Friday, January 29, 2010

Doll-centric



I've gotten doll-centric in my collages lately. Though I was not one of those little girls that surrounded herself with dolls, now I find myself drawn to them as symbols, totems and/or cultural artifacts. The older the doll, the more potency it has for me. Perhaps because dolls seem to bear witness to the times they came from. They have a certain mystery about them. What child loved them and who made them and where have they been? In that vein, as a lazy rainy day blogger who would rather get back to her artwork, I offer this poem originally published in Belle Griffith's i.e. magazine (Fall/Winter, 1993).

AT THE DOLL HOUSE MUSEUM

A porcelain baby shivers
in the tin bathtub,
arms to chest.
In the Edwardian parlor,
stiff dusty dolls
gather round
a tiny Venus de Milo
on display.

None of the dolls
stand straight anymore.
They fall back
against the furniture
or sit sliding,
half tilted
on faded brocade furniture.
As I peer in at them,
I see my face giant-like
in their fireplace mirror.

Down the hall
the doll children
are having a party
with ice cream sodas and cake,
spilling themselves
off white wire chairs.

There are dolls holding
dolls holding dolls,
gray-garbed servants
everywhere,
and a cat or dog
in every room.

Pausing from
her busy life,
one doll prays
at the altar
of the upstairs chapel.
She kneels askew,
about to fall forward
into the open arms
of the blue papier-mache virgin.
The years have tilted her
like a crooked cemetery slab;
its epitaph
plain with hope, reads:
the one who placed me here
is just around the corner
a little out of sight.

- Keddy Ann Outlaw

collage: "Restoreth" by KAO, 2010

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers


Thank goodness this book was published. Zeitoun (McSweeney's Books, 2009) by Dave Eggers tells the story of a Muslim Syrian-American man wrongfully arrested in post-Katrina New Orleans. Abdulrahman Zeitoun paddled a canoe through his flooded city, helping stranded citizens and feeding dogs left behind. His wife and four children had evacuated the city, and perhaps he should have too. But being a hardworking, down-to-earth painter and general contractor, as well as owner of several rental homes, Zeitoun thought he better stay and look after things. I never met a more responsible man in life or literature than Zeitoun.

The first half of the book builds a solid picture of Zeitoun and his wife Kathy, their busy life and spiritual practices. Their business has been successful, they employ many good people and have the respect of their community. Then in in the second half of the book, the going gets rough. About a week after the hurricane, New Orleans is under martial law. Anyone left behind, anyone foreign, anyone with cash in their pockets, anyone seen coming and going from homes with anything electronic, is stereotyped as a looter, or in Zeitoun's case, a possible terrorist.

Zeitoun was locked up without a phone call, and kept in a maximum security prison for twenty-three days. His wife was frantic, as was his family in Syria. Zeitoun may have been in prison much longer were it not for the willingness of a Bible volunteer who acted as a messanger, agreeing to make a phone call for Zeitoun. When he finally walks out of prison, he is a diminished man. His wife has grown a wide streak of white hair. But together again, they pick up the pieces and begin rebuilding New Orleans. Kathy suffers with signs of post traumatic stress syndrome. In 2006, their son Ahmad was born. Zeitoun works harder than ever, with barely a day off. People are amazed that this family stays, not only in New Orleans, but in America.

I feel privileged to have read this book. I wouldn't have picked it up were it not for the HCPL West University book group. We will be discussing it on February 3, 2010. No one should have to endure what the Zeitouns went through. I'm not a political animal at all, but reading this expose of inhumane treatment, I felt myself grow new hackles. Eggers does a wonderful job of letting the facts tell the story, using sharp, clean prose that cuts to the bone. Proceeds from the book go to the Zeitoun Foundation, created not only to aid the rebuilding of New Orleans, but also to ensure the human rights of all Americans.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Sugar and Sunflower Seeds: a Confectionary Adventure

Having ended up with a surplus of sunflower seeds, I rummaged through the Internet looking for interesting recipes. Ultimately, I settled on a recipe billed as First Prize Sunflower Brittle, chosen partly because I had the ingredients on hand, ordinary pantry staples such as sugar, corn syrup, a little butter and vanilla, etc. My candy thermometer had been hiding in the closet way too long. I've always loved kitchen chemistry involving the melting of sugar.

The recipe started simply enough with boiling water, then adding the sugar and syrup. I got the sugar stirred in and reached for the corn syrup. Well, apparently that bottle had been sitting around for many years, perhaps since the previous century. The plastic twist cap would not come off. I tried hot water and gave it all the muscle I had, no luck. My husband was not home for consultation. I got out the vise grips thinking surely they would do the trick. I twisted the cap, feeling quite capable. But again no luck. Meanwhile, I had to take the pot with the water and sugar off the stove.

