Anything Worth Doing, is Worth Doing Badly

I’m about to write something that I fear will be terrible. I’ve been holding off for a while. I fret that this will be the kind of terrible that makes you look into an old, battered empty trash can and see the sticky stuff at the bottom that time and neglect have changed into an unrecognizably loathsome reminder of how truly awful writing can be.

I’ve finished all my avoidance behaviors except this ironic, dragon-swallowing-its-tale, literary version of a Mobius strip: writing about writing that you’re not writing–yet.

Two inspirational quotes urge me on. Both are from G.K. Chesterton, the rotund, prolific wit, theologian and author of the Father Brown mystery series: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”

Well…not always. Like most writers who haven’t come to terms with rejection, I can’t help but feel that what was unfinished, finished but spurned, scheduled for publication but never printed, published ineptly, published adequately but failed to speed me down the Yellow Brick Road of success–was inferior, underdone, overthought, half-baked, ill-conceived and so bad that I should tell myself I’m lucky it never saw the light.

Well…not always. Just this morning I was marveling at the tenacity of some writers, who, from dire need or built-in immunity to emotional pain, write and write and write and write until one editor says okay, another says yes, a third says where-have-you-been-all-my-life?, a fourth says no but persuades another writer to do a knock-off for less money, and, then there’s a great big shelf of work, with stacks of books ready for an autograph, and, finally, those awards and honors and….

I wrote and wrote and wrote and I got some articles and books published but I always felt that among the rejects was really GOOD stuff would find an audience one day.

You can write GOOD (grammarians, I feel your pain: One writes WELL) while letting yourself be BAD, at least, in the privacy of your own word processor. Nobody has to see it. Nobody has to know about your secret hope that what starts out stinky and vile might turn out better than you thought.

Isn’t it that true about cheese? Quoth Chesterton: “Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.”

As children are silent when they discover the secret of play, which, for children, is no secret. What we adults must do is, no matter how much you believe you know about yourself, your art and your audience, is return to a state of innocence in which you either don’t know what you believe you know, or what you doesn’t matter. Then, as soon as possible, you must appreciate what you’re doing. You MUST have fun, or seek it in some way.

And watch out for the grown-up in the room, that baleful critic who wears big shoes and gazes down from the top of all those grown-up bones and doesn’t understand that all you want to do is have fun with a paper towel roll that, in your mind, is a space ship or a musical instrument or something wonderful that hasn’t been invented– yet.

What is it about the presence of grown-ups that reduces that spaceship become cardboard, a piece of trash that was on its way to the can but caught your eye because you didn’t think it was trash?

You didn’t even think.

You just picked it up and turned it into something–





The Return of the Pump

It isn’t grammatical. The word doesn’t even sound like what it is. But, today, I felt it. The Pump was back.

For about twenty seconds. I sat on the exercise machine, took a breath, and there it was: the impossible, unreasonable and thoroughly unrealistic feeling of indomitable power that zings and zangs through your muscles after a round of exercise has actually done some good!

And, like the satori that sages say presages the moment of enlightenment, it was gone before I realized what it was. I stepped away from the exercise machine and lingered a little too long in the Swagger Lane–that corridor between the machines that the Beefalos and the Spandex Queens sashay up and down, their eyes not quite on their cell phones so they can see, peripherally, who just might be checking them out.

I don’t exhibit this behavior because, at my age, with my gut of expanded wisdom and a male-pattern-bald head that is like is like a sign that says OLD, nobody checks me out. I might as well be just another geezer staggering among the machines, adjusting the weights way down until a child could move them.

But this time was different. I didn’t FEEL like a geezer. I felt like I did years ago, when I’d exercise as much as two hours a day, in a gym, running or doing karate and yoga (sometimes on the same day!). I’d endure a few hours afterward aching, limping, or, when I went to Peru to hike the Inca Trail, gasping for breath and emotionally shattered that so much dedicated muscle moving hadn’t saved me from altitude sickness–but, at least, I had moments when I felt the pump, that endorphin-juiced, swagger master, superhero thrill.

I guess the word comes from the slang “pumped-up,” which suggests that wherever you were, you’re temporarily something else, due to some kind of deliberate action that may, or may not be ethically sound.

I first heard about “the Pump” in karate class, when my teacher warned that just because you’ve blocked a punch and counter punched so much you can do it without thinking, doesn’t mean that you can conquer the world.

