Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Cooking with Your Heart

We had another “big brother” moment two weeks ago when Netflix sent us a movie that we had never ordered. It seems that our queue had run out, so the company just chose a movie for us that matched what it considered to be our profile. That profile seems to involve indie movies with a comic or black comic edge. Not a bad call. In this case, we were sent a movie called “Today’s Special,” a comic look at families and restaurant dynamics. The star is Aasif Mandvi—one of the sardonic commentators on “The Daily Show”— who, this time, plays an Indian-American chef who has plans to go to Paris to study French cooking but ends up running his father’s rundown Tandoori Palace in Jackson Heights, Queens, instead.

Mandvi’s character is a chef who cooks using only his mind. That’s why he is passed over for a promotion and why he is fleeing to Paris. When circumstances force him to stay in Queens, he comes in contact with an unlikely mentor who explains that true cooking requires using your mind, your heart, your stomach, “and sometimes a place lower down.”  I will not destroy the plot any further for those who might have the movie in their queue, other than to say that an important part of the message of the movie is revealed when the mentor posts a sign in the restaurant window announcing Today’s Special as “Trust me.”   

I decided for a “trust me” cooking moment at a Chanukah party we hosted for close friends and family last week. My job was to make the latkes. I narrowed my recipe choices down to two: (1) traditional – grated potatoes, onion, egg, matzoh meal, lots of oil; or (2) calico—traditional with the addition of grated carrots and chopped scallions. I leaned toward choice 2, in part because the picture of the brown latkes with streaks of orange and green looked appealing and in part because I thought trying something different would be—er, different.

When I mentioned my idea to my mother, she did her best Queen Victoria imitation and was “not amused.”  “That sounds terrible,” she proclaimed. “Why would you do that to your company?” She would probably have felt even more justification for her negative opinion if she knew that located on the same page in Food.com where the calico latkes recipe was printed was one for “healthy shrimp jambalaya.”

Nevertheless, defying Jewish tradition, both in choice of recipe and in deciding not to listen to my mother, I proceeded to go ahead with my original plan. And it must have been a success. My potato, onion, egg, carrot, and scallion mixture filled a very large bowl, and I made more latkes that I figured our party could possibly eat. By meal’s end, however, nearly all of them were gone. Now, this is not necessarily the sign of a great latke recipe. In my experience, the number of latkes eaten by a group of people, and Jewish people in particular, is nearly always equal to the number of pancakes that emerge—warm, crispy, and glowing with oil—from almost any frying pan. But I did receive an email from our friends’ daughter proclaiming that the carrot-and-scallion latkes were excellent. Proof enough for me!

Just as in the movie Netflix chose for us, children—whether they be Indian, Jewish, or New England WASPs—all want to plant a sign in front of their parents that says, “Trust me.” At no time is that trust more necessary than when you choose to doctor up a traditional holiday dish with non-traditional ingredients. But even I don’t trust that there can really be something called “healthy shrimp jambalaya.” 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Watching a 3D Movie with 2D Eyes

Last night Audrey and I went to see “Life of Pi” at the Clearview Cinema in Ridgewood. It was a Tuesday night, and Optimum Reward customers (those who are beholden to Cablevision for nearly all of their communication needs) are able to see movies for free on Tuesdays. Except we had to pay $3.75 per ticket this time in order to see the 3D version of the film. I could have saved my money. Not because the movie wasn’t touching and beautiful. It was both. No, because I have discovered another defect in my body. I am unable to see 3D effects. Audrey and others in the audience were “ooo-ing” and “ahh-ing” as a parrot, snake, or tiger nearly jumped into their laps off of the screen. For me, the animals stayed in 2D, special glasses or no special glasses. I am a 3D dud, it appears.

Rushing home, I got out my trusty iPad and typed in “why am I unable to see 3D effects?” The answer came back quickly and in multiple entries (since I am obviously not the first person to ask this question). According to a site called MediaCollege.com I may be “stereo-blind.” My eyes often operate independently of each other in what is called monocular vision. Another website had this to say about my possible deficiency, “Monocular vision is not normal for a human with two functioning eyes, although it is normal for many animals like horses.” Oy!

Back to the MediaCollege site, I am warned that as television and movies move increasingly toward 3D as the norm, I am going to be in trouble or at least am going to feel visually challenged. (Something else to plague me in my advancing years.) What can I do about this: “You will probably be able to purchase glasses that convert 3D movies back into 2D.” Great, now I’ll be paying extra to go back in time, technologically-speaking. Maybe this explains why I didn’t like “Avatar.” And I thought it was because it was a silly story and everybody looked blue to me.

Giving new meaning to the question, "Am I blue?"

My eyes have long been an issue for me and for other people who meet me. I am convinced that everyone has at least one body part with which they have a love/hate relationship. For me, it’s the eyes. On the love side, I am told that my eyes are a beautiful color. They’re green with blue accents and stand out well from my dark complexion. I passed that combination along to my daughter Amanda too.

On the hate side, my eyes have a mind of their own, so to speak. When I was around three years old, doctors told my mother that I had weak or lazy eye muscles that let my eyes wander outward. They suggested two alternatives: (1) I could have an operation to correct the problem but would have to remain pretty still for at least two days until the healing could begin (I was never still in those days), or (2) I could train myself to turn my eyes inward and focus, particularly when I was reading. We chose the second alternative (though I don’t think I had a vote). And, as Frost would say, “that has made all the difference.” I became the child, and later the adult, with the lazy eye muscles. Of course, a lot of my other muscles are pretty lazy too, but that’s another matter entirely.

