Art with Books

When my family and I moved to Alaska in 1959, the year of statehood, the Z.J. Loussac Library (then a 1955 downtown building) was a lifeline for my sister and me as out-of-place newcomers.

We migrated from the Young Adult section to the real stacks during years of checking out big piles of books and high school study afternoons at old wooden tables. Later, motherhood meant accompanying little children to story hour – followed by a treat at the nearby Woolworths, and a slow walk home with the red wagon full of books.

In 1986 Anchorage built a beautiful new building – many-leveled with comfy chairs and good light. Past story time by then, our sons’ continued trips to the library supported their new interests from schoolwork to backcountry manuals. A list of the checked-out books (a life list like birders keep) would trace our years, revealing life’s changes and inquiries.

The “new” library building is 25 years old this year, and Friends of the Library plan an exhibit of art made from books as part of the celebration. When my painter friend passed the “call for artists” on to me – I applied.

Organizers invited participating artists to select books to use, winnowed from donated and deaccessioned library books – leftovers – unwanted even at book sales. The day I visited on this trip, I chose from books in an alternate set of stacks in the basement, the “dungeon.”

I looked for a book with a title that might reflect my thinking and found a little gilt-lettered volume titled “The Great Conversation,” the first volume in a Britannica Great Books series. The relationship we have with the libraries of our lives does seem a conversation of sorts.

And now the threatened “end of the book” as paper object complicates things. On the airplane I read part of a paperback novel, but also one on my iPad. The New Yorker from last fall I carried with me has a Roz Chast illustration on the cover titled “Shelved.” It shows books with expressive faces on towering, stuffed bookshelves. They watch a fellow in a chair using headphones and a laptop.

I haven’t a clue what I will do with this little book – can I make it a library memoir of some sort? I have till August to conquer my reluctance to “alter” a book and make an offering from this unwanted volume.

Three Things I Learned in Alaska

A Handy Tip: One of the many treats on a recent Alaska trip was a visit with my young friend and her mother. When I arrived at their house on Saturday afternoon, I found pizza makings arranged on the kitchen counter. Three circles of dough sat on parchment paper, and little bowls held tomato sauce, artichokes, cheese, chopped red onions, tomatoes, olives, roasted garlic, and leftover cooked broccoli and beets. A pizza stone heated in the oven.

We put our own made-to-order pizza together, and transferred each to the pizza stone – along with the (here’s the tip) parchment paper. Set the timer and pull the parchment paper out after about two minutes (a 500° oven might ignite parchment paper). This handy hint eliminates cornmeal and the tricky shift from peel to stone.

A Small Miracle: I stayed with our son and his wife and their four lively non-human companions – two orange cats and two beloved dogs. The critters claim a tall kitty condo, multiple sleeping spots (mostly sunny) throughout the house, and a variety of dog beds. Each is important in its time.

So when the zipper on a comfy contraption of foam and fleece (placed in front of a low-down window for maximum neighborhood surveillance) refused to zip after a wash, we struggled with it, managing to get the two rows of teeth lined up and into the fastener – but the teeth wouldn’t unite as a zipper must do.

The sweet dog liked the bed anyway – but I woke early the next morning and began to wonder what makes a zipper zip. A few minutes with e-How and now I know that pressure on the teeth from the fastener (the part below the toggle pull) does the trick. As instructed, I squeezed the in-place fastener just a little on each side with pliers – and voila! Zipness.

A Helpful Hint: In these three days I saw old friends, enjoyed my old garden with its new owners, drove down memory lane along Turnagain Arm to Girdwood, and ate a lot of good, home-cooked food.

We got meal mileage from the big pot of black beans our son prepared before I arrived, but for Sunday evening, Bittman’s “French-Style Lentil Soup with Sorrel or Spinach” was on the menu.

A simple recipe: put lentils, a bay leaf, pinches of dried thyme or several sprigs of fresh, one each chopped carrot and celery, and six cups of stock in a soup pot and sprinkle with salt and pepper. (Bring to a boil, then cook till the lentils are tender.)

At the same time, sauté a chopped onion in olive oil, and when cooked, add a bunch of washed and chopped spinach plus a teaspoon of sugar. Add to the soup, along with a squeeze of lemon.

What’s new in that recipe? I learned from the young people to use the bean cooking water as part of the stock. Why have I never known that? It makes the soup full-bodied and uses up the nutritious bean liquid. Perfect!

