"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Doing Good and Living Well–La France Profonde and the Squirts

Nouakchott was a wind-blown, ratty city with a prevailing wind that blew blue bags, scraps of paper, cardboard, and general litter into cracks and chinks, between buildings, in gutters, and between shutters, trapped them in briar fences, and caught them on the ragged telephone spars. .  The bags and paper bits collected where the wind whirled and sucked, and narrow alleyways soon became trash dumps.  There was always a goat rooting in this mess, head down against the wind, blue bags clinging to its trotters, sand and grit matting its hair.  Dust storms were the worst when the wind whipped off the desert, the sand stung and no matter how good the taping and masking of windows, sifted in and coated everything inside. 

The streets of Nouakchott were all dirt, rutted and cracked, potholed and crooked.  Drifted sand always coated the road, creating odd-shaped berms, and washboard patches, filled the potholes until the wind swirled them empty.  The streets were empty except for a few camels, the odd Land Rover and Peugeot Break, and a few white-wrapped Moors or blue-wrapped Wolofs from the south.

It was a dismal, wind-blown outpost.  It was a consignment for resident advisors on probation; a last refuge for the French ex-colons who had outlasted Independence, and who ran the stores, restaurants, and bars; worked the ports, and exported the abundant fish from the rich coastal shelf;.  There were only three respites from the grimness of the place – the Atlantic Ocean, 500 miles of unspoiled, untouched, duned beach; the Restaurant du Lyon – the only bar where the beer was cold and the only restaurant which imported food from France. “Selon l’arrivage”, said the proprietor when asked what was on the menu – depends, he said, on whether the shipment from Paris had made it through the dust storms which often closed the airport for days; but when it did come, there were lobsters, araignees de mer, oysters, filet mignon, and Camembert. 

The Café des Beaux Arts was only open on weekends for traditional midday French dinners. Nothing could have prepared me to prepare me for the scene inside, particularly after the sand and dust, litter, goats and camels outside.  It was la France profonde.  Long tables with checkered tablecloths and curtains, bottles of wine, crusts of bread, children running between and under tables, loud toasts and drunk singing, platters of fish, couscous, and steak-frites arriving to cheers, applause, and laughter.  Mauritania did not exist in here, nor did Africa.  Nor did anything outside. 

The meals I remember most, however, were far from the capital, miles in the desert.  After hours of driving through dunes where the piste often disappeared under the drifting sand, and the chauffeur guided the jeep through the dunes like a boat, never stopping, a perfection of timing through the gears, rolling with the cant of the dunes, and back onto the piste; through rough and flinty reddish Mars-like terrain; and over vast hardpacked sand plateaus, we arrived at the oasis where the prefet was waiting.  We would stay at his house of course, and were invited to a mishoui –roast goat and couscous.  The food was excellent – the meat grilled to perfection, the couscous and vegetables prepared like chebu jen with a rich tomato sauce.  There were endless thimble glasses of mint tea.

What made the dinner memorable was the setting.  We ate on carpets on the second-floor terrace, overlooking the desert.  The night was cool, the air was still, and there was a full moon silhouetting the palm trees of the oasis and the dunes.  The meal was long and leisurely.  Another refuge – this time from the heat, the sun and from the endless, , unsettling space.

The second meal was memorable for the hospitality of the host – a nurse from the local clinic who took us all in, gave us a floor to sleep on, and prepared a meal of freshly-slaughtered and roasted goat.  The trip had been a difficult one.  We had visited emaciated, near-death children at a nutrition rehabilitation center; emptied our Dopp kits of all unguents and creams for a badly burned boy lying on the side of the road; shared half our water with a nomadic camel herder who had none because he had been robbed by desert bandits.  The nurse’s hospitality was a balm, a salve which we were surprised we needed.  All of us were seasoned travellers, but this day had shaken the most inured and hardened of us.

Le Dagorne in Dakar was similar French refuge.  Run by two French women who had been in Senegal since Independence, it was bourgeois cooking at its best – coquilles de poisson, succulent pieces of fish in a cream sauce served in scallop shells; calves liver sauteed in cognac; baked grouper in fennel and cream, fresh haricots verts with garlic and butter; wine, custards and lemon tarts.  The dining area was on an open, bright, sunny, and breezy patio with trellises of bougainvillia for shade.  Le Dagorne was my refuge.  Dakar had become crime-ridden and dangerous, and I, like the expatriates of Nouakchott, needed a refuge.

Africa was a relatively healthy place for some unknown reason.  I rarely got sick, despite the dust, the flies, and the near-stagnant water pulled out of drying wells; but the squirts were an occupational hazard.  None were immune; all were chosen.  My five most notable cases of food poisoning were from elsewhere.  In no particular order of stupidity they were:

1. Ahhhh, crabs….Cracking a bushel of them on a pier overlooking the water in Manta, Ecuador.  Lots of cold beer and roasted corn on the cob.  Delicious, just like hammering them on the Eastern Shore and sucking sweet flesh from the claws.  Who thought of the cracks and crevasses in the table, the oozing crab juice festering and fulminating in them, the quick swish of the waiters dirty rag? Eight hours later, the first waves of nausea, then the gut-wrenching ralphing into a nasty toilet in a cheap hotel. Shaking and aching with fever; and then, mercifully, after another eight hours, the stomach spasms subsided, the fever and aches disappeared.  I didn’t die after all.

2. Carmel custard….Why did I ever want to eat that? I don’t even like it that much; but there I was, and there it was in Nepal in 1969, a tempting comfort food from home in this cold and drafty restaurant.  Bad decision.  I was staying in a cheap hotel and in a room so small I couldn’t stand up in it.  Again, eight hours after the meal, the scourge hit; but this time I was far from the communal toilet which was down dark, twisting and steeply-banked corridors.  It was footsteps – a Turkish toilet – and since I have never been limber (even as a kid I had to hold on to something to hunker), I had to hold on to the water faucet and sway over the hole; and because of this precarious perch had to squirt naked, so not to foul my pants with the hot, stinking streams of rice water.  Back and forth, buck naked, and freezing, down the twisting rabbit hole to the shitter. Again, eight hours later, it was all a bitter memory.

3. Ground meat …Pakistani kebabs, but ground meat nonetheless, perhaps the best salmonella medium after eggs; each strand of ground hamburger and the warm places between them perfect media for growing bacteria.  Better than blood agar in a Petri dish.  The kebabs are grilled I argued to myself, ignoring the likely undercooking disguised by the crispy, marinated exterior, and not even considering the hidden toxins that wouldn’t be killed even by the fire of a forge.  Eight hours later….

4. Swordfish….Under the right and ideal circumstances – freshly caught, grilled or pan-seared, light lemon and butter topping, it is one of my favorite fish.  Solid like a good steak, but with an enticing sea scent, brought out by coarse sea salt.  Under the worst circumstances – frozen swordfish thawed, refrozen, thawed again in a hot kitchen, stored in a banging, and leaking refrigerator – it is deadly.  It looked so enticing.  It even had the black criss-crossed grill marks on each piece.  I went back for seconds and thirds, so hungry was I for fish after weeks in the interior of Pakistan.….

4. Eggs, sunny side up….I love sunny side up eggs.  I love the cool, viscous taste of the yoke, the warm browned butter and the firm texture of the whites.  Why, after my caramel custard episode in Nepal, did I not bend a bit and ask for them over easy? Was the delight of that runny yoke, the sweet butter and the luscious toast with marmalade that compelling? Yes, and while staying in an apartment in Tbilisi, I had sunny side up eggs every morning.  Only on my way out of Georgia to London did it hit, waves of nausea and fever.  Only through great will did I manage to hold the rest in until I got to the airport Hilton; but was so debilitated that I had to prepare home-remedy ORS – salt and sugar in fizzy water (who cared about the proportions?) to rehydrate my poor body.  Then Immodium to cement me up proper on the flight to Dhaka.  This time it wasn’t over in eight hours, but eight days.  The Bangladeshis asked if I only ate soft-boiled eggs, tea, and toast and never the sumptuous curries prepared by the office every day.  Foreigners can be suspected of everything, we all know, and it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility that this particular gringo had eaten only this pablum his whole life.

5. Lambi Creole…., a dish usually safe; but in this one instance in Port-au-Prince the cook must have had his thumb in the sauce.  It made no difference that all night I hustled onto the balcony and past one of the best views of the city and the harbor; the serious squirts give no quarter.  Pale, shaking, and semi-recovered I went into the office.  No sympathy there, just a laughting “O, Monsieur Parlato, maintenant vous etes un vrai Haitien”. 

Merchant of Venice–How NOT to Stage a Play


Last night I went to see The Merchant of Venice at the Washington Shakespeare Theatre.  It was abominable, a total waste of time and money, and I walked out at the intermission.

Merchant is a wonderful play.  As I have written recently, it my first Shakespeare Comedy, and for me a good one to begin, for it has the complex character of Shylock, anchored in the villainy of other revenge plays and fixed directly in an anti-Christian and anti-Semitic context.  The character of Shylock and the drama of his personal revenge, taken on behalf of all Jews is strangely set within the frippery of mistaken identities, lost rings, disappointed suitors, and star-struck lovers; but this juxtaposition may make it more salient and dramatic if….IF…the production understands the importance of the two plots and does justice to Shakespeare’s dramatic vision.

I like the play because it is a women’s play – the men are all either shown to be idle playboys, ignorant suitors, or simply gullible fools (although forgiven, as women usually do for their men).  I love Portia’s catty resume of all her previous suitors, putting each one down as clueless and simple.  Arragon and Morocco are even more ridiculous because of the self-important and pompous logic they use to determine which box to pick.  I like the trick of the rings much less – but then again gender- and role-disguise is a familiar in Bollywood cinema as it is in Shakespeare, so I accept it.  All in all, it is yet another way to show strong women.  Portia is not a strong woman a la Lady Macbeth, Goneril or Regan, Margaret, Cleopatra, or Constance…or Joan of Arc, for that matter; or even Portia, Julius Caesar’s wife, but in her complete and easy manipulation of men, she is wonderful.  I love her mocking of men in Act III, Scene iv when she is discussing her disguise with Nerissa:

When we are both accoutred like young men,

I’ll prove the prettier of the two,

And wear my dagger with a braver grace,

And speak between the change of man and boy

With a reed voice, and turn two mincing steps

Into a manly stride, and speak of frays

Like a fine, bragging youth, and tell quaint lies

How honorable ladies sought my love

Which I denying, they fell sick and died ….