But you can’t deny that there is something exciting about confronting danger (the punch) and deflecting it so that you not only survive, but you also take control (symbollically, of course), by either counter-attacking with your own punch, or neutralizing your opponent with take down. It isn’t quite a “natural” high, you don’t feel good as much as you feel powerfully adequate. An exercise freak I once knew described as exactly what happens after you do twenty push-ups. You get this tightness in your chest. Your fingers are splayed out. Your arms are stiff. You’re breathing a little too fast and you’re secretly grateful that you don’t have to see that groady patch of the mat zooming up and back.

But you think you can conquer the world. You want to do what you previously thought was unwise, unsafe, dangerous or thoroughly stupid, like marching into a South Philadelphia bar in a Dallas Cowboys football jersey in a South Philadelphia bar. You are overwhelmed by how impressed you are with yourself until–

The person waiting patiently behind you drops down to the mat, springs into push-up position and does forty.

But I couldn’t help but recall the months and years after I had my heart attacks. The pills, and an oppressive weariness that hung over me like cloud, transformed me into a creature of chairs who interupted his relative motionlessness to walk the dog. Occasionally I’d seek youthful glories by doing my karate katas, or going for a short run that left me feeling worse than I was before I began. So I’d do nothing much for a while and run out of breath climbing the stairs.

I also put on weight.

Not good.

Three months ago I decided to do go back to the gym and, on alternate days (or when I succumbed to the inertia that everyone with a gym membership has), go for a run.

I felt terrible exercising, and was a weary mess for hours after. At the gym I’d become tired and strangely nauseous, as if all those abdominal machines were mashing up my innards.

Soon I had runs that didn’t feel so bad. The old runner’s high occasionally returned. I got ideas for novels, stories–blog posts!

The activity was giving me better posture. The gut became slightly less profound. Some clothes fit better.

But the gym was still an uphill crawl. Until today. For about twenty seconds, I felt The Pump.

And in that instant, all that awful struggle vanished.

It felt good.



Readers Block

Ever get it? You go to the library, or come home from the bookstore, or unpack the box from Amazon, turn to Page One and…

You put the first book down, and the second, and the third. You go to the window and see a convertible car zoom by with the top down. People in the car are laughing and playing music too loud. You think: I have a convertible automobile. I can put the top down. I can play music too loud. I can laugh and act like I don’t care.

You glare at that stack of books–am I any better for having read them?

I used to think so. My mother insisted that reading books was among the best things to do. Traveling and seeing theater were the others. She was so insistent that I read books that, after I read all the books that appealed to me in the local library, she gave me a nearly unlimited budget for buying them.

I devoted so much time to browsing and spending that money in the small, family-owned local bookstore that I got my first job there. I was reading, and finishing, a book every two days when I met my first girlfriend. My reading slowed down. She is now my wife and my reading has picked up again.

I have also traveled a bit and seen some theater. Did they make me a better person?

I used to think so. When you visit another country, even as a tourist who only wants to see the sights and eat some good meals, your experience is far from simple. Things happen in the neutral spaces between the plane, hotel, air conditioned bus. the olive wood factory, the building-that-everybody-visits, the lunch spot where they mix up your order and the last day shopping spree. You can’t help but get insights into another culture and the people who inhabit it, and those inights belong to you. No matter how hard the tour company, the guides or the government tourist bureau tries to steer you toward what they want you to see, you see other things.

That, and you pull back, adapt or, do as I have done: talk to people in a respectful way, sit for a while in one place, and let that place soak in, or ride public transportation, or pick a direction, trust your feelings and start walking.

When you return and you’ve unloaded all the stories about your adventure on whoever is unlucky enough to drive you home from the airport, you later discover that whenever the country (or destination) is mentioned or reported about, or when you meet someone from that country, you feel a connection, a familiarity. No matter how slight this may be, it helps you evaluate and understand in new ways.

Does this make you a better person? Not necessarily. I know tourists who loathe an entire nation based on an airport transit lounge, a single taxi ride, a surly waiter, or a sleepless night in a hotel room that was too much of this, or not enough of that. But then again, I know tourists who have learned, through experience, to take these things in stride, and have come to see themselves in others, no matter how strange those other people may appear.

What about theater? It’s always more expensive than movies, and, when your seated so far away from the stage that hearing and seeing is difficult, you can’t help but wish you were somewhere else.

