In Search of the Champagne Life
by Jennifer Barnick
In my last column I introduced the Eightfold Path, which is the Buddhist version of the Ten Commandments…and yet as I type I want to be very quick to point out that the Buddhist take on moral living and development versus the Judaeo-Christian (with their Ten Commandments) is very different. The Eightfold Path is seen more as a support for one's spiritual quest—meaning if one were to follow the precepts and ideals laid out in the Eightfold Path then life should move along relatively smoothly—not stealing, killing, lying, and choosing legal and honest employment, and taking time to meditate properly are all good ways to avoid a great deal of Nirvana-stealing drama.
Today, I am going to briefly discuss or explain (the best I can) what each of these “rights” mean. I must admit I am more than just a little hesitant, however, to do so. I have made Buddhism a long-time study, and within the past decade I have come to realize that like all religions Buddhism too has several forms and denominations. And while in most cases the essential essence remains—even in the face of seemingly immense difference—the interpretation of The Eightfold Path differs widely. In fact, recently while reading a book discussing Carl Jung's theories regarding one's feminine and masculine identities the writer somehow managed to construe “Right Livelihood” as meaning finally finding the work you find that you love and want to pursue “passionately”…in fact I believe Eros…that frisky son of Aphrodite…was meant to be courted or invited along this journey towards “Right Livelihood”. Now, I will be the first to admit I am not a true scholar, however, from what I have come to understand regarding Buddhism, I have grave doubts that “Right Livelihood” had anything to do with Cupid. So, with all that said I shall do my very best to give you at least the most accurate or perhaps, common a definition I can for each of the precepts.
Right Understanding and Right Thought are the study of wisdom. Generally speaking “wisdom” in this case means the study of Buddhism. However, over the years I have come to see Buddhism as really a long, well documented history of people seeking enlightenment. I do not mean to imply that Buddhism does not have a proper and well-curated cannon nor do I want to imply that Buddhism does not have ritual. However, even Gautama Buddha (the historical gent who founded Buddhism around 500 BC) was quick to point out that his words were not to be taken as truth that he merely wanted to get people thinking because ultimately the path to enlightenment must be journeyed alone. And throughout the history of Buddhism there are countless anecdotes along the same lines—that wisdom and the search for enlightenment aka Buddhism was often to be found in unexpected ways and most definitely was always to be found through self-searching and not from an outside source. So with all that said it is best to think of “Right Understanding” and “Right Thought” as a sort of call to become a very good student and to seek out a very good teacher and to become extremely discerning throughout the entire process.
Right Speech is the first “suggestion” or “commandment” or even better, “admonishment” that would fall under the category as a precept or rule. However, Right Speech (like so many things in Buddhism) is deceivingly simple and actually has two very different meanings. The first meaning to right speech is obvious: do not lie, do not swear or belittle or berate, do not use speech to do anything evil or abusive. The second meaning is very intense and subtle and to be honest the first moral or ethical argument for the white lie . The white lie has been the fodder for comedies and armchair snotty-pants ethicists—how often have you heard the argument that a white lie should be construed as a normal lie and that we all must pursue honesty at all costs? Well, not in Buddhism. However, before I give everyone the okay to compliment away this holiday season, know that the reason white lies should and are permitted is not to keep interpersonal relations calm. The not only permitted but insisted upon white lie in Buddhism is for teaching purposes only and was explained by Buddha as thus:
“Suppose that a mother who is outside doing the laundry sees that the house is on fire. She runs in to tell her children to get out of the house. The children are playing with their toys and are so engrossed with their toys and their playing that they refuse to listen to their mother. Their mother in utter panic and not wanting her children harmed tells the small children that just outside of the house is an even bigger pile of toys…toys of much higher quality than the ones they currently have…and if they were to run out quickly now they can have these wonderful new toys. The children then run out of the burning house and are saved. Now, it is true the mother did lie, however, because the children did not die in the fire then they will actually be able to play with toys…of any kind, and while there were no toys waiting for the children immediately, the mother can buy them once they are out.”
The whole point is that a teacher must use whatever is necessary to get the student “out of the burning house” and onto the path to enlightenment. Sometimes the teacher must promise fabulous things to get the student interested, however, the noble truth is that no-thing could compare to liberation or enlightenment. But it takes a relatively advanced stage to realize this…so in the beginning the teacher much say whatever she deems necessary to save the student.
That is all we have time for today. On Monday I shall be continuing with the Eightfold Path. Monday, November 15 is also the day our newest issue—the Holiday Issue—will be released. Have a great weekend, and I profoundly thank you all for reading my column and supporting The Better Drink.
Buddhism is considered to be the fastest growing religion in America, and one of the more curious aspects of this has been a sort of mélange of misunderstandings that have been bandied about enough to almost pass as truth. One of the more popular treatments of Buddhism is that Buddha was “just like Jesus” and that Buddhism has an almost uncanny resemblance to Christianity. Also due to the increase of Buddhism I now hear Jesus being referred to as “a great spiritual master” and as a “sage”. Both are more than just a little funny if one were to genuinely take up the study of Christianity and Buddhism. Yes, there are similarities, but very often these similarities are only on the surface, but if one were to take into consideration the finer, more profound points of each faith than one could quite quickly see the immense gulf where perhaps there was a perceived synthesis.
One surface similarity and deeper gulf is with Buddhism's Eight Fold Path. On the surface the Eight Fold Path could be seen as the Buddhists' Ten Commandments. However, immediately one should sense a wholly different tact when the term Path is used instead of Commandments . Then again, both are meant to serve as moral instruction or parameters in which a faithful adherent is implored (or commanded as in the case of Christianity) to follow. The tenants of the Eight Fold Path are as follows:
Right Understanding and Right Thought are the study of wisdom. Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood are the study of the precepts (or Buddhist moral vows). Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration are the study of meditation. And finally, Right Effort is common to all three studies—meaning one must apply oneself properly to the Eightfold Path. Already one can see the different approach—trying one's best or properly applying oneself is in itself a moral obligation. And yet they are not called the Eight Obligations or the Eight Rules or the Eight Commandments…nope, they are indeed the Eightfold Path…they are also referred to as “The Eightfold Noble Path” or “The Eightfold Right Path”.
Another way this path has been referred to is found in the Mahayana Lankavatara Sutra (Sutra essentially means gospel or direct teachings from Buddha versus a commentary or teaching about a Buddhist sutra or gospel): “Only the One Great Vehicle has the soothing eight branches of the path.” The word sila is a Sanskrit word translated as “precept”. Generally the term precept is interpreted as rules. However, the word sila actually means calming, soothing. So, in actuality the precepts or rules laid out in the Eightfold Path are meant to calm or sooth. The idea being that if one can adhere to these suggestions or wisdoms or precepts or doctrines than life will go on pretty smoothly. And the ultimate hope is that if one's path towards enlightenment can be made as smooth and as hospitable as possible than one's chances of becoming truly enlightened increases.
Pure mind is one common term used in reference to the Eightfold Path. For instance if one's mind has regret than it will become annoyed and restless. If one's mind is restless than their ability to meditate is diminished. However, one cannot even grasp that one should find calm and peace of mind if one has not sought out wisdom or a proper master—aka Buddhism. Essentially, the Buddhist's approach to morality and to its doctrinal “laws” is that if one were to live according to these practices than life will go a whole lot smoother, which then will free up a person's energy to meditate and develop wisdom. If one can then pursue meditation and wisdom (versus perhaps ticking off neighbors and dealing with angry spouses etc…) than one can better realize liberation or enlightenment. One of the principal differences to this approach is that in Buddhism morality is seen as simply the easiest and wisest way to approach life—not as commandments from a ruling God who will punish any offenders. Punishment in Buddhism is seen coolly—as nothing more than the effects of one's causes—basically “you reap what you sow” and not “you are punished from above” or by some type of parent-god.
Again, on the surface this “reap what you sow” idea can seem actually very Christian. In fact, “reap what you sow” is a verse from the Holy Bible. However, Buddhist causality is not as cleanly moral as it has perhaps been perceived in our Western, Christian society. From a more profound perspective Buddhist Karma (which more often than not is confused with the Hindu concept of Karma as is the same for reincarnation—while Buddhism and Hinduism both share the term reincarnation both interpret the concept entirely differently) is actually neutral and not the simple morality play of “if you do bad then bad will come to you”. Causality in Buddhism is actually a very elegant and complicated issue—way beyond the petty foibles of any one individual. Causality in Buddhism begins with one primary tenant: that all “effects” have at least two causes…meaning any one event had at least two or more events that kicked it off. The term used to explain this idea is called “dependant origination”. I mention dependant origination not to stray completely from the Eightfold Path, but to better illustrate the profound differences between the Buddhist approach to morality and doctrinal conduct and Christianity's Ten Commandments. Dependant origination introduces the concept of all beings actually being more dependently tied to each other—including our supposed “wrongs” and our supposed “rights” versus being independent operators taking our punishments and rewards as we choose right and choose wrong.
Causality…Karma…a pure mind…these are all very profound concepts that truly deserve more space. However, it is my hope that some of these ideas will spark a want for further investigation, which I believe, fundamentally is a good mind—the investigative mind—to have if one truly wants to find the sweet shores of the Champagne Life. Tomorrow, I will break down the Eightfold Path a bit and explain what all these “right” instructions actually mean.
Born Rich (11/9/04, Vol. 2 No. 30)
Money…a complicated topic…an even more complicated conversation. I just watched (it is currently out on DVD) the documentary Born Rich by Jamie Johnson—the Johnson & Johnson Jamie Johnson. Jamie Johnson heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical empire explores what it is or perhaps what it means to be born rich…immensely rich. Jamie not only shares his own perspective, but a handful of his fellow heirs and heiresses also share strikingly intimate details regarding what it is to be born rich.
The movie opens with Jamie Johnson's twenty-first birthday party where we are both introduced to him and informed that today he will come into his vast fortune. His voice overlays him getting dressed for his party, and he opens up with two really good points: America is not truly a meritocracy and money is a very awkward topic for people to discuss. Jamie wants in his movie to open up the subject of money and the children who inherent fortunes versus making them, because he sees his group as a too-long hidden cultural phenomenon. Jamie also plainly argues that if he is perhaps able to confront his life circumstances openly without shame or embarrassment than he will not suffer some of the personal issues he sees in his family's past. In one strikingly honest scene Jamie's very uncomfortable father (he did not approve of Jamie's choice of movie subjects—money) admits to his fortune making him feel more the outcast than the privileged. However, I want to quickly point out that the one absolute saving grace of this movie is that at no time does it reduce itself to a “poor little rich kid” saga. In fact, it is oddly relieving that the kids are more honestly pleased with their lot than cursed, and their personal issues are well within most young adults'—regardless of money.
The movie is spare and elegant, and I found myself completely enthralled and thinking…. Throughout the movie I found myself asking several questions: Why do we (at least in America) have a hard time talking frankly about money? What would it be like to inherent a massive fortune (I mean massive)?
Why do we have a hard time talking frankly about money? In my family money was actually spoken of rather often, but I know from talking to many of my friends that this was rare. My mother was a Scottish bookkeeper—money was everything—I grew up using tiny hotel shampoos and soaps almost exclusively. I remember asking her if she wanted to be buried with her wedding ring on and she laughed and said, “What and waste all that gold? Never!” For my mother money meant survival love didn't mean a thing if you were dead. My father was a great deal subtler regarding the subject, but he too felt it important to teach money skills to us kids. However, many of my friends admit that money was never ever discussed and that often when they faced their first “real world” experiences they truly wished they had a better understanding of the stuff. But all this is the practical side I suppose…but what about the other more philosophical realities surrounding money like does the more you have make you happier, or is money a sign that god loves you or a stumbling block on your path towards salvation? After watching the movie I came away with mixed feelings. The kids to me seemed like almost all of the twenty-one years olds I meet. These kids felt strong in money, while some twenty-one years olds feel strong in immortality or sex or beauty or hope or intelligence or options or idealism. In truth, life has not really kicked in at twenty-one…. What I really would like to see is these kids at fifty-one, and again, would money—lots of money have any bearing on their happiness? What type of power does money actually have?
The other question that swirled around constantly was what on earth would it be like to inherent such an immense fortune? This was one part of the documentary I felt did not really translate or perhaps (and this might be the case) this question is not answerable even by the people involved. I say this because one gets the sense from even the film maker, an heir himself, that the experience of inheriting a vast amount of money is a curious, almost elusive thing…does it truly make one's human experience unique? Or is it foolish to think that money could radically alter the overall life of a person? Of course one could dream and easily think up a myriad amount of things one would do with an immense fortune, but lets just say after a decade or so of shopping and traveling and the whole glimmer wares off a bit would having an enormous fortune alter one's existential experience of life of being? I suppose the only definite affect would be in self-definition: I am a rich kid . And I suppose that if one self-defined one's self as a rich kid than perhaps that would prove to be a tinted enough of a lens to color one's world. However, I strongly believe that all of us define ourselves and these definitions can shift along with experience meaning being a rich kid at one point is great and at another point is terrible—and the same could be said for all self-definitions. So…I guess I am back to the wondering-board.
I genuinely loved this movie. I saw it with a friend, and I would really suggest you do the same. The movie without a doubt is a conversation stirrer and brings up many interesting questions and observations, and I love movies that do this. My friend and I ended up spending much of the afternoon swapping our own experiences with growing up and money, and talking about our own curious and sometime awkward feelings regarding the class system in America, and we also found ourselves departing from the money topic and discussing the need to understand oneself and one's lot and we both felt that essentially that is what this movie was about…Jamie Johnson set out to understand both himself and the world in which he lived…something everyone whether rich or poor should try.
Born Rich a documentary by Jamie Johnson. Official Selection 2003 Sundance Film Festival.
Confrontation (11/8/04, Vol. 2 No. 30)
Today I want to talk about a very delicate and a very difficult topic: confrontation. I found myself over the weekend having to do a little of it (actually a rather big, almost-overwhelming dose of it) with a friend, and oddly just the night before I had seen a documentary about Africa and how one culture had managed to tackle this very touchy subject. While it was very late at night, so my memory for exact details may be minimal, essentially this tribe that lived at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro had some fabled plant that had many life-sustaining uses. One of the uses, however, was social…and awfully clever…so much so I truly wish that New England had something similar…. The plant had long, palm-ish sort of leaves that were very flexible. If, someone in your town had in some way upset you, or if in some way you felt the need to confront this person, but this person was difficult or intimidating to confront then all you have to do is hand them one of these leaves, knotted in the center and then they will know you want to confront them but were to afraid to. Then the person receiving the knotted leaf knows to soften and welcome the person into conversation. The knotted leaf was a sort of ice-breaker, or in some cases a red flag…and man oh man do I wish we had this system.
Unfortunately, while our founding fathers drafted up one heck of a constitution and civil society, they did not, however, come to peg some type of flora or fauna down as being the “hey buddy you're out of line” signal. Instead, most of us are faced with usually two options with both more often than not requiring each other. The two options I speak of are: A. you tolerate the behavior as much as you can and then behind their backs vent everything to as many friends and family members as you can. The obvious pitfall is that you are often reduced to becoming a petty gossip. B. you tolerate the behavior as much as you can then finally blow up…usually at bad times in public places like restaurants, parties, or street corners. The obvious pitfall is that you are often reduced to becoming a crazed fool…often becoming the topic of petty gossip yourself…and giving the offender a much needed advantage in the court of public opinion.
However, even with all of the pitfalls, confrontation is actually one of the healthiest and often most profound acts of love one human can offer another. Because in truth, only people who genuinely care about you are really going to bother…particularly when you consider the costs often paid by the person doing the confronting. One of the costs (as I learned over the weekend) is feeling like the high school principal or worse, like the over-achieving student hall monitor anxiously waiting for someone to get in trouble. Another cost is making someone cry, which even in the face of immense correctness is never good…it always sucks…which brings me to another cost…actually being too right. Yes, too right. Sometimes when you confront someone you find out that things were actually much, much worse that you had imagined (as in my case this weekend). Then you find what was irritating or somewhat “wrong” was actually far more intense and involved than you ever realized…I believe the cliché “can of worms” comes into play under these circumstances. Lastly, one of the most involved costs is the responsibility of the confronter. I assure you, if you are to confront someone than you will be seen as the primary officer regarding the issue. Meaning, if you tell a friend they are drinking too much then you will quickly be made into the “drinking cop” by your friend, and truthfully by your own sense of guilt. Now, mind you everyone has different levels of guilt and senses of responsibility, but this very often appears to be the case.
So what are some good ways to confront someone? Because I want to say again that confrontation is actually one of most loving and compassionate acts a person can do. I suppose I can readily think of a few tips—based on both times I had to confront someone and times when someone confronted me—and while it's never great when someone confronts you a few people in my life have done a great job and I will always be grateful for their love for me.
Never confront someone when you are angry. Wait a little. Collect yourself. Never confront someone when you have been drinking. I do not believe I have to say any more. Try walking with a person as you talk. This is a good one. Walking will naturally reduce the amount of adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormones) in the body. Walking will also keep a person well oxygenated, which also reduces panic sensations. And generally speaking moving around helps the conversation to move rather than stall-out into an argument. Warn the person ahead of time. Tell the person before you talk that you need to confront them on something. I really think it is fair that you allow someone to “brace” themselves. Accept and be prepared for the other person the defend themselves and realize you may not be one-hundred-percent correct in the situation. Really, really, know what you want to say. Rehearse the confrontation if you have to, but I think it is important to really know what it is you are upset about…otherwise, the confrontation can just become nothing more than a personal attack, which is neither loving nor healthy. And this brings me to my last tip, and I think the most important: only confront people you really love. This is a big rule. True confrontation—confrontation that was meant to either repair a suffering relationship or aid an out-of-control loved one (as in the case with substance abuse) is always grounded in love and never grounded in self-righteousness or meddling.
