June 4, 2011

Steinbeck and Spirituality and the Most Important Word

Filed under: MiscellAnnia — Tags: , , , , , — Ann @ 11:14 am

601 Pages of Amazing

I fell in love with John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” many years ago after it was recommended to me by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, one of my spiritual teachers. One of the reasons I find it so meaningful has to do with the following discussion that takes place between the three main characters late in the narrative. It’s a conversation between Lee, the long-time Chinese housekeeper/nanny, head-of-household Adam, and their friend Samuel. (I’ve taken some editorial liberties for brevity’s sake.) Lee begins:

“Do you remember, nearly ten years ago, when you read us the sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis and we argued about them? Well, the story bit deeply into me and I went into it word for word. The more I thought about the story, the more profound it became to me. Then I compared the translations we have — and they were fairly close. There was only one place that bothered me. The King James version says this — it is when [God] has asked Cain why he is angry. [God] says, ‘If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin [crouches] at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.’ It was the ‘thou shalt’ that struck me, because it was a promise that Cain would conquer sin.”

“Then I got a copy of the American Standard Bible. It was very new then. And it was different in this passage. It says, ‘Do thou rule over him.’ Now this is very different. This is not a promise, it is an order. And I began to stew about it. I wondered what the original word of the original writer had been that these very different translations could be made.”

Samuel put his palms down on the table and leaned forward and the old young light came into his eyes. “Lee,” he said, “don’t tell me you studied Hebrew! I want to know why you were so interested.”

“Well, it seemed to me that the man who could conceive this great story would know exactly what he wanted to say and there would be no confusion in his statement.”

“You say ‘the man.’ Do you then not think this is a divine book written by the inky finger of God?”

“I think that the mind that could think this story was a curiously divine mind. We have had a few such minds in China, too. Well, to go on, I went to San Francisco to the headquarters of our family association. I went there because in our family there are a number of ancient revered gentlemen who are great scholars. They are thinkers in exactness. A man may spend many years pondering a sentence of the scholar you call Confucius. I thought there might be experts in meaning who could advise me. I respectfully submitted my problem to one of these sages, read him the story, and told him what I understood from it. The next night four of them met and called me in. We discussed the story all night long.”

Lee laughed. “Can you imagine four old gentlemen, the youngest is over ninety now, taking on the study of Hebrew? They engaged a learned rabbi. They took to the study as though they were children. Exercise books, grammar, vocabulary, simple sentences. You should see Hebrew written in Chinese ink with a brush!”

“I went along with them, marveling at the beauty of their proud clean brains. I began to love my race, and for the first time I wanted to be Chinese. Every two weeks I went to a meeting with them, and in my room here I covered pages with writing. I bought every known Hebrew dictionary. But the old gentlemen were always ahead of me. Mr. Hamilton, you should have sat through some of those nights of argument and discussion. The questions, the inspection, oh, the lovely thinking — the beautiful thinking.”

“After two years we felt that we could approach your sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis. My old gentlemen felt that these words were very important, too — ‘Thou shalt’ and “Do thou.’ And this was the gold from our mining: ‘Thou mayest.’ ‘Thou mayest rule over sin.’ The old gentlemen smiled and nodded and felt the years were well spent. It brought them out of their Chinese shells too, and right now they are studying Greek.”

Samuel said, “It’s a fantastic story. And I’ve tried to follow and maybe I’ve missed somewhere. Why is this word so important?”

Lee’s hand shook as he filled [their cups with ng-ka-py]. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel — ‘Thou mayest’ — that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’ — it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”

“Yes, I see. I do see. But you do not believe this is divine law. Why do you feel its importance?”

“Ah!” said Lee. “I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order ‘Do thou’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph.

Adam said, “Do you believe that, Lee?”

“Yes, I do. Yes, I do. It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there. And do you know, those old gentlemen who were sliding gently down to death are too interested to die now?”

Adam said, “Do you mean these Chinese men believe the Old Testament?”

Lee said, “These old men believe a true story; and they know a true story when they hear it. They are critics of truth. They know that these sixteen verses are a history of humankind in any age or culture or race. They do not believe a man writes fifteen and three-quarter verses of truth and tells a lie with one verb. Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this — this is a ladder to climb to the stars.” Lee’s eyes shone. “You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness.”