Until you suspend your indignation, and disbelief, and the art takes over.  What was impossibly dull on the page (if you had to read Shakespeare in college) becomes exciting when it flows through skillful actors and clever production.  You can’t substitute the excitement of being in the presence of living human beings, or the herd-like thrill of laughing and gasping along with the audience.

Theater preaches several important values, no matter what the play may be, or how many people are on stage. The first, and most crucial, is that it is collaborative: many different people have come together to present this show, and many more (assuming the critics were kind) have come to see it. The second is that it is unique: every performance is different and what can make the difference is the audience.  A good audience can raise the quality of the performance.

Finally, theater is ultimately not like other art forms. Even if the actors are film stars, what happens is never the same as what you see on a film, or even a filmed recording of a live performance. The message theater whispers–how actors show you their character, the speed at which the action moves, and how a darkened platform can, with just a few props, become a Danish castle or a “blasted heath”–is the primacy of imagination and collective will. Theater doesn’t happen unless all in the playhouse are willing to believe that it can.

But inept productions really hurt. They make you fret about the cost of the ticket and the chore of going to the theater (even if you’re in a city and the playhouse is a short walk away). You wonder if anyone involved in this agonizing mess knows how terrible it is, and if they are merely doing it for the money (which, for most, is never enough), how can they sleep at night?

Does seeing a lot of theater make you a better person? It’s nice to have savored the major O’Neills, Albees, Shaws, Pinters, Becketts, Molieres, Brechts, Sondheims, Arthur Millers and Neil Simons, as well as Gilbert & Sullivan, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and so many others. You come to understand a new meaning to the word “immortal.” When my son got a small part in a dinner theater production of The Sound of Music, I thought I grow bored from hearing those same songs so often in a show that, with rehearsals, ran for a month and a half. I didn’t. Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen and Irving Berlin wrote some of the best American popular music ever. It does not get old.

Then, for my 50th birthday, I saw every Shakespeare play, either in a theater or on a video recording. I got over my difficulties with the language and know why so much of Shakespeare really is the best.

Did it make me a better person? Nahhh.

See too many plays that don’t connect with you, don’t satisfy you, don’t leave you with the feeling that you’ve experienced something you can’t get anywhere else–and you don’t want to do it anymore.

Which brings me to Reader’s Block, when you just don’t want to read anymore.

I experience it almost daily with newspapers and magazines (and those sneaky online news aggregators, that mix the most vital reporting with such crucial journalism as TOP TEN CELEBRITY VACATION HOMES IN MINNESOTA). I’ve written for many publications, so I respect the effort, struggle and sense of commitment required to report the news. But so much of what is reported concerning daily events and personalities I find horrifying, repugnant, irresponsible and (to use a word that was once apolitical) deplorable. This is not, as some allege, because a biased news media hunts for bad stuff. There’s so much bad stuff going on right now that the good is crowded out.

But we need to know awful things are, so that next time we buy a product, see a movie or vote, we understand more about the consequences our choices make.

My love for books is different. As a child, I read all that I liked in the local library. My mother then gave me a nearly unlimited budget to buy books. When other school kids took home one or two books from Scholastic in-class sales, I carried home a box. Later, I spent so much time, and money, inside the the local, family-run bookstore that I got my first job there. The owners permitted me to take home the paperback returns:  books whose covers were torn off and mailed back to the publisher for credit. Many of my favorite writers I discovered inside a book that lacked a cover.

I was reading, and finishing, a book about every two days until I met my first girl friend. I slowed down a bit after that and, with her encouragement, I decided that my dream of writing books might just come true.

It did, but not without the requisite agonies, uncertainties, reversals, rewrites and rejections that blot the author’s path. Writing also brought many experiences that combined my love of traveling (travelwriting!) and theater (theater critic!). I wallowed in a lot of great, and not-so-great plays and places.

But I never stopped reading until I decided to teach high school. Then I came down with my first and, I hope, last case of Readers Block.

I thought high school would be perfect for me because my wife had been doing it in the sciences. I had taught writing and journalism  at the undergraduate and graduate level, so I thought I could “give back” to the kid I was, and the kids I knew, when I decided to make writing my life work.

To get a teaching license I returned to the best graduate school within commuting distance and took education courses.  What I had heard about education courses was still true: while you may get a good professor, most were taught by teaching assistants using texts that were written by people who did not feel they had to charm, excite or interest me, the reader.