Looking back at my own confrontation this weekend I will say I feel a mix of irritation (that the whole terrible event…on such a lovely fall day…had to ever happen), self-doubt (that perhaps I was getting in “way over my head”), and hope. And while I still feel a little bit of “confrontation shock” (something I am quite sure you all have experienced) the day ended with a warm, long hug and a heartfelt “thank you” from the friend I had finally found the nerve to confront.
The OC (11/5/04, Vol. 2 No. 29)
For the past two months or so the Fox television network has been telling me that America's most popular drama on television was a show called “The OC”. They also went on to tell me that The OC “was the show that changed a generation” or was it “the show that transformed an era”? Either way this show was touted to be THE show to watch. Fox's claims were doubly backed up when MTV aired its “the real OC” which, was a reality show made with genuine OC kids whining, primping, and crying all over Southern California…all by the way completely synched up to soulful, complaint rock playing almost as loud as it would be in a rock video.
Wanting to experience the show “that changed an era or generation or transformed” I sat myself down (even with pen and paper) and watched Fox's “The OC” as intently and as soberly as I could…. And to be perfectly honest…. I Loved it!!! Just loved it!!!! And now I know that pretty much from here on out Thursdays between eight and nine are booked. First off, as expected everyone (except for the blond male lead) is really rich, and right off the bat we are informed that they are the way all Americans like their really rich: beautiful, jaded, and very very unhappy. There is a father character who I believe is a lawyer who seemed perhaps to have a soul, but early on you see nobody really listens to him. The other adults are as saucy and fashionable as their teenage co-stars and have big problems of their own to drink, pout, and silently stomp along with loud, driving pop music.
But the real treasure was the kids. Man do I love spoiled, depressed teens. I am actually not kidding here. To see two hot bikini clad teen-babes (who looked not a day under 25) drinking before noon by the pool and being suspected of having eating disorders (one teen suggests that the other hotter, taller, more depressed, and harder drinking teen was perhaps too thin…something only the very few and privileged are suspected of). And while, for at least the season opener it seemed the girls were getting all the really dramatic, rock-video, teen diary moments, the boys proved that they too can have diva fits and moments of tear-jerking silence while loud music drove home that life was INTENSE. And this dear friends was why I loved “The OC”, and why I love teenagers. I would simply give anything to feel life like that again. And as I think about last night's show, I realized the amazing thing teens offer to the table of life: heartfelt drama.
A boyfriend decides to leave home (threatening that it is for good) (leaving his new address and number) because his best friend moves almost what appears to be a half-hour away. The girlfriend of the boy who moved a half-hour away (to stand by a girl he had knocked up) begins to drink vodka straight from the bottle and while she was still this amazingly beautiful, posh young lady she cried a great deal when she was alone in the mansion and was really really curt to her glamorous mother. Frankly, these kids were managing better skin and more emotions than any adult could ever hope, and as I watched all I kept on remembering was the Fourth of July in my neighborhood. This past Fourth of July I had walked with my dogs to a park near my house where several people were gathering. I sat with my dogs on the grass a bit to enjoy the illegal fireworks a group of teenage boys were putting on. Teenagers were everywhere, and I found myself actually a little jealous. They were picking each other up, fighting, cussing, crying, and having torrid meetings about either love or hate. Best friends were inevitably dressed like identical twins and while they all still had these pouty-toddler faces one could immediately tell that their activities were not for the faint at heart. Oh, the passion of the teenager! May God Bless them all!
Just after watching Fox's “The OC” I quickly changed the channel to ABC's “Life As We Know It”, which is a sort of east coast, intellectual version of “The OC”. Here the kids are not as rich, not as tan, but just as beautiful and just as heartbroken, confused, angry, and passionate. It struck me as identical to the iconic show “Thirty Something”, and to be honest I have to say (once again) I LOVED IT! Unlike adult shows were everyone is being tough or subtle or working on a career or worrying about stuff, teens could not care less about anything but the present crisis before them and when teens are in crisis they are anything but subtle. They scream, drink heavy, hate everyone, lie, get in fist fights, make their families suffer immensely and show an almost deadly loyalty to each other...and all the while soulful, moody pop music roars and rolls…. Oh, the passion of the teenager! May God Bless them all!
I suppose my suggestion for today is that perhaps all of us subtle, well-healed adults could use a little teenager in our lives. I mean it, when was the last time you threw a chair after someone asked you a question? Or, when was the last time you daydreamed and wept about your love interest (all the while dressed in amazingly hip clothes and listening to the moodiest and deepest of pop music)? And how often do you solely value what you feel above all else? I suppose I am suggesting that while most of us would cringe at the thought of being teenagers all over again, perhaps we should not take leave of those awkward years completely. There is an honesty and passion to the teenager I think we all can learn from…not only do I believe it could help us find the sweet shores of the Champagne Life…I also believe it looks like a really fun time…. Just to make out one more time like a teenager…just one more time…man oh man. Oh, the passion of the teenager! May God Bless them all!
Have a great weekend! See you on Monday.
Tarot Thursday (11/4/04, Vol. 2 No. 28)
Today I have decided to once again do a little divination, and once again I shall use the Tarot cards (see my column Vol. 2 No. 16 for more on the history behind Tarot cards). Divination is a curious thing. On the one side, it can be addictive and can be badly used: as in using divination when good old patience and/ or logic can be employed. On the other side, it can be really helpful: as in a lesson one can meditate on during an intense time of life. Often when I read cards I simply ask, “What is it that I should meditate on today?” Over the years I have been amazed how timely and useful this practice can be because in truth, the Tarot was meant to be a spiritual aid—not a fortune teller—and actually true divination was meant to dovetail with or enhance one's logical reasoning and one's spiritual practice. Socrates and Confucius both spoke extensively regarding divination and both felt it should be a regular aspect of one's life.
My question: “What lesson or advice do all who read my column on Thursday, November 4, 2004 need?”
The answer: The Three of Pentacles, The Six of Wands, The Five of Pentacles, and The Three of Swords
Today is a day to think about money and your career, and to consider the people whom you work with and are dependant upon to make money. The Three of Pentacles is an interesting card. It is a card for monetary success, but only if one works in concert with one or more persons. It is usually a call to link up with a partner. If one manages to find a partner then, in this case with a Six of Wands right after it, supreme success is suggested. The Six of Wands is an all-out victory card—often denoting a victory after some strife or worry. The Six of Wands has a great deal of energy—usually the type of energy that can bring a great idea to fruition. Wands are generally idea and energy cards whereas Pentacles (or coins—the other term for the suit) are generally the material manifestation of something. So, linking the Three of Pentacles with the Six of Wands is a clear message that one should reach out and work with others today…with the reward being absolute success.
This reading is interesting because along with a positive suggestion it carries a negative or rather a warning. The next two cards I pulled were the Five of Pentacles and the Three of Swords. Now, not always will card readings include a warning. Sometimes they will simply give more details regarding the lesson…for instance: if I had pulled a few court cards (Kings and Queens etc…) than I could have given more suggestions or details regarding what specific type of people one should seek out for money ventures. However, today the Three of Pentacles and the Six of Wands—two very positive cards indicating success—are followed by two cards that very clearly indicate failure.
The Five of Pentacles is a warning card…big time. The Five of Pentacles is all about not understanding or seeing the true value of any given situation. It is a card that can suggest that a person is not appreciating just how good things are, and instead they are focusing on the negative. The warning is that if one does not see the goodness of their current situation than they will essentially be left out in the cold. If, they can take pause and really see just how great things are then they will find themselves finely protected. The image on the card is quite clear: two impoverished people, barefoot and lame are limping in a snowstorm, when right behind them is a warm, well-lit church that is open to them any time they would like to enter. However, these people do not notice or recognize the open church and instead continue to suffer in the cold. It is my suggestion today that the “warm church” that one should take care to acknowledge is in the form of other people. My reasoning is the next card: the Three of Swords. The Three of Swords is one of the more descriptive cards in the deck. It is simply a large red heart with three swords piercing it. It is the absolute opposite to the Three of Pentacles, which for me clearly suggests that this card is meant as a warning—not as an outcome. The Three of Swords is the card for heartbreak and suggests pain brought on by another. Because it follows the Five of Pentacles I can see that if one does not see or value the people that surround them then much needless sadness and struggle will follow.
Essentially, the cards today are suggesting that great success is in our midst, but this success is only to be achieved through working with others. However, if we try to go it alone and not appreciate or realize the good people that surround us and that are willing to aid us then we will be left out in the cold. It is a good day to take a little pause and genuinely look to all the people that surround you…chances are you are profoundly more loved and protected than you currently may realize.
What it is Not (11/3/04, Vol. 2 No. 27)
Well, I'm back from my break…hope you enjoyed the repeats. While on leave I found myself surveying my position a great deal. I also caught a terrific cold, which I believe aided my contemplative mood. The search for the Champagne Life…I have been writing essays regarding the subject since the end of June and now that the leaves are genuinely going away and I am finding socks once again in my laundry basket I wonder if I have actually made any progress towards my goal: living the Champagne Life. In truth, and I do realize that heavy doses of cold medicine cannot be helping, I feel no more close to the Champagne Life than I did at the beginning of my journey. In fact, I have come to believe that since my journey began I have only become more poignantly aware of just how far off I am. However, just as quickly as I write that past line I want to write this one: is this such a bad thing? Meaning…is it possible that as one truly attempts to find the sweet shores of the Champagne Life that one first must realize what is not the Champagne Life?
So, for today I want to run through a few things that I have personally realized as definitely not being the Champagne Life. Negative deduction is not uncommon in philosophical and religious teachings, and while it can be immensely more comforting (and clear) to know what something is…sometimes the best a person can do is to know what something is not. Lately, I have been finding my ship docking at many Is Not Ports, and while they can be a real drag to visit I do feel some satisfaction when I come to realize that I must get back to my ship and return to the open sea.
Seeing into the future is not living the Champagne Life. Lately, I have been noticing a great many people seeing into the future. And I have also found that when others see into the future it stirs me to see into the future as well. However, I have begun to suspect that this parlor trick is not such a good one to play. Seeing into the future could also be termed: trapping one in a destiny or planting seeds of misery. In truth, the only real time is in the moment. Part of living the Champagne Life is realizing that we are free—that our future is really only what we make of our present.
Keeping score is not living the Champagne Life. I have realized that keeping score is a tough habit to break. However, it is a terrible habit to retain. It is also a habit that can sneak up on you. So many times I find myself comparing my self and my behavior to others and my friendship to others and my life to others, and what I found after a good session of “Well, I did this and he did that…” was a bitter taste in my mouth and a general sense of isolation. I do not believe it is possible or fair to score other's generosity, phone calls, behavoirs, visits, and honesty. I also do not think it is possible or fair to score one's self regarding how good a friend, spouse, child, employee, or person we are. Part of living the Champagne Life is knowing how to simply enjoy people—including ourselves—and not constantly picking relationships apart looking for some kind of fairness.
Perfection is not living the Champagne Life. All perfection will do is keep you from doing anything. And I have also found that if one falls into the trap in believing that perfection actually exists that one then becomes a terrifically nasty judge—both towards oneself and others. Instead of perfection, I am beginning to believe in the “good enough” or “best you can” philosophy. I have this great life-coaching book and in it she devotes one whole chapter to perfection and its inherent pitfalls. Perfectionists rarely get things done…however, people who feel okay about doing the best they can very often take great risks in life and achieve great successes. Part of living the Champagne Life is accepting both the good and the bad with grace and humor—not waiting for a time when everything is just right.
Searching for the Champagne Life has been one of the greatest and most fulfilling endeavors of my life. It has also been confusing and at times contradictory. There are many teachers and many texts all claiming a clear route, however, for this explorer I have come to realize that the Champagne Life requires a great deal more than blind adherence, it appears to require an abundance of earnestness, honesty, and good old fashioned trial and error.
She's Happy Now (10/27/04, Vol. 2 No 26)
The old saying goes “a way to a man's heart is through their stomach”, and while so far I have found that statement to be overwhelmingly true, is also appears to work on woman's passionate ticker as well. I know this because in all truth one of the surest ways to this ol'girl's heart is most definitely through her stomach.
I am a passionate cook. The only problem is that when you are a passionate cook you tend to cook a lot. When you cook a lot your skill level does go up. This is all fine and good, however, one of the side effects is that nobody wants to cook for you. I find that only my other friends who are also passionate about cooking “dare” to have me over to dinner thinking that my passion for cooking also is a passion for food criticism. The sad thing is that the truth could not be more different. In truth, I love cooking because I love eating, I love people, and I run a little nervous…cooking tends to combine eating with socializing with good mind-calming, Zen-like activity. Every once in awhile there is a daring friend who cooks for me. Dr. Timothy Smith, the co-founder of this magazine is just this sort of person.
I have known him for many years and throughout that time he has come to see the dog-like quality in me in that I respond very well to food. He is a smart man and has learned to soften me greatly with something warm and savory (which is my preference: over something cold and sweet). The below recipe is one of my favorite things he makes: Twice Baked Potatoes. The potato truly is for me the path to my soul. Usually, along with some steamed veggies I like these as a dinner. However, for gents allow two potatoes if you are intending this recipe as a main course.
Timothy Smith's Twice Baked Potatoes
4 medium potatoes
½ cup sour cream
1-2 Tablespoons milk
1 carrot finely shredded
2 cloves garlic pressed
1 Tablespoon chopped fresh parsley (optional)
8 twists of freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 thick slices of cheddar cheese
preheat oven to 425°
Bake potatoes at 425° for 40-60 minutes (or microwave the potatoes according to your microwave instructions). Once the potatoes are cool enough to handle—around ten minutes—cut the tops off the potatoes and scoop out the potatoes leaving a thin shell. Put the scooped potatoes in a bowl and mash with an electric hand mixer. Add salt, pepper, garlic, milk and sour cream. Mix until smooth and fluffy, adding 1 or 2 extra tablespoons of milk if necessary. Stir in carrot and parsley. Re-stuff the potato shells with potato mixture and top with paprika. Bake for 20 minutes at 425°. Then top each potato with a slice of cheese and some additional paprika. Bake for five minutes more. Remove and let sit five minutes before serving. Makes 2-3 main course servings or 4 side dish servings.
Dogen's Shobogenzo (10/26/04, Vol. 2 No 25)
Shobogenzo means “Treasury of the eye of true teaching”. Shobogenzo is a collection of Zen essays written by the 13 th century Japanese Zen teacher Dogen Kigen. Dogen is widely respected as a religious reformer, an accomplished Buddhist adept, a profound thinker, and a brilliant writer. Shobogenzo is among the best of Zen literary works. It is one of the most demanding, and is also a tool to help foster the Zen use of the mind. Dogen was born 1200 CE to a noble family in Kyoto, the imperial capitol and cultural center of Japan. At eight his mother died—this would lead him to his calling based on his profound preoccupation with the impermanent nature of things. Dogen was the founder of the Soto Zen School.
The actual Shobogenzo text is a lyrical, complicated series of essays and allegories that primarily focus on “bodymind”. In the west body and mind are seen as separate—the problem then is to see how they ultimately interrelate. For Dogen (and a Buddhist) body and mind are fundamentally one—the problem then is to re-experience this fundamental oneness. Dogen wanted people to learn how to experience life and the world directly: without all of the preconceived notions and assumptions that come between us and any type of phenomenological experience. The practice of meditation is of profound importance because it is meant to help the aspirant to directly experience being.
Shinjin datsuraku is traditionally translated as “casting off body and mind”. This term is used throughout Shobogenzo. Dogen felt this was the “one great matter of Zen practice for my entire life”. Dogen actually said that this (casting off body and mind) is all one needs to understand Buddhism. Casting off body and mind means to experience the world and life without any thetic positings. For example: “I love dogs”, “I hate broccoli”, “white is good and black is bad”, or “accept good and reject bad”. These are all examples of personal views and preconceptions. Dogen insists that to reach enlightenment one must move beyond relative thinking and critical opinions. For these cloud reality and our ability to experience the world and life as it truly is. A practitioner of Buddhism strives to react to a situation without any prejudices—rather than impose all of his presumptions upon any person, place or situation.
For today's column I read the essay (from Shobogenzo) One Bright Jewel . One Bright Jewel is a story that revolves around a teacher named Gensha and a student-monk. Gensha was a highly honored teacher and after attaining enlightenment he said to the people, “The whole world in all ten directions is a single bright jewel.” The student-monk then says that he is not sure if he understands this. Gensha, the teacher, then replies, “The whole world in all ten directions is one bright jewel—what does it have to do with understanding?”
The next day Gensha asked the student-monk, “The whole world in all ten directions is one bright jewel—how do you understand?” The student-monk then responds by saying that the whole world is a jewel and what does this have to do with understanding—essentially repeating what his teacher, Gensha, had said the day before. Gensha then reprimands the student for acccepting ignorance. For while the teachings may be true regardless of one's understanding, it does not mean an aspirant should settle into ignorance—rather an aspirant should always seek to understand.
What does “The world is one bright jewel” mean? If you were to remove relative judgments or assumptions from your experience of the world such as good and bad, hot and cold, ugly and pretty, and so forth than the world would no longer be a series of distinctions. The world would be a unified continuum of being, which includes the one experiencing this “being”. This experience of unity with the world or oneness is poignantly pursued in zazen or “sitting meditation” and is the primary crux of Zen Buddhism.
Why would one want to experience the world without relativity? This is not an easy question (nor, actually, is Dogen's Shobogenzo) to answer. As someone who has been a meditator and practicing Buddhist for over a decade I can tell you that not only peace arises but a curious flexibility does as well when one genuinely tries to approach life without judgment. I have a dear friend who is also a practicing Buddhist. Everyday when he walks to work he practices a walking meditation. As he walks he tries to “take-in” what he sees, hears, and smells without judgment. He told me that one day after around a year of this practice he found himself so overwhelmed with joy he was moved to tears—he told me that as he worked through the habit of judgment he came to see that day how absolutely gorgeous every single person he saw was. Nobody was too fat, too old, dressed out of date, or crippled—everyone, he said, was the most beautiful human he had ever seen. Even years later my friend refers to that experience as radically altering his understanding of the world, and I assure you this transformed perspective graced him with much joy.
