SILENCE HAS A NAME - Poetry Chapbook and CD, with Music by Mark Hanley

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Joy of E-Lit

The Joy of E-Lit

I spend so much of the day in front of a computer,  I have to ask myself why I'm so preoccupied with telling you about books, the kind one cradles in one's palms, like an infant, and not the lit to which I'm privy daily on the Internet.

I'm a child of hands-on lit, as opposed to the kind you access on Kindle and other wireless reading devices. But, I realize, I'm always reviewing lit, in a way, posting links on Facebook and Twitter, texting everybody about my latest and best Internet finds. Not a day goes by that I don't post at least a handful of links to something that in the moment feels like the most amazing new discovery. The best E-lit is fresh and timely.

On my fave e-lit list this week is a stunning review by Charles McNulty, the L.A. Times theater critic, of Dream of Life, Steven Sebring's 2008 film about avant garde poet/rocker Patti Smith. McNulty's understanding of Smith, her journey and 1960s New York was so in-depth, astute and sensitive, I simply had to "comment." I'm ashamed to admit that before reading the byline I assumed the writer was a woman.

But hey. On the Internet, it's always more about What I read than Who wrote it.

I read a handful of books a week, and literally dozens of articles a day, and scan dozens a day, and you can bet this wouldn't be without the props of a computer or laptop. Haven't experts already proven the Internet improves reading ability?

It's not just cool articles I pore over, but helpful, inspiring blogs, many on social media. I'm fascinated by the increasingly abbreviated language spawned by social media networking, and equally with the role that youth plays in evolving our language and attraction to things techie. Reading my niece's facebook posts, I note that letters can be used like art, and rarely used keys such as * can carry a host of meanings. You can always count on kids to create fresh values.

Thanks to our Blackberries and computers we can speak economically about just about anything. Or we can go on about it. Who's to stop us? The electronic rant is the new silent song of the masses, the deliverance of the individual from the shackles of nine-to-five, and just about any kind of oppression -- momentary, illusionary or real.

Our language is increasingly abbreviated, symbolic. Beyond math and the alphabet. What do all these conflagrations of meek, rarely used keys combined with ordinary expressions mean to our styles of evolving communication? What do they mean to kids, and to our future? How will they impact how we speak and communicate tomorrow?

I'm a fan of The New Yorker. I love a long read in a chaise lounge under the sun or the dim light of a reading lamp in the wee hours. I cherish stories that have arcs and characters and take a while to read and digest. But I also know that anything as charged as the coils of tweets going out all over the Internet universe have something vital to say about who we are and how we live. Studying them is a revelation about how fast our culture changes, and also about our illusions of change.

New styles of communication seem as easy to learn and enjoy as breakfast cereal for the kids who conjure them as they go along. Yesterday's language is, well, just that. Minimalism plus a jazz twist, a dadaist urge to upturn what came before is what I see happening now -- text novels, tweeting can be performance art in sound bites. They can also be plagiaristic, meta-fiction, forgettable. But they have acquired the power to arouse us, our interests, curiosity, thought and ire -- often for justifiable causes. And for this, if nothing else, we must thank them.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Riding the Meritocracy

I just read the latest U.S. News university ranking, which places Princeton after Harvard and before Yale. My niece Gabriela turned down Harvard and Princeton for Yale, and her older sister turned down a $38,000 offer from Columbia, also to attend Yale, and just graduated from that institution. Personally, I would have considered disowning my daughter for turning down such a sum of money, and making me pay through the teeth for her education. Hopefully, the Wall Street firm where she is currently ensconced acquiring the tools that greedy people in power use to derail economies, will also provide her with the means to feed back some of the thousands of dollars her parents spent on her education. But, who am I to judge? I'm not the mother. Just the aunt. And I can't brag about my kid going to Yale or any ivy league institution, because I don't have kids, thank god. I'm still trying to recover from my own education.

Perhaps many people are.

