Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Arabian Connection

For the last 3 weeks I’ve been in Laguna Beach, California, working with my friends Greg MacGillivray (Director) and Steve Judson (Editor) at MacGillivray Freeman Films, where we are finishing Arabia, the 3D IMAX feature that will be released in theaters this February, 2010. Needless to say, it is another link in the chain to my Tuscan dream.

In July 2006, I was returning from a 10-day scout in Saudi Arabia, to Rome where I would meet Sally before another relaxing and productive stay at Podere Villore. It just happened that Mark Strand (American Poet Laureate and one of my favorite foodie friends), was in Rome at the same time. He invited us to join him for dinner at the home of Patrizia Cavalli (the Italian Poet Laureate) for a delicious meal featuring an amazing stinco (ox shin slow-cooked in wine all day) and more than one bottle of--what else?--red wine. When Patrizia proudly served the wine, she asked if anybody at the table happened to know it. By happy coincidence, I did. It was Il Bosco, created by my friend Massimo Alessandro at his vineyard in Manzano, near Cortona. Here we are among his award winning Syrah vines during a visit. Ciao Massimo!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


They don't have anything like this in Tuscany, so this may seem like a diversion. But before Sally and I decided to make our second home in Italy, we had to make a road trip out to the Great American West – 14,000 miles to be exact, 18 states in all. We were looking for a beautiful piece of desert on which to build a dream retreat in one of the other regions we love.

With my 1993 Ford Explorer packed to the gills, we rambled all over, camping most nights and eating fresh caught trout, wild mushrooms and foraged greens. We are especially fond of southern Utah and the arid Four Corners area. At the end of one long day's drive, we stopped at the remote campsite overlooking renowned Cathedral Valley in Capitol Reef State Park where Sally wanted to photograph at dawn. It was dusk and we'd just eaten dinner when the incident occurred. To read one of the closest recorded cougar encounters without injury, just follow this link to the official mountain lion report and report with pictures.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


Those ambitious ancients really knew how to multitask.

This is the Pont Julien in southern France, built 2000 years ago. During a picnic Sally and I took there in 2002, I began to sketch out the character of a young Roman architect who’d fallen in love with the architectural detail known as the semicircular arch.

During a visit to the Pont du Gard aqueduct in nearby Nimes, the highest stone arcade the Romans ever built, I realized my architect was also the historically forgotten hydraulic engineer who designed and built it. In an apartment in Rome, and at Villore during the summer and autumn of 2003, I began to flesh my engineer out in words. His name was Hiero Anasus (Hiero the Duck). The son of freed Greek slaves, he was a Roman citizen at the time of Caesar Augustus when the Pont du Gard was probably built. In about a year I’d written the first draft the novel I'm now polishing as AQUARIUS. But I left one thing out of the story -- politics.

Then came the 2004 re-election of George W. Bush. I knew the book had to be politically substantial. I did my homework and learned that a two-party system was at least partly responsible for bringing the Roman republic down, among other things. To express my deep disappointment in my countrymen, and to illustrate what happens when too much power is handed to one man, I refocused the story. And that is how my ancient hydraulic engineer became a Tribune of the People at the moment democracy died in ancient Rome.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Fishing in Tuscany

There isn't any, really. Not where we go. I just needed a hook.
After seeing a show of Sally's photos in Montalcino, Russell Wilkinson and Eileen Guggenheim (who run the New York Academy of Art where Eric Fischl mentors) were inspired to call and tell Sally how much they liked her work, which inspired Sally to invite them to dinner, where I was inspired to invite Russell fishing, which led us to bob around in my little 17-foot Boston Whaler in the Atlantic off Montauk, where we hooked sharks longer than the boat (and let them go), which gave us the subject for one of the tales that now gets told at the table of Podere Villore, the villa Russell bought near Montalcino the same week he saw Sally's photos, in Tuscany, where we've returned many times ever since Russell offered to let me use his guest house as a writing retreat while Sally taught her photo workshop during the scorching summer of 2003.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Roman Daze

Despite appearances to the contrary, this is not Roberto Benigni.

When Eric received a fellowship to the American Academy in Rome in 1997 (still pre helmet law), he and April invited Sally and me to spend Thanksgiving week there. We had a fantastic time in la citta' eterna.

Friday, December 4, 2009

How Do You Keep A Dream?

