Ireland, again

It is nearing Saint Patrick’s day, so I am rerunning this.

Verdant Place, Limerick, Dr Bear 2013 2Ireland is beautiful and very, very green. It really is called the Emerald Isle for a good reason. I once drove through England to Ireland in a drought. England looked like a sun-faded newspaper, and–even though locals kept telling us how bad the dry weather was–Ireland was lush. That summer, it rained ever night from midnight to around 4, and then cleared.

If you have a low tolerance level for quaintness, I would advise you never to visit.

We flew into Shannon, because we decided that we wanted to force ourselves to see the Irish countryside, and were afraid that otherwise we might get stuck only seeing Dublin—lovely in its own right, but not the country.Limerick Dr Bear 2013

We knew we would be arriving at 6:30 am local time, and that it would feel like 2:30 am to us, so we didn’t have anything specific planned. We managed to find our way to the bus, and climbed up to the second story. Apparently, all Irish (and most Scottish and English) bus drivers are expected to drive like the night bus from Harry Potter—lurching back and forth, taking turns at frightening speeds, etc.—but we were also driving across green rolling hills, past stone cottages; Railway Hotel, Limerick 2013castles, all under a brilliantly stormy sky.

We unfolded ourselves at the train station in Limerick, and found the Railway Hotel (Lovely! I would recommend it). The check-in time was 2:00 in the afternoon, and the clerk frowned as we walked in. She suggested we eat breakfast, and I realized she was frowning because she was trying to think of a way to allow us to check into our rooms early.

Inhabitants of North America distinguish themselves by smiling (also, with the help of bleach and orthodonture, shiny, perfect teeth). We expect it of others, and when others don’t smile, we think that they are frowning, or troubled, or rude, or even hostile. To a lot of the world, the constant pleasant smiling seems artificial, and I think I agree, even if it takes some getting used to).

That first breakfast in Limerick was one of the best meals we had—Irish brown bread toast and jam, strong Irish breakfast tea, scones, a full Irish breakfast (rashers? black pudding? white pudding? roasted tomatoes?), porridge—it was so good, I have tried to duplicate the bread.Picnic in Limerick Dr Bear 2013

After a nap into the afternoon, we wandered about Limerick, and found a local farmer’s market that was just shutting down. The very Irish and very sturdy looking lady behind the counter at the cheese mongers frowned at us, then gave us samples of several cheeses, discussing where each had come from, and how long each was aged, and we left with supplies for a plowman’s lunch down by the wharf.

Again and again, we encountered Irish natives who were friendly and kind—the bartender at the Bram Stocker hotel warning us with a heavy brogue that the people in Bram Stocker HotelCork “spoke funny and are hard to understand,” the Dublin cab driver who refused to take us to Cornucopia on Wicklow Street—“Oh, I’d be embarrassed; it’s only t’ree blocks, now. Just cross the bridge and through those tall buildings” (I knew how far it was—6 blocks—and I had a 20 pound pack)—although often, the kindness was about fixing something that had gone wrong.

Things going wrong is apparently common in Ireland, and they all seem to have developed what I think of as “a bemused complacency towards the fecked-up-ness of it all” (“Oh, I can’t sell you a ticket on the bus; you can only get those from a machine, and that one there, it is broken. Marvelous!” “They closed at 3:20? How odd.”) It did surprise me that I had trouble getting used to the b.c.t.f. (as well as the occupied frown), since ??????????????????those are both things with which I face the world. That and the heavy lidded Irish eyes that are part of my genetic heritage.

Another odd observation, though: any given block in Ireland seems to have two pubs, a bookie shop, a homeless person or two and their dogs, and a pro-life billboard. It seems to me that there are vices that might be more important to fight than allowing a woman the right to choose, but, then again, Ireland only reluctantly legalized birth control.

Murphy's in Dublin Dr Bear 2013It was one marvel after another–a beautiful countryside here, a harpist there, music in a pub, the stormy skies at sunset, the voices–Irish is not so much an accent as a cadence, a lilt, a language sung softly. Kind people, great ale, and wonderful food–yes, my friends: the French were polite and the British Isles had good food; re-examine your prejudices!
If you are ever in Dublin, drop by the Murphy Brother’s Ice Cream Shop. They are always smiling.

Of course, who wouldn’t, spending the day around ice cream hand-made in Dingle. (“hand-made in Dingle” that makes me giggle.)

