Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Face of Compassion

Balut photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Mind racing, I stared at the egg my student held out to me.

“I have three of them,” he said excitedly.  “One for each of us.”

He motioned to his friend who nodded excitedly.

It wasn’t an “ordinary” egg.  It was balut, a steamed or roasted egg containing a bird embryo in its final stages of development. 

I take a certain amount of pride at being food adventurous.  With a Japanese mother, anything sea related has always been fair culinary game in our household.  But when I was around eight years old, my sister and I started to actively seek exotic cuisine.  My father, a Marine, indulged us, perhaps believing he was providing survival skills as well as expanding our palate. 

In the first year, we were introduced to rabbit, goose, snake, frog legs and escargot.  My father prepared the food as my mother looked on in stunned bewilderment.  He had never before (or since) cooked anything other than steak on the grill or creamed corn casserole for Thanksgiving.  True, the snake and escargot were canned, but they still required preparation.  The escargot came in a “kit” that included a canister of empty snail shells.  Surprisingly, the only food that got the thumbs down was the rabbit.  It was dry.

College further broadened my dining experiences.  I was introduced to Indian, Greek, and Middle Eastern cuisine.  When three of my girlfriends and I got an apartment, we took turns cooking for each other.  One roommate cooked pigs’ ears.  Crunchy.  She later brought ducks’ feet.  What was there to eat?  There was no flesh.  And having had pet ducks, I couldn’t get past thinking, Do you know where those feet have been?  Ironically, that same roommate drew the line at raw fish. 

I also met a friend who only ate things she could kill herself (based on emotion, not skill).  She felt that letting someone else kill an animal in order to avoid the emotional cost was disrespectful to the butcher and the animal.  Setting a personal rather than societal criteria interested me.  Then I went to eat a Famous Star Burger. 

But my friend’s point became personal during a visit home.  My parents served my favorite, pressed duck from the local Chinese restaurant.  I was enjoying the greasiness and crispiness and picked up another piece.  I looked at it in confusion.  Duck parts look different when they’re pressed.  I flipped the piece over and recognized it immediately.  It was the head.

Live ducks are cute.  Like bottle-nosed dolphins, they always look like they’re smiling.  Their cheeks are plump, making their eyes slightly crescent shaped and the corners of their mouth curl up.  And there on my plate, was half of a smiling face.  I was horrified.  I turned it back over hoping it would make a difference.  It didn’t.  Now that I emotionally realized “pressed duck” was actually a duck, I wondered, Could I kill a duck?  

During middle school, I had raised quail with a neighbor.  When the flock grew too large, we were told to thin out the roosters for slaughter.  We chose what we called “rapist” birds.  We caught them in flagrante delicto and sentenced them to death.  Even so, I couldn’t watch their execution, but I plucked and ate them.

Unfortunately, our cleansing of the “criminal element” turned the flock into an evolutionary fiasco.  The chicks in the following clutches grew progressively weaker until they couldn’t break out of their shells.  In the final clutch, only one chick broke out of its shell and it lay dying from the effort.  It struggled for each breath and I thought it would be more humane to break its neck.  It’s not as easy as people say, especially when you’re not fully committed.

Lookism plays a crucial role in selecting who does or doesn't get eaten.
On New Year’s Day, 1987, I, too, decided not to eat anything I wouldn’t kill myself.  I tell people I’m a vegetarian.   It’s too complicated to say it depends on the face.  I still devour mollusks with gusto.  Despite having performed CPR on a goldfish, I can still kill fish, although now I have environmental concerns.  Thankfully, crab and lobster look like their spider cousins and a California spa death of water and wine gradually brought to a boil seems gentler than the sole of a shoe.  Insects aren’t a regular part of my diet, but I do confess to having eaten grasshoppers without any hesitation.

In the name of “cultural exploration,” I grant myself some leeway for the truly unique.  In Louisiana, I tried alligator, red boudin, and pigs’ lips.  In Ireland, I tried black pudding.  At a Burns’ Ball, I tried haggis (not as awful as it sounds).  In fact, it was a classroom discussion about “cultural exploration” that prompted the balut offering.
The student eagerly waited for me to take the balut.  I couldn’t, but then I couldn’t comfortably refuse outright either. 

