Tuesday, January 22, 2019

American Apartheid: Wounded Knee Was an Atrocity, Not a Punch Line

In his continuing saga of cheap racist and misogynist comments and tweets disparaging Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) as Pocohontas, Pejorative Donnie has sunk to a new low with his recent tweet making light of the December 29, 1890 massacre of hundreds of unarmed Lakotah Sioux by the US 7th Cavalry Regiment at Wounded Knee Creek [Èha kpé Ópi Wakpála], on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

Responding to a photograph of Senator Warren and her husband posted on Instagram, PD tweet:

If Elizabeth Warren, often referred to by me as Pocahontas, did this commercial from Bighorn or Wounded Knee instead of her kitchen, with her husband dressed in full Indian garb, it would have been a smash! 
 
Once again PD has proven beyond doubt that he has no concept of history, American or otherwise, for if he did, he would have understood that making light of one of the most shameful chapters of that history is beyond the pale of decent and civilized discourse. But then again, this has never stopped him in the past. PD has invented a humanitarian crisis on America’s southern border while appearing painfully ignorant of the one of his own making in this country with his violation of basic human rights for immigrant and refugee families who have come to this country in search of freedom and the pursuit of happiness. Add to this the humanitarian crisis that has long challenged the Native American First Nations in this country that have been marginalized, insulted and mistreated and forced to live squalor. I have been to Wounded Knee and I have seen nothing like it until I saw Soweto and Alexandra, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, or the Cape Flats, near Cape Town . . . surviving vestiges of the abhorrent practice of apartheid - apartness in Afrikaans - in South Africa. Had Pejorative Donnie ever visited Pine Ridge, or witnessed the squalor of Native American reservations and ICE detention camps in Trump’s America, perhaps he might not be so quick to fire off an ill-advised tweet. But probably not.

And this brings me to another related matter. This past Saturday (January 19) marked the third annual Women’s March in Washington, DC and in communities throughout the United States where women and men marched in solidarity against the unjust and inhumane policies of the Trump administration. Ironically, on the previous day an Indigenous Peoples March was held on the National Mall in Washington where America was once again reminded of the scope of Pejorative Donnie’s racist slander. As part of this event, Omaha tribal elder Nathan Phillips, a former Marine and a Vietnam War veteran, had conducted an annual sacred pipe ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery honoring Native America veterans . . . women and men who have served a country that continues to treat them unjustly. At the end of the day’s activities Mr. Phillips was beating his drum and quietly singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when he was accosted by a group of white students from Covington Catholic High School, an all-boys college preparatory school in northern Kentucky. Many of them were sporting PD’s signature red MAGA [Make America Great Again] caps while taunting, mocking and otherwise intimidating Mr. Phillips with chants including "Build the Wall." One of these students got right in Mr. Phillip’s face while being egged on by his noisy cohorts. This student rabble was part of a March for Life being held the same day in Washington and one wonders where the adult chaperones were and why they permitted this viscerally disgusting display that was captured on film from numerous angles and later posted on YouTube and other social media platforms. The ugly vocabulary of hate bred out of ignorance was voiced under the visage of an earlier president who tried to heal a divided nation with a promise of "malice toward none, with charity for all." It quickly went viral and was roundly condemned worldwide as it should be. US Representative Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), one of the first two Native American women elected to the US Congress, tweeted: "The students’ display of blatant hate, disrespect, and intolerance is a signal of how common decency politics decayed under this administration. Heartbreaking." How soon we forget.

Over the past couple of days there have been offers of "alternative facts" by those involved concerning the "true" nature of this encounter. The students claim they were the victims, being called racists and "Trump babies." But there for all to see are those red MAGA hats that have become de rigeur symbols of the racism and intolerance advanced by PD and the crypto/neo-fascist minions throughout his administration. One has only to watch the video to figure out what actually happened. This is what occurs when ignorance reigns over truth. This is what occurs when the President of the United States, by his own words and deeds, gives currency to racism and the politics of hate and intolerance by setting apart and marginalizing peoples on the basis of nationality, place of birth, gender and gender identity, religion and political opinion.

A new American apartheid, something we had hoped was cast onto the ash heap of history long ago, is descending. How much longer are we going to allow this shameful behavior to continue?



Monday, January 21, 2019

We Are Bound Together

January 15, 1929 - April 4, 1968
This year, as we celebrate what would have been his 90th birthday, 

Let us turn our thoughts today
To Martin Luther King
And recognize that there are ties between us
All men and women
Living on the earth
Ties of hope and love
Sister and brotherhood
That we are bound together
In our desire to see the world become
A place in which our children
Can grow free and strong
We are bound together
By the task that stands before us
And the road that lies ahead
We are bound and we are bound


                       --- James Taylor, "Shed a Little Light"

https://www.facebook.com/JamesTaylor/videos/shed-a-little-light-james-taylor-and-lowcountry-voices/1842970492392417/

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Eye on a Hurricane

Like many Americans, especially those who call the Eastern Seaboard of the United States home, I have been following online and social media reports on Hurricane Florence and its steadfast onslaught into the Carolinas.  Those of us here in northern New England never had anything to fear from this storm save some rough surf and riptides in certain areas.  And this morning the outer most bands of the remnants of Florence pressed through southern Maine with nothing more that a few light rain showers.

During the storm’s initial approach toward the southeastern United States there was some very real concerns that, due to the fact that it was predicted to make landfall as a dangerous Category 4 hurricane - one of the largest hurricanes (and a “very wet” one according to President Trump) to strike the Eastern Seaboard in several decades.  The effects of the storm might be felt as far north as Maryland (including Washington, DC), as well as down into central Georgia.  As a result, I was concerned for our home and neighbors in the DC suburbs along with many friends in the eastern regions of the Carolinas, some of whom were under a mandatory evacuation order as the storm approached.  I can only hope they heeded the warning and left.  It makes no sense to ride out a storm of this predicted magnitude.  There is absolutely nothing one can do to keep it off its destructive path as reports have shown over the past few days.
 
Lucky for some, but not for others, the storm made a slight jog to the southwest and was downgraded to a Category 1 storm before it made landfall in the vicinity of Wilmington, North Carolina and the Cape Fear River.  Unfortunately those in the Carolinas withstood the full brunt of Florence’s fury with destructive winds, heavy rainfall, and massive storm surges along the coastline.  I spoke with friends at home in Maryland and northern Virginia and they reported only dreary skies and light rain as the outer bands of the storm skirted the region. 

Still, eyes remained on the Carolinas where some areas were inundated with 30+ inches of rain breaking a record almost two decades old when Hurricane Floyd drenched the region in 1999.  An additional three to six inches were still possible in some of the hardest hit areas in southeastern North Carolina and adjacent areas of South Carolina while and additional ten inches of rainfall were expected in the higher mountainous terrain of western North Carolina before the storm system finally shifted northward.