And twenty of these puny lies I’ll tell,

That men shall swear I have discontinued school

About a twelvemonth.  I have within my mid

A thousand raw tricks of these bragging Jacks,

Which I will practice.

Wonderful! We men have not changed at all in 400 years – still bragging about our conquests, strutting, exaggerating.  Women think us little boys now and Portia certainly spoke for women then.

Now, the Washington Shakespeare Theatre did justice to none of this.  Shylock was not the venomous, hateful, vengeful character that Shakespeare depicted in his lines.  He was a buffoon, laughing with his taunting Christian “clients”.  His hateful words in his soliloquy in III.1 are spoken almost in jest with Shylock laughing and hugging Salerio:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions,senses, affections, passions?…If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge.  If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge!  The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction

Hugging? Buffoonery? Hardly.  Shylock is speaking for generations of Jews and giving voice to them.  The play is all about making Shylock both a truly sympathetic character, put upon, scorned, and vilified by generations of Christians, and by confirming his Jewish caricature.  His lamenting the loss of his ducats more than his daughter – in his own words, then parodied by the Swells of Venice – are perfect in tone and measure.  What the WSC has done is totally destroyed this balance.  All is played for laughs. Shylock is never permitted in this production to give vent to his spleen, his frustration, and his hatred.

The scene with Tubal is problematic – how to play it?  He is tossed between good news (Antonio’s likely losses at sea) and bad news (his daughter’s profligate spending of the wealth she stole from her father).  Shylock is torn – the love for his wife (symbolized by the turquoise ring that Jessica gave for a monkey); the love for his daughter, absconding for no real reason; his likely gains at the hands of Antonio – and the scene has to be a very balanced one.  Shylock has to say “Ah, see I told you so, dumb Christian bastard” when he he learns of Antonio’s losses.  He has to be “How could she do that?” with regard his daughter.  The scene has many possibilities for expanding an understanding of Shylock, a very complex character.  Although the scene  is meant to be comedic in one sense – good news, followed by bad news, etc. – it should be played not uniformly.  He is happy to hear of his good fortunes, and incredulous and wondering at the bad news of his daughter leaving.  Nothing doing in the WSC scene – again, lacking subtlety and any sense of understanding the text.

Salerio and especially Gratiano are portrayed as Little Italy hoodlums, low-lifes, and irrelevant; and yet as I mentioned above, Gratiano is the voice of anti-Semitism.  His spitting on Shylock in one scene is incidental, meaningless.  He has to confront Shylock nose to nose, hatred to hatred, Nazi hatred against renascent Jewish resentment.  Instead, he spits as Shylock ascends the stairs, and afterthought.

The suitors Morocco and Arragon, portrayed in Shakespeare’s text as clueless and pompous, are simply fools.  The text is wonderful.  Arragon and Morocco both give marvelous “rational” justifications for their choices of boxes; but they are nothing more than self-serving, vain, and irrelevant arguments.  In the hands of the Director of the WSC production, both are caricatures.  Imagine this:  Arragon is a foppish, dandyish, caricature of a Castro Queen, complete with little fluffy Pomeranian.  The words are lost.  The real satire and commentary about men is lost, irretrievably.

By setting the play in Little Italy, the WSC changes the Venetian swells, the idle rich, the privileged society of the Christian wealthy into an American lowlife.  Why?  Shakespeare did not intend this.  He meant to exaggerate the idleness of Bassanio and his crew – they should have been on the lawns of Gatsby’s Long Island, not bloody Little Italy.  The transposition of the swells of well-to-do Venice to street-tough Little Italy totally misses the point. 

The setting of the scenes with Shylock in Jewish Lower East Side, complete with Orthodox, rocking Jews, women with baby carriages, fruit sellers etc,. is totally irrelevant.  The cultural milieu from which Shylock comes is of no relevance whatsoever to the play.  He is a Jew and a moneylender.  Period.  He is hated for those two characteristics alone, not the smell and feel of the ghetto. 

Finally, the setting of Belmont, suggested by Shakespeare to be the WASP-y paradise to which all the male Swells of Venice aspire, is ignored.  Little Italy has a certain authenticity, although as I have said above, misplaced and unnecessary.  The Lower East Side is also familiar, for irrelevant reasons.  The one setting that requires embellishment is Belmont.  It is for Shylock the Forbidden Palace, the white, Christian, wealthy country club to which he and Jews after him have aspired.  It is for Bassanio and is coterie of swells, the pinnacle of amorous and social achievement.  After all, Bassanio through Antonio went into serious hock because of Belmont.

In the WSC production, Belmont is ignored.

I can’t believe that after 400 years that this total schlock could have been produced anywhere.  My friend, Michael Kott, said to me before we both were ready to leave at intermission, that this dreck was because of his father, Jan Kott, who had promoted the “modernizing” of Shakespeare.  Michael went on to say that this production had nothing at all to do with the spirit of his father’s convictions.  Yes, OK, to give Shakespeare a Soviet or Nazi context IF there is a point to be made (Ian McKellen’s Richard III set in Nazi Germany is a good example); but this idiotic version of setting Merchant in an irrelevant and meaningless context, has nothing to do with Kott’s vision.

In summary, this production was a self-serving violation of Shakespeare.  Horrible.  Stay away, and beware of “modern” adaptations.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Gym II


It has been five years since I joined the gym, and I thought it was time to take another look.  Nothing much has changed.  There have been a few cosmetic improvements like flat screen HDTV, faux wood paneling on the lockers, new carpets and new coat of paint, but the core remains the same – elliptical machines; upright and reclining stationary bikes; devices to work the abs, tri’s, lats, and quads;lots of free weights; and a variety of beach balls.

The clientele hasn’t changed much either – still very middle-age and upper-middle class, with the rare and very conspicuous outsider.  There is one black guy, for example, who wears two layers of rubber and plastic, a ski hat, and high-tops; has hammer toes, shadow boxes on the bikes, and never, ever speaks.  The rest are very ordinary and predictable.  The men never lose their paunches and belly rolls; never tighten up their loose butts or turkey wattles.  Pendulous jugs on women never perk up.  The fatties in the pool exercise classes still waddle and jiggle, bounce their flab on the treadmill, do a few desultory pulls on the rowing machine, shower, and go home.

Those who start off fit, alas, quickly backslide.  Thighs, arms, and stomachs get thicker; calves lose their tone, and pounds go on in places you never even knew could take extra weight.  The upward pound progression is as predictable as it is inevitable.  The belt is just a little bit snug.  Well, that’s because of the big dinner last night.  No problem.  Work that sucker off in no time.  No need to weigh myself, know what it will show, not much, will get back on after a small dinner and after a healthy shit.  Small dinner never comes, stress and martinis that follow increase, the scale becomes a bit of a threat over there in the corner by the water cooler, then as the belt is let out a notch, the scale becomes an enemy; and then of course, it is too late.  No need to check the scale. Hey, life is short.

Some of the old regulars are no longer there.  ‘Death’, an emaciated, ashen-colored woman who worked the ellipticals like a demon - a kind of frenzied, manic pumping - is no longer there, and I can only assume she didn’t beat back whatever was killing her.  Jabba the Hut, 600 lbs. before his gastric bypass, able to displace over half the whirlpool when he got in; 300 lbs. after the operation, a flabby, saggy, droopy mess of hanging flesh except for his left leg which, for some reason, never lost weight, is no longer there, and I can only assume an equally unhappy fate. 

Tan Man is also gone, but probably just to another gym.  He was the only gym member I ever saw use the tanning room, but I must admit he came out a nice toasty even Wheaties color.  He was at the gym all the time, worked every muscle and was always the sculpted ideal we all admired. 

Miss Hot Shit is also gone – she was a scrawny 6 ft., so scrawny if fact that not only did all her veins show but all her tendons, snapping and popping with every movement on the machine.  She was loud and obnoxious, thought she looked great, and talked insider Washington shit, so good riddance.

Many regulars are still there, and now that my schedule is more flexible, I am part of various groups.  There is the 5:30 am crowd – old retired guys like me who can’t sleep beyond 5am in any case.  Some come tottering in holding hands with their equally tottering wives, how sweet, do their twenty laps, then go back home.  There is the 9:30 Saturday morning crowd – older power guys too busy to work out during the week, in a hurry even on the weekend, lots of talk about Supreme Court cases, this litigation or that.  The 8:30am weekday suspender crowd is the buff 30-somethings who leave disgusting trails of after shave and cologne before heading upstairs to Fannie Mae.  Any other time is pot luck.  You never know who will show up.

The gym routines are still the same – the spinners, calisthenic classes, group lessons, and personal trainers.  The gym has added a few classes, the most recent of which are Salsa and Belly Dancing.  One day I saw one of the Latino attendants watching the salsa class.  “See anything you like?”, I asked him.

“No, senor”, he replied. 

These were the same flabby, jiggly, and totally out-of-shape women who gave a desultory pass at the machines upstairs.  It was obscene.   I have seen overweight women dance the salsa, meringue, rhumba, and whatever else in Nicaragua, and they looked great.  They had rhythm, grace, and a joy in movement.  This was an exercise class of rhythm-less, stumbling fat women with enormous hips. 

This, however, was nowhere near as bad as the belly-dancing class.  Imagine the very same women I have described above, but asked to do even more exaggerated swishing and swaying in little tutus.

The personal trainer routine is always hilarious.  Clients obviously do not hire a personal to increase their workout, but to decrease it.  Out of every hour of personal training, over half is spend shooting the shit.  What a great job for the trainers.  Although they have to listen to the most ridiculous, inane stories about broken refrigerators, pre-school, buggy weekends to West Virginia, or aged, incontinent parents, that’s all they have to do – listen.

