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

Monday, February 26, 2018

RECIPES–Sautéed Rice With Red Pepper, Sherry, And Basil

This is a simple, very tasty recipe.  The combination of the ingredients and the crisping of the rice make it particularly unique. The basil and the red pepper give it sweetness, the fish sauce adds a savory touch, and the egg adds color and an additional flavor.
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Sautéed Rice with Red Pepper, Sherry, and Basil
* 1/2 cup dry rice
* 5-6 large leaves of basil, chopped coarsely
* 1/2 lg. red pepper, chopped coarsely
* 3 lg. cloves garlic chopped
* 1/4-1/2 cup Amontillado sherry
* 1 scant Tbsp. fish sauce
* 2 hardboiled eggs quartered
* 2-3 shakes hot red pepper
* 2-3 Tbsp. olive oil
- Boil the rice for 40 minutes (1 cup water for 1/2 cup rice), checking at 35 to be sure it does not     burn. The rice should be crispy on the bottom

- In skillet sauté the red pepper, garlic, pepper flakes, fish sauce, sherry, and basil in oil until peppers    are slightly soft

- Add the rice and and mix well

- Add the eggs and gently mix into the rice mixture

- Adjust for taste

- Add 5-7 grindings of fresh pepper

- Serve

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Go Ahead, Laugh––Life’s A Side Show So Why Not Enjoy It Like Jesus Did

A student in a Masters class at a well-known theological seminary in Washington asked the professor if Jesus had a sense of humor.  The professor who had never been asked this question, stumbled a bit before intoning as a good pastor should, “What does the Bible say?”

The Bible says very little if anything about anyone’s sense of humor whether the God of Abraham or Jesus Christ.  Perhaps the writers of the Old Testament and the Gospels felt that the works of God and Jesus Christ were nothing to laugh at, and that to suggest anything but profound seriousness of intent and character would do an irremediable injustice to both.

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Yet Jesus Christ was a man like any other.  While Early Church theologians debated exactly how he was human – partial, divided, sometimes God, sometimes Man, all God or all Man with a Divine Father – none denied his humanity.  He was born of woman, died at the hands of men, and was human in his enjoyment at the feast of Cana, the Last Supper, and the attentions of Mary Magdalene and the other women who adored him. 

The Gospels are quiet about Jesus as a boy and early adolescent.  His birth is recorded and noted as is his first sermon at 12 years old in the temple, but there is nothing about his growing up – throwing stones at goats to make them jump, pinching girls bottoms, laughing at the the clatter Joseph made as he got up drunkenly from the table and knocked over the soup tureen and the settings.  Of course he laughed at the hunchback who bumped and banged his way through the Jericho market stalls; the cripple who beat out a tattoo with his stick on the cobblestones on the town square; the blind beggar who could tell the sound of a dinar from a sous and yelled at the faux generosity of the alms-giver. 

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These were all his father’s creations and he never wondered why, in His infinite wisdom, he made mistakes when perfection was never beyond him.  Why couldn’t he have made sure that the angels in his heavenly workshop cut the patterns correctly – that eyes were spaced evenly on either side of the nose; that mouths were neither fat and flubbery or thin and ascetic; that ears were of a reasonable size and hung appropriately.  When Jesus looked around him and saw midgets, bearded women who looked like men, no-legged dwarves propelling themselves along the uneven streets of Jerusalem on a rickety wheels; ugly children, mangy, mongrel dogs; phlegmatic, coughing old men; harridans, and succubae, he must have laughed at his Father’s irony. 

What to make of this verse from Genesis 1:1 -  ‘God saw all that he had made, and it was very good’ – when much of what Jesus saw was nothing of the kind or at least questionable.  Of course his Father had created every human being with a divine soul which evened out the superficial irregularities of heavy brows, misshapen mouths, gimps, tics, and bandy legs; but still Jesus had to wonder at his Father’s sense of humor.  He didn’t have to create a race of misfits and side show freaks, but he did.  So how best to honor God’s supreme wisdom than to share in his divine irony?

