Weekend diary

Yesterday was a day off work for me, so I took the bus to Niantic, a smaller town a few miles to the southeast. Niantic has a beach and a boardwalk, which I didn't get a chance to visit this time, and (the big draw, for me) a rambling secondhand bookstore called the Book Barn, where books are housed not only in the eponymous main barn but in a series of outbuildings and little stalls. It's patrolled by an indeterminate number of cats (I saw three, not including Frank the Sumo Tabby, guardian of the Book Barn's downtown annex). Just as I was leaving after an hour or two's browsing, I spotted their display in honor of Banned Books Week:

Banned Books Week display at the Book Barn (detail)

Each of the books in the case has a little tag explaining why someone wanted to ban it. A few favorite captions:

Banned Books Week display at the Book Barn (detail) The Front Runner: "Shows men snogging. And they don't die or anything."

Banned Books Week display at the Book Barn (detail) The Gulag Archipelago: "Insufficiently enthusiastic about the Russian government." The Canterbury Tales: "Fart jokes." (As anyone who's taught Chaucer can attest, the fart jokes are one of the things that convince unwilling students that struggling with the Middle English might be worth it. There's a reason why the Miller's Tale is so often anthologized…)

Banned Books Week display at the Book Barn (detail) The Very Hungry Caterpillar: "'Encourages obesity and gross consumerism.' Really. You can't make these things up."

I was so amused by the concept that I may have to borrow it if I'm ever in charge of a Banned Books Week display. I do appreciate a little well-done snark.

In other news, fall isn't even halfway done and already New England is living up to its reputation for leaf color of the kind tourists travel hundreds of miles to see. Some of the maples are an unbelievable shade of candy-apple red that you'd swear couldn't really exist in nature, only it does. My camera can't keep up and can't do it justice. I spent most of the bus ride to and from Niantic staring slack-jawed at trees, even in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart Supercenter.

I spent today catching up on domestic chores, and this evening I'm heading out to a gallery opening. All in all, not a bad way to spend a weekend.

The return of the pastoral


  • Michael Pollan, in Sunday's New York Times, writes an open letter to the next president about the need for a complete overhaul of our farming and food system. (It's long, but it's well worth reading.)
  • There's a petition for an organic farm to be planted on the South Lawn of the White House (a gesture Pollan also endorses).
  • Colleges have begun teaching about agriculture and "ecogastronomy."
  • There's apparently a movement afoot to revive the World War II-era "victory garden" in the age of climate change, fuel scarcity, and food shortages.

I'm of two minds about all of this. Part of me sees the emphasis on a renewal of localized, traditional agriculture in the light of 2000-plus years of the pastoral poetry tradition. And there is a nostalgia for an idealized rural past behind a lot of the discourse about local food: not a past where preternaturally literate shepherds piped on oaten straws, but a pre-factory-farming past, when people knew where their food came from, when oranges and bananas were a luxury if you didn't live in a tropical climate, when families sat down to dinner together, and so on.

But the other side of me, the side that loves farmers' markets and fully expects that we'll be in for a nasty shock when oil supplies really start to run low, is deeply interested in learning how to grow my own food, especially with the economy circling the drain. That same side of me is weighing the options for doing some container herb and vegetable gardening on the little deck outside my apartment next year, and wondering if anyone else in New London is interested in getting a community garden going. I suspect part of it is a sign of wanting to learn more practical skills in the face of doom and gloom. Call it a victory garden or call it an apotropaic gesture; I just want to do something tangible to deal with the free-floating anxiety, even if it's only planting some tomatoes. (And green onions! And salad greens! And rosemary! Of course, this also has something to do with my preexisting fondness for produce.)

Random bullets of National Coming Out Day

  • Hooray for the Connecticut Supreme Court! As you can probably imagine, I'm feeling pretty good about being in Connecticut right now.
  • I hope this state doesn't become ground zero for Proposition 8: The East Coast Sequel. If it does, I may have to reawaken my long-dormant activist side.*
  • I've been mostly resisting the impulse to blog about electoral politics. But I just can't not say anything about what Sarah Palin said in that one interview, about her gay friend who "happens to have
    made a choice that isn't a choice that I [Palin] would
    have made." Because what on earth is up with people thinking sexual orientation is a "choice"? I mean, seriously, who sits down and decides "Today I think I'll be attracted to that person over there!" or "Let's see, perhaps I ought to fall in love with so-and-so"? It just doesn't work that way. Does Palin really not understand this after 30 years of being best friends with a gay person? And does she also not understand that the "choice" to be with the person you love (as opposed to spending your life trying to deny and conceal who you love) is, in fact, the same choice she presumably made when she got married? Please.
  • On a more frivolous (but still political) note, I have a new celebrity crush, and her name is Rachel Maddow. Too bad she's already spoken for.
  • Happy National Coming Out Day, everyone!