I did not want to have to drive to the grocery store for more corn syrup. So I got out a hammer and nail and pierced the plastic cap. Some progress here, but when I upended the bottle, it seemed the hole was so small, the syrup would not really flow. So I pounded some more holes in the cap, and at this point everything began to get sticky, my hands, the bottle, the tools. But still the syrup was not cooperating. Those holes were just too small. Really frustrated by now, I grabbed some needle nose pliers, inserted them in a hole and tore away to make the hole larger. Now the syrup did indeed flow faster, but still the volume was poor. One more tear with the pliers might do it. And indeed, this time when I twisted the pliers inside a hole, the whole cap turned and lo and behold, I was able to measure out one cup of the darned syrup. My battle was done.

After I washed all the tools, my hands, the sink, etc., the recipe proceeded well. I heated the mixture to the prescribed temperature of 295 degrees Fahrenheit and then poured it out onto a buttered tray. One hour later, I broke it into shards and there was a perfect pile of sunflower brittle, which I looked forward to sharing with friends at a social event the next day.

Sugar is an ingredient we all take very much for granted and perhaps forget is plant-based. Before writing this post, I turned to a favorite book, Green Immigrants: the Plants That Transformed America (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978) by Claire Shaver Haughton. Her chapter on sugar traces the spread of sugar from India to China, on to the West Indies and Mexico. During the 13th century, after his travels to China, Marco Polo wrote of sugar as one of the wonders of the world. Sugar plantation owners grew rich on the backs of slaves as their commodity became a much coveted luxury item the world over. In colonial America, sugar was sold in cones, a shape easy to store and ship. Eventually beet sugar became a more affordable and environmentally kinder sugar crop. The sugar industry became mechanized and here we are now in the 21st century, surrounded by food products utterly saturated in sugar and corn syrup.

All things in moderation, including moderation! My sweet tooth hopes there will always be a time and place for sugar. The sunflower brittle was a hit and I find myself daydreaming of other variations using almonds, dried fruits, etc. Hopefully next time the corn syrup will be more cooperative, my candy making a little less Lucy Ball-esque. Bon appetit!

photo by KAO : homemade sunflower seed brittle

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Pondering Weltschmerz

I have been going through some old notebooks and came across this passage I copied out from the novel, The Last Romantic (St. Martins, 1979) by Dorothea Buske:

Old Trude steeped them in music, giving them what Julia called "a background for the heart". No girl who sat in that room can ever hear Chopin or Liszt, Bach of Handel, without seeing again those square hands rising and falling, that massive head deeply nodding; and feeling, again, as they almost unwillingly felt it then, the response to a deeper, more significant emotion than was customary for them -- a poignancy alien to their station and their years, later identified as Weltschmerz.

Although it is perhaps a downbeat subject to pick for a blog post at the beginning of a new year, when actually I feel upbeat and renewed, "Weltschmerz" (pronounced velt-shmerts) is a word I haven't heard or seen much lately and thought it might bear closer examination. Wikipedia does a good job of defining the Germanic word as: world weariness or a sadness experienced when thinking about the evils of the world. Examples of its usage can be found on wordnik.com.

The tv series M.A.S.H. seems, at least to me, to be saturated in weltschmerz. In the midst of the Korean war, although there is a strong esprit de corps, the M.A.S.H. gang display an unmistakable world weariness. They deal with the evils of war on a daily basis. Their antidotes: a sense of gallows humor and the frequent use of alcoholic libations.

Another example that comes to mind is the cult film Koyaanisqatsi, an unforgettable tone poem of a film which vividly portrays our modern world as a place very much out of balance. The word "koyaanisqatsi" is a Hopi word meaning a crazy way of life that needs to be changed. Using a collage-like juxtaposition of beautiful natural scenes against modern horrors, combined with the haunting music of Philip Glass, for my vote, this film has to be one of the most thought-provoking, creative pieces of artwork in any genre.

Authors associated with weltschmerz include Herman Hesse, Lord Byron and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Road by Cormac McCarthy certainly delivered plenty of weltschmerz, and thus works well as a cautionary post-apocalyptic tale. I think of Joyce Carol Oates as a writer with plenty of melancholy discontent. If the thought of weltschmerz makes you blue with it overly pessimistic implications, at least take heart in that if we didn't feel down about some of the world's evil ways, we would be heartless. Where there is weltschmerz, does not empathy and compassion follow?

collage by KAO: Broken Labyrinth # 1, 2009