It’s My Pleasure!

My choice of books to talk about in this blog may seem a bit idiosyncratic. That’s one of the pleasures of having one’s own blog! I decide what books to review. I decide what it is about each book, as friend Mary Dee says, “sings to my soul.” The book I have chosen this time is nearest and dearest to me. I am one of its authors.

IMG_5872Guilty Pleasures: Indulgences, Addictions, and Obsessions (really, we put a comma after Addictions?) was published in 2003. As the introduction explains, the authors (in alphabetical order, Sue Caba, Karen Hammer, J.M. Holwerda, Cathy Luh, Catherine Rankovic, Holly Silva, Patti Smith Jackson and Laurie Vincent) came together as a writing group in 2000. We had been meeting for a while when we thought it’d be fun for everyone to write on the same topic. And so, Guilty Pleasures was born.

Our idea was to write about “stuff we know we shouldn’t do, but we do it anyway just because it feels good at the time,” to quote myself from the book. It felt a little daring, a little risqué, and very much fun. However, the Library of Congress Card Catalog matter-of-factly described the contents of Guilty Pleasures this way:

  1.     Vices
  2.     Pleasure – Social aspects
  3.     Conduct of life – Case studies

Who wants to read about the desires and misdeeds of a bunch of middle-aged IMG_5871women living in the Midwest? That was one of the responses we received from a publishing house that rejected our manuscript. But Andrews McMeel Publishing of Kansas City took a flyer on us, and they have my eternal gratitude.

As it turned out, some 5000 readers were interested enough to buy the book. Guilty Pleasures received positive reviews locally, nationally and abroad, including one in the Catalan language. Forbes put us on their book club list. It was even translated into IMG_5873Portuguese as Prazeres Inconfessaveis. Due to the wonder of internet commerce, Guilty Pleasures is still available at Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/Guilty-Pleasures-Indulgences-Addictions-Obsessions/dp/0740733397) and Google books (https://books.google.com/books/about/Guilty_Pleasures.html?id=A-ACAAAACAAJ).

Rereading the three-dozen or so essays, some only one page long, I think the fact that all eight of us were in mid-life gave these essays richness and context. We were old enough to have “histories” and young enough to be hormone-driven. We were smack in the middle of work issues; love, sex and relational tangles and the usual crutches of alcohol, drugs (mostly legal), food and shopping; as well as some unexpected foibles like rifles, running from the law, a taste for doo rags and the need to be right.

Fifteen years later, I am surprised how frank we all were, especially in the sex-related stories. One reason we felt freer to expose our foibles was our pact not to reveal the specific author of each essay. The agreement was that you can admit to penning your own essay, but you can’t “out” anyone else. Still, I was shocked that I used my boyfriends’ real first names. What was I thinking?

At the time, I wrote because I was feeling the need to be heard. I got fired as a physician by unscrupulous people who ran a cut-throat practice that didn’t care about patients. I wasn’t even allowed to tell my patients that I was leaving. I did, anyway, and tried my best to find them new doctors I trusted. One patient in his 80s said to me, “I’d hoped you would see me through to the end.”

Writing was a balm. I was so lucky to find my writing partners through the St. Louis Writers’ Workshop and our teacher – and co-author – Catherine Rankovic. Most of us were in writing-related professions, such as speechwriting, journalism, advertising and teaching literature, but I was not the only “amateur.” What all of us had in common was a desire to write well. And did we! I am still impressed by how clever and well-chosen the phrasing, how beautiful the metaphors, how rich the language in our little book.

I discovered another reward from having written this book besides having my say. (No, I didn’t become rich or famous.) In many of my readings to publicize the book, I would read an essay or two, then pass out index cards and ask listeners to write down their guilty pleasures. The process was fun and enlightening. I never knew that husband Bill had a thing for writing pens, that Willow (I know better now than to use a real name) had a penchant for daytime sex, and that Pat couldn’t resist buying stemware.

In every session, friends I’ve known for years and total strangers happily shared a tiny piece of secret happiness with each other. It turned out that heartfelt communication with others was even more delicious than the straight reading of my stories. Now, THAT’s a pleasure!

Tell me: What are your guilty pleasures? (You knew I would ask.)

The Joyce Chen Cook Book or Mom, Tofu and Crappies

To us Chinese, there are only two kinds of food: good Chinese food and bad Chinese food. When I was a kid, wherever our family went — Chicago, New York, DC — we always ate at Chinese restaurants. Only after I grew up and realized that I wanted to try local food – BBQ in Kansas City, she-crab bisque in Charleston, SC, or bison burgers in Utah – did it dawn on me that there was something very Chinese in our food chauvinism.

Food is central to the Chinese identity. On special occasions such as New Year’s and weddings, we Chinese don’t go to church. We don’t dance or sing. We don’t dress up in fancy clothes. We eat!!

