Monthly Archives: December 2009

Yesterday was a milestone in the long running battle I have been waging to find a satisfactory system for organizing my spices.  The history of this battle will probably not interest you, but I will share it anyway.

It begins with my realization, quite early in my cooking career, that the little bags or bottles in which spices are usually sold have almost no value as storage containers.  The bags are unsealed, continually falling over, inconvenient to handle, and difficult to sort through.  The little jars are sealable and stable, but they are too small for spoons and fingers, unstackable, and not easy to refill.

So, I invested in a number of plastic containers made for the purpose of holding spices.  They had a lid on each side: one for shaking and one for spoons.  They came in sets of twelve, and I bought two sets, so I had enough for what I wanted at the time.  I quickly realized, however, that these were too small for things like cinnamon sticks and whole nutmeg and had too small an opening for me to use my fingers, which is my preferred way of measuring.  There were soon also too few of them for my growing collection and I could not find any more of them.  There were other similar containers available, but they were unmatched, and I will confess that this disturbed the obsessive compulsive part of my personality to a completely unreasonable degree.

My next attempt, one that worked well enough for many years, was simply to use the little plastic containers from the bulk food stores where I was buying many of my spices anyway.  They had tops wide enough for even the biggest spoons and fingers.  They came in one cup, two cup, and four cup sizes.  They were stackable.  They were cheap.  There were also virtually infinite quantities of them, which was important as my collection approached a hundred spices and teas and other sundries.  I still had some reservations about them, however.  The seals were not great, so the spices tended to age too quickly, and they were not very strong, so the lids were always splitting and needing to be replaced.  Still, I had methods for dealing with any spices that really needed a strong seal, and the arrangement was quite functional.

This Christmas, however, my mother gave me several boxes of glass cannisters in two cup and four cup sizes.  The seals were very good.  The tops were a little narrower than the bulk store containers but still very functional.  I decided to make the shift.  Unfortunately, though she gave me more than a dozen of the large containers and several dozen of the small, these quantities did not even approach the needs of my collection.  So, I had her tell me where they had been purchased, and I called every outlet in the area, eventually finding a place that had enough stock for me to buy an entire  case of the larger canisters and three cases of the smaller ones.  I then spent the better part of yesterday afternoon transferring and labeling everything.  The results were much to my satisfaction.

The upper shelf has the four cup canisters, two deep and fifteen wide, and they hold the beans and nuts and dried fruit and whatnot.  The lower shelf has the two cup cannisters, three deep and two high and fifteen wide, and they hold the spices proper, loosely organized, with ground spices behind their whole counterparts and the less frequently used items well at the back.  The shelf to the side has my twenty odd teas and infusions.  There is even, in reserve, a whole case of the two cup cannisters in the basement, to account for breakage and additions to the collection. Everything is in its place, and there is a place for everything.

I am well pleased.

I was reflecting on this past semester and regretting that I was unable to host the class at my house for a party afterward, when I began to recall the occasions when I was myself  invited as  a student into the homes of my teachers and professors.   In university, I can remember attending  a few post-course parties at the home of Daniel Fischlin and Martha Nandorfy.  I have also had coffee at the home of several of my professors, including Kenneth Graham and Michael Keefer and others whose names now escape me.  I even had one professor, one of those names that I cannot now remember, who conducted one of her classes in her home.  There were many other occasions when I met with my professors socially in more or less public venues, of course, but there were only these very few when I was invited to meet with them in their homes, and these few remain significant to me even today.

As I was thinking about these things, I remembered suddenly an earlier time, almost certainly the first such time, when my highschool Latin class was invited to a Saturnalia party at the home of our teacher, Magistra Bell.   I had taken her class almost by mistake, mostly because it was not French, which still seems like very good reasoning to me these many years later.  I soon discovered that I quite enjoyed Latin, however, not the subject per se, though it was far better than French, but the class itself, the way it was taught, the way that I found myself learning in it. At the time, I would have identified this enjoyment as a product of Magistra Bell’s academic accomplishments.  She had her doctorate, which was not very common among my highschool teachers, and she had published several books in her subject area, including the second unit of our curriculum, the Cambridge Latin Course, and two collections of Latin literature, Amor et Amicitia and Imperium et Civitas.  I have since had the misfortune, however, of encountering many people who, despite any number of degrees and publications, are completely inept as teachers, and I would say now that Magistra Bell’s success as a teacher came from something else entirely, from the same attitude towards her students that motivated her to invite them into her home when no other teachers would.

