Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Thought

Thanks to the plethora of information rolling at us, we have become accustomed to seeing the best, brightest and most flexible examples of artists in many mediums. :So You Think You Can Dance’ exposes us to dancers that inspire shock and awe in me. Gordon Ramsey’s cooking competition forces the chefs to be better than they knew they could be to meet Mr. Ramsey’s standards.  I wonder how many people who watch all the shows out there that make everything a high stakes competition get discouraged from self expression.

A Native American Tribe I heard of while traveling through North Dakota have a designated “Rotten Belly”. This is a tribesmember who takes on all the slothful, nasty behaviors of humankind and exhibit it everywhere they can. Whatever is inappropriate , they do. They serve as a repository of nastiness so that the rest of the tribe can be free of it. I can see how this could work. It would be like being sober in the presence of inebriation- its so unpleasant and boring and pointless to be around it re-enforces the rightness of sobriety.

I wonder if we allow  our  examples of human ability in the media to become our cultural “ Rotten Bellies”.  Do we stop dancing around our living rooms because we aren’t executing split jumps? Do we stop making the food we were given as children because its not haute so we settle for a branded product (fast food)? Are we content with watching somebody else do what is our ability as corporeal beings? While I can see placing all the negatives in us in one repository as being a cultural solution, I don’t think it serves us if we allow others to become our  experiential Avatars.

Wine enthusiasts talk about terroir, the soil that a grape comes from. The minerals, amount of rainfall, humidity, everything about the earth in a particular region can be tasted in the grape, and therefore gives the wine its unique characteristic. I think of my own terroir as everything I have brought with me- from childhood to present day- that makes me me. My DNA from my ancestors spins in a way that you can see when I dance or cook. But my terroir also includes the old woman who was my mother’s ex mother-in-law. We would sit in her kitchen above the railroad tracks  in the Bronx and watch her roll out her own filo dough to make tiropitas, amazed that someone so ancient and twisted in her body could produce such a delicate dough that it seemed laid out by fairies. I use bits and pieces I learned from her, despite being bored out of my mind at the time, in my daily cooking. My terroir is also the hot pretzels at the New York Zoo my parents treated me to every Sunday. That taste became a part of me and I often make them at home for my family. So it becomes their terroir as well. Madhur Jaffrey’s children went to the school I attended for 11 years  and would bring great pans of Indian food to the Autumn Fair.   I absorbed all that  as well.

Both my parents were professionals in the dance world, so its interesting that when we children danced after dinner it wasn’t tricks that made them laugh or cheer. When I look back at it critically, they responded to our dancing our truths. I was prideful and argumentative as a child, and when I dared to expose that, even make fun of myself by exaggerating it in my movements when I danced- mincing my steps or aggressively lunging at my audience of two, they would see and respond to the inside family knowledge that this was a part of me. This is also my terroir. As is the fact that I would see my mother dance and recognize her sensuality, and therefore not be afraid of my own. All the aspects of my life that make me unique, the good as well as the bad, and even painful, are expressed in how I live in my senses. A group of dancers executing a perfect split jump will all look the same to me, where as I can watch an older Greek man     dance with a napkin and see his terroir. And it thrills me. I find as I get older , that I am more impressed with being able to see where someone comes from than to see people’s training- in dance, in cooking, in life.

Don’t eat fast food today, make something you remember from your childhood and make it over and over until it pleases you and makes you cut your eyes with remembrance. Dance with abandon, with who you are, what you’re angry with, what you love. No rules- you can include them later- but get to your truth first. Let’s not let the experts we see everywhere take away our wildness and desire to revel in our terroir. Let’s not let them do and experience those gifts for us- they can’t.

When my mother was dying, she could no longer talk or move- except for her left hand. We children sang the songs she taught us in childhood as we sat by her hospital bed- I guess it was all we could think of to comfort and communicate with our Mama who was slowly disconnecting from this earth.

 Under the spreading Chestnut tree

 There we sat, just you and me

 Oh how happy we will be

 Under the spreading Chest   nut    tree !

