Monthly Archives: January 2010

A friend of mine invited me over to look through some books this afternoon.  Her father, who recently passed away, was an avid collector of many things, including stamps and coins and plates and fossils and shells and rocks, but most of all books, rooms of books and rooms of books and a garage of books and a basement of books, certainly in the thousands of books.   My friend is trying to clean out the house, and she will be taking many of these books to a charity sale at some point, but she asked me and some of her other friends over to have a glass of bourbon, which was poured from one of her father’s many collectible bourbon bottles, and to take what we wanted from his book collection.

As I expected from what I knew of my friend’s father, much of the collection was not really to my taste.  There were boxes and boxes and shelves and shelves of trash war novels, cheap thrillers, biographies, science textbooks, old field guides, histories of the English royal family, and so on.  I did make a few worthwhile discoveries however.  There was a whole section of illustrators in which I found a book dedicated to the work of Howard Pyle, the artist and author that I recently discovered and enjoyed so much.  I also took from this section a number of books illustrated by Gustave Dore, who is one of my favourite artists: Perrault’s Fairy Tales; London: A Pilgrimage; Illustrations for Don Quixote; Illustrations for Rabelais; Illustrations for the Bible; Fables of La Fontaine; and The Divine Comedy.

I also found a section of books for children, all in hardcover and beautifully illustrated, from which I took Howard Pyle’s Pepper and Salt, Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Hugh Lofting’s The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle and Doctor Dolittle’s Caravan, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Father Christmas Letters.

The rest of my finds included books by Desmond Morris, Robert A. Heinlein, Rudyard Kipling, Farley Mowat, Simone de Beauvoir, Goethe, Mark Twain, Pearl S. Buck, Norman Mailer, Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, Mordecai Richler, and E.J. Pratt, among others, an incongruous group of authors that the other book-hunters were usually more than willing to let me claim.

Of course, in any sizable collection of used books there will be at least a few of those impromptu bookmarks that so inexplicably amuse me, and this one was no exception.  I discovered two sets of drying wildflowers, left to press who knows how long ago and then forgotten, a flattened bit of cigarette foil, some torn tissue paper, a slip of notepaper with math sums on one side and a doodle on the other, a newspaper clipping about Richard Adams, “Watership Makes a Memorable Saga” by Sandra Hunter, and three newspaper clippings about Farley Mowat:  “The Perfect Writer to Plead for Great Whales” by Kildare Dobbs; “Peace on Earth, Good Will” by Gale Garnett; and “The Tragic Parable of Mowat’s Whale” by William French.

The bourbon was also good.

Here is a story that I have been writing over the last few weeks, though bits of it are far older than that.  It is long for this medium, very long, so those who would prefer to read it offline can avail themselves of this printable file.

Mister Laurence Bailey

At exactly noon, on a Saturday in October, Mister Laurence Bailey began slowly to ascend into heaven.

He had been standing where he always stood on a Saturday morning, in the little courtyard between the farmer’s market and the railroad overpass, across from the rows of bicycle racks, a place that had become his own by common consent of the people who passed him each week, though the place itself had changed around him over the years, particularly when a now forgotten session of the city council, quite ignorant of Mister Laurence Bailey and of the material effects that their decision would have on him, tendered a contract to beautify Norfolk Street, which ran along the west side of the market, including Mister Bailey’s courtyard in its sidewalk, and then led under the railroad overpass, where the beautification project’s first phase ended, not to be followed by a second phase until several years had passed and until a sudden downturn in the economy prompted a national stimulus program that made funds available to municipalities for just such infrastructure projects. This was called putting tax dollars to work, even though the tax dollars being collected did not remotely cover these funds, but before the stimulus dollars went to work, the municipal taxes had done a little work of their own, widening the sidewalks, and adding new trees to the boulevards, and replacing the old wooden light posts with tall new metal ones that had decorative metalwork hanging from them in the shape of the city’s crest. These changes, which forced Mister Bailey away from his regular place for several months, were the only interruption to his weekly routine that anyone could remember, though he seemed himself unperturbed by the disruption, keeping right on with his business a few hundred feet down the sidewalk until he was able to return to his regular courtyard, which was now, at least according to some municipal office’s understanding of urban landscape design, slightly more beautiful.

