AJAX BELL

Author of the Queen City Boys books


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What Spain Was Like

“She knows, now, absolutely, hearing the white noise that is London, that Damien’s theory of jet lag is correct: that her mortal soul is leagues behind her, being reeled in on some ghostly umbilical down the vanished wake of the plane that brought her here, hundreds of thousands of feet above the Atlantic. Souls can’t move that quickly, and are left behind, and must be awaited, upon arrival, like lost luggage.”

– William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (full quote here)

Yesterday morning (relatively speaking, to my current sense of time), I got on a plane in Barcelona.  It flew out over the Mediterranean, which was spectacularly blue, and then turned sharply and went directly over Sitges, a town I had visited just days before.  I wept copiously with a great sense of loss as the plane went over the entire length of the Pyrenees, until reached the Bay of Biscay and turned over the Atlantic, towards Philadephia.

I am presently too tired, too soul-lagged to tell you about it.  Indeed I may never getting around to writing a narrative of it, but I promise lots and lots of pictures as soon as I get all 500+ of them sorted and tagged and all that modern day nonsense that allows me to foist my living room vacation slide show on you.  For now my soul is still somewhere over the Pyrenees, perhaps, still dreaming of the Mediterranean.


What Spain Was Like

Spain was a taut, dry drum-head
Daily beating a dull thud
Flatlands and eagle’s nest
Silence lashed by the storm.
How much, to the point of weeping, in my soul
I love your hard soil, your poor bread,
Your poor people, how much in the deep place
Of my being there is still the lost flower
Of your wrinkled villages, motionless in time
And your metallic meadows
Stretched out in the moonlight through the ages,
Now devoured by a false god.

All your confinement, your animal isolation
While you are still conscious
Surrounded by the abstract stones of silence,
Your rough wine, your smooth wine
Your violent and dangerous vineyards.

Solar stone, pure among the regions
Of the world, Spain streaked
With blood and metal, blue and victorious
Proletarian Spain, made of petals and bullets
Unique, alive, asleep – resounding.

– Pablo Neruda

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An open letter to Sherman Alexie

Just read a line in a Sherman Alexie story about standing in line at Bartell’s and suddenly I’m so homesick I’m not sure I can live through the heartbreak of it. In my head I ask Sherman Alexie if he imagines how many of his throw away lines profoundly affect people?  I think of every word I’ve put out there, every bit of fiction I’ve written, and no one has ever come back to me with the important words, with the phrases that I labored over, they only come to tell me about the how they were moved by my fast lines, the ones that drop out, that I don’t consider at all before I put them to paper.

Perhaps the lines I don’t labor over mean the most, come more truly from me?  Perhaps there is no meaning in any of it and will just keeping spilling out words, looking for the turn of phrase that will free my soul and find it someday.  Perhaps Sherman Alexie labored over that line and still will never know will never know how his two sentences made me break my own heart.  I could write him a letter and tell him, but I would labor too hard over the words, I would lose the importance of sharing what he gave me.  I have always been writing this letter to him in my head, through out the years, every time I read his stories and poems.  A letter that never makes it to paper, to computer screen, never achieves more than some small form of therapy for me.

I am talking to Sherman in my head (can I call you, Sherman, I feel we are close enough now) about my homesickness, about how I cannot ever really understand where he is from and he cannot understand how I am from where he is now.  I tell him it is a continuum that no one but me can see, a story that can’t quite be told, but is important all the same.  And the The Butchies pop up on shuffle on the old mp3 player and I start to cry because this is more homesickness than a soul can bear.  But this makes me get up and start to cook dinner: fettuccine alfredo with smoked salmon (real, PNW smoked salmon), peas and caramelized onions.  Because I am homesick and if I lived close enough that I could call my mom and ask if I could come over she would walk to me to a restaurant near her house (one Sherman Alexie has surely been too) and I would order some variation of this dish because you don’t really find it anywhere else in the world, not the way we make it in Seattle.

And while I am chopping onions the mp3 player turns again and gives me Kevin Gordon singing Watching the Sun Go Down, and I remember how I stopped at 6:42 am, on my way to work, to photograph the sunrise over an electrical power station, and got distracted by some horses too.  I think of how the redbuds are surely more beautiful this year than they have ever been before, blooming riotously, everywhere, making the edges of every roadway glow purple.  I think of how  the heat in Tennessee makes me feel warm all the way through to my bones, like I’ve never been warm before.

