Pardonnez Mon Français (or, The Benefits of Haldi)

Non, cher reader, je ne vous ai pas oublié. J’ai de très bonnes raisons pour ce long silence.

But first, my apologies to the francophone reader who knows I should have used excuser and not pardonner in the title. My French dictionary is right now louring upon me like the clouds upon a Shakespearean king’s House, but I’m not apologizing to it. It’s a Webster, not a Larousse. It has no right to lour upon me. Au contraire, it should be beaming gratefully at me for picking it up a Staples or Office Depot store closing sale and giving it a home almost ten years ago. It might have been pulped or donated to a thrift store otherwise. Instead, it has a seat on my Reference shelf, with prospects of seeing a certain French monument in the near future.

Eiffel Tower

Perhaps I should apologize to the anglophone, lusophone, hispanophone, or any other-phone reader who, understanding a little French, clicked on this post hoping to find some four-letter words that count as “French” in English. I’m sorry to disappoint you – unless you consider the four-lettered word 75% similar to the word word as a four-letter word.

Since I am kindly disposed towards you – don’t I often insert a four-lettered term of endearment before reader? – let me give you a clue. The four-lettered word in question has a five-lettered synonym, which has six letters in British English, thanks to u.

For the reader who is still scratching his head, let me give a clue about the clue. The five-lettered Am. Eng. version has a national holiday named for it (clue: first Monday in September). The six-lettered Brit. Eng. version has a political party named for it (clue: not that of Britain’s only female PM, who was in labor once but delivered twice).

Margaret Thatcher and her kids

As I was searching for images of Margaret Thatcher and her twins, I came across this tribute Meryl Streep, who played Thatcher in The Iron Lady, sent out when Thatcher died in April 2013. Naturally, Streep’s first adjective caught my attention.

“Margaret Thatcher was a pioneer, willingly or unwillingly, for the role of women in politics. I was honored to try to imagine her late life journey, after power; but I have only a glancing understanding of what her many struggles were, and how she managed to sail through to the other side.”

Playing Thatcher was work for Streep, and I wish the work that kept me from you these many weeks had been as glamorous. Alas, it was a prosaic matter of coming up with descriptions for products with ingredients like methylchloroisothiazolinone. If you want to know more about that 27-lettered word, it has its own Wikipedia entry. Just for fun I searched for “methylchloroisothiazolinone images,” and you won’t believe— No, actually I believe you will believe. You’ve searched for images of 27-lettered words yourself. You know what’s out there.

No MethylchloroisothiazolinoneI had not intended to mention methylchloroisothiazolinone when I turned on my computer to write this post. You must forgive me, reader. I have been laid up with a cold and fever since the day after Thanksgiving, alternating between shots of NyQuil and DayQuil, and that’s bound to have affected my ability to think coherently. Perhaps the reason I have come this far is because I have also been drinking haldi milk.

For those who don’t know, haldi in milk is an Indian remedy for colds – haldi being Hindi for turmeric, that yellow spice that gives curry its color. The Wikipedia entry for turmeric begins with the sentence below. (The sentence has six hyperlinks, including one for the phonetic transcription. All of these, dear reader, bearing your sanity in mind, I have removed.)

“Turmeric (Curcuma longa) / ‘tɜrmərɪk/ is a rhizomatous herbaceous perennial plant of the ginger family, Zingiberaceae.” 

What I knew of turmeric before writing this post was that it has anti-inflammatory properties, it is rich in antioxidants, it helps prevents cancer, and it’s considered an antiaging agent because it combats free radicals. To make sure I was not omitting any of its many benefits, I searched for “benefits of turmeric” and found this gem from a book titled Indian Spices and Condiments as Natural Healers by Dr. H.K. Bhakru:

“Turmeric is aromatic, stimulant and tonic. It corrects disordered process of nutrition and restores the normal function of the system. It is a carminative, antiseptic, a great anti-flatulent, blood purifier and expectorant.”

Through that same article I learnt that the benefits of haldi include:
(i) Lowering cholesterol;
(ii) Controlling diabetes;
(iii) Preventing liver disease; and
(iv) Preventing Alzheimer’s (either I didn’t know that, or else I’d forgotten).

Please don’t rush off to your favorite Indian restaurant just yet. I have a story to tell you. I’ll tell it, you read it, and then we can part ways until my next post, which will most likely be written in the land of haldi (and other spices).

India spices

When I started writing this post, I had intended to share the ten Shakespearean plays I like best and why. You might have been surprised why some make my list and others don’t, but I’d have reminded you of what the 17th-century French mathematician-physicist-philosopher, Blaise Pascal, had said (“Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point”), and I’d have begged your pardon for not including one of the four great tragedies. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, there’ll be no prizes for guessing which of the four great tragedies would top my list.