On the Saturday that he began to drift skyward, Mister Bailey, or Bailey-o, as he was most commonly known, especially among his market customers and among his friends at the local drop-in, was in his courtyard, across from the bicycles, and he was leaning over the writing stand that he had constructed from an old wooden wagon that had once been red and was now an indeterminate weathered-grey with flecks of its original colour, like glitter, glistening here and there. In the middle of this wagon there stood a heavy wooden lectern, the former property, it could only be assumed, of a church hall or of a university classroom, dating from a time when lecterns were not only more commonly used in these places but were also of much greater significance, reflecting so essentially on the honour and the dignity of the speakers who stood behind them that they warranted an honour and a dignity of their own. This particular specimen was carved in ornate patterns of vines and flowers along its upper and lower edges, and its support had been finely turned from a single piece of oak that was something like ten inches across at its widest points, so it retained a kind of august solidity despite its many dents and its peeling varnish and its rather undignified means of transportation. Unlike the wagon, however, its wood was not weathered, a distinction due to a quite massive umbrella that was clamped to its upper edge, an umbrella so large and so productive of lift in windy weather that it required an object of no less weight than its ancient and ponderous lectern to keep it from flying into the heavens. In fact, the battle between the force of gravity operating on the lectern and the force of lift operating on the umbrella became, at times, so fierce that the umbrella itself was a casualty, and Baily-o had long ago learned to keep a spare or two in the bottom of his wagon, though where he was able to find a steady supply of umbrellas in so a vast size no one was quite sure.

However he got them, at least one of these umbrellas went with Baily-o everywhere, even in the best of weather, and even between Saturdays, when his wagon and lectern were left behind, wherever it was that he found space to store them, which was a subject of some discussion among Baily-o’s adherents. What was certain was that he did not keep the wagon and its contents under the bridge where he most often slept, nor at any of the houses where he was known to go when weather drove him indoors, but nothing else definite could be discovered. Though there were those who kept him company on his way back from the market to shed light on just this mystery, and though there were even those who followed him secretly at a distance to surprise him in the act of hiding his things away, they all reported that the wagon stayed with Baily-o for hours at a time, or perhaps only for a few minutes, but in every case, until the exact moment when the onlookers were distracted, and then it disappeared, wherever he happened to be just then, and this was accounted as merely one more sign that Baily-o was made of slightly more than common stuff.

Even when the wagon had disappeared, however, the umbrella remained, though it was infrequently opened even when the rain was at its worst. It rested most often on Baily-o’s shoulder, its great length reaching a few feet over his head, making him seem like a soldier parading with a spear, which had at first caused him no little conflict with the police, who maintained, perhaps with some cause, that the umbrella was far larger than any one man could need for any purpose except that of a weapon, and they had confiscated a dozen or so of them before it became obvious that Baily-o was not really a threat to public safety and not at all worth the effort to disarm, though the confiscated umbrellas were never returned, which was a sore point among some of Baily-o’s disciples, even if their master himself did not seem much concerned about it, but then, Bailey-o did not seem much concerned even that he had disciples.

It was these very disciples, who would perhaps be better called adherents, or even hangers-on, since Baily-o was never seen to encourage them even in the smallest degree, who first saw his feet leave the ground on the Saturday in question. There were four of these hangers-on gathered around the public bench behind Bailey-o’s wagon, across from the bicycle racks, one of them actually sitting on the bench, and the others standing near it or leaning on it, and it was one of those who was leaning who first noticed the growing space between Bailey-o’s shoes and the sidewalk. His name was Jackie,which was his given name, not his nick-name, and he had spent the greater part of his life struggling with having what he considered a feminine name, introducing himself to everyone as “Jack, not Jackie, just Jack,” so that everyone now called him Not-Jackie-just-Jack, which seemed both to please and infuriate him in equal measure.

