You Say Tomato; I’ll Make Some Sauce.

Was it twirled with or without a spoon?

Was it twirled with or without a spoon?

Sauce or gravy? Oregano or basil? Spoon or no spoon?

Even for those of us from Italian families, the quest to cook “authentic” Italian food involves matters of taste (very important) and protocol (not nearly as important, but fun to argue about), and the fine points of cooking methods and terminology can set cooks to debating for hours (preferably over a glass of chianti and a bowl of olives).  Italy was a conglomeration of city-states, rather than a unified country, for centuries, and regional pride still plays a part in Italian identity; one way it displays itself is in how food is cooked and served in different parts of the nation–and by extension, how American families whose roots reside in those areas prepare and serve their traditional foods.

Recently, The Splendid Table website posted an interview with Maureen Fant, a cookbook author who has lived in Italy for the past 35 years. The interviewer succeeded in pinning Ms. Fant down on what we Americans must do in order to cook, serve, and eat Italian food the “right” way. Never, ever use a spoon to help you twirl your spaghetti, she cautioned. Never eat your salad first–it comes after the main course.

I enjoyed the interview and the perspective of a chef who lives full-time in La Bella Italia. But here’s the thing: I grew up surrounded by my father’s Sicilian family, all of whom made food a big part of their lives. The men, too: my Sicilian grandfather, who lived with us, loved to cook but made such a mess that a second kitchen had been installed in the basement to contain him. He and his daughter, my Aunt Lucy (whose given name was Elizabetta Maria), taught my French Canadian mother how to cook like an Italian. And we lived in Copiague, Long Island–at the time an Italian Catholic stronghold. Nearly everyone’s name ended in a vowel. The streets were named Marconi, Vespucci, Verrazano, Garibaldi–and Pio XI Street, after the early 20th century’s Italian Pope. Everybody’s grandmother was making meatballs on Sunday.

So yes–I was raised among the people who know their pasta and their olive oil. Even amidst this seemingly homogenous bunch who all hailed from the same boot-shaped corner of the globe, though, differences in the kitchen were many. My family called the rich tomato mixture “sauce”; my boyfriend’s family, also Sicilian, called it “gravy.” We ate our salad before the main course; my cousin’s family ate it after. Elizabetta Maria taught me to put basil and oregano in my marinara sauce; my cooking-enthusiast friend Frank called that sacrilege and declared that oregano is used only in meat sauces. My whole extended family twirled their spaghettini with the help of spoons; I stopped long ago, but they still do it.

So even among the most authentic of authentic Italians and Italian-Americans, there is often no “right” way to cook and eat. That said, here’s the recipe for the simple and delicious marinara sauce I learned to make as a young child, and which I taught my daughters to make when they were just children, too. It has oregano in it. You’ve been warned.

Pasta With Marinara Sauce Bresciano

Ingredients:

enough good quality, extra-virgin olive oil to film the bottom of a medium-sized saucepan

1 large clove garlic, minced

2 28-oz. cans crushed tomatoes*

small handful of fresh basil leaves, chopped

healthy sprinkle of dried oregano

splash of red wine, preferably Italian

salt

freshly ground black pepper

sprinkle of crushed red pepper flakes

1 lb. of pasta, your choice of shape

Fill a large pot halfway with water; salt the water and set the pot to boil on high heat. You’ll cook the pasta in this.

While the water is coming to a boil, film the bottom of a medium saucepan with the olive oil and heat it over medium heat. Saute the garlic in the oil until it barely begins to turn golden. Pour in the tomatoes (Use caution; if the pot is too small, the comparatively cold tomatoes will cause the hot oil to spatter, potentially burning you and definitely making a mess of your stove. Use the pot lid as a handy shield if necessary.)

Add the basil, oregano, wine, salt, and black pepper; add the crushed red pepper flakes, adjusting for the level of spiciness you prefer. Stir to blend. Cover and let simmer over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes.

