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Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Cooking Lesson

“It’s missing something.”
Marti hands me back the tasting spoon and surveys my spice collection. Deciding it’s thyme and garlic that my spaghetti sauce needs, she chops the ingredients that I’d gathered earlier from the hothouse.
We are sipping Bolla Valpolicella, bumping into each other the way friends do in a galley-sized kitchen and not minding at all. I turn up the flame under a pot of water for the pasta. This is Sunday afternoon at its best, with Corinne Bailey Rae on the stereo and nothing to do but cook comfort food.
“So,” I begin, embarking on the topic we both knew would eventually come up, “have you decided what you want to do about Fabio yet?”
Everyone in Marti’s circle has been following the Fabio chronicles for months, agog. This man, the clear winner of the World-Series-of-Courtship, has been pursuing Marti across two continents. His romantic overtures are swoon-inducing and unparalleled. Every time she hesitates, he ups the ante. He has given her diamond earrings, a Maltese puppy, tickets to see Tosca at La Scala (and the air fare to fly to Milan where he met her at the airport and swept her into a waiting Lamborghini Reventon).
“Why are you so lukewarm?” and “What’s not to love?” her friends keep asking.
Marti gazes at me frankly over the rim of her wineglass.
“I’m being badgered.”
I stir the sauce because I don’t know what to say. Marti pressured is Marti clamped up, shut down, backed off. I check the garlic level with a new tasting spoon. It’s just shy of overwhelming. But the sauce still needs something.
“I’m not badgering you, Hon,” I say.
“Not you. Fabio.”
“Well, all you have to do is say ‘thanks, but no thanks.’ La ringrazio, ma no. And if you want to be a mensch while you’re at it, tell him why.”
Marti’s look is suddenly, deeply sad, and I realize that my favorite drama queen has not told me the whole story.
This man, whom she met by chance at a Jackson Pollack retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum three months earlier, is cultured, educated, wealthy and head-over-heels in love with her. He calls her every morning from Italy to wish her a wonderful day. When he arrives in the USA on business, he visits her and graciously includes her family and friends in all invitations to dine out or go to the theater. I met him one evening at Cirque de Soleil, and I was charmed by his beautifully accented English.
Our spaghetti carbonara and insalata verde are ready. Marti and I seat ourselves at my dining room table, top off our wine and tuck into the rich, hot food. As if I’d just asked the question, she suddenly starts talking.
“Fabio is everything you see, but also much you don’t see,” she says. “His money isn’t just dirty. It’s filthy dirty. If I married him, I would be living on blood money.”
I’m stunned.
“Before you say anything, let me show you,” Marti says, pulling up her sleeve to reveal a bracelet.
The quality of the diamonds is, to my naked eye, fantastic. The stones are brilliant, clear and exquisitely cut. I’m fairly sure that a loupe would confirm what I suspect: Fabio has given her the best of the best.
“Sierra Leone diamonds. That’s how he makes his money,” she whispers.
“Oh, no, honey!” is all I can say. “Maybe you’re wrong?”
Marti shakes her head and pulls down her sleeve.
Aside from the deBeers family, Fabio owns the largest diamond share in the world, she says.
“Botswana wouldn’t let him in because that country nationalized its diamond mines and pays the workers fair wages. Fabio backed the corrupt and brutal regime in Sierra Leone in order to control the mines there.”
She shakes her head slowly.
“The worst part of all? He told me the truth about his business because he assumed I would approve. I’ve been wrong to accept anything from him. I’m giving the jewelry back tomorrow when he flies in, and I’m breaking up. I don’t want any part of it.”
We sit quietly for a bit, and I understand that, to her credit, Marti has been grappling with her decision while the rest of us have been fantasizing enviously about her great luck at meeting the man.
I poke at my spaghetti, and when I look up, Marti’s smiling.
“What?” I ask.
“Fabio’s like your cooking,” she says, the old mischief returning to her eyes.
“They both look good and tempting. They’re both hot at first. But when you get down to it, they’re both missing a key ingredient.”

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Namer 18 Tells All

I am not sure what else you want me to talk about. My job, as you know, is to name all the space vehicles in this galaxy, from close-in shuttles to deep space explorers. Apollo, Challenger, Enterprise: you Americans have heard those before. Tomorrow, when I turn 117, I will retire, and a new Namer will take my place.