When Not-Jackie-just-Jack realized that something strange was happening to Bailey-o’s relationship with gravity, something that defied all of the admittedly few laws of nature and probability that were known to him, he began instinctively to alert his fellow hangers-on, but his mouth was just at that moment filled with one of the delicious breakfast sandwiches from the cafe at the far end of the market, sandwiches that were justly famous among the market’s patrons for their freshly fried eggs and back bacon. This cafe, besides serving these sandwiches, was also the only place in the market that sold brewed coffee, organic and fairly traded and available in ceramic mugs that could be borrowed and returned so that coffee drinkers could avoid using a paper cup, all of which was to be expected given the market’s peculiar demographic, so the cafe sometimes attracted large lineups of customers waiting for their morally impeccable coffees and their gastronomically depraved sandwiches, a wait that Not-Jackie-just-Jack had endured only moments before, causing him to be very hungry indeed by the time that he got his sandwich. This was why he was eating just a little too quickly as he saw Baily-o begin his skyward drift, and so his attempts at speech were muffled by a mouth that was far too full, and he choked on a bit of bacon in his haste, and he ended up saying nothing at all, but only spewing the better part of his sandwich onto the ground and then falling into a fit of coughing that, far from drawing the eyes of his companions to the ascending Bailey-o, succeeded only in fixing their attention, and their ridicule, on his convulsive gasps and wheezes.

None of this commotion seemed to distract Bailey-o, however, who remained bent over his work, even as his feet became separated from the ground by several inches, and it had as little effect on his clients, who stood in a line, much smaller than that of the cafe, a line of only three or four, waiting for the greeting cards that Bailey-o wrote and drew and otherwise produced by hand, the business that had occupied him each Saturday morning, and only on Saturday mornings, for well more than a decade, during which time he had created thousands of these cards and given rise to the countless miraculous stories that were the source both of his fame and of the small clutch of devotees, choking or laughing, largely ignored, who sat on the bench behind him.

The cards appeared insignificant enough, not only at first glance but at any glance, being handwritten in an overly elaborate script that many of his clients, but only those who did not know any better, described as calligraphy, and being formed from card stock in a mottled colour that would have been called off-white if the package did not specify clearly that its proper name was “Parchment”. The text of the card, which Bailey-o did not allow his clients to supply, restricting their input to the name of the person to whom the card was to be addressed and the occasion on which it was to be given, was most often merely a bit of folk wisdom, a common saying, a message from a fortune cookie, a quotation from the more popular sorts of spiritual writers, or a passage from one of several sacred scriptures: “He who hurries cannot walk with dignity,” one might say, or “Kind words make kind echoes,” or “Love covers a multitude of sins,” or “Shallow brooks are noisy while still waters run deep,” and so on, never straying far from cliche and aphorism, and never seeming to be anything more than the work of a very amateur artist, even if they were also decorated with little cartoons and line drawings that remained, as far as anyone else could tell, entirely unrelated to the text of the card, which was itself most often entirely unrelated to the occasion on which it was to be presented.

Even so, there must have been a few people, at least in the beginning, who bought Bailey-o’s cards without expecting them to be anything more than cards, out of pity, perhaps, or novelty, or laziness, or any of the other reasons that people do things that they might not otherwise do, and some of these people, only a few at first, but then more and more as it became a phenomenon and everyone wanted to play a part, began to attribute the most extraordinary happenings, impossibly but also unavoidably, to the cards themselves.

One early story, perhaps the earliest, though these things are always difficult to determine so far after the fact, was told by a woman named Josephine, a public school teacher incidentally, though this fact does not bear materially on the story, who had bought a card from Bailey-o as a Birthday gift for her father, with whom she had only a very strained relationship, on his birthday. The card read, “Happy Birthday John Snider,” for that was the name of the woman’s father, “Where one race finishes is where another race begins,” and it had an orb that looked something like a sun drawn in the top left corner corner and a very little man, drawn in the bottom right corner,with an exceedingly long beard that intertwined with some of the letters in a jumbled and confusing way, which was not, you must admit, the sort of thing that might be expected to cause a miracle, not of any sort. Yet, immediately upon receiving the card, John Snider, long known both for his grim determination in keeping his grudges and for his mangled right hand, the result of an old industrial accident, burst into tears, begged his daughter’s forgiveness for years of mistreatment, embraced her warmly, and discovered, immediately upon releasing her, that his mangled hand was now as whole as it had been before it was injured some thirty years before, not even suffering from the arthritis that plagued the rest of his body.