In our case, we didn't know it was a dream yet. We just kept dreaming it. Year after year we returned to Italy. For the air. the light, the people, the food, the history, the culture. For the Toscana Photo Workshop where Sally teaches. For the Roman wedding of friends.
Besides certain brain wave patterns and terror, sleep researchers have found only one other thing that differentiates dreams from nightmares: Dreams turn into nightmares when the dreamer becomes helpless to change her situation.

Here's a real example: Sally and I are at the check-in desk in the international terminal at JFK. We are on our way to to Rome, to participate in the wedding of two of our dearest friends, Eric Fischl and April Gornik. We place our passports on the counter and the agent picks them up.

"I'm sorry sir, but your passport's expired. I can't issue you a ticket."
"Can't we get a new passport here?" Sally pleads.
"No. You'll have to go through the appropriate agency."
Sally's tears don't work either. So we both turn around and cab back into the city.

That was a waking nightmare. But luckily, I was able to get an "expedited" passport, and after a full day's hustle we were on our way to Rome.

The wedding was beautiful, intimate, Italian. On motorini (Vespas, pre helmet law), the wedding posse buzzed suavely through the city in skirts and suits, treating traffic lights as suggestions like the Romans do, and stopping for photo ops at ancient sites. The bride threw her bouquet into the muddy Tiber from a bridge. The meal in the Hassler, atop the Spanish Steps, was grand. The whole thing was one of the best dreams I've ever eaten.
Someday, sleep researchers may reveal how to turn nightmares back into dreams. Until then, here's a warning: If you are afraid of nightmares, don't come to Italy. You will be forced to dream here ... frequently.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Vine Among The Ruins

“You should have a vineyard!” said Sally.

“There’s a fixer-upper!” said Jack.

They were just kidding; they knew they could never afford it. But they drove all over Tuscany, falling in love all the same.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Dream Begins

Right now I have 10 months left to make my year-delayed vintage. Ten months to become fluent in Italian. Ten months to learn the contadino art. Yet here I am in New York, hustling work during the holidays. At times it seems daunting. Have I bitten off more than I can chew? How did my life get so complicated?

It starts in 1995. Sally has been invited to teach landscape photography at the Toscana Photo Workshop near Montalcino, home of the greatest Italian red wine besides Barolo. Though I’ve long been an oenophile, and know about it from my neighbor, Robert Parker, the wine critic,

Brunello di Montalcino is not a wine whose taste I am acquainted with. Yet. So, while Sally teaches, I will work on a novel in mornings, sometimes model for her class,

and visit the Brunello vineyards Robert recommends to sample and learn.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Giving Thanks

No picture today.

Just a feeling of gratitude to be healthy and warm and with friends. And that the house is mainly built.

The fact is I am broke and unemployed and OK with that ... for the moment.

How did we get here, you ask? How did this great adventure in these difficult times begin? That answer I will serve up over the next several weeks.

For now, a tavola!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Things They Carried

Before I returned to New York to seek gainful freelance work, I went to say good-bye to Giovanni. I found him perched on his orange Fiat tractor, sowing grano, winter wheat, in a beautiful field between our farms and the village of Petroio. And of course he was smiling.

Giovanni is a master of attrezzature agricole, farm impliments. Before we began to build our Tuscan house, I made a treasure hunt of discovering every artifact and iron bone left around the stone shack, chicken coops, garden, fields, vineyard and olive grove by the contadini who once worked this land.

Here are the tools of a trade I dug up. All are antiques. But more importantly, each is patinated by someone's sweat and use. Each is a treasure to me because they defined and found definition in someone's work-toughened hands, and were worn or sharpened down and then lost or discarded by the industrious hard-scrabble people I’m trying to connect with and record before this way of life is evaporates.

Each of these hand-forged spades, pitchforks, hoes, brush hooks, scythe, sickle, rake, harrow, trowel, flywheel, and stone mortar (possibly a deconsecrated baptismal font) resonates with the past. With a little sharpening and a new handle, I will put a few of these tools back to work in the spring when Giovanni shows me how to use them. And I will hope to get a sense of what it felt like to hold them in his hands when Giovanni was a younger man.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Sad Thing & A Good Thing

Because a broken leg prevented me from tending vines and making wine this year as planned , much of the fruit simply rotted on the vine. And because I had to remain at the house this week to answer questions for the plumbers, electricians, builders, and excavator, I was not able to work with Giovanni Mangiavacchi as planned.