So, of course Jesus had a sense of humor and had no guilty feelings about it.  There were certainly those who found his never-ending piety funny.  With all the Jews had to worry about – the authoritarianism of the Caesars, the arrogance of the Pharisees, the infighting at the temple, and the day-to-day management of a poor existence – they must have turned to humor for comic relief.  Is it a coincidence that the best and most hilarious Jewish humor today is self-deprecating and modestly ironic?  No, Jesus could not be taken completely seriously.  Although he was a Jew making trouble for the Jews with the Romans, his triumphal entry into the Holy City on an ass – an dramatic show of false modesty and pretension – had its humorous side.  The Messiah as a PR genius, entering Jerusalem at exactly the right time when the press and the people would be waiting.  How self-important!

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Jesus must have thought his fellow Jews ridiculous as well – nodding, rocking, and wailing in their prayer shawls, intoning outdated Hebrew prayers, ignorant of their pomposity, silly arrogation of religious authority, and distanced from anything real – like a woman, a good meal, or a bath.
So the Jerusalem of Jesus’ time must have been quite a show – no more than today’s circus, but no less.  The same parade of physical, social, and emotional deformity that is found in any community.  Human beings acting outrageously, compulsively, obsessively.

There was a woman on Upper Broadway near Columbia who dressed in black and made military turns at 112th and 113th street.  Back and forth, marching to a demanding drummer, avoiding the cracks but never losing her stride and her meter.  Only at the end of the day did she disappear, made a final turn west before disappearing into the park.  As nutty as a fruitcake, tolerated and enjoyed by the Upper West Side, a schizophrenic but harmless pet. 

Jerusalem, Jericho, Hebron, and Bethlehem all had their Black Marias, and Jesus loved his Father’s display of wonderful humor and irreverence.  Who said that God – or he, Jesus himself – had to be all-out, permanently, and sanctimoniously serious?  No.  The world was created in such a weird hodge-podge that one had to laugh and marvel.  This was the lesson of his Father’s creation, not some punctilious version of reality. 

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Were the feelings of the cripples, the hunchback, the louche, and the cross-eyed, hurt at Jesus’ laughter? Of course not.  As good servants of God, they knew that He had created them for a purpose, albeit perplexing; and if they had to stumble through life and be laughed at, so be it.  It was God’s will.  In God’s perfect world – one created with the most exaggerated caricatures and the most impossibly insuperable divides – then one’s lot was to be accepted if not savored.

Love and compassion were the lessons most often taken from the Christian Bible; and there was certainly room in the interpretation of God’s creation for a little sympathy for those less fortunate; but up to a point.  Was there some moral or ethical problem with hilariously laughing at a blind beggar fighting with peas on his plate as long as one gave generously for the poor at Mass? Or even if one kept his pocketbook closed and simply laughed?

Jesus had the divine perspicacity to know that future generations would misinterpret and distort his words.  Of course he was not condemning the rich with his parable about the camel and the eye of the needle, only issuing a warning – an obvious, overvalued, and overblown one if the truth were to be known – about losing one’s spiritual way.  In the same vein there was no problem with vaudeville impersonations of the ignorant, backwoods, country rube poor who who drank from the martini snifter, snacked on the potpourri, and got drunk at weddings.  Or the deaf who couldn’t hear roll call; the mute who couldn’t get the girl for want of a good line; the left-handed cripple using a right-handed scissor.

In today’s America, such fun is hands off.  The nation of victimhood can tolerate no offense.  God created all men equal, so all merit equal treatment, favor, and opportunity; and any suggestion of inequality or disfavor should be roundly censured.  The physically deformed, the psychotic, the horribly dependent, the clutchy Main Line matron, the Jewish-American princess, and the three-ring circus of badly-cut and –sewn human beings must be treated with deference, respect, and closed mouths. Intimations of humor are treasonous.

Jesus would be having a good laugh at all this, and wondering how his simple words about respect and compassion had gotten so distorted.  In his world of pre-Medieval Palestine there was no such delicacy.  Alms were given to the poor.  One made one’s way through life’s travails without thinking too much of the other; and a a good laugh – like a a pint of bitter – went a long way to getting through.  What had happened?  God, his Father, had knowingly created an unequal, hilariously distorted world.  Whether or not he had a purpose in so doing; or whether his divine intent was to be made known independent of the craziness of the world he created is irrelevant.  We have inherited a three-ring circus from God Almighty and he has given no instructions as to how we should behave.
Yet anyone paying attention understands that both God and his Only Begotten Son had marvelous senses of humor.  Laughing is to celebrate God’s creation, not to deny it.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