You asked how I choose the names. The answer is more complicated than you might think. For example, when naming vehicles being launched from Earth, I am not allowed to use words from any modern religion.

Imagine the headlines: Baby Jesus Crashes Over the Atlantic. You take my point? No words that have negative associations in mythology, either. Icarus is out of the question. I select only words with muscular and daring connotations. But the specifics vary from one solar system to the next. On Formana, a satellite of the red star Cariopa now settled by Earthlings, water is worshipped. So, there the public responds well to spaceship names such as Oceana and Nyad.
I suppose you could say I am an anthropologist of sorts, learning the cultures and nuances of every planet where sentient beings might encounter space exploration. There are more than a million planets in this one galaxy; beyond lies infinite space where untold planets circle points of light too beautiful and too fearsome to imagine.
I have been told it is better not to think about that, about what is beyond our galaxy. We Namers have enough to occupy our thoughts.

My work begins the first of every month and continues to the 20th without a break because, once my cerebral cortex is hooked into the universe’s Great Encyclopedia, severing the connection is dangerous. If done incorrectly, the maneuver would cause a reverse current, and all the knowledge in my brain would be sucked back into the data base, corrupted by my personal biases. The next user to hook into the encyclopedia would find facts tainted by my sexual and religious preferences, or worse: gibberish. So I am only unhooked once per month to lessen the risk. And frankly, I like having ten consecutive Earth days and nights off for relaxation at the end of the month.

Outside of my module, when I’m back home, my life is ordinary. For instance, during a recent break, my husband and I discussed the failing health of our dog. We walked to the Palace of Giving, arm in arm, he carrying the leash she never tolerated and I the collar. Inside, we found the Hall of Portions, high-ceilinged and resonant with all the pleadings made by others. As instructed, we knelt on the cool glass tiles and each in turn offered a portion of our own lives to her.
"Two years," I offered, "but healthy ones, not blind arthritic ones," and, "two more from me," my husband whispered, handing the leash and collar to the technician for the life-force transfer.
"At least she will have four," we comforted each other on the walk back home. "Four’s something, isn't it?"
Life force transfers to animals came at just the right time for us. It used to be that only human babies could receive donations. I was fortunate in that my parents had just one child, so I did not have to share their portions with siblings. At my christening, all their friends gave me a year, each. In their twenties, my parents gave me 17 years apiece. I am not privy to the exact amount of time I have left –no one is – but I suspect that I still have time to travel to Formana. It will be rewarding to travel on a vehicle that I myself named.

You ask what it’s like to live and work in a Naming Module. I will confess, it took some getting used to. Not everyone who takes the training can tolerate module work, and some who can, initially, will lose their minds as time goes by. There is no way to prepare for that life, not really. I have heard about companies that charge immense fees for “pre-module preparation,” but I believe the talent is genetic. If I had carried the gene defect for claustrophobia (located on the top right arm of the 23rd chromosome), no amount of preparation would have saved me. We are what we are: the sum of all our proteins, writ large in flesh and blood. It is a great privilege to be chosen for this work because so very few beings in the galaxy are allowed access to the Great Encyclopedia containing all there is to know about every planet and star. True, there are many who feed facts into the Great Database, but only a hundred or so in the entire galaxy are hooked up as receivers to access the Marvels.

The egg-shaped module in which I work was designed in 2323 as a place where beings like us could empty our minds completely. The interior is spacious enough for walking around, and everything is smooth and white like the inside of an eggshell.
We Namers enter by first swimming into a lake-like body of clear fluid, finding our numbered module (I was assigned the number 18, the Hebrew symbol for life) and entering through a hatch in the module’s side. There, I assimilate my surroundings for three hours; then I lie or sit in a reclining Smart Chair and place a small cable into the USB port in my skull. For 20 days, I absorb knowledge about the universe from the Great Encyclopedia and search out new names for spaceships. I am fed, washed and evacuated by the Smart Chair during that time. Twice daily, although I cannot feel it, my body is vigorously exercised so that I do not lose muscle or bone mass.

