Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Snowless Wonderland

I recommend following these instructions.

Take a walk. Talk a walk in the cold before the snow comes and fills in to the road edges several feet thick. Take a walk and enjoy the line between gravel and pavement and the grass next to the field. Note the similarities between the sound of frozen grass under your shoes and the gravel scrapping concrete. Note the similarities in how it feels under your shoes and how you like that feeling. Breathe deeply and let the cold nip but not bite the bottom of your lungs, because it isn't the deep heart of winter yet.

Leave that border you've been considering and pick the field, the one surrounded by yellow "No Trespassing Signs" because you are pretty sure that walking across an empty corn field, waiting for summer, could hardly be considered dangerous or threatening. Take this walk in the morning or as the sun sets, and watch how the colors in the clouds aren't what they are in summer but are their own careless, distant beauty. Watch for ground hog holes. You don't want to fall and twist your ankle because you will have to climb over a creek to get out of this corn field and you didn't bring your cell phone to call for help. That makes the ground hog hole even more interesting to look at. When you come to the sound of a man running his chainsaw in the woods and his four wheeler, avoid. You didn't take this walk to be found. Walk the length of the field. Listen to the wind on the top of the hill and look at how small and full the land is with small hills just the size of the one you stand on.

And note that it is winter, that the earth has turned brown, that there isn't a sound of a bird anywhere, but that it is beautiful, and that the creek you nearly fall into to return to the road, sings clearer in the stillness, brimmed on its banks in heavy ice.

Offer the Doxology as thanks.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Dana Meets Food Shopping

The other night, Dad took me to the grocery store. We needed three more boxes of mint and double stuffed Oreos to make our chocolate covered Christmas Oreos, the deadliest snack I have yet discovered (after raw cookie dough, of course). He volunteered both himself and me for the job. Reasons #1 was that he wanted those Oreos. Reason #2 is that he only goes when he has other food he wants to eat himself but wouldn't ask for on Mom's weekly grocery list. So he volunteered and took me too. I went when he asked because I know that if he goes, I'm guaranteed to score of some of my own favorite foods. When Isaac goes, this means chocolate milk and gummy bears. My own tastes are a little different.

The store was pretty busy, which makes sense for post dinnertime and right before Christmas. It felt much later with the sun being gone and the Sweet lights already up and going. I was instantly lost though when I realized that the store was switched from the Giant in State College. I couldn't find anything. So I stuck with Dad. He got his favorite bagels and grape juice. I also scored some favorites, ones that I've started getting frequently at school but only recently. I realized that my tastes have subtly shifted since I started having to buy my own food, though what these new tastes mean, I don't really know. I put a quality container of feta cheese in our cart, recently frustrated by the lack of flavor provided by Colby and Monterrey jack Giant brand cheese. I found the shelf of hummus and picked my favorite pita chips to go with it. When Dad made sure to get his peach tea and red grape juice, I pulled a jug of pomegranate and cranberry juice. Since when did I start liking pomegranate anything? And, of course, we got our Oreos.

The grocery store has a long history in the memories of most middle class American children. I remember the delight of fitting in the basket and being surrounded by food, or riding under the cart on my belly. Hannah cut her finger on the wheel one day and Mom left the groceries in the cart, purchased, and rushed to the car to get it taken care of. I remember the bright colors of Trix for Kids boxes, desperate to have a taste after the flashy (for the time) TV commercials on PBS kids. And grocery stores are just so brightly colored and fun to run around in. There are few things more enjoyable than wandering around Wegman's, on any occasion. Grocery stores always struck me as the perfect place to play hide and go seek. There are no good hiding places, only movement, and the intense moments when you are in the center of an aisle, and anyone could come around the corner and find you. Just imagine the intensity of a game of paintball in those aisles! And as a child, it is so easy to be lost and wander, feeling both safe and at a loss all at the same time. And I wanted to work there. Why is it that children want to work at check out counters? I wanted to work in a grocery store above anything for a while, especially after that kid's discovery place in Vestal, NY that our cousins took us to.

But however much the grocery store was part of my growing up experience, measuring my growth and age by the moment Mom refused to let me stand on the end of the cart, much less ride in it, buying food was never something I thought about as a kid. It was just part of life like cleaning was. If I was lucky, it was something Mom did on her own and we simply helped unload the van. It didn't involve choice exactly. The Ray family choices were as inevitable as the fact that I would hate meatloaf from day one through the present. Unchangeable.

Moving off campus changed that for me. I had to buy food. I had to think about what I was going to get and when I was going to get it and what I was going to make with it. Oh, and how much it was going to cost. It made my head hurt a little bit. I started practicing this summer but depended on the glorious Jillian and Jon to find and create our dinners. But I did pretty well at figuring out what I needed and eating it.

India incapacitated me. Completely. I couldn't figure out how to get the store. I couldn't even imagine trying to choose food and make things. I ate food for nearly a week by what came to me: left over pizza at first club meetings, my friend's canned soup, the crackers I had left from my India stash. I wasn't sleeping well. Maybe I was, but I only remember exhaustion and an intense feeling of constant awareness and wakefulness. And growing head aches. And no food.