 Where had he found it?  I wondered.  Was it expensive?  Rare?  “I’m a vegetarian,” I reminded him. 

He nodded.  “But you eat regular eggs?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Why is this different?” he asked.

“It’s not a chicken yet,” his friend added helpfully.

Chicken abortion?  I wasn’t going to go there.

“When I open the shell,” I said, “I’ll see its face.”  

The boys’ brows furrowed in puzzlement.

“I really appreciate you offering the balut to me,” I said.  “I’m sorry.”

I realized that I was unintentionally rejecting the universal understanding that sharing food is a gesture of kindness, generosity, and fellowship. 

I felt awful.  Torn.
“It’s o.k.” the student said and smiled.  “Don’t worry.”

 I smiled back, hesitantly.  The student and his friend laughed.

 “Really,” they assured me.  “It’s o.k.”

 They left happily chatting about their after school plans, enjoying the balut, and deciding who would get the spare. 

Compassion.  It’s not just what’s inside an egg.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Void of Possibilities

The Honeymoon Bowl
Dao – The balance of opposites.  A bowl cannot exist unless it has a substance and emptiness

When my husband and I got married almost 15 years ago, my mother gave me some money specifically to buy a souvenir of our honeymoon in Ireland.
“Don’t get junk.  Get something special,” she’d said in her chiding tone as she handed me an envelope of cash.

What to get that both of us would enjoy?  The obvious tourist shops were out.  A keg of Guinness would only last a month or so, Jameson’s not much longer.  I’m fond of antiques so that seemed like a logical place to start.  Budget aside, nothing caught my attention and my husband quickly (but politely) got tired of going into the shops with me.  Since I thought the search should be a joint agreement, those hunting ventures ended.

 When we went to Kylemore Abbey, there was a pottery shop nearby.  Pottery?  Most Irish pottery (not fine china), is decorated with stamping.  A little too rustic for our taste.  But I do like handmade.   One group of pottery caught our eye.  The glaze was emerald green, and all the ware had rune-like patterns carved into the clay.  We both liked the look and portability wasn’t a problem.  The question was what type of pottery?  Tea pot?  Neither of us drank tea.  Platter? Hm.  Bowl?

The bowl got my vote, although it would be more difficult to transport.  My husband wanted the platter.
“But a bowl has so many possibilities,” I argued, a more esoteric view starting to come into focus.  “It can be used to hold fruit, Christmas ornaments, flowers …”

“So, it’s more practical,” my husband said.  “We’ll use it more?”
My husband is left-brained.  I’m not.

“Yes … no,” I vacillated.  “It could be.” 
Despite not totally understanding me, my husband agreed to purchase the bowl.  This is why I married him.
Then, after returning home, he did the verboten.  He put fruit in the bowl.

“You can’t put fruit in that bowl,” I said.

“Why not?  It’s not being used for anything else.” He compared the bunch of bananas to the bowl.  “It fits.”

“But then it’ll be a fruit bowl,” I explained.
Blank expression.

The forgotten and neglected Christmas ball bowl.
“If it’s the fruit bowl, we’ll always put fruit in it,” I clarified.
Blank expression turned to puzzled look.  “So, what do we put in it then?” he asked.

“Nothing,” I said.

“Yes.  Nothing.”

I emptied the bowl, wiped it clean, and returned it to the coffee table.  I put the fruit in another bowl.  I can’t begin to explain the expression on his face at that point.

“So, what was the point in getting that bowl?” he asked.  “Didn’t you say that it could be used to hold fruit, Christmas ornaments, flowers …?”

“But, that’s the whole point,” I said.  “It could be used for a multitude of things.  The possibilities are endless.”

“Then, why aren’t we using it for a multitude of things?”

“Because then the possibilities would be gone,” I said.  “It would be the fruit bowl or the flower bowl or, heaven forbid, the potpourri bowl.”

We both shuddered at that thought.

