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Friday, September 22, 2006

The Awful Lens of Food

It's a week later and I find myself still processing an extremely emotional argument that occurred at an otherwise innocuous "welcome back Wheylona" party. Perhaps it was the Irish cream liqueur, or the brown rice, or the tomato and pepper salad... looking back, it seems those three must have combined to cast a wicked spell upon us. Just as a watercress salad, slice of quiche Lorraine and a glass of vin du pay d'oc will unyieldingly result in a lazy, pleasant chat about gardening... so too were we powerless to avoid our fate: a vicious argument about female genital mutilation (FGM)... A customary practice in some African cultures of removing a girl's clitoris (sometimes called female circumcision.)

Partygoers were discussing the barbaric practice as they swallowed down forkfuls of heirloom tomatoes. The situation escalated over bites of brown rice. Now people were expressing outright outrage. Over a swill of Irish cream, one person not only decried the practice, but also the western liberal response of reserving judgment. This fellow was upset at the idea that there are college professors out there so darn PC that they avoid calling this a deplorable human rights violation and think that criticizing a cultural practice makes them neo-colonialists. This is when conflict first arose.

Typically, I'm no defender of teachers. In fact, I hate school, learning or anything to do with books, homework or higher brain function. I'm on record as saying that education is a scam-that the University of Washington is full of self-interested criminals. But, maybe because I was in a mood to play Devil's advocate, I disagreed. I defended the opposing viewpoint that perhaps there was validity to reserving such judgmental stances for our own deplorable cultural practices rather than seeking out others to malign. Historically Europeans have found all sorts of foreign behavior and cultural norms despicable. Rarely have we been so critical of ourselves.

This didn't go over well. I probably should have made more clear that I wasn't defending the practice of FGM (Heck, I don't even like the idea of male circumcision!) And when I look at my own values more clearly, I don't even think it's wrong to judge another cultural practice. For example, I really dislike the Japanese practice of eating octopus or the Norwegian delight in whaling. I guess what I really feel uncomfortable with is the vehement expression of that judgment. I relate more to "feeling sad about something tragic" than I do to "feeling enraged about something unjust." Because I wasn't really able to relate to the anger expressed by others at the party, I came off like I disapproved of their stance against FGM. There were even questions (which caused me to bristle) about whether I wanted to make the world a better place.

Just for the record, I do. I even want to make Africa a better place. I won't chose FGM as the issue that I will crusade against though. When the time comes, I'd rather use money to create sustainable potable water sources. I don't know if that makes me a wuss because I don't want to take up arms against deplorable practices, or just a pragmatist that feels that more benefit can be done helping people achieve the positive things that they desire rather than stopping them from doing the harmful things that they want.

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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Last Night I Dreamt About Social Work

I put their things slowly, carefully into boxes.
They are small and clean, but not particularly sterile, like old cigar boxes.
Somehow every object fits neatly until the box is full.
That part seems too perfect for coincidence.
Then I close the flap lid, set the box aside,
and start again with a fresh pile and a new container.

Each thing belonged to someone, and must have been very important to them
Or maybe it just symbolized them more than they knew.
Anyway, these are the items I’ve been given… and they definitely fit into the boxes.
For one person it might be a spoon from a nice silver set.
Those are easiest. I simply dab my thumb and forefinger in water and rub the spoon.
I close my eyes and imagine that I’m helping the rebbe conjure up an image of the person.
When he is satisfied, I kiss the object once and find its place in the box.
We move on, but sometimes I see what the rebbe sees:
A mind’s eye disclosure of an entire life.
It’s a flash of too much information and it startles me like electric shock.
Sometimes, when I have to kiss the object afterward, this makes me cry.
And sometimes, when the object is a pacifier or an infant puppy
I can barely do it.

When the moment happens, there is magic in it.
Like a deep stirring of soup, and then ashes carried gently aloft by the heat of a bonfire.
But rather than a floating feeling, we create a feeling of resolve…
A disintegration that cannot be achieved in any other fashion.
There is no judgment, no reward or damnation.
But each soul requires peace, and it is through this process that we
Completely separate the raw energy of human life
from the specific container it chose to occupy.
It is extremely important that we fully honor each and every object,
That the rebbe’s vision is unclouded,
That every kiss is sincere, and that each item finds its perfect place in the box.

I cannot do this yet. But I catalog and process and assist in the details.
I think my rebbe is happy with me, but he has never uttered a single word of praise.
I think this is an internship. I don’t really understand how things work,
And they keep a close watch on me.
Like an acolyte, I observe, stay silent, and follow the rebbe’s lead.
The workplace, and the colleagues are all austere
As if Heaven was a fluorescent light bulb factory.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Mazel Tov

I forgot to mention something wondrous in the greater Stave It Off kingdom... Kris and Jen got married. We wish them nothing but the best.

After drinking bioluminescent potions of heroism, they exchanged rings of true-seeing in the middle of a Walpurgis Night ceremony, surrounded by a horde of goblins and kobolds drinking muddy water out of cat skulls. I laughed, I cried.


Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Willamette Review

Labor Day weekend was a whirlwind vacation. O and I packed up and headed south, stopping by the Evergreen campus for a little nostalgia. We cleverly stashed the car at Cooper's Glen and walked the old parking lot trail down to the beach, where they've sadly cracked down on public nudity. Half expecting to see some old Evergreen friend, I instead ran into a JFS coworker who was walking the same trail with her daughter (now starting her second year at Evergreen.) Chalk it up to "small world" experience. We also went to the Olympia Big 5 for a shopping spree. O is now outfitted with a new tennis racket and softball mitt, and I finally bought my first pair of actual running shoes. Also picked up a wee present for Diane. Hopefully she'll share before the summer is over.

Since we'd been delayed a bit, we ditched the coastal highway 101 idea and headed back to I-5 for beautiful weather, smooth sailing and good music all the way past Portland and into the Willamette farm country. We stayed for two nights at the Anna Becke House in Aurora. Our hostess Terry has spent the last eight years restoring this historic home and her handiwork shows.

Our lovely room came with a kingsize bed where we got to play all kinds of silly games.

We also enjoyed a wonderful breakfast each morning, shared with another guest couple and featuring fresh fruit from Terry's garden. If we'd gotten up earlier each morning we might have spent more time enjoying the sitting room or the porch swing.

We rummaged around an excellent Architectural Salvage store and checked out the Sokol-Blosser vineyard (beautiful place; disappointing, overpriced wine.) Everywhere we drove, the scenery was amazing. The farmland there is gorgeous; it's more nuanced and irregular than the huge California agro-industrial areas. You get a sense of small scale organic farms, cherished old tractors and wagon wheels lay about, and people are friendly. We walked through a near-endless heirloom rose garden that was clearly someone's labor of love. A local pub kept their kitchen open just long enough for us to get late-night dinner and pints of beer. And one couple there took it upon themselves to welcome us to their town, assuming we were new imports. After looking at the prices on some of the local cottages, it looked pretty tempting.

After our final check out, we drove down past Silverton to Silver Creek Falls State Park. We were too tired to walk the whole 10 falls trail, but enjoyed the first part of it immensely. Olaiya and I played hopscotch across some river rocks:

She slipped once, but made it to shore triumphant. The drive back was serene. No trouble from the "Ford of Many Dollars." And I've wisely arranged to have today off work as well, so I can have a lazy "vacation from my vacation" day. Life is good.


Down in the Willamette...

We found the greatest store ever.

It was full of the kind of stuff I love to photograph. Fortunately the camera batteries died before I could drive Olaiya totally nuts.