Adam said, “I don’t see how you could cook and raise the boys and take care of me and still do all this.”

“Neither do I,” said Lee. “But I take my two pipes in the afternoon, no more and no less, like the elders. And I feel that I am a man. And I feel that a man is a very important thing — maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent towards gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed — because ‘Thou mayest.’”

January 26, 2011

The Bystander Effect

Filed under: MiscellAnnia — Ann @ 8:44 pm

During psychology class today we were having a discussion about the “bystander effect” — that particular phenomenon which, in 1964, led to 38 people ignoring the screams of Kitty Genovese when she was being brutally murdered. The professor was showing other famous case studies on the effect and asking us questions.

At one point a girl sitting just behind me raised her hand and provided a brief but insightful answer. When the professor asked her to repeat what she’d just said but loudly enough for the entire class (of 61 students) to hear, the girl shook her head, smiled shyly and said, “Never mind then,” adding, “I’m not the kind of person who speaks out.”

At which point my brain made a noise like the arm of a record player scratching over the entire surface of an LP. I was horrified, hearing a 20-year-old female college student announcing to the world that she doesn’t, can’t and/or won’t add her voice to any discussion. I wanted to stop the class right there and impart 30+ years of experience to her on the spot. I wanted to get all wise-old-auntie on her: “Oh honey. You have a big noisy mind in there, cooking up all sorts of fabulous ideas and points of view and opinions, and the most important thing happening in this room right now is happening between your ears. You said something good, and meaningful and worth sharing! But even if your comment hadn’t been that interesting, you should have said it anyway. Loudly. From now on, I want you to speak up and speak out. I want you to look around the room while you do so, make eye contact with a few people, smile confidently. Let them know that you, [insert name here], plan to be taken seriously. That you have something to say. You let them know you have a VOICE and you plan to use it so they’d better listen up or else. I’m talkin’ here; you shut up!” Like that.

Of course I didn’t. Didn’t stop the class; didn’t change her mind or her life. I can’t. She has to learn that lesson in her own time and in her own way — if she ever does. If she doesn’t, she’s going to spend an entire lifetime being just another bystander.

December 17, 2010

“It’s a cookbook!”

Filed under: Ann the Columnist:Essays,MiscellAnnia — Ann @ 12:02 pm

The American Woman's Cook Book

I’ve always loved books, so naturally it would follow that I’ve always loved cookbooks, starting with the 1939 hard-cover American Woman’s Cook Book which I grew up with and which still lives in my mom’s kitchen. (I just called her to talk about it and she said, “Ooh, I just opened to a great picture of shrimp cocktail!”) My grandmother gave it to my Mom and Dad when they were first married back in the 40s. I’d gaze at the front for long hours, dreaming of making those petits fours someday.

When I was a bright-eyed bride of 19, someone gave me the orange-bindered Betty Crocker’s Cookbook, which became my education into the world of kitchen wizardry. I still remember the deep sense of power that would wash over me as I’d flip through its pages — I could make Black Forest Cherry Cake! I could make Steak Diane! I grew up in a home where every night’s dinner was standard 1950s fare; my Mom is a whiz with these dishes and, hearty and good though they are, they aren’t exactly adventurous.

So when Betty Crocker came to live in my old-fashioned San Pablo kitchen — I had to get down on my hands and knees to ignite the pilot light whenever I used the oven — I was positively light-headed with possibility. (In retrospect, perhaps the light-headedness was from inhaling all that natural gas.) In that kitchen I turned out Stuffed Green Peppers and Chicken Breasts Tarragon and Classic Hollandaise Sauce. Chicken Tetrazzini became such a hit with friends and family that the page long ago fell out and I keep it in a folder marked “Favorites.”

Over the years I learned that everyone had his and her go-to kitchen tome. Some swore by Joy of Cooking. Some preferred a separate cookbook for each cuisine. But I stuck with Betty — in more ways than one. Whatever Betty Crocker didn’t offer up in the orange binder, my mom — also Betty — provided in terms of her own recipes. To this day I’ll still call her and ask things like, “Mom, what was the recipe you used for that killer gingerbread you used to make me on rainy days?” Pretty soon, a copy will arrive in the mail. God I love my Mom.