“We went to the mountains over the weekend the kids weren’t very happy about it because it takes more than an hour short attention span kids these days and kept commenting about the broken down refrigerators on the porches of these shacks that you have to pass in the hollows before you get to the resort and it was buggy and hot when we got there and my husband kept calling his office……”

“Use your back a bit more on these”.  Push, one-two.  Push, one-two.

“…and the food this time was really awful can you imagine they put crème brulee on the menu what pretention I mean have you ever tasted the real thing in Paris with that carmelized crispy crust and creamy rich interior well this was like My-T-Fine pudding mix with a plastic topping….”

“Remember, use your back….”

This is par for the course, but there a couple of total assholes whom I simply cannot ignore because of their assholeness.  One Swiss guy talks about his chalet in the Alps, his pied a terre in Monte Carlo, his trips to Rimini, Phuket, and Fiji as if the trainer had any idea of what the fuck he was talking about.  This idiot stops talking only long enough to ask the trainer if he has been to these places, or if he skis, or if he has tried the coq au vin in Lyon.  The trainer? Rimini? Coq au Vin? This guy lives in a rental one bedroom in Gaithersburg with his dog, graduated with a “barely pass” in P.E. from Montgomery College, is pushing 40, has been working in the gym for ten years with no advancement, and has to put up with this shit?

It is a bit of a struggle to keep up my frequency at the gym.  I went 6-7 days a week not that long ago, now it is down to 4, maybe 3 times a week.  I think about going, then see the monotonous stands of exercycles, anticipate the repetitive effort of the machines and the weights, and decide that what the hell, I’ll go tomorrow.  To be honest, it is the whirlpool and steam room that keep me regular.  There is nothing like slipping into that hot, swirling water, feeling all my muscles relax; then shvitzing for 15 minutes in the steam room cranked up to the max. 

Ironically, the less I feel like going the more I should go.  As I get older I know I will be repaid many times over for the added strength, balance, aerobic fluency, and nicely managed weight.  But, oh, how I would like to be in a chaise longue on a Caribbean beach.

Recipes–Indian and Italian


Seven years ago my daughter gave me a blank book and inscribed: “This book if for recording your tasty recipes and special creations.  Maybe one day you will write a Parlato cookbook…” Many of the recipes I have been posting on this blog have come from this book; and I suppose that in the collection of recipes now online, I am writing the Parlato Cookbook.  In any case, here are two more that are really good. They are totally unrelated, but those of you who have been following my Recipes postings will know that there really is no particular theme to them, as in most cookbooks.  Nevertheless….

Quick Chicken Tikka

Chicken tikka – marinated, grilled chicken – is popular throughout South Asia; and I have created a simple adaptation:

* 4 med. boneless chicken breasts, cut into 1” pieces

* 1 cup whole milk yoghurt

* 1 lg. Tbsp. coriander seeds, pounded well in mortar

* 1 Tbsp. ground cumin

* 5 cloves, pounded

* 5 cardamom seeds, whole, pounded

* 2 tsp. garum masala (this is an Indian spice, easily available in Indian stories.  It is a mix of many spices, many of them sweet)

* 1 tsp. sugar

- Mix the spices well in the yoghurt

- Add the chicken pieces.  They should be well covered; if not, add more yoghurt and more spices

- Marinate overnight if possible; less is OK, but no less than 2 hrs.

- Bake in preheated 450F oven for 15 minutes.  The pieces should begin to brown slightly

- Broil for an additional 10 minutes.  The pieces should be well browned when done

- Serve with sweet mango chutney.

Clam and Sausage Pasta

The combination of clams and sausage may sound unusual, but if you think paella or gumbo where sausage and seafood are combined, you will get a flavor for the recipe.

* 3 dozen little neck or pasta neck clams

* 2 links mild Italian sausage

* 1 can Marzano Italian tomatoes (any canned tomatoes will do, but Marzano are the best I find)

* 6 lg. cloves garlic, chopped

* 4-5 Tbsp. olive oil

* 3 bay leaves

* 3-4 shakes hot red pepper flakes

* 1 lg. bunch parsley, chopped

* 1 small bottle clam juice (easily available in supermarket)

* 1 cup white wine

* 1 Tbsp. dried rosemary

* 1/2 lb. spaghettini (you should cook 1 lb.  This recipe is for two people with some sauce left over)

- Sautee the sausage in a large pot with 3 cloves of chopped garlic.

- When sausage is done, remove and set aside

- Sautee the 3 remaining garlic cloves, the rosemary, parsley, and hot pepper flakes in olive oil

- Add the tomatoes, wine, bay leaves, sausages, and clam juice, and cook for about 2 hr. or until the sauce has become thick, about the consistency you would serve over pasta.  Adjust for taste.  Add dried garlic if necessary and salt, also if necessary.

- Wash the clams well, and place them in a large pot with the cup of white wine

- With a tight lid, cook over high heat until all the clams have opened

- Remove and reserve clams on a warming tray, covered; and reduce the clam steaming liquid to about 1/2 cup

- Add the reduced clam liquid to the tomato sauce, cook for an additional 15 minutes or so.  The sauce should be rich, lots of tomato, clam, and sausage flavor.

- While the tomato sauce is in its final cooking stages, cook the spaghettini

- Plate the pasta, spoon over the tomato sauce, dividing up the sausages (cut into 2” pieces).  Divide the clams and place on the sauce.

- Garnish with some chopped parsley and ground pepper with a drizzle of olive oil and serve.

The Merchant of Venice– Shylock and The Smart Set


After having read all Shakespeare’s Histories and most of the Tragedies, it was a bit of a transition to get into The Merchant of Venice.  I was not yet familiar with the concept of “comedy” in Shakespearean terms (nor am still, but this my first comedy), and so had to stop looking for passages that illustrated familiar themes or confirmed my take on them.  So no palace coups, jealous family rivalries, murders and beheadings on the way to the throne (the last play I read was Titus Andronicus, the most bloody although far from the most intricate and intriguing movement of the Grand Mechanism), just playful hijinks. 

On the other hand Bloom suggests that Merchant might be “Shakespeare’s first ‘dark comedy’ or ‘problem play’, centered around Shylock and the Christian-Jewish confrontations throughout.  As Bloom also points out, Shylock has relatively few lines in the play, but his character is present nonetheless; and most people who think of the play, think of him, not Portia, Bassanio, or Antonio.  Therefore, Merchant was for me probably a good entry into the comedies because of familiar themes from the Tragedies and the Histories – revenge, for example, complicated because of the anti-Christian sentiments if not hatred of Shylock.  Shylock makes it clear that he hates Antonio for many reasons – first, because he has stolen clients from him (by not charging interest); but more importantly because of his anti-Semitism:

You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog,

And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine….

You that did void your rheum upon my beard

And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur

Over your threshold….

‘Fair sir, you spit on me Wednesday last,

You spurned me such a day, another time

You called me a dog; and for these courtesies

I’ll lend you money?

Shylock’s hatred of Antonio goes deeper still to a hatred of Christians.  When Bassanio, pleased that Shylock will loan him the 3000 ducats and invites him to dinner, Shylock replies:

Yes, to smell pork, to eat of the habitation which your prophet the Nazarite conjured the devil into!.  I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following; but I will not eat with you, drink with you, pray with you.

Yet, Shylock lends Antonio the money.  As is clear throughout the play, especially in his reaction to Jessica’s, running away, he is more concerned about the money than his daughter; but the loan is for 3000 ducats, a small amount (Portia is shocked to hear that the ‘pound of flesh’ is really over such a small amount, and she says that the will pay ten times that to rescind the bond); so why did Shylock lend it at all?  Is it because Antonio and his crowd are more virulently anti-Semitic than the rest of the Christians to whom he lends?  Shakespeare doesn’t say.  Is it because Antonio is both a business competitor and a Christian in addition to the anti-Semitism?  Again not clear. 

Most importantly how did he know that there was a likelihood that Antonio will default; that is that Bassanio will not have his expected revenues?  Bassanio has sent out a fleet of ships, not just one; and the chance of total loss is very small indeed.  As a good businessman, he certainly knew that the chances of default were very slim indeed.  Wouldn’t it have been more satisfying and sure to simply refuse the loan?  In other words, how could he have known that this deal would produce the revenge that he sought?  He couldn’t have.

In any case, the negative intensity of Shylock and his caricatured Jewishness make him the center of the play; and because of this intensity, he is akin to Iago, Edmund, Aaron the Moor, and others, thus making my transition from History/Tragedy to Comedy easier. In all these plays, the reader wonders about motives, for getting at motives gets at history, psychology, human nature.

It is very interesting that Shakespeare placed the character of Shylock within the setting of the in-crowd.  Bassanio, Antonio, Lorenzo, and Portia are all wealthy and well-to-do.  Bloom says:

Antonio lives for Bassanio and indeed is willing to die for him, and mortgages his pound of flesh  to Shylock solely so that Bassanio can deck his good looks out in order to wive it wealthily in Belmont.  Bassanio is not a bad fellow, but no one would want to try the project of distinguishing between Bassanio and Lorenzo, two Venetian playboys in search of heiresses….Notoriously, Portia’s play, and Portia herself and her friends are all about money.  Belmont is delightful, and obviously very expensive, and Portia, while wiser than Jessica, Nerissa, Gratiano, Lorenzo, and Bassiano, requires no loftier company than these well-dressed sophisticates…

…Portia and her friends in Act V are not exactly partying in a pumpkin, or in a gingerbread house, but in a great hall, serenaded by musicians, with a trumpet sounding at each fresh arrival.  Once the pretty matter of rings has been gotten through…the only crucial question is whether to stay up partying until dawn…Everyone is a lot fresher than they were going to be four centuries later in La Dolce Vita, but basically they are the same set (Shakespeare, Invention of the Human)

Perhaps the contrast between the in-crowd and the ultimate outsider, the Jew, was what Shakespeare sought.  The easy money of the in-crowd vs. the hard-earned, calculated money of the Jew.  Yes, Antonio lost all his ships, but the in-crowd would probably join forces and help him out.  Bassanio could also be relied on because of his love for Antonio, particularly after his marriage to the wealth Portia.