NyQuil and DayQuil are doing their number on me, dear reader, and my position has been getting steadily more horizontal with each successive paragraph. But I promised to tell you a story and you know I like keeping my word. In “Keeping My Word,” I had told you that I was keeping my word to a couple librarians to promote my events at their libraries. One of the ways I did this was by posting the flyer I had created (in Word) all over the cities of Pasadena and Sierra Madre. Well, all is hyperbole, but I certainly put in many flyer miles. My story takes place on one of those frequent flyer trips, outside a coffee shop in Pasadena.

Sharon Edwards ArtNight

I was walking to my car after posting my flyer at the back of the coffee shop (the only place they allow flyers to be posted). I’d had to get the barista’s permission because the manager was “at lunch,” and since they don’t serve lunch at the coffee shop, she was not on site (and therefore out of sight). But my story is not about the barista or her manager. It’s about a cute guy I found seated at a table, reading a book, outside the coffee shop.

Now I have a personal rule not to approach cute guys outside coffee shops, though I don’t mind bending this rule if they happen to be reading a book. I didn’t ask this cute guy what he was reading, which would come across as your standard pickup cliché. I merely asked him if he had read my book.

He looked up with a slightly bemused expression and I quickly showed him the book. He blinked, looked at it, and said he’d never heard of it. That’s no way to flatter a famous author, but I’m not a famous author so it didn’t bother me. Instead, I took it as an opportunity to give him the thirty-second promo spiel. He seemed to find it interesting, so I gave him another thirty seconds. And another. And perhaps another. By which time he had the book in his hands and was reading the back cover.

I invited him to ArtNight Pasadena and he said he’d try to make it. Then, out of curiosity, I asked him what he was reading. I’m passing this information on to you, dear reader, because I know how much you like puns. He was reading Just My Type: A Book about Fonts by Simon Garfield.

Just My Type

As we were saying goodbye, I asked him his name. I know I should have done that when we said hello, but we never actually said hello. Our conversation had begun in medias res, like epics do.

Reader, it was an epic moment when he told me that his name is Hamlet. Here’s a picture to prove I am telling the truth. The camera never lies.

Sharon Edwards and Hamlet

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Leavesdropping

In my last post, “Listless in Los Angeles” (August 1), I had listed five things we can do to not be listless. Since I like to walk my talk, I didn’t talk during my walk one day earlier this week. Or, to use the terminology I had used in “Listless,” I paused for a moment of stillness and silence while exercising. But such is the world’s resistance to walking the talk that the moment had barely begun when it ended with the sound of a man’s voice saying “My job has no value!”

It was said with such vehemence that my thoughts stopped in their tracks. I was walking in a garden and the man was on the outside. I edged to the hedge, parted the leaves, and dropped in on his conversation.

I was expecting a stocky, scruffy thirtysomething, but this guy was older, taller, and better dressed. For some reason his appearance generated in my mind the image of a nineteenth-century explorer staring across a thundering waterfall in the African interior. I hadn’t thought of David Livingstone in months, maybe years, but this man brought to mind that worthy pioneer – which, of course, brings to mind Hamlet.

Hamlet is the great eavesdropping play, except that people listen behind arrases, not from eaves. The word eavesdropper came into use almost four score years before Shakespeare’s birth, and the first recorded use of the verb is found in the 1606 comedy Sir Giles Goosecap (“We will be bold to evesdroppe”). The general consensus on the authorship of this anonymous play is that it was written by George Chapman, the chap also identified as the Rival Poet in Sonnets LXXVII–LXXXVI. Chapman’s Homer inspired Keats to pen a sonnet I love because of the imagery in the sestet:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Although I have never looked into Chapman’s Homer and felt like stout Cortez staring at the Pacific, I’m glad Bardolators didn’t change eavesdropping to arrasdropping because I’d have had to come up with a different title for this post. Arrantdropping might have worked as a pun, but I’m not arrant (though at times I’m a ranter).

The classic line on eavesdropping in Hamlet appears in the scene in which Hamlet talks to himself for the third time in as many acts. (Which, when you think about it, is not bad for the most talkative character in Shakespeare.) Hamlet is unaware that someone is listening to his soliloquy – from behind the arras, that is. The audience in front of him should be listening, but audiences can be perverse when it comes to listening to Hamlet’s soliloquies. So strongly do I feel about this that I call them “scullions” and “dull and muddy-mettled rascals” in my Hamlet story, “The Tiffany Lamp.”