During down periods, I pruned. It’s important to unburden grapevines of weight and growth so they can start next spring’s growth with maximum vigor. And since a worried plant fruits best, well-pruned vines carry into winter dormancy an urge to flower and set more fruit next year.

Though pruning is good meditation, it’s sad dropping bunch after bunch of overripe, mildewed, and sometimes perfectly good grapes to the ground. At the end of the day, I couldn’t help taking the best bunches back to Villore to juice and mix with sparkling water for a sip of something better than Grape Nehi and a taste of things to come.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Gorilla Italian

The plumbers and electricians are all standing around waiting for me when I get there at 8:15 a.m. on a gray, bone-damp day. It seems someone forgot to trench for the water and power lines to the solar panels. Me.

This is where Gorilla Italian kicks in.

For some reason, speaking Italian is even harder than comprehending it for me, so I don’t yet have much facility beyond one or two word Dick & Jane utterances with some grunts and subliminally gleaned hand and arm motions thrown in, along with a few Pimsleur idioms (Che pecato! What a pity!). So the conversation goes something like this:

Jack: Buon giorno! [Good morning!]

Federigo the Plumber: [Rapid unintelligible string of syllables and trilling R’s out of which I am able to sift the words “tubi” and “traccia” (pipes and trench).]

Jack: Dove’ essatamento? [Where it is exactly?]

Simone the Electrician (with the tattooed gecko crawling up the back of his neck): [Even more unintelligible string from which I glean the word for inspection box I can only recognize (and now forget) because I’ve faced a dozen similar semi-automatic verbal firing squads this week.]

Jack: Dove essatamento? [Where it is exactly?]

Simone: [Rapid words and gesturing that lead me to believe I know where it should go.]

Jack: Chi? [Who?]

There is a moment of finger pointing (at me). I point back at them with my eyes knit in a question mark?

Both of them: “Buh!” [the universal Tuscan utterance, usually offered with a shrug, that can mean: Huh? Heck if I know? Whatever! Search me! Why should I care? And numerous other indecisive, unaccountable, unmotivated things.]

Jack (new tack): Che profundo? [How deep?]

Both, again (their words tripping over each other to be heard): Quaranta-anta centimetri-etri [forty-orty centimeters-eters].

I walk to the edge of the scarpata (slope) and point around randomly. Dove esca? I ask? [Where it is exit it?)

Both: Diritto! [Straight!]

Jack: OK! [OK!]

Simone: D'accordo! (OK!]

Jack: Va bene! [Goes it well!]

Federigo: Bravo! [Well done!]

And with this final operatic verbal pat on the back, I pick up my piccone [pick] and go to work, happy to have communicated so well, and looking forward to the day I graduate to 3 word sentences.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Getting Nettled

It’s not what you think. But yes, it's a drug.

You can’t quite see them, but I am holding thousands of tiny hypodermic syringes poised to protect one of my favorite foods from, well, foragers like me. Among many other things, Urtica, stinging nettles, make excellent ravioli and delicious soup. Favoring the spring at the bottom of our property, rains and cooler weather bring it out in the spring and autumn, free for the taking. I just have to be careful when I pick it.

Whenever I see stinging nettles I also make sure to note where this plant grows. We call it curly dock in the States. The two are almost always found near each other. Which is handy if you happen to get an unasked-for injection. The oxalic acid in it neutralizes nettle venom.

Ever since I learned this trick camping as a Boy Scout, I've tried to "be prepared" and know where the dock is when nettles come into view. This has come in handy for me around the world. For instance, that time last spring when Sally waded inadvertently into our nettle patch in shorts. She said her legs were on fire. I get a kick out of how rubbing a woman's legs with weeds can cause her to swoon with relief and utter the phrase “my hero.”

Considered a noxious weed by the US Department of Agriculture, stinging nettles are the highest plant food source of iron there is, and they deliver 40% protein, very high for any leafy green. Their taste (after boiling to remove the irritant) is somewhere in the spinach range, but greener, herbier, weedier. Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “A weed is just a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” Spinach was a weed once, too.

Did I say nettles are a drug? They have anti-arthritic and anti-inflammatory qualities, among others. But above that, they are the reason your Mama said "eat your greens." They are just plain good for you. Isn’t food an excellent drug?

Friday, November 6, 2009

First thing this morning

I couldn't resist. This was my view looking toward the ruined castle of Montelifere from the property this morning. I've only seen such full sun double rainbows in two other places: The back side of Maui, the Grand Canyon.