Certainly Walter Kirn is. Kirn made the unwise choice (for himself), but wise (for us) decision to attend Princeton in the 1970s, and lived to tell about it. Lost in the Meritocracy paints Princeton as anything but the romantic intellectual brothel for the elite that I imagined it to be,  the home of great talents such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wandered its halls briefly, and certainly took away attitude if nothing else from the experience.

I am happy to report that Lost in the Meritocracy is seeped in the author's experiences of drugs, alcohol and lost youth, and is therefore just my kind of read -- even after all these years of no longer being a booze belle or drug freak. I wonder if it's because I never got over the trauma of college too, the first time around at one of the Catholic seven sisters' schools. I might have written a book about how much I hated my descent into alcohol and dope (I didn't), and on my book cover would be the image of a lovely maroon and gray disembodied skirt, or perhaps a cluster of disembodied nuns' headdresses -- Kirn's book features an orange and black Princeton sweatshirt. Only a sophisticated, spoiled guy can publish a rant about how bad school was for him and get paid well for it, heck, have it published in the Atlantic magazine, then a book that made best seller lists. Where did Kirn learn all the sophisticated tricks of the literary trade? -- Minnesota from which he seems embarrassed to have sprung? I doubt it. Perhaps Princeton. Lost in the Meritocracy seems like one smart letter of application to me, "Please accept me even though I'm deriding you. Look how cleverly I'm doing it!" I may be crossing my legs in the opposite direction, but I'm flirting with you!

"Percentile is destiny in America," declares Kirn early on in this dramatic personal testament of scholarly waywardness. He confirms what I have long suspected, that most universities are filled with automatons who don't have the slightest clue about what they are doing or what knowledge is. But is this news?

He goes on to say: "Four years after that bus ride I'm slumped on an old sofa in the library of my Princeton eating club, waiting to feel the effects of a black capsule that someone said would help me finish writing my overdue application for a Rhodes scholarship. At the other end of the sofa sits my good friend Adam (all names in this piece have been changed)—a Jewish science whiz from the New York suburbs who ate magic mushrooms one evening, had a vision, and switched from pre-med to English literature. Adam should be reading Dubliners, which he'll be tested on early tomorrow morning, but he's preoccupied with an experiment. He's smashing Percocet tablets with a hammer and trying to smoke the powder through a water pipe. I have other companions in estrangement, way out here on the bell curve's leading edge, where our talent for multiple-choice tests has landed us without even the sketchiest survival instructions. Our club isn't one of the rich, exclusive outfits, where the pedigreed children of the establishment eat chocolate-dipped strawberries off silver trays carried by black waiters in starched white uniforms, but one that anyone can join, where geeks and misfits line up with plastic plates for veggie burgers and canned fruit salad."

I remember a few years back when I was teaching at Cornell and came upon a computer lab filled with students typing madly. I had a brief hallucinogenic moment of clarity in which I understood as clearly and completely as I know I'm here typing this right now that these kids were at that moment all of one mind in trying to find the fastest way possible to produce something, anything their profs would like, and nothing more and nothing less than that. There was no curiosity in the air, no hint of a search for genuine knowledge, no trace of passionate engagement. And believe it or not, at the time, I was shocked by that. My sense was that most if not all these kids viewed being at Cornell as a small penance to pay before getting to the real business of life -- being loosed upon the world to make fabulous dollars -- the ability to make fabulous dollars of course being the proof of one's serviceability in the world. If one is a true genius, one makes money, lots of it. That's the premier American belief. No doubt about it.

The Great Gatsby, the greatest American novel ever written, said it all. Here's how to take a fast ride to the top even if it means killing somebody along the way: Whom did you kill on your way to make a buck today, dear?

