Monday, July 30, 2007

happy mondays

A welcome gift to start my week:

What is important cannot be seen.
It’s the same as with the flower.
If you love a flower that lives on a star,
it is sweet to look up at the night sky.
All the stars are in bloom.
It’s the same as with the water.
What you gave me to drink was a kind of music...

At night, when you look up at the sky,
since I shall be living on a star,
and since I shall be laughing on a star,
for you it will be as if all the stars are laughing.
You alone will have stars that can laugh!
And when you have got over your loss
(for we always do),
you’ll be happy to have known me.
You will always be my friend.
You will want to laugh with me.

—The Little Prince

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

to-do: drop everything, see this

The Devil Came on Horseback

secret passage, hidden treasure

The night before I came to visit, the artists at Diving Swallow Tattoo opened their space up for a showing of Tibetan thangkas. One particularly rich, dark thangka was hung up toward the front of the gallery space, on the wall adjacent to the dragon-handled door and the neon flowers lighting the front window. And while Marie Wadman was busy mixing custom inks and prepping her station, I stood magnetized to the painting. Avalokiteshvara was the bodhisattva’s name. I knew just enough about Tibetan Buddhism to have passed my Problem of God and assorted world religion classes at Georgetown, but beyond that could be considered your typical Berkeley dabbler, a spiritual tire-kicker with—at best—an intellectual, recreational interest (though I happened to be midway through a simple, helpful book called Change of Heart at the time).

In the thrall of endorphins that lasted the next few hours, I sat propped on the pillows slung over a pub chair as Marie worked on my back. And I thought about the thangka, about this thousand-armed icon, about the place of spirituality in the world, in my world, the use of it. And I started to turn over and over the outside hope that maybe Avalokiteshvara arrived for a reason, as if he revealed a passage sliding open just as I set eyes on it.

Working at a place like North Atlantic, I walk within so many different communities—martial arts, healing & health, literary, and of course spiritual. The result of having spent my days supporting the work of these folks, so many of them with decades of experience refining their practices, is, in this case, instant, intimate access to the full story of the Bodhisattva of Compassion.

Avalokiteshvara, so disturbed by the depthless sadness of the world, committed to freeing all sentient beings from the suffering of our world. Looking around himself at all the sorrow that persisted despite his best efforts, he fell into despair. In form with the fantastic narrative turns of so many parables, Avalokiteshvara’s head then split into thousands of pieces. When Amitabha Buddha restored him, he gave him eleven heads with which he could hear the cries of souls in samsara. Avalokiteshvara tried to reach out to them all, but his two arms shattered, inspiring Amitabha Buddha to give him a thousand arms, with an eye on each palm, to reach out to those suffering in the world.

I am going today to pick up my thangka of Avalokiteshvara. I am impossibly excited about it, about setting up an honorable little place in my new home for him. My relationship to him, as well as my increasing awareness of respect, compassion, detachment, feels like a smooth rock in my pocket, a treasure for the moment and for the ages. I’m a lucky kid!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

notes (of oak and cassis) from underground

“The Grim Eater” in Pixar’s Ratatouille, in my view, begins the movie as a symbol of all that needs to change in culinary criticism—snobbery, ego (indeed, Ego is the critic’s surname), stringency, and, most of all, isolation. If he is not alone in his funereal office writing damning reviews of doomed restaurants, he is dining alone with palpable disdain.

Look, by contrast, at the critics of Top Chef. If you’re unfamiliar with the show, here’s BRAVO’s description: “A group of twelve aspiring chefs, both professionally trained and self-taught, will compete in a series of culinary challenges. Each week, one contestant will be eliminated by a group of well-known judges. The winning chef will receive…”—yes, yes, yes, they receive lots of prizes. But what’s left unsaid there is the most welcome development that America’s socially anemic foodie culture has seen since Julia. Huge groups of folks are shown coming together, eating together, talking together.

We need only note that Top Chef’s ridiculously sharp and sexy Padma Lakshmi jilted Salman Rushdie shortly after heartthrob gadabout Tony Bourdain guest-judged an episode alongside her to understand that food is, in fact, the music of love. Sharing it is a binding human ritual. Feels as if we folks in the U.S. today are alone in our oblivion to this primal need. Even on a recent trip to ancient Roman ruins of the San Sebastiani catacombs (Peter and Paul—Bible, not band—were buried there), I visited a huge subterranean room in which Christians are said to have held intimate feasts for their beloved dead. After they finished eating, they etched benedictions into the wall. They broke bread. Life had meaning worth recognizing and recording together.

The good news: underground dinner parties are, if you will, on the rise. Never heard of them? Stay tuned for a forthcoming article I’ve written on this phenomenon. I recently attended one such event hosted in a gorgeous live-work space in SF’s Mission district. I don’t think I overstate it when I hope that these parties may bring Americans the closest we’ve come yet to a legitimately Italian piazza experience.