On The March–Flying The Banner Of Belief From The Crusades To The Washington Mall

There has always been a compelling nature to collective action.  The Crusades were not just armies of the West marching to Jerusalem to rid the Holy City of its Muslim infidel; but a militant statement of the power, glory, and rightful place of Christianity in the world.  They were different from the marauding armies of Genghis Khan who rode out of the steppes with a hundred thousand horsemen, laid waste to and then conquered the world from Europe to Asia.  They were the instruments of God’s will, and as such they would be unstoppable.  Over a period of two hundred years, three Crusades marched out of Europe to the East, each to be the final one, the scattering of Islam and the establishment of the one true church.  While the Crusades ultimately failed in their military objective (the last Christian outpost in Palestine fell in 1291), they accomplished much, much more.

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Of course the Crusades were of more than religious purpose.  The popes were as territorial and power-driven as any secular leader, and the agenda of the Crusades was as least as much geopolitical as spiritual.  Nevertheless, the Middle Ages was a profoundly religious period, as close to the imperial church and Constantine as England is to the Norman Conquest, far enough removed to engineer a new, historical Church, but close enough not to have lost missionary zeal.  The Crusades were at once cultural expressions, political and military expeditions, and the consolidation of papal power. Yet they consolidated the collective identity of the Latin Church under papal leadership; and constituted a replenishable source  for accounts of heroism, chivalry, and piety that galvanized medieval romance, philosophy, and literature.  Most wars are fought by conscripts, and the Crusades were certainly no different, but in an age of militant Christianity and unquestioned belief they were just as certainly led by true believers.

The Crusades seem particularly relevant to today’s secular America.  The Washington Mall has seen the largest, most passionate, and most militant expressions of civil unity in the protests against the Vietnam War and for Civil Rights; and the most dissolved demands for the environment, women’s rights, and racial justice.  While the protests of the Sixties had very specific, concrete goals in mind – the end to the Vietnam War, passage of legislation to outlaw discrimination and to prosecute racial violence – the demonstrations today are displays of solidarity, expressions of grievance and outrage; and perhaps more than anything, statements of collective identity.  The protests, and demonstrations feel like the Crusades to the marchers who see themselves as more than just social activists out to reset the course of American democracy, but evangelists for whom the environment, women and minorities, and the promotion of secular, progressive values have a righteous, spiritual nature.  They are demanding not only a change in social perceptions; not even for a structural change in national priorities and investments; but a moral revolution.  Their vision of equality goes far beyond the French and American Revolutions, Locke and Rousseau; far even beyond Plato’s Republic and its principles of value.  It brushes up against God’s Law – a supreme value, one of permanent, unquestioned non-relative value.

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It is hard to deny the importance of collective identity in the Middle Ages.  In Medieval Europe the life expectancy was barely over thirty, life for most was brutal and inescapable, and the social hierarchy was permanent, authoritarian, and unavoidable.  Collectivities – villages, regions – were little more than regulated entities of serfdom.  Families were little more than productive units for the prosperity of the court.   Religion provided support, hope, solace, and expectations of a better life in the hereafter; and joining a movement of likeminded believers would hasten the establishment of God’s rule on earth and guarantee through conviction and martyrdom a place in heaven.

Today’s American populace suffers from much of the same abjection of the Middle Ages. Although offered the hope of opportunity and a rise in fortune, few benefit from the American dream much more than a few wage hikes and minimal benefits.  The organizations which fought for large collectivities – e.g. the working man – have been disbanded. Nothing has replaced them and the progressive dismantling of a unified national ethos has further left individuals less protected, more alone, and with a more fragile future than in years past.  Worse, the ethos of identity has replaced that of Jeffersonian individualism.  Whereas Jefferson believed in individualism only as it was exercised within the context of community welfare and prosperity, today such a belief in a universal, absolute moral philosophy has eroded by the new belief in the primacy of narrow, secular demands. 

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Marches whether for Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, Women’s Rights, Earth Day, or gender inclusivity have become increasingly necessary but distracting.  Thornton Wilder’s Our Town no longer exists.  There are fewer such small communities whose values are shared by all others and who are free to consider their lives within a broader, more philosophical perspective. Marches today have become angry and isolating; and while they serve the purpose of social and personal solidarity, they have served to divide the nation more than save it. 