Another story, from a slightly later time, as far as these things can be determined, concerned a young man named Al,sometimes known as Alley-Cat, or sometimes, to distinguish him from some other possible Al, as Al-with-the-big-hair, who had made himself a reputation as a jack of all petty thievery and shady dealing. According to Al himself, he had received one of Bailey-o’s cards anonymously, or found it, actually, lying on his diningroom table, at which there had never been any actual dining since it had come into Al’s possession through means that he did not now quite remember. He had been unsure even that the card was intended for him, since it did not include his name, reading only, “Think like a man of action; act like a man of thought,” and it had a chain of strange little animals, like monstrous pets, drawn around its edges. Al, never one to cry, remained entirely dry-eyed, but the experience still clearly moved him, as he said himself, “It was like my soul got a good kick in the balls,”and he promptly went out and began trying to make amends with the multitude of people that he had swindled, robbed, cheated, fleeced, and otherwise victimized over the years, returning stolen items, confessing to an astonishing number of petty crimes, finding himself a straight job with a local stone mason, and even beating, without a single sign of withdrawal, his small but growing crack habit, though he still smoked better than a pack of cigarettes a day and saw no reason to do without an occasional joint, but only when he was under too much stress, for example, or at the end of a long day, or when he was having some friends over, but not more than, you know, eight or ten times a week.

When these kinds of stories began to spread, slowly, to be sure, but steadily, Bailey-o’s courtyard began to fill in proportion, more and more, Saturday by Saturday, as people came looking for a card that would change, if not their lives, at least a particular circumstance, paying their dollars for “Parchment” card stock that told them only,”Respect ends when you stop giving it,” or “Counting time is not as important as making time count,” or “You cannot teach a wolf how to live in the forest,” but that held the hope of something miraculous, even if the hope was mostly, as they soon found, vain. Much more quickly than the original rumours of the miraculous cards had spread, it also became widely known that the cards could not be coerced, that they granted their miracles in whatever way they would, or not at all, and that they rarely, perhaps never, granted the miracle that had driven the buyer to Bailey-o’s cart in the first place.

One story that began to be told about this time, testifying to the unpredictable nature of the card-granted miracles, was about an elderly woman whose son had been struck by a car and, though living, was no longer able even to recognize his own mother, so the woman had gone to Bailey-o and asked him to draw a card for her son, hoping desperately that a miracle might return her child to his senses, but when she placed the card in her son’s hands, and when she then read it to him herself, “Nothing is impossible to a willing heart,” he remained exactly as he was, only a light like a halo appeared around him, and he began to speak in a language that neither the woman nor anyone else could identify, continuing day and night, an indecipherable oracle, even while his mother changed his diapers and tried to feed him through the unceasing movement of his lips.

This story, and others like it, strange and incomprehensible, reduced Bailey-o’s business considerably, by all accounts, but they did not entirely deter the desperate and the curious, so he still sold enough cards to cover his needs, which were by no means great, and he still maintained a certain notoriety in the city, especially in the drop-ins and food banks, where he was a regular patron but also a regular volunteer, and where he was a great favourite, especially with the older women and with the socially awkward of either gender, to whom he merely listened, hour after hour, saying nothing very much at all, except perhaps, when something seemed to be expected of him, he might offer one of his aphorisms, saying to an elderly pensioner, without any particular relevance to her complaint, “A wise man accomplishes his goals without the love of violence,” or to a recovering addict, again with little obvious reason, “Goodness is a flame that can never be extinguished,” and those who were listening to him would nod, feeling that some great wisdom had been imparted, and would discover, sometimes, that something had changed in them, something that was, if not exactly miraculous, then at least not insignificant.

