All Together Now

One of my favorite vocal coaches is fond of characterizing people who focus on their own singing to the point of losing track of and/or sticking out from the rest of a performance at inappropriate times as expressing their “individual enthusiasms.” I’m doubtful I would be as tactfully euphemistic. We’ve all seen and, more importantly, heard concerts where one unplanned solo ended up hijacking the whole event, and it’s hard to forget what was so frustrating and embarrassing about it for the other performers and the audience and even harder to remember all of the probably fine or even excellent things that were supposed to be the stars of the day.

The same is true, naturellement, outside of musical performances as well. Our individual enthusiasms lead us to speak out of turn, act squirrelly in the middle of serious events, blurt out exceedingly inconveniently unfiltered thoughts, and generally act like little kids at the best of times. At worst, they make us deeply uncivil, unwilling or unable to negotiate, and self-centered to the point of implosion. Or, more often, explosion. This world does not need my opinion, unless I’m willing to get the rest of the passionate populace to engage in the conversation and collaboration that will make it needful. And in that case, they’ll quite generally be on board with my enthusiasm already and there will be little to negotiate.

None of this means that everyone should think and act in lockstep. What a horrific idea! Most of the great performances of our time are not solos, even those that feature soloists, but rather collaborations with the entire cast, crew, production staff, and audience, at a minimum. The deliberate and thoughtful give-and-take of everyone performing his and her part to the very best level possible is what creates the ideal of harmony, even in times when fruitful dissonance is desirable to throw that harmony into beautifully sharp contrast. Music is obviously full of grand examples of this stuff, but so is life in general. The sorrows and hardships, if they are carefully shared burdens, throw the joys and pleasures into higher relief, and the larger song of human experience continues to grow in beauty.

Photo montage: In the Works

Instead of throwing a spanner in the works, why not find ways to make them run more smoothly together for a more harmonious performance?

10 Terrible Words that Shouldn’t Exist in Any Language

Digital text-illustration: 10 Terrible WordsOne person who hates is a Weapon of Mass Destruction. One who cares and shares? Perhaps the only antidote.

As I recently said to my friend Maryam: poverty—both of concrete, material resources like food and shelter, and of intellectual and ephemeral resources (education, spiritual enrichment, the arts, community engagement, etc)—seems to me to be perpetrated and perpetuated more by selfishness than by an actual shortage of any of those resources. The rich and powerful always want more riches and power, and what they do have makes them able to afford and acquire more and to keep their feet firmly on the backs of the have-nots. Plenty is never enough. The resulting imbalance is as old as history, and rotten as ever. Only those who will speak up and resist entrenched inequities and injustices will have any hope of making change.Photo montage: Wolverine & Badger

The badger and the wolverine have a reputation for being among the most tenaciously savage brutes of all the mammals. Yeah, Honey Badger even has his own meme to show for it. But let’s be honest: no beast of earth, air, or sea has a capacity for vile, rapacious cruelty rivaling that of the human animal. Even creatures of the natural enmity of predator and prey compete, fight, kill, and are sated. They have little apparent ideation of hatred and war to match people’s. A wolverine or badger will fight to defend, or to kill for food, but unlike the human, doesn’t seem inclined to attack indiscriminately outside of its primal needs for safety, shelter, and food; when the skirmish is done as efficiently as possible and the need assuaged, the sharpest of tooth and reddest of claw among them doesn’t do an end-zone dance to celebrate its pleasure in winning but will usually depart the scene or go to rest for the next time of need. The remaining food and shelter and other resources stay in place for whatever creature comes next, hunter or hunted, cousin or not.

Can we humans not learn from such a thing? I’m pretty sure that if we destroy each other and ourselves in our constant self-righteous, self-congratulatory belief that we deserve everything we can get our hands on, Honey Badger won’t be the only creature that doesn’t care.

Nothing Wrong with Stating the Obvious

That which is ubiquitous in my life, the thing that I walk by every single day or experience every time I am in a particular, familiar setting, can become invisible to me. For good or ill, I can forget to notice anymore those things that are so close they could bite me on the nose before I paid proper attention to them. They might be so near I could change them for the better with little effort or they could, if I’m too foolish to do that, turn on me and make my life or someone else’s immeasurably worse for having been left unchanged; good things, conversely, can be so near that I could be uplifted by the mere thought of them if I only gave them a thought in passing.