By the time you’ve made the sauce, the water is probably boiling; toss in a pound of whatever kind of pasta you love and boil it, stirring occasionally to keep it from sticking. (My favorite is capellini–angel hair. My children are wild for rotini.) Follow the timing directions on the package (different pastas take different lengths of time to cook). I can tell my pasta is done just by the feel of it in the water as I stir it–if olive oil doesn’t run through your veins, though, taste a piece for doneness. It should be al dente – “to the teeth.” Not hard, but definitely not mushy.

When the pasta is done, drain it in a colander and put it back in the empty pot; drizzle in a little olive oil and mix it around, to prevent it from sticking together. Pile each serving into a shallow bowl and top with sauce. If you like, grate some good-quality pecorino romano (what my family uses) or parmegiano-reggiano cheese on top. Don’t you dare use the shaky cheese in the cardboard container.

Serve with a salad, before or after. And some olives, and some crusty Italian bread. Maybe a few slices of hard cheese and salumi. Food of the gods.

*I use Hunts brand tomatoes–though they’re not imported, they consistently come in at the top of blind taste tests, and sure enough, I like the consistency and the taste. My sister, however, swears by Tuttorosso, and her sauce is mighty good, too. A recent taste test on public radio named Muir Glen Organic as the best; I went out and bought them and bleah, I didn’t like them at all. Neither did the kids. So try a few brands till you identify your favorite.

And lest you think the regional differences among Italians and Italian-Americans are a thing of the past, consider that last December, while I was shopping at the local market for our traditional Christmas seafood feast, the older gentleman in front of me in the cashier’s line noticed the cans of scungilli** in my cart. “You’re Italian,” he declared, pointing to the telltale cans. “From where?” I knew he understood that I was born in the US–he was inquiring about my ancestors. “From Sicily,” I replied. “My grandparents were from Trapani.” He nodded. “How are you going to prepare the scungill’?” As I detailed the sauteeing and saucing of the briny morsels, his wife joined him, carrying a couple of fat eggplants. “Honey, she’s Italian. She’s making scungill’ for Christmas,” he told her. She turned to me, looked me up and down. She didn’t seem as friendly as her spouse. “Where are your people from?” she asked. “Sicily–Trapani,” I repeated. “Oh. Sicilian,” she responded, with a decided lack of enthusiasm. “And where are your people from?” I countered. “We’re Napolitan,” she answered, giving the word its Italian pronunciation. I just smiled. I’m way too American to begin to try and divine the fine, yet distinctive, lines that might separate Naples from Trapani. And I was way too eager to get home and start my sauce. Otherwise known as gravy.

**Here in Florida, scungilli is known as conch, and is something you make into fritters. Though not Italian, they’re mighty tasty.

Photo credit: By Micaela & Massimo (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Reflecting Is Not Loafing. Really.

Eternal reflection: Rodin's "Le Penseur" (The Thinker)  [Wikimedia Commons via http://www.flickr.com/photos/46922409@N00/308920352/ Thinking at Hell's gate]

Eternal reflection: Rodin’s “Le Penseur” (The Thinker)

“The painter or draftsman must be solitary, and most of all when he is intent on those speculations and considerations which, continually appearing before the eyes, give material to the memory to be well stored.”

Thus Fritjof Capra, in The Science of Leonardo: Inside the Mind of the Great Genius of the Renaissance, quotes our hero, Leonardo da Vinci, on the subject of contemplation and reflection. It was apparent to the master that in order to process what we have learned and to commit it to memory so that we can use it later on, we need to be still for a bit and think about the things we’ve observed, absorbed, and created.

The problem with this concept, though, is that reflection involves a distinct lack of moving about. It’s quiet and, well, reflective–so in some cases, it might resemble, to an alarming degree, sitting around and doing nothing. In education, where teaching time is brief and precious and the last thing to be valued is letting the kids sit around with nothing constructive to do, the practice of reflection can be easy to pooh-pooh. Nevertheless, it’s a valuable tool and an effective method of evaluation; reflection can help students process what they’ve just learned even as it provides insight for their teachers into what the class understands and what still remains to be mastered.

Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero has, over the past 37 years, been examining the development of learning processes in children, adults, and organizations. Their Visible Learning initiative features a set of “Thinking Routines”–mini-strategies that teachers can embed into their lessons so that students can reflect on their own work–on what they have learned, and on what they have yet to understand. Thinking Routines are like little games or challenges. They’re fun, they take up very little classroom time, they provide both the teacher and the students with a way to make learning visible, and they illuminate a path for continually adjusting and tweaking what goes on in the classroom.

The subset of Core Routines, in particular, encourages students to reflect on what they think they already know about a subject and what they’d still like to learn. For example, the routine called “What Makes You Say That?” consists of two simple yet powerful questions: “What’s going on?” and “What do you see that makes you say that?”

One of my favorite routines, which I often use at the end of one of the series of arts-integrated writing workshops that I teach, is “I used to think…But now I think…” I like to present this routine in the last few minutes of the last workshop, asking students to write their answers out and then calling on them to share their responses with the rest of the group. This routine can indicate progress in a much truer way than a multiple-choice test can.

Sometimes the insight I gain through this routine is deeper than I expect. Last year, I led a week-long Spring Break workshop for fourth and fifth graders from a poor neighborhood in South Florida; I centered my curriculum on a young-people’s version of Homer’s Odyssey, re-told by Gillian Cross and gorgeously illustrated by Neil Packer.  My young students spent the week hearing and discussing the episodes and then using writing, visual art, and movement to craft their own creative responses to the ancient classic. On the last day, I used the “I used to think…” routine to see what about the weeklong process had impacted them. I gave them a few minutes to think and write in their “Reflection Journals”–little handmade books that they had created during the first workshop. One boy made me grin with his answer:

“I used to think…the older times were really boring and like I was going to pass out. But now I think…they were really fun. I don’t know if the other Greek books are boring, but I know the Odyssey was super fun.”

Good to know that his knee-jerk reaction to ancient literature  had been tempered by his arts-integrated experience!

My favorite response of all time, though, came from Jakayla, a tough little fourth-grade girl and the self-appointed ringleader of my Spring Break group. After a few minutes of reflection, Jakayla concluded:

“I used to think…that this would be all about writing. But now I think…it was all about finding what you love.”

Lest this all seem too kumbaya-warm-and-fuzzy, understand that every day, in the simplest fashion, I would determine what facts and vocabulary the students were absorbing: I would fire questions at them at random moments. “What was the Cyclops’ name?” “Who turned the sailors into pigs?” “Where is Odysseus trying to get home to?” The kids would practically fall over raising and waving their hands in the air with the answers. There was no need to test those simple facts; the children were learning the story and its elements as a natural result of listening, writing, making art, and acting out the episodes.  The simple Thinking Routine, though, along with a few moments to reflect quietly on what they knew and felt, and the opportunity to write about it in full sentences rather than bubbling in a row of circles on a computer-graded test, painted a clear picture, for me and for them, of the joyful learning that took place that week.

In his introduction to John Francis Rigaud’s translation of Leonardo’s A Treatise on Painting, John William Brown notes that when the great artist was painting The Last Supper on the wall of the convent of La Madonna delle Grazie,

“[T]he Prior of the Dominicans…became impatient whenever he saw Leonardo in contemplation instead of continuing his picture; he being one of those who imagine that a painter must be neglecting his work whenever his hands are not actually employed on it.”

Leonardo, of course, strongly disagreed with this view. As do I.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons via http://www.flickr.com/photos/46922409@N00/308920352/ Thinking at Hell’s gate

Only Connect! (It Will Make You More Creative.)

An 1828 engraving of children playing tag, by Johann Michael Voltz

An 1828 engraving of children playing tag, by Johann Michael Voltz

E.M. Forster said it in Howard’s End:

“Only connect!…Live in fragments no longer.”