Dogen's Shobogenzo is a great book to read and spend a lifetime trying to understand. Even now I feel it is important to disclaim my own take on the essay One Bright Jewel in order to stress the importance of contemplation and meditation when it comes to tackling the teachings of Dogen. This is the Zen way. For today's column in addition to my Thomas Cleary translation (and notes), I also used the intellectual assistance of David E. Shaner's paper “The Bodymind Experience in Dogen's Shobogenzo: A Phenomenological perspective”, (University of Hawaii Press, 1985).
It Worked Out After All (10/25/04, Vol. 2 No 24)
Are you the nice person who gets screwed-over? Do you find that Mr. Envious, Ms. Liar, and Dr. Motive seem to have better social lives, jobs, and bank statements? Have you ever questioned whether or not the Universe was ultimately just? If you have ever said “yes” to any of these questions then have I got a story for you!
It has been a long time since I have read a story that gave me such a sense of hope and cheer…hope that as one truly struggles to develop their sense of character and honor that somehow—even in the face of immense adversity—Providence is wholly just and wise and ultimately elevates the noble.
The story I am referring to is Voltaire's Zadig. Besides being absolutely entertaining and often hilarious, Zadig is an ingenious argument for the existence of a just world in which Providence—not man—knows the final outcome of any given course of action. Basically, only God knows what is good for us…and as for us…we need to concentrate on being as good, intelligent, and as honorable as we can.
The story is built upon several gem-like vignettes each with its own gorgeous display of reason and tribulation, and Zadig, our hero, is the complete model of “nice guys finish last”. Near the end of the story Zadig has fled town in complete anguish and frustration. He has had it. It seems that the more good Zadig does for others that it only brings more grief upon himself. As Zadig paces a riverbank outside of town, thoroughly considering that perhaps God has forgotten about him, he comes upon a hermit. The hermit's presence cheers Zadig, and Zadig agrees to accompany (upon the hermit's request) the wandering hermit for a couple of days.
The first house they visit is of a very wealthy man. The host offers them a lavish spread, including a solid-gold bowl inlaid with rubies and emeralds to wash with. The next day as the hermit and Zadig resume their journey Zadig comments on how lux their accommodations were. The hermit answers that he thought the host was vain and too lavish. As they spoke Zadig notices the hermit had stolen the solid gold, bejeweled bowl (much to his shock).
The next house is that of a wealthy miser. They are rudely hustled by a shabby servant through a mean lunch of spoiled olives, stale bread, and old beer. The hermit requests to see their benefactor in person (much to the rude servant's dismay), and upon greeting the miser the hermit thanks the host profusely and hands him the stolen precious bowl as a gift.
The next house they stop at is a retired philosopher's. The philosopher treats the travelers to a wonderful night filled with good cheer, conversation, and genuine hospitality. Both Zadig and the hermit remark what a wonderful man their host was and what a remarkable evening they had. The hermit energetically agreed, and upon leaving he tells Zadig that he was going to reward the philosopher for being such a fine man and host. Zadig is shocked (and horrified) that the hermit's “reward” is burning the philosopher's house down.
The next house they stop at is a widow of comfortable, but relatively modest, means who lives alone with her fourteen-year-old nephew with whom she holds her future hopes upon. The widow is kind and generous with the travelers. She laments the next day that she had nothing to spare for them to take along on their journey, but she does offer her nephew to join them as a guide. Once again, both Zadig and the hermit remark that she should be rewarded somehow. Almost as soon as the hermit says this, he pushes the nephew over a steep ravine to his death.
Zadig finally snaps and demands an explanation. The hermit returns that the show-off needed to learn a lesson about being too ostentatious. The miser needed to be embarrassed by his stinginess—which the grand thank you gift (the gold bowl) did. An enormous buried treasure was underneath the philosopher's house (unbeknownst to the philosopher), and burning the house down would finally reveal its location. The widow's nephew had been plotting, and would have successfully murdered his aunt within the next year. The hermit then turns into an angel and explains that only God truly knows whether or not a blessing or curse has befallen us…and essentially told Zadig to stay cool and stand firm in his principles (and without blowing the story for you—for I really encourage all to read this tale—I assure you that nice guys do ultimately finish first).
So, all you patrons and sailors joining me on the search for the Champagne Life do not give up trying to be good…our reward will come soon enough…and it is doubly important to note that our “reward” may come in a way we may not immediately recognize. How many buried treasures and plotting nephews do we have in our lives?
Painting 101 Part II (10/21/04, Vol. 2 No 23)
In yesterday's column I talked about the healing qualities of art. I strongly believe that expression of oneself in one way or another whether musically or with painting or writing or even acting is an important and integral part of being human. Unfortunately, so much emphasis has been placed on “genius”, “talent”, and “fame” where art is concerned that many people avoid taking up the practice…often with lines like “I can't draw” or “I am not very creative”. In truth, drawing is only one type of creating and to be honest any time you put pen or pencil to paper you are drawing…and as for creativity…every human is creative. Creativity is a skill we all use to negotiate life. Getting out of a speeding ticket or making dinner when there is seemingly nothing in the cupboard are both examples of extreme creativity.
In Painting 101 Part I, I discussed the various mediums and their pitfalls and suggested that a beginner begins with acrylic paint. I also included a comprehensive shopping list for anyone who wants to commence painting a little…or (hopefully) a lot. In Part II, I will be laying out a series of “exercises” that will get you working and painting like an artist…not as someone who is taking art classes. Over the years I have helped many people get started with painting, and I have distilled what I believe the real skills a person needs to develop in order to create art of depth and beauty.
Every time you sit down to paint whether every day or once a week I have three distinct exercises to complete. Acrylic paint, once it dries, is virtually impossible to remove so please be careful to pick a work area that you can easily tarp. Also, please wear surgical gloves when working. Many art supplies are extremely toxic and while acrylic paints are relatively safe, it is good to get used to the practice of wearing gloves when you create. Also, before you begin have everything out and ready: palettes, a couple of tall cans or jars of water, and your paints should all be out and easily accessible. Over time you will find the best place and set up for you.
Exercise One: for now keep your stretched canvas in the closet and pull out your sketchbook. For exercise one I would like you to paint an image solely from your imagination. It is important in this exercise that you only use half of the paper. It is not important in this exercise, however, that what you paint is of any one “thing”. You can paint a design or a monster…it doesn't matter. On the other half of the paper write down how you are feeling at the present moment. Are you sad? If so…why? Are you having a great day? Again, if so…why? You do not have to write a great deal (unless you really feel you need to). Just a half page describing how you feel. This exercise is very important for two main reasons. One, it helps you understand and connect with your emotional image vocabulary. Painting images strictly from your imagination then recording how you felt will help you develop a solid working relationship between painting and your being. Another reason this exercise is important is because the actual exercise is extremely therapeutic and it has immediate stress reducing qualities.
After you have completed exercise one move on to exercise two. It is important to note that all three exercises should be done one after another every time you sit down to paint. For your next exercise, I want you to make as many colors as you can using only your five tubes of primary colors (see yesterday's column for further explanation regarding paint). Do not get overwhelmed here…just fill one page of your notebook and have a lot of fun. This exercise is extremely important because it both teaches you how to mix paint and (and this is the big reason) it helps you develop your own personal color palette. Every artist has their own personal color vocabulary or alphabet that they use to express themselves. Using pre-mixed paint is not only a way to make dull, amateur art it also disallows a person from genuinely expression oneself.
Exercise three: pick something whether a plant or a friend and paint it. Do not worry if your painting “comes out”. To be honest the real lesson is the items that you pick to paint. Like with the color lesson this exercise helps the artist develop their own image vocabulary. Over time you will find a clearer and clearer portrait of what you actually are interested in painting. For now relax and really just paint what ever it is that comes to mind and that you find interesting. This exercise will also help you develop your “eye” or your ability to paint or draw from what you see. Do not get frustrated with this exercise…I assure you over time your skill level will naturally improve. Remember though that the most revered art is not for its technical bravado rather its depth of expression.
Now, once you have completed one whole sketchbook I want you to spend one or two evenings thoughtfully looking over your work. From your sketchbook I want you to begin a painting on yes, the canvas. Be sure to use the colors and images in your sketchbook as a touchstone for your painting. This helps you learn how to paint from fully developed ideas. Professional artists create art and collections of art from highly developed themes. It is unbelievable the difference in art created on a whim and art created from a highly developed theme. Often I have found that if one really follows my instructions and goes through all of their sketchbook and contrives a painting from their sketchbook that even their very first painting has a strength, beauty and depth that few first paintings do.
After you have completed your painting start from the beginning again: purchase another sketchbook and another pre-stretched canvas (or if you would like you can begin stretching your own—many books or often a helpful sales associate at the art store can help you get started). After you have completed around five or six sketchbooks and paintings you are ready to expand. Next purchase drawing materials and a large piece of very high quality acid free cotton paper made for drawing and a good batch of drawing materials: pens, pencils, easers, charcoals, pastels, etc…. Essentially, check out the stuff and go nuts—get whatever looks interesting to you. Now, use the drawing materials for either your imagination drawing exercise or your drawing an object exercise. When you have completed a whole sketchbook in addition to creating a painting also, using your big, gorgeous piece of paper make a drawing using your new materials.
After you have completed six or seven large drawings, paintings, and sketchbooks with both paintings and drawings go to the art store and purchase a good starter set of watercolors including watercolor brushes and a good “how to get started” watercolor book and a big piece of watercolor paper (along with your big piece of drawing paper). Your hand dexterity, color sense, and eye should be very keen and proficient at this point and commencing watercolors will be rewarding. In addition to substituting one of the painting exercises with drawing medium, now substitute one of the exercises with watercolors. This time you can also (and it is strongly suggested because watercolors are so different) use watercolors for your color creation exercise. And again, after completing six sketchbooks with one exercise in acrylic, one with drawing materials, and one with watercolor, and six paintings on canvas, six drawings on fine large-scale paper, and six watercolor paintings of fine, large-scale paper you are ready to move on.
At this stage I assure you your skill level is quite high. Really time is at this point your most important master…basically the more you paint the better you will become. If you were interested in working with oil paint, now is a perfect time to commence (“now” meaning after you have worked through a dozen sketchbook rounds). Oil is expensive and really requires a more or less permanent set up or work area. If you were able to complete a dozen whole rounds of my exercises than you genuinely have the passion and really it is well worth the money and effort to make yourself a good painting area. At this point really your sketchbook does not have to be so formal. However, working regularly in a sketchbook is invaluable if you want to create paintings of genuine depth and quality. Some people might want to simply continue with the three exercises…certainly a dozen rounds is minimal when it comes to truly developing an image and color vocabulary and a keen eye. To be honest it generally takes years and most artists would argue it takes a lifetime to fully develop one's sense of color, image, and emotional landscape. These exercises help breakdown this process into a very clear mode of practice.
I personally wish you luck and hope that some of my beloved Sailors and Patrons decide to give painting a try. I can say that for me personally, painting has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
Have a great weekend! See you on Monday.
Painting 101 Part I (10/20/04, Vol. 2 No 22)
In yesterday's column I interviewed a poet who felt poetry had transformed his life. I wanted to interview him, because I felt that perhaps for some people, taking up poetry writing might be a positive, healing experience. Lately, I have been visiting a friend in the hospital a great deal, and slowly I have been getting to know some of the other patients. One very gentle and kind woman was very interested in the fact that I was an artist (my “day job” is actually painting…I do portraits and my own collections). She spoke so tenderly and sadly that she wished she were an artist, but she feared that she would not be able. I explained to her that all people have a voice and that she should not care about whether or not she had gone to art school or if she was “talented”. In truth, the verdict of “talented” is often only given after a straining through a thick cheese-cloth of history, politics, critics, salespeople, auctions, writers, and many other things that had no real hand in either the art or the artist that made the work. Really, the best thing to do is to work with love and with the most honesty you can possibly muster.
Now, love and honesty and muster are all well and good, but as a former art instructor myself a little know-how and some sound instruction can be invaluable when commencing anything. Over the years many people have asked me to help them get started with painting, and during that time I have sort of come up with a pretty good “formula” to at least get someone started. I genuinely believe that all humans have a valid, wonderful voice…and that expressing oneself whether through painting, poetry, or music is a potent health tonic…and in some cases a potent chemotherapy.
And now…getting started. I am not going to mince words—the most difficult forms of medium are: first watercolors…please beginners do not purchase watercolor paint thinking it is smaller, easier to work with and less intimidating. Watercolor painting is by far the most technically demanding of all mediums. I am not kidding. Please, please resist the temptation! The world has enough terrible amateur watercolor paintings. You do not want to have to force your friends and family members to lie to you, and then have to hang your bad art in their homes. Trust me even the newest of painters can make amazing art…but not amazing watercolors! Then drawing. Forget it. Good drawing takes lots and lots of obsessive-compulsive effort. And to be honest, even if one can get the materials and techniques down, most of the time the art still is crappy because the subject matter of beginner drawings are usually a little trite or goofy…Grandma is never going to look good in pencil; a seascape in pen and ink will look like pretty good menu art; and god forbid we all have to suffer another smudgy pastel of either saccharine flowers and fruit or (ugh!) soulful girlfriends. Oil paint I mention last because, in truth, it is not so bad as a beginner's choice…but I still feel that the technique required is still a little daunting for the beginner. For oil one must also have a properly ventilated work area, which also can make it inconvenient. However, oil is romantic and has an impressive history…and so after a few months or so of my “beginner's approach” then one can easily transition to oil. But please purchase a good oil painting handbook that has a very, very comprehensive section on safety and on materials. Many oil painting books focus simply on style or method. Forget about those…you will discover your own style and method. However, you must know what a “glaze” is or how to mix paint with mediums or different varnishes, solvents, and pigment densities. To be honest, I still, to this day, use my oil painting desk references. So many variables can come up with a painting that it is good to have a comprehensive reference book handy.
So, what should one begin with? Acrylics. I love acrylics and still work with them today. Acrylics are one of the safest mediums around. They are relatively easy to work with and the brushes clean up with soap and water. Water is used to clean the brushes while you paint (a few good swishes can usually clean a brush while working, however, use soap and water before letting them dry…once acrylic dries there is no turning back). Acrylics can also be thinned with water, however, I would strongly suggest that one only uses water minimally…otherwise their paintings will come out dull and thin. Instead of water one should use “Acrylic Medium”. Acrylic mediums come in various shines and thicknesses. Personally, I like high gloss, but this is a place where no one is “right” or easier to work with…it just depends on what one ends up liking better. Acrylic mediums are used to aid in paint flow. With a medium you can make smoother and longer lines, silkier colors, and profoundly more even coverage. To use just mix a little onto your brush and a little into whatever color you want to use. Over time, you will get to know the amount you like to use…the more you use the more transparent the color becomes, which can be invaluable when you want to layer many colors.
—Purchase only five…FIVE…five tubes of paint: a red one, a blue one, a yellow one, a black one, and a white one. Now feel free to choose your favorite shades of the primaries, but do not…DO NOT…purchase any other colors. Those premixed shades are lovely and are very tempting to buy. However, beginning with premixed paint will put you on the fast track to bad amateur art. As I said, any beginner can make amazing art…even in the beginning…but I assure you if you paint a painting with premixed paint any artist will know you are an absolute beginner and that your art is bad. I will explain further in tomorrow's column when I detail the exercises.
—One or two types of Acrylic Medium. The gel type that comes in a tube is very convenient, has a nice satin finish, and a good body.
—Six or seven good quality paint brushes of various sizes. Make sure they are made for acrylic paint. Most likely they will be very clearly labeled.
—One really good quality sketchbook that can handle wet or dry medium. Generally speaking avoid the big and the small ones. Buy one that you can realistically carry and keep around. If it's too big it will become a pain. Too small and you really won't have room to move your brushes well. Do not buy the super expensive watercolor sketchbooks! Just find one that says it can handle “mixed media”.
—One pre-stretched canvas of medium size. Again, too big a pain…too small and you will not be able to learn good brush techniques.
—Other items: a few coffee cans or large jars for water and brushes. Lots of frozen dinner plastic plates cleaned, pie tins, and old teacups—these will be your palettes—they are profoundly better than the old wooden wheel type. Rags. Latex gloves. A shoebox to hold your paints. And an old apron.
That concludes part one of Painting 101. Tomorrow, I will give you a great set of exercises that will quickly get you genuinely painting with expression, depth, and know how.
Healing Words (10/19/04, Vol. 2 No 21)
Last week I attended “Stone Soup” a 33 year Boston poetry tradition. The guest MC for this open microphone poetry night was Felipe Victor Martinez. Jack Powers, the founder and regular MC was currently in the hospital. Two things struck me regarding Mr. Martinez: his powerful and emotional reading style and one thing he said, “Poetry totally changed my life.” It was clear that for Mr. Martinez poetry had a meaning and power beyond artistic satisfaction. I was intrigued by the idea that poetry could help someone transform so I asked Felipe if I could chat with him a bit regarding the subject. I explained to him that I am searching for the Champagne Life…as were my dearest Sailors and Patrons…and that I would be profoundly honored if he would share his story with us in order to perhaps assist us on our journey towards transformation.
Felipe Victor Martinez is 34 years old and was born and raised in Medford, MA. He is self-employed. He founded and owns a company called Astro Imaging ( www.astroink.com ). Astro Imaging repairs laser printers and sells recycled consumables for laser printers. Currently, his poetry can be found at www.bostonpoet.com .
Jenn—When did you first discover and begin to write poetry?