It’s a good thing Hamlet is unaware of the eavesdroppers, or he might not have said all those great lines about mortal coils and bare bodkins. And he might have gone on talking to himself had Ophelia not entered to remind him of his sins. He tells her to get herself to a nunnery (where she will say many orisons, which is necessary because he is an arrant knave and his sins are many), and exits. Enter the eavesdroppers, the king and Polonius, who tells Ophelia, “You need not tell us what Lord Hamlet said; / We heard it all” (III, i, 182-83). In an ironic twist at the end of that act, Polonius is killed while eavesdropping behind the arras in the queen’s bedchamber.

Back to the world of the living. When I parted the leaves to eavesdrop, I saw that the man was following a golden lab and being followed by a golden-haired lass. I took them to be his dog and his daughter. I admit I could be wrong about the lass, but the dogged way the man was following the lab could only mean that he was its master.

“I wanted to be an engineer,” the man continued. “I wanted to build things, you know? To be part of something bigger.”

Something bigger? I’d said something similar myself, and that very morning! I had to hear more. I sidled along the hedge, dropping leaves as I eavesdropped.

“Instead, I get paid a lot to do nothing.”

That’s better than getting paid nothing to do a lot, I thought.

The golden-haired lass mumbled something, which I’m still kicking myself for not catching because it made him laugh. But I doubt what she said was terribly funny, because the laugh was short and bitter. More like the yelp of pain the golden lab might make if someone stepped on its leg.

The lass pulled out her phone. The man was still ahead and didn’t notice. Moments later he amended his statement: “I get paid a lot to do nothing of value.

Getting paid a lot to do nothing of value is worse than getting paid nothing to do a lot of value. Work that is of value is its own reward. Ask any volunteer – including members of the Shakespeare by the Sea troupe who acted in Hamlet this season. But that’s not what I was thinking when I heard the amendment. Instead, my train of thought went something like this:

Surely he isn’t leading a life of crime . . . What he does must have some value to someone . . . His clients (if he has any) must value his services . . . His wife (if he has one) must value his paycheck . . .

Instead of satisfying my curiosity about his occupation and what others think of it, the man merely repeated himself: “I want to be part of something bigger.”

His voice had less bitterness and more yearning this time, and that’s when I got it. The issue was not the work’s intrinsic value or its value to others. The issue was the work’s value to him! Why did he think it lacked value? He’d said earlier that he wanted to be part of something bigger, but what would that look like to him?

Sadly, we’ll never find out, because that’s when my leavesdropping eavesdropping ended. I had reached the garden wall. The man, the golden lab, and the golden-haired lass were further up the open trail. Had I been on the other side of the hedge, and feeling brave enough for a potential rebuke, I might have said, “Excuse me, I couldn’t help overhearing what you just said. May I ask you something?”

If I had done this and if, instead of boxing my eavesdropping ears, the man had given me permission to fire away, I’d have asked him what he’d like to do. If he had been willing to engage in conversation, it might have helped him discover the “something bigger” and I might have persuaded him to pursue it. Who knows, our conversation might even have helped the golden-haired lass with her career choice, but don’t ask me how it would have helped the golden lab. If it were a brown dachshund, now . . .

Since money doesn’t seem to be a problem, the man would have a better chance at realizing his dream than most of us. But sometimes it’s more than the lack of means that keeps us from our dreams. Sometimes it’s a physical condition, or a personal or professional commitment that constrains us. And sometimes it’s an issue of the soul.

For those over a certain age (as this man certainly was), years of disappointment can lead to despair and then, means or no means, the beans and the bounce, the dash and the drive, the energy and the esprit, the go and the gusto, the pep and the punch, the sap and the snap, the vim and the vigor, the zing and the zip just aren’t there. Had we had the conversation, and had I noticed that something of this nature was holding him back, I’d have suggested someone he could talk to, someone who is adept at helping people overcome such obstacles.

The ideal end of the conversation that never happened is that the man would have lived happily ever after. At the very least, it would have let him lament his lot before a sympathetic audience. The golden lab was deaf to his master’s voice, and the golden-haired lass was already deep into her phone. My listening ear would have made a difference, of that I’m sure. For not everyone is like the Elizabethan sonneteer who, when in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, all alone beweeps his outcast state.

Sonnet XXIX

A Good Murder

A light rain was falling when I stepped off the number 25 at Newcastle-under-Lyme, but it was surprisingly warm for a mid-February afternoon. As I crossed the street that separates the bus stand from the town center, I pulled the hood of my jacket over my head and decided to leave my umbrella in my satchel. It wasn’t far to the library, and a little rain never did any harm. It might even do me some good, I thought, as I remembered last night’s skipped shower.