Those who've read my last post will understand when I say there really is a pot of gold at the end of this one, and it's green.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Green Gold

Giovanni and his family are still picking olives. This is what it's all about. Extra virgin, low acid, herby, grassy, spicey. It's green because of polyphenols, antioxidants you only get by picking early by hand and milling immediately.

The spicy kick you get in the back of the throat is from the polyphenols, too. If a bottle says Tuscan and it doesn't have that kick, you have to wonder where it's from or how old it is. Because of it, one way people around here characterize their new oil is on the "cougher" scale. When I tasted my friend Roberto's new oil, he was pleased. "That's a 3-cougher," he grinned.

Picking early means yields are low, so we only get a liter or two per tree on average, 15-18% of the olive's weight in oil. 400 kilos yields about 60 liters of oil. It's a lot of work and despite prices in the states, there's no money in it at this scale at this end of the pipeline. It's a labor of love. If you're ever lucky enough to get a bottle of our oil, please store it carefully out of heat and light and use it up within 6-months for best taste.

After visiting the Montisi olive festival, I treated myself to the confluence of my four favorite flavors from my favorite season: new oil, new wine (the original beaujolais nouveau), cinta senese proscuito (like Spanish pata negra), and a fresh white truffle (second to none). What could be better on a sunny Sunday afternoon?

Saturday, October 31, 2009


The kind you catch in nets. Olive oil. Green gold Homer called it. I get excited by it. Most people do around here.

One of the main rationales I had for buying my property is that it came with almost a hundred living oil wells. Few plants give so much and demand so little. Each tree is like a person with it's own shape and demeanor. With their drab green leaves and silvered undersides on twisted trunks and gnarly branches, nothing is prettier in the light and wind. Few things possess more individual character, yet each is a clone-of-a-clone-of-a-clone from a single ancient ancestor.
In 1985, just as the world was discovering the high quality of Tuscan olive oil, a killing frost wiped out most of the olive trees in Tuscany. But a small area around Montalcino and Montisi was spared. My 90-year-old trees, with their perfect southwestern exposure, are survivors of that frost. Old villagers like to remind me of this when they stop by.

A few days ago, just as the olive season was getting underway, Talini, the beloved village miller, had a stroke. He is not expected to regain consciousness. Now, at the time of year his frantoio (oil mill) usually ran until midnight, it is quiet. In a place where fewer young people care to carry on the traditions, another artisan, another living library of knowhow, tales and wisdom is being razed by time and age.
Two autumns ago, just after Sally and I bought the property, Talini gave me the first taste of my own just pressed oil. He got real joy out of my reaction. Now I have oil fever. I owe it partly to him.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Raking Lite

This little rake is about as technical as it olive harvesting gets around here. There is no better way to deliver unbruised fruit to the olive press, the kind that makes Tuscan oil famously flavorful. It is quiet pleasant work. The swish of the gloved fingers and rastrelini (little rakes), the banter, the birdsong.I stopped by to help (from right to left) Giovanni, Arnaldo and Melina Mangiavacchi harvest their olives today. This is what one does here. When you see someone you know up in a tree, you stop and you pick. And you talk. And you tell jokes. And you get introduced to numerous other people who stop by to pick and talk and joke. Tuscan networking at it's finest.

This is particularly important picking and talking because the Festival of the New Olive Oil will be celebrated this weekend in our village of Montisi. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Raking Light

Yesterday, I learned this is the best kind of light for, well, raking.

After 3 days of intense rain, the weather broke to gorgeous autumn weather and everyone converged on the property to get the water system, roads, excavating, etc. almost almost done. Quasi finito as they say. It was a big, big day.

While I stained the upstairs cement floors with my secret non-acid-wash recipes (to be revealed in another blog): Cesare and two other electricians installed the 3 water system pumps: household, cistern, and waste water purifier (Yes, we will reuse every drop.); Alvaro, the excavator, fixed most of the road damaged by cement and delivery trucks, and sculpted most of the scarpata (the hill of spoil that had to be removed to plant our house in its hillside); and father and son carpenter team, Ierio and Roberto Perugini delivered the persiennes (louvered shutters ubiquitous to this area) which they and the Brandinis will install tomorrow!

But perhaps the biggest event of the day was seeing the Brandini’s tear down the orange security fence. It was a little like ripping open a birthday gift. After one year and one month, the cantiere, the worksite, is now officially open. And just in time for our IKEA kitchen to be delivered and installed on Wednesday.