Oh So Wrong

Needing an adaptor to connect my laptop to the cable for a new monitor (exciting development for laying out the pocket books on a bigger screen), I visited the local computer store. I said I had a MacBook Pro and got an adapter.

At home I opened the monitor box. It contained a multitude of cords, coiled snake-like in plastic bags. I laid them all out on the table, along with the Apple adapter, but quickly realized my new “Mini-DVI to DVI” adapter was never going to fit into the port on my computer.

I called the store and described my computer as a MacBook Pro, adding that it was a 2006 purchased last January. The young man who answered said the port should be on the right. I said no port on the right, just the DVD slot. He said if the DVD slot is on the side it’s not a MacBook Pro from 2006. I replied that I was sure it was a MacBook Pro.

Each equally politely irritated with the other, we had a couple more exchanges. He said if I brought it in, he was sure he would have the right adapter. OK I thought, glad to take it in, glad to show him the words MacBook Pro.

Never mind that we were really hung up on my wrong date (of course it is a 2010 model). Where did that certainty (and wrongness) with which I said 2006 come from? (Maybe I need different adapter cables to refresh my hard drive.)

Yet another lesson in the “it never pays to reveal irritation” category – a reminder that indignation should serve as a warning sign somehow (specially on my part where technology is concerned). We weren’t rude to each other, but being the sort of computer person who knows the body type of each Mac model, their ports and specifications, he must have been completely flummoxed. What seemed slightly arrogant was really just statement of fact – “You haven’t got a 2006 MacBook Pro.” Right.

He had every reason to be argumentative. I was so sure I was right, and I was so wrong.

So I took my computer into the store (all became clear to my chagrin). He found the “Mini Display port to DVI” adapter that I needed and sorted out all the cables, showing me what goes to what. He tossed a cable in the “free box” (one I wouldn’t need at all), handed me the electrical cord and said, “You can probably figure this one out.” We laughed.

The laughing part was good. And the lesson.


The other day on the radio I heard a snippet of the Seattle gardening show inviting people to post photos of the inside of their refrigerators on the radio station’s web site.

“Hmm…” I thought, and then began (I was driving) a whole reverie about the inside of the fridge. My painter friend once said when I asked if she liked her new refrigerator: “Yes, it makes my food look so stylish.” I often think of that response when I open my fridge door. I knew what she meant, but in front of my fridge “stylish” is not the first adjective coming to mind – crowded, confusing, disorganized ring more true.

William Morris said “A true source of human happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life and elevating them by art.” I turn to that when avoiding chores, particularly ones that might improve the visual quality of life.

So on another rainy Saturday, I cleaned out the refrigerator, wishing it had more crisper drawers. Too many plastic bags, no matter how I might try to avoid them, camouflage contents. So does reusing yogurt containers.

Among other things, I found carrots, the lovely ones with tinges of beet coloring, with a fine crop of thread-like roots (easily removed for pre-dinner snacking). Pac choi from the CSA, which our farmer said she liked best in soup, had slipped my mind.

A quick stock seems a good way to use the “last ofs.” Following Deborah’s advice, I sautéed in a little olive oil a couple of roughly chopped slightly wibbly carrots and celery and an onion – adding a few sprigs of thyme, some branches of parsley and crushed garlic cloves. I poured in eight cups of water and two teaspoons of salt, and let it simmer for 30 minutes or so while I finished cleaning out the fridge.

So OK, cleaning the fridge can seem utterly trivial and unimportant. I certainly avoid it for as long as possible. But on a day-to-day experience level, maybe it does matter. How many times in the course of a day do I open the door to the fridge?

Pleasures are in the little things, details of daily life. I’ll enjoy clean shelves and order – at least for a while!

Signs of Spring X


And we’ve been noticing tiny black-and-white lambs at a farm down the bigger road from our house. The other day I stopped to pick up a blanket woven from the fleece of their elders.

The farmer and I stood in the sunshine enjoying the smells of warm earth, hay, and grass, and sounds of baas and busy birds. A stately llama, guardian of the flock, eyed me suspiciously. (Its main job is to prevent coyote visitors.) The farmer raises the sheep mostly as breeding stock, and he also keeps a couple of cashmere goats “to make things lively.”

These are Jacob sheep – popular 400 years ago as lawn mowers responsible for the perfect green swards we associate with English stately homes. They nearly died out, but hand weavers in England (fond of their mixture of white and black fleece blending in yarn to grayed tones) encouraged small farmers to save them.