As we sang, she danced with her left hand, with all the terroir of her 86 years. It was beautiful, and unrepeatable . And brave.

All these amazing top- of- their- field people we see, let them inspire us, but they are not our Avatars or “Rotten Bellies”. We all carry such uniqueness, lets share that with each other. Dance!


  1. This is lovely. Very soulful and true. Tres, tres bien.

  2. Thank you for making me think and sharing. We sometimes get so caught up in nothing.

  3. It's truly a shame the way everything is treated as some kind of a competition and only the absolute top 'winner' is acknowledged. Where 2nd & 3rd 'best' (and lower) are devalued or outright ignored. Sad.

  4. well that is digging quite deep into the terroir, thanks for talking about your childhood pride, quite intricate yet graspable. peace...

  5. Emotional and beautiful!
    I'm really very happy you are back here...

  6. While dance and singing were never a part of my family experience, food certainly was. On my father's side, the men did the cooking, and on my mother's side my grandmother was the great cook. My grandfather Harrold died when I was only five, but my father learned how to cook his chili recipe, and he passed it on to me. I don't believe our family chili would win a national chili cook off competition, but it our chili and has been part of live experience since before I was born. I take great pride in being able to recreate it, with a few small changes of my own. My grandmother Isle made a mac and cheese dish that everyone loved. When she passed away, I decided that I would try to recreate it for the family. I was lucky that my grandfather was around to judge each of my attempts, and finally he agreed that I had it right. Since then, when my cousins have a cookout, they insist I make gramdma's mac and cheese, and it is my contribution to any family pitch in dinner. I've made it for my friends and colleagues at work, and they all insist I make it for them as well. They've called me the Mac and Cheese Master, but it's actually a very simple recipe. What I like about it is not that it is suitable for the finest restaurants in the world, hardly, but that it is a piece of my childhood and a part of my grandmother that lives on year after year whenever I make it. These dishes are like family stories passed on, kept alive from generation to generation, and their value is in the nostalgia and sense of our own family identity. I now live in my grandparents' house, the Isle side, and I pick the same black raspberries each Spring that grandpa did. Once I have enough, my mother bakes them into pies for us, or we just have them over ice cream. That taste has been part of my life since I can remember, and the fact that it still is an annual ritual is important to me. It is part of who my family is, and it's part of who I am. I am not the greatest cook in the world, far from it. My dishes are very basic and common to many homes in Indiana. I don't want to stand up the scrutiny of a chef Ramsey, nor do I need to. I just want to be able to hold on to a bit of my past and share it with others. We may not have inherited wealth or fame or even great artistic talents, but we have recipes that identify who we were and who still are. I think pleasing my family and friends is all the success and fame I really care to have.

  7. Vah! This made me tear up a little... Although my mother was (and is) a terrible cook, she cooked for us with love. I didn't connect it until just now but she used to make us rice, salad, and a frozen vegetable (no meat to save money) once a week... and what is my comfort food today? Rice and frozen vegetables! Of course, now I jazz it up a bit but the memory must still be there somewhere.

    One thing I've noticed since I've become immersed in the Indian film world - and Nana, if you haven't, you simply must see real Indian dancing - is that there is this sense that the industry will never "catch up to Hollywood" or that Hollywood is always doing something better when, in fact, the Indian film industry is making beautiful films already - just different.

    Is my mother's rice and vegetables less tasty than some Top Chef's meal? Sure, but I know which I would rather eat.

  8. My mistake.. I always assumed that Gordon Ramsey *was* the "Rotten Belly"

  9. My father wrote poetry, though I always found his work (all two poems I knew that he had written) maudlin and clichéd.

    A few days after his protracted death from cancer, my mother and I went through his belongings and found a poem written on a scrap of paper. It was beautiful and sad and amazing, and it wasn't until that moment that I realized where my want and need to write poetry, and be good at it, came from. And it's something I was never to thank him for.

    Great words, Nana. Thanks!

