Be a Pedant, Be Very, Very Precise

Make it shine (Photo: viv)

Chefs may be as experimental and inventive as you like (though much apparent originality turns out to be mere theft), but they know that a dish, in order to be the dish they are proud to serve, must be creative in a very, very precise way, with the smallest latitude for error. ‘Oh, that’ll do’ is not a phrase often heard in top restaurant kitchens.

The Pedant in the Kitchen
– Essay #2 . Warning: Pedant at Work – 
Julian Barnes


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sucker for butter – our adventures in the kitchen, baking and cooking

. all the rivers – our adventures studying Hebrew

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When Your Husband Thinks You Look Like Tinker Bell

Madonna Delle Torri by Bramantino | Ambrosian Library, Milan

Susanna said, “Jerry, the weirdest thing. I had a vision, a hallucination. But before that there was a moment … it was like sometimes we’d be in cathedrals with those machines you plug a hundred lire in to light up the frescoes for a minute. Always, just before the minute was up, I’d see something in the paintings. But when the light went out I would lose it and forget what it was. Well, there was a gypsy woman in the café, and just before I felt so strange, I looked at her and thought, She looks exactly like me. We could be twins and she knows it. Of course it was ridiculous. We looked nothing alike.” 

Jerry stretched out beside her and gazed down into her face. How old he looks, she thought guiltily, how unhappy and exhausted. Everything showed in his face, everything they both knew now, that they could not go on together, their marriage would have to end and she would have to leave him to face the death of the planet without her. She knew that Jerry was seeing in her the heartlessness of the young: unlike him, she still had time to fix some part of the world, and if it was ending, she still had the strength to enjoy what was left. And who was Jerry, really, to make her feel guilty about it?

“You don’t look anything like a gypsy,” said Jerry. “You look like Tinker Bell.”

Tears came to Susanna’s eyes. “I know that,” she said, not because it was true but to fill the silence in which she might otherwise have to face the fact that she had married a man to whom she looked like Tinker Bell. An unpleasant buzzing in her head reminded her of Gabor’s painting …  She said, “It was just a feeling I had that something was telling me something.” 

“Telling you something?” said Jerry. “Please. Keep your feet on the ground.” 

~ Francine Prose (1947 – )
American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and critic

from Cauliflower Heads (1992)

Musings and Impressions
This short story sits in a collection of stories called
Desiring Italy edited by Susan Cahill. The booknow yellowed, musty, and mightywas one I must have bought in 1999 round about the time I received, as a gift, Frances Mayes’s Under the Tuscan Sun. Italy was swimming in my mind then: the romance of olive trees, Nonnas cooking pasta, Mammas busy with buona cucina, and all the melting, delicious sounds of Italian words, like Uffizi, for instance.

Alas, like the many books I used to buy, they would sit pretty on the shelf, flipped and loved only in their initial days, like a honeymoon, before the thrills and titillation fizzled away. So, too, with the marriage of Jerry and Susanna, all but three weeks old.

The “Gabor painting” Susanna refers to is The Virgin Enthroned with Saints by Bramantino, housed in Milan’s Ambrosian Library. Gabor is a Hungarian ecologist she meets at a Greenpeace conference, the man who first introduced himself with a kiss on her hand, a kiss that made her feel guilty because she found it so “pleasurable and disturbing.” 

Visiting the Ambrosian Library on a double couple date, she with Jerry, and Gabor with his wife, Susanna learns that the Bramantino portrait holds a special place in Gabor’s heart: “Not my favorite. MY FAVORITE.”  

Her brief sojourn in Milan peels her heart open and pierces it in ways she would only come to realize in her Tinker Bell moment in the last few paragraphs, though the dark rumbles of foreboding would already creep in at the beginning of the story when she observed: “Wasn’t one’s honeymoon cruelly early to be envying the adulterous?”

And oh, how they loved, those hot, sultry lovers who lurked all about Milan! 

. . .

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Knowledge, an Ocean Without Any Shore

The Endlessness of Knowledge (Image: Stone & Associates)

The sleep of the knower is better than worship,
if it is a knowing that brings awakening.

The quiet of the expert swimmer
is better than the exertion of one who can’t swim.

Someone who can’t swim keeps flailing and drowns,
while the good swimmer glides quietly onward.

Knowledge is an ocean without any shore–
the seeker of knowledge is a diver through the seas.

Though his life is a thousand years long,
he never wearies of seeking,

for as the Messenger of God has said,
“There are two greedy ones who are never satisfied:

the seeker of the apparent world
and the seeker of knowledge.”

~ Rumi (1207 – 1273)
Persian Theologian and Sufi poet

from Mathnawi VI: 3878 – 3883

Musings & Impressions

I first got to know Rumi by way of Hafiz, and I first got to know Hafiz by way of a yoga teacher, Kristin Khor, one of the finest who’s ever graced my yoga practice of about a decade. Like Hafiz, Rumi is one of the revered Sufi poets, whose great allure for me is not just his wisdom, but the sheer beauty of his poetry.

Kristin almost always started her class with a hit of Hafiz, just a few lines enough for her to build a theme around which she would share a personal story. I always sensed that I was one of the few who savored that brief moment of poetry. It’s a gut feeling based on a kind of resonance I felt in the air and the vibration the other bodies in the studio gave out.

I suppose it didn’t help that she had quite a strong American accent and a tempo that tended to race rather than meander, and so I sometimes grumbled in my heart that Hafiz could have benefited from a slower pace and a kinder cadence. But no matter. Kristin’s gift to me is so great that any more complaint would be ungrateful and unkind.

