Long May It Wave

Photo: Scar-Spangled BannerToday, the day Americans celebrate this nation’s incorporation as an independent country, there are and will be a lot of fireworks, eat-drink-and-be-merry parties, solemn salutations of admiration and thanks addressed to the people and acts that led to the establishment of America, and “patriotic” speeches of allegiance and fealty to whatever each speaker or audience relishes as the greatest rights and privileges of living in this place. We don’t all agree, not remotely, on which things are Rights and which are merely privileges, never mind which are to be relished. We don’t share a single, singular point of view defining patriotism or our national identity or strengths.

That, in fact, is what I see as one of our greatest strengths. We are a country that prides itself on individualism, if not individuality. And that, in turn, we define differently, each of us. As little as I know about the country I call home, my sense of it says that the name United States suits us well: a collection of wildly, wonderfully, weirdly differing entities—both states and persons—pulled together into one larger whole. It doesn’t homogenize or even blend us. We remain diverse and divergent. And that is the strength that our founders hoped, as I understand it, to cultivate.

We tend to fail, nationally speaking, more than we succeed at this delicate and complex effort. We mess it up pretty (no pun intended) royally both out in the wider world and within our own borders. Often. But there are frequent gleams of starry hope, as well. There are those among us who will stop and truly listen to each other, who will negotiate, counter-propose, parlay, parry, and persist, in the pursuit of better solutions. Those who choose to recognize differences without letting their own beliefs in the matter condemn their fellow citizens as second-class or unworthy.

It’s funny how often many of us Americans get mighty excited, thinking that somebody else is busy trying to impinge on our personal Freedoms (apparently we are historically hysterical when it comes to that) merely by valuing different aspects of the legal freedoms we all enjoy here or by wanting an equal share of the same ones; we’re past masters, too, at howling injustice over others’ intolerant narrow-mindedness, which of course translates directly as “any thinking, belief, or experience different from mine” and thus is equally self-definition, should we think through it carefully. We each obsess over how to make the rest of the nation see our individual points of view as the simple and clear logic they embody, and as the obvious morally and ethically correct way to think, live, and be, whether any of our own choices and decisions are in truth logical, moral, or ethical, let alone demonstrably so. But that difference, too, is part and parcel of the multifarious and colorful country we call home and of its hard-won foundational tenets.

So while I spend the Fourth of July, like any other day, in mindful and slightly irritable worry over all that could and perhaps should be better about my native country, not to mention about me as one of its inhabitants, I also cling to the hope and optimism that continue to reside here. People are still kind to each other, from holding open doors to donating large quantities of time and other resources to the health, education, safety, and well-being of others, and more importantly, some even do this without requiring that their beneficiaries support and adhere strictly to the donors’ worldview. That, to me, is a great assurance that this nation does still hold dear some of the essential characteristics on which it was founded, even if with a noticeable amount of ignorant hubris stomping on the extant good on this new shore. We remain flawed and selfish and foolish, each in our own ways, but for the most part, this is also a country full of people who, through hard work and goodwill and the desire to fulfill the promise of our forebears, native-born and otherwise, mean to keep becoming better.

May this better part of each of us become a great banner of Peace, Justice, and Hope. May the winds of the future send it curling around those who are in need of the wealth with which we, corporately, are gifted, and give them not only enough resources and courage to be lifted up but a share of that same peace, justice, and hope. And long, long may that banner wave.

Foodie Tuesday: Thrilled Cheese

Photo: SwirlyMy name is Kathryn and I’m a dairy fiend.

I sincerely hope there’s no umpteen-step program out there to cure me of my addiction, because I would be ever so sad to part company with butter (pastured butter, sage butter, beurre noisette…), cream (yogurt, ice cream, whipped cream, a drizzle of heavy cream, sour cream…) and all of their cow- and goat- and sheep-produced milky ilk. Among the most dire of those losses would certainly be cheeses. It’s even a remote possibility that in my childhood I mistook various people’s talk about the power and centrality of a certain deity in their lives as completely understandable allegiance to the prepared and aged dairy product, hearing them intone instead, ‘come into my heart, Lord Cheeses.’

