Thursday, January 27, 2011

Nutritious Slothfulness

I cannot think of any more boring vice than sloth.  However, when it comes to the seven deadly sins, this is the one in which I find myself firmly entrenched.  A hardened sinner, and to such little profit.  Lust just seems too strenuous nowadays, although I can and do lust in my heart from time to time.  But pursuit of the objects of my lust – well, it is just too much effort for me with too little likelihood of success.  Imagine if one had to mush from Nome, Alaska to, say, Fairbanks to purchase a lottery ticket, and one can pretty well make a fair equation for  the proportion of effort to reward.

I have never been a huge glutton – unless liking beer a whole lot falls under that heading.  And I let that little sinlet go on my fortieth birthday, if not for good, then at least for the last 28 years.  I do like certain foods, and I do occasionally overeat, but I am more likely to forget to eat until four or five in the afternoon than I am to spend the day eating.  As to avarice – well, I am not really clear on all that falls under that heading.   I am certainly no miser, and if I do say so myself, I occasionally overdo on gifts for others, while being a bit ungenerous in a day to day sense.  On the other hand, I really like having two of everything, and the more expensive and useless the better.  Still, I couldn’t say that avarice is my sin of choice.  I think I have faults in the avarice arena, but I would guess they are more faults of lacking empathy or imagination or – even more likely - laziness, which gets us back to sloth.

Pride is also a bit difficult to get a handle on.  I know I can be all about myself sometimes, and I know that I occasionally – maybe more than occasionally – indulge in what can be termed ‘stubborn pride’.  I am not sure, though, that pride in the seven-deadly-sins sense is the same thing as the quality that is commonly referred to as pride.  It seems that pride in common parlance means too stubborn or too aware of one’s dignity to accept charity.  I don’t see how that can be a sin – it would seem more like a virtue to me.   To tell the truth, I don’t see how one could spend a lifetime with pride as its centerpiece.  I mean, what would one be doing in a day-to-day sense, if one’s central vice were overweening pride?  It would pretty much mean sitting around glorifying oneself, and that seems way more like sloth to me.  Does it mean that one puts oneself above God?  Well, of course, I do have the issue that I think that I am real and that He is imaginary, but then imaginary beings nearly all seem to be better than I am.  There’s Superman, for instance, or King Arthur, or Lassie: all much superior to me.  Even Goldilocks seemed to have a great deal more intellectual curiosity and ‘git-up-and-go’ than I do nowadays.

I am pretty certain that I don’t practice envy to a mortally sinful extent.  My understanding of envy is that it is more than coveting what one’s neighbor has; it also means wishing ill-fortune to the neighbor for having it.  I don’t think that is one of my failings.  I willingly confess to a touch of schadenfreud when someone who seems to me to be particularly undeserving or obnoxious, but gifted with goods or worldly honors, slips on a moral banana peel, but I wouldn’t say that I am envious in a truly hell-worthy sense.  I can’t imagine myself working to bring down someone just because he or she had something that I wish were mine. 

Let’s see: what is left?  Oh (I actually had to Google to find the remaining sin) wrath!  Well, I DO get pissed off.  And the annoying entry in Wikipedia for ‘seven deadly sins’ points out that being ‘capital’ means they are the root sins that lead to all others (‘capital’ refers to the Latin word for ‘head’), and that one can be guilty in either a venial or mortal sense, and still be guilty of a capital sin; this certainly appeals to my old Catholic upbringing where you pretty much found yourself innocent of one sin when you were overly busy committing another.  Well, there goes that.  I guess I am guilt of all of them then.  I don’t know if that is a relief (I am balanced) or cause for further self-recrimination.  Either way, I do believe my really morally disfiguring sin is sloth.

Because I am slothful, while still desirous of being minimally healthy, I have found a number of ways to keep myself fed without raising too much of a sweat in food preparation.  I do like things to taste good, if possible, and to be more healthy than not when it is just as easy either way.  My sole use of sugar, other than the very rare times I try baking a cake (five times in my life by actual count!) is to throw in a tablespoonful or two when I make pasta sauce or chili or anything requiring massive amounts of cooked tomato in order to cut the acidity.  My brother Rob has been going through my supply of sugar much faster than I have done merely by coming to the Breakfast Club on Sundays and using sugar in his coffee, of which he drinks copious amounts. 

In the interests of public service for all the lazy folks out there, I will give a brief résumé of lessons I have learned in having the best possible food for the least possible effort.  To begin with, none of these ideas is of any use if one has to run to the store, or prepare every meal from scratch.  Therefore there are a number of things to keep on hand at all times – things which keep for a goodish length of time.  

These are:

One of those huge bags of frozen chicken parts that one can find at the ‘big box’ stores.  I prefer skinless boneless thighs (I hate skin, and if cooking chicken bone-in is easy, eating it is not.  Let’s look at the big picture here.)  Breasts (in chickens) are too darn bland for me. 

Again from the big box emporia, I like to keep on hand those pork cutlets – you know, those thickly cut slices (nearly an inch thick) that look like pork chops without the bone and come about ten to the package – that is ten meals right there.

A bottle of some kind of marinade.

A BIG bottle or jar of that pre-chopped garlic.

A number of cans of crushed tomatoes, as well as a couple of cans of diced tomatoes.  Pasta sauce or chili are always better with a can of the chunkier cut stuff thrown in.