He was referring to connections between human beings–surely, some of the most important and satisfying connections we can make–but his exhortation applies most aptly to creativity and the establishment of a creative practice in our lives. Connecting two or more ideas, whether they resemble each other or are completely dissimilar, often results in a new discovery, a new creation, that is informed by, but rises above, the original concepts.

Fritjof Capra, in The Science of Leonardo: Inside the Mind of the Great Genius of the Renaissance, said of our hero and his tendency to explore everything that interested him:

“This exceptional ability to interconnect observations and ideas from different disciplines lies at the very heart of Leonardo’s approach to learning and research.”

Leonardo started out by studying the elements of painting, then moved on to studying the objects he painted, then branched out more and more to study fossils, weapons, the earth, the stars. He filled his head and his notebooks with questions and information about all these seemingly dissimilar fields, and then he made connections that no one else at the time was making. This vast breadth of knowledge enabled him, for example, to draw upon the sciences of geometry and anatomy when he was making art, and to bring elements of design into his scientific inquiries on flight. The things he created combined his findings in various fields and synthesized them to create something greater. The whole was astonishingly  innovative and much larger than the sum of its parts.

Last November, I traveled to Mérida, Mexico, in the heart of the Yucatan peninsula, with my friend and Blue Planet Writers’ Room co-founder Susan Hyatt; we went to observe and work with teachers and students at Habla: The Center for Language and Culture. This school, run by our brilliant and talented friends Kurt Wootton and Maria del Mar Patron-Vazquez, teaches languages (Spanish and English) through arts integration. Through connections, in other words, between seemingly dissimilar subjects. Students learn English, for example, by designing a new game with directions in their new language, or by playing drama games to illustrate scenes from (and deepen their understanding of) stories in English. (Susan and I use arts integration at Blue Planet to teach creative writing; it’s an approach that works in many subjects.)

While we were there, I got to work with groups of students who were involved in an international collaboration with our students in Florida. The students in both countries made folded- and cut-paper stars as gifts for each other. They also wrote letters expressing their wishes for each other, and inscribed some of those wishes on their stars. (They wished each other everything from “a family who loves you” to “a scholarship to college” to “lots of chocolate.” All of which are, in my opinion, splendid wishes.) Susan, who was observing the workshops as part of her doctoral dissertation research, also interviewed the students. With the help of Tommasso Iskra De Silvestri, the bilingual teacher, she questioned the children about their ideas of what creativity is.

The answer given by one eight year-old boy stood out. Without even thinking about it, he said:

“Creativity is when you take the best parts of two things and put them together to make a new, better thing.”

He used the example of a game he liked to play, a game called Tofu: it combines two different kinds of Tag, he said, and it’s more fun and more interesting than either of them. It’s a better game, he noted, because it takes the best parts of the other games and puts them together.

That answer raised the eyebrows of the three adults in the room, because that idea of creativity being a combinatorial process is a sophisticated concept. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe we know innately that learning about a lot of things and putting them together in new ways is key to growth and innovation–and even fun.

Read This Post (If You Want To)

Engraving of a reading group from Le Livre, Paris, 1883

Engraving of a reading group from Le Livre, Paris, 1883

“You should read the book that you see someone on the train reading and trying to hide that they’re laughing.” – Janet Potter

Recently, The Millions published “28 Books You Should Read If You Want To,” an essay by Janet Potter that takes on the traditional format of “must read” lists published by everyone from Amazon to The Huffington Post. Instead of coming up with an arbitrary, subjective list of books that you must read before you die, or before you can consider yourself well-read, or because you’re a woman or a man, Potter has created a list of twenty-eight books you should read “if you want to.”

Here’s the brilliant thing about her list, though: there are no book titles on it.

