A lot. But then again, I’m a sucker for films that posit such an optimistic view of the brain’s power to transcend any and all physical limitations.

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We live in a world where anything goes. Sort of. Okay, not really. It depends. Money has a lot to do with what’s acceptable. So does
influence—who has it, what she does with it, how it relates to making money. Tastefulness or appropriateness? Sure that might come into play, somewhere behind money and influence.

I’m reminded of what flies—and what doesn’t by two seemingly unrelated New York Times articles. In one, entertainment critic Jon
Pareles noted
the ubiquity of the F word; three out of the top ten songs on Billboard’s “Top 100” have the word f-ck in the chorus—at least I think that’s what he meant when he referred to a “percussive four-letter word.”  This was front page in the print edition, mind you. Of course, the author also recognized that the F word was so common in popular songs right now that it’s kind of lost its punch. If Enrique Iglesias, the smooth-skinned, smooth-voiced Latin crooner, is using it in the title of his new song about, er, making love, then who can argue that crude sells?

The other article, buried in the business section, announced that Gilbert Gottfried, the irascible comic with the irritating voice, was fired from his presumably lucrative gig as spokesduck for insurance giant Aflac. Gottfried’s grating sound and on-stage persona was a perfect match for the reliable, if short-tempered duck. Apparently Gottfried tweeted tasteless jokes about the situation in Japan—and that was that.

My first reaction was one of disbelief that Gottfried had sabotaged his day job so foolishly. Hello? Brain to mouth (or in this case,
fingers). As an ad agency executive put it (in the careful manner of someone who used to walking a fine line): “I think you should think before you speak, and you should think before you tweet.”

Well yes, but let’s recognize that Gottfried is a raunchy comedian of long-standing who has cracked tasteless, inappropriate jokes for years now. His jokes (reported online, although pulled off his website) were stupid, sophomoric and silly—vintage Gottfried. Here’s one:

“What does every Japanese person have in their apartment? Flood lights.” Source: Syracuse Post-Standard

I know—it makes you squirm; me too. But that’s what Gottfried’s known for; and that’s what his employers must have known about him.
Yet they were offended; rather, they were shocked and offended, which prompted my second reaction: Really? A raunchy comedian who has built his career making frequently offensive jokes has surprised you?

Gottfried has a long history of in-your-face humor. Columnist Frank Rich recalled in 2005 that the comedian told what may have been the first 9/11 joke only two and a half weeks after the attacks that took the lives of so many, including my husband. According to Rich, Gottfried, appearing at the Friars Club, claimed he couldn’t fly non-stop to California because “they said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.”

The joke fell flat

Undaunted, Gottfried pushed ahead and offered up his version of a famous dirty joke that was being recounted by various comedians, whose
performances were then made in to a movie—“The Aristocrats.” Like the professional provocateur that he is, he got the audience guffawing in short order.

I wasn’t offended by the joke. We humans often joke as a way to find relief, especially in the wake of horrific events. Obviously, there’s a
line that separates humor from cruelty, but I’d like to think we can parse the difference. Besides, tragedy is also part of life and life is fair game for the comedian.

Those people who suggested 9/11 was retribution for our sins; or the earthquake in Haiti was a response to devil-worship; or the Japanese “got what they deserved”—those are the people who should be ostracized. But that’s not how things work in our mixed-up, everything goes and nothing goes society. Some can sing about screwing to an audience of screaming preteens, using that percussive four-letter word, and end up being the goose that lays the golden egg.  But a comedian might well be censored—or worse—for doing what he does.

That’s just quacked up.

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Last year I wrote a piece entitled, “Is Stupid the New Black?” which attracted quite a bit of attention, due in part to its provocative title. Unfortunately,some missed the fashion reference (“Grey is the new black”) and thought I was engaged in racial stereotyping (whoa). Most readers shared my concern about the deliberate promotion of “stupid”, i.e. regressive, reactionary or irrational ideas, especially in times of unease.

Now I’m wondering: Is it time for “Is Stupid the New Black, Part II”?

to read more, click here

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Once upon a time, people did not race to the malls in order to dash from store to store in search of the perfect gift, or even an acceptable one. They did not face crammed parking lots, overburdened clerks, uninspiring displays, and a lunch of greasy fries or sugary treats that invariably led to a bad case of acid reflux.  Once upon a time, we went to grand department stores and, as we used to say, made a day of it.