When my mom came to St. Louis in 1955, there was no question that our family would eat Chinese. It never occurred to any of us to change our diets – to eat steak and potatoes or hamburger and fries or stew. Never. But the obstacles to continue eating Chinese were huge.

       Mom as a young woman in China

It’s hard to imagine now the food landscape in the Midwest in the 1950s. Soy sauce was exotic. No one had heard of tofu. Seafood consisted of fish sticks. Chow mein noodles were crispy and came in cans. My mom had to explain to Americans that wontons were Chinese ravioli.

Mom faced another challenge to her determination to cook Chinese food besides the lack of ingredients. She never had to cook before. There had always been servants, even during the three years we lived in Hong Kong as political refugees from Communist China.  I have a faint memory of Shi Fa, my grandfather’s cook in Shanghai, apron over an undershirt and holding a ferocious cleaver.

Mom took some cooking lessons while in Hong Kong, preparing to take on this responsibility. But she could not have anticipated that so many things that she considered staples weren’t available in St. Louis: fresh bamboo shoots, ginger root, sesame oil, preserved mustard greens and preserved turnip greens, dried shrimp, dried Chinese mushroom and another dried fungus called wood ear, star anise, preserved duck eggs, thousand-year-old eggs and soy products including tofu, five-spice dried tofu, bean curd sticks and bean curd knots, dried and fresh soybeans (edamame.) Oh, yeah, and rice. To this day, I don’t know what Uncle Ben’s converted rice is.

At a store downtown called Asia Market, we shopped for rice, soy sauce, sesame oil, dried Chinese noodles and preserved vegetables in cans. Sometimes, fresh vegetables such as bean sprouts and bok choy were available. We also bought favorite Chinese snacks: hua mei, dried plums that taste sweet, salty and sour; salt-preserved cuttlefish and curry-flavored beef jerky. A special treat was taro, the potato-like vegetable that Hawaiians make into poi. Mom would bake the taro and we’d peel them and eat them straight, dipping each bite into sugar.

I remember how excited Mom was when the Joyce Chen Cook Book came out in 1962. By that time, Mom had seven years of on-the-job Chinese cooking training and had figured out a lot of work-arounds with American ingredients. (Also, her English had gotten good enough to read the book.) I think the Joyce Chen book made Mom feel less alone in America.  Someone else understood her issues, such as how to make the most tender Cold Cut Chicken — poach the chicken; the best proportion of broth and water for a soup base — one can chicken broth, three cups water and ¾ tsp salt; and some recipes for Northern Chinese and Sichuan dishes that were not in her Shanghai cooking repertoire – Peking Duck, Mooshi Pork and Chungking Beef Shreds, for instance.  And like with all cooks, she found it a pleasure to read recipes, even if she didn’t use them.

It was a curious thing. The longer we lived in America, the more American we became in most ways. We drove cars. We watched TV. We wore jeans. But not so with food. Mom spent her time, considerable energy and analytical mind to find better and better ways to approximate the tastes she knew in China.

My folks bought a meat grinder and made ground pork from pork shoulder to recreate everyday dishes that called for ground meat. They found something close to Chinese ham in Virginia ham. I remember it as a moldy, cloth-covered lump that they carved hard little pieces off of to flavor soup. Mom tried many different ways to cook cha xiu – the pieces of red barbeque pork one sees hanging in the windows of many Chinese restaurants today. It wasn’t enough for her that it tasted right. It had to be the exact shade of red.

Oh, my parents were creative in getting foodstuff not available in stores. Dad knew a guy who owned a farm in Mulberry Grove, Illinois. Dad asked him if he would grow soybeans for us. Toward summer’s end, our family all piled into the car, drove the one and a half hours to Mulberry Grove and harvested the soybeans. We’d strip each bush until we had a dozen or so shopping bags full. Flush with our treasure, we’d cook them in the pod in salt water and eat them for snacks. We’d shuck the rest and freeze them for later use. 

The swimming dock at Eagan’s Twin Coves at Lake of the Ozarks

All our family vacations were to the Lake of the Ozarks in south central Missouri. This kept our family in fish for the year. We caught mostly crappie. The limit was twenty crappies a day. We’d often catch our limit — eighty for the four of us. We established an assembly line for cleaning the fish, and then Mom wrapped them in foil and put them in the freezer. When we ran out of room in the freezer of the fishing cabin, we carried our silver packages to the cabin owner’s freezer. On each trip, and we’d do three of them a year, we’d return to St. Louis with one or two full-sized coolers of fish. At home, the fish were stored in our basement freezer. Being Catholic, on Fridays, Mom would steam the fish in soy sauce with green onion and ginger or sizzle-fry the small ones after marinating them in soy sauce and wine. 