Most, but not all. Of the two dozen books I had to acquire, two were wonderful–a commentary on the political nature of public education, and a memoir written by a rather peculiar individual who decided to read the same book over and over for…I forget how many times. The memoir made one point: rereading is not repetition. Things happen to us, and what we think we’re reading, as we revisit a text.

I also got a glimpse of incongruities, paradoxes and puns in post-modern philosophy that made me hungry for more.

After I got my teaching license, fulfilled my internships and was given the opportunity to take over the classes of a high school English teacher who had been put on leave, I was overwhelmed with the daily stress that public school teachers endure. My wife had warned me that there was more to teaching than standing up in front of the kids and saying the things that would set off light bulbs in their brains.

She was right. On weeknights I came home, I ate a quick dinner and fell asleep. I couldn’t keep my eyes open long enough to read a book, or anything else.

But the stress piled up. I became too tired to exercise and put on weight. My blood pressure began to go dangerously high. It is no coincidence that I suffered two heart attacks after I stopped teaching.

My sojourn as a high school lamplighter made me doubt myself and what I truly loved about books, literature and writing. For a long time I’d try to lose myself in a book, and not move past page one.

But then I opened what everyone with Readers Block must find: a book that spoke to me, a book that made me feel it was written just for me, a book that took me into a world that made my own possible, tolerable, endurable and just a little bit wonderful.

I won’t name the author or the title because what speaks to one reader can be mute, and worse, to another. When I taught novel writing at the college level, I assigned my students to read, or, at best, try to read, a book that they would consider to be trash, and then be able to talk about the experience. Beyond the the grandstanding accounts of pure disgust, and the vaguely embarrassed comments about of guilty pleasures, were conflicts between those students who thought a specific book was junk, and others who swore that very same book was a source–for them–of inspiration and joy, and possibly a reason they wanted to become novelists.

What I can say is that, if there is a muse, saint, demiurge, boddhisatva, daemon or kindly spirit that strives to repair a writer’s, or a reader’s broken soul, that being manifests itself, not in a cloud of smoke and fire like the Great and All Powerful Oz, but inside a book that may have been written by an author desperate for money, that could be the sequel to an earlier novel that no one remembers, or a hasty knock-off of a best-seller.

What matters is that the book says to us, in a way only a book can, that who we are, right now, no matter how bumpy our past, is not merely adequate, but abundantly capable of realizing dreams; and that what we want to write, no matter how precious, unoriginal, sentimental, half-baked, or uncommercial, is not only worthwhile, but possible, likely and, for the rest of us, necessary.

Does that make you a better person? Let’s say you become a different person, in just the way you imagined.






Morning in the Restaurant Kitchen

My favorite time in a kitchen is the early morning, when things are still, and every pot, spice and spoon is in its place. I learned to appreciate this moment when I worked in college dining halls. After I graduated, I wasn’t making much on my writing, and the fact that most people don’t was no comfort. So I went to a local restaurant and asked if they needed any help. They did. They wouldn’t pay me much, but I could take home food.

Working with food provided faster satisfaction than scratching out a short story or a piece of journalism in my lonely apartment. I was around that crazy, disparate bunch of people you meet in the culinary world. Some couldn’t speak English but could blurt one or two words which would suffice for the remaining 9,998 in the conversational American English vocabulary.

Others were dreamers whose goal was not always opening a restaurant. One day the pot washer came to me with the sleep-deprived eyes of a human being who had been up all night for no good reason. “I finally figured it out,” he told me breathlessly. “I have to make a movie.”

He repeated this to everyone else on the shift and quit within a week. I don’t know if he ever made his movie, but, with so many films and TV shows about restaurants and chefs, maybe I’ll be wandering through the Netflix aggregator and I’ll see, all the way down at the end, Galactic Pot Washer.

In a restaurant kitchen, you learn to work fast and clean. You stay focused on what’s in front of you so you don’t burn yourself or cut your finger off. Between shifts you get one meal that’s better than anything you could cook yourself. And you never waste anything. The ends of carrots, the lettuce leaves you peel away, broccoli stalks, bits of this and that–if it’s organic, it goes into the stock pot and simmers for hours until it becomes wonderful.

If the food is prepared properly, if it goes out as it should and the chef is in a good mood and the owner isn’t around to come up with another way to save money, all is good. You go home genuinely, sincerely exhausted, with leftovers that will taste great the next day.