Perhaps this is the nature of Shakespearean comedy (which I still have to learn about) and that unless it is ‘dark’ it is not much different than romantic comedy on today’s New York stage – lighthearted, fanciful, carefree lovers tangled in love.

The one particular thing I liked about the gallivanting of the in-crowd was the attitudes of the women, particularly Portia, with regards the men in her life.  In the very funny scene in Act I (I,ii), Portia cattily characterizes her suitors who have to guess the contents of the gold, silver, and lead boxes.  The Neapolitan who does nothing “but talk of his horse”; and “his mother played false with a smith”.  Or the Palatine who never smiles. Or the French lord who “is every man in no man”.   The men fare no better in Act II when Aragon and Morocco come to be her suitors.

Bassanio and Lorenzo fare no better in the trick of the rings.  Portia and Nerissa both delight in telling their husbands that they had one night stands with the Judge and the Law Clerk to whom the rings were given. 

This all is reminiscent of the scenes where Cleopatra is joking with her servants about Antony, their sexual escapades, her sexuality – all at the expense of Antony.   I read that women are very strong in Shakespeare’s comedies, and I look forward to meeting them.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Buffalo Boy II–Chapter 4

The reception staged for The Mother at Shanagar was even more elaborate than the one giving to the returning Buffalo Boy.  All interested parties had been briefed on the importance of the visit and the likelihood of money, employment, and regional if not national renown from association with such an important religious figure.  There was a parade, floats featuring all the Elevated (most representations were grossly distorted because few citizens of Shahnagar knew anything about anything other than Lord Vishnu and some basic elements of Hinduism.  Someone had seen some of the more grotesque Spanish renderings of the Crucifixion but had mixed them up with those of St. Jerome, and had Jesus stuck with hundreds of arrows, darts, knives; and bleeding profusely from long sword slices.  The creator of another float had also heard the famous “This is my blood” refrain from Catholic liturgy, and had Christ gushing blood from a wound in his Sacred Heart, with a Wise Man catching it in a basin and drinking it. Yet another had Jesus standing calf-deep in cow-trough of sloshing water with the Tablets of the Ten Commandments in his hands.

The stage and dais were all festooned with the colors of the Church, the sappy, inspirational music that the Church sent Buffalo Boy every week was playing over the loudspeakers, and everyone who was anyone was seated behind the podium.  Whereas Buffalo Boy’s homecoming address was heartfelt but uninspiring, and his references to the Church and the Elevated pale and spiritless, The Mother showed why she was the greatest religious motivator in America.  She began with the usual warm welcome and thanks, but quickly moved on to affairs of the Church.  Knowing that this, her first sermon, had to resonate with the crowd, and knowing that this would be her most difficult moment, her time of trial, she drew upon every mote and iota of inspiration from Tamora, Pastor Luyck, and the great tele-evangelists of her youth.

She started slowly, waiting a bit impatiently for the interpreter whom she later realized she had not sufficiently briefed.  “The Elevated” had been translated as “The Tall People”, “The Church of Spiritual Renewal” became “The Church of Spirited Renovation”, and so on.  Perhaps she sensed this lack of context in the blank faces of the audience, or perhaps more because of brilliant tour de force, she dismissed her interpreter! Now she could really use her talents – convey her passion, conviction, and energy through her voice, her gestures, her very being.  This is what she had trained for.

At first the audience had no idea what had happened.  Probably a sound system malfunction which was par for the course at events in Shahnagar; but soon they were drawn to The Mother by the sound of her voice, by the rising and falling of her delivery, her outstretched arms, her smile, her confidence.  After ten minutes all faces were turned towards her. She felt a yearning, a desire, an inexorable movement towards her.  She had triumphed.

After the ceremony, flushed with success and the ego high that all great motivational speakers feel, she accompanied Shah and Buffalo Boy to the ashram.  There by the scum-free tank were twenty-five congregants whom Shah had gathered up, trained, and paid to act in this theatre of promise.  They were hungry street people, relatives of municipal workers, unemployed graduates hurting from no income.  In short, while not the total misfits, miscreants, and “registered bad characters” of the first roundup, they were still baitfish caught in Shah’s net, little different from those collected to cheer at political rallies.

The Mother was disappointed in the output of so many months evangelism by Buffalo Boy; but Shah interceded with words of encouragement.

“Not to worry, Mataji.” he said. “Takes time”, he added with the liquid fricatives of North India.  “Sri Vivekananda communed with only few souls at first.  Baba Ram Das and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi famous in America also for bringing Hindu wisdom, had as many few.  Jesus Christ himself had only 12 disciples.  What is there? An abundance of souls and an abundance of time.  Very good calculus.  Very good business model.  Don’t be discouraged, my dear”.

Baba Ram Das was an American dope-head, colleague of Timothy Leary and deuxieme for his LSD experiments at Harvard who got a devoted hippie following thanks to his belief in Enlightenment Through Drugs.  The Maharishi was a nothing bell-ringer at a temple in Rishikesh until George Harrison saw his Light.  Both were total frauds and deliberately chosen as examples by Shah.  He had Helen’s number even before she walked off the plane.

“I am thinking of roll-out, Mr. Shah”, replied Helen.  I need Bombay PR, and the same kind of advance work that Billy Graham has when he comes here.  With all due respect, your ashram, scummy swimming pool, and gaggle of rejects and cripples doesn’t cut the mustard.  It’s OK to use this place as the spiritual home for the Church, but not the political and business home.  Get my drift?”

The two bullshitters again connected.  The Mother saw hippodromes full of newly faithful filling virtual offering baskets with millions.  Shah saw a cut of same.  Buffalo Boy was befuddled.  “What is going on here?”, he asked himself; but Shah saw that The Mother was a true businesswoman who saw opportunity where little existed.  She was forward-looking, commercially visionary, and very, very savvy.  He saw it immediately – small venues with big publicity targeting the vulnerable.  For years the harijans (Outcastes) had been evangelized by Christians, wooing them away from an exploitive Hindu system.  There were still hundreds of thousands if not millions (India was a big country) of Outcasts and low-castes who would take to The Mother’s inclusive and communal message. Start with them, Shah reasoned, and disaffected youth and marginal middle class workers would follow. 


“I am tired of this bullshit”, said Shah back at home in Bombay.  “The Mother is full of shit.  Church is full of shit; but as every farmer knows, there is money in shit, so I will have to abide and follow.  Meanwhile, what about some pussy?  In fact, I think The Mother would like some pussy too.  What I mean to say is some cock unless she likes pussy which I can also arrange.  I will test the waters and show her my miniatures.  See what comes to the surface.”

Shah had one of India’s most prized collections of Mogul miniatures, most of which were of sexual themes.  The 18th Century Japanese woodcuts of Samurai on swings, stiff whangs ready to plumb the depths of innocent maidens had nothing on Shah’s miniatures which were older, more erotic, and much more sexually explicit than anything from Japan.  In fact, Shah had organized them by sexual preference, so he had Missionary Style, Doggy Style, acrobatic style (a la swing sex), male-on-male, female-on-female, man and girl, etc.  He had carried out an exhaustive search in the historical archives of the National Cultural Trust for man-on-animal and vice-versa paintings, to no avail. 

“All people are sexual”, commented Shah.  “Only remains to find out what kind.  I think The Mother very conservative, only wants to take it up the ass.  No funny business”.

Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus–Aaron, My Hero

Titus Andronicus is one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays – Harold Bloom (The Invention of the Human) calls it one of the “Apprentice Tragedies”.  It is rarely produced and almost universally panned by literary critics, most of whom consider the bloodletting excessive, the vengeful violence untoward if not barbaric, the poetry inferior, and the characters poorly drawn.

The best things that the critics can say about Titus is that it is a good parody of Marlowe. “Everything zestful and memorable is clearly a send up” of Marlowe – a burlesque take off on Marlowe’s own excesses.  Bloom also reflects that Titus may be Shakespeare’s final throwing off of the influence of his mentor, Marlowe, and from then on the was more measured and purposeful in his use of violence. Bloom puts verses from Marlowe’s Barabas next to those of Aaron the Moor and they are virtually identical.

By S. Clarke Hulse’s account there are: “14 killings, 9 of them onstage, 6 severed members, 1 rape (or 2 or 3 depending on how you count), 1 live burial, 1 case of insanity, and 1 case of cannibalism – an average of 5.2 atrocities per act, or one for every 97 lines”, thus giving credence to Bloom’s and others view that this had to be Shakespeare’s joke.  The act of cannibalism – Titus chops and grinds up Tamora’s sons and bakes them in a pie – is particularly well known.  The last scenes of Act V are pure grand guignol, one murder following the other by minutes.

Yet, I am not so sure – at least after seeing the 1985 BBC production in which the actors play it very, very straight.  In fact, it is one of the better BCC productions with excellent acting, and very moderate and intelligent given how much yelling histrionics there could be and have been in other Shakespeare BBC performances.  I would have to see others (I know that Peter Brook had produced and directed a version, and based on his iconic and unmatched King Lear, I have to reserve judgment).

Bloom and others also are attracted by Aaron, the African lover of Tamora, the Queen of the Goths and then Empress of Rome, married to Saturnius.  Bloom says that he is an improvement on Richard III whom he resembles in his amorality and Nietzschian “beyond good and evil”. 

I, too, am fascinated and taken with Aaron, but still prefer Richard because he falls much more within the Nietzschian idea of pure will.  Richard has his sights fixed on the throne from the very beginning; and his unalloyed determination, plotting, and calculated maneuvering to this end fit more within the tragedic scope of the Histories and Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, and Julius Caesar to follow. 

