Ricotta and lemony herb tart with roasted beets and pine nuts

Ricotta and herb tart with roasted beets

Ricotta and herb tart with roasted beets

I had a birthday the other month, and I realized I don’t really want for anything, I don’t need anything more than I have. I want a dress with pockets and some wine that’s better than we usually drink, but that’s about it. And it’s summer, so lots of friends are going on big adventures, but we’re mostly going on smaller adventures, and I’m fine with that. I think I have an ample portion of whatever quality it is that breeds contentment. And why wouldn’t I? I have no excuse not to. And then I was thinking about people who struggle to be content in the face of adversity, Pierre Bezukhov; “The harder his position became and the more terrible the future, the more independent of that position in which he found himself were the joyful and comforting thoughts, memories, and imaginings that came to him.” Or Myshkin; the idiot, “And I dreamed of all sorts of things, indeed. But afterwards I fancied one might find a wealth of life even in prison.” And there are times we shouldn’t rest in contentment: in the face of injustice or cruelty or any situation that deprives another of the opportunity to be content. And maybe contentment is dangerous sometimes, because if you’re too comfortable you might lose yourself in your own small world.

Around the time I was thinking all of this I encountered Epictetus. He was a stoic teacher, but he lived four hundred years after the original stoics. (Four hundred years.) He said one should be “sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy.” And he began life as a slave, his very name means “acquired.” In my ignorance, I’d always thought stoics taught that a person shouldn’t feel anything at all; not sadness or pain or desire or happiness. And yet according to my slight understanding of Epictetus, the whole point is to seek eudaimonia, which is happiness or flourishing or contentment. And to achieve this, “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.” Life comes at you in impressions, or phantasiai. And you don’t take these at face value, you question them, you talk to them. You say, “Stop, let me see what you are, and where you come from, just as the night-watch say, ‘Show me your token.” And if it’s a harsh impression, you “Make it your study then to confront every harsh impression with the words, ‘You are but an impression, and not at all what you seem to be.’ Then test it by those rules that you possess; and first by this–the chief test of all–’Is it concerned with what is in our power or with what is not in our power?’ And if it is concerned with what is not in our power, be ready with the answer that it is nothing to you.” And, like Pierre Bezukhov taking comfort in joyful comforting imaginings and memories, you “In the first place, do not allow yourself to be carried away by [the] intensity [of your impression]: but say, ‘Impression, wait for me a little. Let me see what you are, and what you represent. Let me test you.’ Then, afterwards, do not allow it to draw you on by picturing what may come next, for if you do, it will lead you wherever it pleases. But rather, you should introduce some fair and noble impression to replace it, and banish this base and sordid one.”

For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Not everything that Epictetus writes makes sense to me. I think passion and desire are beautiful and unavoidable emotions, and we should try to live with them rather than without them. But I like the idea of using your mind and your imagination to overcome anxiety and make your way through the world. I like the idea of working to change what you can and understanding that you can’t change everything. I like the idea of living in accord with nature, and with our nature, our name. “Further, we must remember who we are, and by what name we are called, and must try to direct our acts to fit each situation and its possibilities.” The name we are called is sister, mother, brother, father, friend, and when you act according to your name you do so regardless of the situation or the behavior of others. So if, say, your 13-year-old is unaccountably angry and moody and worrisome, you don’t respond with anger, you respond as his mother who loves him and tries to understand him at all times, if mother is one of the names you are called. I like the balance of this idea. I’m done with my ramble, but here are some Epictetus quotes that appealed to me.

Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.

When a raven happens to croak unluckily, don’t allow the appearance hurry you away with it, but immediately make the distinction to yourself, and say, “None of these things are foretold to me; but either to my paltry body, or property, or reputation, or children, or wife. But to me all omens are lucky, if I will. For whichever of these things happens, it is in my control to derive advantage from it.”

Avoid swearing, if possible, altogether; if not, as far as you are able.

These reasonings are unconnected: “I am richer than you, therefore I am better”; “I am more eloquent than you, therefore I am better.” The connection is rather this: “I am richer than you, therefore my property is greater than yours;” “I am more eloquent than you, therefore my style is better than yours.” But you, after all, are neither property nor style.

Every habit and faculty is maintained and increased by the corresponding actions: The habit of walking by walking, the habit of running by running. If you would be a good reader, read; if a writer write.

Here’s When the Saints go Marching In by Barbecue Bob, because I love it!