Pilgrimages – religious marches or processions to a place of reverence – have always been a part of religious expression.  Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism all have important, historical holy sites, and each year they are visited by hundreds of thousands if not millions of people. The Kumbh Mela is a religious event that occurs every 12 years at various holy sites in India, the most important of which is Allahabad.  When the Mela is held there, tens of millions of Hindus make the pilgrimage to worship.  In 2007 over 70 million people attended the 45-day ceremony.  Every year the haj or pilgrimage to Mecca draws nearly 2.5 million people.  The sites where the Virgin Mary was supposed to have appeared (e.g. Lourdes, Fatima) receive thousands of pilgrims per year.  In 2008 there were nearly 1.5 million pilgrims at Lourdes.

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The pilgrimage site of Santiago de Compostela dates from the 9th and 10th centuries – the same approximate time period of the Crusades.  Since that time millions of pilgrims have walked the ‘Camino’ for spiritual indulgence, penance, and grace.

El Camino de Santiago came to being due to the belief that the apostle Saint James was buried in the land of Galicia, in the northwest of Spain after years of preaching the Gospels in the Iberian Peninsula. After his return to Jerusalem he was beheaded by King Herod Agrippa in the year 44 AD, thus becoming one of the first Christian martyrs. Following the saint’s death, it was said that St. James’ disciples put his body in a stone boat that, lead by angels, sailed across the Mediterranean Sea, went through the Pillars of Hercules in the Strait of Gibraltar to finally arrive at the coast of Galicia, where a massive rock closed around his relics. These were later removed to Compostela.

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Even for the marginally-faithful the pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostela is as much of a ritual as a way of seeing Spain. Accounts of personal spiritual meditation are not uncommon among marchers.  Clearly the march is still a pilgrimage.

Today’s demonstrations, then, are a modern configuration of both the Crusades and Holy Pilgrimage.  They are concerned with higher values, are both militant and deeply personal, confer a social legitimacy through a show of faith and commitment, and offer final, non-secular rewards.

This phenomenon should be of no surprise.  Environmentalism, for example, has become a secular religion and little different from the millennialism of the past.  Sins against the Earth must be atoned for, and our fate will be brutal, and punishing.  Salvation for ourselves and the Earth is however possible through prayer and good works. These warnings, chastisements, and admonitions re no different than the Christian lessons taught from the pulpit every Sunday.  America is a profoundly religious culture; and no matter how seemingly secular our actions and aspirations may be, spiritual faith is never far away.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

My Love Of Soap Opera - The Confessions Of A Theatre Critic

A well-known theatre critic who was known for his fair, informed, and insightful reviews, recently admitted to a love of soap operas – Turkish soap operas in particular.  These were masterpieces of the genre, he said, but should never be considered inferior to what is considered serious drama.  The works of Tennessee Williams, O’Neill, Albee, and Miller all deal with honor, morality, courage, jealousy, hope and love – the stock-in-trade of soap operas.  They may do so more lyrically (no playwright writes more elegant, graceful, and poetic lines than Williams) or more despairingly (O’Neill refuses to let any breath of fresh air enter the Tyrone household) or more honestly (no one is spared in The Price and All My Sons); but none give more to the audience than a good, old-fashioned, well-made popular television series.

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Winter Sun is a Turkish soap opera that meets all the standards of important theatre.  The casting is done with an eye to culture, looks, and talent.  The vixen who ruins the lives of the heroes in pursuit of her greed, jealousy, and vindictiveness is beautiful, but whose startlingly blue eyes set in a hard, imperial face – long nose, thin lips, large forehead -  express ambition, frustrated anger, and danger.  She is thin, long-legged, is as attractive as a runway model and like them lacks sensuousness, physical allure, or personal grace. The hero is tall, dark, and handsome; but is engaging, sensitive, and approachable.  He is, by his looks alone, vulnerable and strong.  The heroine is blond, pretty in an American, California way, has an engaging smile, a soft but not sensual body.  The crime boss is handsome, but dark-skinned -  a contrast to the heroine, the hero, and their families.  He is cruelly attractive, expressive, ironic, and frightening. 