It’s no wonder, then, that I came to love that clean, still, cool aroma that greets you when you walk in to a restaurant kitchen in the morning. It’s like the dawn before a battle,  or a theater a few hours before the curtain goes up. You know something’s going to happen soon, and it’ll be fast and crazy and over before you know it, but, before it happens, you take some time to breathe.

Sometimes, after I had that breath, the chefs showed me how to cook. Thus I learned how to chop onions quickly enough not to cry, and to make beef chili and french toast on a truly industrial scale. The chefs also used their mornings to experiment and improvise, especially when a vital ingredient had spoiled or not been delivered. I watched and learned new metaphors for the creative process.

This was before the era of branded chefs who may own, or have their names on a dozen restaurants they will never visit or cook in, because they’re too busy with their TV shows.  It was also before just about every restaurant became a concept, with a menu that cannot be altered. Nowadays, most kitchen staff don’t cook. They assemble.

I didn’t expect to be reminded of my restaurant adventures until, in the sanctity of my own home, I put a roasting pan with chicken thighs in the oven.

Most mornings are ruled by the smells of coffee, bacon, sausages, melting sharp cheese, the vanilla and nutmeg in pancakes, the rich subtleties of eggs and the warmth of toasted bread–not chicken.

Unless you work in a restaurant (or live close enough to one to catch the fumes from the exhaust fans), you won’t smell chicken before lunch. In a restaurant, you use the morning to begin processes that may take several hours. One of them is baking chicken for lunch.

The chicken I cooked was to go into a salad for dinner. I put water in the bottom of the roasting pan, to steam the chicken as it bakes (and make the skin crispy). Within minutes the house filled with that grandmothery chicken-soup scent, and suddenly I was back in restaurant land.

The chicken baked beautifully and  I remembered the big, steaming stock pots that gave the kitchen its characteristic afternoon aroma. I channeled the chefs who had taught me.

I searched the refrigerator for leftovers that retained their integrity. Into the broth went some bits of cooked Pennsylvania Dutch bacon, a carrot, an onion, some raw dipping vegetables (more carrots, with celery and broccoli). In the pantry I found a jar of gray lentils that almost begged me to jump into the chicken broth and turn it into soup.

In they went. I did not add any seasonings because I wanted to taste the ingredients: the warm richness of the chicken and bacon, the sweetness of the vegetables, the earthy  splendor of the lentils.

I took a taste and the lentils brought me to backward (or forward–I’m writing this on a humid August day) to winter, where lentil soup is both a comfort and redemption.

But a question sent me back to the present, in the same way that, when I finish a piece of writing, I cannot have a feeling of accomplishment while a stray phrase, a murky passage, or a recalcitrant adverb torpidly remains to be adjusted.

I took another taste. Should I add salt?

My chefs told me that though no dish was perfect, no dish could be duplicated, every act of cooking was unique–the last thing you wanted to see from the spy hole in the restaurant kitchen door was a customer adding salt. Pepper was a performance, with the waiter coming around with what looks like a wooden table leg, twisting one end and hoping that whatever came out the other was really and truly pepper and not flakes from some dark piece of wood that the owner had slipped in to save money.

But salt? That should be done in the kitchen.

And so, a pinch later, it was close enough to perfect for me to have lunch.




What About Anne Tyler?

Edgar Allan Poe, H.L. Mencken–what about Anne Tyler?

When the President of the United States recently made disparaging remarks about the Baltimore district of a respected congressman and civil rights leader who happens to be investigating the President’s integrity, those who wanted to defend the congressman, and his city, published lists of what was great, good, worthy and world-class about Maryland’s biggest city. They mentioned Poe, who died there, and the sour, cynical H.L. Mencken, who did his best journalism and social satire in Baltimore in the early part of the 20th century.

Why wasn’t Anne Tyler on the lists that I saw? She’s won a Pulitzer, among other awards! Her books were made into movies! What gives?

You don’t have to visit Baltimore to know it is large enough to have all the problems, complexities, tragedies and contradictions of any Eastern seaport metropolis, made even more interesting by its distinctive northern and southern cultural styles. What isn’t so obvious is that the city is small enough so you can get quick, powerful, unexpected glimpses into how it works, how the numerous social, economic and cultural forces move, communicate and frequently frustrate each other. It also functions well as a city: despite its highly publicized difficulties, it delivers the exquisite experiences that visitors expect from an urban environment.