A bag of onions.

A big bag of frozen peas – you can add a handful of these to anything. 

A big bag of those small pre-peeled ‘baby’ carrots- - these keep forever.

A big bag of broccoli florets, or crowns – these will last two to three weeks, and are worth their weight in gold for the degree of virtue one feels in adding some of them to everything. 

A dozen boiled eggs. 

A bell pepper or two.

Every kind of spice you can imagine.  Spices are god’s way of saying, “Relax: you can cover up everything one way or another."   Although spices lose flavor over time, it is a good idea to slowly work out which ones you commonly use and get those in the larger sizes.  The last thing you ever want is to start something and find you are out of a key spice.   I make sure to have a lot of black pepper, chili powder, garlic powder, cumin and coriander.  It is good to keep turmeric on hand.  I throw it in most things – not so much for taste, but it is supposed to be amazingly healthy and it also makes things look golden and lovely.   

Also, it is good to keep on hand bottles of Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, teriyaki sauce and balsamic vinegar.  The whole point of all these sauces and spices is that you can keep making the same things over and over but have them taste different every time.

Olive oil – the BIG jars of a gallon or so.  Also yellow mustard and mayonnaise

Several jars of pre made pasta sauce.  The trick is to doctor these if you must (here comes that broccoli again!) without going thru the mess of actual ‘from scratch’ preparation.  Pre-made alfredo sauces - even the store brands - are really good - and you can add a bit of the tomato sauce for variety.  Also I keep a pre-made jar of pesto sauce - a spoonful added to almost anything is pretty darn yummy.  OK, don't add it to desserts.  

Lots of pasta.  To cover the health angle, make these whole grain pastas where possible.  For whole grain pasta, you want to get the shapes of pasta that hold the most sauce: rotelli is ideal.  The more sauce the less you taste the difference between the good stuff and the healthy stuff.   The worst pasta for whole grain is the thinner spaghetti forms, especially angel hair.  On the other hand angel hair is the best for the lazy cook, because it cooks in just about three minutes.   One place whole grain spaghetti is superior is in any stir-fry version of chow mein.  I actually prefer whole grain in chow mein type dishes.  If you are a fan of stir fry, one mixed spice that is absolutely wonderful is Emeril Legasse’s Asian Essence

I do not tend to keep hamburger on hand because the taste goes off fairly quickly if you do not use it or freeze it, and if you freeze it, it is a hassle to either pre-form it into patties or usable quantities, or to get it unfrozen quickly when you want it.  Thawing a huge chunk in a microwave also seems to cook the exterior of the stuff – so I have gotten away from keeping hamburger meat on hand.  Anyway beef isn’t all that good for you, although it does have the virtue that, unlike chicken, no matter how bad it seems to have gone ‘off’ it is still pretty safe to eat. 

To make preparation easier, it is always good to keep a shallow pan or bowl with some chicken parts or pork cutlets defrosting in a pool of marinade.  It is nice to throw a tablespoon of chopped garlic into the marinade for extra taste. 

Chicken or pork can be cooked in the oven while you work on your computer – the rule for me is when I can smell it, it is usually done.    

Keep a steamer for vegetables.  Once the water comes to a boil, you can put a bunch of the baby carrots in for 3-4 minutes (set the timer, so you can putter around doing other things.)  Broccoli should not steam more than two minutes.   So you can put the water on to boil, watch TV until it is boiling, then throw the broccoli in, once it boils at the beginning of a TV commercial break and it is steamed before the commercial break is over.  Easy or what?  And you get to miss the commercial without missing the program.   

I recently bought a package of whole wheat ‘wraps’.  I found that I could cut up one cooked cutlet of the marinaded pork (or some chicken), chop up a handful of broccoli and steam it, mix the two with some mayonnaise, dill, dried mustard or curry powder, and whatever spice seems to be my preference for the day.  And the result was really, REALLY good.  It is all about having stuff on hand, re-thawed and pre-marinaded, getting a feel for spices and mixing the same few things differently over and over.   

If one wishes to use steamed broccoli as a side dish, it is really good with a small spot of yellow mustard dotted here and there amongst the florets.  Then one can put any other sauce over it – or even none. 

This sounds like a blog on gluttony, but believe me, it is all about sloth – once I got in the habit of keeping things on hand, I had to spend no more than half an hour in the kitchen per day – for all the meals I needed.   And that can’t be a bad thing.  

Monday, January 24, 2011

Wilt Thou...?

I am actually seated at my computer a little earlier today than usual.  I have fallen into the habit of watching Morning Joe which seems less polemic and a bit more even-handed than other cable shows which deal with politics.  I cannot stand bumptious rhetoric whether or not I agree with the speaker.  I want to hear right wing pundits who will admit that Obama does some things well, and left wing pundits who admit that there is merit in the argument that there are some beneficial programs that we cannot afford, or that conservatives are not just a bunch of crazy people.  I usually complete my morning TV viewing with a bit of the Live show with Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa – or more than a bit of it, if the guests look like people I want to hear from.  But this morning, there was a guest host in Regis’ place and after a bit of badinage, we were forced to see a video of this man’s marriage proposal.