 Cathy, aged 10, with crappies

Mom’s attempts to make tofu at home turned out to be a year-long chemistry experiment. You had to make soymilk by adding water to ground up beans. I don’t recall how my mom did the grinding – blender or by hand? Next, she’d cook up the soymilk. She determined that she needed gypsum to thicken the milk. Mom begged and bugged Chinese friends who worked at Monsanto Chemical Company to get gypsum for her. Then she squeezed the thickened liquid through cheesecloth.  After that, she put the semi-solid product into wooden molds that Dad had built.  To further squeeze liquid out, Mom put her cutting board on top of the tofu in the molds and then stacked volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica on top of her cutting board. She went through many pounds of soybeans before she got it right. There was a Goldilocks vibe to the process: too runny, too tough, too stringy, too sour, not white enough.

Mom became a great cook and was known for her cooking not just among the small St. Louis Chinese community but also among our American and Filipino friends. She taught me a trick or two, too. Every time I snap off the stem of an asparagus stalk, I think of her. I check the doneness of pasta by picking up a strand from the pot with my chopsticks.  If it breaks when I squeeze the two sticks tight, it’s ready. 

Mom, totally organized for one of her parties. Food all cut and ready to cook. And dressed already!

I have favorite recipes from the Joyce Chen Cook Book that I make regularly. Cauliflower – stir fry florets in oil with salt, then add water and cook on low until soft – is my go-to dish when I want to eat something filling but not caloric. I cook Meatballs and Bean Thread Soup when I want comfort food. And for a fast and tasty meal, I choose Peking Meat Sauce Noodles.

Mom took up cooking out of necessity, not for love or glory. But, once she started, she went all out because Chinese people really, really like Chinese food. She was truly thrilled when in 1972, nearly two decades after she arrived in America, a non-chop-suey, Shanghai style – Northern Chinese restaurant, the Lantern House, opened on Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis.

Tell me: Do you have a favorite cookbook?

Tell Me A Story

“How can we convince people that we are right?” IMG_5794 copy

“The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

The Overstory, by Richard Powers, a monumental book that takes us across the globe and across millennia of time, contains dozens of overlapping stories. Each of them is a gem. Each can change your mind and your heart.

On page 26 of this near-500 page book, I came across a story that gave me chills. Growing up in the Midwest where there were few Chinese people, I thought my family’s story would be lost in the mist of time… unless I told it. But there it was in The Overstory! Winston Ma, the dad of one of our heroes, Mimi, left Shanghai as a young man in 1948. He sailed on the American Presidents Line’s refitted troop transport ship, the USS General Meigs. He slept on a bunk and was seasick. He thought the food atrocious. He studied at Carnegie Tech and eventually settled in the Midwest. He married an American woman and had three daughters.

My dad, Andrew Luh, left Shanghai in 1948 on the USS General W.H.Gordon, a sister

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USNS General W. H. Gordon (T-AP-117)

ship to the General Meigs. He also slept on a bunk. He was too seasick to eat on the two-week trip to San Francisco. When he arrived, he ate a hot dog that cost a nickel.

Dad eventually settled in St. Louis. I didn’t know any of these details of Dad’s coming-to-America experience until I asked him in 2005, when he was in his 80s and only three years before a devastating stroke left him unable to speak. Unlike the Ma family, my parents were married and had two children before Dad left for America. Mom, my sister and I joined Dad after a journey of our own to escape “Red China” as refugees.

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Dad, circa 1950, somewhere in America

Some other aspects really hit home. One was Mimi’s complaint, “It’s all Mao’s fault…We’d be millionaires if it wasn’t for him.” I too experienced those spasms of bitterness from time to time over our family’s displacement.

Another uncanny similarity to my dad was Winston Ma’s love of fishing. In reading

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Mom and me and Dad’s bass

about Mimi’s dad watching for “hatch – those simultaneous equations in multiple unknowns that one must solve to think like a fish,” I am transported back to our family’s fishing trips to the Lake of the Ozarks. Mom and the girls fished off the dock. But Dad, in his brown, hard-soled shoes, would walk on the pebbly, scrubby shore along the edge of the lake casting his artificial froggy lure, waiting for bass to strike.

One scene broke my heart. When Mimi was clearing out her parents’ effects, she came across a photo: “Her grandparents in Shanghai, in their Sunday finest, holding up the photo of American girls they would never meet.” Dad never saw his mom again after 1948. I never got to see her again after I left Shanghai in 1955 when I was five. (China and the US were closed to each other until the late 1970s after Nixon’s trip to China.)

Mimi’s mom Charlotte and my mom also had a commonality: dementia. On a road trip when the girls get into a fight in the back seat, “Charlotte gives up trying to control them. No one suspects yet, but she has already begun to slip into the long private place that each passing year will deepen.” I have often wondered just when Mom began to forget. Was it when she didn’t object to Bill and me being a couple without getting married? Was she already down that road when she didn’t tell me my uncle in China had died until six month later? It was obvious in 1997 when she started to loop the same stories.