Like Philadelphia, where I once lived, the remnants from earlier historical periods don’t quite fit into the contemporary landscape, but they remind you that important things not only happened there, but continue to happen, if anyone bothered to pay attention. This is, among other things, what David Simon’s superb, but demanding Baltimore-based police procedural HBO series The Wire was about.

I learned to savor Baltimore when I wrote for Baltimore Magazine, the city’s lifestyle monthly. Most people I met became the subjects of profiles, but a few, like filmmaker and social critic John Waters, I met by accident.

One person–the one I most wanted to meet–did not talk to me, though the magazine gave me her telephone number. I called several times. I left messages.  My calls were not returned. Unlike some journalists who believe they can get what they want by becoming a pest, I let it go. The privacy of people–especially those who do something that pleases me–must be respected.

If she had called back, I would have told Ms. Tyler that, when I first came to Baltimore for the magazine, I was unaware of her novels and did not know that I ate at the restaurant on which she may have based Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.

But I began to read her books and found them so beautiful that I no longer wanted to write or publish novels about violence and heroic acts of derring-do because there are bigger, better and more inspiring stories to be found in characters who are just a little bit broken, thwarted and troubled about the peculiarity of grace and the inappropriateness of love. We need more novels that show us people who can endure and survive the quiet, but no less painful complications that confront those who are not front page news and never will be, but, by the strength of their character and an innate faith in human decency, will come to a vital understanding of who and what they are.

Finally, I wanted to rejoice that books such as hers were still being written, and that they say something new and necessary about the generalities of urban life, and the specific qualities of Baltimore, that has not been said in so many novels I’ve read set in New York, Los Angeles and other big bad American cities.

One dubious gift that journalism brings is the possibility of meeting your heroes. I’ve done this often enough to know that, even if everything happens as anticipated, you walk away knowing that this person is your hero not because of what she’s done, but because of what you’ve wanted her to be.

But, as one who considers an Anne Tyler novel as much a part of Baltimore as any other experience I’ve had there, I wish those fervent list-makers had remembered that she lives, writes and, I trust, thrives in that marvelous city.

Her work is one more satisfying motivation to love Baltimore, whether you visit or not. Sometimes, the ability to appreciate a place, a person, a predicament, leads to greater insights about yourself. Though Baltimore has its difficulties–some of its denizens have indeed become front page news and a few incidents have torn neighborhoods apart, Tyler’s novels are clearly, obviously and wonderfully about what brings the city, and the world beyond it, together.




Why Write?

I read biographies to explore another personality through stories. The stories are not always true and are often subject to revision. A recent reading about the Duke of Wellington suggested that he never said his most famous quote, “the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” and that the statement was attributed to him as one more Victorian nod to the innate superiority of the English imperial education.

My half-French friend reacted with disgust when I told him I just finished a 500 page biography of the Algerian French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Considered one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, Derrida is second to Jean Paul Sartre (the father of existentialism) as the greatest modern French philosophers, though his disciples will characterize him as post-modern, and other philosophers in the French academy are still angry at him.

I did not ask why my friend hated Derrida (he added that he also despised Satre) because I’ve learned from the current American political, cultural and economic divisions that the reasons someone hates a person, place, thing, ideology, etc. are not as important as the fact of the hatred itself: our current passion for passionate dislike has raised the talent for loathing to one more act of self and group esteem. It now defines us (or has the potential to do so, if we permit it) just as much as our ability to love, like, appreciate and nurture.

So I tried to maintain whatever sociability I had with him and shared with him some things I read about Derrida that I did not admire.