Some of those who spoke with Bailey-o in this way, not the hangers-on but the lovers-of, went so far as to suggest that it was not what he said or wrote that was miraculous at all, claiming that he granted the miracles, unwittingly to be sure, merely by his attention, that the wonders and marvels were only the outward signs of his inward care, and that Bailey-o’s true difference from his fellow creatures lay in his miraculous capacity to care, though they admitted that the full extent of this care was not necessarily evident to the casual observer, to whom he appeared only to be writing cards and offering a listening ear, but they maintained, against any opposition, and there were plenty of unbelievers, that his cards were the signs of an almost supernatural love for his fellow man

It is unfortunate, perhaps, that none of these believers were present when Bailey-o actually began his heavenward ascent, for they at least would have recognized it for what it was, as an ascension into heaven, justly granted by whatever gods ruled over such things, and would have behaved with the proper decorum: kneeling, raising their arms to heaven, weeping in loss and in gratitude, and offering the other gestures that these kinds of occasions might be supposed to require. In the event, however, there were only Bailey-o’s hangers-on present, otherwise distracted, and a small line of customers, the usual assortment of the curious and the forlorn, and Bailey-o himself, who was leaning over his lectern, writing what would be his last card, an elaborate piece that had been commissioned by a tall man in cowboy boots and black jeans and a baggy sweater, a local of no fixed address for whom Bailey-o made a card almost every week, a man who was locally known as Cockroach Boots or just Boots, a name that he wore with a great deal of dignity, since it referred to his most prized possession. Boots, who loved nothing better than the opportunity to display his cowhide footwear, continually putting them up on chairs and benches at the drop-in or in the local coffee shops, was standing with one foot conspicuously apart from his body, the black denim of his pants tucked neatly into the top of his beloved boots, and he was looking in the direction of these boots, both to admire them and to signal to others that there was something there to be admired, when he saw another set of feet, not so far from his own, hovering a few inches above the ground, and he became, not the first to see Bailey-o’s ascent, this distinction belonging to someone who was coughing too violently to take much pleasure from it at the moment, but the first to exclaim about it, calling out, more awed than excited,”Holy crap, man. You’re flying.”

Bailey-o ignored Boots altogether, only grabbing the lectern with his left hand and leaning himself forward so that he could keep writing, even as his feet kept rising, until his body was almost parallel to the ground, his right hand busily writing his last card, while everyone else in the area, alerted by Boot’s exclamation, was looking on by now, pointing and talking excitedly, and edging closer, though too frightened yet to approach the phenomenon closely. Even Boots, who was closest, had not dared to touch Bailey-o, but when the writer’s feet had actually risen above his head, so that he looked to be working on the card while balanced precariously on the lectern by a single hand, Boots could restrain himself no longer, and he stepped forward, or dashed perhaps, and he clasped Bailey-o by the shoulders, holding him there for a moment, his feet now much higher than his head, looking like some kind of circus performer, balancing on one hand and writing with the other. Bailey hung like this for several seconds, and then he set the pen aside and offered the newly finished card to Boots, who let go, instinctively, of Mister Laurence Bailey’s shoulders to take it, and then gave a little cry of shock as the other man, entirely free now of the earth that had bound him every previous second of his life, drifted ever higher and then disappeared.

Those who had witnessed the event, among them the hangers-on, still gathered around the bench, but now no longer choking or laughing, lapsed into a great silence, and it seemed to them all that Boots, standing beside Bailey-o’s wagon and holding the last artifact of Bailey-o’s pen, was somehow meant to preside over what would happen next, a feeling that even Boots himself sensed strongly, and so he opened the last card, which seemed the thing to do, and he read aloud the last message, which said only, but absolutely, “Love one another.”

I have this idea.  It may or not be original, and it may or may not even be viable, but I have it, so here it is.

I want to apply the principles of microcredit to the problem of affordable housing, which is a significant issue here in Guelph, and make loans available for people to convert their basements or attics or other spaces into legal apartments that would be set aside to be affordable housing.  The loans would have no fixed repayment term, but the owner of the house would agree to rent the apartment at rates within affordable housing allowances and would also agree to have the full amount of this rent be applied to repay the loan until the full loan plus an additional amount, perhaps ten or fifteen percent, has been repaid.  This money could then be used to finance future projects.

There would also be an expectation that the owner of the house would not just provide an apartment for those in need of affordable housing but would also provide community and social support to those who are renting, in whatever form this might need to take, whether helping new immigrants negotiate the governmental and legal system, or driving the physically disabled to their medical appointments, or visiting with the elderly, or providing childcare for a single parent, or whatever.  Ideally, the owners and renters would even eat together regularly and share some of the tasks of the house.