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Asparagus and pecan tart

Asparagus and pecan tart

Asparagus and pecan tart

Last week I inattentively read an article in the Guardian UK about a mother who left her three very young children to do stand-up comedy 100 days in the row. She cited an article by a woman who said every mother should only have one child in order to achieve her full professional potential (or was it creative potential? I’m losing points for comprehension and retention on this one!). She also mentioned a response by Zadie Smith who said, Well, Tolstoy and Dickens had dozens of children each. The whole exchange seemed so strange, to me, so judgy and self-righteous, that I heaved an exasperated sigh and forgot all about it. Until last night when I couldn’t sleep, of course, and the conversation went round and round in my mind like a squeaky hamster wheel. The comedian’s oddly-humorless article pretended to disparage anybody who would leave their small children at night, but she was obviously very proud of herself, and expected us to ignore the fact that it would be absurd for anybody to do 100 stand-up shows without a night off, regardless of how many children he or she had, and (if I was being ungenerous I might say) we can only assume this gimmicky trick was meant to hide the fact that she’s not all that funny. And I hope nobody made this other writer feel bad about having only one child, because I can’t understand why you’d write such an article unless you’re feeling defensive (although I haven’t read the article!). And I hope Zadie Smith doesn’t feel excessive in having two children, and I hope she realizes that Tolstoy and Dickens are pretty bad examples of successful working mothers, but that she herself might be a very good example, because she’s written some remarkable books. The comedian seemed to suggest that it’s impossible to achieve professional or creative satisfaction without sacrificing your marriage and your sanity, at least sacrificing them enough that you can write a book about the experience. And she made a big point of saying that it’s perfectly fine if you stay at home all the time with your children and have absolutely no ambition outside of their needs, in the most condescending and contradictory manner possible. Well I find the whole conversation frustrating! Of course having children is going to cause you to sacrifice some of your time and alter your ambitions, but it’s hardly the only thing that will! I could blame the boys for the fact that I haven’t made a movie in over a decade, but that would be foolish of me. I made two features films before I was thirty, and they cost a lot of time and money, and although I’m proud of them and glad that I made them, in any practical reading of the situation, they failed. That’s discouraging! That makes it hard to muster the energy and optimism to make another. Let alone the money. And you can’t forget about the money, because films are expensive. I could blame the fact that I don’t have a flourishing professional career on the boys as well, but we all know that started much earlier, with my inability to network or sit at a desk for eight hours or behave myself in an office setting. Oh, and my determination to make feature films instead of concentrating on a practical career! The truth is that it’s all very hard. And I’m very lucky, I had a lot of opportunities and support. Plenty of people work at night without a break because they have to to keep a roof over their head. Plenty of people have jobs that don’t allow them opportunity for advancement or a satisfying creative outlet. Whether you have children or not, it’s hard to get ahead, it’s hard to do all the things that you want to do, it’s hard to find time for yourself. And the truth is that there are plenty of people that manage to work things out, that have a few kids, and work full time at a job they find fulfilling, or write novels and make films that they feel good about. I always think of Agnes Varda, who joyfully, humorously, poignantly, put all of these challenges into her work, and made it stronger and more appealing in this way. When she was pregnant, she made short films, not about being pregnant, but informed by the process. Her films seem are full of life in the best possible way–full of her life. And now she makes movies with her children–they’re in her films, they shoot her films. I’m determined to do this with my boys, to soak up some of their creativity and imagination and wit, all of which makes any time I’ve given up to care for them well-spent. Showing them the movies and books and pictures we love, sharing music with them, watching them experience the world through their eyes is the best inspiration I can think of. For me it all comes down to thinking of life as a process and a balance, and trying to notice and understand everything, even though this is impossible. To try to make all the ordinary things as beautiful and creative as possible, so that you don’t sit around waiting for the right moment to do your great work, so that you’re always working on one big great rolling series of works. You let it all in, and you process it, and you find some way to share it, if you need to, you find a way to speak it or draw it or film it or sing it or tell jokes about it. And that’s how I feel about that.

Asparagus pecan tart

Asparagus pecan tart

Speaking of babies and creativity, I made this tart for the baby shower of my sister-in-law and her wife, who are two of the most creative people I know. They’re constantly busy, and they’ve made pregnancy part of their beautiful creative process–they’ve expressed their joy and anticipation so solidly that it glows, and I’m sure all the moments of their daughter’s life will be caught and held, with wonder and love. Yeah. Well, this tart has a pepper pecan crust, and a mild yet flavorful filling of asparagus, spinach, a bit of thyme, and some sharp cheddar. It’s pretty easy to put together, and has a nice combination of green and nutty flavors.

Here’s Who Feels it Knows It, by the Wailing Wailers, just because I love it.

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Ricotta tart with tarragon, smoked gouda and roasted mushrooms

ricotta tart

Mushrooms smell so good when they’re roasting. It really does make your house smell like a holiday. And their nice, meaty, roasty flavor goes so well with smoked gouda! We’d been eating soups and stews and saucy dishes all week, and yesterday I cracked! I made something with a crust! Because I’m crazy! Actually, it’s because I bought some fresh ricotta at Trader Joes earlier in the week, and I was eager to use it. And I bought tarragon earlier in the week, and I was eager to use that as well. I like tarragon with eggy cheesy meals, something about its bright surprising flavor harmonizes well with comforting foods. And this tart is comforting, but also complex and delicious and even elegant. And also fairly easy to make! It has a toasted walnut crust (because walnuts and tarragon play so nicely together) which makes especially good Isaac crackers. All-in-all, a nice winter meal, with potatoes roasted with garlic and rosemary, and a crisp arugula salad.

Here’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, by Thelonius Monk.
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