The storm’s fury may have abated in the Carolinas which now must contend with record flooding and several storm related deaths.  Interstates 95 and 40 have been closed due to flooding as many rivers in the Eastern Carolinas are cresting at near or above record flood levels further complicating efforts to restore the region’s vital infrastructure including power outages to several hundreds of thousands of customers.  
 
But no one was out of the woods yet as Florence, now downgraded to a tropical depression, turned northward yesterday with the promise of heavy rains expected in southwestern and western Virginia.   It was also predicted that the DC metro area could receive upwards of three inches.  Its power significantly diminished as it moved inland, Florence still packed a powerful punch, bringing strong thunderstorms and floods east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, as well as spawning tornadoes in and around Richmond, Virginia.  The DC area also experienced strong thunderstorms and upwards of two inches of rain last night and widespread flooding continues.

Last night I watched the sun set over the lake here in Maine as it illuminated the outer bands of the rain that would arrive overnight.  We have lived through some hurricanes up here and so we were not going to take our eyes off this one until it was well past us.   After some light rain showers this morning, the final remnants of Florence began to  succumb to the colder waters of the North Atlantic.   Gone but not soon to be forgotten.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Little Eritrea on Casco Bay


For the past thirty summers I have vacationed on a small lake in rural Maine. From the outset I made peace with the fact that I would have to put my long affinity for traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine on a back burner until I returned home to Washington, DC in the autumn. A panoply of fresh seafood from the coast of Maine, including lobster, clams and oysters, would have to keep my taste buds occupied in the interim.
 
Then one day just a few summers ago, while walking along a side street in Portland’s Arts District near the Old Port, I was pleasantly surprised when I chanced upon Asmara, an Eritrean restaurant. As it turns out, in recent years Portland and Cumberland County have become home to roughly 5,000 immigrants from East Africa (Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Djibouti, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and Tanzania, and Ethiopia), including a fast growing number of Eritreans fleeing the brutal dictatorship in that country. So it should not be a surprise that restaurants and cafés sprang up catering to those seeking out the traditional cuisine of their homelands.

A meal at Asmara quickly reintroduced me to the basic similarities and differences between Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine I had learned from frequenting traditional restaurants in and around Washington. (Next month I will be posting more details on the evolution of traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean eateries in our Nation’s Capitol and my ongoing quest for the perfect yebeg tibs.) A popular traditional Eritrean dish is tsebhi, a meat stew which is served with taita, the Eritrean version of injera, a spongy bread made from tef and wheat or sorghum flour, and hilbet, a paste consisting of lentils and faba beans. It tends to be lighter in texture than the Ethiopian equivalent resulting from a sparing use of seasoned clarified butter. Owing to the country’s Italian colonial past, Eritrean dishes reflect the use of Italian and Ottoman Turkish ingredients such as pasta and a greater use of curries and cumin than are found in Ethiopian dishes (despite the fact that much of Ethiopia was briefly occupied by Italy in World War II). On my first visit to the Asmara I naturally chose zegente tibsi, which is quite similar to yebeg tibs (my favorite Ethiopian dish) accompanied with alitcha, a mixture of chopped potatoes, cabbage, and carrots slow cooked in mild spices, and the ubiquitous taita. I have returned to Asmara a few times and sampled some of the other fine traditional dishes is offers.

A couple months ago I drove my wife down to the Portland airport to catch a flight to Florida and I took the opportunity to visit the Red Sea (a popular name among traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean eateries), another popular Eritrean café situated in the Munjoy Hill neighborhood in the city’s East End which is now the epicenter of the local Eritrean population. I have been driving past it for several years and so I was happy to have a chance to finally try it out.

The Red Sea is almost a hole-in-the-wall operation. The
dining room is only large enough for six four-top tables and the kitchen measures approximately ten feet by ten feet. The owner waits tables while his wife cooks. The menu is in many ways quite similar to that of Asmara which I found rather impressive considering the size of the kitchen. I was curious to try its version of zegente tibsi but chose instead to go with an interesting variation - zegente fitfit tibsi – a dish made from minced lamb sautéed with berbere spice and finished up with breaking up and mixing in small pieces of taita; all of this served over a whole piece of taita along with an outstanding alitcha side dish.

I look forward to returning to the Red Sea before we head home at the beginning of October so that I might sample its version of zigni, one of the first of these wonderful traditional Eritrean dishes I first discovered at the old Red Sea restaurant in Adams Morgan neighborhood in Washington. It is not all that common at Ethiopian eateries at home in Washington. More on that later.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Martinis With My Mom


My Mom - September 2018 - Freeport, Maine
For the past several summers my now 93 year old mother has visited us here at the lake cottage in Maine. She flies from her home outside Columbus, Ohio (with a change of planes in Baltimore) and we pick her up at the airport in Manchester, New Hampshire. She returned again this summer for another week of late summer New England weather when one can expect just about anything. Autumn is already arriving with fall colors, cold nights, and a morning fire in the woodstove to fend off the chill. 

Her visits always include some day trips through the Maine countryside and over to the coast for some lobsters and steamers. And there is always a trip to a favorite eatery and their amazing lobster rolls. Otherwise, there are quiet days at the cottage reading, working on jigsaw puzzles, and catching up on family news and other idle gossip.

At the end of the day . . . usually around 10pm . . . it is time to share a nightcap . . . a killer martini on the rocks with an olive troika (and I like mine slightly "dirty"). There is something to be said about a proper martini keeping one young, lively, and in good health. Mom is ample proof of that.

She heads back to Ohio tomorrow after another lovely visit. We are already planning her return next summer. There are still lobsters to eat and martini nightcaps to enjoy!

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Who Can Ever Forget? September 11, 2001

Those still alive from my parents’ generation will remember where they were when they first learned that the Japanese had attacked the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor on the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941.

Those old enough of my generation remember where we were when we were told that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas on Friday afternoon, November 22, 1963. I was in 7th grade and the principal came on the squawk box and summoned the faculty to his office. A short time later our math instructor returned to tell us the sad news. School was dismissed and we were sent home to be with our families. I still recall like yesterday the spectacle of mourning in Washington, DC and the burial ceremony and the lighting of the Eternal Flame at Arlington Cemetery. I would visit his grave for the first time eight months later.

My son’s generation joins my own and survivors of his grandparents’ generation in remembering where he was when we all learned of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City, Washington, DC, and the ill-fated attempt of a second attack on Washington which ended in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania as the result of the actions of brave passengers who thwarted the terrorists’ plans at the cost of their own lives. It has been almost another generation . . . 17 years . . . since that tragic morning when we watched the attacks on our country being carried out live on television.