All of that is merely to tell you in what high esteem I hold dairy products. I know I am not alone in this. The worldwide fame of the French cheese board, an Italian feast topped with fine curls of Parmigiano-Reggiano, a glorious firework of Saganaki, a rich fondue or heart- and hearth-warming rustic iron cooker oozing with Raclette (somehow fitting is that the compute offers as a ‘correction’ of this name the word Paraclete, for it is both a helper and rather holy in its way)–these are all embedded in the souls and arteries of generations around the globe, along with many others. The land of my birth has been, if anything, impregnated with this rich and robust love by every wave of immigrants who have ever set foot on its shores, bringing along all of the aforementioned and so much more, and gradually adding a multitude of delightfully cheesy (in every sense of the word) American twists to them. Along the way, besides gleefully adopting and adapting all of the aforementioned, we dairy devotees stateside have high on the short list of our national favorite foods such delicacies as cheeseburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, pizza and macaroni and cheese. [For the latter, by the way, I’d be hard pressed to find a recipe that rivals Amy Sedaris’s death-defying macaroni and cheese for my love; infinite variations of it have become my personal staple when I choose to make the dish.]

I confess that lowest on my personal list of cheese ratings, possibly even below the most notoriously stinky and bizarre of cheeses (yes, Gammelost, I’m looking at YOU) is the one ‘cheese’ named for our country, American Cheese, which I personally think of as purportedly edible vinyl and often has little or no actual dairy contents, though for good or ill there are otherwise reputable American cheese makers currently promoting a new, truly dairy version of this stuff. Yes, I get the whole melt-ability thing, whether for Tex-Mexqueso‘ (an ironic name, to my way of thinking) or for creamy sauces and the like—but I also know there are plenty of ways to achieve that smoothness with what I think of as real cheeses. But I digress. Yet again.Photo: Aging Cheeses

When hungry for grilled or toasted cheese sandwiches I am not averse to tinkering with the most sacred simple versions, as long as the cheese still gets to star in the meal, because after all, the entrée is named after it. Since there are whole restaurant menus devoted to the single item of this sandwich, I needn’t tell you what a wide and spectacular range of goodies goes ever-so-nicely with cheese and bread. Now that I think of it, the stereotype of the French eating nothing but bread, cheese and wine could be excellent reason to pour up a nice glass of red when one is consuming a grilled cheese sammy, but that’s merely a starting point for the whole world of possibilities of course. A cheese and chutney sandwich comprising a sharp white cheddar, Major Grey’s chutney and a lovely dense bread (how about a nice sweet pumpernickel? she asked) is a thing of beauty. A perfect deli Reuben is a great variant of the cheese sandwich. Tuna melt? Why, yes, please! And on we go.

Photo: Dungeness Crab Grilled Cheese

A purist’s dream, amped up: the Bee Hive Restaurant in Montesano, Washington makes a buttery grilled Tillamook (Oregon) cheddar cheese sandwich on sourdough bread, adorned with a heap of sweet Dungeness crab meat. If you can’t find happiness in a bite of that, you’re really not trying.

Sometimes it can be both simple and surprising. I’d be hard pressed to love a sandwich better than the peasant bread grilled cheese from Beecher’s in Seattle with their Flagship in the starring role. But I’ve also discovered that a thick slice of Leipäjuusto (a slow-melt cheese like Saganaki), a few slices of crisped bacon and a generous schmier of ginger marmalade make for a dandy combination, and I would certainly not keep such a stellar combination from you, my friends. Kevin, a Canadian small-kitchen wizard, has published a veritable encyclopedia of grilled cheese sandwich variations on his blog Closet Cooking (a site everyone with cheese in his DNA ought to bookmark, stat), and there are all sorts of other blogs and sites, foodie and otherwise, loaded with such cheesy champions as can make your spirits sing and your capillaries tighten simultaneously. So go forth and chase the cheeses! I’ll be here waiting for you, with the ribbons of some good, fat, stretchy melted mozzarella hanging out of the corners of my loopy grin.

Seasonal Allergies

Can political correctness kill a holiday spirit? Oh, yes, it can. We’ve all seen it. There are times and places when and where we have to tread so lightly around people’s tender feelings regarding their special holiday or occasion–or someone else’s–that it’s hard to believe that any of us retain those passions and beliefs after a while. It’s as though we’re allergic to each other’s seasonal happiness. All the same, I do understand that we ought to show reasonable forbearance regarding others’ dearly held views, no matter how far from our own they may be, so long as those views aren’t harming anyone else. And so very, very few of them are, to be fair.

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Remember to tread lightly on others’ ground!

But if others want to celebrate things I’m not so attached or attracted to myself, who am I to stand in the way?  I like holidays, parties and celebrations very well. I may have even occasionally co-opted others’ holidays just because I think they’re wonderful excuses for enjoying the great things about life and history and happiness. Whether I do or not, I am happy to see my own holiday leanings in any odd spot that inspires me at any moment.