Maybe it was the choices I would have to make that kept me from figuring out a way to get more food. Maybe it was the abundance of choices. Maybe it as the fact that there was no way to even find something like a grocery store in India, that I had lived off of whatever food Sambia had decided to give us each day (like pomegranates. That must have been where I started like them), and the sheer abundance of it in comparison to... well to... come to think of it, I didn't have a single meal in someone's home. I ate at HOINA or in a hotel restaurant, more aimed at wealthier Indians and tourists than at the average Joe (though they don't have Joes in India). I don't think I ever saw people eating. I saw the market when Prasad let me accompany him. But I didn't see people eating outside of meal times on campus.

And after that, I couldn't think to get more food than the crackers that were right there to eat.

It was Kate who saved me, who said she would come and show me how to grocery shop. I still can't understand coupons, or at least haven't the capacity yet in my mind for keeping them sorted or for using them in time. Kate understood and just knowing that she did was enough to assure me that I and my empty belly would be safe in her hands. She walked me through how to pick breakfast foods and how many days I would eat lunch on campus, what is easy to pack, what foods I'd be willing to eat many days in a row, and how to tell what average prices usually are and why chicken should only be bought when under $3 a pound. I still haven't bought any meat after she told me that. "Accidental vegitarian" I call it. A few days later, I made my first attempt at rice and burned it to high heaven, but at least I had rice, and more than enough to try again and play with flavoring and find ways to eat. Kate showed me how to boil the rice in chicken broth and stir fry peppers and olive oil and garlic to add to it. Oh, and that feta cheese I've fallen in love with and couldn't do without for the two weeks I'm home.

There is something slightly sinister though about grocery stores that I haven't really pin pointed. It's been there since India. It may have something to do with the sheer abundance of it. With the free choices presented, with the ability to have a desire and for it to be met in a short drive. It is also a way to expand beyond the known, but it rarely happens. It is easier to check the spots on the shelf where the usual cereal hangs out, get a box, and go. It becomes routine sameness. Living with Maggie and Sarah, and with Kate's initial help, I found a different set of foods to eat and enjoy, foods that can be made for just one person. I tried making things I'd never eaten. And I learned that leaving extra cookies, cake, and soup on the boy's counter next door made food making extra satisfying. After the first cracker fiasco, I ended up eating really well this semester. And I'm grateful. I'm grateful to know that I can make a mean eggplant parmesan and that I can make satisfying pasta without spaghetti sauce. I'm grateful to watch the people around me cook. I'm grateful for the many who drove me to stores so I could buy food this semester and crafted a more watchful relationship with food shopping.

But something still feels unresolved.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Carols and Hymns

 I realized as I began to consider this post that I didn't know the difference between a carol and a song. According to my yellow pocket Langenscheidt's pocket dictionary, there is not a difference but a unity:

Carol: a song of joy or devotion.
Hymn: A song of praise, especially to God.

This year, my friends felt a special compulsion to sing Christmas hymns and carols together. Perhaps it was not special or unique for them, but I do not remember times in past Penn State Decembers where there was so much singing going on. As one who has recently lamented the semester schedule (which, in fall and spring, I love dearly) that prevents me via Thanksgiving break, weekend assigned trip, and Christmas break from attending the advent services at Oakwood Presbyterian, these nights of singing have been especially valued. After a Navigator dance party, we gathered in the Plex living room and sang through all of the songs on a website of lyrics, Abi and Ben Reimold leading the singing with their creative vocal improvisations. I don't have practice in singing so there were times I sat quiet and listened. The other time was this Wednesday during the annual camp out, moved indoors this year because of the cold. Justin and Ben built a lovely fire in the Park Ave Cru house fire place and we attempted to sing with music sheets found in someone's guitar case.

I've been a bit leery of Christmas this year, disgruntled with false expectations of perfect felicity and joy. I no longer enjoy songs about "winter" fun but find them rather frustrating. What I've found in the the carol and hymn singing is a patient reminder that Christmas does not contain undiluted or, perhaps it is better to say a joy that comes from lack of experience. Rather, the joy is coming from heavy experience, from the pain of the incarnation rather than an idea of its ease. It is a wonder because incarnation is not "easy", but comes in the most natural of hard ways: through birth. Nor do these songs pretend that the world is well, even at their most joyful or content. Rather, they are full of imperatives: rejoice, joy to the world/ let men their songs employ. Or "the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight." One has to be reminded that joy does indeed come out of the birth of Jesus. Remembering against every day life is not natural. There is fear involved in this salvation.

 "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" may be my favorite, poetic words with a lovely, mournful melody.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night 
And death's dark shadows put to flight.

The writer acknowledges that there are gloomy clouds and death has a dark shadow, things that humanity cannot "put to flight". It is answered by "Emmanuel shall come to thee, Oh Israel". Hearing Abi sing this while I grew sleepy on the Plex couch was a gift. I did not sing but closed my eyes and prayed with the voices around me for such an answer to be given.