The loans would probably be provided by a non-profit group like a church or like Habitat for Humanity, but it might also be possible to do this through private means.

I see the following benefits of this approach:

1.  It provides affordable housing outside of government housing projects that, even in the best cases, turn into ghettos.

2.  It provides people who are at financial risk with both a place to live and also the beginnings of a community and a social support network.

3.  It encourages more efficient use of existing housing rather than requiring the construction of new housing.

4.  It encourages communal and relational rather than governmental and institutional solutions to social problems.

5.  It encourages mixed income neighbourhoods, which reduces overall crime rates.

6.  It forces people to encounter and relate meaningfully to others who are not in their existing social circles.

There are probably other benefits that I am missing here, and I am probably willfully overlooking the potential difficulties, but I am interested to hear what others think about this proposal.    It is exactly the kind of intervention that I think needs most to be made in the world, but I am not sure whether it is one that will appeal to anyone else.  Any thoughts or comments that you might have would be appreciated.

I posted a few weeks ago about the letter I received from the firm of Patton Boggs in regard to my screening of Bill Haney’s The Price of Sugar documentary.  At that time I also contacted the film’s production company about providing a statement to balance the one from Patton Boggs.  They put their lawyer in contact with me, so I have exchanged a few emails with Thomas Curley from the firm of Levin Sullivan Koch & Schulz, and he has just sent me this letter that outlines the position of Bill Haney and Uncommon Productions.  It is three pages rather than forty-five, and it addresses the claims of the Vicini family rather succinctly, so it is worth having a read.

I very seldom write only to link to something else, but this particular something else relates to one of my favourite directors, Errol Morris, and to one of my favourite documentaries, The Thin Blue Line, so I am making an exception.   It is a letter posted on the Letters of Note blog, originally written to Morris in 1988 by Harvey Weinstein, the head of the studio that produced The Thin Blue Line, and it illustrates both why the film industry so often produces junk and why interesting directors like Morris tend to find themselves on the fringes of that industry, no matter how good their films might be.

My sister-in-law was over yesterday morning, and she commented on the dried orange zest that I was adding to a recipe, wanting to know where I had purchased it.  Now, it is certainly possible to buy dried orange peel at many bulk food stores, and I have done so myself, but this was zest that I had dried myself, something that shocked her a little.  She had always just tossed her orange peels, and the process of zesting and drying that much peel seemed onerous to her, which is fair.  Our conversation got me thinking, however, about the leavings of things that I used to throw away but now use regularly in my cooking, and I thought that I might list them here, first, to share something of my own kitchen practices, and second, to solicit ideas about any other leavings that I could be using in my cooking.

1.  I zest and dry the peels of any citrus that I will not be using immediately: orange, lemon, lime, even grapefruit when I have it in the house, which is infrequently.  I add these things to desserts and to curries and to stirfries, and I use them as toppings for things like puddings and custards and icecream, and I sometimes add them to some jams and preserves.

2.  I strip and dry the tops of carrots, which can be added to soups and stews to provide carrot flavour without actually using carrots.  They are also great in making soup stock.  You can even steam them with butter and lemon and eat them as a green vegetable, though my family does not exactly love this.

3.  I dry and grind stale bread into bread crumbs for breading meat and using as toppings on casseroles and whatnot.

4.  I save the leavings of certain vegetables for making soup stock: carrot and onion and celery, certainly, but also sweet peppers, garlic, broccoli, mushrooms, anything that is not too starchy.

What other leavings could I be using?

I was asked to bring a dessert to a potluck party tonight, a farewell gathering for friends  of ours who will soon be heading to Chile.  I decided to make one of childhood favourites, Oranje Cooke.  It is a recipe that our family learned in the Dutch church that we attended when I was a child, and the recipe in my book claims to be from the kitchen of Tina DeVries, a woman I vaguely remember, so I never questioned my family lore about the dish, though much of it now seems to me a little questionable.  We were always told that Oranje Cooke was Dutch for Orange Cake, which may well be true, but it raised the question of why the recipe does not actually contain any oranges.  This was because, we were told, the name of the dish actually refers to the colour orange as a symbol of Holland’s royal family, which descends from Willem van Oranje, or William of Orange.  Again, this explanation seems plausible enough, only the icing that was put on this cake, every time I can remember eating it, whether it was made by my own family or one of the Dutch ladies from the church, was pink.  There was no explanation at all for this inconsistency.