Felipe—I think I began to write poetry probably when I was 15…16. When did I discover poetry? Probably when I was 21…22…. I actually don't even think it is poetry—I think it's more how I feel. I think it is not discovering that you write poetry, rather, excepting that you write poetry. What really changed the way that I perceived everything was going from just writing poetry to reading publicly at poetry readings.
Jenn—You said poetry changed your life. Could you explain?
Felipe—Well, I started writing because no one would listen. In the situation where I was with my family—where I came from—no one would listen—so, I started writing all my questions, feelings, and trying to read them afterwards and understand it ‘cause no one would listen.
Jenn—This was when you were a teenager?
Jenn—As you grew up did your poetry help you along?
Felipe—I don't know if it helped me along…it helped me get through life. It was an outlet—instead of doing something else that would get me in trouble.
Jenn—Was it rare or considered odd in your family and neighborhood to write poetry?
Felipe—Yeah. Mostly in my neighborhood where I grew up as a child, and growing up in such a dysfunctional family, that my family couldn't explain to me what poetry was or literature. Because of their background you could not even have a normal conversation with my family…I still can't.
Jenn—Why was communication so difficult with your family?
Felipe—There are only three people in my family who have a high school education. There was no ambition in my family. They weren't able to give me what I needed as a child, a teenager, as a young adult intellectually. This is actually why I started writing—because of that.
Jenn—In your poetry you deal with drugs, abuse and neglect. Is this a reflection of your home life growing up?
Felipe—Yes. It was the way that I understood things and by writing I came to understand things a little more.
Jenn—Explain how poetry helped you understand things.
Felipe—When I wrote I wrote in a rant style. I still do, and when I write it comes out as I feel it so when I write I am actually feeling it. So, it's very emotional…sort of inspiration that usually doesn't stop until the end of the poem or rant.
Jenn—Now that your poems are being published and you are reading them publicly how do you feel about your poetry? Do you still see your work as solely therapeutic or are you beginning to see yourself as an artist?
Felipe—Interesting…an artist…in my family…it doesn't seem possible…but so, did an entrepreneur in my family look possible? Growing up it looked bleak. I could have ended up in jail or dead or in a rut like my family. If people want to perceive me as an artist or a poet they can, but at this time I just think I am a survivor of life.
Jenn—How did you go from just writing poetry for yourself to doing public readings?
Felipe—Something happened in my life. I was in a transition in my life, and I needed another outlet to express who I was. The outlet was the spoken word, and the people that I met who understood me, guided me through that transition. I feel like I owe my life to them.
Jenn—Who are these people that influenced you so greatly?
Felipe—First of all Jack Powers who was the founder of “Stone Soup” (see “Stone Soup” column vol.2 No. 16 in my previous columns below if you want a fuller account of this Boston poetry tradition), and every single poet that ever went through the open mic experience. I didn't even know about Jack Karouac, Gregory Corso…Alan Ginsberg…I like the beats. It was through Stone Soup that I learned about these greats…it was like I was put there for a reason. I had very low self-esteem and I realized it was a normalcy between my writing and I. I had a better understanding within myself…of why I was alive.
Jenn—Was it exciting to discover that your rant poems had a heritage…a school…like Ginsberg and Corso?
Felipe—Yeah. After not fitting in after so many years and finally finding out at the age of 29 that I do actually fit somewhere in the scheme of life.
Jenn—What advice would you give to someone who may want to begin writing poetry? Someone who perhaps has painful issues that they too want to work through?
Felipe—Start writing in journals. Start asking yourself questions on paper. Don't feel that whatever you write is silly or stupid or goofy.
Jenn—Lastly, what do you think the meaning of life is? Cheesy question I know, but I try to ask as many people as I can.
Felipe—The meaning of life…(he looks away and grins) I don't want to sound cheesy (he smiles widely), but here was a movie Forest Gump and he said, “Life is like a box of chocolates…” something like that…. You just never know…life is like a box of chocolates…. And the meaning of life is experiencing the unknown.
Taco Time (10/18/04, Vol. 2 No 20)
Okay…I'll just come out and say it…I love Mexican food! I love it. I believe I could eat it everyday. I know growing up in the Central Valley of California has something to do with it…for my brother too lives almost completely off of Mexican food. I think the only reason I do not live off of it is that I have such a passion for cooking that I find myself curious about other nations' cuisines and the creative part of myself cannot resist experimenting. And I suppose I could really just as easily say that I love food from all over the world…but even as I write that last line I balk…nope, Mexican food for me is still at the top of the heap.
The recipe I am going to give you today is currently (I stress currently because I am always making up new tacos) my favorite taco…in the world. It seems like a bit of work, but the tacos are amazing and actually pretty easy to make. Make them with a friend in the kitchen to chat, sip some cold Mexican beer, and chop…Mexican food generally means a lot of chopping…it is not good loner food. Mexican food even in its preparation is community food. Alone, with some really good Cuban or Mexican music I can make this whole meal in around an hour (or less depending). With a friend and some really good Cuban or Mexican music and some cold beers I can usually prepare this in around an hour…but this dish is wildly flexible so I can spread out the preparation and cooking time to around two or three hours…add a bowl of chips and salsa and really the preparation of the meal becomes the party.
The recipe makes around ten good tacos which feeds around four people. I like to add some good quality, boxed Spanish or Mexican rice pilaf, a couple of cans of high quality refried beans, and some sautéed corn and peppers (in which I shall also include recipe below). The tacos are “soft” and served open-faced, but are meant to be picked up by hand and eaten like a “crunchy” taco. Hard-core gringos might have to be instructed as to how to tackle their taco…however, I have found that is usually takes only a brief demonstration for even the most profound of novices to master eating the hand-held soft taco. Simply pick it up, fold it, and eat taco end to end…not top to bottom. The most dramatic and beautiful way to serve this meal is to place all the tacos on a large platter along with the rice, beans and corn in pretty bowls family style. Provide a good array of hot sauces, cold Mexican beer, and salsas.
Mushroom Black Bean Tacos
For the filling:
2 tablespoons virgin olive oil
1 ½ cups finely chopped onions
8 ounces mushrooms (3 cups) chopped (note: you can really mix it up with the mushrooms I normally mix a quarter pound of white mushrooms with a quarter pound of shitakes or some other type of exotic mushroom. However, it tastes just as great with just white mushrooms)
3-4 cloves garlic finely minced
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro (or in a pinch, you can add 2 teaspoons dried cilantro)
1 15.5 ounce can black beans rinsed, drained, and lightly mashed, using a potato masher. Mash beans in a sturdy medium sauce pan and set aside.
2 teaspoons “Gravy Master” (Gravy Master is a natural caramel color product made from caramelized vegetables and yeast extract. Its flavor and color is very rich and is a great kitchen aid. It can normally be found in the sauces and gravies section of any super market.)
For the topping:
10 white corn tortillas
3 tablespoons oil mixed with ¼ teaspoon chili powder and 1/8 teaspoon (pinch) of cumin (have a small brush handy…the oil will be brushed on the tops of the tortillas before they are broiled)
4-5 cups shredded Romaine or green leaf lettuce (iceberg will not work in this recipe)
1 ½ cups shredded white cheddar or Monterey jack or a mix of both
3 Roma tomatoes seeded, cored, and chopped in a relatively fine dice
Lime Crema (1 cup sour cream mixed with 1 tablespoon lime juice and 1 teaspoon lime zest…this is well worth the tiny added effort…it tastes awesome!)
First begin the rice pilaf following box directions. Then make the filling. You can make the filling completely and keep it warm while you prepare the toppings. Heat olive oil in large skillet over med-high heat. Add onions sauté until just tender. Stir in mushrooms, garlic, salt and pepper and cook, covered for 3 minutes (reduce heat to medium). Remove lid and cook until no more liquid remains. Add mushroom mixture plus fresh cilantro to mashed black beans in the medium saucepan. Add the two teaspoons Gravy Master and stir. Note: while this should be the right texture for the filling…it should be relatively “dry” and stiff otherwise it will ooze out of the ends of the taco. However, add around a quarter cup of water in order to simmer and heat the filling stirring regularly. Make sure the water has evaporated before you serve.
For taco assembly: first make sure all of the toppings are prepared in advance before you toast the tortillas. You will want to work quickly once the tortillas are toasted so the tacos are warm when you serve them. This means that the rice, beans and corn should be warm and on stand-by and the table should be set. All this can be done while the filling is being warmed. It sounds like a lot but it really only takes around 15 to 20 minutes. Heat broiler. Then lay out tortillas on a cookie sheet (it's okay if they touch a little and hang a little off the edge). Lightly brush with seasoned oil and toast for 1-2 minutes. Broilers dramatically vary so please baby-sit these…you just want them lightly toasted. Then lay tacos out on one or two large platters depending on what you have. Then divide mushroom filling, then lettuce, then cheese, then tomatoes, and then add a small dollop of Lime Crema. Serve immediately.
Sautéed Corn and peppers
1 10 ounce package frozen corn (or two cups fresh)
1 red bell pepper chopped
1 bunch scallions (green onions) chopped
1 teaspoon chili powder
½ teaspoon cumin
¼ teaspoon paprika
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon oil
salt and pepper to taste
Heat butter and oil over med-high heat in large skillet. Add vegetables, lightly salt and pepper and sauté until hot and tender-crisp. Turn heat up to high add spices and cook until spices just begin to toast. Make this right before you toast the tortillas…keep it tightly covered on stove over low heat until you serve. In order to save time and effort I usually use the same pan for this as I do the mushroom filling…I just wipe the pan out with a paper towel.
Timing re-cap (because actually that is the hardest part about cooking)
—start boxed rice pilaf
—make taco filling
—while taco filling is warming season oil and have brush out. Shred cheese and lettuce. Chop tomatoes. Make Lime Crema. Empty cans of refried beans into sauce pan and begin to heat. And lastly make sautéed corn and peppers.
—set table round up diners
—put side dishes in bowls
—prepare tacos and serve
Last week I gave a Tarot reading along with a brief description and historical account of Tarot. Today I want to talk about the actually meaning of the cards…one by one. The Tarot is actually (and should be thought of) a book of wisdom. The Major Arcana is in a very real way a step by step guide to enlightenment or complete unity with the God-power. The lessons in each of the cards are complex and in many ways never ending. For remember, each card is influenced (as is its definition) by the cards surrounding it. It is a curious book of wisdom in that it can tell millions and millions of stories…involving passionate Kings of Wands or calculating Queens of Swords…it can tell a story of physical Death or a story of a spiritual redemptive Death. Once one begins to truly “unlock” the inner and profound wisdom of the Tarot one begins to see its purpose: a helpful tool for a spiritual aspirant. One also begins to see the true meaning of “divination” in which a Tarot card reader's role is not as fortune teller or entertainer, but rather as spiritual assistance. The logic being that any given event in our life has a deeper meaning and is meant to teach us a lesson or help us along towards enlightenment or towards unity with God. The cards are meant to help us see and understand the deeper meaning of any one event and within that wisdom the cards can help us with how to best act or judge any one situation. Most importantly, the cards are never meant to offer up an “un-changeable” future or situation: meaning nothing is “set in stone” the cards only give warnings or favorable outcomes based on the current situation at hand. If the Querent (the person asking the question) wants to change an outcome to any given situation then the person can…free will is always—always present in the Universe. And it is profoundly important to note that when one ever uses an oracle such as the Tarot that one's inner voice should always take precedence over any reader's advice.
With all that said I would like to begin slowly in my column to break the cards down, one by one, and try the best I can to share with you the lesson…for it is my belief that they are quite beautiful, profound, and yet oddly practical in some of the most mundane circumstances. Today (as the title suggests) I shall be talking about the very first card: The Fool…number zero on the deck.
The Fool is a very complex card—as is the rest—however, The Fool by its very definition, lies somewhat unknowable. The Fool is zero and quite unlike its very deceiving title The Fool represents the God stage. Fools are Gods. The Fool is the point of conception—before any type of differentiation. The Fool represents the pure creative energy of the God force or the Tao or the Life-Force. The Fool is the life force before it is married with flesh to make one an animated human. Its assigned number is zero, which could not be more applicable. Breath, Life-Power, and All-Pervading Cosmic Energy are also terms used to describe spiritual stage of The Fool. In a sense, one must first recognize and have the force of life or God present before one can commence anything: whether the creation of a human or the creation of a business. Its lesson is for us to remain aware that within all ventures, all life is breath. This breath is all pervading and immensely powerful. We can as people create lives of greatness if only we remember this breath…if only we use the profound power of creativity.
The reason the card is called The Fool is because this Life-Force is at the abyss of creation. It is completely fresh and unformed. For it will require will and creativity to become something (such as a child or a poem or a restaurant). However, The Fool is not to be confused with the term Foolish. For a person to be at the spiritual stage of Fool is a stage of great exaltation: for a beginner it signifies a person ready to pursue enlightenment (which is a place of great wisdom), and for a more advanced seeker it represents various stages of creative power and can mean that they have completed one or several “rings”. “Rings” are one complete cycle through all of the Major Arcana. For one begins with The Fool and reaches enlightenment at The Universe, however, as one evolves one realizes that enlightenment has many levels, and it is very important to note that once one reaches the stage of enlightenment or total unity with God then one becomes The Fool….
In a card reading The Fool generally has two distinct meanings that depend on the Querent's question. In a material reading like, “Is so and so honest in his business dealings?” The Fool can represent unknowing. I would usually counsel that the Querent should more deeply investigate the situation—that there are elements to the situation he is not currently aware of—this definition is derived from the idea that ultimately The Fool is unknowable because it is the pure source of energy from which all things are born. In a spiritual reading like, “What was I to learn from my break-up with so and so?” The Fool represents a time of profound creativity. The Fool can signal a time where one can and should begin new things and begin them fearlessly for the Life-Force is not only strong but completely available this availability is often dependent on how open or clear one is to receive it…. Often, after perceived “losses” The Fool arises. For very often “losses” are actually times of great cleansing and very often it commences a time of healing (for the rotten tooth was extracted). The point being that while God or the Life Force is always available to use one must be open or clear to receive it. A demanding and toxic situation can muddy our awareness of this all-powerful primordial force that we can access to create greatness.
The Better Drink (10/14/04, Vol. 2 No 18)
The whole reason this magazine was founded was out of love. Dr. Timothy Smith and I both shared an abiding love for the finest of wine, art, literature, and living. We did not, however, see this fineness couched necessarily in monetary grandness. What was more important to us was a spiritual grandness…and a genuine sense of celebration for all the truly wonderful aspects of life. Sparkling wine for us was the epitome of celebration and union—marriage of both earth and spirit—of both art and science. We both saw a deeper meaning or symbolism in the making, sharing, and drinking of sparkling wine, and within this deeper meaning we saw the inclusion of making, sharing, and drinking of poetry, fine art, literature, and true life stories of passion, love, and loss. And I suppose even my dear old scrappy column is meant to weave all of these ideas into a sort of daily morsel of making, sharing, and drinking.
Today, on this fine Friday I want to share with you three poems that are quite beautiful—and maybe a little saucy. Going to the poetry reading on Monday and hearing original work as well as great classics made me realize how wondrous and soul-grounding poetry can be. Too often, I believe, art and literature is left far behind after one leaves school…and so it is my immense pleasure to perhaps encourage all of my dearest Sailors and Patrons to dust off some of those old volumes and enjoy a little literature this weekend. To wet your appetite I am going to give you a few greats…that are completely sumptuous and grand…they made my toes curl, and I hope they do the same for you.
The Owl and the Pussy-Cat
The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
“O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
What a beautiful Pussy you are!”
Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! Too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?”
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.
“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?” said the Piggy, “I will.”
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.
La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad
O what can ail thee, knight at arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither'd from the lake,
And no birds sing.
O what can ail thee, knight at arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel's granary is full,
And the harvest's done.
I see a lily on thy brow
With anguish moist and fever dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful, a fairy's child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She look'd at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.
I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A fairy's song.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
I love thee true.
She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept, and sigh'd full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.
And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dream'd—Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream'd
On the cold hill's side.
I saw pale kings, and princes too,
Pale warriors, death pale were they all;
They cried—“La belle dame sans merci
Hath thee in thrall!”
I saw their starv'd lips in the gloam
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here
On the cold hill's side.
And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither'd from the lake,
And no birds sing.
Leda and the Swan
William Butler Yeats
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
Have a great weekend! See you on Monday.
Very Simple Very Warm (10/14/04, Vol. 2 No 18)
I have a baby brother and like most big sisters I simply adore my baby brother. However, like all baby brothers mine is wholly accustomed to being babied. But luckily for me he is simple enough to live incredibly humbly until someone can step in and give him something warm and “pet free” to eat (“pets” being little organisms that thrive on taco carts parked in empty lots…my brother admits that virtually all his nutrition comes from eating burritos from his favorite road-side taco cart…he also admits that, indeed, there was a hit and miss quality regarding said burritos: around 20% of his burritos did not stick around long enough to be digested properly).
On one infamous visit, my brother stayed with me for over a month and within that time he underwent a complete bodily transformation as he continually ate fresh, clean home cooked food. And while it was rough in the beginning (for all of us…including the dog), his body did settle down, and much to his surprise found it not quite as difficult to wake up before three p.m. (although I must confess that no amount of wholesome food could inspire him to arise before noon).
And so to you dearest baby brother I dedicate these recipes who when asked if hungry you replied, “JB hungry…eat like storm.” And furthermore, with that absolute grace and innocence of any baby brother when queried what your favorite food was (by your dearest older sister…in an attempt to make something special for you) you responded with: Bake. When asked what specifically “Bake” was you simply answered, “Dude I don't really know. But they have it at my college's cafeteria and it's like Bake…it's just sort of a big pan of baked stuff…the other kids hate it, but dude it's wicked. I totally love it.”