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Ho-ho-ho, happy people, whoever you are!

I’m from a pretty common kind of American, Protestant, middle class background myself, so it won’t surprise anyone that I grew up surrounded by the trappings of the middle class, Protestant American version of Christmas. Won’t even shock anyone that after my decades of being surrounded by it, I grew more than a little jaded at the horrendously fat, greedy, commercialized version it morphed into in the public eye and felt shy of celebrating Christmas in that atmosphere. But there’s that sense of tradition and family tied into it as well, and the knowledge that the origins of the holiday and the celebration of it are worlds removed from those crass retail versions of it that irritate me so. So when I see the famed color combination so associated with Christmas in this my home culture, I think I am in a more forgiving mood toward the genuinely human and sometimes very foolish ways that others spend their celebratory energies, and maybe even toward my own.

I wish you all a happy holiday season, whether you celebrate any particular occasion or just enjoy seeing others revel in theirs. There should be plenty of pleasure to go around!

Clouding My Thoughts

As a cloud-gazing aficionado, I know I’m in good company. It’s hard not to be intrigued by the astounding amount of information, meteorological and otherwise, that one can read and guess and even predict from close observation of clouds; it’s easy to become rather obsessed with watching them and seeing what’s found in them beyond the mere factual.

And you know I am drawn to all things that invite invention.photoOur summer peregrinations offered vast quantities of opportunity in this lovely form. As passenger on 99% of our 6000 mile road trip (just as I am in our everyday life) I was free to stare into the sky whenever I wasn’t on intensive watch duty for a specific exit or landmark, and the sky when seen from the vast American plains is a grand theatre indeed. While ‘Big Sky Country‘ is one state’s nickname, and Montana is indeed a region of wide open views of the sky, even from the rugged-not-flat high plains, the US has millions of acres of land that lies relatively flat under the heavens and allows views across the miles that rival the telescopic.

I would be hard pressed to agree with those who find extensive mid-country travels boring from a viewing standpoint. The landscape may, in places, be no more varied than one kind of wild grass giving way gradually to another over wide sweeps of seldom changing topography, one tumble-down farm very much like the next, but besides that even these have their subtle differences, they are all capped by this apparently limitless height of sky. Mostly, I find this mesmerizing, even meditative. When the weather is cloudless, the intensity of the hot blue depths above, looking as though they never did and never could have anything in them change, have a kind of cobalt stolidity to them that can be oppressive but, when broken by the least irruption–a crop dusting plane coughing out its own skinny clouds, a crow chasing a hawk straight up out of a stand of mowed weeds–suddenly becomes backdrop for high drama. Indeed, as one who grew up before the special effects masters of film took to using the more popularly familiar green screen to allow the insertion of infinite inventions in CGI, I was accustomed to chroma key blue screens, so now the sky has become mine.

Still, as much as I love the clear beauty of a bold blue sky and the endless space for spectacle that it represents, when clouds come into the picture the possibilities are multiplied exponentially.

Not only do they serve as messengers of what sort of travel conditions lie ahead when I’m on the road–especially when observed from so many miles away as is possible in an open landscape–they tell stories and evoke romances tirelessly, keeping my mind a-spin with the permutations and portents I read therein. Much as I find driving in the most intense storms, day or night, a stressful challenge to my technique, never mention my eyes, the colors and textures and patterns in the clouds rarely cease to amaze and delight me, even in the center of the maelstrom. And when things settle down and the clouds begin to part and thin and allow through them those fugitive rays that remind me more truly of both the size of the clouds that it takes to fill such a hyperbolic height of sky and of the power that mere collations of mist can have when they converge for battle? Then I see again the beauty of clouds altogether, and I am on cloud nine.photo

I Went to the Shore

photoI was born near water. I am not an avid (or skillful) swimmer and I don’t enjoy lying on the beach sunning myself, what with the high probability I’d burst into vampiric flames, pale as I am. But oh, my, I do love being near the water. Specifically, I crave the sound and spray and the whisper-and-crash sounds of moving water. Lakes and ponds are all well and good, but when I’m here in my present digs in north Texas, I’m not often close enough to the lakes and rivers to get as attached to them as to I am my bloodstream as it flows in the million waterfalls of the Cascade and Olympic ranges and pours back into the heart of the Pacific Ocean.