Who can ever forget what happened that day? Since then I have visited the memorials at each of the sites where almost 3000 lives were snuffed out in a few brief moments of insanity. Each one is sobering in the extreme and is difficult to find words that adequately express the impression they leave on one who remembers this fateful date so well. I was in central Washington, DC that morning, but strangely it is the monument in Shanksville – some think of it as the "forgotten part of 9/11" that touched me the deepest, and on a very personal level. I did not know any of the forty passengers and crew on United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco. Since the attacks there has been speculation and debate surrounding the intended target of the hijacked jet although surviving planners of the attack have suggested that the White House was the primary target, the secondary target being the US Capitol. On the morning of September 11, 2001, when the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon occurred, I was working in my Department of Justice office just three short blocks from the White House. How would my life have changed . . . would it have also been snuffed out had Flight 93 made it to its intended target?

I arrived at my office just about the time the first jet hit the World Trade Center. Those of us in the office quickly gathered around the television in our conference room where we followed the reports out of New York. And we were watching when the second jet struck the second tower. It was then we knew this was not an accident but a concerted attack on the United States. As we discussed how we should react or respond to this national security crisis there came the report that a third hijacked aircraft had struck the Pentagon just across the Potomac River. Soon sirens were wailing across downtown Washington as rumors of other attacks began to come in. All were, in fact, only rumors . . . except for one . . . that of a hijacked jet approaching Washington from the northwest; its intended target unknown. In the meantime we continued to follow as the events in New York unfolded and watched with horror as the two towers collapsed.

Once word had arrived that all of the hijacked aircraft were accounted for (Flight 93 had in the meantime crashed near Shanksville), we were instructed to evacuate our building and central Washington as quickly as possible. I joined a sea of people as we walked through the streets of the city as all public transportation had been suspended. We returned to our families and friends as all quickly realized that America and our lives in it would never be the same again. It seems we are reminded of that fact every day over the past 17 years. Who can ever forget?

In putting our best face before the world in the days and weeks following the attacks, the world watched and respected our courage in confronting naked terrorism. We showed the world what has always made America great; our ability to stand together when the chips are down; to put petty differences aside and work together for the common good. Yet somewhere along the way we also lost ourselves in our attempts to seek revenge rather than justice, to point our finger indiscriminately at any country or person who did not agree with us. And soon that came to include other Americans just because they look different, or speak a different language, or pray to a different god. In many ways it seems we have forgotten what happened that morning and how Americans responded to it. Consensus through diversity is what has made this country great.

Who can ever forget? September 11, 2001 was a day when everything changed. It is up to us how we make that change work to our common advantage and for the fate of our great nation. Seventeen years later it is time we finally put our best face forward again.
WE WILL NEVER FORGET
 


Monday, September 10, 2018

Going Off-the-Grid in Maine

Every once in a great while I find it immensely rewarding, even comforting, to go "off-the-grid" for a few days. Life at home in the Metro DC area is just too complicated and schedule oriented to attempt this with any regular success. I do find the ritual of morning and evening meditation a welcomed opportunity to focus my attention wherever it needs to be by means of mental and spiritual tranquility to reduce stress and anxiety and to induce relaxation. Yet this is more often than not only a temporary reparation of too many visual, auditory . . . even olfactory and tactile . . . intrusions into daily life. I appreciate whatever comes to me during these brief respites.

Going off-the-grid for longer periods of time does not require one to disappear deep into a primeval forest, or to wander far out beyond distant desert dunes to avoid constraints posed on one by work, family, or just the routine nature of daily existence. One need not avoid all human contact to be alone with one’s thoughts and inclinations. Most of the time it is as easy as turning off or avoiding the unnecessary interruptions and noises we allow into our lives.

I have found that genuine opportunities to go off-the-grid occur more frequently when we are here at the lake cottage in Maine where there is neither a land line phone nor television although there is Internet service when the local network and router are behaving themselves. Who needs them? There is the constant beauty of the lake outside our windows, and the forest beyond. More evenings than not we are also treated to a stunning sunset. No two of them are alike. But even if the Internet is cooperating and we are able to check our e-mails and stay in touch with family and friends through various social media options, it is nice to just chuck it all for a day or two (or longer, if possible) and, as they say, stop and smell the roses. Turn off the mobile phones and the laptops and listen to the loons’ mournful cries somewhere in the distance. Or just enjoy the fresh breezes off the lake, or the crackle of a fire in the woodstove on a chilly evening. I often sit out the deck and wonder about the strange sensation I am experiencing and I realize it’s nothing more than the silence. The complete absence of any sound. This does not happen very often so I like to soak it in, when it does.

Being off-the-grid does not mean to tune or zone out. Just like the ritual of meditation it is a time to refocus one’s attention on one’s place in the world with greater awareness and presence of mind . . . not just for one’s self but for other individuals and their particular conditions and circumstances. It can be a time to catch up on reading and writing projects free of interruptions which might otherwise compromise one’s goals and their benefits.

There is nothing wrong with being engaged with the world we live in, if for no other reason than to insure others do not infringe on our rights and protections that civilization as we wish it guarantee. Still, there should be time for occasional retreats from such involvements so that we might take stock of who and where we are and cultivate who and where we hope and want to be.

Nameste . . . .

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

From the Earth to the Moon (or Ten Times Around the World)

Our 2005 Subaru Legacy wagon crossed the quarter million mile mark over this past weekend as we drove from our Sabbathday Lake cottage to Pemaquid Point on Maine’s Midcoast. It is the most miles I have ever put on a car. That averages out to 20,000 mile a year. Our car is a war horse if ever there was one having now covered the distance from earth to the moon with about ten thousand miles to spare . . . or ten times around the world at the equator).
 
Purchased in early January 2005 when we drove it off the dealership lot in suburban northern Virginia, it is our fourth consecutive Subaru since we bought the first one - our first new car - in 1978. Now, over thirteen years later, it is still a smooth, enjoyable and dependable drive after numerous fully loaded trips to and from Florida and Maine, as well as the shorter road trips to hither and yon. And the old girl still gets incredibly good mileage.

Most of the miles are the routine daily local trips. Driving in and around the Washington, DC metropolitan area takes a heavy toll on any car. The streets are rough and full of potholes. Add to these conditions the cold and damp winters and the hot and steamy humid summers which also exact their heavy toll. The war horse goes where we point her and brings us back again. We take good care of her and she treats us well in return as we continue to explore the edges of America. I’ll never tire of the old gal.


I wonder where we will be when we reach 300,000?


Sunday, August 12, 2018

Poutine Does Not Have to be Hip to Be Good!