This trend toward choreographed and over-the-top marriage proposals is one more sign to me of the trivialization of marriage, and of pretty much everything else.  Whenever I see a public wedding proposal, I always know that the lady to whom it is aimed would be wise to respond with a resounding, “NO!”  A public proposal is manipulative and the men who make them are precisely the kind of man who can and will manipulate friends and family of a woman who is fleeing an abusive situation into disclosing her whereabouts because he is SO sorry and loves her SO much and will never, ever do it again.  These women are being placed in a position where saying anything except a happy and thrilled, “Oh, yes! will publicly humiliate the would-be groom.  Despite this being exactly what he deserves for placing her in this position, one assumes that she feels some affection for the poor jerk and doesn’t want to add humiliation to an already hurtful response, if her wish is to refuse or to request more time as a dating couple.  These proposals are acts of aggression and I think the smart woman will recognize that.   It might ease the lady’s conscience were she to reflect that in these situations, she is not the focus, HE is.  In these self-absorbed times, this alone should be enough to give her pause: "What?  This is not all about me?". 

A columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle during the 70s whom I liked very much named Charles McCabe once wrote that those who can write great love letters are not capable of great love.  I have often thought about this, and I am inclined to agree, although I suppose there could be exceptions.  A truly great love letter in my mind would not be one which trumpeted great sentiments in beautiful language, but a simple one which spoke in words that meant a great deal only to the recipient.   Similarly, is there someone in your circle who constantly takes pictures of every event to which he or she is invited?  Regardless of how valued these pictures may be later, isn’t it also true that this person is never really participating in these events, but is far more consumed with recording them?   One reason I have much valued and long-lasting friends of whom I now have not a single photograph is that I just cannot step outside happy moments and record them on a camera, and I confess a frisson of irritation passes through me toward those who do so.  It makes everything seem not real for that moment, but just a performance.  Although I own a camera, I rarely take any pictures with it, and on my three or four week trip to my niece’s wedding on the train, a trip that seguéed into Thanksgiving with my best friend, I took exactly two photos, both of a lake that the train passed by in the Sierra Nevada Mountains (which I took mostly because the some announcer on the train suggested we passengers might like to do so) and I have never looked at these photographs since, nor do believe I ever will bother to do so.  If I do see them again, they will mean nothing to me at all. 

I am, as usual, straying from my point, which is, insofar as I have a point, that we are moving toward aggrandizing events and rituals at the expense of actually experiencing the human transaction that is taking place.  Call me a Romantic, but I think that when two people love each other enough to marry, it should almost go without saying that the marriage will take place.  I don’t recall Tumwell and me talking about IF we’d move in together, but only where we’d move (we each had room mates) and how soon we could do it.   Now that marriage seems to be just a phase in a life of serial monogamy, or a right to be demanded or defended, all the little rituals seem to have metastasized.  It is so often all bark and no bite, smoke without fire.

I have never placed any value on someone making any special effort – or even noticing the date – for St. Valentine’s Day.  (Does anyone even acknowledge that it is the feast day of a Catholic saint – one who is probably as fictional as most of them?)  And I have cherished forever those little impulsive gifts or gestures that come now and then just because someone has seen something and thought of me.   I think that part of any pre-nuptial agreement should be a clause specifying who will get the wedding album.   My suggestion is that it go to the one who doesn’t get custody of the kids; this will accord nicely with the current feel-good sentiment in children’s competitions that the loser should also get a trophy.   This is a great concept when we are speaking of the Special Olympics – but the benefit of everyone getting a trophy is doubtful when the people involved are not “special” in the sense implied by the term 'Special Olympics'.  People of average intelligence or better know when they have lost, however much we pretend otherwise – and they should.  It is called “learning” – a concept that has long since departed from anything that we currently term “Education.”

In general people do not think to insist they are telling the truth if, in fact, they are, because it doesn’t occur to people stating a fact that this fact is in question.  I have never felt any pressure to make an official show of love toward those whom I actually love, because I am pretty sure we both know it.  I need no public demonstration or concrete proofs from those who love me.  If I doubt anyone’s sincerity, a public performance will not do anything but increase my doubt.  When someone says, “I’ll be perfectly honest with you,” my one sure belief is that he won’t be. 

While I am on the topic of overdone and relatively insincere ritualization of life’s little ups and down, I wish to ask the question, why is a wedding day so often referred to as “her day” or “her special day”?  Isn’t the event supposed to be a union of two people?  Just thought I’d ask.  

OK, now I am done.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

At Home in the Jungle

I thought I would check out the premier of a new TV series last night because it was ten o’clock and I still didn’t feel like going to bed; because it had an actor whose character I loved on Friday Night Lights and I was curious to see how much it was the actor I liked and how much it had been the character; and because it was set in the jungle, my concept of which has intrigued me since the first time I heard of it.  I am talking of the series Off The Map, about three young doctors recruited to work in a jungle clinic in a poor country.  Whether I will become a regular viewer of this show is still a question, because as a rule I avoid “doctor” shows and it isn’t clear whether this is more a doctor show or a jungle show.  I fear the former.  I have an almost pathological revulsion to seeing opened-up people, or to seeing skin pierced.  I have never watched the doctor insert a needle into me for blood tests or any other purpose.  I squinch my eyes when a film shows an addict shooting up.  I don’t at all mind the sight of blood, and I don’t mind receiving shots at all, not even novocaine in the gums.  Well OK, I mind novocaine a little, but only to a normal degree.  Some of the bloggers I follow have mentioned liking – or loving – the series Bones, but I rarely watch it and I have never watched the NCIS series or CSI, and I have never seen a single episode of E. R.  I will almost drive into a wall rather than run over an animal that is already dead – it even revolts me to squash one of the larger bugs.  I am not a Buddhist, nor am I one of those folks who revere life in all its forms (last year I killed seven squirrels); I just cannot stomach the sight of broken bones exposed, or internal organs, or the act of skin being pierced.  When I was in high school I was actually excused, in biology class, from the frog dissection (on condition that I learn all the parts from colored overlays in the textbook – I got the highest mark in the class on the subsequent test) .  I simply cannot do it.  I buy my chicken already cut up. 