Which brings me back to that certain cant of light. Because of all the mud I don't want IKEA to track in on my newly stained and sealed floors, I began spreading clean sand around the entrances where sticky fango (mud) would get tracked in from the newly leveled “front yard.” Then I realized that because the clay was soft and pliable and not yet packed and baked hard by the sun, it would be much easier to do whatever grading and leveling I needed to do RIGHT NOW, TODAY! So, as everyone else was finishing their day, I raked the whole thing out. As you can see from the first shot, by bringing everything into relief the contrasting low-angle light of the late day sun really helped me get it level and smooth.

And speaking of relief: I didn’t realize I'd forgotten all about my leg until I was pulling into the drive at Villore, well past sundown. There is no euphoria like that which floods you when chronic pain abates.

I used the banged up rusty rake head I brought over in my suitcase. It's nothing special, I've just had it for 30 years and 3 gardens. Note the nuts, bolts, screws and baling wire needed to attached it to an Italian handle after it broke. Very contadino.

Maybe it's me, or maybe it's Tuscany, but I think just mending a broken rake handle, and then using it, can be a soulful enterprise.

Tomorrow: IKEA!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Calabrone! [Or: Toxic in Tuscany, Part II]

Ammazzacavalli, horse killers, that's what they call them in Tuscany. People not allergic have died from their stings. They are big. And they're just behind vipers on the venom index.

Being built mostly of brick, stone and clay tile, few Tuscan buildings actually burn, so the local fire department is even better known for something else: when you’ve got a calabrone nest in your chimney, that's who you call.

Because it’s steep, Sally calls our property "Stairmaster." Because our olives are near the top, my leg insists I have to wait till next year to make oil. Because of this summer's record heat, Giovanni’s trees yielded half what they ordinarily would, so I gave him our trees to harvest as well. He’ll get a full quota and maybe we’ll get a few liters of oil.

When he went up to our grove for a preliminary check, Giovanni saw them in the boca, the hollow bole of one tree. I knew exactly what boca he was referring to. On my personal pain index, right behind getting "messengered" and "tracked," is calabrone sting.

Once, while picking blackberries in the Pacific Northwest, I bumped face first into an American bald-faced hornet’s nest. I thought I'd been shotgunned in the face. That was nothing next to a single Italian hornet.

Just after buying the property a year ago, I was clearing suckers and weeds from the bases of the trees to prepare for harvest when something the size of a hummingbird slammed into the side of my head and latched onto my ear--the queen matron of the hive I hadn't noticed on the other side of the trunk. In a furious fuzzy frenzy, that honey-colored flying hypodermic repeatedly injected the side of my face with so much venom I couldn't see, I couldn't think. It was like the dentist had administered way too much novacaine, but with the opposite effect. Time became an amber I was stuck in. It seemed to take forever to get down the hill and drive to Villore to press an ice tray against my head.

My ear swelled like some kind of mushroom and rang for 2 days. The side of my head burned intensely for a week. The next weekend I sat 30 feet away from that nest until well past sundown on a half-moon night, waiting for the air traffic to die down. Then I hit that boca with a wasp fogger.

It didn’t work. The next day during harvest we gave the tree a wide berth.

Giovanni insists the answer is to throw gasoline into the hole. But only first thing in the morning on a cold day. I haven't mustered up the courage yet.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Molta Terra

A warm siroc out of Africa has brought rain in the night. This is why for the last 3 days, Giovanni and his son Arnaldo have done nothing but disc and harrow and seed the wheat fields with grano, winter wheat. They like to sow just before it rains to help the seeds germinate, and so crows and ants won’t steal them.

What you can’t tell from this picture of Giovanni about to do just that, is just how cold it is from the Siberian blast we got beforehand.

The soil is so poor here that they have to plow as much as two feet deep in some places. In English, to my mind at least, this is why toil rhymes with soil.

[earth by Sally]

Sunday, October 18, 2009

How I Broke my Leg: Part II -- "Tracked"

It was a near death experience, that explosive impact and resultant dynamic headstand. I could have so easily broken my neck. Or ruptured something vital in my head. Or gone into a concussion induced coma. Lack of medical care at St. Vincent’s notwithstanding, I survived my date with the Messenger of Boom.