So this summer’s travel was a homecoming in that way as well: returning to some of those places where I feel the most connected and whole. The people who fill my life come first, of course; wherever my great friends and loved ones are will always be home. The places I love to go, visit, work, play and stay anywhere in the world have their merits that designate them home when I’m there as well. But few things have the same depth of attachment that, ironically perhaps, does not ebb and flow but remains strong and steady at all times in me, the same compelling passion, as the sea.

It was good to be at the docks, the marinas, the edge of the ocean–on the shore again.photo

The Hooey Decimal System

photoWhen I sort and edit photos, it helps if I can create categories and subcategories that will help me to find and use them after the fact. If an event or occasion is short and simple in the relative sense of such things, the name of the event or occasion itself may suffice as filing ID, but what of things like our summer road trip that encompass 5 weeks, 6000 miles, a dozen states, 2 countries, 3 music conferences, a dozen members of the immediate family, a half-dozen motels and hotels, and ever so much more?

What I tend to do is create an all-encompassing title that all photos will bear, identifying them as part of the larger expedition, and then putting them into files and sub-files that clarify the who-what-when-where-why-&-how of them. This helps me have at least a slight hope of locating any single shot or group of shots from among the multitude that remains even after I’ve culled a multitude more. It also reminds me of what things became, either because of my continuing interest in them or by natural default of recurrence on the way, thematic in the event.

Not surprising, then, that this extended road trip would have obvious and substantial files of many very familiar subjects. To be sure, there are a quantity of such old favorites of mine that any moderately frequent or attentive visitor to this blog could easily guess. Given my blog header, I can start with my fondness for rusty, rustic old things (like me, naturally), mechanical bits and industrial loveliness. There are hints in that image, as well, of my magpie adoration of all things shiny-metal, glass, water, jewels, plastic and any other thing that glints to catch my avid eye.photoMy many obsessions also appear in nature: flora, fauna, sea, sky and stone. If there’s a noticeable cloud formation or special kind of light I am lured to admiration of it. Insects draw me like, well, the proverbial flame-drawn moth. I’m an ignorant admirer of all sorts of vehicles that strike me as different or novel when it comes to my everyday experience, so there are always photos in my stash of cars and trucks, boats and trains, heavy equipment and the slightest, lightest personal transport other than feet. Feet, for that matter, can make perfectly entertaining objects of my camera’s affections, since people in general are also on my list, and character-full feet or quirkily clad ones or ones that by position tell a story ought to make marvelous image sources any time.photoIn the case of human subjects, I do have something of a restrictive love, however. When I know the subjects of my documentation, I’d usually rather be interacting with them, so often, the camera sits idle and forgotten unless I have some sort of mandate to shoot. If I don’t know the people, I am bound by respect for their privacy almost as much as by my shyness not to photograph them at all. So aside from crowd shots and unidentifiably altered distant views, I’m not likely to include too many people in my panoply of for-art photographs.photoWhere people congregate or what people have left behind, that’s all fodder for my imagination, though. I love buildings–the older or odder, the better–and their endless details, and whether they are homes or hospitals, offices or auditoriums, farm sheds or factories, they all have stories to tell. Ultimately, I suppose, that’s the overarching guide to my photographic peregrinations just as much as to my poetry and essays and drawing and every other expressive form of art I attempt: I am trying to discern, guess, or invent the stories behind those things I’ve seen.

There are, you know, endless stories just waiting to be told.photo

Peace as the New Superpower

It was a wonderfully happy anniversary yesterday. The birthday of one of our nephews.

It was also a horrible anniversary, as far more people know: that of the infamous terrorist attack on US soil in September of 2001. You understand my intense desire to have the former event wholly eclipse the latter. I don’t demand that all the world celebrate our nephew’s birthday (though our niece and any one of our nine nephews would all be well worth the attention), but I would absolutely recommend that the whole planet get a lot less warlike and a lot more humane overall.

If grey is the new black, we should be mature enough by now to play well together.

Americans, first and foremost. We may be barely over 200 years old as a country, but we’re old enough to know better than to tear around the planet saber-rattling and messing around in every other country’s business whether they like it or not. Aren’t there enough things to keep us occupied in more peaceful pursuits? Many such valuable actions could probably be funded on the strength of one month’s national military expenses, things that might not only make the country better educated, healthier, more scientifically advanced but also better able, even, to improve conditions for other people, other nations.

Call me naive.

But first, here’s a nice little bouquet, from me to you. It’s a small thing, I know, but I’d like to start somewhere. You’re welcome. Pass it on, please.digital illustration