Je me souviens

Poutine is not hip . . . tragically or otherwise. I have spoken out here more than once on the subject of poutine, that often maligned traditional Québécois dish. The word "poutine" has just entered into the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary along with other food offerings such as "pho," "turducken," and "pepita." The dictionary defines poutine as "a dish of French fries covered with brown gravy and cheese curds." That really says it all! I should note that editors indicated they found no evidence of the word poutine prior to 1982. Obviously none of them are from Québec where poutine has been a traditional offering since around the end of World War II.

Poutine has now spread beyond the border of Québec, to other areas of Canada and even to the USA. I have found it on the menu in diverse locales. I know of a few places at home in Washington, DC - all well-respected establishments, including one situated on Pennsylvania Avenue two blocks from the White House - that serve a decent, authentic poutine as does a local Wonky Truck found around town. I recently learned that a new poutinerie has opened in my old stomping grounds in Tucson, Arizona. You can even find them here and there in Florida where the Canadian snowbirds spend their winters. Yet for some reason some purveyors of poutine . . . even in Québec . . . have found it necessary to add other ingredients to the holy trinity in order to make poutine their own. Not hip necessarily, but their own. Montréal’s Martin Picard serves "poutine au fois gras" at his landmark restaurant Au Pied de Cochon. I will freely admit that I have tried it there . . . and it is wonderful! But I am not sure why this is all necessary. In my humble opinion it is not poutine the way God intended it.

A few years ago a good friend sent me a clipping from a recent "Adventure & Travel" section of The Wall Street Journal; an article by Adam Leith Gollner entitled "Quebec’s Baddest Poutine." Gollner, a native Quebecker, visited a poutine festival at which several chefs had gathered to demonstrate new ways to "enhance the dish’s fundamental triumvirate." Anyone who has ever had honest-to-God authentic poutine, or who is someone who reveres it like I do, knows that poutine is just about as simple as it gets. French fried potatoes, thick beef gravy [sauce brune] . . . the thicker the better . . . and melted cheese curds; no mozzarella or pepper jack or whatever cheese you prefer . . . it has to be fresh cheese curds. That’s it. Nothing else. It doesn’t get any simpler, or better, or tastier than that. You put other crap in it and it ain’t poutine! Why would anyone in their right mind want to "enhance" it?


Still, the wider its reach, the greater the propensity to make poutine something it is not, to make it "better" by adding more ingredients and coming up with more mind-numbing ways to serve it. Again I ask you why? Potatoes, beef gravy and squeaky cheese curds that "sound like a rusty door hinge swinging open between your teeth." That is all you need. Poutine does not have to be hip to be good. Finis! So when I read in Gollner’s article about a poutine festival dedicated to new and improved ways to make and serve poutine, I naturally figured it took place in some far-flung locale like Las Vegas, or Miami Beach, or New Orleans . . . or even Shanghai. But no. It took place in Montréal of all places! Within a few miles from the original’s humble and somewhat debatable birthplace! And the winner? "Poutine a la General Tso" courtesy of an establishment called Poutineville with three locations in the Montréal area. They offer an assortment of "poutines haut de gamme" [specialty poutine] which involve tomatoes, eggplant, mushrooms, and various meats prepared in various ways. And all topped off with a special poutine sauce. Le blasphème de l'ordre le plus élevé! I don’t even want to think about it. To quote Gollner: "The problem with aiming to make poutine fancy is that the dish is meant to be trashy." Amen to that.

 
But perhaps I am in the minority. USA Today recently reported on Banters, "one of the most interesting – and schizophrenic" of the of the new "hip" restaurants and boutiques along Detroit Avenue in the recently gentrified Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood on Cleveland’s west side. It’s menu is focused on fancy sausages and a dozen variations of "gourmet poutines" such as rabbit pot pie poutine, chicken paprikash poutine, spätzle poutine, crème fraiche poutine, apple gastrique poutine, and seared foie gras poutine! And how about poutine featuring braised Berkshire pork shoulder, butter poached wild mushrooms, almonds and scallions, or fried pork pate and sunny side up eggs? Really?? Is all of this really necessary. I will admit that I do like the idea of a "Vladimir Poutine" featuring Ohio-raised lamb stroganoff, mushrooms and borscht gravy. Well, I like the name anyway. The article summed up saying "For poutine lovers, this may be the nation’s best slate." Well, maybe, but they just ain’t poutine folks.

No thanks to faux poutine. Give me the genuine thing any day!


Saturday, July 28, 2018

A Murder of Crows Takes Flight

"A Murder of Crows Takes Flight"
Steven B. Rogers - Watercolor (2018)
My wife is the true artist in our family. Even our son has the gift. A gifted photographer, painter, jeweler and mosaicist, she knows what she is doing having read about and studied her crafts in the studio. Me? I’m a dabbler although when I dabble I take it very serious. Artists should always be serious about what they do regardless of their abilities and the degree of talent. Use what the Muse throws at you!

When I was a kid my father found relaxation painting by numbers and I tried to emulate him. Like most of my life, I have never been happy staying inside the lines. And like most young students I received some basic art instruction in elementary and junior high school. I also enrolled in a couple interesting studio classes when I attended a German university in the early 1970s. I learned basic principles about color, perspective and composition and I experimented with oil and acrylic media. The results are thankfully long lost and forgettable; I never found a comfort zone in either. What I learned, however, made it possible for me to appreciate the work of others far more talented than I and I love to ramble through galleries and art museums. The humorist David Sedaris, when asked why he did not continue with his art school education, admitted that most of his fellow students had something he did not. "They were on fire for the visual arts . . . I was on fire for writing, not for painting." As an artist I have also found it easier to paint with words than with pigments.

I find my dabbling in paints is in a way cathartic, something my writing is normally not. I write about things that have deep meaning for me, or as a way of putting order to a position or debate; I do not necessarily look at writing as an emotional release. With painting I do. Having lived with a visual artist for the past 40+ years it is difficult not to think about painting. SallyAnn works mainly with watercolors and gouache and she has taught me an appreciation for what one can do with these media. Add to this the minimal muss and fuss they entail and I have grown comfortable using them for what I am trying to accomplish when I dabble. Perhaps it is an emotional release as colors appeal to the eye, black on white print may not.

That said, my watercolor/gouache paintings tend more
"Maelstrom"
Steven B. Rogers - Watercolor
(2018)
toward "abstract expressionism" for want of a better description. They rely on a more vigorous gestural expression of self, a personal expression of emotion whatever it might be. Perhaps what I like about it is the fact that, according to Picasso, "painting is just another way of keeping a diary." This appeals to the journal keeper in me. "Painting is self-discovery," the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock claimed. "Every good artist paints what he is . . . Today painters do not have to go to a subject matter outside of themselves. Most modern painters work from a different source. They work from within." This is all I want to accomplish. "It doesn't make much difference how the paint is put on as long as something has been said. Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement." This is exactly how I feel about it. On occasion I will stray into less abstract formulations yet for no specific reason. Something just clicks. My last posting introduced a new watercolor based on a strong memory I have from last year’s visit to South Africa:
https://lookingtowardportugal.blogspot.com/2018/07/bless-rains-down-in-africa.html SallyAnn has done a number of such paintings and I felt I wanted to see if I could capture my own memory.