I’ll distinguish the eating experience this way. Saturday night: I’m at Bar Bambino, where, engaged solely with the fabulous company I kept at my private table, I ignored every other soul in the room. Come Sunday, on the other hand, I’m awash in the open energy of forty souls gathered to enjoy an inventive seven-course meal of fresh, organic food all together and to scratch out some new cross-hatches in their already live social networks. More coming on this soon. In the meantime, here’s what I ate:

Poblano pepper taquito
Roasted poblano, avocado, crooknecks, coconut meat with a sauce of cilantro, lime, tamarind, seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, flax)

Tres gazpachos

Ginger tofu skewers with drunken morels
Ginger-tekka-sichimi tofu, ume-shiso kanten, sea palm, and morel

Tahini porcini rapini greens

Composed salad
Cipolline onion, haricort vert, chiogga beets, Bermuda Triangle chevre, filberts, cresses with a kumquat, tarragon, and fennel confit

Jeweled baby basmati
Basmati with barberry, mulberry, tonka bean, saffron, orange blossoms, pistachio

Stonefruit ten ways
Plum: raw, frozen, thyme
White peach: hot and cold gelee with coconut water
Poached yellow peach tart with apricot ice cream
White nectarine: raw, frozen, rose geranium
Yellow nectarine: raw, confit with candied kumquat

(That last one—stonefruit ten ways—sent me scrambling back to the Wallace Stevens poem, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. Even the jilted literati have to admit: there is a certain inimitable pleasure to a menu—look at those noble accents and lucid, inescapable rhythms. It can only be poetry.)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

so jealous

I stand here cooking. The sage and prosciutto crisp up and the two tilapia fillets are just done. Her white zin poured, my Ariel chilled. We’re about ready and Miss Liz Hille circles the kitchen, hungry hawk. I have known her for a few years now—we wrote fiction and set our first darts of literary criticism sailing together at Bennington Writing Seminars—and I have stepped wordlessly out of her life multiple times to etch out runes in the soot of my solitary cave. Again this time, she’s there, easy, when I emerge. I dish up fish, potatoes. I listen as she recounts climbing toward meaning after having had her students read Hills Like White Elephant and I realize what I’m feeling: jealousy. However many light-years apart our preferences in style may be (her Bukowski to my Coetzee, her Gaitskill to my Austen), I envy the students who get to work with a reader like her.

It’s not that I lack literary outlets. I can—and do—lob titles with whip-quick bibliophiles every day. In fact, I realize I spend the greater part of most days devoted to books in one way or another—reading, editing, rereading, writing, throwing, weeping into, studying, browsing, copying, promoting, reveling, reimagining—and so I necessarily talk to and work with lots of like-minded humans, all communing around this momentary art. Liz, however, has some simple witchcraft in her way of reading. We should all be so free of pretensions, but engaged to the depths. I toast genuine curiosity, the possession of fierce opinions without a single cutting edge, and most of all, shameless rapacity. But I can’t help but worry her kitchen might get crowded. Can you blame me?

Here’s an excerpt of Liz’s latest.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

those who can't do

for Library Journal

Kohl, Herbert. Painting Chinese: A Lifelong Teacher Gains the Wisdom of Youth. Aug. 2007. Bloomsbury USA. 176 p. bibliog. b/w illust. ISBN-13: 978-1-59691-052-2; ISBN-10: 1-59691-052-6. $19.95.

Wilder, Robert. Tales from the Teacher’s Lounge. Aug. 2007. Delacorte Press. 309 p. ISBN-13: 978-0-385-33927-8; ISBN-10: 0-385-33927-5. $23.00.

Robert Wilder, having left behind an advertising career to work as a teacher, presents classroom tales so tall that they function less as reliable memoir than dramatic parody of classroom-as-asylum, with much of the (laugh-out-loud) humor derived at the expense of young students’ attitudes, actions, and disabilities. Each of the four thematic parts (teacher training, student days, family and education, and a final selection loosely bound by the idea of a teaching community) depicts more stammering, twitching, swearing, and screaming than the average school could abide without being shut down. So while the essays in Tales from the Teacher’s Lounge exhibit the author’s knack for hyperbole and well-timed, outrageous hilarity, that entertainment value is boldly derived from disturbing classroom scenarios.

Worlds apart stylistically and thematically, Painting Chinese shows Herbert Kohl as he retires after forty-seven years as a professor and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and Social Justice at University of San Francisco and takes up the art of calligraphy. Having inadvertently registered for a class in the company of five- to seven-year-old students, Kohl details the technique he learns along the way (the use of water and ink, ways of holding the brush, tiers of subject matter for the beginning student, and the importance of copying the masters), but more importantly peppers these basics with broader lessons from a lifelong student of the world. Kohl analyzes his own life with curiosity and candor. Drawing upon admirable readings and research, Kohl offers original, sensitive reflections, as when he considers the life of the Monkey King, the impact of Mao Zedong on the life of his mentor, the wisdom of Wang Wei, and the connections between Chinese painting and Taoism. Though sentimental at the odd interval, Kohl’s willingness to inquire within makes him a worthy role model for any student.