Today I turned to the Betty-binder once more. You see, a few weeks ago Neal started bringing home Safeway pound cakes to snack on. I tasted one and made a noise like “bleh” and “oof” blended together. I told him, “You, good husband, need to partake of a genuine, homemade pound cake and I, good-wife that I am, shall prepare same for your gustatory pleasure.” (Except I think I said, “This tastes like crap. I’m going to make one.”)

So today’s the day. I’ve got the cookbook, the flour, the sugar, the real vanilla extract, eggs, baking powder, shortening, salt, and will. As soon as the butter softens to room temperature (oh, we all remember the day we got too impatient and tried to make our cakes with butter that was still chunky, don’t we?), I’ll get out to that kitchen and make my man a pound cake. I’ll tell you one thing, he’ll never eat another Safeway version.

The funny thing is, when I opened Betty Crocker to that recipe this morning, I noted some oil or butter stains mid-page. Don’t all treasured cookbooks have those? Was it from the time I was making something for company and knocked over the canola? Did I accidentally set the frosting spoon there when I was excited about my cake?

Cookbooks are filled with much more than recipes; they are filled with stories. Today, I’m continuing the saga.

August 22, 2010

Weather to Play

Filed under: MiscellAnnia — Ann @ 7:53 am

I grew up on the shores of San Pablo Bay. That meant that, except for two predictable heat waves in late May and early September, every non-winter’s day was pretty much cool and windy. Winter brought mild rains. It was the perfect kid-climate. In my neighborhood, we ran around in shorts and sweaters, and our pink-cheeked healthfulness was not from a too-hot sun but, rather, from the brisk slaps of wind coming off the Bay. It was paradise, and it was the kind of climate that became, apparently, so entwined with memories of childhood that they all came tumbling back to me yesterday.

To my lucky-stars delight, we’ve had a relatively cool summer here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Coastal folks have bundled against the blustery chill, but we inland residents have reveled in postcard-perfect 75 degree days — as they say in Italian, non troppo freddo, non troppo caldo, e perfetto!; not too anything.

And some of those days have been even cooler — like yesterday. I was taking my afternoon walk and suddenly realized I was pretty much wearing the play-costume of my childhood — shorts and a hoodie. The sun was bright but the air was October-brisk and the wind was pinking my cheeks, tangling my air, and making me smile with the memories of a thousand childhood days climbing jungle gyms and calling “ollie ollie oxen free” (even when the Bay winds would sometimes blow those words impotently back into the caller’s face). As I walked, I realized, “This is my play weather.” I smiled to remember.

Global weirding — my phrase for changing weather patterns — has made that predictable climate a thing of the past, a thing of my childhood, along with dial phones, black-and-white television, and spoolies. But yesterday, for a brief moment, I remembered what it was like to be a Bay Area child, to run not just like the wind, but with the wind. It was glorious.

June 8, 2010

The (Re)Cycle of Life

Filed under: MiscellAnnia — Ann @ 1:20 pm

The graduation announcements, which I ordered with great enthusiasm and anticipation, arrived carefully boxed and protected in plastic. I gingerly removed the various wrappings, sat down at my table with my best black pen and the carefully-crafted list of 25 deeply-cherished friends and family members, then mailed out each invitation with a wish that the recipient would share my joy as completely and heart-soaringly as I was sharing the news of my successful attainment of a B.A. in Liberal Studies.

Graduation was over a week ago and last night I found myself wondering where each of the 25 announcements is now. Surely my beloved mother has hers either still posted to the front of her refrigerator (where I’d asked her to hang it, in the spirit of “look what my kid did”), or carefully boxed with her other treasures. And I spoke with my doctor last week — she told me that she immediately put hers on display on a shelf in her office, where it remains.

But, people’s time and lives being cluttered enough with their own priorities, I’m certain that the vast majority of my announcements ended up either being recycled along with the empty Pale Ale bottles and Barilla pasta boxes, or shoved in a garbage can — noodles and fish scraps sliding down the Sonoma State University Official Seal.