Instead, the list’s items read like the quotation above: they’re suggestions for finding gems of books in unlikely places, based on what other people are reading or talking about or arguing over. Read the book “that your favorite band references in their lyrics,” she suggests. Or the one “that you hear two booksellers arguing about at the registers while you’re browsing in a bookstore.”

I was struck by this list, not just because it describes a splendid and serendipitous approach to choosing what you read for pleasure, but because of how this approach might inform the way we teach children in our increasingly standardized, cookie-cutter, test-based school systems, where students are forced to spend their time memorizing rudimentary facts, and where deep, or even (heaven forbid) slightly off-topic, investigation is squashed for lack of time and “importance.”

What if educational curricula looked more like this list? What if we created guidelines, frameworks, for various subjects, and within those frameworks, made students responsible for their own deep investigation of the subject matter? Yes, yes, we need to teach them the definition of “noun” and “molecule,” but what if the learning of those definitions took place as a natural part of the inquisitiveness and joy of exploring a new subject in a way that was relevant and creative and exciting?

Think of the college model of teaching English composition: you read an assigned text, but you are asked to explore it in a personal, non-scripted way through a “reader response”–by choosing a passage or a section that you find interesting or confusing, and then writing a few paragraphs identifying the section, giving your thoughts, asking your questions, and trying to make connections between the writing that intrigued or dismayed you and some other text or experience. Connections that might help you, and the rest of the class, make sense of the text.

You are being asked, in short, to think.

And to use writing as a way to assist your thinking, to lay out your ideas and confusions and try to work your way through them. Then you bring your response to class and share it, discuss it with the instructor and your classmates, who offer their own ideas and pose their own questions. The instructor is there to facilitate the discussion rather than to run it, and in this way, the class becomes more invested in the text. It becomes more relevant to them, as they ask and answer each other’s questions, relate the writing to their own lives, and even gain a new understanding of their own literary and academic tastes.

Why not routinely apply this approach in a pre-college setting? Why not apply it to all sorts of texts, in science and history, for example? Engage students in this type of self-guided exploration of the parts of the subject that interest them the most. Use that interest to keep their attention, to get them to learn more, to encourage them to spend more time learning. They will still learn those definitions and rudimentary facts, but organically, as part of their investigations. Those little pieces that presently make up the sum total of the learning experience will recede to take on their rightful role, as the important but small building blocks that allow students to think critically and write and speak intelligently about interesting subjects.

When you take piano lessons, you memorize all sorts of musical terms–in Italian, no less. You learn that fermata is a stop, that forte means loud, that legato means smoothly. No one needs to give you a list of those terms and insist that you memorize them; you naturally learn them because they apply to what you’re doing, to your ability to play better, to understand the music that moves you.  And you don’t forget them, because you’re using them. They are tools.

So here’s to using a collegiate approach to teach younger students. To using an approach that is far more engaging and meaningful than memorizing facts in a vacuum and regurgitating them onto a bubble sheet to be scored by a computer. An approach that is ruled by choice, deep investigation, and critical thinking.

Read Janet Potter’s article, “28 Books You Should Read if You Want To” here. It’s delightful.

The Way to a Nation’s Heart is Through Its Stomach

The Obamas at a state dinner in Jakarta. Culinary Diplomacy in action.

The Obamas at a state dinner in Jakarta: Culinary Diplomacy in action.

When people from one nation gather around a dinner table with people from another nation, they create goodwill along with good eating. If you travel internationally, you know how true (and delicious) this is. Is there anything that disposes us more favorably toward a culture and a country than sharing its food with its natives? When English friends offer buttery homemade shortbread that dissolves on your tongue or you slurp along with Japanese colleagues on the rich, comforting broth of nabeyaki udon, it’s easy to feel at home in a faraway place.