I am not here to talk about my psychoses or neuroses (they leak out in everything I write, anyway) but something completely different.  There was, early in the show, a scene where the actor I mentioned – I don’t even know his name – goes to an open area where there are a bunch of huts and people doing jungly things to meet a boy who will guide him to a distant patient who needs help.  I can’t really describe the scene nor put my finger on what, exactly, was the specific thing I saw or heard that did it, but something sent a thrill through my mind and the thought, “Oh God, how I wish that were me in that place.”  It was the thrill of possibility, of starting out on the best vacation or job ever. 

This morning I was watching something and I switched over to another channel which was at a point in an ad for a cruise line that showed a group of passengers approaching the ship and I felt nothing, except that this scene from last night’s show flashed across my mind and it occurred to me that people headed to their ship for a cruise, or people walking up to a grand hotel, or people headed to Vegas seem to have that exact feeling that I had last night seeing the village scene.  I see a cruise as a thing I’d have to get through, like a wedding or a trip to the dentist or my job, when I had one.  There might be fun moments or congenial people – there might be – but good moments would be like shiny beads strung among periods when my smile is fixed on my face, when I would be wondering what I should be feeling or saying or doing next, when I would feel out of place.  I feel out of place so often in my life.  Not unwelcome at the weddings or parties or jobs, not resented or disliked, but just like I am not quite sure what to do with my hands.  I am sure many of you have had occasion to attend a funeral or wedding or event that you attended because of your affection or respect for someone involved – or a family event with your fiancé’s family before you knew him (or her) well – where you were acutely conscious of being foreign to the commonly agreed-upon rituals and behaviors among the majority of the attendees, where there were nuances which escaped you.  This is how I feel most of the time in Western countries.  Even when I love some of the folks involved dearly – even the Breakfast Club events with my own family where we gather with my Mom every Sunday at MY house, I have this undercurrent of feeling that I am stringing together moments that are smooth and fun with intervals of casting about for the next thing to say or do.  And afterwards I sometimes wondering why I said this or did that, not cruel or foolish or rude things, but just things that I am not sure are in tune with the interests or mood or interests of the other folks present. 
Why I am utterly comfortable when I am in a place where I don’t speak the language or where the customs are completely unlike those I am used to or where people dislike my government intensely, I can’t explain.  I just am.  And I love it.  Maybe it is because there is nothing to live up to.  Maybe because I am so obviously at level zero that anything I say or do is a move up the scale, even if not always in the right direction.  As strange as everything might seem to most people, I feel like I am at last among people like me.  I am playing with people who are my age.  Nothing I say or do goes on my permanent record.  The more people are unlike me in fact, the more they feel, in my gut, like me.  It only applies to the general environment in these cases, or in one on one interactions; being invited to a home or to a meal can be acutely uncomfortable. 

I was actually taken by surprise by the depth of my feeling during that one moment in the show that I have described.  It wasn’t exactly like, “Oh my God, I’m home again,” but it was remarkably like seeing, in the opening footage of the Sean Penn film Milk, the front of the barbershop I used to go to.  I had a tremendous gut reaction of meeting an old friend, of having a free day, of beginning a wonderful vacation.   

Sadly, I think the jungle setting for this show is largely a pretext for having even more horribly gaping wounds and more grotesque injuries than the mere bullet wounds and car crash injuries on the medical shows set within the confines of the USA.  That is too bad.  I am perplexed at the pleasure a lot of folk must derive from close-ups of maggot-filled bodies or torn-open abdomens.  Yet if one brings these things up with any degree of description at a dinner party, one tends to get the same reaction as the proverbial turd in the punch bowl.  It seems to be my curse: I don’t get what people do or when they should or shouldn’t do it.  Pink Floyd has a song where the narrator says then he was young, his hands “felt like two balloons.”  Me too.  Only I feel like balloons all over, especially my mouth. 

Maybe this is why I like films and books about people.  Other folks, folks who get people, seem to prefer shows about speeding cars or injuries or poop and pee or guns.  Real people to a lot of people are a big yawn.  But I love something that makes me wonder how I would react or about how people resolve issues, how people cope with things.  There is a film opening, called The Dilemma which poses the interesting question of what one would do if one saw one’s best friend’s wife cheating on her spouse.  This sounds like it could really be interesting, and even as a comedy, could say some challenging things.  I may well go see it.  And I will hope, hope, hope that the reaction of the characters doesn’t involve farting or pooping. 

