Thursday, June 18, 2015

Plodding, Obdurate Effort

I'm in the middle of Sally Mann's unexpectedly good autobiography, Hold Still. I say "unexpectedly" because, while I knew she was a stunningly gifted photographer, I had no idea she was also such a gifted writer.

Her story itself is gripping. But I'm also finding her observations about her art, and about her creative process, deeply reassuring. Especially this:

Art is seldom the result of true genius; rather, it is the product of hard work and skills learned and tenaciously practiced by regular people. In my case, I practice my skills despite repeated failures and self-doubt so profound it can masquerade outwardly as conceit. It's not heroic in any way. To the contrary, it's plodding, obdurate effort. I make bad picture after bad picture week after week until the relief comes: the good new picture that offers benediction.

She touches the profoundly unglamorous truth of it all: the plodding, obdurate effort of making art. For me, it's writing. 

These days I feel like we're trained to focus on the end results, on the shiny cover, the hyperbole-laden press release, the accolades and lists. We're expected to maintain a beautiful lie across all social media outlets, a lie that suggests this life is easy, that these books were birthed fully formed with nary a moment's gestation. Because the truth is far less glamorous. 

The tenacious practice of your skills, that plodding and obdurate effort, they really are at the very heart of what writing is. The showing up day after day to work against odds that would make any sane person walk away. I'm comforted to know someone of Mann's caliber agrees. 

Clearly I am not sane, because I'm still here. How I crave those brief moments when I feel like I've actually created something beautiful, when I get a hit of what Mann calls, quite simply, "the relief." I've been doing a lot of plodding, obdurate effort lately--more than ever before--and I've also been catching a few exquisite hits of the relief. I still have a way to go, but those transcendent moments make it all worthwhile.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Seventeen Years

Seventeen years ago this week, we crossed the bridge into Maine and began our new life. That number seems surreal to me, both a blink of an eye and multiple lifetimes. I remember, in my 20s, zoning out when someone began a sentence with "17 years ago." That was, like, so irrelevant to now.

And yet if you're really, really lucky, if you manage to keep waking up every morning, your reward is that you, too, can be one of those people who begins their sentences with, "Seventeen years ago."

How exhilarating it felt to arrive in a place where we knew nobody. We had no strings in Portland, no ties, no history in this town at all. Our canvas was blank, we could paint on it whatever world we envisioned. I bought a state-of-the-art Dell desktop and set up shop in a sunny window overlooking our tiny courtyard. I took to the freelance lifestyle instantly.

Two years later that very same month, I got an idea to start an online knitting magazine all about yarn. I bought the domain "" and started working on the logo and layout. It all came quickly and easily. After years of using my skills for things that didn't resonate, it felt exquisite to pair them with my passion.

Blink, and that was 15 years ago. From my work on Knitter's Review came books, years of traveling and teaching, several radio interviews, and even a gig on PBS. It's been a really rather beautiful gift, a grand adventure, none of which I could have possibly anticipated when we crossed the river and cheered the "Welcome to Maine" sign.

Fifteen is a good number. It's odd but round, well past one decade but without the creeping sediment of 20. It's that roadside stop, the one at the crest of the hill, with picnic tables and blooming rugosas and a clear view of the road you've traveled thus far--and the possible paths ahead. It's a beautiful roadside stop, and I'm enjoying the rest, the perspective, the introspection. I've packed a picnic and may stay a while.

Right after we arrived in Portland, we received a housewarming gift from my old colleagues in San Francisco--a clivia plant, which sported a cluster of orange flowers. This plant has kept me company all these years, accompanying me through… let's see… one, two, three, now four moves. It's a patient and friendly plant that deserves a lot more TLC than I've provided. Yet this week, 17 years later and right on schedule, it decided to gift us with another bloom.

Friday, May 15, 2015

I've Missed You

I have a notebook I bought on 24th Street, back when I lived in San Francisco. My first entry was dated some time in 1995, right before Clare and I moved in together, after I'd left my travel writing job and was struggling to find my way in high-tech.

The early entries were full of frustration and confusion. Applying for jobs, being unhappy with my work, feeling like it was my fault, that if I just worked harder, I'd like it more. Then, turning the pages, I come to the spark of a dream to move to Maine. And then the move, and our early life here, the beginning of the farmhouse renovations, my launching of a new thing I called "Knitter's Review."

As time passed, the entries slowed. I was happier, I think, so I needed the notebook less. But every year, twice a year, on New Year's Eve and my birthday, I would make a point of pulling out the book and adding an update. The notebook is now 20 years old and still has empty pages waiting for me.

The surreal part is opening up this time capsule and reading what I wrote before, what was worrying me, what I was hoping to achieve, where I hoped to be. The angst seems to be subsiding, the humility and wisdom gaining, ever so slightly, with each year.

Returning to this blog after a little more than a year, it feels like opening that notebook and reading the last entry. I'm glad it had to do with that chowder, because it remains one of my favorite go-to recipes. I made some just a few weeks ago. I still haven't tried it with fresh corn, but it's on my list of things to do this summer.

Reading my words, looking at the pictures, I felt overwhelmed by a feeling of having missed it. I've missed you.

Blogging is in a state of flux. Some have already declared the blog dead. We're all about blips now, about instantly disappearing Snapchats, videos on Instagram (15 seconds) and Vine (6 seconds). Words? Keep it snappy, 140 characters or less.

What's happening to us? In 2014, the average American attention span clocked in at just 8.25 seconds. To put that in context, the attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds. As a writer, I wonder where this leaves the written word. As an easily distracted person, I confess I adore scrolling through my Instagram feed, looping my favorite vines over and over again.