So today my dearest Sailors and Patrons—all searching for the Champagne Life—I give you two of my and my bro's favorite “Bakes”. And while, they are not perhaps high on the “gourmet” ladder, they are high on the baby brother one…and between you and me some nights I have to admit nothing tastes better than a big pan of baked stuff.
1 cup rice
½ cup onion chopped
½ cup mushroom chopped
½ cup bell pepper chopped
¼ cup celery chopped
¼ cup carrot chopped
1 ¾ cup stock (vegetable or chicken)
1 cup milk
1 cup shredded cheese (whatever you prefer)
2 Tablespoons butter
salt and pepper
greased two-quart casserole
Pre-heat oven to 375°. Sauté vegetables in 2 Tablespoons butter (lightly salt and pepper) until very tender. Combine everything (except cheese) in greased two-quart casserole. Baked covered for 35 minutes. Uncover then top with cheese. Continue to bake for an additional 10 minutes. Let stand for 5-10 minutes before serving.
Makes 2-3 main course or 4-6 side-dish servings depending on how much your brother can eat.
12 oz. pasta (ziti)
1 30-26 oz. jar favorite pasta sauce
12 oz. skim mozzarella shredded
1 16 oz. container low-fat whipped cottage cheese
2 beaten egg whites
2 Tablespoons parmesan cheese
3 medium zucchinis cut in 1 inch cubes
3 garlic cloves finely chopped
2 teaspoons dried basil
1 Tablespoon olive oil
greased 13” X 9” casserole pan
Preheat oven to 375°. Cook pasta according to package directions (al dente style…do not overcook). Sauté zucchini in olive oil (lightly salt and pepper) over med-heat for six minutes adding dried basil and garlic for the last two minutes. Combine egg whites, cottage cheese (note: if you cannot find whipped cottage cheese than whirl regular cottage cheese for a few seconds in a blender or food processor to create a fine-curd cheese. Do not however over whip it…you want some remaining curd) and the two tablespoons parmesan cheese.
Pour pasta sauce, ziti and zucchini into casserole and thoroughly combine. Next dollop the cottage cheese mixture onto casserole making sure to push some of the cheese down into the pasta (you do not want it all sitting on top). Then sprinkle the shredded mozzarella over dish, and like the cottage cheese, make sure to push some of the cheese down into the pasta. Bake uncovered for around 30 minutes. It should be bubbly and very lightly browned. Let sit 5-10 minutes before serving.
Serves 4-6 (again depending on how much your baby brother can eat)
Tarot Reading (10/13/04, Vol. 2 No 17)
Socrates was a big proponent of divination, and so, dear readers, am I. His reasoning was thus: A man can find and marry a beautiful woman with every fine quality imaginable—this is Reason. However, a man cannot know whether or not he will have a happy life and marriage with said woman—this is Fate (an only the gods know situation). Socrates strongly believed that man should employ both tactics—reason and divination—if one wants to live a successful and productive life. Conversely, however, as Socrates warned against the conceit of acting on pure reason, he had a similar warning regarding divination. Socrates had sharp words for those who use divination when reason should be employed. In other words, do not bother the gods with things you can handle on your own.
Today, for my column I have decided to act as High Priestess and do a little divination for everyone. I am going to use the Tarot cards for my reading. And while I in no way claim the title of Adept I will say that I have been reading cards for over nine years and within that time I believe I have at least gained some insight. The Tarot consists of 78 cards. Twenty-two of them are called the Major Arcana cards. The remaining 56 are the Minor Arcana cards. The Major Arcana cards are both numbered (0-21) and titled: the Fool, the Empress, the Lovers, Death, etc. These cards are essentially the major life lessons that one must undergo in order to attain complete enlightenment. In a reading they usually signify the deeper significance to any one event. The Minor Arcana are much like normal playing cards. Like playing cards they are divided into four suits: Wands (clubs), Cups (Hearts), Swords (Spades) and Pentacles (Diamonds). And like playing cards each suit has court cards: King, Queen, Knight, and with the Tarot there is an additional card: the Page, which is the card for children, unmarried women (usually under 30) and for communication (letters, telephones calls visits etc…).
While the history of the Tarot is still quite obscure a few things are known about it. It originated thousands of years ago and is directly related to a system of theosophy known as the Quabbalah (yes, that Quabblalah—Madonna's Quabbalah). The Quabbalah is the name of the Jewish oral tradition or esoteric doctrine. Many people also believe that the Tarot perhaps has shared roots with the I-Ching or Book of Changes, which is the ancient Chinese oracle. The first known decks that are in their current form emerged in Italy around the fourteenth century and were used in a game called Tarocci. In fact, today Italian playing cards still use the symbols of Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles verses the clubs, hearts, spades, and diamonds of American playing cards. The French word for Tarocci is Tarot and there we get the Tarot cards.
My question: “What lesson or advice do all who read my column on Wednesday, October 13, 2004 need?
The answer: The Four of Cups, The Four of Wands and The Knight of Pentacles
When reading cards I often like to pull a little cluster because the meaning of each card is relative to the cards that surround it. Single card readings are great when you want a clear, simple response. However, generally speaking situations are usually complex and involve many aspects. Multiple card readings are wonderful at encompassing many people and aspects to any one dynamic. Today's cards are interesting in that they are very related in spirit. The Four of Cups is a card with several meanings (as do all the cards), however, sitting next to The Four of Wands and The Knight of Pentacles its meaning becomes clear. The Four of Cups is a card for pause and contemplation or enjoyment (it can in some cases mean a dissatisfaction with one's material success, however, sitting next to The Four of Wands and the Knight of Pentacles such is not the case). The Four of Wands is a card for completion and success (all fours represent some type of consolidation). The Knight of Pentacles represents the time for a slow, methodical, conservative approach. In this case the message is thus: for right now enjoy the level of sweetness life has to offer and do not try to push it any further. Essentially, The Four of Cups represents a time of pleasure that if pushed any further will become oppressive and rot. It is usually a call to count one's blessings and not be overly demanding. It is a definite call to not over tax the people in one's life with increased emotional or physical demands. In a way these cards are saying the love surrounding you is quite good and if you push things any further the other parties are going to feel upset and feel you are pushing them or the situation too far. This is not the time to “milk it for all it's worth”. Any further “milking” at this time will definitely kill the cow.
Stone Soup (10/12/04, Vol. 2 No 16)
Just last night I attended a Cambridge/ Boston institution: Stone Soup. Stone Soup is a weekly poetry event that includes all comers as well as a featured poet. To read one simply signs up. Stone Soup was founded 33 years ago by Jack Powers and within its history has shined such poetic greats as Alan Ginsberg. The open poetry night is held every Monday and not once has a day been missed. In fact, the guest host, Felipe Victor Martinez, told me that once they were kicked out of a local venue, The Middle East, and the crowd remained undeterred. They reconvened on the streets outside (there were over fifty people) and continued to recite poetry. Currently, the poetry night (that is open to all) is being held at the Out Of The Blue Art Gallery, 106 Prospect Street, Cambridge, MA 02139, (617) 354-5287, www.outoftheblueartgallery.com .
For those of you who do not know, I will tell you the fable behind “Stone Soup”. Once upon a time two very holy, yet very tired travelers found themselves unable to continue for they were exhausted and hungry, and the sky had grown dark. The monks were very poor, and had no money for food. However, the neighboring town in which they had settled just outside of was also extremely poor, so the two monks decided to try to fall asleep without food for they did not feel good about asking for alms in such an impoverished place. One of the monks had an idea. He decided to fill a pot with water and a few large stones in which they could at least pretend they were preparing a splendid meal. One of the villagers witnessed the pitiful site of the two monks pretending to make soup and told the rest of the villagers about what he saw…the stone soup. In no time at all, word spread all over town and the people began to come out of their houses. Each household brought a tiny morsel of food and threw it in the pot with the stones the monks were tending. Gradually, the pot became quite full and fragrant. The monks then beckoned the towns' people back to the pot and take part in some of the lovely soup. No one had had enough food to feed them selves or their families properly, yet, with everyone throwing in just a handful of something together the village created a beautiful, healthy soup.
The poetry reading tonight fully deserved its name. It began for me (for I was a half hour late) with an older gentleman reading a poem about the IRA. His reading style was both warm and loud. His glasses were thick and his clothes revealed nothing…one would have never guessed that he was a poet. He also (later on) manned the camera—Stone Soup is recorded for local community access cable. I remember one thing really clearly about his last poem—after September 11 th it seems that many atrocities that were not September 11 th related have been forgotten—and yet all the death, sadness, and cruelty remains.
Next rushed in the MC (whom I later realized was named Felipe Victor Maritnez). Felipe was filling in for the founder Jack Powers. Not yet knowing he was the MC, Felipe sort of rushed to the podium and commenced a wild, unannounced poem. It was not his but from a book. His book was heavily worn. It was book marked with several slices of paper and post-it notes. It was cradled with much worship. He never took his eyes off the book. Jack Karouac was the beloved.
The next guy wore political—but comical buttons on his shirt. He showed us pen and ink drawings of President Bush and Senator Kerry. He read his poetry like an earnest machine. His buttons on his shirt were earnest. His drawings were earnest. He wore a large silver skull-ring on his pointer finger. He hosts a Movie Night on Friday at the gallery and mentioned he makes movies and wants others to bring their movies to the Movie Night on Friday.
The next poet was the night's feature poet. He began with a little bit of improvisational comedy. He played out three different “characters” and playfully heckled the crowd. His countenance shifted into a maudlin poet, and he (I think in his true self) read aloud a poem by the French poet Paul Valery. First he read the poem in French then he read it in English…his own translation. He was currently working on a book of Valery translations. He was clearly, potently in-love with Valery. He included some of his other poems. Managed to generate good laughs from a send up of Bank of America through the voice of Walt Whitman.
As the poets unfolded (for there were more than I have space to mention) I noticed a few things that just about all the poets had in common. First, they were all male…including the entire audience. Until much later ( I'll get to that in a minute), I was literally the only woman in the building. All of the poets were holding beloved books of poetry with a complete and abiding love. All of the poets wore complicated, considered clothes. Tweed suits! Yes, suits these poets wear!
Lastly, she came in. She wore a snug red sweater and black jeans. She wore rings on every finger. Her hair was thick and wild. She walked in with a lovely, enormous dog that looked just like a polar bear. She was to anchor the evening. She was the last to go. She took off her shoes and read in her socks. They were slightly faded black. Immediately she spoke about sexual abuse and her personal abuse history. Her honesty at once awakened and burned, and yet I could not help but feel a breath of relief from such absorbing honesty. One does not find this type of honesty everyday. It hurts. It makes one feel close to humanity. Her poetry scared the crap out of me. She did not spare a soul. Her eyes were as thick and wild as her hair. Her husband, the owner of the gallery, had stroked her hair sweetly before she read. Deborah M. Priestly was her name.
Every town has an “open mic night”. The poets came from all walks of life and sported all lines of age and experience on their faces. It felt profoundly richer than going to a movie. There was something so special and amazing seeing these people share with as much honesty as they could. So today it is my suggestion that you check out your local area for a poetry night…for they could use the morsel for their pot…whether with a poem or with a small (usually around five dollars) donation. I assure you the meal you will receive in return will be far more delicious and far more nutritious than the tiny “morsel” of five dollars or the sharing of a favorite poem (written by yourself or someone else) that we all keep just a little too tight in our pockets.
Interview with a Poet (10/7/04, Vol. 2 No 15)
Thinking that new people bring a sort of fresh perspective to our lives…I have decided to talk to as many people from all walks of life as I have nerve. The path leading to the Champagne Life, I believe, has many swerves and many complications. My theory is that perhaps—that just maybe—if we all came together and shared our voice our visions then maybe we can help each other reach the golden shores of the Champagne Life.
Today I am speaking with David Sirois who is a poet and a performance artist.
Jenn—When did you first begin writing poetry?
David—When I was ten years old.
Jenn—That was pretty early…what made you begin to write?
David—Fran Chasse, my fifth grade language arts teacher introduced me to the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, and gave us writing assignments she would assign us the writing of one poem and I would write ten.
Jenn—In the beginning what drew you to writing the form of poetry?
David—The practice of poetry is liberation. You don't have to tell a story. You don't have to use a formal format. You can write whatever God wills.
Jenn—How much do you think writing poetry affects the way you see the world?
David—One time I fell into a deep cement hole while trying to put my bike in a safe place. When I woke up from my concussion, a half-hour later I said two things. First, I said, “Helen because love is my life blood. Second, I looked at the dark gray leaves pressed against the black silk sky embroidered with silver stars and I said out loud, “Poetry, poetry, everything is poetry.”
Jenn—How would you compare the difference between someone reading poetry—quiet and alone with a book—verses someone listening to poetry being read live?
David—I don't know about anybody else, but I feel the Lord coursing through me when I read aloud. I do everything from memory, I let go of my body and I let the Lord speak through my lips. If anyone thinks that's a weird thing to the say, I would tell them I live to serve, and (he then say's I would rather use the & like William Blake used to use) (He then lulled a lot and asked me to re-read the questions and his response.) I live to serve and God moves me to speak.
Jenn—You are also a performance artist…what type of performance do you do?
David—Andy Kaufman's Theater of Life. When I am in public, I enjoy making voter registers and bank clerks laugh until they lose their balance and wet their pants. I talk to strangers everyday, and comedic experiments. They are the unknowing canvas in which I paint my bizarre human experiments. Although they may sound like props, everyone is a divine entity whom I worship as a form of my inner Self.
Jenn—Do you see a connection between your poetry and your performance art?
David—Not a chance. In poetry my only standards are Dante, Shakespeare, and Janneshwar Maharaj and so my poetry is better than anything else I do. My performance is inspired by divine experiments. I am trying to make myself smile, while making everyone else lose their inhibitions and brake down into hysterics.
Jenn—What can a non-poet learn from a poet?
David—Joie de Vivre. Life does not taste as sweet to a non-poet.
Jenn—Can all people then find the poet within? If so, then what is your advice for a person to pull their inner poet out?
David—Yes! Read, read, read, and then one fifth of your time write as if you were naked with a complete loss of inhibition and ambition. Let the Lord speak through your puny little pen. And remember automatic writing deserves at least nine years of vigilant revision. May you drink the better drink of your own ecstatic ecstasy.
This Must be the Place (10/5/04, Vol. 2 No 13)
I just saw a very cool movie: Home Movie , directed by Chris Smith. Home Movie is a fascinating and quietly touching movie about the home of the true individual. The film profiles four eccentric (though one suspects wise) people, and their even more eccentric homes. The direction of the movie is spare—almost modest—allowing the viewer to think as they listen and watch, and as we learn more about the history and construction of these unique homes we also learn about the history and construction of these unique people. At first one wants to laugh off these people and their wild home-building decisions, however, as the time rolls one finds their mind quite settled into a deep sense of compassion and yes, relation. These people built their homes out of experience and history as do we all…and it was in this that made me love and find dear, humans on a profound level. To be sure if you find yourself down on mankind…after perhaps a terrible day…this would be a great movie to rent.
I have a girlfriend who always was going to all sorts of teas, Tupperware parties, and other home events. I once asked her why she did. She replied that she absolutely loved going into people's houses—that she always would angle any type of visit she could—with friends and strangers alike. For her peoples' houses were her favorite forms of art.
I have another friend who is a neat freak. He spends a great deal of his time cleaning. When you come over to his home you have to take off your shoes. Throughout any visit with him at his house he always finds at least three or four occasions to tidy up. At first it is unnerving, but after a while it just becomes him. His dance. And even later one finds them selves a participant. I remember finding a tiny patch of cobwebs in a very remote corner of a bookshelf and informed him immediately. His eyes got really wide and he burst out laughing. He immediately, with unabashed joy, grabbed his cleaning caddie and off we went…together…arm and arm ridding the house of webbus cobbus.
I have another friend who is a poet and a professor. His house was the dirtiest—messiest—cat overran establishment I had ever been to. Books, papers, cat toys, dirty dishes, cups, mugs, and of course bushels and bushels of cat hair were on every conceivable surface imaginable. He had three large cats in a tiny one-bedroom apartment. Odd notes though: it did not smell in there, he served rather nice wine (in dingy highball glasses), and he was outrageously wonderful company. The bathroom floor was at least (and I am not kidding) one inch deep thick with cat litter. And I could never find the courage to enter the kitchen. A few times I espied it—there was a long naked bulb that hung over his kitchen table that was so piled high with garbage that the bulb almost rested on the dried food. Yet, it did not smell in there, he served rather nice wine (in a chipped teacup sometimes), and he was outrageously wonderful company. Once I told him that his place was disgusting and he churlishly answered that his jazz musician friend who lived in the woods up in Pennsylvania, kept his house far far worse and it was that house that he (my poet and professor) held his gage. So, he reasoned that his home was actually tidy. I could not really come up with a good rebuttal, and to be honest I would never want to.
My old hairdresser (and friend) once lived in the tiniest house I had ever seen. It literally could not have been over 10' X 10' total. This total included a bedroom, a bathroom, and a little kitchen. He would actually have the nerve to throw parties in his little stucco bungalow. They were always interesting or intimate or uncomfortable. It really always depended on where you were sitting. For always there were two people to every seat, which meant that at any given time either someone was sitting on your lap or you were sitting on theirs.
I have had to say good-bye to countless people in my life. And it is not lost on me that the people who still almost daily sit in my mind and heart lived in some of the more eccentric dwellings…because true originals created them.
My point is not to argue that we should all go for extreme homes. I suppose my point is two-fold: that we should not be so closed off to those hardy individualists that challenge our sense of what is good or proper, and that there is some wisdom to genuinely expressing through our material surroundings who we really are…allowing ourselves to settle even deeper into the hearts and minds of the people who we meet.
In essence, perhaps we should all lighten up a bit and have a little more fun with our selves and our surroundings. Hey, it worked for Walt Disney and Hugh Hefner—think of all the people in whose hearts they reside.