Apart from the desire to get away from the Keele campus, I also wanted to find out if the Newcastle library had a better copy of Of Human Bondage than the one I’d found on the university’s bookshelves. A lifetime of reading and half a decade as a professional copyeditor and proofreader have damaged my eyes, and I can no longer read books typeset in what is known in publishing as tight leading. The line spacing of Keele library’s only copy of Of Human Bondage was too close for comfort, so I didn’t borrow it.

Of Human Bondage

For some reason this book had been on my mind for the past two weeks, and I wanted to give it a second chance. The last time, several years ago, something had interrupted me before I could finish the first chapter, and my interest in the story vanished. I never picked it up again. And now here I was, making my way through the cobbled lanes of a quaint English market town more than five thousand miles from LA, with Somerset Maugham’s famous title reverberating in my head.

The guy at the downstairs counter, who was yawning when I stepped through the library’s automatic door, blinked when I asked him where I would find the book. After I had repeated myself (in response to his blank stare), he pointed to the ceiling and said, “Upstairs.”

It isn’t right, I thought, as I went to the second floor. This is a famous book, written by one of the best known English writers of the twentieth century, and one would think it would be among the classics downstairs. Then it struck me that I hadn’t seen any classics on the shelves downstairs.

The upstairs counter was manned by two women who were carrying on a conversation with a balding man in a faded blue jacket. The older woman was slim and stylishly dressed, every bronze-tinted hair in place, jewelry coordinated perfectly with her fuchsia blouse. The younger woman was tall and thickset, her greying hair hanging limply about her broad shoulders. She had a large, placid face, and she was wearing a light grey blouse that gave her complexion a washed-out look. Unlike her colleague, she didn’t have on a spot of makeup.

“What was the title again, duck?” asked the fuchsia woman.

I repeated myself (again).

“A classic,” remarked the man in the blue jacket, looking into the distance with a dreamy expression. “Also a film with Leslie Howard and Bette Davis.”

Of Human Bondage Film

“Oh dear, let me see, where would we find it?” The fuchsia woman became red with fluster, wringing her hands and fiddling with her pink necklace. She peeped under the counter and lifted a stack of papers, as if the book might be hiding there.

In the meantime, the other assistant turned calmly to the computer and typed something. She then looked up and announced, “We have one copy in Staffordshire.”

One copy in all of Staffordshire?

“Crying shame, isn’t it?” She shook her head, as if to acknowledge that I had a reason to be shocked. “But the library has limited shelf-space, and we can only keep books that are in demand. People don’t seem to be reading literature anymore.”

“It’s the same story everywhere,” I replied, and I wasn’t trying to pun.

“I’ll take a look inside,” said the fuchsia woman, scurrying away in her purple heels. I turned back to the woman in grey, whose pale face had suddenly become magnetic. Our conversation moved to current reading trends, which favor action-based potboilers filled with sex and violence. The man in the blue jacket wandered off to a free computer terminal.

“I read the book many years ago,” said the woman in grey. “I enjoyed it.”

“I haven’t read it,” I confessed, “but I want to give it a shot. I’m picky about what I read.”

“Me too,” she said. “I definitely prefer the classics. But mind you, every now and then I will read something light. Nothing like a spy novel or a good murder.” She clicked her tongue with relish, as though she was thinking of a glazed Danish pastry.

The fuchsia woman returned to the counter. “I’m sorry, duck, but our only copy is at the Stafford branch, and it’s checked out. It’s due in two weeks. You can put a hold on it for fifty p.”

I decided to wait until I saw what the copy was like before parting with my fifty pence. Perhaps I would even find a readable copy at one of the Newcastle thrift stores between now and then. I thanked the women and made my way downstairs.

The rain was falling harder now, so I pulled out my umbrella when I stepped outside the library. As I began walking in the direction of the Oxfam store, still smiling at the library assistant’s turn of phrase, a line from my favorite work of literature came to mind: “Murder most foul, as in the best it is.”

Could it be that the Ghost of Hamlet’s father was telling me that there’s no such thing as a good murder?

Ghost of Hamlet

Unfatefully Yours

In “Her Greatest Assets” (April 26) I had mentioned Shantaram, the novel a Seattle Times reviewer described as “a huge, messy, over-the-top, irresistible, shaggy-dog story.” I’m going to mention it again, but this time I won’t express regrets about having possibly missed seeing Gregory David Roberts scribble notes on a napkin because I lacked the gall to enter Leopold Cafe when I lived in Mumbai (in what Scott Fitzgerald would call my younger and more vulnerable years). Nor will I attempt to critique this 933-page novel, every word of which I did read at least once. My favorite passages, such as the one in which Didier says he loves the English language “because so much of it is French,” and the one in which Lin hugs an incarcerated bear, I read several times. The Afghanistan bits were a bit of a slog, but I did finish the book.