So I tell Sherman that he is lucky indeed, to be able wait in line at Bartell’s, but he has to go through cold rain to get there and I am saved by the sun  and the green in spring and the sounds, all the sounds, here in the dirty South.  Perhaps I am homesick for a place that no longer exists.  A place I visited, moved through in childhood, that is just a fairytale now, I can not go back.  My adult self does not have the magic to cross back over the boundaries of the places I’ve been before, I can only go to new places or create them myself. And I’m still crying when I sit down to eat my dinner, but not because I miss anything.  I am so lucky to have been so many places, both real and imagined. Lucky to be me and to be still so full of emotions good and bad (love) about all of those places I have been and the people in them.  Even the rude lady in the Bartell’s line that you have to tell to fuck all the way off.  So thanks, Sherman, for reminding of my home, the past one, the new one, the one that is always me and goes everywhere inside my heart.  I’m certain that you never knew that namedropping Bartell’s in a story would make some girl in Tennessee break out the fancy smoked salmon from way back home and cook herself a good dinner on a night when she would otherwise have been too tired, too worn down by work, to do more than make a quesadilla.  Thanks for dinner, Sherman, I really feel like we are close now.

 

(Pictures taken early this morning in Tennessee, when I stopped, before I even had coffee, to remember that there is beauty in the world.  Even when you feel like you break to pieces because of the stress that swirls around you and puts the anxiety inside you, there is still the color purple and leaves that were not that green yesterday and sunrises.  The redbuds really are spectacular this year.)


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Adventures in substitutions

It’s a cold, cold winter night here, so I did the only thing one can do, cooked and baked until the house was warm and smelled good.

Quinoa Red Lentil Soup


I used this recipe (the stove top version which only took about 35 minutes) which came highly recommended from a trusted friend.  I saw it and thought, oh I have all those things, I’ll make that.  HAHAHAH!  Well, I had quinoa and red lentils.  Of the spices I only had fresh ginger, paprika, cumin and thyme.   So I used those and substituted 2 tbl of green curry paste for everything else.  Also I didn’t have any of those vegetables, so I used a yellow onion, diced, a yellow squash (the zucchini like kind), also diced and a can of diced tomatoes and a couple cloves of garlic, finely chopped.  I did follow the directions pretty closely, despite all the substitutions.   At the end of cooking I also put half of it through the blender until it was smooth and added it back in with the rest (a secret that improves 85% of soups).

I think it turned out great.  Would be excellent with a dollop of sour cream but there’s few things that isn’t true about.

Apple cake


2 eggs
1/4 cup canola oil
1/2 cup applesauce
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups flour
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp pumpkin spice
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
3 apples, peeled & chopped

Directions:  In large bowl, beat eggs, applesauce and oil until smooth.  Add sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, pumpkin spice, baking soda, salt and mix well.  Add flour, beat until smooth. Fold in apples. Pour into greased and floured 9 by 13 pan. Bake at 350F degrees for 50-55 minutes.

I substituted Bob’s Red Mill all-purpose gluten-free baking flour.  Also I normally would do 3/4 cup applesauce and no oil, but I was unsure about this flour mixture, because I’ve never used it and I figured a little oil might help.

I’ve used previous versions of this recipe (I seem to reinvent it every year, whole wheat flour, less sugar, no oil, now gluten-free) to make muffins for which it is excellent.   The original recipe called for 2c sugar and a cinnamon and sugar glaze, but I really prefer things less sweet.  You should experiment until it tastes how you like.


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Things and books and other things

I’m in the market for a used dresser or side board or cabinet of sorts to replace the cheap, small emergency shelves set up in my sewing nook.  I’m simply hoping to stumble across the right thing in a thrift store or whatever and paint it (or I figured I’d be happy with something like this).  However I stumbled across this re-do the other day and now suddenly I need something I can refinish with a squid.  Like I will waste away, pining for a squid dresser if I don’t get one.

click for pictures from the books locations, in case you werent already wishing you were in Provence right now

I just finished reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s YsabelThe Lions of al-Rassan is one of my favorite books and I really enjoyed The Last Light of the Sun.  If I find I like an author I generally seek out more of their books, but I rarely read anything about those books or the author.  I’ve been burned too many times by finding out the creator is a jerk and I find it’s easier to just read a story in the void and only bring to it my current preconceptions of the world and not any negativity about the author or to be pre-influenced by reviews I’ve read.  So based on my two previous reads it seemed safe to assume that Kay wrote character stories in fictionalized versions of historical events (al-Rassan is essentially El Cid and Moorish Spain and Sun is Alfred the Great defeating the Vikings). Which he does write, right? He just also writes other things, apparently.