Derrida, though happily married with two children, was known as “the seducer” by many of his female students and colleagues. He had a passionate affair that may have inspired one of his autobiographical writings. The affair resulted in a child. Derrida refused to raise the boy and eventually ended any social and professional contact with the mother, though he wrote a philosophical discourse on the ironies and contractions existing in the meanings of paternity and fatherhood. Though most disciples in Derrida’s circle knew of the child, they did not talk about him, perhaps because of another Derrida discourse on the paradoxical necessity of secrets. The mother eventually married a man who knew of the child’s relation to Derrida. The husband entered politics and became Prime Minister of France. When he ran for the office of President, the newspapers publicized the paternity of his son. Derrida found himself embarrassed, to say the least.
Derrida permitted one of his female disciples to have an affair with his sixteen-year-old son.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, Derrida claimed publicly, without offering any specific evidence, that the attacks were the direct result of American and Israeli policies directed against Palestinians and the Arab world. Though Derrida was born a Jew in Algeria when it was a French colony, and was the target of anti-Semitism in Algeria and in France, he found his Jewish heritage problematic, especially when he married outside his faith. He became friendly with Palestinians when he lectured in Israeli and joined and Jean Genet, the playwright and novelist, and Jean Paul Sartre, in advocating for them. Having visited Israel many times and studied the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, as well as the events and personalities surrounding the 9/11 attacks, I find that Derrida’s analysis ignores Bin Laden’s personal grudge against the United States and his urge to establish himself as a revolutionary leader.
Derrida lectured for hours without a break, speaking mostly about himself, on seemingly arbitrary, if not downright tedious topics. His disciples hung on every word. Others found this infuriating. Derrida was proud of his stamina and once lectured for 12 hours in a single day straight–with a break or two. I’ve lectured for more than an hour and I’ve sat through lectures that have lasted longer than three hours. I don’t care if you’re the world’s greatest comedian, the most interesting person ever, the holder of fifteen degrees and the Noble Prize–going on for more than an hour is just too much.
My friend did not reveal what he hated about Derrida. Instead he advised me to read a book by a philosopher he liked: Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. I recommended David Hume to him, and we left it at that.

What I didn’t mention was what I admired about Derrida.

Deconstruction, as a technique for textual analysis, really helps expose hidden biases and subtle cruelties.
He endured the hatred and vilification, and then the jealousy of the French philosophical establishment, and kept his personal squabbles private.
He showed how speech is not the higher or purer form of communication compared to writing. Writing has its own mysteries, complexities and charm.
He enjoyed puns as both jokes and tools for philosophical inquiry. He believed that “play” was more than just amusement: it was a way of arriving at unique points of view and new meanings.
He was a tireless teacher on the international circuit, eventually establishing visiting professorships at Yale, New York University and the University of California at Irvine.
He wrote many books, commentaries and lectures that are nearly impenetrable and almost impossible to translate adequately. This was done deliberately in an effort to question ideas, and ideologies, about truth, authenticity, meaning and identity.
He got some of his ideas, as I still do, while indulging in physical activity, such as swimming or running.
He savored that dumbfounded moment you get when, instead of arriving at the truth, you find yourself in an unsolvable paradox. He called this “aporia,” the Greek word for the moment when you are flummoxed and begin to doubt, or question what you assumed you knew.
He began each writing session by asking, “Why write?” I don’t know if he found an answer, but he let the writing happen.
He was brave enough to endure the bad reviews, insults and petty nastiness of his peers, and, instead, honored his writing, and those of others who, philosophers or not, believed putting words on a page worthwhile and necessary.


Well Sauced

President Richard Nixon liked a bowl of cottage cheese and ketchup. Some biographers have noted that he also ate cottage cheese with pepper, and fruit, which is actually quite tasty. My grandmother Rose was a fan of cottage cheese and melon, especially cantaloupe. I’ve tried it: the sweetness of the melon blends well with the salty, slightly bitter cream of the cottage cheese.

Ketchup is another matter. Originally a fish sauce, it was brought to this country two centuries ago and did wonders for the fortunes of the H.J. Heinz Company, which trademarked their version–still the most popular in the United States–as “catsup.” The word derives from Asia, though some think it could be from a European derivation of an Asian expression meaning “food with sauce.”

Most Americans don’t think of ketchup as a sauce. Supermarkets put it in a section called condiments. These include a famous French sauce, dijonaise, which most of us know as mustard.

Condiments tend not to be considered food, though President Ronald Reagan, while promoting shameful legislation that would have reduced funding for public school lunches, once called ketchup a vegetable, presumably because its red color comes from tomatoes, which were legally classed a “fruit” in an infamous New York City taxation case.

You can make a ketchup with sweet red peppers, but the kind I like to dump on my hamburger uses a tomato,  which, a few centuries ago, was thought to be a dangerous aphrodisiac.

Did ketchup ever compete with music as the “food of love”? I doubt it. Sauces have had a more practical function over the long history of cuisine: they disguised the taste of spoiled, or ineptly prepared food. My first cooking teacher told me that if I ever burned an omelet, I should cover the dark patches with a tomato sauce.