My enthusiastic raving after I’d read the first chapter inspired a coworker at Warner Bros. to buy a copy, but last I heard he hadn’t got past Part One. It’s not because he isn’t a reader. He’s very widely read, and most of our conversations were about books, but he said that for him “the charm wore off” after Part One. I admit I like that part best, but I’m glad I finished Shantaram because the last paragraph was almost as rewarding as the first. So alluring is the latter that I am quoting it in its entirety, with the disclaimer I’ve picked up from YouTube that no copyright infringement is intended.

It took me a long time and most of the world to know what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realised, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in the shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn’t sounds like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it’s all you’ve got, that freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life.

I was reminded of this paragraph on Monday night, because of something someone said at the book club I’ve been attending for some weeks now.

Of Supreme Court Decisions
The discussion entered politics when one of my fellow book club members said he was enraged by how a certain Supreme Court justice had voted on a certain issue. We had not been discussing politics until then. We’d been talking about the human freedom of choice and how it is intrinsic to how we’re wired, and this gentleman, who otherwise speaks in calm, measured tones, became impassioned as he began discussing an issue that is clearly dear to his heart. “I wish I could vote that judge out!” he cried.

(To the reader who is more interested in my writing style than my content I say yes, I have indeed resorted to using a dialogue attribution that writing instructors would not approve of. I don’t like “he cried” myself – and not because I don’t like it when men cry. Truth be told, I find it quite attractive at times. But in this instance, even though my fellow book club member didn’t burst into tears, “he said” would have been weak and “he yelled” would have been untrue.)

After my fellow book club member had ended his speech as described above, yours truly had something to say.

“If we’re talking about the human freedom of choice,” I said, “then it must apply to everyone, and that includes this justice and those who voted them in.”

What I meant was that this justice, who my fellow book club member would impeach if he could, had made a series of choices that brought them into the position they now hold. Decades before, they had chosen law as their profession, and over the course of their career they had chosen to accept certain offers and reject others. Add to that the decisions of those who appoint judges at the various levels of the federal court system, from the district courts to the Supreme Court. On that particular issue, this justice had chosen to vote in a manner contrary to the personal convictions of my fellow book club member, and they had done so based on other choices: choices to subscribe to certain values and not to others. Whether these choices were made consciously or not is not the point, although one would hope that judges are judicious in all their decision-making, even when it may not directly affect public policy.

What does this have to do with the first or last paragraph of Shantaram, or anything in between, you wonder? Reader, I have already told you how my thoughts are collected. Furthermore, I had warned you on January 19 that, one way or the other, everything would be connected to life. Granted, I hadn’t mentioned Shantaram in my first blog improper, but literature is about life, and I have been writing this blog choosing to believe that you were smart enough to figure that out for yourself. Most of you, anyway.

US Supreme Court seal

Of Fate and Choice
In the opening sentence of Shantaram, Roberts mentions fate and the choices we make in the same breath. (I’m imagining him reading it aloud, you understand.) At first blush the juxtaposition seems oxymoronic. I mean, either fate is responsible for what happens, or things happen as a result of the choices we make, right? My own opinion is that what happens happens by means of the latter, usually following a battle of opposing wills in which the stronger will wins. Anyone who has lived life or read literature knows this – and that the stronger will isn’t always the nobler. Neither in life nor in literature.

Speaking of literature, I mention fate in at least four Pioneer Boulevard stories. In “Second-Round Hopeful” Charmaine won’t leave anything to the vagaries of Fate, and in “The Favors” Meghana will toss a proviso sidelong at Fate. Fate extends her scepter in a kind of mercy to Vinita in “Crocodile Tears,” and takes revenge on Delia through a bowl of curry in “The Tiffany Lamp.” I have used fate in a poetic sense in each of these instances, but I must explain why I have done so in the last two stories, where fate is not merely an idea personified but where a certain thing seems to have happened as the direct result of the actions of Fate.

I don’t think of fate as a deity or a force that presides over (or occasionally meddles in) human affairs. Whenever I use “Fate,” it is merely a metaphorical way of saying that a certain thing happened. Such-and-such happened to Vinita as she lay dying; such-and-such happened to Delia when she met her bowl of curry. I could have said “As things turned out,” but that would have been prosaic, would it not?

Even though I found the Afghanistan bits of Shantaram a slog, one of the most important things Roberts says in the book appears in that very section:

They’d lied to me and betrayed me . . . and I didn’t like or respect or admire them any more, but I still loved them. I had no choice. I understood that, perfectly, standing in the white wilderness of snow. You can’t kill love. You can’t even kill it with hate. You can kill in-love, and loving, and even loveliness. You can kill them all, or numb them into dense, leaden regret, but you can’t kill love itself. . . . It’s a part of God . . . and it can never die.