Ysabel reads like a YA urban fantasy, you know the ones where you’re just a teenager in the city and suddenly you get caught up in the drama of the fairy world? (See Charles de Lint‘s Newford saga stories or Holly Black‘s Modern Faerie tales.) Kay’s story relied more on the strange possibility of magic and history colliding and less actual fairy tales and the setting, Provence, was as much of a character as person in the book.  It was enjoyable and neatly written, it made me dream and think and still left something lacking.  I just didn’t engage enough with any of the characters.  I was compelled to keep reading by the mystery and strange magic and French Celtic history.  And while the main characters were likeable enough, they were real enough, still they just didn’t make me care enough.  I’d recommend this, but save it for the airplane or the beach.

After reading I tried to sleep, somewhat unsuccessfully, because of a string of late, late night thunderstorms that seemed so threatening that I got up from my bed under the windows and went and curled up on the couch (not under windows and further from big, bad thunder).  But as I drove in to work this morning, the storms had left behind a jumbled mess of crazy clouds rushing out and everything is so very, vibrantly, overwhelmingly green, especially against the grey sky.  And I remember, as I do every year, that I (and surely everyone else) continues to live in Tennessee because spring is so sensational.  It’s really astounding how the trees fill in and the colors.  It’s like God is talking directly to you, just for a little bit, daring you notice every leaf and every change and be grateful for it.  And it will be hot soon enough, spring so fleeting like the first flush of being in love and overwhelmed by it, but it comes back every year.  It’s worth the storms and the heat waves and the grim winter.  The Steve Earle line, “Tennessee is green in spring” is like the understatement of the century but at the same time anyone who lives here understands the depth and meaning of that little statement.


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Sunday dinner

I’m heading into work late.  It’s way too cold, icy and snowy to go outside.  In lieu of doing work this morning, I typed up my Sunday dinner menu for you.

Spice Rubbed Lamb Chops

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon freshly ground cloves
1 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 large lamb shoulder blade chops

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.  Mix the 2 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon pepper, cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon together. Brush each lamb chop lightly with the olive oil and season with the spice mixture. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the chops in the skillet, without crowding until brown and crisp on both sides, about 3 or 4 minutes for both sides. Finish chops in the oven for 1 minute for medium rare, or to desired doneness.

(I substituted cayenne for cloves, which I realize isn’t the same, but worked out very well.)

Chickpea and Leek Soup

5 medium leeks
1 can chickpeas
2 cloves of garlic chopped finely
1 medium potato
4-5 cups of vegetable or chicken broth
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan plus extra for garnish
1 Tbs butter
2 Tbs olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Dice and boil the potato, set aside.  Clean and slice the leeks, lengthwise and then in narrow strips.  Melt the butter in a heavy bottomed stock pot with the olive oil and add the garlic. Once they begin to soften, add the leeks and a generous pinch of salt.

Once the leeks are soft and smelling good, add the pre-cooked potato and the chickpeas. cook about 2 minutes then add the 2/3rds the broth.  Simmer 15 minutes.  At this point you have to decide how you want to serve the soup – as it is, puréed or semi-puréed. I blend about half of it and ad it back to rest of the soup. Add the rest of the broth to your desired thickness)and the grated Parmesan.  Serve with more grated fresh Parmesan.

I served all of this with butter lettuce salad, as well.

Over all, super easy.  Since there’s only two if us, we usually end up with enough soup for two more meals.  I’ll probably add chicken and mushrooms to it when I reheat it, to keep it new.


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Coming up for air again and again

[Most of this post has been sitting in ‘draft’ form for a week or more.  Lately I just can’t seem to line myself up to post, or finish any thing really. Will work on posting more regularly here to hopefully give my non-work life some structure. My weeks ago post saying that I am all over the place has definitely been true.]