So what happens if you have lazy eye muscles? For me, it has meant often having to explain to people to whom I am speaking that I am really looking at them and speaking to them. They have doubts because my eyes seem to be roaming off into all directions but toward them. This can be problematic. Recently, I gave a presentation before a group of middle school students and took questions from the audience. Each time, I had to assure the student on whom I thought I was totally focused that I indeed was calling on him or her. It’s those damned 2D eyes at work!

In a real piece of irony, at my first appointment with the internist who has treated us for more than 30 years now, I was struck by the fact that he was really cross-eyed. Not to be outdone, he asked me, “How long have you had a problem with your eye muscles?” What’s that expression about a pot and a kettle? We quickly began focusing on issues other than eyes and haven’t brought up the subject again in all the years. Now, when we meet yearly, neither one of us looks the other directly in the eye.

Eyes were in focus in "The Great Gatsby" too.

Even if my eyes are slightly defective, I really do appreciate them. And I’m consoled by the fact that if I am asked in the future to shell out an extra $3.75 for 3D glasses to see a movie, I can invest the money in half a bag of popcorn instead.

Monday, December 3, 2012

A Search for Peace

This story does not have a happy ending, so I will start there:

Exactly 27 years ago, one of my first friends in the world—my kindergarten girlfriend—committed suicide. I was nowhere nearby to stop her. I had not talked to her for several years. I had no idea where she was in her head or in her body. I only found out what had happened when a cousin from Savannah called on December 3, 1985, and told me to look at a certain page in that day’s New York Times. There, I read a nondescript blurb about a former Times reporter who had been found dead at her apartment on the morning of December 2, the victim of an apparent suicide.

The story didn’t end there, of course, for me or for her. I was left to agonize about her death and her decision to kill herself. And to wonder why I couldn’t have done anything to help her deal with whatever was going on. She was left to be a topic of gossip in conversations among people from Savannah and the focus of a New York Magazine article the following month that had a not-so-hidden agenda: to lord over the Times that one of its reporters had been so unhappy in both her personal and professional life that she had chosen to end them both at the same time.

Amazingly, I am still bitter about that article, which I accessed again via the Internet recently, and still frustrated and intensely sad about her decision after all of these years. I took out those feelings many years ago in a short story filled with corny jokes. The last joke involves my being whisked mentally to Savannah and to the cemetery in which both my father and my friend are buried less than 50 yards apart. I dig up her grave and she is inside erasing stories we have written together or that she has written herself. And when I ask what she is doing, she replies, with her usual smile, “Silly, I’m just de-composing.”

Writing that story was as a type of catharsis for me. I am not sure my friend would have appreciated the story, though she would have heartily booed at several of the jokes (certainly the last one), and she would have applauded my decision to blend my sadness with humor. It was her style too. The photos that accompanied the New York Magazine article all showed her smiling or laughing. “Is this the face of a depressed woman?” they seemed to shout or mock.

I might have let this anniversary of my friend’s death go by without any fanfare except that I recently read a memoir by William Styron called Darkness Visible, in which Styron explores the intense depression that overtook him and nearly led him to commit suicide. Ironically, Styron was going through his darkest period in the fall of 1985 and nearly ended his “struggle” with depression in December of that year. The coincidences in timing certainly disturbed me.

Styron’s “happy” book takes us through the progression of his own despair and on a journey into the minds of several writers, actors, or artists he had known who ended their own lives and what he had learned from their fate or wanted to impart to readers about their acts. The book was certainly not an enjoyable read, but it helped me understand one key point about those who commit suicide and our response to them. Styron refers to the “predictable reaction” we often feel: “denial, the refusal to accept the fact of suicide itself, as if the voluntary act—as opposed to an accident, or death from natural causes—were tinged with a delinquency that somehow lessened the [individual] and his [or her] character.”  He calls this reaction “the stigma of self-inflicted death.” We think less of the person because he or she didn’t gut it out.

In reflecting on his own ultimate decision not to act, Styron notes, “Through the healing process of time—and through medical intervention or hospitalization in many cases—most people survive depression, which may be its only blessing; but to the tragic legion who are compelled to destroy themselves, there should be no more reproof attached than to the victims of terminal cancer.” 

All of which should be helpful to me, but isn’t really. I understand, deep inside, that I wasn’t to blame and, for the most part, that my friend was helpless to act any other way than she did. But I am not really consoled. I am still sadder and lonelier than I was the day before she died.

I am not unique in the fact that several key people in my life have died—people with whom I chose to share important parts of me. What makes me sad, or mad, is that with each death vital lines of communication for me were severed.

Jews commemorate deaths with a series of prayers that are neither sad nor angry. They are, for the most part, the same verses we recite to praise God before and after different parts of each prayer service. Nothing maudlin or even sorrowful is implied. The words seem to suggest that ultimately we have no real control over life or death, so let’s focus on what we can control—the ability to recognize and appreciate nature, create our own beauty, and search for peace.

Dante searches for his own peace.
Styron accents his emergence from his personal darkness with a line from Dante: “And so we came forth, and once again beheld the stars.” A good line, but not as appropriate as “Silly, I’m just de-composing.”