Roberts is right. You can’t kill love because love cannot die, but I don’t agree with the statement “I had no choice.” I know, I know. He means that hating was not an option, but his protagonist did have a choice. It’s what the book’s opening paragraph had described as the choice between hating and forgiving. And the choice Lin made, standing in the white wilderness of Afghanistan’s snow, was the right choice. Even if he probably wasn’t thirsting for a Lehar Pepsi at the time.

Lehar Pepsi

—————
Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003), pp. 3, 740.

My Favorite Summer Haunt

In the last post I mentioned a performance of Macbeth I’d seen last summer. One collected thought led to another and I found myself remembering a piece I had written years ago and submitted as a homework assignment at Keele in February 2011. Joe Stretch was holding the gun to my head for the first draft of a new story (following the “Pioneer Boulevard” debacle), and I didn’t have time to compose something new for Tim Lustig’s Life Writing class. I couldn’t risk having two guns held to my head. One would be sure to go off.

Even though I can still feel that one muzzle against my left temple, and even though I wish I had written something new for Tim’s class, I’m glad I submitted the old piece because Tim and my classmates suggested some very helpful edits during the workshop. I read the tweaked version at the open mic session that evening (to indulgent applause) and, upon returning to LA later that year, submitted it to Smithsonian for their Last Page humor section. I heard back promptly, and although the editors were kind enough to call my piece an essay, what they had to say was more disappointing than a outright rejection. Smithsonian has discontinued the Last Page! It was always the first page I would turn to as a subscriber.

I am publishing the piece here because my publisher recently told me it deserves to be published. (Incidentally, I have given her permission to go through my emails, so it’s not like she hacked into my account to discover the piece. In general I don’t like people reading my mail, but it’s a trade-off. Constance Brooks said she’ll never read my blog, to allow me my artistic freedom, so I let her read my mail instead. It’s less interesting anyway.)

“I loved it, Sharon!” she gushed (as she only does when talking about my writing). “It’s genius! Like everything you’ve written! I laughed till I cried!

She added that if I didn’t publish it, she’d take a huge cut from my royalties. She does that anyway, but since I don’t want the cut to become huger, if you run into Constance somewhere please don’t tell her my real reason for publishing the piece. The thing is, Thursday draws nigh and I don’t want to receive another friendly reminder from WordPress.

Point Fermin Park

The Play’s the Thing

Every year I watch the plays staged by Shakespeare By The Sea, a nonprofit organization that holds outdoor performances across Los Angeles in summer. One night at my favorite location, Point Fermin Park in San Pedro, as I shivered under two blankets, sipping hot chocolate for added immunity against the chilly ocean breeze, I was taken back to a sweltering April evening in India when, as a second-year undergrad, I received a long-awaited opportunity to coax my classmates onstage.

My English class had been asked to arrange a farewell party for our graduating seniors, and I was responsible for the entertainment. The play’s the thing, I decided, as I set about looking for something that could be condensed into a fifteen-minute skit. It had to be a comedy, because anything else would have made the already melancholic seniors lachrymose, and it must be a famous work, preferably Shakespeare, because I didn’t want the Head of Department to disapprove. Furthermore, the play would have to be heroine-oriented, because I couldn’t think of any boy in our class who might secretly possess histrionic ability. These requirements restricted my choice to The Taming of the Shrew which, two toilsome evenings later, was reduced to a somewhat witty version set in late 20th-century India.

After I’d managed to assemble a cast of seven, the girls outnumbering the boys five to two, I faced the thankless task of assigning the parts. I was mercifully spared the ignominy of reversing the Shakespearean tradition and making the girls play the male characters when the boys agreed to play Petruchio and Baptista. The latter would double as the priest in the wedding scene, and I hoped no one would notice the unexplained absence of the father of the bride. The girls unanimously elected me Katherina and divvied up the less demanding roles of Bianca, the mother, and the two maids who later play wedding guests.

We stumbled through rehearsals for one nightmarish week. Each day saw new improvisations by the actors, and I finally gave up trying to restore my script to its original version – which was, after all, itself a mere adaptation.

If the truth be told, my unabashed license probably made Shakespeare writhe in his distant grave. For instance, the inclusion of Katherina’s mother, who in the opening scene serves her husband chai and urges him to advertise in the matrimonial column of a national newspaper, since all other means of procuring a groom for their daughter have failed. The dauntless Petruchio, who considers himself more than equal to taming the shrew, responds to the ad in person and achieves the feat, to the tune of the latest Bollywood hit, in one brief scene. Katherina’s final speech, so poetically penned by the Bard, was in my play reduced to a meek “Your wish is my command, dear Pet.” Unable to believe his ears, Baptista faints, and the dramatis personae exeunt, carrying him out.