Gingerbread Chocolate Chip Cake for Valentine’s Day

Dr. Bear - tinyeditor’s note: with our efforts to move the Bistro, I have gotten behind on my recipes This is a wonderful recipe from a previous Valentines Day. Trust me, the cake is better than the holiday.

Gingerbread Chocolate Chip Cake for Valentine’s Day

IGingerbread Chocolate Chip Cake for Valentine’s Dayngredients:

 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1  tsp.  baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
2 Tbs ground ginger
1 tsp.  ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground pepper. cloves or red pepper (depending on how much adventure you like)
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1 cup oatmeal stout or Guinness Stout
1 cup dark molasses (not blackstrap)
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
1 Tbsp freshly grated ginger
3 large eggs
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup dark chocolate chips
Powdered  sugar for dusting

Step 1, Prepare ye the way: Preheat the oven to 350, grease & flour the pan or pans; I think this makes one Bundt cake, two smaller cakes and two or three loaves.  Also assemble all the ingredients on the counter.

Step 2, sifting the dry ingredients: In a large bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, salt, dry ginger, cinnamon, and pepper or nutmeg. Set aside.

Step 3, mixing the wet ingredients: in a medium saucepan (leave room; there will be foam), heat the stout. Take it off the burner, and carefully (!) add the baking soda (this is like the elementary school volcano experiment, but also like my soft pretzel/laugen recipe), whisking it smooth. After the foaming subsides, whisk in and dissolve the brown and white sugars, then, as it cools,  the ginger, the eggs and the oil.

Step 4, combining:  Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, maybe about a third at a time, mixing thoroughly. You don’t want pockets of dry, floury ingredients.

Step 5, putting it in the pan/pans: Add half the mixture to the prepared pan/pans, sprinkle this with half of the chocolate chips, then pour in the rest of the mixture and sprinkle with (you guessed this, didn’t you) the rest of the chips. They should sink into the batter.

Gingerbread Chocolate Chip Cakes in OvenStep 6, pop it in the oven for baby & me: bake the pans at 350 for 25 to 35 minutes, or until you can stick a toothpick in it and pull it out without it being covered with batter. Take it out, let it sit for a minute or so, then take it from the pan onto a wire rack to cool all the way.GCC5

Step 7, decorating and serving: Once it is cooled, you can dust the whole thing with powdered sugar, or come up with some sort of delicious icing. I plan to powder it, then decorate it with little bits of chocolate.

Monday Leftovers: Staying in touch in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

writing3My dear reader,

I am writing this letter to you to explain why I write letters. This year, I have hand-written more than 100 letters, postcards, thank you notes and other cards. In spite of this…

(Wode Toad is telling me to stop whining and feeling sorry for myself, and to get on with it. He is right; in the past few weeks, I received lovely letters and cards from my daughter, from Zack, from Kirsten, from Katy, from my mother-in-law, and even a package from Maeve & Kathy.)

I think there is something important about writing letters. I think it is a more genuine and authentic way of communicating than other ways of “messaging.” There is an investment to writing, and a special magic and joy to receiving a letter.

In 1935, the philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote a famous essay entitled “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” He explores how being reproduced changes the nature of a work of art. Of course, art has always been copied, but the possibility of large-scale mechanical reproduction and the development of forms of art such as photography and film which specifically rely upon this ability change how exactly we interact with art. Benjamin is writing as a child of the 19th century in the earlier 20th century; he is reacting to large-scale mechanical reproduction becoming more and more common, but not yet ubiquitous and inescapable.

For Benjamin, there is something that is lost in the transition between an original work of art and a reproduction, and, in fact, with reproduced art there is not even a clear distinction of “original.” Although we can speak of “Master copies,” there is no real way in which the first copy of a film has any sort of privilege over copies. Benjamin calls that which is lacking in reproductions an “aura.” This aura included such things as a certain authority, an ability to stand back and consider this one artifact as the authoritative version of this work; in addition to this, a work of art is located within a specific time and place having been brought to that time and place through a specific history.

Furthermore, it is located–enmeshed–within a specific tradition. The mechanical reproduction, by contrast, floats independently and unattached. Although there is only one original work, it is open to perspective, allowing its few viewers to walk around it and see it from several sides, standing face to face with the work of art, reacting to it and–in the case of performed art–being reacted to. By contrast, mechanically reproduced art forces its mass viewers to assume a certain viewpoint–that of the camera operator or editor. While the observer is absorbed in the original work of art, the purpose of the mass-produced reproduction is to distract.

