Monday, July 30, 2012

Artist's Way: Week Two

I've now finished my second week of following the Artist's Way, and I won't lie--it's getting a little tough.  When I can tap the right vein, three pages in the morning comes out easily.  But when I can't find that voice of honesty and self-examination...well, it comes hard.
Hennig's Girl Reading

I also find the Artist Date increasingly hard to keep to.  For last week, I chose to decorate my workspace (the kitchen table).  I cleared off all the junk, including salt and pepper shakers, and placed a yellow rose floating in a blue china bowl in the center.  I pinned up a picture of a girl reading (the image seen here) to provide inspiration for my dissertation as well as something to look at when I'm sitting despairingly searching for the next sentence!

I also had the pleasure to read this excellent post by Maria Popova on Tchaikovsky (about whom I have written before on this blog) and his work ethic.  The quote from Tchaikovsky that really stuck with me was this: "We must be patient, and believe that inspiration will come to those who can master their disinclination."  Mastering disinclination is, I think, what it's all about.  Some days I want to write.  Some days I don't.  But if I let my work go until I "feel like it," it never gets finished.

Stay tuned for more on my "creative recovery"!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Outstanding and Outdated: The Posset

A seventeenth century posset pot from the Victoria and Albert
Outstanding and Outdated is a series in which I take a look at historical recipes, particularly drinks, that have fallen out of favor.  Today, I want to consider the posset.

The posset has a long and rich history from medieval times up until the present.  Lady Macbeth famously drugged the possets of the grooms in Macbeth.  In 1638, John Taylor records a story of servants who, making a posset while their employers slept, heard someone coming down the stairs, whereat "one of them took the Bason with the hot Posset, and (to hide it) laid it upon the seat in the House of office, Master Gent suspecting no harme, went thither in the darke, and set himselfe in the Posset, which hee found so scalding, that hee cried out Helpe, helpe, the devil's in the Privie: thus was the Servants deceiv'd, the Good-man scar'd and scalded, and the Posset most unluckily spoyl'd and defil'd."  Clearly the last consequence is the most serious.

But what is a posset?  In practice, it is a kind of spiced hot milk with alcohol.  The first Earl of Carlisle's sack-posset, recorded in 1671, called for sack (which is a dry wine of the sherry family), cream, spices, and a great many eggs, which presumably made the drink very custardy.

Another method of thickening the posset is oatmeal, used particularly in Scotland.  Using this method, the milk is boiled with oatmeal, then strained.  I have used this method myself and found it very effective.  Breadcrumbs may also be used for this purpose.

The kind of alcohol used in a posset is really up to the user.  Wine, ale, and spirits have all been used to concoct possets.  Brandy, whiskey, sherry, or stout are all excellent options, and stout in particular creates a thick, creamy posset with a lot of body.

The posset is generally both sweetened (either with sugar or honey) and spiced with nutmeg, cinnamon, mace, or any combination thereof.

The recipe below is one that I have refined by trial and error.  It will be very foamy; the foam is called the "grace" and may be eaten with a spoon.

Sophie's Posset Cup
Serves two not particularly greedy people

1 c. milk
1 heaped tablespoon rolled oats
1/8 tsp. nutmeg
2 Tbsp. honey
1/2 c. Guiness or similar

In a small saucepan, simmer together the milk, oats and nutmeg until the oatmeal is soft and well-cooked.  Using a fine strainer, separate the liquid and solids, pressing well on the oatmeal with a spoon to extract all liquid.  Stir in honey and add Guinness.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Artist's Way: Week One

I'm sure that, even now, there are hundreds of other people doing The Artist's Way, a creative recovery self-help program.  It's such an attractive program, and the rewards it offers are tremendous.  Unblocking creativity is big business, perhaps rightly so.

For personal reasons, I've begun using The Artist's Way to help me be more creative.  I find the system very intuitive; lots of writing, lots of reflection, concrete tasks to help me focus.  The core discipline of the program is writing three pages a morning by hand every single day.  You are also supposed to schedule time for weekly "Artist Dates" to spend time nurturing your creative self.

So for this first week, I agonized, plotted and planned over where to take myself, and finally wound up enforcing an evening of beauty maintenance on myself.  I'm fairly certain that's not a very good date, but it was nice and relaxing structuring a whole evening around self-care.