Mimi Ma is one of nine main characters. All the characters have fully-formed personalities and surprising and detailed family backgrounds. In a way, these nine remind me of the superheroes of comic books: the X-Men or the Justice League of America. Like super heroes, each has an elaborate origin story. Like action heroes, Powers’ characters have a range of special talents, some in the realm of “super,” such as Olivia’s communications with the “emissaries of creation” after coming back from being dead. Others are more mundane, like Nick’s artistic talents or Ray’s expertise in patent law. And, like all heroes, each character has an obstinate, passionate belief in their vision of what is right and a determination to pursue it.

In the way that comic book heroes have logos (the bat, the spider, the lightening bolt for the Flash), each one of Powers’ protagonists is identified with a species of tree (chestnut, mulberry, maple, fig, maidenhair, and so on). The nine, singly and in intersecting groups, had all come to the decision that they needed to save trees from destruction due to mankind’s greed and laziness and ignorance. In our rampant quest for comfort, convenience and wealth, we are using up natural resources that were eons in the making. Doug concludes, “We’re cashing in a billion years of planetary saving bonds and blowing it on assorted bling.”

The tactics they use to save trees vary wildly: a series of self-renewing computer games like Sim City but a thousand times more creative; a book explaining how trees are sentient, not unlike Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from A Secret World; a seed bank of every species of tree in existence; planting new seedlings on clear cut areas, Johnny Appleseed style. The protests include sit-ins, putting bodies in the path of bulldozers, living in the canopy of tall trees, and acts of eco-terrorism.

Ostensibly, they are saving trees. Of course, they are actually saving the world and everyone in it — the job of every super hero — because all living things depend on photosynthesis: “plants eat light and air and water, and the stored energy goes on to make and do all things.” As Olivia, aka Maidenhair, says, “People and trees are in this together.”

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Maidenhair Tree, aka Gingko, by Cathy Luh

The Overstory by Richard Powers is an epic novel. It is larger than life, at least human life, in every way. In addition to a marvelously interwoven story, Powers gives us a keen observation of nature and beautiful and evocative writing.

His descriptions of the world from the timeline and point of view of trees are at once grand and fantastical. Before the blight that started in 1904 killed every chestnut, they stretched from the Appalachians to the Gulf. “The chestnuts up North were majestic. But the southern trees are gods….By 1940, the fungus takes everything…. Four billion trees in the native range vanish into myth.”

Here is a description of the forest of the Cascades where Patty lives for a while. “Steep, steely streams scour through rickles of rock where salmon spawn –water cold enough to kill all pain. Falls flash over ridges turned jade by moss and tumbled with shed branches. In the scattered openings, shot here and there through the understory, sit secret congregations of salmonberry, elderberry, huckleberry, snowberry, devil’s club, ocean spray and kinnikinnick. Great straight conifer monoliths fifteen stories high and a car-length thick hold a roof above all. The air around her resounds with noise of life getting on with it. Cheebee of invisible winter wrens. Industrial pock from jackhammering woodpeckers. Warbler buzz. Thrush flutter. The scatterings of beeping grouse across the forest floor. At night, the cool hoot of owls chills her blood. And always, the tree frogs’ song of eternity.”

The Overstory tells of the wonders of the natural world in a way that changes how I view its resources. It offers an imaginative way for me –and you – to link our lives to our ancestors and to the world around us. Now, that’s a good story.

Tell me: What is your origin story?

This Too Solid Flesh

I have a lot of second thoughts about commenting on Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. Here’s why. Roxane Gay is black, 6’3” tall and fat, weighing 577 pounds at one point. These are not incidental details. This is exactly what her book is about. Do I dare to comment on such emotional and intimate matters when I am not black, not tall and not fat?

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My qualms aside, I found so much to relate to in Gay’s telling of her relationship with her body. Unbeknownst to most of my friends, my most consistent and longest point of unhappiness has been my body. Gay’s weight gain started after a horrific trauma. I ate too much for more mundane reasons: solace for loneliness and to compensate for the hardships of starting school in a new country and in new language. And the wonderful taste of American processed foods — canned corn beef hash, Chef Boyardee ravioli, Fig Newton bars and vanilla wafers with milk.

Those were the after-school snacks. A few hours later, I happily ate up all of the Chinese dinner Mom painstakingly prepared every day. In 1950s America, and certainly not among people from China, weight issues were not even on the horizon. Neither Mom nor I ever heard of a “calorie.”

In fact, my first awareness that I had a problem with fat came from watching the Mickey Mouse Club. One of the two grown-up Mouseketeers, Jimmy, mentioned that if you pinched the skin at the bottom of your ribs, it should be less than an inch. I pinched myself fully expecting to be normal. I was shocked when I grabbed a fistful of midriff.

Like Gay, I come from a loving family of educated immigrants –hers from Haiti, mine China. We were both raised Catholic. Gay and I both were keenly aware of our role: to be a good student, no, a stellar student, no, the best student, and to not cause trouble. We did not bring our troubles home. Instead, we escaped through food and through books.