Unless you’re a former president, ketchup, soy sauce, tamari, mustard, Tobasco, numerous salsas, Worcestershire, steak sauce, barbecue sauce, and mayonnaise (a sauce invented as a salad dressing on the Mediterranean island of Minorca, near the town of Mihon, to appease the finicky palate of the famed French lover, Armand De Vignerot du Plessis, inspiration for the serial seducer Valmont in Dangerous Liasons ) are not considered nutritionally complete to constitute a meal (though egg-based mayonnaise has enough fat and protein to do the job). As condiments, they are added to our food to enhance it (veal with Cumberland sauce, roast turkey with “brown” gravy, Cheese-wiz on sauteed sirloin shavings and onions on an Italian roll becomes the famous Philadelphia cheesesteak), bind contrary flavors (Hollandaise on a poached egg and grilled ham becomes Eggs Benedict, a bechemel in chicken pot pie brings the vegetables and chicken pieces into a yummy harmony), disguise flaws (my first cooking teacher advised me to cover the brown spots on an overcooked omelet with tomato sauce), add color, texture, keep food from drying out or, in the case of ketchup and mustard combo on a fast food hamburger, give bland chunk of coagulated beef a hot-sweet-and-sour zing.

Some sauces dominate a dish, as in chicken dijonaise, a favorite in my youthful days at the only restaurant in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown whose menu I could afford, or steak Bearnaise, which I learned to make before I ordered it in a restaurant. Beef stroganoff uses a sour cream sauce. Lobster soong, a blow-out dish that my parents enjoyed, puts chunks of lobster in an egg sauce.

And how many of us can forget the bliss of sweet-and-sour, teriyaki and barbeque? Would we have eaten so much, so quickly, without the sauce?

Which makes me ask, to what extent do we taste the sauce, that is, indulge our desire for pleasure, in our lives, instead of eating only what we need to slake our hunger? With so many new hamburger chains appearing offering “unlimited” toppings, how often have we decided to forgo the additives and merely taste the meat?

How important is it that we be pleased with what we consume (and that act of consumption be pleasant)? To what extent is our identity–who we think we are (as well as who or what others want us to be)–is shaped by the frequency, variety and quality of pleasures we indulge?

Why do we feel guilty, or shameful, when we over indulge (like binge-watching that steamed TV series), even if what we’ve done hasn’t endangered or hurt anyone?

And, to adapt a metaphor, how often do we wish we had a some kind of metaphorical sauce to cover up, add flavor,or make pleasurable what has become a dull chore? So many develop addictions and compulsive illnesses to these so-called sauces.

One good thing I’ve learned about writing. You have days when a cup of coffee, a morning walk, a long run, a fancy quotation, a smile from your muse (to whom I happen to be married) or a tune from your favorite musician will make the words flow. Then you have days when the nothing works.

I must be thankful that, beyond a morning cup of joe and tendency to get lost in computer solitaire, I’m not an addict. I’m not waiting for some substance to make my life livable.

Such thoughts went through my head as I wolfed down a grilled brisket burger–with ketchup on a toasted potato flour bun–and tried to watch on Netflix (or was it Amazon Prime?) a thriller series that, according to the reviews, had pleased most people. While I noted good production values and competent acting, I found that the series was so formulaic that I could predict when danger would strike? Why was such obvious manipulation unpleasant for me?

I remember talking to a mild-mannered, amiable fellow who was a “super” professional wrestling fan. He said he enjoyed watching the outrageous theatrical antics because he liked being fooled. I enjoy roller coaster rides and live performances of magic for the same reason. I watch  “special effects” films in which armies of computer technicians spent months in front of their keyboards so I can pretend that a spaceship is zooming away.

And yet, I don’t like politicians and authority figures lying to me. I don’t play poker because I’d rather not be fooled when my prestige and money is on the table. Perhaps I see myself as a person who so powerfully doesn’t want to be fooled, that he will only condone being fooled in ways in which he knows he’s being fooled, or doesn’t care if he’s fooled or not?

I finished that brisket burger too quickly. Another sat on the tray, just waiting to be eaten. Did my body need two burgers in one night? Was I that hungry?

No. But I just had to taste that burger–without the ketchup.

I took one bite and imagined my ancestors huddling together on a dark night, roasting pieces o’ beast on an open fire. Someone threw a hunk to me and put it my mouth as my ancestors turned to me and waited for my judgement.

“Needs ketchup,” I said.