One of the biggest changes in perception in the age of mechanical reproduction is that reproduction by sheer volume will eventually become the norm, and at one point we will not be able to even see a difference. What Benjamin didn’t foresee was the primacy of mass media, that at some point mechanical reproductions would not only have primacy over original, unique art, but that at some point reproduction would come to seem more real than the reality it represented and reproduced.

I am not entirely sure I agree with Benjamin, I love cinema and photography as art forms, and am unwilling to write them off. I definitely think he attributes a little too much to the mysterious aura of the art object–even using the language of religious mysticism and magic, but there is something different to created art as opposed to reproduced art. I have seen many of the great painting & sculptures that I also saw reproduced as little pictures in my textbooks, but also as posters and prints. The magic–and I really cannot think of another adequate word–of standing before Rembrandt’s The Night Watch in Amsterdam of Van Gogh’s Starry Night in New York or within an actual Cathedral is inexpressible. I am not sure what the aura of the authentic work is, but there definitely is something. Performed art can be made more perfect through multiple takes and editing, but there is something raw and beautiful that makes a live musical or theatrical performance so wonderful. I have a recording of Townes Van Zandt singing “If I Needed You.” I also saw him perform it live. The recording is actually better–his voice was pretty much shot by the time I saw him in 1990–but there was something about hearing Townes himself sing it, 100 or so feet away, under the July stars in Nashville. There is an aura, an authenticity, to an original work shared directly.

If I needed you would you come to me, Would you come to me, and ease my pain? If you needed me I would come to you I’d swim the seas for to ease your pain.

That is why I like to send hand written letters. Putting my words here onto the glowing screen sets them into an inorganic detached place, a place without history or context. Even as watch myself type them, the words become as indifferent to me as an article on Wikipedia. As you read them, you are reading them at a remove from me. The paper of a letter does not remove my words from me the way the screen does. They remain mine (and, given the nature of my handwriting, clearly, uniquely, mine), and when you read my letter they are still my writing, my marks, my words, but in your hand: they are now ours. Like the bread I have brought to your house, we are now sharing.

Where is the text I sent you? To whom does it belong? Where is the note you sent me on Facebook or in an email or by text? It might be in the cloud or on a mainframe somewhere, or on your phone, but are those real places? Can you put a text in your shirt pocket next to your heart, or keep it under your pillow?

Although we strive to live authentic lives in this 21st Century world, we have given up the very things that allow us to be authentic: knowing the person who grew our food, or even the person from whom we buy it, having our food reproduced for us rather than shaping it and making it ourselves, and investing ourselves (in my case, often a little blood) in our food, sewing our own clothes or working on our own houses and yards. In our jobs we are simply tools of mechanical reproduction, and in our lived lives we are allowing ourselves to become works of mechanical reproduction.

Furthermore, most of us are losing the ability to even recognize the difference: we do not know what it would be like to grow our own food, and we do not even recognize what it looks like before it is our food–on the vine or on the hoof. We do not know how to talk to a vendor at a road side stand or a butcher. Many of us do not know–or have only a faint childhood memory or the reminiscences of our parents and grandparents–what we have lost by eating “prepared” food rather than slow food cooked from scratch. Many of us have never owned an article of clothing that is unique, which could not be worn by hundreds, even thousands of others who went shopping around the same time. Soon, we might no longer remember what it felt like to connect with a friend–or even a stranger–in genuine conversation, or, if we do, it will be a distant memory, something else we experimented with when we were in college but have left behind.

The last hope of authenticity is also the first foundation of being human: being in touch with our fellow human beings. And so, to be authentic, we must try to restore authentic modes of staying in touch: genuine face to face (or side by side) conversations, eye contact and common courtesy, playful interaction, and open, honest conversation.

Since we live in a world in which we are increasingly separated from our friends and family, we must cultivate ways of staying in touch which have the same aura of authenticity. That, my dear reader, is why I still write letters by hand. Yes, an email, a Facebook post, a tweet, even an abrev’d text can have the same touching quality as a letter or even a heart to heart face to face, but if we never write and seldom talk, it is more likely that all our interactions will become inane twitter, or even the interpreted signage of Instagram, the borrowed scrapbooks of Pinterest, the flowing re-posts of tumblr, or the ephemeral images of Snapchat, instead of becoming more like conversations.
If, however, we continue to write, to take the time to form our own words and to send them, perhaps that aura of authenticity will inform even our humblest text.

live local live grand 10.3

PS: an audio version of this is available here.