I have no answers. All I know is that I've missed this place, and I've missed you.

Monday, April 21, 2014

A Magical Chowder

You realize you've reached another stage in life when a new dryer vent makes you really excited. Not quite as excited as, say, a new car, but pretty much right up there with the nicest of new kitchen appliances.

I am that person who always envisions the worst-case scenario. When I saw that our dryer vent had cracked and that lint was built-up inside, I was pretty sure the house would burn down in a matter of hours. (And to be honest, it's a legitimate hazard.)

Ken the Wonder Carpenter came by this weekend to help. I figured the whole thing would take 20 minutes, tops. The more realistic Clare said two hours, which ended up being closer to the truth.

The vent goes through a hole in the floor and into the farthest corner of the basement, along a narrow ledge over the concrete cistern that used to hold water for the house. You have to crawl, there's very little light, the angle was awkward, the aluminum tubing grumpy and cumbersome, and Ken's rotator cuff barely functioning and in need of immediate surgery.

You see someone labor over your house, or something as mundane as a dryer vent, and you feel terrible. I asked if I could bring him some Claramels, a glass of tequila, anything. He politely declined. Then I remembered lunch. "I was going to make fish chowder, are you hungry?" It turned out he was.

Upstairs I ran and set to work making one of my favorite simple soups. And because I have a book due this fall and should be working on it instead, I thought I'd share my soup recipe with you, thus making you complicit in my own procrastination. (Thanks, by the way.)

Haddock Chowder

Loosey goosey ingredients
Either 2 slabs bacon or 1 Tbsp butter
Nice big onion
Garlic clove (optional)
One large potato per person + 2 for the pot
Bay leaf, a dash of thyme, wee bit o'nutmeg, a soup├žon of smoked Spanish paprika at the end
Broth - can be water, chicken, clam juice, seafood, vegetable, or some combination thereof, enough to cover the potatoes
Half and half - quarter cup or thereabouts, depending on the volume of the soup itself
Medium white fish - I used about 3/4 lb beautiful haddock filets, which fed 3 people and provided leftovers

So the principle here is to make an extremely easy and flexible soup base to which you can add pretty much anything you have on hand. You begin with a few nice slabs of bacon (or skip if you don't do the bacon thing), which you cut into small pieces and fry in a soup pot until crispy. Remove them with a slotted spoon and let drain on a paper towel.

Next, get a nice big onion and dice it into little bits. Drop them all into the bacon grease (or a tablespoon of butter, if you're just starting), reduce heat, and slowly stir until the onions relax and become translucent. The act of standing over a pot of simmering onions is, in itself, bliss.

During a brief break from your onion-stirring ecstasy, take out several potatoes (I like to figure one big potato per person, with two extras for good measure), scrub, and peel (if you like your potatoes peeled). Dice into small cubes - not as small as the onions, but easily bite-sized. If you're in a hurry, dice them smaller so they'll cook faster.

When the onions are nice and relaxed, put the potatoes in the pan and add somewhere between one and two quarts of liquid. I like to add just enough liquid to cover the potatoes but still keep them visible, if you know what I mean? You don't want to have to go diving for your lunch.

What kind of liquid, you ask? It can be anything. Sometimes I do a mix of clam juice and water, other times I'll do straight chicken broth. Vegetable broth would be wonderful. Water alone can be a little sad, but if that's all you have, don't despair. Just add more onion, perhaps a crushed clove of garlic or two. I also like to add at least one bay leaf. Sometimes, if I'm feeling wild, I'll add a dash of thyme, maybe even oregano. You can also add a few grains of nutmeg, but be very sparing. It can go from charming to overbearing in no time at all.

Now, put on the lid and let everything simmer until the potatoes are soft. Once they're done, I like to crush a few of them with the back of my spoon to make the soup thicker, but it's entirely your call.

This whole cooking process should take about 18 minutes. (I say 15, Clare says 20.)

Our fish guy always tries to sell us on a pound of fish per person. For something like haddock, that's insane unless you're a competitive eater or are training for the Olympics. For three people, our two filets (probably 2/3 pound total) did the trick. Any white fish of medium constitution works well here.

Cut the fish into reasonable chunks and drop them into the soup. Push them down into the liquid, turn the heat either off completely or to the barest wisp of warmth, cover, and let the fish poach in the hot broth. Usually I grow impatient and turn the heat up a few times, just to bring the soup back to warm, but you don't really want a rolling boil here. You want a leisurely poach.

As soon as the fish has gone from translucent to white, but still has a soft, yielding texture, it's done.

For the piece de resistance, I like to drizzle a little half-and-half over the whole thing, maybe 1/4 cup maximum. Enough to bring the whole mix together into something that feels creamy and decadent. This is a deep, smoky, flavorful broth with creamy overtones and magical healing powers. Sometimes at the very end I like to dip my finger in the tin of Spanish smoked paprika, then flick it over the top of my soup for an extra smoky zing.

We enjoyed ours with a plate of sliced tomatoes. Ken the Wonder Carpenter lapped up two big bowls of it and was so refreshed, he promptly went outside and cut up the big spruce tree that had fallen in our side yard over the winter.

Now it's your turn. Go forth! Let me know what you put in yours, and how you like it.

p.s.-We had enough left over to enjoy a second bowl of soup yesterday, which is when I remembered I had a camera and actually took a picture of it. Sometimes, you need to eat first, shoot later.