Recently, The Splendid Table–one of Glorious Curious’ favorite public radio shows–interviewed Sam Chapple-Sokol, who writes about how food is “used as an instrument to create cross-cultural understanding in the hopes of improving interactions in cooperation.” (Read the interview here.) The name for this practice is Culinary Diplomacy. Chapple-Sokol notes that while we all understand the importance of food in carrying off a successful state dinner between world leaders, we may not know that this brand of diplomacy is also employed by governments to proactively create a positive impression of their country in other nations. He explains that about ten years ago, Thailand created a program called “Thai Kitchen to the World,” through which they sent Thai chefs around the globe to start Thai restaurants and raise awareness of–and appreciation for–Thai cuisine. South Korea did the same sort of thing with its so-called “kimchi diplomacy.” These governments understand that food, with all its good associations, is an effective way of making your culture familiar to and sought out by people in other countries. Food has the tasty power to break down barriers and provide a welcome to the world.

Food is “used as an instrument to create cross-cultural understanding in the hopes of improving interactions in cooperation.” -Sam Chapple-Sokol

I’ve enjoyed many meals in other countries, but one of the most memorable was provided by friends of friends one summer night in Tenerife, in the Canary Islands. The islands, about 200 miles off the coast of the Western Sahara, are volcanic and gorgeous and owned by Spain. The cuisine is heavily informed by Spanish cooking but is replete with the seafood and goat cheeses and tiny potatoes (used to make the salty and addictive papas arrugadas–“wrinkled potatoes”) that are indigenous to their geographic location.

That particular night, we all met up at a tiny, dingy bar/restaurant in seaside Bajamar, on a minor road overlooking the Atlantic. (Though to be fair, on small, mountainous Tenerife, most places overlook the Atlantic. That’s part of its beauty.) As darkness fell, about a dozen of us sat at long wooden tables pushed together under a covering made of bamboo in a dirt lot outside the bar’s front entrance. The new friends–a doctor, two sculptors, and some musicians among them–had ordered island specialties to impress–and just maybe to alarm–the American visitors. Plate after plate came out the door of this somewhat questionable-looking establishment and was deposited in a row down the center of the tables, ready to be washed down with local tinto–red wine. There was pulpo (octopus), grilled and waiting to be dipped in olive oil or mojo verdegofio, a wholemeal flour mixture combined with fish stock and mojo; breads, for dipping in the green and red mojos; fried local fish; the aforementioned papas arrugadas; and the most “exotic’ dish of the evening, morena–fried moray eels, with their jawbones and tiny ferocious teeth still intact. The Spaniards seemed particularly gleeful at serving us the pulpo, imagining perhaps that its bright pink sucker-studded tentacles might send us Americans running for a hamburger. I’m half Sicilian, though, and what we call purpu is my favorite Christmas Eve treat–it’s hard to find in restaurants here in the States, but when I travel to countries that love their seafood, I enjoy it wherever I can get it.

And that night was no different–I made short work of my plate of tentacles, I dipped my bread, I drank my wine, and I picked tiny bones out of the morena. I spoke my limited Spanish, they spoke their limited English, and my bilingual best friend Maria-Jesus filled in our gaps with her expert translation. For a while, I spoke French with one of the party who had lived in France for a number of years (my French is far better than my Spanish). My artist daughter was at the other end of the table with Maria-Jesus’s daughter, creating tiny watercolor images of the food and the people. There was a great deal of laughter and conversation and goodwill between nations.

After we had stuffed ourselves with all those local delicacies, we picked up and moved to a nearby nautical club that claimed our new friends as members. More wine was presented and we staked out a large table on the deserted pool deck. Out came a guitar, and a cajón–a flamenco box-drum–and then the music started. The musicians played, the ocean roared, and our little party sat at that table and sang and drank and laughed and danced until three in the morning. The Spaniards sang old Spanish songs that they all knew. Then they sang old American rock-and-roll so we could sing along. As the night wore on, we all became drummers, beating time by banging crushed soda cans on the table as our wineglasses shuddered and danced precariously close to the edges.