  10. Exquisite!! I hope you put this is a book someday, N. Many thanks..


  11. When my grandmother was dying I only got the chance to see her once, the day before she passed away, since she lived so far away and she was taken ill fairly quickly. I was only at the hospital with her for about four hours, but she was obviously so far gone by that point that I was convinced she had no idea what was going on around her.

    And then she said my name. Not just Chris, but Christopher, the full three syllables. And that was the *only* thing she said to anybody in the whole four hours I was there.

    I'll always regret that I wasn't there for very long at the end, but the fact that she somehow knew that I *was* there, even if she knew nothing else - that was such an extraordinary moment.

  12. Beautiful post, Nana. (See... we told you that you should come back here!) ;)

    Part of my past was my half birthday tradition with my father, which is coming up (and is the reason I prefer to think of July as my birthday more than January). Every year at this time he'd take me to Swenson's for a chocolate soda with vanilla ice cream. They closed our local Swenson's and we went to the famous drug store over here, Sutton's instead, but it wasn't the same. After he died I decided I'd make them myself and have learned to do that... and Saturday I'll be taking a chocolate soda to /him/, sit in the grass at the cemetery and share memories with a part of my past that's still in my heart.

    Here's to not going to the fast food places.

  13. Lovely post- "food" for thought if you will forgive the pun. By the way: Happy Birthday a little early!

  14. We have recently started to subscribe to CSA, and it has changed our lives. Now I find time to cook vegetables I would never have bought in the store, and we eat convenience food much, much less. Last night as I made kale chips and cleaned strawberries for the freezer, my 5 year old son sat on the counter with me the whole time. I am learning about how food and its preparation can create a family culture--your post helps me understand that.

  15. Ahh, this made me cry...

    To all of you whose mothers, fathers etc. are still alive: ask them to write down your "childhood recipes" for you. My sister had that wonderful idea a few years ago, and my parents collected all their recipes and gave them to us for Christmas as a cooking book.

    On the dancing part: I'm really glad you wrote this, Nana. Dancing is my one great hobby, but as I didn't receive much training as a child, my technique is not too good. Still, I remember a class I did 2 years ago which was called "Danse Vita". Our teacher would give us a subject (for example: "Express the core of your personality") and than we had to dance for ourselves with eyes closed (yes, that worked!). She wanted us to close our eyes so that we were not distracted or danced for the audience of the other participants, and that was such a wonderful experience, and an experience of great freedom.

  16. I feel so lucky to be able to hear your hearts like this-- you are remarkable

  17. A lovely post, Nana, which has stuck in my mind for days. I'm not sure what i can add to the previous comments; but i've done my best

    My father wasn't creative in the conventional sense of the word. He drove a crane on major construction sites. When he stopped driving, he didn't lose that past: he can still travel around three cities & point out the buildings he helped construct. These buildings are a part of his legacy; as his enthusiasm about having worked on them. His job wasn't just his job - it was what he did. It was who he was

    Teresa's father was similar, but different. He was a musician. Music wasn't his job - he worked in factories to support his family - but it was what he did. He played guitar - in bands, for friends, for family & himself - all his life. I wish i'd known him. He looked oddly like Dr Gonzo; & seems to have to been a remarkably quixotic man

    (I'm told that i'm like him in some ways. No musical talent at all, however)

    Both men were defined by these interests & were comfortable within these definitions; but this of doing something - of being someone (either through work or in parallel to it) simply through what you do has been lost - or maybe devalued to the point of contempt. To have done something well isn't good enough - you have to be the best (or more accurately, to be proclaimed the best). Many of these shows have heel judges, who's marketing schtick is running people down to the delight of the camera. Can you really be successful in this world? I wonder. Seems to me all you can achieve is non-failure; & the prize is supposed to compensate you for being the least unsuccessful. You get things for not losing something

    I loved the idea of rotten bellies, by the way (wonder if that's where Ms LeGuin got the idea for The ones who walk away from Omelas). When i - very rarely - look at these shows, i see panem et circenses myself, an arena of perpetual failing where the damned gladiators fight bloody battles for the audience's pacification