I’m an idealist.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

To Dream the Impossible Dream

My brother Liam is a poet.  I hadn’t actually put this thought into words, but someone else told me this and I realized that it is true.  My sort-of sister-in-law Nellie (she and my brother Rob have been together for at least 37 years – possibly longer) is an accomplished musician.  She has made her living from music most of her life.  She and Rob lived together in Arizona until just a few months ago when her mother passed away and she inherited the mother’s house back here in the City just north of here.  Music has hardly made her wealthy and this was too good a gift to pass up.  Back in Arizona, an all-woman blues group of which she was a member won the state blues title (did you know there was such a thing?) four years running until they decided to stop competing.  That group and her previous group have made a number of recordings, and she has played with a number of blues artists, or rhythm and blues artists, over the years including Bo Diddly. 

Recently, at the Breakfast Club (I think you all know that is what we call the Sunday breakfasts with my mother, don’t you?) a song by my brother Liam came on my iPod speakers (Liam was not present) and the conversation turned to songwriting and so forth.  Nellie said, “I have written some songs, but Liam is a poet.”  And she is exactly right – about him, whether or not she might be underrating herself.  Liam just seems to have a gift for saying things in such a way that you see the picture.  In a song of his that many people like quite a bit, he tells of seeing his son get off the school bus during a snowstorm and watching him come up the driveway with his coat unbuttoned, and it was “like watching a tear sliding down from the night”.  This song, The Loneliness Birds, (the title is from something someone else has written) is about hearing the news that this youngest son, at age sixteen, had been killed. 

My favorite song of all that he has written is a meditation on the story of Hansel and Gretel which reflects on how children ultimately decide their own paths and define who their parents were, no matter how hard those parents worked or how deeply they cared.  This song seems to me to encompass all the cares and worries of watching one’s children become independent: the driver’s license, the possibly dangerous friends, the parties where drink or drugs might be present, the person who will break his or her heart.

I can see the breadcrumbs
That you left to mark your trail,
And I see the loaf you tore
Them from grow grey and stale.

I see you moving on
Unconscious of the trap,
Not knowing of the crows behind you
Eating up your map.

All the warnings you have heard
Of strangers in the wood,
And all the lessons you have done
Don’t do you any good.

And as you hurry on, you drop
Your last small piece of bread
And walk in, without knocking,
To that house of gingerbread.

I go, “Wait a minute; have I mixed up my nursery rhymes?
Have I confused my heroes and my heroines?
Might I be thinking of some different dotted line?
Could it be me who needs the rescuing?”

But it’s you who writes the story
And you who turns the page.
Will I be the wicked witch
Who locks you in a cage?

And as I reach to touch you
Will you turn without a word
And hand me out the tiny bone
Of some small flightless bird?

Or will I be the woodsman
With bright and shining axe
Who searches in the forest
 To find your scattered tracks?

After I have saved the day
And freed you from the jail
Will you find your way home
Or another aimless trail?

I ask you, does anything describe the fragility of your child in your heart better than ’the tiny bone of some small flightless bird’?   Here goes this mere baby into the world, and that is his armor.

Liam called me last night, and we had one of the best conversations we have had in years.  It was good because I ended it (actually one of our phones gave out and thus ended it for us) feeling really good and engaged and a bit enlightened.   I passed on to him Nellie’s remark because I think people should hear all the good stuff about themselves that is said.  This got us onto the subject of poetry and song and writing in general, and we agreed that the really great stuff has a quality where two and two make five or ten.  Great stuff contains the kind of lines where what is said conveys more meaning than the words themselves actually say.  I always think, in this context, of the description of Tom and Daisy Buchanon (which I may remember incorrectly) in Gatsby, “They were the kind of people who broke things.”  These people were not vandals or vindictive, but merely sort of spiritually careless is my reading of this line.  It says so much, and yet that mere sentence in another context could be said about somebody’s ill-behaved children and contain no emotional depth or nuance whatever.

I always think also of Dylan’s line “Just to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free.”  (Would that not be the best day of one’s life?)  Or Eliot’s famous over-quoted line, “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo.” which can read as a flat statement of fact, but which conveys such depths of boredom, such shallow artifice, incomprehension and waste of time.  These are lines that sing in my head even though I have not heard or read some of them in a very long time.  Dylan Thomas was “young and easy under the apple boughs/ About the lilting house/ And happy as the grass was green.”  Isn’t that a wonderful image of childhood before you find out that there are people who don’t love you? 

Anyway, this was among the types of thing we talked about – Liam also brought up the secret language of families with its loaded phrases that seem so innocent to outsiders and which are such deadly shots to the members thereof.  There was no worse insult among us kids than “typical teen”.  My Mom had a habit of wondering why none of us boys dated certain girls and she tended to describe these girls as “full of fun.” (In short, they were the kind of girl that other girls would love to have around).  “Full of fun” became a deadly phrase among us boys, meaning a girl you wouldn’t date on a desert island where she controlled the water supply.  Mom herself had these innocent-sounding zingers – god help the person she described as “sweet as a peach”.  She used this roughly in the sense conveyed by others when they say “butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth”.   “And there she stood,” Mom would say, “sweet as a peach…” usually in reference to someone who had instigated a lot of trouble and who acted all innocent and, perhaps, even outraged by the resulting chaos.  Kind of like, “Who, me?”  There was no worse sin in Mom’s catechism than “troublemaking”.

