“Their Finest” Hour and a Half

     In a happy accident (born of trying to escape Alexa’s decision to play heavy metal music instead of a requested BBC show), we discovered “Their Finest,” a British movie from 2016. Beginning with jerky World War II footage of factories full of women making armaments, it settles into the story of Catrin, a young Welsh woman come to London with an artist love interest – and her unexpected transformation into screenwriter. From a book titled “Their Finest Hour and a Half,” it’s a movie about making a movie, about imagination, about women’s work – and about romance, of course.

     In the story, Britain’s Ministry of Information Film Unit wants to make a movie to inspire the war effort, and decides on a fudged (by Catrin) version of a true story about two daring sisters, who nick their drunken father’s boat, and, heroically join the rescue effort at Dunkirk.

It’s fun to see the primitive sets and lights (movie magic being made in the olden days), watch the script being written on the fly using clunky manual typewriters and much verbal sparring (as many cups of tea are drunk from real mugs). Hired to write “slop” (the term for women’s dialogue), Catrin turns out to be more clever by far than her male writing colleagues.

     I enjoy Bill Nighy’s flighty mannerisms, and his role here as a washed-up actor long past fame perfectly suits. He’s charming, old fashioned, and silly, full-of-himself and kind. He takes in hand the non-actor American hired for his good looks, and the hope he might inspire Americans to enter the war.

     “Their Finest” seemed a wonderfully long movie, and we spread it out – grateful during our own scary and uncertain days (unleavened as yet by time and creativity) to have this escape each night. There is joy in Nighy’s version of “Wild Mountain Thyme,” sung around a pub piano with the whole film crew – and joy in the theatre audience’s reaction to the movie.

And joy is good right now.

Total Transport from Now

These weeks leave us anxious, holding our breath, too worried to hope, but desperate to hope. A terrific book changes the subject.

     When they came to visit in the Before Times, friends of our younger son brought Caroline Van Hemert’s book, “The Sun Is A Compass: a 4,000 Mile Journey into The Alaskan Wild.” Van Hemert was their high school classmate, and her life took a turn – she made her life take a turn – that none of them expected.

     Van Hemert’s book is the tale of the trek she and her husband made in 2012, traveling those 4,000 miles under their own power – by foot, by ski, by canoe, raft, and rowboat from Bellingham in the Pacific Northwest to Kotzebue on the shore of the Bering Sea.  

     Trading time in front of a computer studying data for her real love – the outdoors and all it contains – Van Hemert describes the decision to attempt this epic journey. In one of my favorite passages (and there are so many), Van Hemert and her husband, as they leave the coast and head into the mountains, sit on a snack break and together identify birdsongs. She writes: “But today the graphs and calculations fall away as I inhale the scent of dirt and spruce needles. Out here I am half scientist, half disciple. I’ve left the laboratory far behind and, with it, the need to quantify and contain. In its place, I’ve reconnected with the simple act of observation.”     

Observation, yes, and treasuring every day. Toward the end Van Hemert writes: “In life we’re always closer to the edge than we like to admit, never guaranteed our next breath, never sure of what will follow this moment. We’re human. We’re vulnerable. With love comes the risk of loss. There are a million accidents waiting to happen, future illnesses too terrible to imagine, the potential for the ordinary to turn tragic. This is true in cities and towns as much as it is in the wilderness. But out here we face these facts more clearly, aware of the divide between today and tomorrow. And, for this reason, every day counts.”

Picturing her exhausted in the tent at day’s end, scribbling in her journal, I marveled at how she kept the saga’s rich detail in mind. She is the finest of writers, scientist and poet, with an ability to capture the landscape, the animal life, and the action. And her knowledge of and love of birds is thrilling.

But you can’t help reading it as a page-turner as they traverse this unthinkable distance, by sea and river, over glacier and mountain, and hummocks of tundra. Crossing shockingly cold Alaska rivers, frigid with glacier melt in tiny packable rafts, encountering bears and a caribou migration, and surviving hunger, a terrifying dunk in the Arctic Ocean, and discovering the kindness of strangers.

     I often identified with Van Hemert’s parents, supportive with love and logistics, but uneasy as the left behinds. It tickles me that now Van Hemert has children, she will learn what it’s like to be the one at home. Our younger son wrote to me, “I can’t imagine what her boys will do to one-up her, but I’m sure they’ll figure out something.”

     As children do. And same for Lord B – Professor Snape now – adventurer-to-be!

“Putting Up” and New Postcards

     Local squirrels worry not about the pandemic or the election, they scurry about, gathering and stockpiling their winter supplies. Following suit, I’ve given away and stored away all 27 pumpkins from our little patch. Pumpkins gone north to Alaska and south to LA, they decorate the porches of friends who may or may not make pies.

Pumpkins to my neighbor who recently gave me some of the big bag of onions she brought back from Eastern Washington, where the summers are hot and tasty onions grow. She recommended freezing them after chopping – something I’d never known to do. Handy!

     Pumpkins for our friend of the fine blueberry patch who said come to get apples and pears, and when I arrived, also offered tomatoes for sauce and a pepper, “off the scale hot!” I sent it on to the Sweet Bride, who says no pepper is too hot for Thai taste.

So far, I’ve baked a first pie, and made pear butter with most of the pears (and painted one), and a plan for applesauce. And also new to me, tomato sauce – if you briefly boil the tomatoes six or so at a time, the skins slide off, then cook down. Now to make pasta sauce with these cooked tomatoes.

     And for a winter scheme, this week Sweet Baby began our new alphabet postcard project. A friend accuses me of too many words, my return postcard proves her point.

Needs Must, Just Deserts

     This weekend those two phrases kept floating through my mind.

     Our old friends came to dinner on Friday night. That used to be such an ordinary event, but not since March. We ate in our friends’ beautiful garden in the summer – one night in spring the fireplace provided warmth, but it never seemed welcoming here – our patio too hot on a summer evening, our back deck so small.

     But on Friday it felt exciting to be welcoming friends after so long, and, though we’d be outdoors, I cleaned house. I made a pear dessert, totally simple and really good. (Halve and core pears, place in a baking dish cut side up, sprinkle with crushed walnuts and cinnamon, drizzle a teaspoon of honey over each, and bake 30 minutes at 350°.)

To figure out “outdoor dining,” I’d been inspired by Lady B’s mother’s tale of a little farmers’ market-like canopy and a gas firepit in their Alaska back yard – and my old friend’s plan to expand her covered porch or set up a table and chairs on the existing narrow one – and figure a way to add heat as the winter descends. It is going to be a long winter – needs must.

     On Friday, I separated the tiny patio tables, placed starters on each, and laid another little table with a cloth, a water jug, and glasses. The purple footstool from the front porch became a landing spot for pizza boxes (our dinner).

     The sky cleared of fog and smoke by late afternoon and the sun warmed the little patio, but the sun soon disappeared behind neighboring trees. I always forget how suddenly real darkness descends in October. The solar fairy lights came on, the moon rose (a lovely pale yellow instead of smoke-filtered orange), and by the end, most all our house candles, in various holders and unused all summer, glowed at our tables.

We ate and talked of our families, the difficulties of any plans for the upcoming holidays, and the week’s mind-boggling events. That other phrase “just deserts” comes to mind, along with hopes for survival, and the (probably useless) wish that this development might grow some empathy for those who have suffered and change minds toward universal mask wearing.

     We have probably seen our last 70° windless, rainless day, but even wearing down jackets, and sitting next to the car, it was a candlelit, bistro-someplace-else evening. With no hope of a repeat, the memory glows – a quartet of old friends, food and wine, in the midst of a pandemic.

Needs must can make magic.