On the 20th day, a technician swims up to my module and carefully unhooks me according to a strict protocol. For three hours afterward, I spew out names for spaceships as well as secret information of a culturally relevant nature about all the planets I have researched.
I suppose you heard that I have the best recall among all the Namers. Is that why you have abducted me? Because, no matter how vigorously you interrogate me, it won’t do any good. You didn’t know that recall only lasts three hours? I can’t tell you what I found out about some distant planet or other, weeks after I’ve been unhooked. It just doesn’t work that way.
I couldn’t give you secrets from the Great Encyclopedia even if I wanted to. They chose us when we were stupid children so that we would not question the complex programming or inner workings of the process – so that we couldn’t be abducted or, if we were, we couldn’t spill secrets to enemy scientists.
For 108 years I have been absorbing and regurgitating the secrets of the galaxy, and I am very tired.

Please. I need to rest, now. Please.
May I have a glass of water?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Six Senses

The Quebec woods in March were deep in snow, every maple tree had been punctured with a tap, and from every tap a bucket hung.
She was seven years old, bundled in a snowsuit, scarf, sealskin boots and woolen mittens that were safety-pinned to her sleeves.
The sugar shack was nothing more than a hovel with a horse track leading to it, and all around were huge black iron kettles suspended over wood fires.
Men on horseback brought the buckets of clear maple sap to the kettles, and after much bubbling and stirring, the sap turned to syrup and the syrup was ladled onto the snow where it hardened into maple candy.
She bit into a piece, experiencing her first taste of maple, complicated and sweet.
That first taste left its sediment in her mouth so that forever she would accept no Aunt Jemima or Log Cabin or ribbon cane syrup as a substitute.

There was a time when his sense of smell was acute and his enjoyment of perfumes and food was lusty.
He used to discern, for example, the scent of L’Aire du Temps on a woman’s neck or the subtle floral notes in Diorissimo ( iris) and Balmain’s Fleurs de Rocaille (geranium) to the amazement of those lovely women he dated.
He knew the riotous aroma of Mussaman curry as distinct from that of Panang or Vindaloo, and sometimes he used to sit over a plate of food for long minutes, just savoring its scent.
He is not sure when his sense of smell abandoned him, but certainly in his 85th year it was gone.
Perhaps it was a mercy, he thought, that he could not smell the pap they fed him by the spoonful from a plastic tray, not caring whether he tolerated the ground up soupy mess as long as he swallowed it on schedule.
He mused that sights and sounds are easy to recall, the evidence of which was that he remembered the colors of sand in Catalina and the overture to Swan Lake, but smells, once gone, cannot be called back.

“Some enchanted evening, you will see a stranger across a crowded room, and somehow you’ll know, you’ll know even then…” -- South Pacific.

That’s how it happened to Ben. He saw her at the Baxters’ party, he was stricken, and he walked to her across the room as if she were reeling him in on a short line. She was lively, bright, olive skinned with fantastic dark curls, and single. He invited her outside where they talked, and she agreed to watch the Stanley Cup playoffs at his house the following night.
The next evening, he could not take his eyes off her, drank her in, made no pretense of watching the hockey game. It didn’t last, though, because Ben was in love with falling in love, a pleasure he craved serially and often, and his fascination with beauty trumped all other pleasures that might have followed.

The air raid sirens of his childhood sent up flares of fear, and he fled with his family to an underground shelter with a hundred others. Once the precinct captains allocated a sturdy tunnel to a precise number of people, no more were allowed inside.
He crouched between his father’s knees, a small sweater-clad curl of terror, while the bombs sheared off houses from the face of London.
From the first waa-waa of the sirens, through the booming artillery and the crash of masonry above ground, he kept his hands clamped over his ears with such ferocity that he scarred himself.
Now an old man, he looks in his shaving mirror and sees the crescent imprints of his youthful fingernails embossed on his face.
He no longer dreams of bombs and sirens, but on some nights he has to remind himself that the wail of an ambulance merely signals a life being saved.

In Cambodia’s northeast provinces of Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri live the Kreung, an indigenous ethnic people who form villages of 20 to 60 families.
When a Kreung girl reaches the age of 15 or so, her parents build a hut for her some distance from the family dwelling, and there she may spend nights with boys of her choosing. By allowing the girl to choose her sexual partners and have privacy, the Kreung believe she will find the best possible partner for marriage. This time of experimentation and selection plays a vital role in the romantic success of marriages and the future happiness of women, the Kreung believe.
Halfway across the world, the predominant American religions forbid not only premarital sexual experiences, but also the touching of oneself. A Republican senate candidate from Delaware in 2010, Christine O’Donnell, reminded Americans, "It is not enough to be abstinent with other people, you also have to be be abstinent alone.”