A couple of years later, in eighth or ninth grade, I came upon a beauty tip book the title of which I’ve forgotten. The author talked about clothes, hair and weight. She talked about calories. It was then that, like Gay, “I realized that weight loss, thinness really, was social currency.”

Luckily for me and unlike Gay, I have always liked sports. I still play tennis. I golf and walk. It’s not just for my weight. I genuinely enjoy those activities. Interval training, not so much.

I’ve also been lucky on the medical front. As a physician, I have access to, in fact, can’t escape, the medical literature about nutrition, exercise, even surgical options. These recommendations have changed wildly over the years. I realize that these days, lack of information is not the main reason people eat too much or the “wrong” foods. Still, knowing is better than not knowing. In case you want to know, currently, I eat a lowish-carb diet. I walk or play tennis every day. I do “20 seconds on, two minutes off” intervals on an elliptical. I try to get at least seven hours of sleep.

Anyone looking at me today would see a five-foot tall, athletic but by no means thin or willowy, Asian woman. They would not realize that I have obsessed over this body for the last sixty years.

The hard part is not losing the weight. It’s not maintaining the weight. It’s dealing with the terror of gaining weight. After being on vacation, I have a moment of panic as I step on the scale. I feel unmoored. What if the number is way higher? A lot can happen in two weeks.

If I’ve gained two pounds over the holidays or on a cruise, I immediately do the mental math. Two pounds a month times 12 months, that’s 24 pounds a year! OMG—I will look like a sausage! None of my clothes will fit. No one will love me — a subliminal message from living in our culture. As Gay put it so elegantly, “It is a powerful lie to equate thinness with self-worth.”

I am now 71 years old. (Gay is in her forties.) Even now, I am acutely aware of the thickness of the middle section of my body, my poochy abdomen, my side boobs. (No Lululemon spandex, halter-top tennis outfit for me!) Gay feels like everyone only sees her for her size. I sort of have the same, but also the opposite, problem. I am very small in comparison to most people. People will read this and pooh pooh my feelings. I am like the thin person in Kate’s self-help group in This Is Us. “You don’t have a problem,” 600-pound Kate yells at her. In a way, neither Gay’s feelings nor mine are taken seriously. (You are pooh poohing right now, aren’t you?)

Intellectually, I know this is stupid. If I lose any more weight, I’ll just look frail and rickety — like Nancy Reagan. Only now do I realize that it’s my shape (too round) that I still don’t like, not my weight. But, why should it matter? Who am I kidding? Again, Gay goes straight to the heart of the matter: “I am working toward abandoning the damaging cultural messages that tell me my worth is strictly tied up in my body.”

Gay’s book is a detailed, insightful chronicle of her thoughts on all aspects of her large body. It also gives a poignant description of the longings, hopes and feelings inside that body and that brain and that heart. She recounts her interactions with family, friends, teachers, lovers, abusers and bosses with honesty and no small amount of humor.

I love some of Gay’s description of specific episodes. She described her trauma without raw language but left me with the lasting horror and shame of it. She talked about how swinging her arms became a focus of a critical boyfriend. She told of getting painful bruises on her thighs from chairs with arms too narrow for her body. Once at a conference, she balanced on her quads for two hours over a flimsy chair for fear it would break if she put full weight on it. (She was pleased her quads were so strong!). She expressed the universal disconnect between our good intentions and our deeds: “Every morning, I wake up and have a few minutes where I am free from my body and my failings. During these moments, I think Today, I will make good choices. I will work out. I will eat small portions. I will take the stairs when possible. …But then I get out of bed.”

I am ashamed that I have done some of exactly what she described of the way people treat fat people. I have panicked when I saw a large person oozing onto my side of the coach airplane seat, the flimsy boundary that is the armrest already raised.

I have resented patients who were fat. It frustrated me that I couldn’t hear as well through the stethoscope and I couldn’t feel as well for lymph nodes or abdominal masses or an enlarged uterus through layers of fat. My fear of messing up overrode my compassion.

Roxane Gay has become a renowned author of essays, reviews and books of fiction and nonfiction. She has won many awards. She has found love (I think). She has reconciled with her family. She has a plethora of speaking gigs. Her relationship with her body continues to be a work in progress. I hope that she figures it out before she is seventy-one. I hope I figure it out before I’m seventy-two.

Tell me: Do you perceive some aspect of your body to be a problem?

 

 

Shakespeare Cats: My Version of Cute Cat Videos

I am a cat person. I have lived with, in the order of appearance, Wolfie (for Mozart), Moose (who walked with a swagger despite his small size), Salt (who was all black), Kitty (aka White and Black Kitty) and my current cat Lily, a Siamese with the sky-blue eyes of her breed.

They all had different personalities. Wolfie was laid back and loving. Kitty had a personality disorder. She wanted to get close to you, but at a certain point — which was known only to her — she’d lash out with tooth and claw. I paid for two friends and a house painter to get tetanus shots because of her.