It was not that there was anything magical about this invitation, of course.  Merely inviting students to your home will not make you a good teacher, and not all good teachers are able to invite their students into their home in this way.  Rather, it is the attitude that this kind of invitation reveals that is significant, an attitude that respects students, as Magistra Bell did, not as peers in knowledge, which could only be a false and unproductive respect, but as peers in learning, as fellow learners who were beginning on the same journey that she was still following, even if she had progressed much further along it.  This kind of respect does not minimize the greater knowledge and experience that the teacher brings to the process of learning, but neither does it assume that this knowledge and experience makes the teacher essentially different from the learner.  Rather, it understands both teacher and learner to be performing the same function, though at different stages and in different ways.

The result of this respect, of this understanding, is that the distinction between teacher and student is no longer of the kind that should prevent them from interacting with each other in ways that go beyond a formal and hierarchical relationship.  While there is a level of respect that will always remain, the relationship between teacher and student becomes of a kind that is open to a certain intimacy and informality, becomes of a kind that is able to offer and receive an invitation, even an invitation to the home.

This way of relating to students is not without risk, certainly, but it is a risk justified by tremendous value.  I recall vividly walking into Magistra Bell’s house, and I recollect, perhaps falsely now, that there were bookshelves that she had built and window coverings that she had woven and pottery that she had thrown, and I remember the books, the many books, and all of this produced in me an impression of someone who was learning and growing and doing things herself, quite apart from the role in which I saw her every day.  Her invitation to me, to come to know her beyond the classroom, even in such a small way, was a real gift, a gift of a sort that had never been offered to me before and has very seldom been offered since.

All of which is to say that I owe Magistra Bell a considerable debt, and that I have now recalled it, and that I hope in the future to repay it by offering the same gift to my own students in turn.

I generally try to make Christmas presents for my kids.  Last year I made them  a set of blocks designed to build castles, and this year I made them wooden shields, with wolves for my eldest, whose middle name means “young wolf”, and hawks for my youngest, whose first name is also the name for a species of small hawk.  They are about two feet by two feet in size and quite heavy, and they came with wooden swords made by the young entrepreneur that I mentioned some time ago, so they would actually be dangerous if I were to let the boys use them as toys, but they are intended instead to hang on the wall as their own personal coats of arms, something that symbolically ties them to our family.

The colours of their shields and the pattern of three animals come from my mother’s Gordon coat of arms, from my father’s Hill coat of arms, and from my wife’s James coat of arms, and the chevron comes from the latter two, so the boys’ personal symbols are integrated into the symbolism of their parents’ families.  Of course, anyone who takes heraldry seriously would be horrified at this kind of unsanctioned alteration of official heraldic devices, but I am less interested in having the shields be authentic than I am in having them be personal and familial.  I want them to be a symbol to my children that, though they are unique and irreplaceable, they are also always a part of a family and a tradition that can give them a place to belong.

This is the gift that I hope they are receiving this Christmas.

As should be clear by now, the space of the home is a subject that is of great concern for me, so I was sincerely pleased to learn that my friend, whom some of you will know as TC from her comments on this site, has begun a blog of short quotations and photos and reflections on the meaning of home.  TC’s comments have often caused me to think differently and more deeply through the idea of home over the past two years or so, and two of her book recommendations, George Perec‘s Species of Spaces and Gaston Bachelard‘s The Poetics of Space, have become a significant part of my personal canon, so I will enjoy the opportunity to read her in the coming months, and I think many of you will as well.