There are times when the tone of the book, the countless inspirational stories and affirmations, maddens me.  Affirmations are one of those things that I consider harmless lunacy, except that apparently they're supposed to work.  Maybe.  Being told to read and write affirmations feels pointless, but I'm doing it anyway, as much as I can. 

I'll check back next week to let you know how the process is going!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Modern Luxury

I spent five days of last week in a small shack in the woods near Prescott, Arizona, helping my mother cater a retreat for a group that comes there every year.  This is all very well and good, but Prescott, while a good deal cooler than Phoenix to the south, can be very warm indeed. 

Luckily, we had the technology to solve this problem: a small, thirty-year-old swamp cooler parked right in front of the bed.  I spent off time between meals lying in front of that little gust of cool air and drinking a Dr. Pepper from the refrigerator and musing that, just because of this simple luxury that I take for granted every day, I am enjoying greater luxury than Greta Garbo or Dolly Madison or Beau Brummel or Cleopatra. 

Everyone always wants to pin down the one invention that changed America--well let me tell you, my nomination is most certainly the air conditioner.  Air conditioning built the enormous Southwestern suburban cities, making deserts or swamps into livable places.

Computers may hold all our media, most of our social connections, and perform other amazing functions, but in my neck of the woods, if you asked someone what they can't live without, it's their air conditioning.

It all made me think of a favorite Marilyn Monroe comedy, The Seven Year Itch.  I'm sure most of you have seen it.  But has it ever occurred to you that, if you take Monroe's character as a desiring creature rather than merely an object of desire, the whole thing is a long, dirty love letter to air-conditioning?

Other inventions that changed our lives so dramatically we didn't even notice: the refrigerator, efficient lightbulbs, and food-canning technology.  These small things shape our lives more subtly, but ultimately more drastically, than all the silicone chips we like to bury ourselves in.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Status, Cars, and the Hedonic Treadmill

I was planning to compose a post for today in response to the whole “Busy Trap” flutter going around the chattersphere. I will still try and write that post, because the issue is interesting to me, but a discussion with a friend on striving for status made me realize something strange.

First of all, there are a lot of ways to define status. A house, a job title, a judicial appointment, a fair wage. But if someone says, “Status is very important to me,” most of us assume that that person is a big jerk. That they want to lord it over the little people and maybe run over a few peasants on their way to and from the gourmet grocery store.

But if, say, a high school English teacher said to me, “I want more status,” I would immediately agree that they deserve more status. Because part of status is respect. And if teachers want to not be viewed as idiots who couldn't hack corporate law, then that seems like a fair demand to me.

What I really want to talk about, though, is cars. Cars have a unique association with status for many people. If we envision someone consumed by the desire for status, we generally assume they drive an overpriced car.

Here's the thing. My car gives me a sense of status. I drive a 2001 VW Beetle, and I love that machine like a child. Looking at its vivid blue color makes me smile. Children and old men yell, “Nice bug!” at me, and I grin at them and say thanks. It makes my day. My car is basically a reflection of my aspirational personality. It's quirky and cute, but it is still a “Volkswagen” as the Germans originally conceived it. A car for the people.

Interestingly, I can only think of a few cars that people react to this way. People at the convenience store don't yell, “Nice Beemer!” even though BMW does undoubtedly design lovely vehicles. In fact, other than the Beetle, the only other car I know of that elicits that reaction is the Fiat. The Fiat, like the Beetle, is basically unusual in that it is an example of good, even iconic, product design for the masses.

And therein lies the real attraction of these cars and why, in my case anyway, they are completely exempt from the hedonic treadmill that demands we constantly acquire more and better stuff. I have had my Beetle for five years now, almost. I have never once in that time wished for a better car. (Well, I've often wished for a car whose “check engine” light wasn't permanently on, but that's a different question). The pleasure I got that first day on the lot is the same as the pleasure I get every time I see the car in the driveway. If I could afford a brand new Mercedes-Benz, I would buy a brand new Beetle instead and then laugh my way to the bank. Because the Beetle isn't just another car. It's my car. It's the car that I want.

That's what breaks the hedonic treadmill. Not a resolve to live in austerity, but taking the time to find objects that are exactly what you want. Not a cheap substitute for what you want, not just a means of displaying wealth, but an end in and of themselves.

What objects do you have that never lose favor? Jeans that fit just right, a can opener that works perfectly, a beautiful painting?