    I'm trying to stay out of this world as much as possible. I do my work as best i can but i try to to define myself through what i do - my causes & my enthusiasms - rather than what i have. Too much of my family in me, i guess. & Teresa's

    (You mentioned Ramsey. Can't stand him myself. I can't defend abuse - & he is abusive, whether you think the methods work of not - with the hold all excuse of passion. Passion is more than just obsessive-compulsive disorder - it can be as quiet as a rose & it's always driven by joy. Mr Ramsey seems to be driven by fear... perhaps the fear of being called out)

    With thanks

  18. Oh it's all so true, and you put it so well. I deal with this perfectionism daily in my yoga studio. I get tired, irritable, stressed and unwell people through the doors every day. They want the relief that yoga offers.

    Yet, to have that, they need to slow down, let go, and move their bodies in a way that involves no pain and relaxation. It takes all the skill of a teacher to get them to stop and breathe awhile, because that's what they need. But many have seen pictures in yoga magazines of ultra athletes twisted up like pretzels, and want me to push them to be like that. It simply doesn't work that way, otherwise its using yoga to reinforce the original stressful lifestyle. Yet that urge to be better and better is ingrained in most of us, its just that sometimes to be better we need to undo the desire to do that.

    Its so much better that people find and remember their terroir, and celebrate it through yoga practice than execute the perfect forward bend. But we are all almost brainwashed by the media everyday, that everything we have and everything we are, is never ever going to be enough. We are being robbed of our innate joy.

  19. Great to know that you're still here, Nana.

    I was beginning to worry that you'd forgotten us.

  20. But isn't it also the case that many people don't get the chance to explore or even discover what they might be good at, simply because - either through choice or because it's what others want for them - the demands of so-called 'real life' and the pressure to find a 'real' job get in the way? That being able to find and develop the good things about ourselves is lost beneath all the things that we *have* to do?

    When I was at school I always wanted to be an actor, but along the way the hours I was putting into it started to interfere with my work, and the feeling from my parents seemed to be that I had to make a choice between the acting and the schoolwork - and it was going to be the schoolwork. That was 'real', that was what was going to give me a future. It was the same when careers advisors and the like were talking to us about what we wanted to go into when we left school - acting was a no-no. Not a 'real' job. Not a 'proper' job. No future in it at all.

    Now I'm in the world of a 'proper' job, hating it because there's absolutely no sense of ever having achieved anything that really matters or makes a difference to people's lives, and wishing I'd ignored what everyone told me back then and just done what I wanted to do. I know acting's an incredibly difficult business to get into, and even harder to succeed and make a life in...but I still wish I'd tried. It was the only thing I ever felt I was any good at, but there's no way I would be now, too much time has gone by since then. It's lost.

    So in a way it's not that hard for me to understand the people on these reality/talent shows who go after first place like their lives depend on it, if the alternative is going back to the 'normal' 9-5 routine and a life that they hate. Though the fame and success that comes with these shows is totally artificial and usually pretty brief, I'd imagine the sense of having achieved something, of having been seen by thousands or even millions of people, must be pretty special even if it doesn't last. Then again that part of it could be even worse, when their fifteen minutes of fame is over and nobody remembers them anymore. Having tasted a better life and having to go back to the old bad one, that must be painful too.

    I guess it comes down to what hurts least; to burn brightly but briefly, or never burn at all?

  21. In my experience, burning brightly doesn't do any good for what hurts our spirits, that annoyingly it really does come from listening and obeying our instincts- not the ones we learn, not the ones we fight against, but what our souls need. And Dale, you can't know what you have achieved already in your life- you may have made differences you don't recognize.

  22. Hey, West Oz Living - do you know that Nana & Zan are posting on facebook, under the name KitchenWitchesTV? A public service announcement from one Cadel to another

  23. Have a Very Happy birthday Nana!

    love and best wishes


  24. Thank for this beautifully profound and thoughtful post. This really warmed my heart. Happy Birthday to you, Nana!