James Shelly posted yesterday on the “greening” of capitalism, and he suggested that we should perhaps replace the idea of smart growth with the idea of smart decline.  This was the first time that I had heard the phrase “smart decline” myself, though it seems already to be in use, particularly by some urban planners, who are using it to describe practises that allow cities to cope with shrinking populations and tax bases.  This kind of usage has to do with managing decline, however, whereas James’ usage has to do with encouraging decline, not in every respect, but in strategic ways, in order to live more responsibly, and it is related to what I have written on doing with and doing without.  It is at odds, therefore, with a green economy that still has growth as its goal, that still understands success as growing production and growing consumption.  It proposes an economy that is willing and even purposing to grow smaller and less consumptive and less productive and sometimes also less technological in order that it be more responsible.

This means, I think, that the choice between whether to do with or to do without becomes weighted heavily in favour of doing without, or at least in favour of doing with much less.  When the choice is to produce or to consume something, an economy of smart decline always chooses to do without it unless there are compelling social and ethical reasons do with it.  It assumes that it is always better to produce and consume and dispose less unless otherwise proven.

Let me give a fairly banal example: whether to do with or without a dishwasher.  Standard green economics says, “Buy an energy efficient and low-water dishwasher.  They use less water than doing dishes by hand.  They are therefore environmentally friendly.  We even have cool logos that say so.  If you buy one, you will be both energy efficient and environmentally aware.  All of your friends will be jealous because you are enviro-hip and because you also have a nice new toy.  You get the best of all worlds.  Consuming green makes you green.”  This is smart growth.  We keep the economy churning, keep producing and consuming, all under the sanctifying label of environmentalism.

Another approach is possible, however, one that might say, “Yes, an energy efficient dishwasher is better than an energy guzzling dishwasher, and it is certainly better when a dishwasher is absolutely required.  Yes, it may even use less water per wash than doing dishes by hand, but washing dishes by hand does not require the huge amounts of input materials and energy that a dishwasher does, and it does not eventually break and result in massive chunks of non-biodegradable waste, and it does not cost the household several hundred dollars to purchase, and it does not alienate the household from its own labour.  Washing dishes by hand may take more time and labour, perhaps, but not much more, and it is time and labour spent in the home rather than spent away in the office in order to pay for a dishwasher.”  This is smart decline.  It both consumes and produces less, wresting time and labour from the workplace and returning it to the home and the community.  It does not understand environmentalism as a product to be purchased like a designer label, but as a lifestyle to be lived, even if it does sometimes require that different products be purchased in different ways.

Of course, if everyone began to live like this, the effect on the economy would be staggering.  There would likely be a massive loss of manufacturing jobs and an equally massive increase in manual labour jobs.  Especially during the period when this shift was occurring, there would be tremendous unemployment and economic hardship.  There would be a shift in the remaining manufacturers toward simpler products that were easier to maintain and repair and retrofit.  There would be much larger local barter and grey market economies.  There would be a return of the repair shop, of the salvage shop, of the used good shop.  There would be an increase in parents who worked in the home some or all of the time.  There would be a resurgence of practical education, in home repair and sewing and cooking and gardening.

Unfortunately, at least in my opinion, we are not ever likely to see such a systemic shift to an economy of smart decline.  Our long standing economic patterns have produced a culture that is too invested in a particular notion of growth ever to change voluntarily.  I do think, however, that there may come a time, and perhaps not too far into the future, when this decline will be imposed on us, and not in a controlled or gradual way, but in sudden and violent economic shocks, as debt ridden national economies and diminishing resources increasingly disrupt traditional capitalist economies.  It is not possible for the world economy to grow indefinately.  The resources simply do not exist.  One way or another, at one point or another, we will find ourselves in an economy of decline, and maybe it is best to get used to the idea now.

I am walking through a library, vast and silent. It is coiled and intertwined, and I know with the knowing of dreams that it is also a carefully carpentered brain. Every room is up or down a few stairs or at the end of a short hallway. One always leads to another. Some are broad and brightly lit, and others are narrow, almost passageways themselves, and they are dimly lit, full of secret things. There is no end to them, and they all are filled with books.

My feet are making no sound, and I see that there are deep rugs everywhere. I see also that there are piles of books on the floor in front of every shelf, and I know that I have been piling them, working my way through the library, shelf by shelf, according to a system that I do not recognize, even as I follow it. I am running my fingers over the spine of each book, not missing one, and I am piling on the floor each that I would bring with me, each that I would bring out of that vast library and into my own. The books in the piles number in the thousands now, I know, number in the many thousands, but I keep piling them, though I am always remembering, in the strange logic of dreams, that I have no space for them on my own shelves.