I must pay better attention. My senses should be enough to remind me of all the woe and wealth that surround me at every turn, and my will should follow my convictions enough to make me respond with a hand of aid, a voice of change, or a heart full of admiration and gratitude. The vast majority of the world hasn’t nearly the kind of wealth and privilege that surrounds me in my life—materially, yes, but also in health, safety, opportunity, hope and happiness—and while there is no reason to reject what I have, it should motivate me to take a closer look around me. I ought to take constant inventory and be willing to counter the wrongs and repair those things that I can, or at the least, call upon those who are able to make positive change. And I should be glad at every sign that states the obvious good in my life. Thankfulness is a small enough part of true mindfulness, but looms large in the world of well-being.Photo: Stating the Obvious

A Glimmering of Sweetness Exceeding All that has Gone Before

This is my wish for all of you as the new calendar year begins. May you find goodness and contentment all around you, and may you in turn share and propagate it everywhere you go in 2014. Peace and abundant happiness, my friends.photoI rarely have an actual Plan for the upcoming year, but this time around I do want to move toward a few specific things. First and foremost, I want to be more deliberate about finding ways and excuses to be an even happier person, and to leverage that happiness to spread it as far and wide as I can to other people. Call it intentional optimism, call it doing random acts of kindness, call it whatever you want, but I think it’s more likely to be good for the overall tone of the year than not, and that alone is worthwhile.photoIn addition, I intend to start making money this year again, however little it may be. I have no delusions of getting rich, but would love to put my own tiny dent in our family expenses, savings, and/or retirement. It’s been a long time since I got any actual dollars for anything other than a present, and I know that, however unlikely a choice I may be on paper for anyone who’s hiring, I will find a way. Or two. It may not be a regular job, or it might be a conglomeration of tasks and sources. I’ll keep you posted, friends, but if anyone happens to have any brilliant insights before I do, chime in; I’m listening! Meanwhile, I’m happy to keep working on increasing the happiness quotient however I’m able. That’s Job #1.

You can Lead Me to Water…

…but I can’t guarantee I’ll be smart or committed enough to take advantage of it. I may represent the truly average human in that, though it’s hardly cause for admiration or celebration. We’re just good at being too blind, stubborn, ignorant, lazy and foolish to make proper use of whatever riches are set in our way. It’s silly enough that I can sit at the brink of a well pouring out pure, cold, sweet water and die of thirst, but that I would fail to fill a cup for any of the other thirsty people waiting for my smallest effort becomes a much more significant omission. I should be better. I could be better.graphite drawingAnd I want to be better. The first step, surely, has got to be simply paying attention. Am I so accustomed to privilege that I have acquired wealth-blindness, forgetting how rich I am, or worse yet, have succumbed to that ugly disease, Entitlement? I must teach myself to renew my awe and wonder at what is good and great in my life. Then I must remember to make wise, generous, jubilant and extravagant use of it all. A whole new year lies ahead, a whole new series of opportunities for improvement. See you at the brink.

Only a Dreamscape will Do

It’s my big sister’s birthday. Granted that she’s already gotten to have more of them than I have, I still wish her masses more birthdays, and not just so she’ll set a good example for me to follow. She’s done that all along, and though I’ve been imperfect at best in living up to her fabulosity and smartitude and funny-tations and whatnot, I’m still counting on her to continue the kindly gesture for ages to come. Having an older sister like her is like going to see a pretty view of the landscape and discovering that all the landscapes along the way are connected into an equally pretty, endlessly inviting prospect full of breezes, candy floss clouds, sunlight, streams, and sweet wildflowers. If I could give her all of this as a birthday gift, it might suffice.photo montageShe’s no billionaire, but she seems to know how to live well and build happiness around her remarkably well, so unless I come into billions myself I might have trouble finding her a gift that’ll knock her socks off properly. Guess I’ll have to settle for loving her to pieces (all of them, hopefully, remaining firmly attached to each other as they should be), admiring her immensely (and that’s not a crack about my weight, wink-wink), and giving her the same old big, shiny nothing that I give her every year (though it’s always tied up with a massive bow of plots for sisterly laughter), wrapped up in good wishes and the promise of a paltry but delicious dinner in her honor when I finally get to see her again. The requisite amount of good chocolate included, of course.

Happy Birthday! Encore, encore!

Foodie Tuesday: After-Math

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Just for starters…don’t forget that previous meals’ leftovers can be reconstructed into the appetizers for the next meal, like what happened with the remaining bone broth ingredients that lived on after soup-making and made such a nice beef pate for Thanksgiving.