Lily is sweet but not too bright. One evening, Bill and I were cleaning out a room in the basement and caught a quick movement among some boxes. It flashed by so fast. Then we saw it again. A mouse! A tiny field mouse. I shut the door to the room and told Bill to get Lily. Bill put her down and we waited. The mouse zipped briefly into view. Lily turned her head but didn’t shift her weight. We plopped her at the spot of the last sighting. She did nothing. She was not interested.

My real life cats are always uninteresting, needy cretins – meaning they are cats –compared to those in Shakespeare Cats. This book by Susan Herbert, first published in 1996, features drawings of cats in costume, acting out scenes from Shakespeare’s plays.

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HENRY V

Like cute cat videos, I can’t get enough of Shakespeare Cats. I have given away more copies of this book than any other. The recipients range in age from 4 to 84. I hope that the pictures have lifted their spirits as much as they have lifted mine.

One of my favorites is “Richard the Third.” The hump, the evil glare, the marked resemblance to my White and Black Kitty.IMG_5380

 

Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this sun of York;

And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house

In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

 

 

And from “Julius Caesar,”

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 Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend

me your ears;

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise

him.

The evil that men do lives after them;

The good is oft interred with their

bones;

So let it be with Caesar.

 

Mark Antony’s extended paw, his steady gaze and his upraised tail all speak to his masculine strength and determination. You can tell from their eyes and their uplifted paws that the Roman mob is suspicious and unsettled.

I had such a wonderful time looking at the cat pictures with my grandson Edin, then almost four. The first page, All hail, Macbeth!, showed Macbeth in his Tartan, holding a sword and looking up at the three calico witches. I told Edin that Macbeth was afraid of the witches. He asked why when Macbeth was the one with the sword. I said, “Those witches have magic.” Edin nodded knowingly. Later I overheard him explaining to his mom that the witches have magic.

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My absolute favorite is Cleopatra, a Siamese cat, of course. When I first saw her, I gasped. She was beautiful. She was exotic. Her dress was over-the-top. She was a fantasy. She was perfect.

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“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale,
Her infinite variety.”

I have read the book to Lily the cat to inspire her to greater things. She had the same reaction as she had with the mouse. She was not impressed.

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Tell me:  What human attributes do your pets have?

 

 

The Caribbean: Not At All What I Expected

“How phallic!”                                 IMG_4423

I blurted this out on my first Caribbean cruise when Bill and I came upon this huge column rising out of a fountained plaza in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was called the Totem Telurico, and it commemorated the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the Americas.

Most of the totem was a reddish brown color with irregular projections that resembled pottery shards. The clay came from all over the Americas, representing the origins of the peoples of the Americas. Shards are about all that’s left of the native island peoples who encountered Columbus and his ilk.

This was my first time to travel by cruise ship. It was a chance to travel with friends. It was a chance to drop a few dollars in post-hurricane Puerto Rico. As it turned out, I got a whole new perspective on the Caribbean as a whole. It is an epic story, spread over thousands of miles and hundred of years, like a real-life Greek tragedy.

When I hear “Caribbean,” I think of the white beaches, turquoise waters, warm weather and relaxation that I enjoyed on earlier visits to the Bahamas and Jamaica. It’s not my favorite kind of vacation. I remember being in the West End of the Bahamas some years back, and after three days of hanging out at the beach, took a moped to Freetown to check out Bahamian culture. But there was no “there” there, just shops. Despite the sights promoted in all these travel books, it felt like that these islands lacked cultural depth.

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Being “discovered” by Columbus was catastrophic for the indigenous people, the Taino. In Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the native people were completely
wiped out
within two generations. Causes include diseases such as smallpox, measles and influenza for which the Indians had no immunity. Outright killing and harsh enslavement also contributed. And it wasn’t just by the Spanish. In 1626, the English and French united to kill the natives on St. Kitts. After the massacre, they resumed their war against each other.

That history of population extinction or near-extinction, the enslavement and importation of African peoples and the loss of cultural identity played out throughout the Caribbean islands irrespective of the nationality of the colonizer—Spanish, British, French, Dutch or Danish.

What remains are archaeological: petroglyphs and pottery, some ruins and a few

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Petroglyph on St. Kitts

borrowed Taino words. (Our “hurricane” comes from the native huracán.) What is lost when an entire civilization disappears are their cultural practices, religion, food choices, music, sports and, perhaps most importantly, their founding myths. Even though the institutional memory of Taino is gone, many current inhabitants of these islands still have Taino blood because the all-male European expeditions must have mated, by force or persuasion, with the local women.

***

Since medieval times, sugar was a scarce, luxury item in Europe. Kings flaunted their wealth by serving sugar to their guests. Sugar cane only grew on a few islands on the African coast. The Caribbean climate was ideal for sugar cane. However, the growing, harvesting and processing of the crop required large numbers of workers. Since the small population of surviving natives was unsuited to the harsh conditions in the sugar fields, the Europeans imported slaves from Africa on an unprecedented scale.