At several points during the night, I was close to tears, so moved was I by the beauty and camaraderie of the celebration of which these lovely people had so graciously made me a part. The hospitality, the music, and the food reached across borders, took my hands, and drew me into the culture of Spain and the Canaries. On a real and personal level, Culinary Diplomacy was in action, doing its very effective and tasty job.

We Are Large. We Contain Multitudes. (And the Mona Lisa.)

This is a hint.

This is a hint.

Learn things. Create things. Indulge yourself. That way lies joy.

There are lots of recipes and formulas (formulae?) out there for finding joy; those four sentences sum up mine. And I’m willing to bet that there are a lot of you who feel the same way. We’re in good company, after all: finding joy through curiosity and the creative process reflects the shining spirit of Leonardo da Vinci, a particular hero of Glorious Curious. Painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, scientist, theatrical designer, writer–Leonardo studied and excelled in a plethora of seemingly unrelated areas. 

“He was a universal genius whose outline can only be surmised–never defined.”

So wrote the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt. Or, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, our man was large; he contained multitudes. 

And his curiosity about all things great and small is legendary. Sigmund Freud, in Leonardo da Vinci, his psychosexual analysis of the original Renaissance Man, called curiosity “the one single impulse [that was] very forcibly developed” in the master. Freud cites Edmondo Solmi as noting that Leonardo indulged his curiosity at first by investigating things related to painting, things like light and color and pigment. This led him naturally to study the objects of painting–animals, plants, the human body. And then, just as we find ourselves doing when we spiral down the rabbit hole of the internet, leaping from one story to the next, one website to the next, until we’re so far away from our original destination that we don’t quite know how we got where we are, the study of objects led Leonardo further afield to the study of mechanics, of astronomy, of weaponry, and even of paleontology.

The interesting thing about this rather desultory approach to studying the universe, Freud contended, is that all of Leonardo’s seemingly unrelated investigations led him to adopt a new perspective on his art. His paintings became connected to the universe itself. He viewed them through the filters of all he had learned. He couldn’t possibly isolate them any longer, but neither could he possibly investigate all their nearly infinite connections. Freud claimed that this dilemma is probably what caused the master to leave so many works unfinished–though we have thousands of his sketches, drawings, and designs, we have only about 17 finished paintings by Leonardo. But oh, what paintings they are. Two of them (come on, you know which ones) are widely considered the most famous paintings in the world.

This is another hint.

This is another hint.

Michael J. Gelb, in How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day , tells us that

“Leonardo’s childlike sense of wonder and insatiable curiosity, his breadth and depth of interest, and his willingness to question accepted knowledge never abated. Curiosità fueled the wellspring of his genius throughout his adult life.”

Gelb quotes the scholar Kenneth Clark, who said that the master was

“…undoubtedly the most curious man who ever lived….He wouldn’t take Yes for an answer.”

Leonardo’s approach to art and life rests firmly at the other end of the spectrum from that of an artist such as Edward Hopper, who famously said, “Maybe I am not very human–what I wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house.” Hopper narrowed his focus (to beautiful effect, we might add). Leonardo broadened his. Two different approaches to mastery, to making sense of things, to creating joy. (Understand, please, that I’m not trying to compare the talent or output of these two men–just their approaches, to their art and to the world.) Though I appreciate the intense focus on one subject that many artists engage in, I celebrate the way Leonardo cast his net wide and drew in all the things that fascinated him.

That’s why Leonardo stands as a Hero of Great Stature here at Glorious Curious. Walt Whitman is another hero around here, contradicting himself and being large and containing multitudes and all that. There are other heroes, too–I’ll write about them from time to time. I’ll also write about food, music, theatre, beauty, mindfulness, and a pile of other subjects that intrigue me. Take a look at the site’s Raison d’Etre page to read more.

I began publishing this blog today, March 20, for a reason: today is the UN’s International Day of Happiness. It seemed like an auspicious day to begin a blog dedicated to joyful things. I hope your own curiosity and your own quest for creative, brainy joy will keep you coming back to see what’s going on.