* I have the introvert's extreme dislike of cold-calling strangers and knocking on random people's doors. But volunteer efforts need back-of-the-office people too.

The quotation effect

The other night, wanting something to read, I asked my Twitter friends if they could recommend any poems they liked. One of them suggested Conrad Aiken's "Morning Song of Senlin," which I'd never read before but was very glad to have pointed out to me. At the end of the first stanza I was stopped short by the lines

Stars in the purple dusk above the rooftops
Pale in the saffron mist and seem to die
And I myself upon a swiftly tilting planet
Stand before a glass and tie my tie…

"Oh," I thought, "so that's where Madeleine L'Engle got that title." And that got me thinking about the belated quotation effect: the odd jolt when you realize that a line you've already heard or read is actually a quotation from something you're just now reading. The Belated Quotation Effect kicks in, for instance, when one realizes at one's first performance of Hamlet (or one's first viewing of Casablanca) that that's where all those famous lines come from; or when one suddenly identifies Act 3 of Die Walküre as the music behind Elmer Fudd's "Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit!"

In college, during my classics-major phase, I took a course on Petronius's Satyricon. One day in class, we translated section 48, which contains a line we all recognized: "Nam
Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere, et
cum illi pueri dicerent: ??????? ?? ??????; respondebat illa: ?????????
"—a line best known as the epigraph to T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land."
We all stopped and wondered out loud whether that line about the Sibyl
hanging in her cage would sound half so eerie if it weren't for Eliot's
quotation of it, and our association of it with "The Waste Land." And I
don't think it would. But it's impossible to read it now without thinking of Eliot.

The thing about the Belated Quotation Effect is that it makes for a sort of reversal of chronology: Text A was created first, and Text B, which quotes Text A, came afterward. But if you encounter Text B first, something funny happens to your perception of both. The quotation keeps some of the flavor of wherever you've heard it quoted. The earlier author can seem almost to be quoting the later one, rather than the other way around.* And it's the anachronistic effect that interests me.

No real conclusions to this ongoing train of thought, except to say "Isn't intertextuality neat?" Have any of you noticed the Belated Quotation Effect?

* Harold Bloom says something similar in The Anxiety of Influence, and, although most of what I've read of Bloom's work makes me break out in hives of annoyance, I do think it's an interesting idea.

Pictures from my walk home

I had my camera with me yesterday, and the light was so irresistible as I walked home that I kept stopping to take pictures.

Milkweed pod
There's a little cluster of milkweed growing near my shortcut off campus, and the seeds have started coming loose.

First red leaves of fall
Some of the trees are turning red. This one seems to be turning from the inside out.

Berries, tree, sunset
I'm not sure what kind of tree this is, but I love the yellow berries.

On my walk home
The light was hitting the trees at just the right angle. I've always loved this time of day.

Light at the end of day changes everything
Even rust-stained concrete under the highway looks completely different.

If the election were a Shakespeare play

I somehow missed Stephen Greenblatt’s guest appearance on The Colbert Report. But thanks to the magic of the internet, one can still watch it:

I particularly like the Richard III moment at the end. (Via Riba Rambles.)

Waiting for New Year’s Day

It's hard to describe how I've been feeling lately without using words like "apocalyptic," or at the very least "gloom" and "doom" in some combination. It's not just the economic meltdown, or the particular brand of craziness that the election brings to the mix. It's something more generalized. It was startling today, for instance, to come across this post at Ferule and Fescue after I'd been thinking more or less the exact same thing. Like Flavia, I've had the feeling before, but it's gotten worse of late. I can't tell how much of the apocalyptic mood has to do with current events and how much of it is exacerbated by my having just uprooted myself and moved to a new place. But I don't think I'm alone in feeling the malaise.

I've been thinking of the panic over the Y2K bug, another point when people (some people, anyway) thought the End of the World was at hand. I remember eating dinner in a Chinese restaurant in Ann Arbor in 1999 while two men opposite talked earnestly about stockpiling bottled water and canned goods. I remember spending that New Year's Eve with my friend R. in New York, winding up in an obscure little bar on the Lower East Side and clinking our ritual New Year's Eve champagne glasses when the world didn't dissolve into anarchy as midnight. I remember how hazy and sunny and relaxed the city felt when we went out in search of bagels and lox the next morning. (It was a warmer-than-usual first day of January, back before I automatically associated weather like that with global warming.)

And I think probably the same thing will happen again, the worst fears unrealized for now, doomsday deferred again. The only thing is, there's no definite end date to the malaise, no New Year's Day to mark the point where we know the apocalypse won't happen this time. Nor is any of this likely to turn out to be nothing after all.

How about the rest of you? It's not just me, right? Anyone found a way to fend off the apocalyptic willies?