Went Weds. night last week to the seeekrit pre-opening of the Mas Tacos storefront location.  She did an amazing job on the location.  It feels like it’s just a south of the border taco joint that’s kind of outside time and space. The atmosphere made the tacos even better. Especially the awesome jukebox. They open on Tuesday, if you’re in Nashville, you should go.

I’m also desperately awaiting the opening of the Brentwood location of the Local Taco [HA!  Since I wrote this, it’s opened and I’ve been–didn’t like it as much as the original location, but we did go on opening day, so they get some super slack].  This is my new favorite place ever.  Partly because I love tacos and having more places to get them is good.  Partly because the tacos are gooooood.  And once they had sauteed Swiss chard with Shitake mushrooms as a side that was so spectacularly out of this world, I don’t even know how to explain it to you.  I do know I’ll be cooking more in the near future and I see a lot of experimenting with Swiss chard until I can duplicate that amazing dish. YUM YUM YUM.

It’s been stupidly hot in Nashville.  Fortunately I am house sitting for some friends that have a lovely pool.  Air conditioning is great for keeping cool.  Swimming before bed is even better.  It turns out that if you go swimming right at sunset, the bats are circling the yard and skimming the top of the pool for about 20 minutes. It’s a little weird, as they fly low right over you, down the length of the pool and then up. I can’t tell if they are skimming the surface accidentally while looking for bugs, or if they are cooling their bellies on hot evenings. It’s kind of like being in a nature show though!  Last night a hawk sat on the pavement surrounding the pool, just watching, until he noticed me and flew up to watch from the nearby tree.  I wonder if he was waiting for the bats?

Work is, well, work.  I know I haven’t been writing here.  I could say I don’t have time, but that isn’t true.  I’ve spent a lot of evenings reading on the porch (until it’s gets too dark or too hot, hot usually happens first), or out running around with Talk to Owls, or just, I dunno, pretending I’m getting “stuff” done but mostly flitting around like a spaz.  Housesitting means vacation really, since most everything I think I should be doing requires me to be in my own house.  Work has leveled out to normal hours. So I have time, though mostly I’m too tired to bother doing anything creative, fun or useful. I don’t see that changing in the next few months.  Plus my learning curve on the job is really steep right now (speaking of, I should totally be working right at this second–I’m purposely procrastinating until I calm down enough to feel like I’m actually absorbing information).  I guess what I am trying to get at (ironically in an all over the place kind of way) is that I’m completely scattered.  Mostly in my home/personal life, but that’s definitely bled into work (not in getting work done, but in understanding the work and fitting it in to a convenient pattern).  Even though I am reading and swimming and trying not to overwhelm myself with “Right now I SHOULD be doing…) still I feel like everything is speeding by at this accelerated pace that was created by work in the 6 weeks following the flood.  Working less doesn’t seem to be allowing me to fit more into my life.  I can’t seem even to focus enough to explain to myself how I feel right now.  Loose ends, I suppose.  Lots and lots of loose ends. Come too short to even tie together.


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we work to make our dreams come true

Well here it is Tuesday again.  Fortunately for me, this Tuesday was preceded by a Monday and a weekend, not by 40 other Tuesdays as has so recently been the case.  Talks-to-Owls and I took advantage of that first weekend of freedom and escaped the city to lounge about in a hotel room and walk in Botanical Gardens and see Museums.  Work continues apace. I haven’t wrapped my head around not working 65+ hours a week.  I am exceedingly busy this week, despite not working as much, or perhaps because I am not working as much.  This weekend I will perhaps try and organize my life some.  Next weekend I am going to Seattle for the holiday.  After that everything will become somewhat more normal.  Or become the new normal, I guess, since it seems everything in my life has changed in the last seven weeks.  Actually I’m not sure at all what normal will be now.  I am just making it up as I go along.  Although I suppose that’s what we are all doing all the time.

So, uh, yeah.  I spent the weekend wandering museums while wearing sundresses.  I’m mentally all over the place.  I feel vague, distracted, sort of unable to work and unable to think or process anything that isn’t work. I wish I  lived in museum/sundress land all the time (picture above is from my phone to capture my Saturday night, what joy! wine and a view).  Plus the heat index here is over 100°F and is supposed to stay that way until, uh, September, I guess.  So that isn’t very motivating.

(Thoughts about the oil spill and other news redacted from this post for another time when I’m making more sense.)