Mema's Home Cooking (10/4/04, Vol. 2 No 12)
One year I gave out for Christmas homemade cookbooks. I filled the cookbook with a combination of my own recipes and my favorite recipes from various sources…from friends to generous chefs to magazine articles. In essence it was a sort of “…these are my favorite things…” type of cookbook. I also filled the pages with funny little pictures and art that I have also saved over the years. The general effect was that of a teenage-notebook for Home Economics class. Some friends of mine not only loved this, but found the format (homemade with plastic cover and binding) in which they would realize a project they had been working on…Mema's cookbook. Mema was my friend's grandmother who was getting a little older…but still completely golden…and still serving outrageously good home cooking.
They did make the cookbook and generously gave me one. It was a touching book. My friends had woven throughout the book amazing old photos of his grandmother and the rest of the family, and the recipes were an amazing collection of serious grandmother cooking. Bon Appetite eat you heart out! Mema shamelessly uses American cheese and Hunt's tomato sauce…. Just over a year ago my grandmother passed away. And with it all of her “classics" many that included crushed BBQ potato chips (as topping…as stuffing…even as a way to pad out hamburgers…for in my grandmother's mind one pound of hamburger was all any dinner needed…even though there could be over a dozen people over). And while at the time I really was not the biggest fan of some of her more notorious dishes, like her pea, mayo, BBQ potato chip, and canned salmon casserole I would give anything to have her twice-baked potatoes just one more time. Actually, I would give anything just to see her one more time. I have tried for some time now to recreate my grandma's twice-baked potatoes (with paprika on top), but alas I have not been able, and I truly wish I had done what my friends so wisely had: make a cookbook of those beloved ol'grandma's and great aunt's home cooking. Because it is my guess that while I could not ever bring my grandma Janet back bringing her potatoes back would feel a little like she was.
And not to make my mom cry, but I just have to send out a wish list and a latent compliment to some dear ladies who are no longer…. To grandma Janet I shall miss your potatoes and your depression-era fearlessness regarding home cooking. To Great Auntie Della I would give anything in the world to have your lemon meringue pie just one more time…and now that I am over twenty-one I would also like some of “that tea” of yours…that I believe was rumored to stand around 80 proof. To Great Auntie Edith you were one of the Queens of the Kitchen and I owe a great deal of my passion of cooking to you. Your lemon cake, every cookie you ever made, and your lemonade with tons of fresh mint still alludes me…oh do I wish I had written down your recipes! And to Grandmother Barnick…your home made scalloped potatoes with celery seeds still cannot be reproduced…and yet I would die just to have you come over with an enormous batch of it. Ladies I salute you. Your art is dying…rarely can I even find the tools that you used with such love…the casserole that one could bathe babies in it was so big, the electric fry-pan that was huge and square, and the stock pot that could make soup for fifty.
So, with all that said it is my suggestion today that you get your parents, aunts, grandparents and siblings on the phone and start collecting these dishes because over time they will not be around for Sunday dinner, but perhaps if their signature dish was life would feel a little bit grander and a lot more comforting.
Enclosed below is a recipe from my friend's cookbook entitled Mema's Italian Home Cooking Recipes. I made it for a couple of handsome gents…a poet and a scientist…and we all loved it. Thanks “you know who you are” for letting me share this delicious dish.
1 basket of large mushrooms
3 cups of soft bread crumbs (fresh bread chopped in a blender)
½ cup chopped parsley
½ cup olive oil
¼ cup of tomato sauce (diluted with ½ water)
3 tablespoons of pine nuts
3 cloves of garlic
dash of salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 350. Wash mushrooms thoroughly and pull off all of the stems. Finely chop the mushroom stems, parsley and garlic; place in pan with a ½ of olive oil and sauté lightly. Place the sauté mixture in a bowl and combine with bread crumbs, tomato sauce, pine nuts, salt and pepper. *Note: add a little more olive oil if mixture feels dry. Fill each mushroom with a heaping amount of stuffing and place in a greased baking pan. Bake until mushrooms are brown (approximately 30-45 minutes).
Heavy Users (10/1/04, Vol. 2 No 11)
Yesterday, a friend of mine out in California emailed me and told me she made and enjoyed my “Soap Opera Soup” (thank you), and also told me about a movie she and her husband had just watched. She suggested that it might be good for my column. So, that morning I went out and rented the movie. And I will say this: not only was this a great movie to write about it is an important movie to see. And it is my suggestion today that not only everyone see this movie, but they (like my friend) should email someone and tell them to watch the movie as well. The movie is entitled Super Size Me—A Film of Epic Portions, directed by Morgan Spurlock. Besides the fact that it won Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival, and is actually, an amazingly entertaining film, Super Size Me is…well…quite frankly…terrifying. Morgan Spurlock wants to know if fast food—specifically McDonald's is bad for you—and if it is then how bad for you is it? So he contrives an amazing experiment: for thirty days he will eat nothing but McDonald's, and then have a complete medical examination to see if there were any changes in his health—which when the experiment begins is impeccable. For me two main things struck me as I watched the film: the way it affected his health and the profound involvement of children with McDonald's.
When the movie starts out, and to be honest, throughout most of the film, the all in all tone is concern and query mixed with a great dose of humor. Immediately the viewer likes Morgan Spurlock. He is handsome, funny, witty, and not as evangelical-health-food-nutty as one might expect. In fact, one of the more refreshing moments is when he himself admits he likes McDonald's food. This is wonderfully tandemed by his vegan chef girlfriend who is not happy with his experiment. However, she too remains more light than sanctimonious, and her genuine care and concern for her boyfriend far outreaches an ethical or health platform she might have. They do have one memorable disagreement regarding vegetarianism where he admits he cannot give up ham and she equates ham with heroin. He refutes this heartily—but with much laughter. However, what is not funny is what McDonald's begins to do to his health. And his doctor's immense concern (to the point of ordering him off the diet) is neither light nor subjective. By day twenty-two his health takes on a very grave turn, and he is ordered by his doctors to cease his experiment. Morgan decides not to which on one side makes the movie frightening to watch—for one genuinely likes him—and yet on the other side one begins to understand a deeper point. The deeper point (at least for me) is that for many Americans (particularly children…but I'll get to that in a minute) fast and overly processed foods such as chips and candy are daily dietary staples, and while they may not know how dire their health situation is (for who has a panel of doctors monitoring their health regularly) they certainly will not cease their “dietary experiment” (which is really what this nightmarish modern diet is) after thirty days and with this, a wave of general fear for Americans begins to slowly creep up.
The general fear for Americans, however, transforms to anger when the movie tackles the relationship between fast food and children. And I will tell you right off the bat that after some contemplation, my early reaction to point fingers at corrupt fast food companies with their billions and billions of dollars spent marketing towards children, and (which really got my blood boiling) the serving of fast and junk foods in school cafeterias I began to realize one very, very important thing: it is all of our fault. The massive and immensely grim statistics regarding children and obesity—including the estimations of early onset Type II diabetes and heart disease—is not some work of a few evil geniuses. I came to see it is the work of a whole society that has not placed our children and their well-being in the forefront. This macabre transformation of the standard American diet did not happen over night…nor did the continuation of junk-food-friendly legislation…we all remember when President Reagan pushed for and won the battle to allow ketchup to be counted legally as a vegetable in school lunches. In case you are wondering, ketchup is fiber-free and packed with vinegar, high fructose corn syrup, and corn syrup. Yet, Reagan was able to pass this because he claimed it would be better for profit—which in turn is necessarily good for the economy—which in turn is necessarily good for the people of America. Now, we have coming upon us what both the government and the CDC recognize as one of the deadliest and most expensive epidemics ever: obesity including all of its related killers. Has this really all been good for America? And what is most sad that beyond the extraordinary resource burden this wave of obese Americans and most depressing, children, will bring is the human loss.
Astoundingly, Super Size Me tackles this subject with humanity, humor, and strength. Any other person (including myself) most likely would not have been able to keep this movie from becoming an all out anger fest. In fact, there is enough genuine warmth and humanity in the film that suggests a ray of hope for a solution. And that solution is basic: take great care of yourself and your fellow man. Fast food ultimately is a symbol of the dwindling worth humanity has for itself. Humans are precious. They deserve to be loved and fed nutritious, beautiful foods prepared with care. If one sees themselves and their families as priceless then one will find it very hard not to invest the time and effort towards lovingly and wisely eating. We as humans have beautiful, strong, and wondrous bodies in which we can laugh, love, learn, and play. And the only way we can find the Champagne Life is if we have a ship of the finest quality.
Thank you Gina.
Have a great weekend! See you on Monday.
Interview with yet Another Better Drinker: Dr. Timothy Smith (9/30/04, Vol. 2 No 10)
Last week I interviewed Felisha Foster our sales and marketing goddess and today I will be interviewing Tim Smith the co-founder and general manager of The Better Drink . I am really excited by this Fall's project: interviewing all the contributors to the magazine. Both to share these people with my readers and in a lot of cases to get to know better the writers and artists that make this magazine possible. Because while I do know some of the contributors quite well…others are as new to me as they are you…and to be honest I have a feeling that even with the folks I know I will still learn from interviewing them.
Jenn—You are “Dr.” Timothy Smith…. Explain what your “Dr.” is.
Tim—The “Dr.” refers to the PhD I earned in Environmental Toxicology from Cornell University.
Tim—Well, toxicology is the study of poisons, and I studied the poisons that we get from the environment around us…more specifically, I studied neurotoxins (nerve poisons) such as pesticides.
Jenn—Where did you grow up? And was champagne a part of your childhood?
Tim—(Tim laughs) I was born in Chicago. Then my family moved to Cleveland, Spokane (WA), and then finally Seattle (WA)—where I spent most of my youth. As for champagne, it didn't enter my life until my teens.
Jenn—Your teens? Talk about a “late bloomer”!
Tim—(We both laugh)
Tim—Oh my gosh…I have to roll that back…until my teens…. Unless you consider my dad's and his friend's fondness for cold duck…which I remember as a little kid.
Jenn—I think we would need an outside party to call that one. However, let's return to your teen years.
Tim—I mean it sparkled, and it was red wine. (I tell him to go back to his teen years.) But I remember a family friend named Dr. Lempert bringing real French champagne to our house as a dinner gift when I had just turned thirteen.
Jenn—Did you have some, and if you did, did you like it?
Tim—No, I wasn't allowed to have any. My first taste of sparkling wine was Cook's right off the bottle among a few friends when I was in high school…(he laughs the says, “Before a high school dance…I remember its explosive fizz…actually I feel a little embarrassed.)
Jenn—Why? I mean that sounds a little “high brow” if you ask me.
Tim—Um…. It really just makes me smile thinking of me and a couple of friends and a bottle of sparkling wine lifted from one of my friend's sister's wedding.
Jenn—What is you favorite television show…of all time? I actually don't even know the answer to this one.
Tim—Wow, that's tough. I can't pick just one. I would say the shows that a group of friends were all excited to get together and see such as: Melrose Place (Tim then turns bright red) not too sophisticated, but really, we had a good time.
Tim—Oh, yeah I love the Simpson's…and Martin. Those two shows always make me laugh.
Jenn—What does The Better Drink mean to you?
Tim— The Better Drink means sparkling wine, beauty, art, literature, and celebrating the spirit of people.
Jenn—Now that you've gone off and founded a magazine how do you feel about what you've made?
Tim—I am very excited about the magazine, and its future. I am just amazed by all of the creative directions the editor…or you (he laughs)…have taken. I see a very bright future for The Better Drink .
Jenn—What do you think the meaning of life is?
Tim—(Tim laughs really hard, turns red and say's “Oh my god…it's six a.m.) Life is a great opportunity to find enlightenment and to have fun along the way.
Jenn—That's it? Well then what does “enlightenment” mean to you?
Tim—Enlightenment means simply to wake up. And I get that from Buddhism, which provides an example of how through meditation and practice one can let go of the short sighted tyranny of the ego. I know that I am a long way from this but enlightenment remains my intention and hope.
Jenn—I guess I will ask one last question…an absolute clichéd one at that…. If you were stranded on a deserted island what one book would you want and why?
Tim—Oh wow…one book…. Probably, Tolstoy's War and Peace because the writing is so magnificent and the story so grand that it unfolds more and more with every successive read.
To This Day (9/29/04, Vol. 2 No 9)
Have you ever had an incident that to this day you wonder what it all really meant? Meaning, you know there was some sort of cosmic significance to the event, however, what the actually purpose or meaning to the event you haven't a clue. No? Maybe? Not sure? Well I have.
The meeting happened when I was just nineteen and a freshman in college at the San Francisco Art Institute. It was fall. The school was tiny and had very few incoming freshman that were actually straight out of high school, so the tiny gaggle of us “green horns” banded together and formed instant best-friend-group-ship. While I lived a few blocks from the school in my own apartment, most of the incoming freshmen lived just a block away from school at Hotel Entilla. The top floor was reserved for students as a sort of makeshift dorm, and the rest of the hotel was somewhat of a clean, but frightening, flophouse.
I was doodling in the school's courtyard with my little clan—all of us sort of chatting, drawing, smoking, and falling in and out of love—when he approached me. He sat right next to me and immediately regarded me as someone whom he had some authority over. He was a tall African American gentleman in his mid-fifties with a fairly tidy, but full beard and one could actually say the same for his dress. On the one side he could have been sloppy, expensive, artist's chic, and yet on the other side he could have been a crazy man. The main thrust of his rant was that I must meet more artists—get to know them all—all over the city and all over the world. Other points included me needing to check out and study as many art books as I could from the library—that was key for any great artist. And then he also gave me a rather lively account of his own artistic rise including his education, and why he moved to Sweden in the sixties (being black there is not so much an issue…he didn't have to be a “black artist” there…he could just be an artist).
In due time, my group had caught-on that I had been fully commandeered, and my friend nudged me and insisted we all go. My new “teacher” said absolutely not…that him and I had places to go, and for reasons in which I still to this day do not understand I shrugged my shoulders to my friend, told her to go back to the hotel without me and stuck around with my may or may not be crazy man.
For the rest of the day I took him around to bars and cafés and bought us food and drink. Almost everywhere we went he knew some of the people. They were all artists, although I must admit I was not so sure about them—for like my tour guide, I could not tell if his “artist friends” were also a little crazy—they all seemed a little “off” to me. However, they were all very nice, and they all shared stories and artistic advice.
It started to get dark, and I really wanted to get back to my school mates who were no doubt having a rowdy party back at the Hotel Entilla. So, I finally breached the subject: my exit. He too said he needed a break from going around town and insisted that he join me. I acquiesced and together we cabbed back to the hotel.
When we joined my friends, who were drinking a great deal of beer and terrible wine and laughing and chain smoking I quickly slipped away from my teacher. I had a big crush on a gent there, and I wanted to find him. A girlfriend of mine stopped me and looked profoundly relieved that I was still alive, and rebuked me for being so stupid and naïve. I then informed her (with some pleasure) that my would-be dangerous, madman was in fact sitting in the hotel hallway…just outside her room. She blanched and then sort of push-walked me towards her room.
And there he was. Sitting on the floor drinking very fine red wine out of the bottle and eating some cheese and bread with a small pocket knife (I do not know where he got the bottle or the cheese and bread…for I was with him all day…but his enormous parka, I suppose, could have held everything…still though it was odd.) He was having a wonderfully heated argument regarding art with all of the boys, and they were graciously taking bread and cheese from his little blade and pouring little thimbles of his wine into their cups. I remember as I stared at them I thought they looked just like Rembrandt's Dr. Tulips Anatomy Lesson . The painting is a depiction of a bunch of medical students standing around a cadaver as the teacher tugs at the dead body's arm tendon. And somehow with the way the gentlemen were gathered around, and the way the “teacher” was addressing them they looked just like the painting…only instead of human the cadaver was art.
My girlfriend and I remained slightly apart from the gents and my girlfriend began talking to me about her crush and all its inherent frustrations. As we gabbed I found myself periodically glancing over to the gents, but I was not all together interested in their debates…I was more preoccupied in locating my crush.
And then it happened. In a very sonorous—noticeably loud voice—the teacher bellowed, “Yes, but you must not forget Schumann! Opus 54 is one of the most underrated, yet important, work of music ever composed. Nobody seems to get this…and yet we all should listen to Schumann.” My eyes froze—widened—and flew over the teacher. He was looking straight at me. He was looking at me so intensely that I knew his eyes at been waiting for the union. He had been staring at me the whole time he shouted his proclamation. He then slowly nodded towards me, stood up and said good-bye. I would never see him again.
To say I was obsessed with Robert Schumann would not be far off. But it is with just one piece of music: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54. When I was a little girl my piano teacher had given me a recording of it, and since that moment, a very intense love affair between Schumann and I commenced. Somehow through his music he had burned a hole straight through my heart. Many a night I mourned the fact that we were born a hundred and sixty years apart…it was tough being a Schumann groupie. The curious thing was that I never, ever told anyone about my little fetish—not anyone. I never played the Opus for anyone. I never mentioned his name.
And so, to this day I wonder—truly wonder—what that day and that gentleman all meant. However, it does give me some pause and some comfort when I think of the incident.
It reminds me that perhaps we are not so alone in this Universe.
Would You Ever? (9/28/04, Vol. 2 No 8)
Just a couple of weeks ago I was out to dinner with two rather charming gents. They were handsome too, and we all decided to dress with some sparkle and give Saturday night a good go. The two gents were very old friends and a pinch older than me, and I was not quite new to them either…for I had known them since I was only twenty.
We had just, I believe, cleared through our opening cocktails, and were awaiting our first courses when, quite out of the blue one of the gents asked me, “Jenn, do you think as you get older you would get your boobs done? You know give'em a lift?”