What got me started here before my usual dilatory trip all over the place was something that clicked into place in my head near the end of our conversation.  I have long known a few faults or characteristics or habits of mine, as we all do about ourselves if we are not borderline psychotics.  I wrote an essay or entry or blog (what does one call these things anyway?) some time ago on my defunct Spaces blog about my love of going to out-of-the-way places (my first trip abroad was to Zambia) or of trying things that most people don’t try – or even want to try (hitchhiking across the USA; living in Saudi).  And anyone who has the least degree of perception seems to see, as I most certainly do myself, that I have a big tendency toward depression and inactivity – the sin of sloth is my vice of choice, which is certainly the least attractive of them all, and the least fun, which is even worse.  I have always attributed my tendency to end up sitting around doing nothing to the depression which has dogged me since my teenage years at least, and which once ended me up in a nuthouse for eleven months.  So I have thought about this sloth at times and I have thought about the adventures at other times.  The only way I have ever thought of them in tandem was when I felt lousy; usually I attributed this bad feeling to not being on some kind of adventure.  Mostly though, like other things I think about, I thought of either one or the other, but not both at once.  Suddenly, while I was talking with Liam last night, the two came together with blinding clarity, and when I said this sentence to Liam, he was equally struck by how exactly correct it seemed:

I would rather do nothing than do anything that is ordinary.

Like most things, this means more to me than it will mean to anyone else – but it somehow is a whole new way for me to look at what seems to be my current dilemma.  A sort of corollary to this is that I hate doing anything unless I feel I can (and notice the word is CAN, not WILL) become very good – among the best – at that thing.  I think this explains such things as my sudden complete revulsion toward going to the gym.  I actually didn’t mind going for six months, and I originally went because it seemed to be a healthy thing to do, and I was concerned about an increasing lack of muscle tone and a real lack of stamina.  I really had no goal other than to ameliorate my physical deterioration somewhat.  But six months into it, something happened.  I found I had lost two inches around my waist, I had reached a level of elasticity that allowed me to touch my forehead to my knee, I had gained an inch on my biceps and, most important of all, I noticed one day in the mirror that there was the tiniest hint of an indentation on each side of the place where one’s abs should be. 
“Wow!” I can imagine many people thinking, “What a great reward for what really, after all these years, is not a huge amount of time!”  How can this be a bad thing?  But a this brought  a very subtle change into the whole process; it is exactly the kind of thing that has often stopped me in the midst of other endeavors.  (OMG, I just realized why painting my dining room has never been completed!)  You see, for six months I was visiting a strange land.  I wasn’t “one of them.”  All about me were these serious people who worked out – either younger people who were building truly admirable bodies or seniors who were “keeping fit.”  So long as it seemed like I was some kid wandering in and being tolerated by the ‘real athletes’, it was kind of fun.  But now I was ‘one of them.’  At first I thought I was elated when I saw real progress.  I could have a (smaller) waist again; I bought pants two inches smaller than my old ones and they fit perfectly.  But shortly after this, I couldn’t make myself go any more; I really couldn’t figure out why.  It seemed pointless and unrewarding.  Although everyone there was friendly, no one became a friend.  They weren’t there to make friends –nor was I – but I felt like I might have wanted to go if there was the subtle pressure of expectation by a friend of seeing me there.  But whether or not this is true, that isn’t the real problem, I realize now.  The problem is I was ‘getting fit’; I was becoming one of those seniors who would never, ever again look as good as the younger folks at the gym or the younger me, and this made me feel pathetic.  I don’t want to look "good for my age", I want to look good, period, or else to hell with it.  I was now only doing what a lot of old people do, and over time as I aged I was going to get worse and worse.  It was pointless, because I didn’t feel ‘special’ any more.  I was so ordinary, so predictable, so ‘still active in my golden years’.

There are so many things I can do a little; I am better than average at calligraphy, I used to draw well and I still draw better than average.  I HATE ‘better than average’.  I want ‘great’ or not at all.  I don’t have to BE great, but I have to believe that it is within the realm of possibility to reach that point.  When I was young, I loved to run.  I would run across our pasture lot or across the lawn or through a field with complete joyous abandon.  The joy arose, however, not from the feeling of running itself, or the exercise or anything like that.  The joy was because I truly believed, with every fiber of my being, that I could run faster than anyone else on Earth if I wanted to.  The day that no longer seemed true was the last day I ever ran.  What was the point?  This is why I don’t try learning to dance; I am too old to be the best.  It is not a case of defeating others, but just of being really good.  “By ‘best’ I don’t really mean better than anyone else so much as ‘as good as the very best’. 

There are few processes I enjoy (writing is one of those few, however, so long as I can keep from letting it fall into that area where all things become futile).  I enjoy the results of things.  I don’t want to make curtains, I want to have curtains, really nice, unusual curtains,  that I made.  I enjoy knowing I can do things.  I have a spiffy leaded glass window I made 30 years ago depicting the head of a Watusi warrior I modeled after a picture in a National Geographic.  I kind of love it, and I am quite proud of it.  I never made another.  Because it would have had to be better.  I remember in first grade we were each given a lump of modeling clay and told that whatever we made would be displayed for our parents at a forthcoming PTA session.  Most of the kids began making those coiled baskets where they rolled the clay between their palms into long thin tubes and then wound the tubes into a basket shape; or else making turtles – essentially a big rounded lump of clay with five smaller lumps attached for head and legs.  I, however, decided to make a giraffe.  I couldn’t imagine why the others were going for stuff so simple and dumb and obvious.  I can still see the giraffe as I pictured it then – and from the first I could picture how it should look very clearly.  But my hands couldn’t seem to make it happen; to start with, the neck wouldn’t remain upright.  I couldn’t believe I couldn't do it!  Finally, I realized it was beyond me, so I set out to make something I thought would be easier – either a hippo or an elephant (I think I tried both), something thicker and sturdier.  But my hands just couldn’t seem to make the clay take the desired shape.  I kept wadding the whole thing up and starting anew, and of course, time ran out with all the other kids’ turtles and baskets perfect, as turtles and baskets go, and me with a big lump of nothing.  Nonetheless, my opus was displayed on a piece of colored construction paper with my name on it among all the other offerings.