That’s the way of life: we move on. Jerry Seinfeld, demonstrating his usual keen cultural understanding, wrote into one of his episodes a bit in which a girl he’s seeing (but not that crazy about) gets annoyed with him because she spots in his trash can the card she had sent him, leading him to question just how many days one is obligated to keep greeting cards before being allowed to dispose of them.

He’s brilliant. Because I have the feeling that the more affection people feel for me, the longer they are inclined to hold on to that announcement. Have you ever received a card from someone, opened it, and thrown it directly into the trash? It’s the Greeting Card Lifespan Measure of Meaningful Relationship.

If you’re reading this, and you received one of my announcements, my hope is that the announcement made you smile, that you kept it around for at least a week so you could smile a few more times, and then either tucked it away (if you have space/inclination), or responsibly recycled it so that it could have new life.

Because if recycled, then, much like the graduates themselves, the announcements become reborn as blank sheets of paper upon which new excitements, new invitations, and new worlds of opportunity can be printed and invented. I can’t think of a more perfect commencement — for people or paper.

May 25, 2010

The girl, the gown, and the guys

Filed under: MiscellAnnia — Ann @ 3:45 pm

Fairly quivering with excitement and anticipation, I drove up to Sonoma State University this morning to pick up the cap and gown which I’d ordered last month. When I arrived at the bookstore, however, there were glitches: first, the curmudgeonly 60-ish clerk at the customer service counter couldn’t find my order at all; then, when he did find it, I was amazed to discover it was encased in a plastic wrapper and no bigger than a shirt package. I had expected the gown to be elegantly suspended from a hanger, protected by a garment bag. (Later, after I got home, I found out that the “gown” was so haphazardly packaged because it’s a polyester/recycled-soda-bottle blend, and you could probably wad the whole thing up and stuff it in a Band-Aid can and it would emerge unwrinkled.)

When he handed me my order, I asked, “Is everything here? Gown, cap, and tassels?” He said he hadn’t checked, and started half-heartedly poking through the packages. Taking inventory, I asked politely, “What about my cords? They had told me I would get cords based on my academic status, and I think I’m graduating with honors.” I was amazed he hadn’t mentioned them as part of my regalia packet — he would have let me leave the store without them.

And, in a scene out of the “Twilight Zone,” he said dismissively, “Well, you’d need to show me ID.” I had just shown him my driver’s license when I’d given him my credit card, but I said patiently, “I have my driver’s license…or did you want my Social Security number?” He said, as if this closed the matter, “I was thinking more along the lines of a valid student ID card.” He started to turn away, done with me. I was genuinely baffled — why wasn’t he going to give me my cords?

Neal said, not kindly, “Excuse me. Excuse me. She needs her cords.” Crankypants then pointed us to the other counter and said we’d have to go over there. Shaking my head in amazement at the strangeness of that encounter, I picked up my bags and moved them to the other check-out station, this one staffed by a young, alert, engaged bespectacled guy in his 20s. When I told him I needed my cords, please, he declined my offer of an ID and asked my name and major, which I provided.

He pulled out a big book, and then his eyes got really wide as he noted the three “section” signs [§§§] adjacent to my name. “Ooooh!” he enthused, “Look at you — summa cum laude ! Gold on gold!” Genuinely impressed (either that, or a gifted drama student), he produced two golden cords and handed them to me with reverence and a giant smile. I could have hugged him but that would have caused talk, so I just beamed “I love you and we shall marry someday” vibes at him as I gathered my things and left.

Two men, two moments, two very different memories. I’m so glad the Universe saved the best for last.

March 27, 2010

Humor is Risky Business

Filed under: MiscellAnnia — Ann @ 7:45 pm

I love to make people laugh. Heck, I love making people smile. But long ago I learned that taking a stab at humor is like bullfighting — it takes courage to participate, and both have tremendous potential for pain and injury. Because no matter how innocuous the joke, humor has the power to offend. In fact, savvy albeit cruel word-warriors know this, and intentionally use its two-edged sword to wound, excusing hurtful barbs as “teasing.”