Now, for starters I shall say that in the “boob” department I was given a good helping…though perhaps not something one could ski down…but enough that might encourage Mother Nature to one day bring on somewhat of an avalanche. And I suppose I must admit that when it comes to tops and dresses I am more often than not prone to pushing the girls up and allowing them a goodly portion of sunshine. So, in some defense of my dining partner, suddenly bringing up my bosoms was not completely uncalled for…stranger things have happened over dinner before.
I paused for a moment of pink-cheeked contemplation…. “Well, while I do tons of push-ups and what-not to stave off sagging…I am rather vain…so yes, I suppose I could see myself giving the girls a bit of a lift when the time comes.” I answered. Then I went onto say, “And my jaw-line…. I really cannot see myself ever getting a full face-lift. I am not too bothered by wrinkles, however, jowls now that's another thing. If I start getting serious jowls, then I most definitely would get my jaw-line tightened up.”
This answer stirred my gentleman friend. “Yes, yes I totally agree. The Blanks (insert family name) all have week chins…and I fear I am going to have absolutely no definition between my chin and my neck….”
And he began to prattle on with what he was going to fix. This I have to admit was oddly sexy and touching. For the gent was finely married to a beautiful woman. Had three beautiful children. He was extremely successful in his field and lived all in all rather king like…and yet…most likely he shall be taking his dinner from a straw at some après-surgery spa in Arizona one day. It was oddly sexy and touching because he loved life and being lusty and alive so much so that he would put aside his macho pride to keep a sort of personal ember glowing. It was rich to see a person, such a strong person, still understand the vulnerability we all have in the face of aging.
This would actually be a pivotal night for me. Because until that question, I must admit I had been rather apposed (almost harshly so) to plastic surgery. And yet, being out in the town, wearing a strapless black dress and curled flowing locks, made me suddenly realize (by his sudden question) that I do not think I want to end all this with reasonable shoes and pantsuits. No…I want to hike my bosoms up until the very end. And somehow my gentleman friend still so young and handsome and right “in the thick of it”, and yet, he too had begun to plan a not so white-flagged entrance into old age, had changed my mind completely regarding plastic surgery. It is one thing to say while you are still quite young “Oh, I'll never do that….” However, I believe it was just at that night…with very old friends…who were even older friends…that I came to see my own vulnerability to aging. And within that space I realized that there were some things (like my bosoms and jaw-line) that I do not think I will be so willing to let disappear forever.
Lord Byron wrote a rather nice poem, I believe, about the passion-hearted who find themselves old, and while I am not sure if the parties who speak in his poem would have plastic surgery…I still find it breathtakingly comforting when I start worrying I might.
“So, We'll Go No More A-Roving”
George Gordon, Lord Byron
So, we'll go no more a-roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.
For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.
Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we'll go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.
Soap Opera Soup (9/27/04, Vol. 2 No 7)
It's Monday. May you all have splendid weeks. Today, I am going to share a soup recipe that I first came up with for a cookbook that I gave out for Christmas. I love this soup. It is a perfect soup to make on a Monday…so you can have a few good meals for a couple days after. During the work-week I am a huge fan of soups, stews, and casseroles because on the one side I love home cooked food, I love the way the scent of cooking fills my home, and I really do not care for take-out or overly processed food; yet on the other side, I work very long hours, can really only shop once a week, and do not have a great deal of time during the work week to spend on food preparation. The soup recipe I going to give you today perfectly fulfills all the above needs. It will make your house smell like a home. It is very healthy. It really only takes a half-hour to prepare (less…depending on how well you are with a knife and a can opener), and all of the ingredients are common and either in your house or certainly at a little grocery mart on your way home from work.
One of my fondest memories surrounding this soup is during my New York days. A group of us ladies, once a week, would get together and watch a week's worth of taped General Hospital episodes. We were all very busy with our careers, and yet we all still had a little “Peg Bundy” in us that wanted to sit around eating Bon Bons watching soap operas. We had a ball! So much laughter! Watching soap operas with a bunch of rowdy, wine-sipping ladies is a lot of fun. I completely miss them and our soap opera nights. We would all take turns cooking dinner for the group, and even though we were all successful women I must admit that we all were very concerned with our figures. So, usually all of us would provide a very healthy, very low-fat dinner for the crowd. Looking back, I wished I had collected all the recipes from our nights…it would have made a wonderful cookbook… “The Low-Fat Soap Opera Cookbook”. I say this also in part because there was stiff competition in the cooking department—all of us were as fond of cooking as we were of “Nicolas Cassidine” (a character on General Hospital)—and that is very, very fond.
So, with all that said I hope you give this a try…and I especially hope you enjoy it on a night of much fun and laughter! Welcome back Salors and Patrons.
Easy Bean and Tomato Soup
very low-fat and very high in fiber and protein
1 cup red lentils (dry), rinsed
1 15.5 oz can Pinto beans, rinsed and drained
1 15.5 oz can Red Kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1 15.5 oz can Garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
2 14.5 oz cans of diced tomatoes
2 14.5 oz cans of vegetable or chicken broth (or 4 cups broth)
3 oz of tomato paste (1/2 of 6 oz can)
1 med-large onion chopped
1 stalk celery chopped
2 carrots chopped
1 bell pepper (green pepper) chopped
2 cloves garlic minced
2 teaspoons Oregano
1 teaspoon Paprika
1 teaspoon Basil
1 teaspoon Summer Savory
½ teaspoon Sage
½ teaspoon Thyme
dash (approx. 1/8 of teaspoon…just a pinch) Ground cloves
dash Cayenne pepper
Salt and Pepper to taste
Throw everything together in a large pot. Bring to boil, stirring occasionally. Cover and simmer for 1 hour or when vegetables are very tender and spices have steeped. Stir occasionally. Serves six very hungry people. It makes around twelve cups.
Note: very tasty if served with warm cornbread…however, any good bread or even crackers taste great with this soup.
You Look Gorgeous! (9/24/04, Vol. 2 No 6)
Some time ago (okay a very long time ago) when I was a student I was afforded the opportunity to teach painting to little kids. I taught at a place called the “Yes You Can Children's Museum”. It was a wonderful little interactive museum nestled in the worst neighborhood. It was intended to function as both a haven for kids from the streets, and as a place for all the children of the community to learn various crafts as well as to learn about different cultures. My hometown in California received massive waves of immigrants from Mexico, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. We worked very hard at the museum to help these children adjust to America and to help American children adjust to their new neighbors and classmates. It was a wonderful, always desperate for money place that was ran by the most saintly ex-(barely ex)hippie I had ever met. For instance, I personally was 100% under qualified for the position as art instructor (for I was only seventeen at the time), but she “dug my vibe” and didn't mind fibbing a little on the pay forms (which were sent off to the California Arts Commission). In turn, I worked half-price and was able to work in a field I was passionate about (art) instead of selling clothes or French fries at the mall.
It was an amazing and illuminating experience for me that summer. Over the years I returned to help out as much as I could and still find soul lessons within my brief, but profound experiences with teaching and later, with being an administrator (she dug the way I could balance the books, do mass mailings, and curate interactive museum shows).
One memory, in particular stands out. I was actually eighteen at the time, and I managed to add a whole month to my spring break with the agreement that I would come home and teach two art classes for the museum. One class was for my four to seven year olds and the other was for my eight to thirteen year olds. In my class with the older kids there was a little Hispanic girl whose art really stood out. I had actually taught quite a bit for the museum at that point, and this was the first time I had witnessed the phenomenon of “true talent”…of genius. It was amazing to see. Certainly, all of the children's work was wonderful—joyful. But her work was amazing…and to see her absolute innocence in the face of her amazingly painted pictures. They stood out as I hung them up on the walls along side all of the other kid's work like glittering, gold-dipped thumbs. I was truly humbled by God's way of teaching art…it was both invigorating and mysterious to see her (almost mindlessly) paint and draw with such inborn skill. I had heard stories of Picasso's early genius in which had inspired his father, who was both a painter and an art instructor, to quit—after witnessing his son's natural ability. However, never had I seen it first hand.
The little girl was nine, Hispanic, extremely soft and sweet tempered (in contrast to her rowdy—though completely hilarious older brother), and very, very poor. Genius or not I knew this girl had a slim chance of getting out of her neighborhood. Soon, work and the desperate need for extra family income would take precedence. And as for gangs and teenage pregnancy—time honored methods employed to avoid scrubbing toilets with mom—I just couldn't allow myself to admit to their statistical possibility. Not for my blessed little star. And in truth, when watching her paint that was the feeling one felt…blessed…there really was something to those touched by God. And later I would learn that the Universe did not abandon its blessed creatures…the trick was however, that we all have to play our part.
One day, I'm still really not quite sure why I was moved to do this, I decided to run after my lovely Hispanic She-Picasso (and her always refreshing bother…who could always make me laugh and reprimand him at the same time) as they left the museum. I knew their father always met them just outside. This was odd, because in truth, I can become very shy…almost overwhelmingly so. I remember going up to him, and then with a strange sense of purpose telling him that his little boy is both adorable and trouble, and that I loved him very much and that you should keep him very, very busy. And then I paused…and told him flat out that his daughter was a genius. I then welcomed him into the museum and showed him her work (that would have rivaled any adults') in contrast to all the other kids. I then told him that I thought she was special and blessed, and that I was honored to have her as a student. That was on a Thursday, my last class of the week, and to be honest, I really hadn't given that moment much of a thought…especially considering their father kept a poker face, and I just sort of assumed it was because he didn't know much English.
The next Tuesday I was in for one of the most touching experiences I have ever had to honor to witness. Even now, I must admit as I write a bit of the waterworks have come upon me. There was what appeared to be a small crowd outside the museum's front doors as I pulled up. A small crowd of children rushed my car (as they always did…no amount of money could cover such a fringe-benefit…they would encircle me and say “Miss Jenn” “Miss Jenn…you're here…hurray!” and then me and my child-cloud would make our way to the museum) and instead of whisking me into the museum they led me to the small crowd.
In front of the group was my beloved She-Picasso's father and behind him was her entire family. Uncles, Aunts, Grandma, Grandpa, and even all of her older siblings…not to mention cousins were all standing outside the museum. These people worked very hard and it was not lost on me what a type of gathering like this meant. The father then spoke. His voice was very soft and had a slight tremor, and I realized that he was actually as shy as me, hence, the poker face. With his whole family behind him, he explained that after our talk about his daughter that the entire family got together and pooled their money…even he said his older children. I looked up and saw the one son with many tattoos and a small baby in his arms, and another son that clearly was a gang member. However, even they came and as explained, donated money. The father went on to explain that everyone pitched in so that they could purchase their daughter some art supplies…. Then with trembling hands the father took a large plastic bag from what appeared to be a Grandmother. He then, as if handling delicate flowers, pulled out the contents. They had purchased crayons, colored pens and pencils, paint, brushes, charcoal, and a nice sketchbook. He then asked if they got the right things. I could barely answer, “Yes”, because I was so overwhelmed by their love.
I do not know what ever became of my She-Picasso…somehow I think she is doing rather well…and as for me? I am still overwhelmed by their love. And since then, never again do I hold back on a compliment…for I got to see that the power of positivity was truly profound.
Have a great weekend! See you on Monday.
Those Hearty Few (9/23/04, Vol. 2 No 5)
I'll just come right out and say it…I love rebels. Not only do I love rebels I believe that not so deeply, lies a rebel within me. Over the years, I have found myself drawn to rebels—whether a historical like Jesus or Joan of Arc or personal, like every single person I have fallen in love with…and mind you duel rebel love is no easy feat. More often than not “straight” folks seek out rebels and vice versa. It's a way, I suppose, to forge a sort of balance. Not for me, however, this outlaw only has eyes for other authentic trouble-makers. And while duel rebel love (between friends and lovers) can be immensely rewarding it can also become a continuous test of wills.
In the 1970's there arose a relatively vast (with estimated numbers in the millions) counter culture movement called the back-to-the-land movement. These were young idealists wanting to depart from mainstream society (and all of its evils) and live self-sufficiently off the land. In the book Back From the Land—How Young Americans went to Nature in the 1970's, and why they Came Back by Eleanor Agnew (2004, Ivan R. Dee), Ms. Agnew writes how and why these young Americans decided to “drop-out” of society, and how and why these young Americans decided to give up self-sufficiency and move back into the mainstream. Ms. Agnew herself was a back-to-the-lander and in 1975 with her two little boys, husband, and a great deal of naiveté, moved up to rural Maine and founded the “Middle Earth Homestead” with another family. The book is a super engrossing personal/ historical treatise on a part of American history that has been reduced to hippie caricatures and the occasional rock-video-like PBS documentary. This book takes us literally and figuratively back to earth. Yes, watching the Woodstock movie can send chills, however, reading about the same hippies now with a couple of young kids having to wait tables at a local steak house just to survive seems to never make the final cut on PBS.
As a rebel this book was a complicated, yet fundamentally enlightening read. Essentially, it was a tale about the rebel and then the humbling of the rebel. Because in truth, very few of the back-to-landers stayed—most finally realized that a life of poverty, physical hardship (including dire illnesses and dead newborns due to a contempt and eventually inaccessibility to modern medicine), and interpersonal strife (commune living seemed to ignite divorce and conflict after awhile) finally forced these rebels to concede that what they were rebelling against wasn't that bad after all. This idea of “a rebel humbled” is a big, but I believe, a good soul vitamin for any true blue outlaw. However, it is not a tincture meant to “cure” or change the rebel into a “straight” person…. Quite contrarily, it is a good morality tale for the rebel to learn how to be an even better rebel—an unstoppable rebel.
So, I first want to profoundly thank all the rebels that came before me. I want to thank Ms. Agnew for all her courage in admitting she missed indoor plumbing over her hippie ideals and was tired of constant daily toil—from hand washing all of the family's clothes to hauling water through the woods of Maine. And to all the other brave, idealistic back-to-the-landers of the 1960's and 70's—I applaud you and am grateful for you for at least trying—and in your mistakes hopefully a new generation can learn…. So, with all that said, here is a list of rebel do's and don'ts that I believe will aid in the success of any rebel's future counter culture schemes:
—Have a good amount of money before you begin. A good rebel knows to remain “straight” until proper funds are achieved. Girls wear bras and shave. Boys shower and refrain from philosophical tirades…especially around co-workers.
—Have a brand-new, very reliable SUV. Get straight A's in college and beg your parents for one. If past your college years save up and pray.
—Realize everything will cost much more than you think it will and will take (at least) twice as much time.
—Be prepared to “eat crow” with ease and cheer. Locals, parents, and emergency room doctors serve it up the best. But feel good about a little crow casserole…some of these folks offer “knuckle sandwiches” and “I'm going to call the cops cocktails”.
—And lastly, never expect the world to stop while you are away.
While this is just a short list, and I must admit a little tongue and cheek, I will say that I liked this book partly because it was a fascinating subject and partly because it really made me challenge my own sense of rebellion. It made me really question who, what, and why I am squeamish about “getting with the program”. It's important to note that it did not dampen my independent spirit, but rather humbled me…with a renewed understanding that without education, forethought, and humility a rebellious spirit degrades itself into nothing more than blind obstinacy.
So, to all my rebellious, aspiring Champagne Lifers I give you my warmest regards, and a fair warning that one should tread wisely and humbly.
Interview with a Better Drinker (9/22/04, Vol. 2 No 4)
Throughout this fall issue I am going to interview the contributors of The Better Drink. All of the writers and participators of the magazine are, in my opinion, some of the most interesting people I have met. Some of them I have known for years and others are quite new to me. Today, I am going to be presenting Felisha D. Foster. Felisha (whose close friends call Flea) is our new sales and marketing goddess. I say goddess because when I asked her what her title should be she smiled and said, “Goddess.” And I said, “Okay.”
My interview of her took place in my cozy painting studio. We tasted some great Spanish Cava, some great French Savennieres, and a plucky, French Burgundy. Dr. Smith (The Better Drink's co-founder) was with us as we were finishing up a long Better Drink meeting regarding T-shirts (which are coming soon!), an upcoming interview with a Spanish, young She-winemaker who is making some hot new cavas, and a feature Felisha will be writing for our Jan/ Feb 2005 issue.
Jenn—Where are you from?
Felisha—Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Jenn—I know you are not only crazy about wine but very, very knowledgeable. How and when did this passion of yours begin?
Felisha—Mid-twenties…it's strange…I'll just say it…you decide how to write it…. My father has a refrigerator that holds over 400 bottles, and it piqued my interest, and then I just started to read and taste on my own—mind you, not having a clue what I was doing. But after coaching women's basketball at the collegiate level, I resigned and started bartending. After six months I decided to just open my own bar. So, I opened a martini and wine bar…with martinis being the emphasis. The first employee I hired…who ended up being a dear friend…which, later led me to hiring her husband who was a wine director for a local restaurant. Through him I broadened my wine horizons.
Jenn—What do you think it is about wine that has created such a love affair?
Felisha—It's seductive—it seduces the senses. It teaches you to pick up on subtle nuances, which, is a key to a better way of life…I think…in my humble opinion.
Jenn—Besides wine what other passions do you have?
Felisha—Sports, chocolate, salt, and sparkling water. (She laughs.) I'm a strange being wouldn't you say?
Jenn—(I then laugh.)
Felisha—(she then adds)…and people…wouldn't you say? I love people.
Jenn—To you how is sparkling wine different from still wine?
Felisha—That one goes back to seducing my senses…it's sexy, it's seductive, it's inviting, it's engaging…. I think one of the most appealing things about sparkling wine is its range of style.
Jenn—What do you mean by “style”?
Felisha—From the lean and crisp austere to the yeasty-toasty-biscuity style…and don't forget Rosé. I think Rosé is the champion of sparkling wine. (Felisha then goes on to say, “Jenn if you put me on a deserted island, and I could only have one wine it would be champagne…and that champagne would be a Rose…it's gorgeous, just gorgeous.)
Jenn—What is you favorite movie of all time and why?
Felisha—Umm…Jesus…I don't really have one…ouch…”American History X”. No, it might be “Sexy Beast”.