My Mom, never one to pay in false coin, made a funny little story out of it when she told me about the PTA meeting.  “All the other mothers,” quoth she, “were saying to me, ‘Look!  My Ginny made this nice turtle!’ or ‘See the nice basket Bobby made!  What did your Davy make?’  And there I was pointing to this lump of clay, saying, ‘Well…’”  Mom wasn’t being mean, and she actually made me laugh and feel better by telling this story in the way she did.  I was never one of those kids that could draw a picture and respond happily to something like, “Oh is that a doggie?” when the speaker was pointing to my depiction of one of my brothers.  I know when I have failed and I do not gain anything from anyone else’s pretending otherwise; it only makes it worse, as if I am pathetic and beyond saving.  If you have to ask, it isn’t right. 

It is all very well to say that I shouldn’t feel this way – the ‘nothing or the best ’ way.  Actually, ‘best’ is only one way that would be acceptably uncommon; even ‘worst’ would be better than ordinary.  But I didn’t know I DID feel this way exactly.  I saw bits of it, and perhaps I am only seeing a bit more of it now, rather than all of it.  This whole linking of the ‘ordinary’ with doing nothing is somehow a new slant for me.  Fear of failure?  Maybe.  My favorite film of all time, hands down, is Lawrence of Arabia.  I suspect that the film assumed mythic proportions to me when, in response to the pleading of Prince Ali who cared deeply for Lawrence and was trying to persuade him to take a more reasonable, less risky and debilitating course than the one he was on, Lawrence asks, "Do you think I am just anybody, Ali?"  Oh. My. God.  Yes!  Yes!  Yes! That is a truly great person!  As early as junior high or early high school, a time when I was deeply Catholic, a girl I liked said to me (after a friendly argument - she always liked to present herself as anti-Irish and anti-Catholic) "You will either wind up as Pope or Anti-Christ."  Can you see why I liked her?    

So this is why I feel so free, I think, in Third World countries.  I will never be ‘just one of them’.  I will always be different.  I don’t have to DO anything except be undemanding and interested (because demanding and superior are ordinary ways to travel there.)  I can relax and have fun.  One of the greatest compliments I ever received was after I left Saudi when a Bangladeshi I used to chat with told Papa I ‘”wasn’t like the rest of them.” 

It is hard to change how one thinks or behaves if one doesn’t know why one does so.  It is impossible to change if one doesn’t even KNOW one does something.  It is something to think about – and it is certainly a useful piece of information to have when I am thinking, “What next?”  Maybe I’ll forget it all tomorrow, but maybe I won’t; I hope not.  It seems kind of commonplace, so perhaps only I know how right and powerful this exact linkage between doing nothing, and doing something extraordinary is for me.  So why should anyone even care? 

Well the thing is: I went to all the trouble of writing this down; I might as well do something with it.  

Monday, January 10, 2011

Brief - But Legendary!

I just saw some sports figure – I don’t remember who, but I do remember that I didn’t recognize the name – described as “legendary”.  It either saddens or maddens me, depending on my mood, to see the constant cheapening of language in this advertising age we live in.  Nobody living is legendary; I cannot think of a single person in the world today that could remotely be deserving of such a term.  One of the requirements for being legendary is having legends arise about one’s life.  Wouldn’t you agree?  When someone is alive, one can ask him or her if some story about him or her is accurate and get the facts.  That would reduce this figure to the level of, at best “historical” and at worst, to “used to be famous”.  Nearly anyone in sports comes much closer to the latter than the former.   Surely, there is no one currently active in anything who is much more than “famous” or “prominent”.   Next time someone uses the term “legendary” in my presence, I plan to challenge him to recount one of the legends surrounding that person.   If the story is factual and verifiable, then we are dealing with history, not legend.

Of course, “historical” has been cheapened as badly as “legendary” has.  Nowadays, it seems that “historical” is applied to something as trivial as a company painting a little color onto a two-dollar bill and selling it for $10.  (Have you seen those recent ads?)  Companies such as the Franklin Mint and others are constantly selling nickels and dimes for several dollars each (along with certificates of authentication!).  It is clear, from the continued success of these companies, that there is no limit to the gullibility of the American public.  Some of the people we vote for would bolster the same argument.  Mark Twain based a number of story lines on the willingness of the public to believe the fantastic and to buy snake oil in large quantities.  It would seem as if the desire to be deluded is so entrenched that it has given rise to both strange moments in history and to fictional tales which are cherished.  In short, the gullibility of the American public is legendary.  