After I had acquired three different collections of Hafiz—of which one is the beautiful The Subject Tonight is Love—I cast my eyes on Rumi. The collection my heart eventually cleaved to while I was at Kinokuniya in 2014 was this: The Rumi Daybook of 365 Poems and Teachings from the Beloved Sufi Master, a fine collection of verses selected by Kabir and Camille Helminski.

Rumi has been a constant guide for me, though in the most recent times since October 1st, he has been closer to me than ever before—a source I turn to as I troll for verses to meditate on at the ambrosial hour of morning about four-thirty, when I sit facing a tree just outside my bedroom window, while two flickering flames grace the still and quiet of the bewitching hour that is not quite night and not quite day.

Just yesterday, I had selected this passage for my mala bead meditation—recited bead by bead over 108 beads—which you can find framed in a Spark Post in my Devotionals Before Dawn:

Knowledge is an ocean without any shore—
the seeker of knowledge is a diver through the seas.

Though his life is a thousand years long,
he never wearies of seeking. 

Today, as part of my weekly Literary Morsels feature, I’m pleased to share the rest of the poem because of its two other metaphors, so powerful, so irresistible—the swimmer and the two types of greedy people.

Alas, I’m sheepish to confess that I fit the bill of both types of greed-wrecked folks, though I like to think I’m a greedier seeker of knowledge than one craving for Maya and all the things she stands for—the values and things that make up what Rumi calls the “apparent world.”

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The Heart Wants What the Heart Wants

The Heart wants what it wants—or else it does not care—

~ Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886)
American poet

from a letter to Mrs. Samuel Bowles (1862)

Musings and Impressions

Over an ice-cold ginger ale by the poolside of Sheraton Towers yesterday, the wicked heat of October so unnatural for this time of year sizzled away in conversation time—too quick, too cruel, especially when you are in fine and dear company. 

Always, with L., who visits only twice, three times at most, each year from Vancouver—trips that feel more like pit-stops—the catch-up and the storytelling feel more breathless, and never enough.

Our stories took us to Emily Dickinson yesterday, which was such a treat. Sometimes, we forget the poets we love; sometimes, we forget the friends who recede into some dusty corner in the folds of our mind and the muck of our busy lives. 

L. sent me this heart quote via iMessage as we were speaking—a hilarious take on the heart by some psychologist. I, on the other hand, was curious which poem it came from. As I had discovered this morning: no, it didn’t come from a poem, but a letter. The Queen of Dashes, I learned with great amusement, uses dashes too in prose. How fine, how lovely!

Now, if we all cleaved to her cryptic language, we would all be living life cool as a breeze, going “I don’t care,” or we would all be madly chasing and grasping at what our heart wants, refusing to devolve into “I don’t care” mode.

L. didn’t have an answer to the Dickinson quandary (to want or not to want?), neither do I, but I know who does. The Universe, Eternal Time, and the happy Frogs in her letter!

Here at Santa Fé, Earth Is Floor to the Sky

Georgia O’Keeffe in Santa Fé (Photo: Tony Vaccaro, 1960)

The ride back to Santa Fé was something under four hundred miles. The weather alternated between blinding sand-storms and brilliant sunlight. The sky was as full of motion and change as the desert beneath it was monotonous and still,—and there was so much sky, more than at sea, more than anywhere else in the world. The plain was there, under one’s feet, but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud. Even the mountains were mere ant-hills under it.

Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!

~ Willa Cather (1873 – 1947)
American novelist and short story writer

from Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927)
(Chapter 7: The Great Diocese | Part 4: Eusabio)

Musings and Impressions

I first heard of Willa Cather from an artist friend, Nancy, whom I had met at a Chinese calligraphy class at the China Institute in New York City in 2000. Cather’s name and Georgia O’Keeffe’s must have been breathed to me at the very same moment in one of those long, lazy summer soirées far from the madding Manhattan crowd, in her Scarsdale home by the pool deck.

It must have been one of those same Saturdays when the weight and sorrow of a breakup was just too much to bear, and all I had longed for was Nancy’s voice and stories, warmed by the comforting notes of family, the sunshine smile of Andy, her husband, the furtive puttering of their two teenage kids, Susannah and Alex, and the silly pranks of Edward and Willie, their two Westies.

Nancy put the idea into my head that I should visit Santa Fé for a million reasons, from the art, to the huevos rancheros, to O’Keeffe, and of course, to buy something nice for yourself, Mei Mei—a diminutive she was fond of using on me because of its pleasing melody, not least because it could mean either two things: little sister or pretty pretty.

So Mei Mei finally did make the trip with her golf clubs and Contax, her Ray Ban and her journal. Summer 2002 was the season of dreams. I was single, footloose, fancy-free, and all of that storied sky welcomed me the moment I zipped right out of the airport at Albuquerque in an Oxford green four-wheel drive, the hot and arid air drinking up all the moisture from the skin.

Those were the days when I was shooting with a Kodachrome, and I never got round to converting my Santa Fé prints to a digital format, so I’m unable to share this one print on this blog. But if you were to visit my home, you would get to see this one portrait—a segment of the roof of Georgia O’Keeffe’s museum set against that transcendent blue that Cather had painted in words, ocher upon blue, the poetic earth tones of a Pueblo adobe against God’s infinite sky. 

Once you’ve read Cather’s sky portrait in words and walked under it, no sky feels as same as the one in New Mexico. For this reason, Cather always whispers in my heart, in the same way that O’Keeffe haunts me with her spiritual connection to the big, bold, rugged New Mexican landscape, so vast, so mysterious, so eternal.

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