These sheep are healthy in the way of heirloom varieties. (The farmer told me proudly that most does deliver their lambs with little help from humans.) Their coloring is distinctive, also their complicated horn arrangements of two or four, twisty or straight.

Guinevere (singled out as a “very good mother, she keeps her lambs near her”) lounged so close to the fence with her babes, she seemed to be showing off these fine offspring – tiny doe and ram (one with two horn nubs and the other four). We all soaked up the sun together.

I walked back to the car with a blanket – soft gray with stripes of darker wool – comfort for a cold night, warm with memories of a sunny spring day.

The Bean Project – Hummus

So far from the royals! Return to reality and embrace the common chickpea – the lowly garbanzo bean – unassuming in appearance but full of protein. The other day reaching for a container of hummus at the Co-op, I wondered why am I always buying this. I should try to make it.

The day I tried was also the day I’d been up from two to four in the morning, wrapped in a blanket in front of my computer, streaming BBC to watch the wedding live. All the sleepy day later, I kept thinking how we never get out of bed in the middle of the night for a happy event. So it was a strange treat to join people all over the world (not watching a disaster or a revolution either), without commentators or commercials, just cameras and sound – like being a pigeon in the abbey rafters.

Wanting the hummus sooner rather than later, and having neither dried garbanzos nor the two hours needed to cook, I noticed Bittman’s recipe says: “This is a good place to use canned chickpeas.” He warned that hummus can taste too much like raw garlic but promised his was “smoother and more complex in flavor.”

Following his directions, I combined two cups of canned chickpeas, half-cup of tahini (I had roasted tahini), quarter-cup of olive oil, a small clove of garlic peeled (Bittman also recommends roasted garlic), salt and freshly ground black pepper, one tablespoon ground cumin (or to taste), and the juice of one lemon (I had a Meyer lemon) in the container of the food processor. After beginning to process, add up to half-cup of water as needed to make a smooth puree.

Mine took a while to get smooth – I used the whole half-cup of water – but maybe should have just processed longer.

At the end after tasting, Bittman says to add more garlic, salt, lemon juice or cumin if needed.

It’s good – and rich with possible variables and additions. My friend on the bluff who makes it often doesn’t use a recipe anymore – hers is tasty.

I want to try Bittman’s “Roasted Chickpeas” with the leftover beans – adding olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper before roasting at 400° for about 15 minutes. Bittman says you can sprinkle with chili powder or curry powder – crisp on the outside, smooth inside – sounds a good snack.

Next royal wedding I’ll make some ahead of time!

Happy Ever Afters

Sometimes when reading with the wee scholars, we deviate from their recommended books (geared to reading level) and choose a fairy tale from the library shelves behind us. The scholars like plays or stories where we can each take a part, and lately we’ve been reading “Cinderella.” They are eight years old, my scholars, and know the story as well as I. (We are three critics sitting on little chairs, with comments about details of dress and demeanor.)

I have resisted mentioning our current royal wedding to them, respectful of our First Lady’s plans to attend the shuttle launch with her little girls – no mooning over princes and princesses there – and I think about the widened horizons for little girls (princess or astronaut, among other possibilities).

Just before the royal wedding, 30 years ago, we were in London with our little boys visiting long-time friends. The dad of the London family took my husband and son to St. Paul’s Cathedral to deliver commemorative glassware produced by his company, etched with images of Charles and Diana. We brought four wine glasses home (now greatly reduced in number by use).

We also have a cookie tin (properly “biscuit tin”) from that era, its lid bearing a photo of the royal couple – Charles looks headachy and cross, Diana apprehensive. I remember getting up early to watch the wedding with our sons, and when I asked one recently if he remembered any of this, he said: “maybe, sorta.”

Diana had two fine sons, and the one with the best name got married Friday – to a commoner. The royal tale is Masterpiece Theater – full of human hope, pageantry, music, beauty, and willing, excited onlookers (also contemporary twists of telly and Twitter). Weddings tie the principals to the past and to what is important to them, and this wedding had so much – English history, Westminster Abbey, that ring, that hymn.

It might have been strange timing, juxtaposing the wedding with the space shuttle launch – a “nerve-wracking” event as even that brave and wounded wife of an astronaut described it – full of human hope and danger.

But in this day and age all public events are fraught. We watch hoping for happiness in life, for pumpkins transformed and space ships in orbit. Wishing for a long life for everyone involved – touchdown for astronauts and a happy-ever-after for the young royals.