So, today, as I got the recipe out of my book for perhaps the fiftieth time, and as I wondered about why there should be pink icing on an orange cake for the fiftieth time also, I decided to answer this question once and for all.  Unfortunately, the internet solved nothing.  I can find no results for Oranje Cooke recipes that look anything like mine, no results that are even without oranges.  A search for Dutch Spice Cake, which I think more accurately describes the dish, returns any number of recipes, some more or less like mine, but none very similar, and none that specify pink icing, or even orange icing for that matter.

All of this makes me feel much better about the fact that I have been altering the recipe as long as I have been making it for myself.  Despite all the reasons that I was given as a child, I grate orange rind into it, and I make the icing orange as well.

Oranje Cooke

Mix together, in a very large bowl, a pound of shortening, four eggs, three cups of brown sugar, and a teasponn of vanilla.  Stir in a tablespoon of anise seed, two or three tablespoons of grated orange rind, and about two teaspoons each, more or less depending on your taste, of ground cinnamon, ground nutmeg, ground allspice, ground cloves, and baking powder.  Stir in four cups of flour, which should produce a heavy, sticky dough.  Press the dough about half an inch thick into an edged cookie pan.  Bake it for ten minutes or so in a 450 degree oven.  Let it cool, then spread it it with orange (or pink) butter icing.  Cut it into squares, and enjoy.

Though I have read enough to know how little I have read, I am still quite often shocked by the size of the gaps in my knowledge, even in subjects where I am interested and fairly widely experienced.  My friend Lenore Walker revealed another of these gaps for me last week when she lent me a little paperback novel called The Garden Behind the Moon by Howard Pyle.  I was at first under the impression that the book had been written quite recently, because the edition that was loaned to me was published in 2002, and it does not list an original publication date, but I had only read a few pages before it became apparent that it had actually been written at a much earlier time or that it had been written by someone who was very skillfully imitating the style and language of that earlier time.  A cursory internet search confirmed that the book actually dates from 1895, and the same search revealed also that its author was, and still is to some degree, a quite famous illustrator and writer of books for children.

Now, I have taught courses on children’s literature more than once, have read vast quantities of books for children, have a habit of asking people about their favourite children’s stories, and have associated for many years with homeschoolers, who generally take their children’s reading very seriously, but I had never heard of Howard Pyle, at least not in such a way that I would remember him.  Yet he wrote stories in a wide range of genres, from poetry to pirate stories (The Book of Pirates) to retellings of the Robin Hood stories (The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood) to fairytales (Twilight Land).  One of his historical fictions (Men of Iron) was even made into a film called The Black Shield of Falworth.  How I failed to find him until know I cannot quite imagine.

What is more, as successful as he may have been as an author, Pyle was probably best known in his lifetime as an artist and illustrator, earning praise from artists as influential as Van Gogh, who wrote that Pyle’s pictures struck him “dumb with admiration”.  Whether he is depicting pirates, like  Marooned Pirate and Pirate Left for Dead, or fairytale themes, like The Mermaid and David Sat Down on the Wooden Bench, or portraits, like Catherine de Vaucelles, in Her Garden and Abraham Lincoln, or civil war scenes, like The Charge and The Nation Makers, Pyle’s pictures are filled with a gravity and an emotion that make them compelling.  I am particularly drawn to some of his black and white drawings, like The Forging of Balmung or his rendering of a child being taught by an angel to play the flute.  Though my artistic judgment weighs very much less than Van Gogh’s, these pictures fill me with admiration also.