These big stores, most of them built between 1870 and 1925, were often baroque-style structures. Most  featured high, mosaic ceilings and tile floors, wide aisles, crystal chandeliers, and any number of fine restaurants and tea rooms. Every major city seemed to have at least one of these “grand  dames”: Seattle (Frederick and Nelson), San Francisco (the Emporium), Boston (Jordan Marsh), Dallas (Neiman Marcus), Miami (Burdine’s), New York (Saks, Lord and Taylor, Bloomingdale’s), St. Louis (Famous Barr), Philadelphia (Wannamaker’s) and Chicago (Marshall Field’s), to name a few. Many were modeled after their European counterparts, Harrod’s of London or Printemps in Paris, but always with an American twist.  

As a little girl, I eagerly anticipated our yearly holiday department store outing because it involved much more than dropping in on our respectably staid local department store, Gimbel’s. Instead, our day would consist of a trip to Chicago by train, where we’d invariably visit the renowned Chicago Art Museum and then head to Marshall Field’s. 

In the years since, I’ve been in many department stores. But in my six-year-old  Midwestern eyes, Marshall Field’s was the grandest store imaginable. 

The man behind the business, Marshall Field, was an entrepreneur who described his enterprise as an “emporium.” His motto was “give the lady what she wants,” not exactly pc but an accurate reflection of his loyal customer base for many years. In its heyday, Marshall Field’s was a formidable brand that included well-known confectionaries* and a popular cookbook. The store itself was a temple to consumer goods with some stunning architecture: the clock at the State Street entrance, the stunning Tiffany Mosaic Dome, and the elegant Walnut Room.  Field’s, as it was sometimes called, featured six well-regarded restaurants, including a Men’s Grill Room and place for afternoon tea. At Christmastime, an area was set off for “Santa-land,” a fantasy concoction of elves and trees, fake snow and twinkly lights and a path that led directly to a real-looking Santa with a real beard (being a department store Santa was once an honorable profession). The entire store looked like a gigantic gift package, from the extravagant window displays to the festooned crystal chandeliers.

*Marshall Field’s world-famous Frango mints, (chocolate mint truffles) actually originated with Seattle’s Frederick and Nelson but Field’s broadly expanded the market. Marshall Field’s also sold caramel turtle candy in competition with its Chicago rival, Fannie May.)

 Our trip to Chicago was a dress-up occasion; we wore jumpers or dresses with gloves and hats (my mother kept us in matching outfits until I rebelled shortly after my eighth birthday) and patent-leather shoes unless an early snowstorm necessitated boots. We ate breakfast on the train and went to the museum when we arrived. Then it was time for lunch in the Walnut Room and sometimes a fashion show.  Although I was only mildly interested in clothes and shopping, I loved those lunches; they provided me with a window into what it might mean to be a grownup.  After lunch, we’d walk the store and look—and look and look. We bought candy, of course, and sometimes a gift for my father, if for no other reason than to have it gift-wrapped by people whose magic transformed a gift box into a work of art.   

There was, I realize, as much ostentatiousness on parade in the old department stores as in the new. We really weren’t as a people any less acquisitive one hundred or fifty years ago than we are now; but perhaps we were more inquisitive. And I’m sure there were hurried, harried shoppers then as now. But there was, I’m fairly certain, more wandering going on, more watching and looking and taking it all in with a sense of wonder. Of course I was very young and many things were wonderous to me.

 A number of the grand department stores have been bought by Federated, which owns Macy’s. There’s a sameness about them that’s a little dispiriting, not to mention all those people with bent heads barreling through the store. But the grand architecture remains, as do some old traditions and perhaps some new ones, such as this event that took place recently at the former Wannamaker’s (now a Macy’s) in Philadelphia. Christmastime may be commerce time but that doesn’t mean we can’t all look up and take in some wonder.

Marshall Field’s cookbook
History of deparment stores 

Bring Back Marshall Field’s

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I keep forgetting Oprah Winfrey’s talk show is going off the air in late May. It’s kind of hard to grasp the fact that this ubiquitous cultural icon will end her twenty-five year reign as talk show queen. But she’s leaving and, as observed in a recent New  York Times article, her departure will crush the dreams of hundreds of writers, entrepreneurs and those with inspirational stories.

Being on Oprah is a game-changer, no doubt about it. Ask any writer what happens when Oprah recommends a book on her show or in her glossy and immensely popular magazine. Sales shoot through the roof, advances materialize, phones ring off the hook…you get the picture. Even being scolded by Oprah doesn’t hurt a career; James Frey rebounded nicely from the dressing down she administered for writing a less than truthful memoir, A Million Little Pieces, in 2006. Of course, she later apologized on her show. You can’t buy that kind of publicity.