Afterwards, I walked around the city for 3 days, dazed and amazed that I was alive. But I had to knuckle down and meet a deadline. Which I did. Once I had the staples removed from my scalp, I could return to Italy to finish healing and to stain and seal the cement floor the Brandini’s helped me pour.

This is Russell & Eileen, the friends who’ve given me and Sally refuge so many times at their beautifully restored farmhouse, Villore. Without their friendship and generosity, I would not be doing this blog. More about this later.

No sooner had I landed in Italy, when I was hit with more work. Thankful, given the economic freakout I was undergoing along with everyone else in the world, I buckled down. 2 weeks later, exactly one month from embracing the messenger, I went on a bike ride with my friend Russell Wilkinson. Below is the long and short of what I wrote to a few friends that evening.

Beautiful, hot, Sunday morning in Tuscany. Terriers coasting down from Montalcino on bikes. Jack leads peloton. Russell right behind. They are pushing an easy 18 mph when, crossing diagonal railroad track, a freak of track grabs Jack's rear wheel. Jack goes down on left hip and shoulder. Splat. Russell runs over Jack's right calf and goes down. Splat. Great embarrassment all around. Jack scoots off road on butt, Russ gets up and straightens handlebars. Jack uses signal crossing light to stand up. Russ helps him back on bike. Jack and Russell ride 10 more miles, mostly uphill, to car. Back at Villore, ice and ibuprofen. Jack determines leg is broken, fibula, but not tibia (at least not bad). In case of multiple fracture, and to keep tightening muscles from forcing fracture out of alignment, he performs yoga stretches for the achilles tendon and the hamstrings of increasingly tender leg. This actually feels good. Painful clicking from leg stops, but calf and shin suddenly balloon with swelling. Gardener happens to have a cane handy in garage, so with long-scheduled guests coming for lunch (Dana and Don from Gubbio, Umbria), Jack grills two chickens as planned. Guests arrive and a lovely outdoor meal ensues. After 3 or 4 glasses of wine and a cooling swim in the pool, Jack says "time for hospital." On the way, he and Sally show their nearly completed Tuscan home to Dana and Don who are inspired and full of praise. Adieus. And Sally drives through Montepulciano to Notolla hospital, closest to the new house. Amazingly quick admittance and X-ray take about 10 minutes. Radiologist announces the leg is fine, perfectly straight. But as Sally starts to wheel a very relieved Jack down the hall for ordinary first aid, the radiologist exclaims "Madonna!" Sally goes back. Higher magnification has revealed the bone is broken, a complete fracture, but perfectly set and aligned. Jack is less than relieved, but still happy it isn't worse, not compound, didn't need surgery, hadn't wrecked the bone on 10-mile ride plus barbecue. Off they go for a plaster cast. But first, a nurse comes at his belly with a needle--heparin, they're told, to avoid thrombosis. He blanches. Nurse says he'll need such injections every day for a month, no problem he can do it himself. Jack blanches, Sally recoils. Nurse injects "povero bambino" with sinister-yet-compassionate laugh....

Read the complete story in my upcoming essay, "A Tale of Two Emergency Rooms: On the pleasures of socialized medicine and the need for health care reform in America."

Needless to say, I would not be making wine, I would not be finishing floors, I would not be making olive oil, I would not be living as planned for the next 2 months.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

How I Broke my Leg: Part I -- "Messengered"

These are our muratore (literally "wall-makers"), the Brandini brothers, Paulo (far right) and Claudio (middle). We were waiting for the cement truck to arrive so we could pour and hand trowel our concrete floors "American style." More on that later.

Once the cement was curing, I boarded a plane and flew back to New York to work for the month of July on an IMAX movie and a 6-part series for television. After working my butt numb at my desk for two weeks straight--no weekends off, barely leaving the loft--I shut down shop and stepped out onto the street on a bright, temperate, July afternoon. For your amusement, I post what I wrote to a couple of close friends the next morning, who I asked to monitor me for medical reasons. The Anthill is the german position Kirk Douglas and his suicide squad had to take in Kubrik's Paths of Glory, you'll recall.

July 25, 2009

I'm OK. Great, in fact, considering I got slammed by one of those brakeless, stoned, kamikaze bike messengers yesterday in the intersection of Broadway and Canal.