I recently finished Alyson Richman’s The Last Van Gogh (2006), a historical novel dealing with Van Gogh’s final two months painting in and around the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise in the summer of 1890 before he allegedly shot himself. He died two days later at the age of 37 having sold only one painting in his lifetime. Since I like many of the dozens of paintings Van Gogh executed during those final two months of life in Auvers, I was curious which is considered to actually be his last. Many experts seem to agree that it was "Wheatfield with Crows," painted circa July 10, 1890 (he died on July 29) although it is difficult to date his final paintings with any accuracy.


Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

There is something strangely compelling about this painting. The wild, turbulent sky, the broad brush strokes of what appears to be a wind-swept field, the lonely road headed nowhere in particular, and the crow taking flight into the distance. Some say Van Gogh was foretelling his own demise. Having studied the painting in detail I turned to my own palette, not so much to copy what Van Gogh created. I would never consider such a thing. The painting did, however, pique my interest and I tried to picture something somewhat similar but in a more local and familiar setting . . . in this case northern New England. The result was "A Murder of Crows Takes Flight." To quote van Gogh: "I do not say that my work is good, but it’s the least bad than I can do."

Friday, July 27, 2018

Bless the Rains Down in Africa

Bless the Rains Down in Africa
Steven B. Rogers - Watercolor (2018)
This evening I watched as a rain squall approached across the lake out of the western Maine mountains and I thought back to an afternoon in April of last year when I was up in the northeastern region of South Africa, in the borderlands of Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces. This region is also a transitional sub-tropical landscape of lowveld and bushveld with broad-leaf and acacia trees scattered across a relatively open plain of long grasses.

It was autumn in the Southern Hemisphere and the landscape was rich in earth tones, the sky a faint blue running to gun metal gray. In the distance the Drakensberg Escarpment was draped with rain clouds headed in our direction. Still we had time to pause during our morning safari to enjoy a pot of hot chocolate and Ouma rusks, a twice-baked dry biscuit that would last us until we returned to the lodge for a proper breakfast. A giraffe was enjoying the upper reaches of the nearby torn trees while a herd of Cape Buffalo kept a weary eye on us from across a water hole where a pair of hippos snorkeled about. I have been replaying that scene in my mind for months. Today some of it wandered off my watercolor palette. Blessed are the rains that they held off until after our return to the lodge.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Madiba at 100 - Thinking About Nelson Mandela


What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.

     – Nelson Mandela


Today marks the centennial of the birth of Nelson Mandela. There is no debate that he is one of the most significant and influential personalities of the 20th century. A modern day founding father of a new democratic nation rising out of the ashes of Fascism and apartheid.

I am commemorating Madiba’s birth by reading the honest and eloquent letters he wrote during his 27 years – 10,052 days – of incarceration. These letters were written between the time of his arrest in 1962 and his eventual release on February 11, 1990.

They are an inspiration and evidence of how Mandela was able to keep his spirit and his hopes for a new and just South Africa alive. Despite the draconian rules governing the quantity and content of prisoner correspondence, Mandela’s letters were written to his wife Winnie and his five children, as well as to his police captors and prison authorities, his fellow activists in the African National Congress [ANC], and the white government officials who arrested the 44 year old lawyer, tried and sentenced him to life imprisonment in 1964, and disappeared him into its frightful penal system, especially the stark existence and isolation of Robben Island situated seven miles off Cape Town. Nevertheless his inherent moral values remained intact and were never compromised in the face of uncommon punishment. Mandela chose not to be invisible, and although his voice may have been silenced, his pen remained a mighty sword against the injustices of apartheid and those who like him suffered its brutal suppression of equal rights for all South Africans. "For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."  

A lawyer by training, Mandela advocated for prisoners’ human rights, including for Winnie during her own period of incarceration, and outlined his own strong philosophy on human rights with unfaltering optimism. "Honour belongs to those who never forsake the truth even when things seem dark & grim, who try over and over again, who are never discouraged by insults, humiliation & even defeat." His fellow South Africans did not forget him. And neither did the world.

What a wonderful scene that was in February 1990 when the world finally watched Mandela walk out of the Victor Verster Prison near Stellenbosch a free man and into the hopeful future of his country. Not long thereafter I watched Mandela paraded through the streets of Washington, DC. He worked tirelessly to dismantle the policy of apartheid and to build a nation on the foundation spelled out in the Freedom Charter of the South African Congress Alliance in Soweto. Mandela was elected in 1994 as the first president of a free and democratic South Africa where blacks and whites could live together and throw off the chains of oppression that held them as prisoners in their separate worlds. He and the African National Congress ushered their country into the world community of democratic nations. "Madiba’s words give a compass in a sea of change," former President Barack Obama said of the man who stood as a mentor to his own desires to forge a new path in this country, "firm ground amidst swirling currents.

SallyAnn and I visited South Africa last year. I will not say there are not still problems and inequities in South Africa. Yet the tools are there to remedy them if the people choose to do so. That is promise. That is progress. During our visit, we had an opportunity to visit Mandela’s home in Soweto, outside of Johannesburg, as well as the nearby site in Kliptown where the Freedom Charter was established in 1955. Later, while in Capetown, we visited Mandela’s world for
19 long years . . . his prison on Robben Island. Having read so much about his long incarceration in his memoir, A Long Walk to Freedom (1994), how moving it was to arrive at the wharf where Mandela and hundreds of political opponents of the old regime were unloaded to begin their long imprisonments. Some would never leave. We saw where the prisoners worked long hours in the quarries, and in the barracks courtyards where they sat all day breaking larger stones onto gravel. There was Mandela’s spartan cell. The iron gates, the tall walls topped with concertina wire. The guard towers. The seven miles of cold South Atlantic waters with the beautiful city of Cape Town and the magnificent backdrop of Table Mountain. It made the isolation even more palpable. Back on the mainland, walking along the seaside promenade at Mouille Point outside our flat, I could see the Robben Island lighthouse blinking on the horizon. Too different worlds so close but yet so far apart.

Today I fly the ANC banner from our deck here at the cottage in Maine. I honor Nelson Mandela - Madiba - on the centenary of his birth and all he stood for and accomplished. He has been gone from us for five years. He will never be forgotten.



Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Hermitage With a View

Thunder is rolling across the Oxford Hills and the foothills of the White Mountains. There is a nice breeze blowing across Sabbathday Lake and there is a light staccato of rain on the roof. Off in the distance I can here the faint, high pitched piping from the convocation of bald eagles that nest across the lake. Farther away still is the distinct tremolo yodeling of our resident family of loons. I can think of no other place I would rather be at the moment.
 
There is no television, and no mobile phone and Internet services unless I choose to turn them on. There is hardly ever a distraction and one day unspools just like its predecessor, and probably much like the day that will follow. The only thing that ever seems to change around here is the weather and the seasons. Otherwise I am happy to be here undisturbed with my pens, my brushes, and a pile of books to keep me company. Finestkind.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

In Search of Three Pines - On the Road in Québec’s Canton de l’Est


Place de l'Hotel de Ville - Freleighsburg, Quebec
I am a fairly recent convert to the Gospel According to Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec.  Those of you who have read this wonderful series of thirteen (2005 to date) murder mysteries by Canadian novelist Louise Penny will immediately know to whom I am referring.

One of my oldest friends first told me about these books.  He and his wife had both read them and he suggested I might enjoy them seeing as they are set in one of my favorite places - Québec’s Canton de l’Est [the Eastern Townships] which stretch from the south shore of the St. Lawrence River at Montréal to the US-Canada frontier with Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.  I have been a regular visitor to this region for many years and so I followed my friend’s recommendation.  I have not been disappointed.
  
I must make a confession.  I read very little popular fiction, and have never demonstrated a proclivity toward murder mysteries.  Yet Penny’s books are more than this as they are heavily character driven with a strong sense of place; in this instance the village of Three Pines, Québec, which apparently very few people in the Québec of Ms. Penny’s books have ever heard of.  “Three Pines wasn’t on any tourist map, being too far off any main or even secondary road.  Like Narnia, it was generally found unexpectedly and with a degree of surprise that such an elderly village should have been hiding in the valley all along. Anyone fortunate enough to find it once usually found their way back” [Still Life, 2005].  One is curious how a town nobody seems to know much about, or how to get there even if they did, manages to remain peaceful and serene while residents and visitors keep turning up dead.  And, I should add, not by natural causes.

Three Pines is a fictional place; it does not exist.  That said, however, Ms. Penny freely admits that she drew inspiration from several Eastern Township villages and towns she has come to know since moving to the region with her late husband after working as a broadcast journalist for the Canadian Broadcasting Company in Montréal.  There are the bucolic towns of Sutton and Sutton Junction, where they first lived, and Knowlton, where Ms. Penny currently resides when she is not traveling the world.  Farther afield are North Hatley, at the head of Lac Massawippi, and Georgeville, on Lac Memphrémagog.  Then there is Stanbridge East, where the television production of Penny’s first novel, Still Life, was filmed.  I have visited all of these locales and none of them have what I would call a village green, a key feature in Three Pines, and they all strike me as too large to be compared with the minuscule hamlet that is Three Pines.  Its roads are unimproved and there are only a few cottages, a small church, a bistro and bed and breakfast, and a few shops arranged around a green with its three stately pines.  A country inn was added in later books.  That’s it.  Strange that the bistro and B&B do such a brisk business in this modern day Brigadoon.   More than a few have managed to find it.

Other than the murders, which are either referred to or described in the vaguest of terms, there is almost no violence found in any of the books.  No sex either, although the language is occasionally coarse . . . sometime in French . . . and the f-bomb is dropped here and there.  The inhabitants of Three Pines are just plain nice folks who are mostly kind and generous and look out for one another.  “I think of Three Pines as a state of mind. It’s a place that has chosen its society wisely. It becomes self-selecting; there is a reason these people are there in this particular village,” Ms. Penny admits. “It’s known grief and sorrow and will again. Yet there’s something potentially redemptive here—because I believe in that. I think bad things do happen but it’s in an envelope of many blessings.”  The stories are full of twists and turns and there are a lot of red herrings.  They have been described by Patrick Anderson of The Washington Post as a “kinder and gentler” murder mystery.  Others have compared them to the “cozy mysteries” of Agatha Christie, or to the plots of the popular television series Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996) starring Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher, an amateur sleuth in Cabot Cove, Maine.
   
Critic and reviewers seem to think these types of stories appeal mainly to women, and in fact a great many fans of Ms. Penny’s mysteries are women.  But there is no reason why they can’t appeal to men in equal measure.  Chief Inspector Gamache is no amateur sleuth.  Penny admits she created “someone who is kindly and strong, and has integrity and isn’t a bully, and has a sense of humor, and is literate without being pompous, and loves his food—someone not unlike my own husband, oddly enough!”   Based in Montréal, Gamache is head of the homicide division of the Québec provincial police and he has jurisdiction for the entire province.  Still, he manages to investigate the alleged tiny, isolated Three Pines murders personally supported by a phalanx of Sûreté officers and forensic specialists.  Although Canada is officially bi-lingual, French is the only official language in Québec.  At one time there were many well established English-speaking communities throughout the Eastern Township although they are fewer and farther between these days.  Three Pines, however, has remained a village of anglophone Quebeckers.  Thankfully, Inspector Gamache, who studied in England, is fluent in English which he speaks with a gentle Cambridge  accent to the surviving village inhabitants, many who through the series become personal friends as he ingratiates himself with the community over time as he returns in each book to solve yet another murder.

This past autumn I took a road trip across Québec south of the St. Lawrence River and I used the opportunity to explore in more detail the various Eastern Township locales which have come to be associated with Ms. Penny’s books.  More particularly, I set out to search for the mythical and mystical village of Three Pines where most of the action of these mysteries is set; if not the actual village, then those towns and places which provide Ms. Penny with her inspiration.  Others have done this before me, and as far as I know, none have ever claimed to find a village with a central green, especially one featuring three tall pines and a river nearby and no cell service . . . certainly none of the ones Ms. Penny has suggested as a possible model for her fictional village.  Listening to my friend who introduced me to these books describe Three Pines, a particular town, one of my favorites in the Townships, immediately came to mind – one that I picture when I reading the mysteries, even though it is not among the locales proffered as a model for Three Pines.  I decided I would have a closer look.

After spending the night in Bécancour, on the south shore of the St. Lawrence near Trois Rivière, half way between Québec City and Montréal, I spent a pleasant morning driving through the rolling hills and farmland, past Drummondville and Granby and into the heartland of the Eastern Townships.  I passed through Cowansville, where the closest Sûreté du Québec post to the fictional Three Pines is supposedly located, and from there I drove Route 2020 along the Route de Vin through vineyards in their rich autumnal colors until I arrived at my first stop - Stanbridge East, in the Stanbridge Township.