Having found so much to enjoy in its author, I returned to The Garden at the Back of the Moon with renewed interest, and I found its style and its subject and its sensibility to be very much like George MacDonald‘s At the Back of the North Wind, which is probably my favourite children’s novel.  Both books are fairytales, not in the vulgar sense of being peopled with tiny creatures who all live in flowers, but in a truer sense that I am not really able to define but that is described by George MacDonald in “The Fantastic Imagination”  and by G. K. Chesterton in “The Ethics of Elfland” and by J. R. R. Tolkien in “On Fairy Stories” and by  C. S. Lewis in “Sometimes Fairy Stories May say Best What Needs to be Said”.   The kind of fairytale that these authors describe is much rarer, at least in my experience, and The Garden Behind the Moon is just such a story.  This fairytale quality, whatever it may be, gives the novel a solemnity and a wonder and a power, even despite the bits that sound a little laboured and preachy to the contemporary ear.  It is a beautiful book and one that I will be sure to share with my children.

More importantly, I have the feeling that my relationship with the work of Howard Pyle may be only just beginning.

I have been cleaning out some of my old files over the past few days, and I ran across this little character piece that I wrote some time ago.  I could think of no other use that I might have for it, and it seemed a good length for a post, so here it is, though I am not sure exactly what it is.  The events it describes, insignificant as they are, did actually occur, and I offer my apologies to the subject of the sketch in the unlikely event that she ever comes across it.

Napkin Lady

She sat at one of the small round cafe tables, her chair pulled closely under it. Her posture was fixed and upright, as if she were a concert pianist at her instrument, and she held before her, between her hands, an unfolded napkin, a plain white paper napkin with the logo of the cafe in one corner. It was the focus of all her concentration, seemed to be the subject, not only of her eyes and hands and mind, but of her whole poised and rigid body. She had grasped it firmly on each side and was pulling it taut with sharp little motions, firmly enough that the napkin made soft popping sounds with every pull, but gently enough that the paper did not tear.

After several minutes of this, in which time she had stretched the napkin perhaps a hundred times or more, she turned it once clockwise and resumed jerking it with the same controlled violence. When a similar time had passed, she turned the napkin again, repeating the process until she had been through every side at least twice.

Then, seemingly satisfied with her work, she laid the napkin gently on the tabletop, placing her feet firmly on the base of the table’s central leg so that it would not rock. With exaggerated care, she slowly smoothed the napkin with her fingers, brushing from its centre to each corner, rotating it clockwise with her other hand after every stroke. This motion she continued for several minutes, before turning the napkin over and repeating it for several more an the reverse side.

When the napkin had reached a state that seemingly satisfied her, she stopped abruptly. She lowered her face very close to the table and examined the napkin thoroughly, moving not her eyes only but her whole head methodically up and down across the white paper square in front of her.

Having completed her inspection, she returned to her previous posture, and began to fold the napkin with the exactitude of watch maker. She took the top right corner and drew it slowly toward the bottom left, matched them precisely, pinned the matched corners firmly to the table with her left thumb, then carefully pushed the doubled paper into a crease, first in its centre, then gradually out to its two corners.

She paused then, seemingly exhausted from her labour, but she retained her rigid posture still, and she examined the crease with concern, as if some crookedness might have escaped her care. She checked each of the corners particularly, ensuring that they were exact, that they had been perfectly matched, then began a second crease, bringing the two folded corners together and smoothing away from them, forming a perfectly quartered napkin.

Only once she had inspected the final crease to her satisfaction did her posture break, slumping back into the seat, as though her body was spent from its labour. Casually now, she put the plastic lid back on her paper coffee cup and inserted her stir stick into the hole in its centre. Picking the cup up with her left hand, she took her carefully folded napkin with her right, mopped with it the coffee rings and the doughnut crumbs in front of her, placed it exactly in the centre of the table, and stacked her coffee cup on top of it, before standing and leaving the cafe.

When an exile reaches the foreign shore, it is not an arrival, for only a return to the native shore can be an arrival for the exile, but neither is it a departure, for the departure was accomplished the moment that the exile left the shores of home. The foreign shore, therefore, is neither a coming nor a going. It is an eternal between, a place that is never here and a time that is never now.

We are all exiles in this way, however much we succeed in forgetting it.  We are all out of place and out of time.  We all inhabit this eternal between, exiles from home, haunting a foreign shore.