It’s not just writers who hit the jackpot after Oprah. Cooks, decorators, financial advisors, life coaches, and doctors have all gone onto bigger things. Catch Oprah’s eye and your options multiply like magic.  Life is good when you’re a FOO (Friend of Oprah).

The Times article quoted one cultural observer as noting that Oprah is to writers and entrepreneurial types as Johnny Carson used to be to performers. That’s true. As a kid and well through my mid-thirties, I aspired to and then pursued a career in music. I wanted to be on Carson. I didn’t care much about performing; my goal was to be invited to sit by Johnny’s desk, where I’d trade witty banter with him and with Ed McMahon or whoever was sitting on the couch with me. Hey, we all have our dreams.

Johnny Carson retired, and I got out of music to settle down with more realistic expectations; that is, until my book was published. “Maybe you can get on Oprah,” suggested my cousin. “Boy, a spot on Oprah’s show would be great, ” commented my close pal. “Are you going to approach Oprah’s people?” asked my writing partner. I thought back to my work on the section in my book on moral authority and celebrity; I’d used Oprah as my principal example. Had I been too harsh on her?  Did I present a fair and balanced explanation of her place in popular culture? Had I given offense? Would she forgive me?

I began to imagine her reading my slender book, lingering over the chapter in which she was featured, smiling at the tactful way I finessed our disagreement about the merits of The Secret, nodding when she came to my approving comments about her generosity. I pictured myself sitting back in the comfortable-looking armchair she uses for guests on her show as she leaned forward, engaging me earnestly on some point I made about certainty. I wanted her approval, I wanted her blessing; I wanted to be on Oprah.

I sent a copy of the book, along with a heartfelt letter, to her producer. I haven’t heard anything back yet. But I’ve got six months. Anyway, there’s always “Dancing with the Stars.”

original image at:

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My sister the cook (not to be confused with my sister the research librarian) and I were reminiscing about Milwaukee the other day. We grew up there, third generation locals on my dad’s side. In those long-ago days, Milwaukee was largely German and Polish. One of Dad’s favorite restaurant was Boder’s in the small town of Mequon, Wisconsin, just north of the city.  photo credit: Borgeson Photographers

Dad had gone to high school with (and had dated) the owner at the time, Dolly, who ran the place with her husband, Jack, who’d inherited the place from his father. Eating there was like going to a friend’s house for a meal—a German-influenced meal, that is. Which is not to say the food wasn’t first-rate because it was, from fresh caught trout and whitefish (it was on the Milwaukee River) to more traditional German dishes (Veal Oscar and Duck with Cherries).

I had a sweet tooth back then (still do) and so would order some dish I couldn’t or wouldn’t finish in order to save room for one of Boder’s delicious desserts. Among the highlights was schaum torte with strawberries.

If you’re from Wisconsin, you’re probably familiar with schaum torte, which is really a meringue shell. Pavlova is one variation. The best part of schaum torte is what you put inside it, like sweetened berries and whipped cream. Well, there’s also the fact that although it has sugar; it has no fat: my kind of dessert.

photo credit: Stephanie Meyer

This year, my sister had some leftover egg-whites (who knows why?) and I happened to have the insides of a pumpkin I’d carved. Clever sis got the clever idea of creating a Halloween version of a schaum torte that we could fill with fall fruit compote. Canned pumpkin works just as well and it makes a great alternative or addition to apple or pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving.

Don’t be afraid of the vinegar in the recipe; it actually makes the meringue a bit chewier, as opposed to dry and brittle.

Schaum Torte/ Meringues

Yield: about a dozen

Unfilled shells may be frozen.


½ C. (approx. 4-6 eggs) egg whites at room temperature

1 t. vinegar

1 t. vanilla extract

2 C. sugar

½ t. pumpkin pie spice

½ C. cooked pumpkin pureed (not pie filling)


Preheat oven to 275 degrees.

Beat egg whites in metal or ceramic bowl (not plastic) until very stiff; add vinegar and vanilla. While mixer runs, add sugar very gradually until all has been added. Continue beating until mixture is well blended and egg whites again form stiff peaks. Reduce speed to medium and beat 1 minute.

Place the pumpkin puree in a small bowl. Fold in 1/3 of the egg white mixture to lighten the pumpkin. Pour back into the whipped mixture and gently fold in. Be very gentle so that you don’t deflate the egg whites. This batter should stand up to a spoon and not be at all runny.

Grease 2 cookie sheets and place large spoonfuls of the stiff batter close together to form large circles about the size of a fruit cup.