“When it’s empty, anything is possible,” I concluded with some satisfaction.

I don’t know that he understood me, but he did the excellent husband thing and nodded and let it go.

When my friends first started to get married, I usually bought picture frames.  Partly because I was on a limited budget, partly because it was practical since they would have wedding pictures.  I also liked the idea of capturing and treasuring memories.  I was a history major, after all. 

After the “honeymoon bowl,” I changed my point of view.  I was never big on taking or displaying photos.  Frequently, I’m just too distracted to remember to take a picture.  But looking at possibilities?  I’m always doing that.

Since then, as designated gift purchaser for weddings, I’ve bought bowls.  What better way to start a new life together than considering all the possibilities.

The last wedding we went to was for Doug’s cousin.  Because they’re a young couple, we got their bridal registry.  We were standing in the middle of Pottery Barn perusing the list.

“Look,” my husband said, reading over my shoulder.  “There’s a bowl.”

Grasshopper has learned well.

“Are you sure you don’t want to get the martini glasses?” I asked, half-joking.

“We can get those and the bowl,” he said with a smile.

Cocktails and possibilities.  Not a bad way to start a married life.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Slippery Slope

In the early/mid 1990s, there was a terrific t.v. show called Northern Exposure, about a young doctor (Rob Morrow)  paying off his med school bills by working in tiny Cecily, Alaska.  On one episode, the doctor has two patients with similar symptoms of restlessnes and erratic behavior.  One man (John Collum) is in his 60s and the other (John Corbett) in his 20s.  The doctor discovers the 60 year old man's family tends to live to over 100 years old, whereas the younger man's family tends to die in their 40s or younger.  Therefore, the diagnosis for both men is a "mid-life crisis."

This got me thinking, which is frequently a dangerous and ridiculous occurence.  With the exception of my paternal grandfather, on average my ancestors tend to live to be around 90 years old.  This puts me in a slightly precarious situation.  If Northern Exposure's theory holds true, as of today, I'm on the downward slope of middle age.  It's not that I feel like I'm gazing into the yawning mouth of death.  I mean, looking back, there's tons of stuff that I don't remember, time that I piddled away doing nothing in particular and times where I did some really spectacular stuff.  I figure, at the end of the line, I'll think the same thing about today:  Just another day in the life of me.

So, why a blog and why now?  One argument is that it's in the stars.  Not only was I born in the Year of the Snake, but I'm also a Leo.  That being the case, the question ought to be why haven't I had a blog until now (the business one aside)?  Blogs are horribly egotistical, taking Facebook and Twitter a giant step further. Why restrict pontificating and status updates to 140 characters?  Why not expand my insightful and profound thoughts to pages and pages?  AND why limit it to Friends?  Shouldn't the whole virtual universe be aware of my mediocrity?  Um, yes.  I don't know that I can be as entertaining as Ms. Palin, but at least you'll know that I'm trying to be funny/snide/droll.

The other reason for a blog is to stretch my writing skills into the non-fiction realm.  The newletters and ad copy are o.k., and the fiction stuff is something different altogether.  In school, I didn't much care for writing compare and contrast essays, but I adored answering essay questions on undergrad and grad exams.  I was fortunate.  My professors looked for well constructed arguments with suitable evidence rather than concurrence, and on that front I did o.k..  So, we'll see what happens.  I'll try to present a thesis, and set up a decent defense.

So, what will The Cranky Cow discuss?  Probably not much on the dog front since that's covered in the other blog.  Music, film, fashion, events of everyday life will probably be the majority of it.  Societal commentary would be a good blanket description.  Properly vague, but with high brow cache - Proustian.  Go ahead.  Clean the spit off the computer screen and return.

In the meantime, I've got cake in a bowl, a lovely icy glass of Pernod, a bouquet of red freesias (my favorite for their fragrance), music, my health, my hounds, and my hubby - place into whatever order you please - oh, and sushi and martinis for dinner.  Slippery slope be damned.  With all due respect to Great Big Sea, not such an Ordinary Day.  And I feel fine.
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