Despite my misgivings, the play went off well enough, with only a few minor slips. Petruchio tripped while making his entry and Bianca let out a giggle, which she tried unsuccessfully to convert into a cough. Halfway through that ill-fated scene, Baptista was beset by an attack of stage fright and repeated the line “But you don’t know my daughter” three times. Later, when he doubled as the priest, he started the wedding ceremony before the groom could arrive, and from under the voluminous folds of her bridal sari, the kneeling Katherina was heard to hiss irreverently, “Wait for Petruchio, stupid.” 

Happily, these faux pas heightened the comic effect, causing some seniors to laugh till they cried, and when we returned onstage for the curtain call I noticed that the Head of Department was smiling indulgently as he applauded. Still, it was nothing to match the ovation Kate and company received when the play ended that night in Point Fermin Park.

Indian bride

A Subject of No Inconsiderable Magnitude

This is the one post my friends have been waiting for. I don’t know if they will actually read it, but I know they are waiting for me to tell them I did it. I used to call them each time I published a post, but in my second blogging week I started noticing them moving away whenever I walked into the room. It was barely noticeable at first, but by the end of the third week it was too obvious to miss. Something was amiss. That weekend I asked Penny what I might have done to upset everyone. Of all my friends, she’s the one I can count on to deal the unkindest cut in the kindest manner.

“Sharon,” said Penny (kindly), “it’s really not helpful to call people and tell them you’ve published a post whenever you do it. Especially not at two a.m. No, not one either. And no, not one p.m. either. Just the other day, Andy, Brandi, Connie, Donny, Eddie, Freddy, Gary, Harry, Jimmy, Kimmie, Lizzie, Missy, Yanni, and Zany were saying someone should tell you, so I’m glad you asked. You’re such a brave person. I admire you, Sharon, I really do. I wish I could be like you. Actually, I wish I could be you.”

Those warm fuzzies were cut short by the unkindest cut: “Just post a status update on Facebook whenever you publish a post, and everyone will read it if . . . I mean, they’ll read it.”

That little word if, though not said unkindly, was the cut. Even though Penny followed it with “I mean,” I know that she had really meant to say: “If they haven’t unfriended you.” It was a wake-up call – not the kind I had been giving my friends at one and two a.m. –so I stopped calling everyone from Andy to Zany whenever I published a post.

But I don’t think anyone will mind my calling them after I publish this post. Even three a.m. should be okay this time, because now that I’ve stopped giving them wake-up calls, I can see the concern on their faces. As a writer and a former communications consultant I am attuned to nonverbal cues, and the question is clear in that slight intake of breath, that raised brow, that sympathetic head-tilt. Some of them still leave the room whenever I enter, and I am especially touched by their sympathy. Because it says they simply cannot bear to let me see the question anywhere on their person, knowing that will hurt me. I feel truly blessed to have such caring friends. 

The question my friends ask through their nonverbal cues is: When will you write about him? In their nonverbal cues they never dare say his name, and they’d never dare play on his name, but if I had to ask myself the question, I’d ask myself: When the Dickens will you write about Dickens?

Dickens youth

To begin writing about the Inimitable, I will have to refer back to my last post (“Maximum Hold“), in which I had mentioned active listening. That reminded me of an experience I’d had when I lived in Mumbai, an experience that made me feel like the Dickensian character I describe in a Pioneer Boulevard story as “the Anglican Quixote” (with a play on Anglican). 

While attending a seminar I found myself in conversation with a fellow seminar-ian (not a fellow seminarian) who asked me what I did for a living. His nonverbal cues seemed to indicate that he thought that might not be much, so I replied with all the dignity I could muster. When I get that sort of question today, I reply in my most flippant manner (and I rarely mention the word author).

The nonverbal cues became more pronounced (not in my favor), but he nevertheless deigned to ask me what a communications consultant does. Being younger and less flippant, I told my fellow seminar-ian (with increased dignity) about the interpersonal workshops (I didn’t tell him I paid the bills by modeling). It must have been the word interpersonal, or perhaps it was the increased dignity, but he finally seemed to think me worthy of a real question: “What are the three main points of communication?”

I was taken aback. Communication is such a vast subject that I could not reduce it to three points. I felt like Pickwick in the scene from which the Pioneer Boulevard epigraph is taken, when Count Smorltork reduces his observation about the word politics to “fine words to begin a chapter.” 