Bake in preheated oven 1 hour. Turn oven off and let cool completely before opening the door.

Remove carefully with a spatula. The shells will crack a bit allowing plenty of room for the compote or ice cream or both!

Fall Fruit Compote

Yield: 1 ½ C.


2 large apples (Cortland, Fuji, Empire, Granny Smith)

2-3 ripe pears (any good sized pear will do)

1 t. lemon juice

½ C. fresh or frozen whole cranberries

¼ C. water

½ t. vanilla extract

½ t. cinnamon/pumpkin pie spice

¼ C. sugar


Peel and core the fruit, and dice into small pieces (the pears should be in larger pieces than the apples). Toss apple and pear pieces with lemon juice.

In a medium saucepan over high heat bring sugar, vanilla, spices and water to a boil. Add all fruit, stir, and bring back to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to low.

Allow fruit to simmer for 20 minutes until soft. Use a potato masher or similar tool to mash up the fruit so it all blends together but still remains chunky.

Cool thoroughly and refrigerate. Will thicken slightly. Just before serving, fill each shell with vanilla or pumpkin ice cream and the compote.

Top with whipped cream and/or candied pecans.

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There are any number of ways to teach writing or purport to teach pencilwriting, just as there are many ways to write. And there’s something to be said for perfecting the craft, learning what makes a meaningful narrative arc or what constitutes a gripping opening or a powerful closing.

But there’s also something to be said–perhaps everything–for writing without hesitation, without fear, and without filter. In the doing we can often be better; and in the doing without inhibition, we can always be the most honest.

I had the great privilege this weekend of hearing disparate voices expressed through the written word, unfiltered, thanks to a workshop that is focused on self-expression. This sort of workshop (and my experience is limited to two: this and a well-known alternative in New York with an approach that emphasizes critique and craft and imitation of established writing voices) is all about writing without thinking. It’s like being thrown into the deep end of the pool and instructed to swim, with this important caveat: someone is there to hold you, guide you, encourage you, and, if necessary, pull you over to the side and out onto dry land.

In this workshop, there is no lecturing, only guidelines: no criticism, no personalization (we refer to the work and “the writer”), no self-reference (“what I always do…”), no criticism; no MonhonkWorkshop1suggestions for doing something differently. We learn to listen carefully with an ear to experiencing the writing; and then urged to discuss what stays with us about each other’s work.

Writing in this environment is relatively filter-free. We are given prompts–loose suggestions derived from looking at pictures or answering a simple question or listening to a poem. We have a limited amount of time–five to twenty-five minutes–to write whatever comes to mind. Editing ones’ own thoughts is impossible, which for me turns out to be a godsend. Get it on paper, Nikki: never mind what anyone thinks. The only way to get better at writing, after all, is to write.

Writing within an allotted time frame is at once disciplining and liberating, as is listening and commenting within the established guidelines. I find myself immersed into the participants’ stories; hearing their words as perhaps they intended to have them heard, although, given that they are under the same time constraints, they must be writing without intentions.

Writing without intention or expectation: that’s the truly liberating part.  What occurs to me? What do I want to say? What would happen if I simply tried to say it, if I wrote it down, all jumbled, a mix of inelegant phrasing and unwittingly artful phrases, infused with the colors, the memories, the experiences that shape me, whether I use the first person or the third person, as does Colleen, one of the most fully formed, uniquely realized voices I’ve ever read (think Flannery O’Connor or Eudora Welty or Annie Proulx or Willa Cather or, I don’t know: she’s her own person). I can do that, I think: I can drop the of-the-moment yet safely removed observer of the contemporary contretemps that pass for communication in American society and write about what’s going on.

In one exercise, we pick up photographs; many are of fathers and sons or fathers and daughters and I am depleted by my recent Father’s Day post and pull away. But then, flipping over a photo, I see what is obviously arma piece of another photo on the reverse side which might have been yet another picture of father and daughter but the only thing showing is the arm–a single arm which somehow triggers something in me and I grab my laptop and glance at the clock and I write. And what I come up with is a metaphor for everything I am trying to accomplish as a writer and as a being and everything against which I struggle and yet in the act of writing in the twenty-five allotted minutes, I both come up against and also perhaps surmount the obstacle that stands in the way of the flow and freethe connection and the interaction and the happiness I want in my writing and, damn it, in my life. And in overcoming, although not yet eliminating the obstacle, I experience a pang of pure joy so fierce I wonder if I can withstand it.

pen image: university writing center

arm: www.inmagine.com

starlings in flight: James Potorti (my late husband)

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