But even when you mean no harm, and even if you avoid all of the obvious (and unfunny, mean-spirited) pitfalls of race, religion, obesity, etc., there is something in almost every joke which has the power to offend someone. And it’s tricky because, in comedy, timing is everything. The quick-witted casual comedian faces this dilemma: You’re in a group of people, you see the opportunity for a joke, you have less than a split second to weigh its appropriateness and laugh-potential, and you go for it. Then, one of three things happens:

1. It falls flat and there is a mild half-laugh, half embarrassed silence;
2. It totally kills and there is a roar of laughter; or
3. Someone is going to be offended.

And even if #1 or #2 happens, #3 is still a possibility as to one or more of the assembled. (If #1 happens because your material was so offensive, you’d better rethink your entire relationship with amateur comedy.) However, if you take too long pre-delivery in deciding whether your joke is appropriate to the situation, the people, and the moment, you’re sunk, anyway, because comedy has to be quick.

So, there it is: trying to make people laugh is a huge risk and I’ve endured my share of thuds. Maybe I should give it up, and simply err on the side of caution. Still, the Big Laugh is seductive. There was that one Christmas — I was at a huge semi-formal dinner party, with my boyfriend, at the home of his friend’s mother. In other words, the stakes were enormous: there was the new guy to impress, plus I was seated at a table full of strangers, at an event hosted by a very conservative woman. But when I realized the names of the two men between whom I was sitting, and that their names were identical, I couldn’t help myself: At a quiet moment during the dinner, I said brightly, “You know, I really shouldn’t be having this food.” I waited just a beat to collect the puzzled looks, then BAM, hit them with the punch: “My mother always told me not to eat between Neals.” A one-second silence — then everyone at the table HOWLED with laughter. They were mine. They loved me. And I loved them. And for the rest of the dinner party, the new boyfriend gave me a looks that melted two inches off the centerpiece tapers. It was perfect joy.

Did I say seductive? I meant addictive. It’s moments like that which keep me coming back for more, weighing the appropriateness, taking the risk. So, to my friends and family reading this, please know that I have to go for the joke. If I fail, well, my heart was in the right place, even if my sense of timing wasn’t. And if I bomb, I’ll just do what professional and amateur comedians have been doing for decades when their best efforts fail: laugh it off. Because there’s always another show. Thank you, ladies and germs, I’ll be here all week.

February 7, 2010

Timing is Everything

Filed under: MiscellAnnia — Ann @ 6:43 pm

The other day my friend Alana wrote, “I hate daytime TV.” I assume that nighttime TV, on the other hand, is just jake with Alana. And, although I confess a fondness for afternoon “Law and Order” reruns or one of the better cooking programs (when choosing, observe the Cleavage Rule: the deeper the plunge, the better the show — think Giada and Nigella), I do understand the implication that when it comes to entertainment choices, timing is essential.

For example, I’ve long maintained that listening to blues music in the morning is just plain wrong. And Thrashcore on a Saturday morning is only okay if you’re still listening to it from the night before. On the other hand, Sunday morning and jazz go to together like cinnamon rolls and cream cheese frosting.

Theatre has its appropriateness as well. Yes, you may attend a Sunday afternoon matinee of a sappy, cheerful musical; do not spend that time watching a three-act drama. I can imagine myself leaving the City at 5 pm comfort-humming a Rodgers and Hammerstein tune; I do not want to be driving home late in the weekend with dialog from “12 Angry Men” echoing in my mind. Get the picture?

Days of the week matter immensely: Monday is just begging for good old-fashioned 1960s British invastion tunes, but I can’t hear the really interesting genres (rock sureño, anyone? that’s 1970s rock from Andalusia with Flamenco influences) until later in the week — say Thursday. Classical music is appropriate seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and is probably the only category which knows no boundaries. Of course, that’s truer of Beethoven than it is of Faure, and don’t ask me to explain.

As I write this, my husband is making Chicken Corn Chowder while cranking out Creedence Clearwater and that raises another appropriateness issue. Certain music goes better with certain activities. Cooking and rock and reggae, yes; cooking and country and Christmas carols, no.

And remember — no time and no activity is perfect for pop music, unless of course it’s pop melayu (Malay pop music with dangdut overlay), pop mop (Mongolian), or pop sunda (Sundanese mixture of gamelan degung and pop music structures). And those are best played very softly at 3 a.m. And listened to only with very good friends, trust me.

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