But let's get back to the issue at hand, which is our colleges and universities and their lack of spirit and humanity. It's no mystery or exaggeration that academic pressure can break students -- at all levels of education. Stress at Princeton made Kirn aphasic for a time. He brought himself back by reciting dictionary words and their definitions. A double PhD from Harvard informed me recently that while attending Harvard in the 1960s, there were "many suicides, most of them women who were in the minority anyway and couldn't bear to get a less than perfect grade." There were so many in fact that my friend decided to finish up her degrees outside Harvard. My niece, the one who was accepted at Harvard, said she rejected it because she heard so many admonishing stories from other students who had gotten in, only to find themselves overwhelmed by the "oppressive burden" of being there that seems to hang in the very air.

Unfortunately, the public doesn't hear much about student failures unless they make the news.  It's also true that if stress doesn't break you in college, it could later. But not every graduate student turns into a Craig's list killer.

It's interesting how for all of his dramatic posturing and often humorous replay of his angst-ridden years at Princeton, such a bright man as Kirn doesn't care enough to offer solutions or even pose questions about America's poisonous meritocracy. It's like he's smoking his cigar, sipping on his Cointreau, sitting in some club, tossing his story out to whoever will listen. He doesn't really care how it falls. He's got his condo and his paycheck, after all. You out there, you're on your own.

Of course the questions are cliche, but they need to be asked over and over again until somebody, somewhere comes up with solutions: Why do so many students and teachers not care about education? Why do students and teachers alike self-destruct in the system? Where does care begin? What is it we must teach first in school, even before first grade?

What if, from the beginning, we taught kindness and consideration instead of competition, and the value of human life, of life in general over and above the primacy of the dollar. Maybe there would be two or three students sharing a computer in a lab come college time, getting nurturance from accidental body heat instead of suffering isolation, and thus drinking themselves to death, or diving from the Empire State building, or into Ithaca's falls -- as is the style at Cornell -- just because they failed to make a grade.

We have to rethink what it is we value, and stop putting such a high premium on information -- as if it's knowledge, it's not. And on high rankings. Minds aren't computers, and the education system has to genuinely consider the hearts and entire beings of those it purports to nurture.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


"Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet
but the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat."
- Will Holt

The song about the lemon was written by Holt and recorded by the folk group, Peter, Paul and Mary, by Trini Lopez and others in the 1960s. It was also used in a Pledge furniture cleaning commercial. 

Imitation is the highest flattery. Like the fruit, the song found many uses. 

The lemon is one versatile fruit with an amazing number of culinary and non-culinary uses. If you're a kid or have a kid's heart, the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a lemon is lemonade. If you're an adult, you might think of a bad car -- although, I hope not!

Check out some of the myriad uses for that magical little yellow oval: Lemon juice can be used to highlight your hair, remove stains, clear blemishes and blackheads, cure colds, clean kitchen appliances, deodorize and disinfect.

Who knew?

The lemon is said to have originated in India. It's often a garnish for tasty dishes. Have you ever tasted pickled lemons, a Moroccan delicacy?

And what of lemon meringue pie!

I associate lemons with my all-favorite drink, espresso. I love the delicate art of making and drinking espresso, and also enjoy my drink served with a tiny lemon rind sliver. The tartness adds zing to many after-dinner drinks.

One of my favorite lunch spots, Centro, in Fairfield, Connecticut, decorates tables with a water decanter on which sits a wholesome lemon. The sight of it always seems to beckon me to come, sit and enjoy a light, delicious meal.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Sketches of Spain

Spain, now considered the new France, is renowned for all kinds of delightful foods, many of which I would never dream of approaching with a knife and fork. Spain's cows yield some of the best veal, and the country is also known for wild boar and fish. Last but not least is the fine wine, AlbariƱo being one of the most popular.

The fact that I'm a non-drinking vegetarian in no way diminishes my love for Spain or my desire to go there. It's deep in my roots. My grandmother on my mother's side, a Breton, was from Spain, and her lineage of gifted musicians and writers traces back to that country. I would love to go to Spain and eat there. To see flamenco and jotas, danced by real gypsies -- if there are any left. I was raised dancing jotas and watching my mother -- who was a dancer before she became a writer -- dance flamencos, red heels sending dust into the air, denting the wood platform in her studio. Her handsome head cocked, she raised her arms, fingers snapping fire. She aroused the sleeping world with the rat-a-tat of her castanets. When my parents traveled to Spain years ago, my mother got up on a stage to dance with gypsies and my father, Iowa-born and conservative by nature, was so moved, he even clapped his hands to the music -- perhaps even to the rhythm!