Gratuitiously cute alpaca post

Because I just can't take any more anxiety about the state of the economy, I'm going to blog about fluffy animals today. Well, that and because I went to see some fluffy animals this afternoon. Specifically, alpacas.


This weekend is National Alpaca Open House weekend, an event I'd never heard of until some of my fellow New London knitters suggested a trip to the nearest alpaca farm—Six Paca Farm, a few miles north of here. (I didn't even know there were alpaca farmers in the area, but apparently people raise alpacas all over the country.) Three of us braved intermittently heavy rain and went off to check out the farm. Most of the herd was hanging out indoors, and the few that were outside were a bit bedraggled from the rain, but I did get a couple of shots of one curious young alpaca. Here he is in close-up:


Being knitters, of course, we had to check out the farm's yarn shop, and we all came away with unbelievably soft yarn and roving. I've never bought yarn after meeting the animals that provided it before. Somehow alpacas are more endearing than sheep (plus, fluffier—not that you could tell on a day like today).

And, finally, an unrelated group of alpacas, and alas not my video, but I can't resist: Star Wars Alpacas on YouTube (via Cute Overload!, which has been distracting me from the increasingly grim news of late).

We now return to your regularly scheduled blog after today's Interlude of Adorableness.

Aegypt, Giordano Bruno, and invisible libraries

On the recommendation of Mike from vitia (hi, Mike!), I've been reading John Crowley's indescribable sort-of-fantasy, sort-of-alternate-history Aegypt Cycle. It's a series of novels about, among other things, a historian who becomes convinced that behind the tantalizing fragments of Renaissance mysticism that he keeps stumbling over, there lies "more than one history of the world." It's also about actual historical figures, particularly John Dee and Giordano Bruno; and about memory, and the occult memory systems that people (especially Bruno) created at the time. (I got into some of the same territory when I wrote my dissertation, so I was geekily overjoyed when I realized someone had actually written fiction inspired by Frances Yates's work.)

I just finished reading The Solitudes, the first novel in the series, and started Love & Sleep, the second. Near the end of The Solitudes is a section that imagines Giordano Bruno's early years in his Dominican order in the mid-16th century, which I can't resist quoting, because the appeal to my librarianish sensibilities is far too strong:

Like many monkish libraries, San Domenico's was a midden of a thousand years' writing; no one knew all that the monastery contained, or what had become of all that the monks had copied, bought, written, commented on, given away, and collected over centuries. The old librarian, Fra' Benedetto, had a long catalogue in his head, which he could remember because he had composed it in rhyme, but there were books that weren't in this catalogue because they didn't rhyme. There was a Memory Palace in which all the categories of books and all the subdivisions of those categories had places, but it had long ago filled up and been shuttered and abandoned. There was a written catalogue to, into which every book was entered as it was acquired, and if you happened to know when a book was acquired, you might find it there. Unless, that is, it had been bound with another, or several others; for usually only the incipit of the first would be put into the catalogue. The others were lost.

So within the library that Fra' Benedetto and the prior and the abbot knew about there had grown up another library, a library that those who read in it did not catalogue, and did not want catalogued.

Bruno becomes the unofficial librarian of the "secret library of San Domenico," keeping track of the hidden collection of heretical books:

He knew and remembered every book, where it lay in Fra' Benedetto's cases, who had asked for it, and what was in it. In his vast and growing memory palace, the whole heavens in small, all that took up next to no room at all.

But that's just one strand among many. I can't wait to find out how they all eventually converge.

Recipe post: A pie made of grapes

I'm having one of those blogger's block weeks. It's probably due to the beginning-of-semester rush at work; my brain's been a bit fried lately. (In a good way—I had an absolute blast teaching a class today—but nonetheless in a way that leaves me disinclined to write long blog posts.) So in lieu of anything thinky, I'm going to post my favorite pie recipe. Not that pastry doesn't require thought, but you know what I mean. Anyhow:

Concord grape pie

This is kind of like a cross between traditional fruit pie and homemade grape jam. I only make it this time of year because you can't really substitute other grapes, and Concord grapes aren't in season for all that long. It's kind of labor-intensive, but the end result is so, so worth it if you like grapes.


  • Pastry for a one-crust, 9" pie
  • 3 cups Concord grapes
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 tbsp. flour
  • 2 tbsp. butter

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Pop the grapes out of their skins (this is easy to do with Concord grapes, because they have loose skins). Set the skins aside in a bowl, and put the grape insides in a saucepan on top of the stove. Bring the pan to a low simmer and let it cook until the seeds start to come loose.

Now strain the grape pulp through a sieve. Your goal here is to separate the pulp from the seeds so you can add it to your bowl of grape skins. Once you've reunited the component parts of the grapes (minus seeds), add the remaining ingredients to the bowl and stir until everything is mixed.

Pour your bowl of pie filling into the crust and bake for 40 minutes. Cool, and eat in small slices, because it's intensely grapey and richer than you'd think.