Jenn—I have never heard of those flicks. What are they about?
Felisha—“American History X” is about racism—particularly white supremacy, and “Sexy Beast” is about a retired mafia guy from England who resides in Spain who has been called back to England for one last hit. The movie is beautifully shot…I love the artistic quality of the movie…the way it was filmed. “American History X” is just real—raw and real.
Jenn—Do you think you have described yourself? Would you say you were a combination of “artistic quality” and “raw and real”?
Felisha—(she laughs) Absolutely.
Jenn—With no hidden psychological agenda in mind, what is your favorite type of food and/ or dining experience?
Felisha—A favorite food (she mumbles)…I don't really have one. I do have a weakness for pommes frites. I don't know. I think it's about the whole meal. It's about quality including ingredients, wine, and people. Because I've had some fantastic meals, but the company sucked so they'll never make the list. And I've had some so-so dining and wine experiences, but the company was fantastic, which I guess inflates the overall experience. Ahhh…but I had fantastic meals in France. Michelin one stars…those people know how to dine… and drink.
Jenn—In one sentence tell me what you think the meaning of life is?
Felisha—Can it be a long sentence?
Jenn—(I nod yes)
Felisha—Life is about relationships and connections, family and friends, having fun and living in the moment, and ultimately one should strive for balance in every aspect—which I definitely fall short of from time to time…and I laugh…'cause I always laugh…it's all good…have fun.
Another Side of Denial (9/21/04, Vol. 2 No 3)
What do AIDS/ HIV and the search for the Champagne Life have in common? Well, to be honest I really had not made any type of connection between the search to become whole and a deadly communicable disease. However, after reading J.L. King's book On The Down Low—A Journey into the Lives of “Straight” Black Men who Sleep with Men I came to see that there are other more deadly consequences of denial. And denial is one of the more treacherous dragons one must slay in order to snatch the keys to the Champagne Life.
Virtually every Saturday I go to my local library and pick out six or seven of the newest releases in an effort to find new seas in which I might traverse as I search for the sweet shores of the Champagne Life. Sometimes I can barely stomach the books I grab and sometimes I can barely stay awake. But this week seems so far to be a great, albeit eclectic haul. On The Down Low is a book about DLs or bisexual (or even straight men) who have wives or girlfriends and yet, on occasion, sleep with men. DLs are unique argues J.L. King because they look straight, act straight, and actually identify themselves as straight. DLs also have the dubious distinction in that they are giving their wives and girlfriends STDs including HIV. DLs are so lethal because in order to hide their secret they cannot use a condom with their wives or girlfriends…”Honey, I have to wear a condom because I just had sex with a guy I met at the bus station last night”. And while, the book is about the life of African American DLs, the author is quick to point out that this is a problem in all races. However, the author is/ was personally an African American DL and so his story is through that lens. The author is also a nationally recognized educator and lecturer on HIV/ AIDS and the DL or the men who identify themselves as “straight” and have clandestine male affairs.
What first makes the DL deadly is their complete denial of their not-so-straight sexual orientation. Believe it or not many DLs absolutely see themselves as straight—they usually have a whole host of excuses/ reasons on why they cheat on their wives with men. DLs are often notoriously homophobic claims the author and part of their reason of not using a condom is an absolute denial of the act. J.L. King writes about his own past experiences saying that if he were to put on a condom (at that point in his life) than he would have to admit he was cheating on his wife with a man knowingly and not because he was intoxicated—which was his usual self-excuse—having the forethought to practice safe-sex would discount his “I was too drunk to notice” rationale. He goes on to describe his encounters (along with several other concurring DLs) about the strange, almost trance-like state one goes into when they have sex with a man. This absolute self-suspension adds a certain opium-like quality makes the extramarital homosexual affair even more addictive.
But back…but back…. Back to my earlier statement: what do AIDS/ HIV, DLs and the search for the Champagne Life have in common? J.L. King tells us that he wrote the book for three reasons: one, he wanted to apologize to his ex-wife and children whom he hurt after being caught in an affair…for this book is both an educational text as it is a memoir of self-growth and healing. Secondly, he wrote the book for women. He wanted them to understand that they really need to take great care with who they become sexually active with and most importantly to put their health first. He also takes care to list as many signs as he can think of in which a woman might detect her man is a DL. Lastly, he wrote the book to other DLs. His tact is both tough and compassionate. However, he never candy-coats or softens the harsh reality that DLs behavior is killing innocent women and not to mention the men themselves for part of the DL behavior is a homosexual denial that includes not practicing safe sex.
If one were to take this book and its message out into a more universal scope then one could see yet another pitfall to self-loathing, denial, and dishonesty. If we did not hate ourselves so much we would not have to live in denial, and if we did not have to constantly repair and upkeep our often leaky “denial boats” then we would not have to lie all the time. Young bright men and women would be alive today if they felt safe to talk about sex and most importantly, to feel safe to talk to their loved ones. The twisted irony is that most DLs lie to their wives because they love them so much they do not want to lose them. However, the book grimly points out many true-life stories where the DL ended up burying his wife instead—usually him not far behind.
Lying to someone you love never protects them. And perhaps most importantly, lying to oneself not only does not protect one it can expose one to profound harm.
Fat Girls Know Best (9/20/04, Vol. 2 No 2)
Over the weekend I read this great book entitled The Fat Girl's Guide to Life by Wendy Shanker, 2004. And to be honest, the only problem I had with the book was that it was so exclusively marketed to women, because in truth, all of us—fat girls, skinny men, and guy/ gal beauties—could benefit from this book.
The book from the beginning is funny, honest, and up-front. And while it is a personal, memoir-ish-statement regarding life in America as an overweight woman, as one reads a larger, more universal point emerges: that we as a society are spending an enormous amount of time, energy, money and focus on our image. We all so badly in America want to look good whether it means having a beautiful house with a beautiful wife or slipping easily into a size 2 pair of jeans—either way we are collectively obsessing over the appearance of things and is all this effort truly serving us? Furthermore, is all this drive for a verneer as glossy as any celebrity's teeth actually harming us?
Shanker's argument is that not only is it not serving us—it is actually hurting us—all of us—not just the fat girl that gets ridiculed as she walks past a group of rude teenagers. She is not the only one with this view…and I personally, have to agree with her…. However, what separates this book from so many other diatribes against our image-obsessed society is her realism, compassion, and earthiness. Because while on the one side, I can fully back that the more one prioritizes and devotes time to one's image than the less one labors on (let's say) more important qualities such as being a loving, attentive father or a well-informed voter. Yet on the other side, I still hit my treadmill as often as I can, I do mind what I eat, and yes, I do spend a lot of time on my image—over perhaps, boning up on Kerry's foreign policy. Shanker understands her own inner battle with one's “image consciousness” all too well and is refreshingly honest by admitting her own vulnerabilities regarding her body. Shanker herself admits that while self-acceptance and inner development have become her priorities she still watches her weight, wishes she were thin, and has her “body hating” days as well.
In America today, most of the people that are celebrated are celebrated because they have built simply gorgeous cocoons. Their houses, careers, spouses, bodies, children, and even volunteer/ charitable works are simply gorgeous. And yet, we are never told (not honestly at least) if the said celebrated person is happy, loving, at peace…inner qualities that truly mark whether or not someone is successful…qualities that yes, believe it or not, overweight, balding, old, acne-faced, and modest-incomed people can have and have in abundance.
Now, I first want to quickly say that yes, having nice things is, well, nice. However, as a culture, I believe we have rabidly ran, foamed-mouthed and nearly mad, way past the pleasure mark of beautiful things: from a great behind to a shiny sports car, and in this nearly blind pursuit have confused how things look with how one feels. And it is this convolution of feeling and seeing that is causing a lot of trouble. Nobody is sharing their hearts much—because they don't want to “look bad” in front of others—even to their friends and family. Very few people—women and men included—are happy with how they look. And yet, all of us “ugly people” are still falling in love and making babies. What if we realized that our beauty and the natural laws of attraction are working just fine—even without the six-pack abs and thick, flowing hair? And I believe even with all the misery closed façade-living and self-loathing can bring, the biggest, cruelest misery is all the judgment that comes along with our collective image obsession. Taking the time to connect with someone, and realizing one's finer soul qualities takes time, patience, and the discipline to see beyond one's façade. Yet when one is running them self ragged to spin a superb cocoon this intimate connection is hardly possible.
So, for today, my Sailors and Patrons searching for the Champagne Life, it is my suggestion that as an image judgment arises (whether levied against oneself or another), that one takes pause and considers that perhaps that shell is that of an oyster…because otherwise, we collectively continue to make that shell that of a prison.
Hats Off Old Souls (9/15/04, Vol. 2 No 1)
This column was originally aired yesterday, Sept. 15. Unfortunately, due to unforseen set-backs we were unable to release our new Fall Issue until today, Sept. 16. Because this column is both a salute and introduction to all the writers and staff of The Better Drink, I felt it important to run this column through Friday, Sept. 17. Expect a whole new batch of fresh, hot colmns for fall starting Monday, Sept. 20. Until then, enjoy the new issue and have a fantastic week! JJB
Well today marks a great milestone for The Better Drink and for me personally. For today, our second issue is launched. The Fall Issue has been a great challenge and adventure. Two new sections—fiction and our Marcia Reed Virtual Gallery—will be introduced. Several American wineries have been tapped—our two main features are an interview with Westport Rivers Winery's Rob and Bill Russell and a great American survey of sparkling wine makers—and almost all of the wineries have been incredibly kind and took the time to really talk to us…the little magazine that could. For those of you who do not know: in addition to writing this column I am also the editor for this magazine. A job, I must admit, I took hesitantly from Dr. Smith in the spring of 2004. Since, I have rapidly had to learn (from incredible mistakes and disasters) how to be a good magazine editor. And while I am still a baby-beginner I know enough to say that this magazine would not be possible without the incredible help from many others' efforts. In one of my final emails to one of the writers I wrote, “The Better Drink is truly a labor of love for Tim and I, and a labor of our friend's love for us…I feel so grateful.” So, with all that said, I would like to take some time to say thank you and to personally introduce some really great writers and saints.
To Janet Fallo, writer of this issue's Passion Forum: I salute you. Janet was my writer who said she could not write, and then wrote beautifully. Janet is a great old friend of mine back from the days I lived in the Finger Lake Region of New York. I will tell you two personal things about Janet: she is very funny and laughs more than any person I have ever known and she throws outrageously fun parties. Thank you Janet. And to all our readers—I know you will enjoy her piece. It is very inspirational—particularly for those of us that are not so fulfilled by our day jobs—and yet are not ready to fully let our day job go.
To Anna Luciano, writer of this issue's Hello (of HelloGoodbye). Wow, Anna is very young, but her writing is not—nor is her sense of professionalism. Anna wins for being the most upbeat, on time, and put-together writer I have ever met (including myself). Her writing is wonderful and required very little of my assistance. Anna approached me first just to say she loved my column and then informed me that she wrote a column for her college newspaper. I instantly gave her an assignment and am profoundly glad I did. I am also grateful and excited that she will also be contributing to our Holiday issue (due out Nov. 15). So, welcome aboard The Better Drink Anna!
To Mark Kernaghan…a true sparkling wine champion if there ever was one. Mark is our wine reviewer. I have known Mark for many years, and he is like me—a strange mix of very shy and very gregarious. In more intimate settings he is a bright star that shines above all else, yet in bigger crowds he's touchingly overwhelmed (we really bonded at a wedding where either one of us knew many people—we both felt bashful and stuck to each other like glue). Mark is probably one of the most well read, well traveled, and socially experienced person I know, and I feel both honored and excited to learn from him being our magazine's wine reviewer.
To Dave Brown (or Big Dave Brown as I call him): what can I say? In our fall issue Dave writes the Goodbye (of HelloGoodbye). Dave is also a gifted poet who wrote poetry for us in our Summer issue. Dave has been a friend of mine for years. We bonded through literature. We used to have “literary lunches” in which, we would have a long, wine soaked lunch and read over each other's newest work. We have both grown as writers, and it has been an amazing experience to be his editor and publisher today. I love Dave dearly, and he is someone I definitely talk and drink with until dawn when he comes into town. Dave is one of the most warm, friendly, and fun persons I know. Him being a part of The Better Drink family truly makes us one of the cooler magazines around! Dave will also be writing a debuting new column for our upcoming Holiday issue called “Under the Gold Light—true tales of drinking champagne”.
To Elizabeth Olejyink (a.k.a. Tim's mom). Elizabeth is one of our poets for this issue, and in our Summer issue she not only wrote the introduction to the feature article about Dr. Lempert, she spent hours answering questions and researching all she could regarding Dr. Lempert. Elizabeth has been writing poetry all of her life and has taken many advanced courses in writing. She is soft, and a little shy and it took some convincing to get her to submit some of her poetry. As an editor I am extremely proud to publish work of such beauty and accomplishment, and I shall be dedicated to “pulling more good teeth out of her”. She has been a great moral and financial support (she actually purchased the needed software to build the website), and in many ways we could not be here without her. I profoundly thank you Elizabeth…for everything.
To Robert Slattery—our beloved Poet in Residence. I have known Bob for many years, and to be honest he almost defies description. He is one of the coolest dudes I have ever known in my life. He is at once warm, friendly, hilarious, authentic, generous, tender, tough, rebellious, brilliant, and playful. I have toasted the sunrise countless times with Bob, and I always felt full—not spent, after one of our “sessions”. He is a total jazz-head like myself and has shared some unbelievable recordings and anecdotes involving him or other jazz musicians (Bob is also a drummer). Bob began writing poetry a little later in life than many writers, yet his wisdom and immense life experience shines clearly through his poetry. Bob I thank you, and as long as this magazine continues, I shall publish any poems you give me. I love you man.
To Rose Tolstoy—Rose is our youngest contributor. She is my very best friend in the world, and I love her dearly. I have known her for nearly six years and since the day we met we have been nearly inseparable. Besides her poem in the Fall Issue, Rose has contributed countless hours of “ear time”. She has calmly listened to all my trials and tribulations regarding the magazine and always manages to pull me out of my funk. She is an exceptional beauty and has a curious fondness (bordering on obsession) with bats. Her poem is actually about bats. She is very funny, and so is her poetry.
To Andreas Matern—I salute you. Andreas is our “King Pin” writer. He wrote the largest and toughest assignment for the Fall issue. In it, he interviewed Bill and Rob Russell of the Westport Rivers Winery. Andreas is both a gifted writer and interviewer. He is also a profound world traveler and extremely busy professional, and it has been of great effort and sacrifice on his part contributing to our magazine. I am truly grateful. Andreas also did the interview in our debut, Summer issue. Andreas is a personal friend of mine, and he is a mix of funny, sensitive, sarcastic, caring, and brash…what can I say? He's from Long Island. By day Andreas is a science and computer guy, and by night he is an artist. Andreas has been involved in acting, comedic improv, and writing for many years. He is truly gifted, and both Tim and I are grateful for both his friendship and his hard work for the magazine. Thanks Dr. Dre.
To Felisha Foster—our newest member to The Better Drink family. Felisha is new and has come on board to be our sales and marketing goddess. Both Tim and I are extremely excited to have her on board. She is one cool and energized lady! I had the good fortune of spending a great evening with her, and I had a ball. Felisha is sharp, witty, and friendly. She's also refreshingly authentic, and I could not think of a better person working on our business side. And while as editor, I do not work that much directly with her (like my writers), we do talk and I do know her and Tim's work make my work possible. So, welcome Felisha!
To Fredrik Bergstrom—our debuting fiction writer. Fredrik is a very, very tall Swede that grew up between Sweden and England. He currently lives in England. He is a very old and dear friend of Dr. Timothy Smith's, and over the years he has become a friend of mine. This man is crazy funny. Fred is one of those incredibly kinetic and brilliant people. He is always filled with ideas and observations…and laughter. I love it when he comes into town. Fred is also a gifted poet, and I am hoping I can tease a few out of him in the future. Fred is a courageous writer as his story is a daring and touching blend of non-fiction and fiction. Fred also is a devoted family man, and I rarely meet gents who love their children and wife as much as he does. So, even though he is tree-tall and can fly around ideas with lightening speed, our Freddie has one of the bigger hearts around. Thanks Fred.
To Marcia Reed—I am so honored and happy to show your work in The Better Drink. Marcia Reed, our namesake for our new virtual art gallery, was both my mentor and high school teacher. Over the years and during the time I was her student Marcia has been a highly accomplished artist. For me she is the epitome of a true “Champagne Lifer”. Marcia has chosen to follow the path of her soul—regardless of the setbacks and sacrifices. Her work is now shown in museums and galleries all over the world. Tim and I both were blown away as we sifted through the CDs of her work in order to put together her show entitled: “Expressionistic Landscapes”. At one point Tim said, “My god, we're publishing a Gaugin…” I had to agree. I am so excited to bring to our readers art of such caliber, and I truly hope it inspires many other aspiring artists to submit work to the Marcia Reed Virtual Gallery.
And lastly, to Dr. Timothy Smith—hats off dear old friend—looks like we made it through another issue. Tim is my best friend, and now he is my business partner. Tim has worked tirelessly getting The Better Drink on the map and making it healthy and strong. In addition to sales and promotion, Tim has been an invaluable contributor to the magazine. Not only does he write the Founder's Page and the Art and Science column for the magazine, in this issue (due to a writer backing out at the last minute), Timothy calmly dove in and wrote the Fall issue's feature: “America is Bubbling Up in Many New Places”. There has been some truly tough moments building this magazine and this issue, however, Tim has always ploughed on through and kept his belief in The Better Drink (and in me…no matter how down I was)—which is invaluable during the darker moments.
Thank you Tim Smith…cheers.
And I thank you all my beloved Patrons and Sailors…may you all continue to join me on my on-going search for the Champagne Life. Cheers to you all.