Aaron on the other hand is pure villain but with no particular end in sight. A case could be made that he is just currying favor with Tamora who as Empress of Rome and his lover can give him power and influence and rid him of the scorn and prejudice that he has always had as a black man; but this is not convincing, for he comments at every turn that he simply likes being a master plotter.  In a way he is like Iago who has little to gain from his destructive acts, but psychologically speaking, one can perhaps understand his desire for revenge and retribution.  Aaron says he wants to help Tamora revenge the death of her son, but again, this is just a convenient justification (although he never really needs an excuse) for violence.  He just enjoys his lustful and destructive acts.  When Lucius (V.1.125) asks him if he is not sorry for what he has done (complict in murder, rape, mutilation), he replies:

Ay, that I had not done a thousand more

Even now I curse the day – and yet, I think,

Few come within the compass of my curse -

Wherein I did not some notorious ill,

As kill a man, or else devise his death;

Ravish a maid or plot the way to do it;

Accuse some innocent and forswear myself;

Set deadly enmity between two friends;

Make poor men’s cattle break their necks;

Set fire on barns and haystalks in the night;

And bid the owners quench them with their tears.

Oft I have digged up dead men from their graves

And set them upright at their dear friends’ door…

But I have done a thousand dreadful things

As willingly as one would kill a fly.

And nothing grieves me heartily indeed

But that I cannot do ten thousand more”

A real sweetheart – an unrepentant, murdering rogue; but I like him.  He gives energy and wit to the play; and I happen to like amoral villains, the more amoral the better.  They fit my own view of the world.   Bloom comments that he can’t wait for Act I to be over because Aaron, although onstage most of the time, has no lines.  At the same time, says Bloom: “The Elizabethan audience was at least as bloodthirsty as the groundlings who throng our cinemas and gawk at our television sets, so the play was wildly popular and it did well for Shakespeare…”.  The implication is that maybe he wanted to write a potboiler and make some money, not unlike Bloom’s Yale colleague, Erich Segal, the Classical scholar who wrote Love Story.  We just don’t want to think that the great genius, Shakespeare, could do such a thing.

There is only one unsullied character in the play – Lavinia who is very much like Cordelia in Lear – both are pure and blameless, but put Lavinia is put to death by her father Titus because of is sense of order and right. All others, especially Tamora’s sons Chiron and Demetrius who are quite happy to rape Lavinia and then cut off her hands and cut out her tongue, are sadistic and totally immoral.   Some critics, who take the play more seriously than Bloom, reflect on this issue of civil order and traditional right vs. the wildness and disorder of the Goths.  All the murders and rapes take place in the wild woods while Rome still is the center of what eroding moral authority their might still be.

So, I enjoyed the play, the text and the BBC Netflix version.  Maybe I am one of the “groundlings” to which Bloom refers, loving the blood and guts as much as any cultural bottom dweller; but I do like the references to Richard III, Coriolanus, Marlowe; the setting of the revenge play; the Nietzschian references, and the delightful evil of Aaron the Moor.  I now really want to see the Peter Brook film!

Recipes–Beans and Lentils

When my son was a vegetarian, I made some kind of recipe for legumes every week.  The following were his and my favorites (The black bean dish calls for bacon, but he agreed if I made it infrequently.  It was so good, however, that it might have hastened his return to the non-veg world.  The lentils with lamb we stayed away from during the veg years).  All the recipes call for dried beans which are preferable because they have no salt or preservatives and I think have a better taste.  Rehydrating them is easy – just soak them overnight; or bring them to a boil and let sit for about an hour. I much prefer the soaking method.   The other trick with dried beans and lentils is to be sure to pick through them carefully to remove any small stones, always a possibility even with popular commercial brands:

Italian Navy Beans

This is really pasta fagioli without the pasta – a rich, thick bean dish/soup with lots of flavor.  You can always add the pasta, usually elbow macaroni. The sauteed garlic, celery, and onion in olive oil is called a battuto. Italians vary the ingredients of their battuti, but this is the basic.  It doesn’t need additional spices or vegetables.

* 2 cups dried navy or other white beans, soaked overnight (cover the beans in cooking pot with at least 2” of water over the beans)

* 6 very large cloves of garlic, chopped, or one full bulb of garlic.  Garlic is critical for this recipe, and although you may think this is too much, it will not be.  Remember, there are a lot of beans.  Two dry cups makes four cooked cups, plenty for at least four people as a main course or many more for side dishes.

* 4 lg. stalks of celery, chopped

* 3 lg. onions (the biggest onions in a supermarket mesh bag)

* 1/2-3/4 cup olive oil

* Salt and ground pepper – depending on your taste, about 2 tsp. salt and 10 grindings of black pepper

- Sautee the garlic in the pot you will use for cooking the beans until it is just beginning to brown.  This gives a characteristic taste to the battuto and to the entire dish.  Be careful not to blacken or burn the garlic, for that will give a bitter, unpleasant taste. 

- When the garlic is beginning to brown, add the celery and onions, and cook the mixture until soft

- Drain the beans, add them to the battuto, and cover with at least 2” water over the top of the beans

- Cook over low heat (the beans should be simmering) for about 3 hours.  You want to end up with a very thick and creamy mixture.  The beans should be very soft, but not totally disintegrated.

- Adjust for salt, pepper, and olive oil (I like a lot of olive oil in my beans, so I often add some near the end of the cooking.  Do not add right before serving, for the olive oil taste will predominate.  Give it a chance to blend in)

Guatemalan Black Beans

This is a variation on a classic Guatemalan recipe which I no longer remember.  As those of you who follow my blog know, I adapt, adjust, modify, and downright change the recipe ideas I have gotten from tasting around the world:

* 2 cups dried black beans (to rehydrate, follow the instructions above).  This will yield 4 cups of cooked beans

* 6 strips bacon

* 1 very large bunch of fresh coriander, coarsely chopped (usually 1 supermarket bunch is sufficient; but sometimes if the bunches are very small, then you will need two)

* 3 lg. onions, chopped (as above the three biggest onions from a supermarket mesh bag)

* 3 cloves of garlic, chopped

* Salt to taste and at least 5 grindings fresh pepper

- Drain the beans, then cover with at least 2” of water above the top of the beans

- Add all the above ingredients.  Put the bacon in uncooked.  It will cook with the beans and the fat will be an important taste ingredient in the dish

- Cook for about 3 hours or until the beans are soft and the liquid is thick and creamy.  The beans should be soft but not disintegrating.  Taste about half way, and adjust for coriander, adding more if there is not enough taste; for bacon; and for garlic.

- Adjust for salt

Indian Dhal (Lentils)

This recipe is about as close as you will get to the real thing – the creamy dhal you get in India.  Not hard to make and worth the effort! The spice mix is the standard for many Indian curries, and in a sense is like an Italian battuto.

* 2 cups of dried red lentils (You should be able to find these in the supermarket, certainly in Asian stores. Brown lentils, the most common variety will do, but not as good).  As above, you should soak these overnight or bring to a boil, set aside for an hour, then proceed with the recipe.

* 1/2 cup safflower, peanut, or similar oils (NOT olive oil which is too strong for this recipe).

* 4-5 large cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped and lightly browned, as above

* 1 Tbsp. freshly grated ginger

* 1 tsp. each of the following spices: mustard seeds, coriander seeds (lightly crushed), poppy seeds, fenugreek seeds (sometimes hard to find, and you can leave out, although they add to the authentic taste), fennel seeds,

* 2-3 tsp.  ground cumin (2-3 tsp.), turmeric

* 5 shakes of hot pepper flakes

* 1 medium bunch of fresh coriander, chopped

* 10 whole black peppercorns

* Salt to taste, about 2 tsp.

- Sautee the garlic in the oil until it begins to brown.  As above, you should be sure not to blacken or burn the garlic; but if you do, start over!

- When the garlic begins to brown, put in the ground ginger and sautee for about 3-4 minutes

- Add the spices and sautee over medium high heat until the mustard seeds just begin to pop

- Drain the lentils well, and add to the spice mix

- Cover with water up to at least 2” above the top of the lentils and cook for about 2 hours, stirring frequently over low heat.  Unlike the other recipes, the lentils should disintegrate and become a thick, creamy mix. Be careful not to have the lentils begin to burn and stick to the bottom of the pan

- About an hour into the cooking, adjust for salt and hot pepper.  It is hard to add additional whole spices at this point, but you can add more cumin, and some dried garlic if necessary.  You can also add more oil if you like a creamier texture

Mediterranean Chick Peas with Swiss Chard and Mushrooms

This is a classic recipe and delicious.  The combination of the dried black mushrooms, basil, the battuto, and Swiss chard (or other greens like kale or even spinach which I like less because it has less flavor) is unbeatable!

* 2 cups dried garbanzo beans, soaked overnight

* 1/2 cup olive oil

* 1/2 cup dried black mushrooms, rehydrated, chopped lightly.  I like the Chinese mushrooms for they have the strongest, most pungent taste, but you can choose other black mushrooms.  The key, however, is to choose the black mushrooms that have the most taste.

* battuto, as above (celery, garlic, onions)

* 1 lg. Tbsp. dried basil

* 1 lg. bunch Swiss chard, kale, spinach chopped very coarsely.  “Large bunch” means one bunch bought in the supermarket, or 1 lg. bag of fresh spinach

- Make the battuto, as above; but add the dried basil leaves as well. 

- Add the rehydrated mushrooms and cook for an additional 3-4 minutes

- Drain the rehydrated chick peas, and add them to the spice mixture

- Cover with water to at least 2” over the top of the beans and cook for about 3 hours

- Taste about half way through the cooking and adjust for spices and add additional water if necessary.

- When the beans are done – soft, but not mushy – add the greens and let them cook in the bean mixture for about 5 minutes.  You do not want them overdone.

- Add salt to taste, and grindings of black pepper.

Brown lentils with Lamb

This is the simplest recipe of them all.  Basically you put a big chunk of lamb shoulder in the lentils, add thyme, and let simmer for 2 hours.  The lamb is very flavorful and the thyme is a perfect compliment.

* 2 cups dried brown (ordinary) lentils, cleaned and rehydrated as above

* 1 Tbsp dried thyme

* 1 1/2 lbs. lamb shoulder (I like this cut because it has fat on it and therefore gives consistency and extra taste to the lentils. You can use a leg of lamb as well, although this is more expensive and not necessary for taste).