Even "Joy to the World", a song very exuberiant in the celebration of victory presents a request in the midst of the joy:

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,

The Christ has come but all is still to be made right. 

There is a double presence displayed in these songs. There is the joy in what has been given. There is the hope of what is to come. We remember the longing Israel had for the Messiah, to "ransom captive Israel", knowing that we still sing that line for ourselves, in hope that the Messiah then is returning for us someday.

Rejoice, rejoice

And in the knowledge of difficult life and the command to rejoice, there is great comfort.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Word Party II

More lovely times at Irvings. I think Word Party is going to have to become part of regular life. I spent three hours at Irvings with some fascinating people. We talked about our writing processes, read some Annie Dillard and a play called "Arcadia" and Elizabeth Bishop and what makes us scared to write.

My favorite moment was when Alan read from "Candide" by Voltaire. "I know I am supposed to bring a favorite book. So I brought Candide. Except I haven't read it yet. I thought we could start on the first page together."

Big Apple

Amanda Wise (philosopher and poet and dance friend) told me this weekend about her "life list". She keeps a list of things she would like to do in life. Not normal things. She once added "sail a tall ship". She was then part of a crew. She also adds things "retro-actively", an act of gratitude for the moments in life she couldn't have planned but would have wanted if she could.

Consider this my retro-active Big Apple Dance competition List.

-Saying my feet were sore on the way to the performance Saturday night. Zak Al Balushi picking me up and carrying me for a few yards. There was something rather appropriate about being carried through the streets of New York.

-Cherry coming up to me on Sunday placing one hand on cheek. Squinting. "This is you with make up?" she said.

-Making sphagetti. Seidle and I breaking into a chacha in the middle of it. Becoming the "Ballroom Mom".

-Two stepping with Zak across the hostel dinning room.

-Alan falling asleep in the locker in the boy's room.

-The cheering that broke out from the Penn State corner when James and I did a traveling step that Sam (love her!) taught us.

-Walking arm and arm through Central Park with five lovely friends and being silly at the castle.

-Talking philosophy, word games, theology, and poetry the entire way to New York with Alan, Amanda, and Sarah.

-Frying with water.

-Jolene shaking my wrist in a game of "ghosts" to get me to say the correct letter.... that would make me loose.

-Thinking I was abandoned in the New York Starbucks. But I wasn't.

-"Ballroom drama" in central park. So many people were heart broken after all of that.

-Trying to v waltz over an arched bridge.

-Catching up with Cecilia on the drive home.

-Running to the front of the wrong line and almost making it onto the floor to compete in the wrong level of latin. That was a classy moment for me and James.

-Watching the show case performance Saturday night.
The waltz was my favorite. I get chills each time I watch the video.

-Walking through the tiny grocery store on Broadway. It was Wegmans. Even better than Webmans. Just completely compressed as if the shelves were bending over to get more space to breathe. Things kept falling off the shelves and onto my head.

-The semi finals for quickstep. Something happened to James and he went crazy and we spun the entire way through. It was brilliant.

-Hearing Mel and Seidle teach Christie the use of "Navtastic".

-Loving my classmates, loving music, loving dancing. I want this to happen again soon.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

What makes a good film adaptation?

We had a lively debate today in my senior seminar today. Christmas is a noted time for film companies to send their film adaptations of books into the theaters for a go. Some films are noted failures. Others make absurd monetary amounts. For many movie goers, these adaptations are likely to be the first introduction to various texts. For example, I would say that the majority of my college peers have seen the Lord of the Rings films, simply based on their wild popularity in our high school years. I would also say that only a minority have read the books in their entirety. Those that have read them are likely to be committed fans of Tolkien, and have read well beyond the primary Lord of the Rings volumes. The disproportion of these numbers will likely be less for The Hobbit, but chances are it could increase again after the film. After all, why read the book when you know the plot from the movie? The plot is all there is in a book, right?

(Dana chokes)

I'll admit: it isn't possible to live in a world these days where the book is always read before the movie. I accidentally watched "The Painted Veil" before I knew it was a Somerset Maugham novel.

But the questions surrounding adaptation and quality adaptation remain. What is it about a book that makes it worth putting on the screen? Why do it at all, except, of course, to make money? Are there ways to have quality in the film and be faithful to the text? Does faithfulness matter.

My own opinions in this matter have changed over the years. I was once an utter purist of the sort that most abhors the pleasure seeking movie goer. If it didn't in every aspect look, smell, taste, sound exactly like the novel, down to subplots, then I deemed it unworthy of existence. Now, I allow a little more room. For example, the Ang Lee version of "Sense and Sensibility" is a noted film adaptation that is excellent. It takes significant liberties with the plot and with unifying motifs, such as the use of Shakespeare's sonnet 116.

But before I dive into some examples of my favorite adaptations, I want to hear: what do you think qualifies a film to be an "excellent adaptation"? And don't say "Faithful to the book." Define what you think faithfulness means.