Most of what Americans know about African chattel slavery comes from our knowledge of the slavery system in the American South. That system got its start in the 1500s in the Caribbean. If it were not for the sugar plantations that so enriched the colonists and their mother countries, the “peculiar institution” that led to the Civil War might not have happened.

Sugar was unbelievably lucrative. Some have called sugar the opiate of the 17th and 18th century. (Science is still debating whether or not

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Remains of the Mash House  at Romney Manor, St. Kitts

sugar causes neurophysiological changes.) No matter how much sugar was produced, demand matched it. St. Kitts, only 18 miles long and 5 miles wide, had 62 sugar plantations. By the 1780s, Saint-Domingue, modern day Haiti, the size of Hawaii, produced about 40 percent of all the sugar consumed in Europe.

All this productivity – and profit — depended on slave labor. On all these islands, slaves overwhelmingly outnumbered the Europeans. In order to keep them in line, to maximize profit and, because they could, the white owners cruelly abused the slaves. I quote a passage by an educated black man during the time of the Haitian Revolution (1789-1804)

“Have they [the French masters] not hung up men with heads downward, drowned them in sacks, crucified them on planks, buried them alive, crushed them in mortars? Have they not forced them to eat excretement (sic)? And, having flayed them with the lash, have they not cast them alive to be devoured by worms, or onto anthills, or lashed them to stakes in the swamp to be devoured by mosquitoes? Have they not thrown them into boiling cauldrons of cane syrup? Have they not put men and women inside barrels studded with spikes and rolled them down mountainsides into the abyss? Have they not consigned these miserable blacks to man-eating dogs until the latter, sated by human flesh, left the mangled victims to be finished off with bayonet and poniard?” wikipedia

Slave revolts big and small kept popping up. Is there any wonder? The most successful was the Haitian Revolution that led to the first independent black republic in the Western hemisphere in 1804.

It is the descendants of these slaves who I encountered on my trip. I only got to meet

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Young man selling the liqueur Curacao on Curacao

them at a very superficial level, another downside of cruising. Still, it struck me as ironic, if not downright perverse, that the sights the tour guides of these countries are showing off tend to be those related to their oppressors. Besides the Totem Telurico, we saw the statue of Ponce de Leon, yes, that Ponce de Leon, who was Puerto Rico’s first governor.

In the Dominican Republic, we toured the Alcazar, home of Christopher Columbus’s son Diego, who served as the “Governor of the Indies.” In St. Kitts, we visited Romney Manor, one of whose owners was Thomas Jefferson’s great, great, great grandfather. Aruba and Curacao had a slightly different history. The climate was too dry for sugar, but being very close to the South American mainland, they became huge slave trading depots.

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Diego and Chris Columbus

These islands were more than just moneymaking engines for the European countries. These islands were also the launching pad for the conquest of Central and South America and the looting of an estimated 180 tons of gold and 16,000 tons of silver. Without the ability to amass the men, weapons and horses on the Caribbean islands, the Spanish would not have been able to launch the mainland invasions to defeat Montezuma and the Incas.

Before this trip, I had always thought that these vacation isles were politically irrelevant. I was wrong. The Caribbean islands were always pawns in global politics. In 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas, brokered by Pope Alexander VI, divided the whole non-European world between Spain and Portugal. In 1636, the Dutch took Aruba and Curacao from the Spanish during the Thirty Years War. Puerto Rico was “won” by the United States in the wake of the Spanish American War (1898).

During World War II, even though the Netherlands was occupied by the Nazis, its colonies Aruba and Curacao were not. As oil refining centers for the vast oil fields of Venezuela and Colombia, these islands supplied oil to American, British and French forces. Much oil was also shipped by tankers to the Russian ports of Archangel and Murmansk to help Stalin fight the Nazis.

I now think of the Caribbean as the crucible that molded the Americas. But the cost was incredibly high to the native peoples and the imported slaves even up to today.

There is a great yearning by the descendants of these people, spread out over 7000 islands, 28 nations and dozens of languages if you include creoles and patois, for stories that explain their situation, their history, their place in this world in an authenic way.

This is a prodigious task for at least two reasons. One is the lack of origin myths and the dislocation of slavery. The other is the great and gorgeous variety of centuries of local development and adaptation. Since the 1950s, academic papers and a rich trove of literature from writers including Nobel Prize winners Derek Walcott and V.S. Naipal have explored the Caribbean landscape and identity. Marlon James, Juno Diaz, Jamaica Kincaid, the musician Bob Marley are just a few of the others.

On these cruises, they show you forts and colonial palaces. They take you to beaches and shops. But, if you pay attention, 500 years of history and culture unfold in all its riot of colors and complexity right in front of you.