3:00 Friday afternoon. Chinatown. Rush hour. I was on my way to get my hair cut. The light was mine. I was just off the curb (and I swear Mommy I looked both ways!) and I was about to take the next step when he came gunning through the crowded intersection trying to beat the light, the gridlock and the pedestrians. One minute, we are all stepping forward and volunteering to take "The Anthill", then everyone else in the squad is taking a crisp step back. Guess who's left out there holding the target? But not until I hear a strangled cry of, I-don't-know-what actually, something like a cross between a pheasant and a capriolo (Italian barking deer), but Chinese, do I see him coming at me, 2 feet away and closing, eye-to-eye, 12:00 o'clock high. I still can't make out quite what happened next because I was basically facing him. I don't have the appropriate marks on my body for all the bike and body parts that came into such sharp resolve before I lost the horizon. The upshot is I got a free visit from some OK cops, and a bunch of nice firemen in a big red fire truck gave me oxygen as I sat on my ass in the middle of the road backing up Holland Tunnel traffic all the way to Brooklyn ... and then a free ride up to St. Vincent's with the paramedics. The event was positively explosive. And yet, I end up with only staples in the back of my head and a sore blocking shoulder? He ended up with wheels like Salvador Dali watches. Apparently I got thrown about 8 feet and did a back flip and a perfect 1-point landing onto the back of my head--very Mark Morris. Or is it Greg Lougainis? It must have looked amazing. The last thing I saw straight was my feet in the most fluffy beautiful clouds and blue sky. When I could see straight again, I kept waiting for everyone to applaud my routine. Never quite lost consciousness, but I could hear that cuckoo bird that's been mocking me at the Italian property (or is it that mocking bird that's been cucking me?). Anyway, I swear my eyes were revolving in counter-rotating circles like a chameleon's. I know, because I could see both up and down the street without turning my head. Of course, I've been in the ring before I know how to (some would say unwisely) stay on my feet and I take it on the chin. Guess I've got a well-padded brainpan. It was almost fun sitting in the middle of the road cracking jokes nobody seemed to get as half of Chinatown ogled me through a big fisheye lens and spoke in slow motion like the batteries were running down (I swear I heard the words pinhead and geek, with some Allah Akbar! thrown in). A couple of good Samaritans who managed to speak in real time kept telling me to stay put, breath, don't worry, etc.. But they wouldn't let me touch the back of my head (which I wanted badly to do because I couldn't tell if it was still there). The longer I sat there, the more horrified people looked. "What?" I taunted the crowd, "You've never seen I sit down in the middle of the road?" Then I could feel how wet the back of my shirt was getting. "Pish tush," I filliped to reassure them, "scalp wounds always overplay their part." Turns out I'd severed a vessel (they told me in the ER once when they had continuing difficulty staunching the flow). As I sat there on the warm asphalt, grateful it wasn't a hotter day, I kept asking the Samaritans how much of my brain was actually showing. They didn't think that was so funny. Which made me worry a little. Anyway, after several bottles of ice cold water from the satay vendor I had conveniently landed beside, and a tasty dim sum from some stranger I never got to thank, I was whisked away to spend the rest of the afternoon developing hypothermia in the ER, and, finally, being told to hold still while they stapled the back of my head.

For the bike messenger's point of view, you absolutely MUST go to:

This is informative too:

Friday, October 16, 2009

Mending Wall

“Before I built a wall I'd ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out”

--Robert Frost

Both my parents were children of the last century’s Great Depression. They were also high-school dropouts who eloped at age 17 and somehow managed to raise four boys. They did it mostly by hard work and thrift—and some luck. How could I, their oldest, born on my father’s 18th birthday (and just one week after my mother’s), not have inherited these traits?

I know luck isn’t a trait, but reckless optimism is. I know I should have stayed off my broken leg, but I couldn’t help myself. X-rays said the fibula was knitting back together just fine, but the doctor said I wasn’t out of the woods. It was the atrophied sinew and muscle that would soon complain.

Still, I needed to do something after two months of near-zero physical activity, so a few days before visiting Giovanni, I began harvesting brick from the debris pile left by the demolition of the old stone shack at our house building site. Like the sharecroppers and contadini before me, I was obsessed with saving every stone, brick, and piece of baling wire for reuse. Because of the fossil fuel required to make and transport brick, this isn’t just thrifty, it’s the greenest kind of recycling

Above are the half of the salvaged brick that did not get incorporated in the new house. I pulled them from the floor of the ox stall in the old capanna (shack) before it was demolished, and gave myself tennis elbow chiseling the mortar off. That’s almost healed, but now I needed more brick to pave the terrace outside our back door.