“You will have enough to do,” said Mr. Pickwick smiling, “to gather all the materials you want in [one week].”
“Eh, they are gathered,” said the count.
“Indeed!” said Mr. Pickwick.
“They are here,” added the count, tapping his forehead significantly. “Large book at home—full of notes—music, picture, science, potry, poltic; all tings.”
“The word politics, sir,” said Mr. Pickwick, “comprises in itself, a difficult study of no inconsiderable magnitude.”
“Ah!” said the count, drawing out the tablets again, “ver good—fine words to begin a chapter. Chapter forty-seven. Poltics. The word poltic surprises by himself—” And down went Mr. Pickwick’s remark, in Count Smorltork’s tablets, with such variations and additions as the count’s exuberant fancy suggested, or his imperfect knowledge of the language occasioned.

I told my fellow seminar-ian that communication cannot be summed up in three points, but he was insistent, and I was younger and less flippant, so I gave in and gave him his three points. I forget the first two, but the third was about the importance of listening. My fellow seminar-ian was jotting down notes as I spoke. He seemed happy enough with his first two points, but when I mentioned listening he looked up with a frown.

“Listening?” he said. “What does that have to do with communication?”

Listening Skills

Maximum Hold

I finished what was to have been this post last night. This morning I would have proofed it, changing a word or two here, a punctuation mark or three there, and published it – but I didn’t turn on my computer this morning. I had several calls to make, and they were going to be long ones, the kind where you have to suffer the indignity of obeying automated voices and listening to inane digital notes that repeat ad infinitum without crescendo or diminuendo. And when (or if) you’re lucky enough to reach a human being, you reach the least humane being they have. 

I didn’t need Macbeth’s weird sisters to tell me my fate for the next hour or two (it turned out to be almost four); I knew my fate beforehand. I also knew that I must yield to it, and how. Having suffered the aforementioned indignities countless times, I know the drill: get comfy and stay calm. I usually manage to do only one, but that’s a fifty percent success rate, and as an optimist I prefer to see the glass half full

The first number I dialed was wrong, but I was still calm so I dialed another. After pressing 1 for English, and 4, 3, 9, #, 3, and 5 for other things not pertinent to this post, the automated voice told me to press 0 to speak to a customer service representative. (I had tried 0 right after pressing 1 for English, but the automated voice had said “I’m sorry, I do not recognize that option.” I had to jump through every hoop they had before they’d even put me on hold for the inhumane being.) When I pressed 0, the automated voice foretold my immediate future: My wait was going to be twenty-eight minutes.

Helpline

Since I couldn’t close my ears (in case the inhumane being suddenly spoke), I only closed my eyes. And but for the digital notes and the static that accompanied them, I’d have closed my mind and taken Garfield’s favorite exercise during this time (a good brisk nap). My mind remained half open – there’s that optimist again – as it entered the zone where thoughts are collected (though not always collected). But instead of moving forward and thinking about the next post, my mind moved back in time, to my last post on Diderot and The Last Judgment. I wish I could say that remembering it evoked a satisfied grin, but it only evoked chagrin, because I realized I had made an error about Morley’s error about Diderot. 

Morley’s error was not in his adjective but in his noun. As an art critic worth his salt, Diderot may have made a worthy critic of The Last Judgment, but since his worldview did not admit the afterlife, he would not have made a worthy interpreter of that painting. Within the realm of criticism, critique and interpretation are separate functions. One is (or should be) based on certain formal criteria. The other is primarily a response, which makes it more subjective. I imagine scholars looking down their noses at me for this, but I don’t mind. Looking down one’s nose at others only reveals what’s in one’s nose (and pretty it’s not).

Garfield Right

Between obeying automated voices and speaking to inhumane beings over the next three hours, I collected thoughts on life and art, one being that literary criticism is like active listening. Active listening is a learned skill, one I learnt and later taught at the interpersonal workshops I used to conduct when I lived in Mumbai. In active listening we are taught to not only listen to the speaker’s words but also to pick up the message being communicated (verbally and nonverbally) and then reflect that back to them. (The reflecting back is what I had in mind when I wrote that bit in “The Tiffany Lamp” about the therapists starting their sentences with “It sounds like” or “Could it be that?”) But the act of interpreting any message cannot be separated from the listener’s experience, feelings, beliefs, needs, and opinions, which influence the interpretation.

Critique and interpretation work together (separately) in the same way, which is why I think Diderot would not have made a worthy interpreter of Il Giudizio Universale, even though he might have made a worthy critic of the painting – had he had the chance to visit Rome. Neither have I, but since I have not yet left for the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns, I might yet get to visit the Eternal City and see The Last Judgment before the last judgment.

Rome