So, as I mentioned last month, there will be no Dinner and a Doc this Saturday.  Instead, it had been my plan to send my children off with one relative or another so that I could have my traditional Christmas baking day with my wife.  I was also going to set up the projector this year, so that we could watch movies together as we worked.  I initially proposed an Alfred Hitchcock marathon.  My wife demurred.  She counter-proposed a foodie-movie marathon.  I accepted, and I was intending to post a request for people to recommend their favourite foodie-movies.  Everything was planned.

Unfortunately, life, or the Christmas season rather, has intervened.  It seems that we will be hosting an annual gathering of friends this year, and this Saturday is really the only day that will work for it, and there are no other open Saturdays between now and when the Christmas baking will be needed, so the annual Christmas baking day has become something like an extended Christmas baking week, where we are making this and that whenever we find a few minutes.  It is not exactly what I had planned, or not at all in fact, but it has been something good even so.  It has allowed us to enjoy the baking at a slower pace and over a longer time, and it has also opened opportunities for friends to do some of the baking with us.  I was not tradition perhaps, but it did what the tradition was intended nevertheless.

Of course, this does not mean that those foodie-movies will not get watched someday, so feel free to recommend them anyway.

Also, for those who are wondering, here is the upcoming schedule for Dinner and a Doc:

January 9th – The Price of Sugar by Bill Haney
February 13th – Lost in La Mancha by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe
Match 13th – Man or Aran by Robert Flaherty

Learning requires failure.

In order to learn, it is necessary that we come to a place where we fail, where are be confronted by our failure, so that we will be forced to learn, before anything else, how to learn, because it is precisely when we fail that we are forced to go beyond ourselves to our teachers and our mentors and our peers and our resources and our technologies, and it is then that we can begin to learn.  If we are never allowed to fail, we will never learn how to learn.  Failure drives learning.  Learning requires failure.

Let me give you an example.  Something like twelve years ago, I decided that I wanted to learn how to make pie pastry.  I had tried to make it more than once, and I had observed my mother making it any number of times, but none of my attempts had been terribly successful, and I wanted to learn to do it properly.  I found several recipes.  I compared them.  I tried them.  In every case, there was something not working quite right.  The results were edible, but the dough was never very workable.  The process was frustrating.  The product was unattractive.  I was failing.

So I decided to go to a master: my paternal grandmother, who made two pies every weekday for many years of her life.  She lives on Manitoulin Island, and the next time I was there I had her lead me through her process.  I did exactly what she did, side by side, every step of the way, and somehow hers worked and mine still failed.  The consistency of her dough was perfect.  She could flip it over, fold it into sixes, and cut designs in it, then unfold it onto the pie like a work of art.  The consistency of my dough was at first too dry and then, after a little water was added, too moist.  I could get it into the pans, and it tasted fine, but it was certainly nothing to take to the county fair.

I despaired, but I persisted, and I experimented with every recipe I could find: with shortening or with lard, with egg or without, a dash of vinegar or not, less water or more, one temperature or another.  I failed and I succeeded, to one degree or another, time after time, and I began to find something that worked for me, though it is not something that will likely work for you.  There was no single secret.  There was only trying one thing or another, watching one person or another, and practicing, much practicing, so that I can now fold my dough into sixes and cut designs in it, though I rarely bother.

This is not the end of things, however, because learning by failing never really ends.  The other day I saw a cherry pie with the thickest, most unbelievable double-crust, so I talked to the woman who had made it.  She explained how she cuts the top crust about an inch too wide, so that there is a healthy bit overhanging the whole of the pie.  Then she tucks the overhanging pastry under the edge of the bottom crust, so that the edge is now three layers thick, and she squeezes these layers together to form her crust.

Of course, I should hardly have to say by now that I needed to try this technique for myself.  I should also hardly have to say that I failed.  Tucking the top pastry under the bottom was a little more delicate than I thought, and my first attempt could only have been called, even with all possible sensitivity, misshapen.  The second was much better, and future attempts should only improve as I get practice.

This is how learning works.  It works through failure.