* 2 Tbsp. olive oil

* 3 lg. onions, coarsely chopped

* 4-5 med. cloves garlic, chopped

- Lightly brown the lamb in the olive oil

- When browned, add the garlic, onions, and thyme and cook until soft

- Drain the lentils, add to the lamb and spice mix

- Cover the lentils with at least 2” water over the top of the lentils and cook for about 2 hours.  Cooking time depends on a lot of factors, so you will have to test.  The lentils should be disintegrated, and the texture smooth and creamy but not a puree.

- Midway in the cooking, adjust for salt, spices.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Buffalo Boy II–Chapter 3

The Mother – her real name was Helen Schmidt – was born and raised in Flint, Michigan to Pentecostal parents.  Her father had a small congregation but she had to live the American Tragedy and like Clyde sing with her parents on street corners.  She hated the ridicule, the exposure, and the deep sense of embarrassment.  She wanted to shrink, to recoil, to disappear; but was forced by her father to sing hymns in praise of the Lord and to recite the psalms. 

She had a beautiful, angelic voice which and a crystalline voice which made every passerby stop and listen.  Her father quickly saw that because of his daughter more people came to him and to listen to the word of God.  Shortly thereafter he had her read passages from the Bible at his church.  There she found she liked the sound of her increasingly powerful and persuasive voice.  As she grew in confidence, she saw the rapt attention on the faces of the faithful, and added even more energy and power.  The pews of her father’s church were filled every Sunday.

The Mother publically gave credit to her father for her spiritual awakening and maturity.  Without him and his patient guidance she never would have risen to such heights in the eyes of the Lord and in those of her congregants.  This praise, however, was for public consumption.  She knew that if by accident of birth she found herself at the pulpit, it was by force of character and pure will that she became an ambitious and determined leader.

She gave credit to two other influences.  The first was Tamora, Queen of the Goths and later Empress of Rome.  During high school, a touring Shakespeare troupe had played Flint, and her English teacher encouraged the class to see whatever production they were putting on.  For some strange reason it was Titus Andronicus a generally disparaged play considered either one of Shakespeare’s worst or at best a parody or send up of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine.  Helen was entranced by the character of Tamora who to her was a strong and determined women.  It didn’t matter that Tamora was the most evil and bloodthirsty of Shakespeare’s characters, urging her sons on to rape and murder among other crimes; Helen thought that she was masterful in her manipulation of her husband, the Emperor, her plotting to achieve her ends, and best of all her silver tongue.  A woman like that could sway thousands to her own ends.  No matter that she came to an unceremonious end.  She could just as easily triumphed.

The other influence was an itinerant preacher who made guest appearances at various Pentecostal churches in Michigan.  He owed Helen’s father a favor, and preached at his church.  He was magnificent.  He was passionate.  He was powerful and convincing.  His voice rose and fell, became stern and judgmental, then softened to a warm, welcoming purr.  She could see the fear in the faces of the congregation, then tears of joy as he read towering verses from the Bible. 

At Bible college she honed her skills even more, and built up a religious repertory to fill her sermons.  She left school with no doubt that she wanted to be the greatest religious orator in America and the most successful businesswoman.  She knew that there was money in religion and with her gift, her talent, and her shrewdness, she would achieve both ends. 

She moved up the scale from apprentice to pastor of ever larger churches; and in 1972 found her true calling.  She preached at a church which welcomed an inordinate number of Vietnam veterans, wounded, disaffected, lonely, often desperate men who were looking for solace, community, and comfort.  She was attuned enough to the tenor of the times to know that the old style religion was changing, and that people were open to new ideas, new religious icons, new spiritual experiences.  She began to introduce the ideas of non-Baptist leaders.  Gradually she introduced Old Testament prophets, Hindu gods, and Muslim imams.  As she saw the hunger for this expansionist view of religion, she wove Jesus, Buddha, Moses, and Siva into a spiritual quilt, embroidered with folk tales, stories from the Ramayana, and Biblical allegories.  The seeds of the Church of Spiritual Renewal were sown.


The Mother was greeted at Bombay Airport by Mr. Shah, Buffalo Boy, and a contingent from Mathura.  As she stepped out of customs, Shah namaste-ed, bent to touch her feet in the traditional Hindu sign of respect, namaste-ed again, garlanded her with red roses, and said, “Holy Mother, you are in Mother India now.  Welcome, and may the Elevated be praised!”.  Buffalo Boy knew that he had learned his lines and his role well.  The Mother greeted Buffalo Boy indifferently.  He was irrelevant, a minion, a lackey, at best a facilitator.  Shah was her counterpart.  From her research she knew that he was from the family of Shahs who built Bombay, who had money and influence, who, because of his lineage was respected by politicians and businessmen.  She knew of the reach and extent of his family properties – the textile mills, vast agricultural holdings, and of course his ashrams in Poona and Mathura.  She had no idea that Shah himself was as wacky as a circus clown, irreverent and illogical, and a pervert.

The Mother – Helen - knew that the Shahs were devout Hindus, conservative Gujaratis.  When she read about the Jains, a Gujarat-based, ultra-Hindu sect which forbade its members to kill any living thing and insisted that they wear masks to avoid inhaling and killing insects and sweep the pavement in front of them to preserve the life of any crawling thing.  She already saw in her mind’s eye how she would incorporate Jain saints into her pantheon and depict them devotionally and respectfully walking in their white robes and masks, sweeping, sweeping.

The Mother was dressed in her blue robe, cut by a couturier with elegant, flowing lines.  It was accented by a simple garnet brooch and a matching ring.  She wore her hair up, combed to accentuate her natural curls, giving an angelic effect.  She was the image of confidence and beauty.

She was surprised that the hundreds of passengers flowing around her barely gave her a glance; but in her boning up on India she overlooked the fact that: 1)  Bombay was Bollywood and used to striking, angelic beauty; and 2) nothing was too weird for India – a fact that she would come to appreciate in her week in the country.

Shah escorted her and her entourage (ordinary, plain lackeys – Helen brooked no competition) to the long black limousine he had arranged.  It had frigid air conditioning and most importantly darkly smoked windows.  Shah wanted to avoid the sights and sounds that had so frightened and disgusted Buffalo Boy’s mother.  He would keep the A/C on and the windows up until they had passed the pestilential Potters’ Colony, the shitting hutment dwellers along the side of the road, and the foul stench of excrement, rancid goats, and a bilious low tide by the Mosque; then open them when they reached Malabar Hill, the long sweep of Breach Candy, and Colaba.

Helen and her coterie would be lodged at the Shah ancestral home in one of Bombay’s finest neighborhoods.  Shah’s own apartment was simple – enough room for him, his wife, and three boys – and he was reluctant to leave for more spacious quarters because of the pull of ‘woman who does it with dog’ and easy proximity to the Cages and Trust Me Street.

The family residence was a magnificent example of old, wealthy Bombay, everything teak, mahogany, marble, and polished brass.  Spare and austere in the conservative Gujarati brahmin style, but with a simple beauty.  The Mother thought that it was too spare, for she had grown used to a Southern California excess which she incorporated into the tone and style of the Church compound.  Her colors – magenta, etc. – said it all about her taste, and the common rooms cluttered with paintings of the Elevated, striding, Lenin-like statues, rugs embroidered with purple fringe, frescoed ceilings were as far from the clean, austere lines of the Shah home as possible.

“Only one thing”, said Shah as they entered the hallway, “Please take off your shoes and whatever you do, do not put feet anywhere but on the floor.  After last visit of a foreigner, Baba-ji had to purify entire residence.  Priest came in, did ablutions, burned incense, said ancient prayers, opened windows to let out unholy emanations.  It was like extermination of roaches, bad ferenghi odors and emanations.  Please don’t be offended.  Just watch your feet”

Buffalo Boy gave Shah a warning look, but he was just warming up.

“I have many ashrams and temples, Holy Mother”, he continued over tea. “All have been sanctified by God, all proudly bear the Shah name, and all are run like business.  We Gujaratis built Bombay.  How? Small places, small money; then big places big money.  In our Hinduism we believe that we all had former lives; and it is a revealed fact that the Shahs were great pharaohs of Egypt, princes of ancient Indus civilization, and kings of France.  OK, so textile mills may be come down from Versailles and Mohenjo Daro, but context, Mother, context.”

As crazy as this rant was to Buffalo Boy and just another expression of Shah’s wacko mind, Helen saw its possibilities.  She was a true businesswoman, Type A, always refining and perfecting her business model.  It would be easy to weave in themes from Ancient Egypt and the Indus Valley civilization into her liturgy.  Why stop with the Elevated?  The pharaohs were gods, after all, and so was the Sun King.  Already her trip to India was paying dividends.

“In our religion”, said The Mother, “we believe that there is a unity of historical revelation; that the spirit of the ancient gods, blessed be upon Them, resides within us all; and it only takes the right invocation, the right convocation to release their emanations”

“Yes, of course”, replied Shah who had just invoked the theme of emanations and who had told Buffalo Boy that the holy emanations of Vishnu made their way from Mathura to Shahnagar.  “Emanations.  Very important.  But some emanations can be bad, like foul shit smell from hutment colonies or putrid gas emanations from human body.”

“All emanations fold into the One Great One”, said Helen.  “A pure blending of good and bad to create a pure, complete, perfect emanation”.

The two biggest bullshitters Buffalo Boy had ever met had found each other.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Buffalo Boy II–Chapter 2


The Church of Spiritual Renewal believed that the end of the world was coming, just not for them.  They built a warren of underground shelters, fully equipped them with lighting, plumbing, refrigeration and stocked them with enough peanut butter, tuna fish, pork and beans, and Spam to last for two years.  Of course after the coming nuclear exchange the earth would be hot for a century, but The Mother toned the science down and said that through prayer and divine intercession (God would never closet his chosen people for too long) the land would be fit for rehabitation after two years, maybe sooner.  The Scissors People would repopulate the earth with a new, purified, and sanctified race.