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Plumbing the Shallows

I use Yahoo as my internet whatever – the first screen I see (whatever that is called) not from any strong preference but merely because that must have been, in the dim dark ages past, the first whatzit that popped up when I started on the internet.  By now this has become, in a modest way, my preferred whatzit only because I am used to it.  Actually, on my other computer, my Apple, which I bought when I had a lot more money and nothing much to do with it, Google is my first whatzit, which makes more sense in a way, because I often go online to Google to look up a word or person or thing which has come up in conversation and which I suddenly realize after all these years that I don’t know exactly who or what it is. 

Yahoo seems to see itself, these days, as a sort of USA Today lite – and of course, USA Today itself is news lite in the first place – so when I first hit my computer in the morning or whenever I manage to get to it, I am usually presented with about six headlines concerning things that Yahoo assumes will interest me.  At least one of these commonly begins with a grabber like “Six people that…” or “The ten best…” or “Fifteen horrifying…”.  I canceled my Time subscription some time ago for offering me too much of this kind of headline.  There are usually about two of the six headlines given over to some event in the lives of some film actor who should have known better even if he or she is not Lindsay Lohan.  Today’s quota of actor-related headlines were about actors Pete Postlethwaite dying and Zsa Zsa Gabor having her leg amputated.  What stopped me in my tracks were not the misfortunes of these actors, but the little note at the end of each headline displaying a camera icon and the word ‘photos’.  Really??  For one giddy moment I thought I was being promised a close-up of a corpse and a stump, but of course, just like the ‘Ten ways to cut your taxes’ articles, the reality is no such luck.  I have to say they had me for a minute there. 

I’d like to say that Yahoo doesn’t ‘get’ me and that I am above clicking on articles about people I will never meet and lists that have nothing whatever to do with my life.  (Have you ever read one of those tax-reducing articles, by the way?  They have about as much relevance to me as does the AARP magazines agonizing over where one should buy one’s second home or which upscale getaway caters to such ‘Life-is-sweet’ seniors as myself. )  But, getting back to the thought provided in sentence one of this paragraph, I have to admit that I quite frequently do find myself idly clicking on these desserts for the mind type articles – though I hate myself for doing so - while I am just as likely to skip stories on the war and Washington.  Partly my avoidance of the latter items is Yahoo’s insistence on giving no information that I don’t already know from last night’s two sentences with film footage on NBC or ABC.  The problem with a world in which everyone is famous for 15 minutes, is that no one is allotted that fame in relation to his deserving of it.  Probably nearly everyone has 15 minutes worth of depth in some area or other, but that is never what we get to read about.  I wonder what kind of interesting stories we’d get if Yahoo omitted any ‘news’ article with less than ten sentences altogether, and for those longer than ten sentences, they arbitrarily picked sentence 11 of the article and had a writer do a whole article on that sentence’s topic alone.  Such depth is why I love my Atlantic and my New Yorker.  Either tell me a whole lot that I don’t already know, or skip it altogether. 

So I have to admit, sadly, that Yahoo probably does have my number.  It is embarrassing.  On the other hand, while Yahoo is just guessing, and probably wouldn’t know me if it passed me on the street, my nearest and dearest should have a clue as to what I am all about.  Each Christmas I am reminded anew what a mystery I am to all who know me.  I wonder if the gifts I give are as unrelated to the people to whom I give them as theirs are to me.  An Indian man, whom I worked with in Saudi for six months or less, and whom I have seen only once in the last fifteen years, dropped by the other day on his way from Toronto (to which fascinating city he has emigrated) to introduce me to his wife and three kids and the lot of them were kind enough to bring me a Christmas gift.  How is it that this man had a better idea of what I like (a book on the latest findings on brain plasticity) than do my relatives, many of whom have known me since birth?  Just asking.  I like getting gifts – giving, I find, is much overrated – but I do find it baffling that people are so wide of the mark when they decide what I might like.  Perhaps they see me as too narrow, and wish to widen my horizons.  But an insulated coffee cup every Christmas?   Still, the degree of difficulty I find in buying gifts for most of my near and dear would argue that I am as clueless as they are.   But this is about ME after all. 
What happened to bring these thoughts to mind was the fact that just now I opened the upper cabinet door where I have stowed the latest insulated coffee cup and, apparently feeling that I had enough of its ilk therein already, this latest gift leapt from its shelf and smashed a plate I had set on the counter below.   I am not exactly looking a gift horse in the mouth here; I know that it is the thought that counts.  But what baffles me, is what thought exactly is it that I am counting?  Has anyone ever found me, for instance, serving or drinking flavored coffee?  Yeah, I got some of that – and when I served a bit of it at the Sunday Breakfast last week, I got a resounding chorus of ‘Eeewww!” which kind of echoed my own reaction.  To be sure, if asked, I wouldn’t know what I wanted either, so I guess I can’t expect anyone else to know.  I have too much stuff already.  The best gift I have gotten in the last several years was a gift certificate for iTunes.   At least I don’t have to find a place for the resulting purchase. 

As a special service, I offer the following (he said, changing the subject).  If your eyeglasses’ lens keeps popping out, don’t try supergluing it to the frame.  If you DO glue it and inevitably get some glue on the lens, don’t try wiping it off with your finger.  And if you do smear it around with your finger, don’t try to clean it up with a paper towel.  I’m not saying how I know this, or where bits of paper may be firmly adhering to my body, I am just being of service.