My sons have had a disappointing fall for exactly the same reason that everyone else has had such an enjoyable one: there has been no snow. There have been some false alarms, of course, when they woke in the morning to see a skiff of whiteness on the grass, rushed excitedly through their morning routines, and ran into the backyard, only to find that no amount of effort would produce snowmen or even snowballs from the tissue deep snow that was melting around them even as they tried. There was great suffering on those days.

This morning, however, this lovely morning, when most of southern Ontario rose dejectedly to the reality of another winter, when commuters everywhere cursed the first car cleaning and driveway shoveling of the year, my sons were elated. At last there was snow, real snow, snow enough, and packing snow besides, and their was nothing short of jubilation in the house. I could hardly get them to eat breakfast, so worried were they that everything would melt again before the had a chance to pile it, roll it, build it, and throw it, but the wait only served to increase their already heady degree of anticipation.

They built a snowman, or rather, I built a snowman under their very close supervision, and they stuck its head full of sticks and leaves and assorted vegetation. They made snowballs, hundreds of them, and peppered the front wall of our porch, which was made to play the roles, one after the other, but in close succession, of pirates, bad-guy-knights, and Darth Vader. They rolled down the hill until the snow, only a degree or so above melting, had soaked through every layer I had put on them. They were cold and wet and entirely fulfilled.

What is more, they distracted me from the December ritual of marking papers long enough to play with them, and I found that maybe I still like the first snow of the year more than I thought I did, and that maybe I can still find some pleasure in building snowmen and throwing snowballs, even if rolling down the hill is now beyond me. Of course, my recovered sense of joy in the snow might have something to do with the fact that I had no car to clean this morning and that I have still not shoveled the driveway, but it was a joy nevertheless, whatever the reasons.

Frederick Buechner‘s The Sacred Journey is a spiritual autobiography in the tradition that runs through English literature from John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy, and it is not an unworthy addition to the genre.  Like all the best examples of this tradition, its narrative is reflective and anecdotal, never fearing to take a philosophical or meditative aside, and it is in these asides that its most significant moments are found.

For example, after describing a particularly memorable summer from his childhood, Buechner begins to reflect on the nature of things that have been but no longer are.  “Summers end, to be sure,” he says, “and when the sun finally burns out like a match, they will end permanently; but be that as it may, it can never be otherwise than that there was a time when summers were.”   Buechner is suggesting here that there is something unique and irreplaceable about the things that have been, even though they no longer are, something that is defined precisely by having been.  Though things must certainly pass away from the present and from being, they thereby pass into a state of having been, a state that can never pass away.  He articulates this idea more explicitly a little further on, saying, “Once a moment has come into being, its having-beeness is beyond any power in heaven or earth, in life or death, to touch,”  and he argues that “everything that ever was will continue eternally to be what has been – a part of the wholeness and truth of eternity itself.”

This sense of what has been as irreplaceable reminds me very strongly of G. K. Chesterton’s Napoleon of Notting Hill, where Adam Wayne, the protagonist, defends his love for Notting Hill in much the same terms. “Notting Hill has fallen,” he says, “Notting Hill has died.  But that is not the tremendous issue. Notting Hill has lived.” “There has never been anything in the world absolutely like Notting Hill.  There will never be anything quite like it to the crack of doom.  I cannot believe anything but that God loved it as much as he must surely love anything that is itself and irreplaceable.  But even for that I do not care.  If God, with all His thunders, hated it, I loved it.”

Both Chesterton and Buechner are suggesting something quite profound here, I think: that the past is valuable, not merely because it has formed the present, and not merely because it may keep us from repeating our mistakes in the future,  but simply because it was what it was and is therefore an inextricable part, as Buechner says, of the wholeness and truth of eternity.  This moment now, which will soon have been, is irreplaceable.  It will have been for all eternity what it is now, and this perhaps changes how we should live it, how we should experience it.

Perhaps this idea also changes how we should read Buechner’s very text, how we should understand his entire project.  Perhaps we need to understand it, not as a spiritual autobiography at all, not properly speaking, but as a recollection of the things that were, as a recollection of the things that will always have been, for and through Buechner, a part of the wholeness and truth of eternity.