The Mother had not envisaged a total nuclear holocaust – her revelation dealt only with the mutual annihilation of America and the Soviet Union – but the more she thought about it, the more convinced she was that in this increasingly interdependent world, the incineration would be global.  Her phalanx of evangelists would not only spread the word of The Elevated, but would prepare the new faithful for the coming Armageddon.  She dreamt of great earthly temples far more ornate than anything in California.  They would become  places of ecstatic worship and spiritual strengthening, preparing them for their eventual emergence into The Light.

Eventually she would build subterranean Gardens of Babylon, elaborate fortresses no different from the wonders above.  Theirs would be a  unique world, sublime and mystical.  In her dream of dreams, she saw a world of magnificent architectural wonders, physical expressions of the beauty and muscularity of her religion.  Her priests would be cloaked in gold raiment, serving her like a queen of Pharaonic Egypt and she would be bejeweled with the finest stones of the East.

India, with its rich cultural and religious history, its own pantheon of The Elevated from Siva and Rama to Guru Nanak, the Apostle Thomas (who, legend had it, found his way to the Malabar Coast, establishing Christianity far before the Portuguese), and of course the latter day disciples of Mohammed, would be the ideal place to create a spiritual convocation of these holy men.  The Mother had always been entranced by Hindu worship.  She loved the bells, the incense, the flowers, offerings, music and mystery.  It was all very celestial.  Buffalo Boy would go out not only on an evangelical mission but an architectural one.  Scissors would become known worldwide.

Mr. Shah liked the idea of building the first Scissors Center in India at his ashram.  “Already very holy place”, he said.  “Mathura is the birthplace of Lord Krishna.  You can call him Vishnu if you like, doesn’t matter, one and the same god, extreme holiness.  Mathura not far from this place, his emanations can be felt in my ashram, ripples in the water of my tank.  More religion is better.  Lord Buddha visited Mathura, left his own emanations, now more ripples in my tank will be coming.”

Buffalo Boy’s homecoming to Shanagar was a festival, and the townspeople combined elements of all Indian holidays into one.  They organized a parade with dancers, drummers, and snake charmers, organ grinders and bear-tamers.  There were floats with images of Buffalo Boy surrounded by clay buffaloes; others depicted him as a kind of Baby Jesus, lying on his back in a manger surrounded by buffaloes; and still another placed a full-size statue of him, buck naked, dreadlocks, and smeared with dung on the prow of a boat.  Buffalo Boy himself rode in an open Ambassador, and as he passed, the townspeople showered him with flowers, garlanded him with jasmine and roses, and offered him sweets.  The music was orchestral – all tubas, bassoons, trumpets, and cymbals – and loud.  Banners welcoming Buffalo Boy festooned the parade route.  Welcoming speeches droned on by aldermen and farmers.  Even the policeman who was one of the crew who lassoed Buffalo Boy, trussed him up, and stowed him in the back of the pickup gave a tearful speech.  The prodigal son had returned.

Buffalo Boy was choked up himself as he climbed the dais, bowed his head to receive more garlands, and took the microphone.  He was overwhelmed with emotion; but he remembered his holy mission and spoke of the Elevated, the power and glory of Guru Nanak, Siva, Jesus, Moses, Mohammed, and Padre Pio.  He spoke glowingly of The Mother and her vision of world unity through prayer and vigilance; and of the Church of Spiritual Renewal which would be opening soon to all.  He spoke with a simultaneous translator like those who accompanied Billy Graham and Jimmy Swaggart.

There was a restless silence when he finished. 

“These dummies have no idea what you were talking about, my dear.  Guru Nanak is dummy saint of stupid Sikh truck drivers.  These people are Vaishnavites and don’t give a shit about Siva or Jesus H. Christ.  But don’t worry.  Enlightenment will come to them. I will see to it.  I am businessman.  Just you wait and see”.  

When Buffalo Boy stood once more by the green scummy waters of the tank, saw the disrepair of the ashram building, and the spare, desiccated fields nearby and thought of the tepid response he had received that afternoon and the cautionary words of Mr. Shah, he felt a wave of panic.  What had he taken on?  How could he ever realize The Mother’s dream? 

“Not to worry, dear”, said Mr. Shah. “I will give you instant faithful.  There are always faithful to be rounded up.  No need to wait for dummy villagers”.  Shah knew that the Bombay Municipality was carrying out periodic roundups of beggars and street people.  They carried out their pogroms in the middle of the night, hoisted their booty into the back of army vehicles, carried them to the countryside, and dumped them in far-flung rural towns who were then supposed to care for them and put them to work.  The Government was careful to spread the burden equally, scattering the beggars throughout the state, never dumping twice in one place, if possible.  Shah asked the Bombay Municipality to please spend extra for petrol and send next shipment of fuckers to Shahnagar.  He would take care of them. 

A week later, Shah called Buffalo Boy from his room in the ashram.  “Come, see what I have done.  God is already working his miracles”.

Outside, crowded around the tank were the New Faithful – the most recent arrivals of beggars, addicts, schizophrenics, pavement dwellers, and Gypsies from the streets of Bombay.  It was a wretched, sub-human bunch.  The beggars were blind and mutilated.  The Gypsies filthy, twitchy, and restless.  The schizophrenics wild-eyed and railing.  The homeless ragged, hungry, and skeletal.  “See….see!”, said Shah.  “God has provided.  OK, OK, maybe some are not Bollywood material, but desperate conditions always lift eyes up to heaven; and a few rupees help soul on its way.  I have taken care of material wants”.

Children are Precious was a charitable organization which received cash donations from the United States.  Shah had leaned on the government to lean in turn on the American organization to provide food-for-work – that is, the sordid Bombay lot would refurbish the ashram and for their labors get food.  Buffalo Boy would have a captive audience for his evangelism, and the poor and disinherited would eat.  Initially the Director was reluctant because the proposition seemed iffy.  He had been in India long enough to have been fooled many times by promoters of charitable programs who always managed to take his food, his money, or his staff.  Shah was yet another greedy Indian with a silver tongue.  

“I am very sorry”, replied Shah.  “Very sorry indeed, for your reasoning is flawed. I get nothing, Church gets nothing.  Only people get something ad perpetuum continuing stream of religious pilgrims, reformed beggars meeting God. State benefits from purification of Bombay also”.


There of course was no way that a totally dysfunctional group of Bombay lowlifes was going to actually do physical labor.  To start with, half of the adults were maimed and had been begging since childhood.  Their pimps knew that there was value in blindness, stumps, severe scarring, or deformity.  Beggars were everywhere, on every street corner, in front of every restaurant, waiting by churches, aid offices, and car parks; and the pimps knew that even taking into consideration foreigners’ mutilation hierarchy (some gave only to the blind, the worst affliction they could imagine; others only to maimed children; others to those half-people who scooted around on mini-skateboards, propelled by their hands), begging was a good business. 

All of which meant that once the pimps learned that their beggars had been removed to Mathura, they quickly followed and stole them back.  Two days after the start of the food-for-work program, over half of the workforce was gone.  Once the Gypsies had stolen what they could from the ashram, they too were gone.  They made a thievery run through the crowds at the train station, pickpocketing and robbing enough to get them back to Bombay.  Which left the pavement dwellers, too scrawny and feeble to do any work, but grateful for the food. 

“I have fucked up”, said Shah.  “I should have been knowing that Bombay scum not even fit to clean scum from my tank.  Bloody buggers.  Good riddance”. 

Buffalo Boy was not totally discouraged, and once his trunks came from California, he busily tried to transform the ashram into a pukka Scissors church.  He hung pictures of the Elevated in the halls, common rooms, and refectory.  He hooked his tape recorder to speakers borrowed from the panchayat, and loaded it with devotional music specially selected by The Mother.  He painted the walls all magenta, violet, and chartreuse – colors that signified spiritual elevation.  He removed all pictures of Ganesh, Hanuman, and all other animal figures or representations, for The Mother said that animals were waiting repositories for the devil and his evil archangels.  He arranged the pamphlets and brochures sent from California.  Of course he would eventually have to translate them into Hindi, but even so they stood on their own.  In bright purples and magentas, each of the Elevated stood strong and tall – a bit like Lenin in Soviet iconography – proud and visionary.

When all was ready, he turned on the motivational tapes, and the music spread through the town.  He had his translator record a welcome – “Come to The Mother.  Come to the Church of Spiritual Renewal”.

He played the music and the recorded message for three days.  He distributed pamphlets in the market and at the temples.  Still no one came.

“Dummies will never come”, said Shah.  “Ashram will remain a wreck.  Spirituality will remain at low level.  Fuck the bloody buggers.  Let’s go to Bombay. Lord’s work can wait”.


Shah installed Buffalo Boy in the guest room of his house on Malabar Hill – the infamous room which had been Shah’s lookout perch to see ‘woman who do it with dog’.

“I am no longer interested in such things”, he explained.  “Nothing wrong with doggy style, mind you.  I have just moved on.  No more sheep or chickens”.

“Moved on to what?”, Buffalo Boy asked.

“People”, he said.

That night the driver dropped them at the Cages, Bombay’s seediest but most diverse area of prostitution.  Everything you could ever want was there.  Men, women, boys, girls, all of whom would do anything for a few rupees.  The area was called the Cages because the prostitutes waited in small rooms open to the street except for vertical wooden bars painted in loud, garish colors – just like the women.  The street was crowded with young men cruising the Cages.  The smell of dope, incense, and the exhaust from motor scooters was thick and sweet.  It was the period just before the monsoon, and the air was saturated with humidity, still and heavy.  The men walked silently and expectantly, and the women waited, hips cocked, hands on the bars, breasts exposed.  It was eerie and frightening. 

Buffalo Boy was inexperienced sexually.  His madness had overtaken him early in his Peace Corps stay, the years with his parents cloistered and alone.  All his energy was taken shaking his animal demons.  The years with The Mother were more social and relaxed.  The communal life and camaraderie generated from a common belief in the Elevated were important asexual means to mental stability.  There was an aura of virginity about The Mother, cultivated and carefully nurtured to suggest the Holy Virgin.  Paintings of her all showed her in flowing blue robes, angelic, beatific expression on her face, a quiet, confident repose in her body.  Nothing sexual.