Ms. Penny describes Three Pines as a small hamlet situated on the fictional Bella Bella River just a few miles north of the US border.  Its village green has three large white pine trees supposedly planted by the local inhabitants to let loyalists fleeing north during and following the American Revolution that they had reached safety in British Canada.  Ms. Penny freely admits, however, that she first heard the three pine trees anecdote at church supper, and there is nothing to confirm this as historical fact.  Add to this the simple fact that such trees would take too long to grow to be planted intentionally for this purpose as stated in the mysteries.
 
Stanbridge East, situated on the Rivière Aux Brochets and its mill pond, is just a few miles above the border and its diminutive size could easily fit the bill.  The township was established in the year 1792 and opened for settlement, reversing the earlier policy prohibiting settlements near the American frontier.  The only screen adaptation of any of the Three Pines mysteries - Still Life - was filmed here and released on CBC Television in 2013.  Unfortunately many of the TV critics received it with less than favorable reviews when compared with the many character-driven BBC mysteries.  One Canadian critic, however, confessed that it was “ easy on the eyes and the brains,” which of course, the novels are.  They don’t pretend to be anything more.  Such is the definition of a “cozy mystery.”   I walked around and recalled many of the scenes from the film, but there is no village green to speak of . . . and no three pines or any larger stand of pines in any prominent town location.

My next stop was Frelighsburg Township and its eponymous village situated just a few miles southeast of Stanbridge East on Route 237 and less than three miles above the border with Vermont.  The village has long been one of my favorite spots in the Eastern Townships which I visit as often as I can.  This was my first visit since I began reading  Ms. Penny’s novels.  Even though it is not among the locales frequently cited as a possible model for Three Pines, I have always pictured Frelighsburg in my mind’s eye when envisioning the layout of and the action taking place in the fictional village.
    
Like its neighboring village of Standbridge East, Frelighsburg is also situated on the meandering Rivière Aux Brochets.  It is not as isolated and “off the grid” as Three Pines (none of the locales mentioned are), yet it exudes the quiet and (relatively) peaceful charm of Ms. Penny’s fictional village, especially the bistro where the villagers and Inspector Gamache and his cohorts frequently meet to discuss the case at hand while enjoying a drink and a good meal near a glowing hearth.   Frelighsburg happens to be the home of one of my favorite mealtime redoubt in the Townships . . . Aux 2 Clochers . . . located streamside in the very heart of the village.   I made certain my road trip brought me to Frelighsburg come time for lunch.  As I parked my car in front of the restaurant I looked across the road to Place de l’Hôtel de Ville and what did I spy there on the village green but three stately white pines!!.  Now I realize that there is little if any truth in the anecdote about the symbolic three pines, but my jaw dropped.   How could Frelighsburg not be Three Pines, if such a place ever existed?  I enjoyed a delightful lunch staring out at the three pines and the gentle flowing river. 
 
Leaving Frelighsburg I headed east following the road skirting the Canadian-US frontier to the border village of Abercorn and Route 139 which I them followed north through Sutton Station and  Sutton where Ms. Penny lived when she and her late husband first moved to the Eastern Townships from Montréal.  With a population approaching 4,000 it is far too large to be a true model for Three Pines although certain establishments in town have served as models for those in found in the novels.
 
Next on my list was Knowlton [Lac-Brome], yet another former loyalist village where Ms. Penny currently resides.  It is also the home of Brome Lake Books.  Situated on the banks of the town’s small pond (it has since moved to larger quarters on Knowlton Road, the town’s main thoroughfare), the bookstore has been made famous as the exemplar for the small bookstore in Three Pines, and it has become a mecca for Ms. Penny’s many devotees and fans.  Of course I stopped.  

From Knowlton I continued farther east, past the resort town of Magog, to North Hatley, at the northern head of Lac Massawippi.  It is the home of Manoir Hovey which served as inspiration for a similar auberge in one of the mysteries.  President and Hillary Clinton, who are both fans of the Three Pines mysteries, vacationed here shortly before my visit.  North Hatley’s large homes and architecture styles evidence the original residents who were mostly wealthy industrialists and land owners from the American South who moved their summer retreats north of the border after the Civil War.  The town is small and quaint much like Frelighsburg and it is another of my favorite destinations in the Townships, if for no other reason than the Pilsen Pub situated directly on (and over) Rivière Massawippi.  I’ve been eating there for years, and I can also picture it when the bistro in Three Pines is described.
 
My last stop is Georgeville, on the eastern shore of Lac Memphrémagog where the Canadian actor Donald Sutherland still maintains a home.  It, too, is very quaint, and faces across the lake to the Saint-Benoît-du-Lac abbey, and was established by American immigrants arriving after the Civil War.  It is a beautiful spot, but like North Hatley, it bears little resemblance to the fictional Three Pines.  Frelighsburg still remains my favorite choice.
 
I have always enjoyed reading books set in places I have visited and come to know beyond the cursory knowledge of a tourist.   And I have that in spades with Louise Penny’s Three Pines novels.  And even though these are technically murder mysteries, the bucolic and easy going demeanor of the Three Pines villagers give us, in these uncertain times we live in, a look at life the way it ought to be (without the murders, of course).  The fact that all this takes place in Québec’s Eastern Townships . . . even better! 


Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Enjoying the Summer Days in Maine

Can it really be that time of year again?? It seems like it was only yesterday when we packed up and left Sabbathday Lake last October after several delightful months at the lake cottage. And now we are here again (for two weeks already) and enjoying our little piece of heaven despite a few scorcher days with high humidity. The weather has returned to more reasonable temperatures and I have even had small fires in the woodstove when I have been up writing in the hours around dawn.

What can be more inspiring than sitting at my table and staring out at the placid lake? Steam rising and drifting across to the far shoreline, the western skies turning pink as the sun rises above the ridge line running behind our cottage (they call them "camps" in Maine regardless of their size and decor). There is the welcoming thump from the coffee pot as the morning coffee begins to perk and the cottage fills with pleasant morning aromas. Coffee and breakfast cooking on the stove. I put the writing aside for a bit and eat in the company of a good book.
I stand on the deck overlooking Sabbathday Lake as the day begins to take shape. Its surface only slightly disturbed by a gentling breeze as the flags fluff and flap. A blue heron glides low across the lake and lands in the alders that border a nearby cove. On the far shore a convocation of bald eagles has taken up residence in a tall pine. If I am lucky, I’ll see one or two of them hovering over the lake before swooping down to capture a fish in their talons and returning to the nest to feed the youngsters who are growing day by the day. And who can forget the family of loons that returns annually? They are frequently seen cruising the lake, occasionally diving only to surface far from where they submerged.

Throughout the day the shadows shift as the sun makes its journey to the western horizon. I find rest and respite on the deck under a large umbrella, or in the cottage’s shadow to continue reading, or to work on a watercolor, if the urge to paint strikes me. And there is the overstuffed chair in the sitting room where I occasionally park myself for a short afternoon nap as I enjoy the breezes blowing in off the lake.  