I visit my parents after a long absence, and my mother says, “Well, Bobby Z. is getting married, and it’s all very sudden,” while my father emits a snort signifying his opinion.
“In fact,” she says, “I need to call the family to ask the bride’s name so I can address the gift card.”
In that moment, the room dims, a blackboard fills my field of vision, and a hand writes across it in a white feminine script: M-i-c-h-e-l-i-n-e. The image lingers a moment, the way a bright spot lingers after a flashbulb.
When I tell them, my parents scoff, “That’s ridiculous.”
Later, of course, it turns out that I am right

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Mulch Chronicles

I live in a neighborhood where stock is soaring in lawn-maintenance companies. Just this morning, I edged past a Tru-Green truck out of which was snaking a hose primed and ready to excite new growth on my neighbor’s expensive zoysia-sprigged lawn.

Meanwhile, my lawn is resting very nicely under a thick duvet of fallen leaves and pine straw. I will get around to raking when I’m sure the last needle has fallen. Anything else would be foolish duplication of labor.

Our lawn is the only one in a 3-block radius that hasn’t been raked bald, and I’m sure that passers-by think I’m a slacker.

But I have a plan, and the plan is this: When the leaves have decayed and returned some organic value back into the lawn, I’ll corral them into my mulch pile and they will be heaped onto my flower beds – along with grass cuttings -- to smother weeds.

Then I will stand back and watch the grass green up just as pretty as my neighbors’ yards that are tended by Chem-Lawn.

The only difference is, I will have mulch and they won’t. They will go to Home Depot and pay for bales of pine straw to place in perfect circles around their crepe myrtles, whereas I’ll be mulching with leaves and pine straw that – like good wine – matured and mellowed over winter while strewn on my lawn.

My mulch collection has a few other components. One is a bag of marbles from the Dollar Store. The crows fly down and pick through my mulch for the bright glass orbs, and in so doing they aerate the pile. Another component is newspaper. I receive a number of small weekly newspapers from various counties around Alabama. After I’ve read the social news, police blotter and racier aspects of the county budgets, the papers go into a neat stack. When the stack is about as high as a full-grown Labrador Retriever, I carry it out and carefully arrange the papers in layers where known summer weeds tend to grow. Then I rake leaves or pine straw over them. In no time flat, worms from two zip codes make their way to my garden.

The final semi-interesting component in my mulch comes to me compliments of my spouse, who finds it necessary to shred every single piece of mail in reach.

“Why are you shredding the Winn-Dixie ground beef ad?” I asked one day. “The identity thieves don’t care that we buy ground chuck at 30 cents off.”

“Oh ho,” he said, compulsively shredding a $20 oil change offer, “You don’t know what they know about you till it’s too late.”

“Yes, dear,” I said, extracting the pillow-sized shredded wad from the machine and heading to the mulch pile.

I mixed the paper into a nice wet collection of leaves and pine straw where it immediately began to stain a lovely light brown.

Across the street, a Lawn Doctor truck was pulling away. I do believe I saw the maintenance man eyeball my unraked lawn curiously, much in the way that the Mars explorer module looks at a space rock it hasn’t quite figured out.

“Keep driving, buster,” I thought. And just then, the very last leaf on the very last tree fell.

Friday, February 4, 2011

To My Fellow Man and Woman

Tonight in Egypt, the army measures the mood of the throng.
Tonight in Saudi Arabia, the princes draw a line:
There will be no demonstrations, they decree.
Tonight in Washington, the leaders equivocate.
Tonight in my house, the dog keeps her careful watch.
Everywhere there is fear of change, of the intruder.
When will we trust that the approaching person is no enemy?
It is as likely that he is bringing food or books as bad intentions.
I will set an example. See? I have removed my hood, my coat, my heavy boots.
This footprint I leave behind is light.
My hope for something better mirrors yours.
Sit at my table won't you, and we will break common bread
and speak the common language of reconciliation.