“You want some pussy?”, asked Shah.

Buffalo Boy stammered and mumbled.  “What? I can’t hear you.  I asked a simple question.  You want pussy?”.  The answer was yes, but not here.  Not with these sexless, intimidating women.  They all had a raunchy born-poor, pimp-beaten toughness.  “Or maybe cornhole? That is next block.  Don’t be shy, my dear.  Too much God is no good for you.  Maybe you should have fucked The Mother – a real motherfucker”.  Shah howled, coughed and spat.  “Real motherfucker.  Religious pussy.”

They strolled along Desai Street, turned on Peddar Road, and went down a narrow alley.  “This is called Trust Me Street”, said Shah.  You pay flat rate and fuck whatever comes from behind curtain.  Here I have fucked pussy, asshole, fat ladies, big fucking moonlighting Sardarji truck drivers.  Best bang for the buck.  You want to try?”

“No, I’ll pass”, said Buffalo Boy as Shah ducked his head into the narrow passageway and disappeared.  He was the only white man on the streets, and waves of paranoia came over him.  Not only were his spiritual moorings become unhinged, he was afraid for his life. India was no longer the peaceful, pastoral existence of ten years ago, but an aggressive, hostile place.  He wanted to run. 

Shah said nothing the next morning when they met at breakfast.  He invited Buffalo Boy to come with him on daily rounds of his Bombay temples.  He checked the books, the inventory, the musical instruments.  He lectured the chowkidars, hectored the chief priests insisting that revenue was down and should be up.  “Up, up, UP!”, he yelled.  “I am running a business.  Yes, spiritual business, but still business.  Temple cannot run on prayer unless prayer is for money.  Tell faithful to pray for money, good-for-nothing fucker”.

A week later Buffalo Boy got a call from The Mother.  She was coming to India with her retinue to see the new Church headquarters in Mathura.  “Don’t worry, dear”, said Shah when he saw the look on Buffalo Boy’s face.  “We will put on great tamasha.  All smoke and mirrors.  It will look like you have converted hundreds of stupid Hindus.  Leave everything to me”.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Buffalo Boy II–Chapter 1


When Buffalo Boy, aka David Martin, left India he felt untethered – his spiritual umbilical cord to the Great Primal Being had been cut, and he was now adrift.  His parents had taken him back to the United States where he stayed at home, played with the cat, and built a makeshift shrine to Lord Siva in his room.  He was profoundly unhappy.  “He is just feeling poorly”, said Mrs. Martin to neighbors who wondered why he never left the house.  “His nerves, don’t you know.  India weakened them”.  Most people had no idea of what India was really like, but fragments of The Black Hole of Calcutta got pieced together with the hare-lipped children they saw on television and the rather shaky and watery return to civilization of the Martins, so weakened nerves was certainly the least that one could expect after two years there.  The Martins of course did not tell the neighbors about David’s transformation (“reincarnation”, he insisted) into Buffalo Boy, his schizophrenic escape from the mental hospital, and his near deification by the Gujarati community.  They rightly assumed that they would never understand.  Neither did the Martins.  “India is such a strange country”, Mrs. Martin would often say to her husband out of the blue.

He was officially an extern from a private mental clinic in Dubuque, getting outpatient counseling.  He still persisted in some of his habits.  When his parents weren’t looking he ate out of the dog dish, shat in the backyard under the maple tree, then scraped dirt over it through his legs.  Early on in the rehabilitation process, he often escaped to the cow pasture nearby, and was found naked and smeared with cow dung; but gradually he became more and more socialized and sane (healthy as we say today), consistently wearing his clothes, speaking and not barking or mooing, eating at the dinner table with a knife and fork, and even walking upright to the mailbox. 

Even when he was pronounced whole and nearly back to the David his parents knew and loved, he felt empty and alone.  He missed warmth and companionship; and OK, it had been with buffalos, but the primal animal need was still there.  He began to keep up with his Peace Corps friends, young men who had gone off the rails like he had, been repatriated under supervision, and kept under a similar wacko watch.  Through this network of untethered, zany Volunteers, he learned of the Church of Spiritual Renewal, a Millenialist cult located in the far north of California in Humboldt County.  The Church welcomed all comers and had a religious philosophy that accomodated everyone.  Its guiding principle was that spiritual “elevation” could come through the intercession of any holy ancestor; so Moses, Mohammed, Jesus, the Buddha, Lord Siva, Joseph Smith, and any number of lesser saints, reformed sinners, and enlightened priests were in the pantheon.  This was not too different from Hinduism according to which you could pick your own particular incarnation of the Deity – Siva, Vishnu, Ganesh, Kali, etc. – and pray to him/her to release you from the Wheel of Becoming.

The Church of Spiritual Renewal (CSR for short, or “Scissor”) was perfect for the legions of disaffected youth in the country.  For those who wanted direction and guidance, there were The Mother’s Ten Commandments.  For those who needed space and time to follow their own instincts, there was Her Ten Threads of Being.  The Church provided not only spiritual guidance but employment counseling.  It was founded on extremely conservative economic and social principles, and while Ayn Rand, Nietzsche, Hayek, and Milton Friedman were not in the Pantheon of The Elevated, they were certainly acolytes.  Individual enterprise was highly valued, and no one was allowed to mope.  This activism fit the overall ethos of the Church and guaranteed that there would always be sufficient incomes for generous tithing.

Buffalo Boy made his way West and was welcomed with open arms by The Mother and by the congregants of the Church.  There was something familiar about him – a sense of longing and desperation – that they all recognized.  He would fit in just fine.  Within a day he had a bunk and was initiated into the religious and secular routines of the congregation.

The Mother asked what work he would like to do.  He was puzzled because for so long he had done nothing; but then he had an illuminated thought – he received Peace Corps training as a poultry farmer.  He had chosen this vocation because he had always been fascinated with chickens.  They were so stupid, hunting and pecking, squawking, bobbing and jerking, and finally flapping up to their perches in the henhouse where they settled their fathers, squirted out the last spurt of the day, and all went to sleep at the same time.  So chickens it would be.

Buffalo Boy lived very happily at the Church compound for two years.  He felt spiritually renewed, physically healthy, and for the first time in a long while, optimistic.  He was, therefore, particularly receptive to The Mother’s call for evangelism – to go forth in the world and convert the faithless.  He immediately thought of returning to India.  It was the holiest and most devout place on earth, so converting Hindus would be like getting them to change toothpaste.  They already brushed their teeth, so why not buy a brand that would give them extra whitening and cavity protection?

He wrote to Mr. Shah of Shahnagar, the Shah Bombay Temple, the curator of Hindu pornography, and his benefactor.  Shah, like most devout Hindus, would be very receptive to any kind of spiritual experience.  “There is no such thing as idolatry”, David remembered Shah saying.  “Doesn’t matter if you worship carburetor of Ambassador car, all is One, all is God.”  He paused and continued, “In fact carburetor is very good thing to worship.  Is essential for flow of nourishing fluids, mixes basic elements of Liquid and Air, pumps like heart of Holy Cow.  Yes, I have convinced myself.  I will worship carburetor.”

Shah was delighted to hear from him.  The people of Shahnagar still venerated his image, the old photo hung in the panchayat office.  The Gujarati community still talked of his holiness.  Buffalo Boy’s naked wanderings through the streets of Bombay were no different than 10,000 sadhus before him, and his rantings, fulminations, and imprecations to God were signs of being on a divine pathway.  He would be most welcome, and the Shah Ashram could be the home of the Church of Spiritual Renewal.  The Mother loaned him airfare, and he headed off to Bombay.


Shah met him at the airport, hugged him and said, “Well, no worse for wear.  Thin but aerated, very good for system.  Fat prevents aeration and porous being.  Spirit has trouble exiting body to visit God” 

Shah didn’t look any different, perhaps some greying at the temples, but fit and with the same black, lustrous eyes and slightly unhinged look.  They crowded into his Ambassador, the same car that he had had when Buffalo Boy lived in India. “Waste not, want not”, said Shah.  “Even shitty Ambassador car deserves respect”. 

The trip back from the airport took forever since Shah had to visit all of his shrines and temples.  “I am like sales rep for monkey wrenches”, he said.  “Must visit retail outlets and check on inventory.  Not tools in this case, however, but souls”.  We visited large shrines with elaborate altars, fountains, and gardens; and small shrines, no more than a tent over a lingam and a harmonium player.  The priest in each and every one bowed and scraped when Shah showed up, touched his feet, namaste-ed, and garlanded him with sweet jasmine flowers.  “My people love me”, he said.   He checked the books – this was only really important in the major shrines where there were many priests to be paid, many faithful to be tapped for offerings, and small community programs to be administered.

The trip in from the airport had not changed much in ten years.  The culverts had been installed, but the nasty potters’ colony still festered on the hillside just outside of Juhu and the Mosque.  There were still herds of rancid, foul-smelling goats, the shit smell of low tide, and the choking smoke of diesel exhaust; but for Buffalo Boy this was all perfume, ambrosial scent, floral bouquets.  He was back in his beloved India, and nothing could sully his his first day.

Mrs. Shah was the same reserved, gracious, and attentive woman she had been ten years before.  Age had done nothing to dim her quiet flame.  She still moved like a graceful nun in a convent, padding in bare feet across the marble floors with only a whispered rustle of her sari.  She smiled shyly and offered Buffalo Boy some tea and sweets.  She certainly must have been amazed at the transformation in him, for the last time she saw him he was still trussed up in the back of a pickup truck on his way to the asylum, smeared with buffalo dung, matted hair, suppurating sores, and layers of black dirt from head to toe.  She was delighted in the change and saw something more serene in him.  She assumed that the same wild search for spiritual ecstasy had been tamed and he was now willing to adopt more traditional ways to enlightenment.   He went to bed early, for they were to proceed to Shahnagar early the next morning.