Besides the quiet early morning hours I most enjoy the two hours on either side of sunset as the day begins to cool down and the breezes subside. There are the mournful distant cries of the loons as the evening shadows lengthen across the lake as the sun sets below the far forested shore. The powder blue sky is etched by the pinkish contrails of jets headed to and from Europe. Just three years ago I was in one of them on my way to Frankfurt and I was able to look down on our lake and the surrounding country before heading out across the Gulf of Maine and the North Atlantic darkness.

With the onset of night I light the citronella torch and the bug punk. With the last vestiges of daylight, and with very little ambient light, the stars begin to come out. First just a few, then familiar constellations appear. Soon the sky is drenched in stars and on clear nights the Milky Way is there. If I stare up long enough I can usually catch a glimpse of a passing satellite . . . or even the International Space Station. Later, in August, we are treated to the Perseid meteor showers. Always a treat. If the conditions are just right, and if one is patient, the northern lights glimmer above. Reason enough to come to Maine in the summer.

Finally retreating inside, it is time to settle down with a good book, or perhaps write some letters while wondering what the next day will bring. Another day like the one just ending? Or perhaps it will be a day for exploring . . . . up into the foothills of the White Mountains, or even into the Presidential Range, in New Hampshire. Or over to Midcoast Maine and its rocky shoreline. Perhaps a lobster or two and some fresh steamers at a favorite lobster pound. So much to do and so little time to do it.

Maine . . . The Way Life Should Be! Amen to that!!


Sunday, July 8, 2018

Queueing For Sarnies - Another Adventure In Bacon


I arrived in England for the first time in mid-March of 1972. It was during my semester break while attending university in Germany, and tired of speaking German all the time, a fellow American student and I decided to make our way across the English Channel for a few days of intense Anglophilia. And what better way to celebrate my 21st birthday. After interim stops in Cologne and Brussels, we arrived at Calais, on the French coast, where we jumped a ferry for Merry Ole England. What a treat it was to disembark on the wharf at Dover where all the signs were in English. It was not the same thing as coming home to America, but it was close enough for us.

I arrived with a song on my lips, or at the very least a mysterious lyric from a song. Shortly before our departure from Freiburg, Jethro Tull, still one of my favorite groups of all time, had just released its fifth studio album, Thick As a Brick. It was not your traditional album but a concept album (some think a spoof thereof) consisting of a single 44-minute composition full of curious and impressionistic images framed with an odd assortment of British colloquialisms, many of which I frankly had never heard before. One more than any other caught my attention – "while queueing for sarnies at the office canteen." Now what the hell could this mean? At the time I was not even familiar with the term "to queue" - to line up - which the British tend to do when waiting for a bus or a taxi etc.. More than this, I had not the slightest notion what a "sarnie" was. It would not be long before I found out.

After settling in at the local youth hostel in Dover my companion and I strolled through town looking for something to eat. As we walked back toward the waterfront I figured we would end up at a Wimpy Bar for a helping of greasy burgers and chips (french fries), or perhaps a fish and chips shop. The shops we passed by, including a well worn Wimpy Bar we finally discovered on a back street, were all less than appealing to the eye and we assumed equally unwelcome to the palate. The search for a suitable meal continued.

We were practically back to the waterfront when I by chance spied a corner café offering sarnies. And there was a queue in front and so I took this to be a good sign. That mysterious lyric - queueing for sarnies at the office canteen - still stuck in my head I had the perfect opportunity to find out what a sarnie was. And perhaps eat one or two, if they appeared at all appetizing on first blush. Nothing I had spied so far came close to that. We wandered inside and grabbed an empty table near the window where we could watch the activity on the waterfront.

So what is a sarnie you ask? There were no photographs on the menu card and so I inquired with our spike mohawked wait person. It turned out there was no real mystery at all; a sarnie is nothing more than a bacon sandwich. Two slices of nothing fancy white bread slathered with butter or mayo to which one adds several slices of back bacon (what we in America commonly refer to as Canadian bacon). Streaky bacon, which is more similar to what we are familiar with in the USA, is also perfectly acceptable. Whichever, just include plenty of it. To this one often adds ketchup, but the traditional British brown sauce (my favorite is HP) is considered essential by many like myself who take their sarnies seriously (even though I had never really had one like the British serve them). The bread can be toasted, but why bother? One does not eat a sarnie to enjoy the bread; it’s only there to keep the bacon orderly. Stated simply, a sarnie is a BLT without all the unnecessary healthy accouterment!

That evening I had my first sarnie. I did not have to queue for it (as it happened the queue outside was for take away fish and chips); rather I ordered it and it was brought to my table. And I was not the only one there eating one that evening although my travel companion opted for the sit down fish and chips and wish he hadn’t). And it would not be the last one I would enjoy during that first visit to England. Nothing flashy about a sarnie. Why does there need to be? Plenty of bacon, that’s all. Plenty of bacon! Walking back to our hostel later that evening I kept thinking of that once mysterious lyric. Now I finally knew what it meant.

After Dover we continued to London where we spent a week sharing a room near Victoria Station with a fellow I took to be roughly the same age as ourselves. He told us he worked at a bookstore in Charing Cross Road and he was an interesting chap to talk to over breakfast in the morning (frequently sarnies) although we both thought he had the oddest British accent we had ever heard . . . sort of a mix of George Harrison (Liverpool), Sean Connery (Scotland), Michael Caine (East London), and Mick Jagger (Kent). Turned out he was just as American as the two of us, hailing from a small town in western Nebraska. I discovered this when he did not know what a sarnie was.

Any self-respecting Brit worth a jot knows what a sarnie is. Her Royal Majesty, who has probably never eaten one or even seen one up close, knows what a sarnie is! It is the comfort food and the guilty pleasure of an entire nation whether it be called a sarnie, a bacon butty, a bacon bap, or a rasher sandwich. Whether it is made with back or streaky bacon, it is a fully serviceable meal. Not only will it satisfy one’s hunger as a meal or in between snack, it is also highly recommended as a cure for too many pints at the pub the night before. The bread and grease soak up the excess alcohol while the bacon nourishes your debauched soul.

I must confess I had more than my fair share of sarnies whilst in London. I saw people queueing for them here and there and I took my place in line. It was usually worth the wait. Back in Dover after an early morning train from Victoria Station and while waiting for the ferry that would return us across the Channel to France I found myself once again queueing for a couple sarnies at the wharf canteen.

Note Bene: While in London my friend and I attended Jethro Tull in concert at the Royal Albert Hall. They played an abridged version of "Thick as a Brick," including that once mysterious lyric that now had a special place in my heart.