Part packrat, archeologist, treasure hunter, and a guy wanting exercise, I pulled these precious ingots of terracotta from the rubble that would have otherwise been covered with more earth and forgotten. But bricks and stones were only part of the treasure I’d soon discover under the rubble.

The Japanese have a concept called wabi-sabi. It translates as serenity and rust and involves a reverence for the residue of history inherent in used objects. Wabi-sabi says antiques are alive, cracks are beautiful, patina and smudges enthrall, and simple rustic elegance rules. I agree.

I’d wanted to save some small part of the old building and incorporate it into the new, but it was too dilapidated and we had to knock it down. Now, in that paradox of self-preservation that so often thrills archeologists, the bulk of the ruined building had propped and protected a portion of itself from further collapse. Emerging from the earth and brick and stone as I worked were the lacunae of three walls erected by an 18th century serf. Even the old whitewash is still intact. I was overjoyed.

I spent the rest of the day unearthing it and contemplating Frost’s sentiment. By the end my leg was screaming at me to stop. But I was on the mend. I'd found enough brick to build another kind of wall, a horizontal one that would keep the mud and dust down outside our door. And I was left with a beautiful retaining wall that I now don't have to build, and with a piece of the history of this place I’d given up as lost. Now that's recycling!

“Something there is that doesn’t love and wall.” True, but something there is that does. Sometimes it's one and the same something.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Promiscuous Agriculture

Agricoltura promiscua. That’s what Italians call growing a bit of everything on a parcel of land. Otherwise known as mixed or integrated agriculture, it's at least linguistically ironic that in the culturally promiscuous US we are thoroughly and deeply addicted to monoculture when it comes to producing our food.

My neighbor Giovanni Mangiavacchi is a consummately promiscuous farmer, a contadino, the last of a breed of disappearing from the world. He's 73 years old, but you wouldn’t know it to shake his strong hand. From sunup to sundown, he does what it takes to survive on a small family farm. He butchers and cures his own hams. He makes wine and oil. He grows wheat for income and heats his home with wood he and his son Arnaldo cut. And he does most of it the quaint old-fashioned way, by hand and hard labor.

When we met two years ago he was tying up his grapevines with willow switches. “We need good people around here,” he said in his raspy good-natured voice. “This way of life is vanishing. No one wants to do this work anymore.” I understood because I had an interpreter. When I apologized for having no Italian, Giovanni grinned. “Work with me. You’ll learn!”

This morning, after waking to the first frost of the season, I asked him to put me to work. Voglio lavorare per te. Voglio aiutare. Voglio imparare l’arte del contadino. (I want to work for you. I want to help [unspecified reflexive object]. I want to learn the art of the Contadino.). At first he is perplexed, but when I say I want to walk around with him and talk, to learn Italian, he nods and starts off toward the barn.

The walls of his barns are festooned with ox yokes and giant sieves that would not be out of place in a shaker barn. But these are not antiques. Today he will use one to clean favalino.

A kind of small black fava bean planted and turned under when mature, to add precious nitrogen to the generally poor Tuscan soil, Giovanni pours the dried beans, 40 or 50 pounds at time, into the big crivello (sieve) suspended under a crude tripod. He swirls them like he’s panning for gold or roasting coffee beans. After several sizzling laps, the undesirable thistle and weed seeds float to the top and are discarded. Any oats, barley, and immature beans have fallen to the floor—food for pigs.

Provo? I ask. I try?

I’d like to say I succeed. But first I spill the beans, literally. Then I can’t even get the remaining ones to roll. These are not light little coffee beans. It’s like bowling with Jello or trying to juggle bread dough. Now my tennis elbow aches and Giovanni laughs good-naturedly. I’ve no choice but to laugh with him.

Then Arnaldo walks in. He looks amused. Giovanni says his 45-year-old son refuses to clean beans this way. Arnaldo confirms it. It’s just a fact. There is this old-fashioned respect for character in Italy. Meanwhile, I don’t know whether to feel better for having tried, or just a fool.

At least I can help him pour the cleaned beans into sacks. This becomes our morning’s work—200 kilos of beans, over 400 pounds, six big sacks full in 3 hours.

8 or 9 more times I try to swirl the beans over the morning. 8 or 9 more times I fail. And laugh. And am humbled when Giovanni takes the sieve and simply swishes them around.

In consolation, I'm invited to lunch. I can practice my sparse Italian at the table least.