A signature of holiday cooking and eating is, logically, a host of holiday leftovers. After all, we tend to cook and eat more of everything in the first place, when holidays happen, so there’s bound to be more food around, and since most of us do fix more of our favorites on and for celebratory occasions, we’re a bit more likely to want to be careful not to waste them. Holiday leftovers are tastier than everyday ones, aren’t they.

So it is that remnants of glorious sweets will continue to lure us into the ever-so-aptly named larder and the refrigerator will, after Thanksgiving, still have some turkey lurking in it too. While a great turkey sandwich is far from restricted seasonally, the grand whole bird in its pure roasted form is less commonly perched on dinner tables outside of the Big Day, making it anything but boring to have the leftover turkey and its trimmings served without tremendous alteration at least once or twice after the party has passed.

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Red relishes are such a nice touch on holidays that when a friend said she was bringing whole cranberry sauce, I decided to add the jellied kind *and* some home-pickled beets for the trifecta.

This year, Thanksgiving at our house was both traditional and extended. Ten of us sat around the table: our musical friends from Germany (why did I write Austria, then?), Hungary, Canada, Puerto Rico, Estonia and the Netherlands as well as the US gathered with our plates of roasted turkey and a fair assortment of other treats and sweets, and though we had our feast the day before most others’, the ingredients of food, drink, and conviviality were the same, and the leftovers equally profuse. My prepped appetizers, turkey, mashed potatoes, wine/stock gravy, creamed sausage, and buttermilk cornbread (the latter two, parts of the planned southern cornbread dressing, remained separate at my husband’s request) were joined by dishes the others brought–Greek salad, squash puree, homemade whole cranberry sauce, and carrot cake and handmade Hungarian biscuits for dessert. My own dessert offerings were the apple pie and Tarte au Sucre.

The Tarte was not only a good excuse for ingesting vast quantities of fabulous dark maple syrup but, as I discovered, when it’s accompanied by salty roasted pecans it becomes a perfect inversion or deconstruction of pecan pie, another very traditional Thanksgiving treat in many homes. I made my Tarte with a crumb crust of mixed pecans and walnuts, so it was perhaps already a variation on a nut pie before the garnishing pecans even arrived on the scene. In any event, it pleased my maple-fiendish heart.

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Lightly spicy sausage in cream makes a good alternative to gravy for the turkey and potatoes, if you don’t end up putting the sausage into the cornbread dressing as you’d thought you were going to do…

The idea of creating a meal of any sort, let alone a holiday meal, for a group of ten people and coming out with everyone perfectly sated but without a jot of leftovers is, of course, more mythical than mathematical. It’s in fact ludicrously unlikely to happen, even if the ten are all people one knows intimately and whose preferences and appetites never vary–also, to be fair, a virtual impossibility–so the question of how to manage the leftovers with the best grace remains. In our house, that problem is never terribly difficult. First visitation of this year’s re-Thanksgiving was a smaller and simpler version of the original, turkey and mashed potatoes, cornbread and cranberry sauce, with a side of buttered green beans and bacon. Meanwhile, I’d already started a slow cooker full of vegetables and giblets while the turkey was roasting, and added the bones and bits afterward, so there will surely be turkey-noodle soup soon to follow.

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Thanksgiving, Round 2–and only the second of many, perhaps.

What comes after? Probably a little turkey curry or a sandwich or two, but not much more, because having grad students and young, single faculty members at table on the holiday also meant that it was rather important to see that they left with some leftovers of their own to carry them forward. Leftovers, truth be told, are really just a new beginning in their own way. Hospitality, you know, isn’t a solo; it requires participation. One person doing it all, no matter how perfectly, is not a party but a lonely and self-centered business and misses the point of the whole thing.

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Ah, do not let the focus on the main meal eclipse all of the good that can follow: a mere creamy turkey soup is a heartwarming way to honor the memory of the great meal that started it all.

Let others partake, help, contribute. And yes, do give to them: share the feast, both in the party’s environs and in the sharing of all that surpasses what was needed for the moment. And share, first and foremost, your time and attention, your companionship and humor and warmth and love. Then there should be plenty of those for leftovers, too, or all the turkey and potatoes in the world will not be enough. Much better, more filling and fulfilling, to be so hospitable that it spills over everywhere.

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The only thing better than a delicious dessert is just a little too much of it.