Tell me: What surprising things have you learned on your travels?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With a Little Help From My Friends

“What would you think if I sang out of tune?
Would you stand up and walk out on me?
Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song
And I’ll try not to sing out of key
Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends
Mm, I get high with a little help from my friends
Mm, gonna try with a little help from my friends”   by the Beatles
“My purse, my person, my extremest means
Lie all unlocked to your occasions.”   Antonio to Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice

Sometimes I need all the help I can get. Sometimes I don’t need help, but it’s still nice to have it.

William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is all about people helping their friends. Antonio took out a loan from Shylock for money his friend Bassanio needed to woo Portia. The collateral was a pound of Antonio’s own flesh. When Antonio had to default, Shylock insisted on collecting his pound of flesh. Portia, in turn, not only plucked Antonio out of Shylock’s clutches but also wangled a favorable court decision on behalf of Jessica, Shylock’s daughter.

My first encounter with Shakespeare was reading the Merchant of Venice as a high school freshman. I wish I could say that I was blown away by the genius of the greatest writer of the English language. Mostly, I was confused. So, who’s the hero? The story starts with Antonio and he’s the one who ends up in jeopardy. But Bassanio gets the girl. If she’s so smart, why doesn’t Portia try to change her father’s will that gives her hand and her land to whichever guy guesses the right strongbox? And why was everyone so nasty to Shylock?

In reading The Merchant of Venice this time, I found this 400-year-old play in which people spoke in iambic pentameter totally relatable. This time around, I realized that the plot points that confused me are what make this play so interesting. I want to say “modern,” in the way that the heroes, heroines and anti-heroes all have good sides and dark sides. I have sympathy for Shylock the way I have sympathy for Tony Soprano. I see Bassanio as a bit of a gold digger. And Portia is a bold and take-charge woman who nonetheless gives up her estate the moment Bassanio opens the lead casket.

The action of the story is mixed too, both serious and comedic. There are disguises and intentional tomfoolery that remind me of the antics on I Love Lucy. Portia and her maid, in rattling off the defects of the undesirable suitors, have the snappy dialogue of a Katharine  Hepburn or Rosalind Russell movie. The courtroom scene, on the other hand, is as taut and suspenseful as the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird or, dare I say, the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearing.

I realize that comparing Shakespeare to the dated movies and TV shows I’m familiar with is probably sacrilegious to some. My point is that reading The Merchant of Venice this time was much, much easier. I am a more knowledgeable reader than I was a half century ago. My vocabulary is larger. My cultural references are wider. But, I also had a little help. Help came in the form of a new format: NO FEAR SHAKESPEARE.

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This edition has the entire play on the left side of the page and a modern translation on the right. It is incredibly convenient and reassuring to check on the right side of the page to make sure that I didn’t miss a crucial plot point. More importantly, it solves some annoying archaic meanings. For example, when a sentence starts with “Marry,” it has nothing to do with weddings. It sort of means, “Well.” “Soft!” as an interjection means “Wait.” And “Sola” means “Hey.”

Now, that’s real help.

Before you scorn me as intellectually lazy, a wimp, a wuss, a cheater, let me say that I’ve beaten you to it. But I really don’t care. I just want access to the wonderful ways that Shakespeare devised his plots, his complex characters and their way with language. “All that glisters is not gold” (Portia) and “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose” (Shylock) are just two examples. The Beatles incorporated Mark Antony’s line in Julius Caesar, “lend me your ears,” in their song that I used to lead off this essay.

I find supertitles at the opera extremely helpful. These are projected captions of the sung text, or a translation of the text. I remember a time when the only information about a three-hour show was a ¾ page synopsis. During a performance I would wonder, “Is this where the lovers are quarreling?” “Is this where the hero finds out he’s really a prince?” “Is this where the princess is betrayed?” “Is it over?” I’m sure this confusion was what led to the famous saying, “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”

I also received help with language in a Classical Chinese class I was taking in college. Classical Chinese is dense, aphoristic, full of archaic words and unpunctuated. It’s not even like reading Shakespeare, more like trying to read Chaucer in the original Middle English.

I struggled for hours over one tiny passage. Finally, I sought help from Professor Ho. He had long wispy white hair and an even wispier beard. He had a hippie-Zen reputation on campus. I waited for his pronouncement as to what the passage meant. Instead, he picked up my book, took a pencil, put in two commas and a period and gave it back to me. To my amazement, I could figure it out with that little bit of help!

The tables have turned now in that, instead of me trying to understand others’ writings, I am trying to get folks to understand my writings. Here again, I have help. My friends Max and Laurie, both writing professionals, read my drafts and give me editorial tips. They tell me things like,

“This is your topic sentence. You need to put it closer to the beginning.”

“This section is confusing.”

“This is the interesting part. I want you to tell me more.”

“You are burying the lede.”

As with Dr. Ho, they don’t rewrite for me, but they show me the way.

Like the quality of mercy, help is “twice blessed: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” And between the Beatles and William Shakespeare, I am in the best company.

Tell me: Who or what has helped you out in your life?