When I go to Spain, I will be sure to dine at Restaurante Solla in Pontevedra. Chef Pepe Solla's signature dish -- a poached egg with black olives on toast -- is one of those items on my dream menu. What does Pontevedra look like? What does it feel like? I dream of strolling in sandals along cobble-stoned streets alongside the sea, a stick of fresh bread under my arm, the waft of peasant food leading me on. I can taste those olive-laced eggs now.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Nature of -- Sublime

We're taught to believe life is a Kodak moment, and most of us spend much of our lives trying to hold on to all the good times. It takes maturity to be in the moment and to move on, and maturity is one of those qualities I've discovered I like in Bourdain.

I've been trying to figure out what it is exactly that endears me to the man, and believe me, it's more than just charm and good looks. Despite the fact that he claims to be jaded, he always comes off as an eager host on his series, No Reservations. Even as he's being feted and dined by professional chefs, friends of friends, and indigenous people around the globe, he seems intent upon offering up his experiences to the viewer in the most authentic light, and treating them as what they are --  rarities and treasures.

I'm also drawn to the raconteur, share-all quality, the "tell-it-like-is-Joe" who is happy to be where he is and proud to share it with you. Bourdain tends to search out what's cool or unusual about a place and a cuisine. Despite his facility with words and people, his ability to fit in virtually anywhere, he continually scrutinizes himself, and this I also find appealing:

How did I come to be worthy of this great meal? Who am I to critique it? How can I honor such fanciful cuisine? Why do I, Tony of Leonia, get such a ride? The perennial teen toeing the cliff's edge of an illegal high, Bourdain still challenges himself with the important questions. He is at his most interesting and original when playing the philosophe, analyzing the guts of what really happened, how he really feels about an event, how he "got there," what it all means. The probing, the stripping down, the upturning processes can be unnerving, but the viewer -- and reader -- sense the danger, feel the risk, and want to hop on board and see experiences through with him. Stripping back facades, getting underneath their skin, getting underneath even his audience's skin has become a trademark of Bourdain's, distinguishing him as an author and as host on his series.

In a chapter titled, "It's Not You, It's Me" in Medium Raw B recalls his disappointment with a dining experience at Alinea, a restaurant run by the great Grant Achatz, who once worked with Chef Thomas Keller at The French Laundry, where Bourdain claims to have experienced "the greatest single meal" of his life. He describes the 22-course extravaganza that he cherished so much and its aftermath, in grueling detail:

"Is there something fundamentally, ethically wrong about a meal as Pantagruelian in its ambition and proportion? Other than the people are starving in Africa argument, and the ' 250,000 people lost their jobs in America last month alone' argument, there's the fact that they must necessarily trim off about 80 percent of the fish or bird, to serve that perfectly oblong nugget of deliciousness on the plate. There's the unavoidable observation that it's simply more food and alcohol than the human body is designed to handle. That you will, after even the best of times, the most wonderful of such meals, need to flop onto your bed, stomach roiling with reflux; the beginnings of a truly awful hangover forming in your skull, farting and belching like a medieval friar.

'Is this the appropriate end, the inevitable result of genius? Of an otherwise sublime experience?

'Must it end like this.'"

The question of the hour hits home, bringing the reader to an awareness of what in Buddhist terms is known as samsaric reality -- The realization that no matter how sublime an experience, its flipside lingers just around the bend. Indulge in a great meal, expect indigestion. At the edge of bliss lies suffering. No matter how extraordinary an experience, it disappears like sand between your fingers -- and sometimes, as in the case of a meal, leaves you -- literally!

Beyond Bourdain's spectacular meals, beyond the high at the end of all of our rainbows, inescapable as death, lies emptiness.