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Despite the demands of the genre (50 episodes in 52 weeks), the quality of acting remains consistent.  The characters’ identity remains strong, the emotion expressed consistently believable, the mastery of dialogue, movement, and presentation perfect. In an ensemble cast of ten, and a total cast of over twenty, there are no weaknesses.  Each actor has been faithful to his character, to the script, and to the intent and overall sentiment of the series throughout.  The direction, less important than acting, script, and casting in a soap opera, is nevertheless noteworthy.  It is the director who must keep up the pace despite the schedule, insist on expressive emotions, and ensure that the cuts, necessary to feature the many subplots of the action, are related, never too abrupt, and pertinent.

The genius of the series is the plot, a story with many twists and turns; many more sub-stories and characters; a mix of intrigue, family drama, crime and punishment, love, sickness and death.  It is ingenious in the way it involves the viewer, understanding his expectations and emotional framework and setting it within the familiar configurations of Turkish culture.  There is no let up to the plot, no end to the deviousness and duplicity of the villains, no lack of compassion and naiveté on the part of the heroes, no surprising coincidence left out, and no lack of surprise, suspense, and ultimately resolution.

The theatre critic wondered whether he was, despite his New York reputation and academic credentials, really just a middle-brow in disguise.  Had he fallen for the ruses, and canny manipulation of the genre just like everyone else in Turkey, the Middle East, and Latin America where the series is broadcast? Or was he on to something? Was there really no difference between the classic dramas written by great playwrights and the team of writers, producers, and directors in Istanbul?

Winter Sun, for example, is about loyalty above all; the importance of family and its fundamental importance in creating and assuring right behavior.  In Winter Sun, The End, and Love is in the Air, family values are tested and finally proven. True, the crises they face are far from ordinary.  The power, privilege, and wealth of the best families and the sympathy, compassion, and understanding of the less well-off are both exaggerations, but only slightly.  In fact the families of these series are far more intact and more ultimately responsible than O’Neill’s Tyrones or Mannons, and certainly those in Albee’s American Dream and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.  Albee and O’Neill were very pessimistic about families and convinced that although they might be, in Albee’s words, the crucibles of maturity, they were always damaging and destructive.  While that might be correct, it has more to do with abstraction than reality.  More families are like the Demarcans and Hancioglus of Turkish soap operas than those created by Albee, O’Neill, and Miller.

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Winter Sun has its necessary heroes, villains, chases, and intrigues; but it never shies away from moral issues.  In many ways it recalls the Catholic novels of Graham Greene whose stories alone would be page-turners but when the factor of religious faith and doctrinaire observance is added, the guilt, remorse, and demand for forgiveness become even more compelling.  The vixen is immoral, conniving, and soulless; but are her sins forgivable, and if so, under what conditions?  Should a daughter whose father has been exposed as a murderer turn her back on him for ruining her life, her family, and her livelihood?  Or is there room for compassion and loyalty even under the worst conditions?

An artifact of good soap operas is the careful use of knowledge.  Characters are always withholding information from others either to spare them pain or to hide their sins; and the viewer is always in on the secret, watching with frustration as characters miss the clues, buy the lies, and are hurt by them.  Yet such secrecy is a staple of all families, and its consequences are always the same.  The truth will always out, usually to disastrous consequences.

Divorce, separation, abortion, and sickness are always a part of soap operas; and have been the reason why intellectual critics – like the theatre critic – dismiss them.  Yet, what family has not had to deal with these issues, and why should the viewer be any different.  Her commiseration with the abandoned wife, the dying lover, the lost baby, and the recently divorced but still in-love woman is real. 

Yet why, the theatre critic wondered, is this so? If a popular genre does the same thing that the serious theatre intends – to move, to illuminate, to generate compassion, a more universal understanding of the human condition and illustrate how one manages within it – than why is it accorded inferior status?  And why should a play produced on Broadway, the work of an ensemble of actors, directors, producers, script writers, set designers and costumers be any different from a television series which requires the same complement of talent?

Perhaps the greatest American playwright – Tennessee Williams – is the closest to combining soap opera melodrama and serious theatre.  Williams wrote about lonely but courageous women, the corrosive influence of families, the disastrous results of love and the conflicts of class.  He wrote moving, emotive, memorable plays.  One may recall main characters of serious drama – Hedda Gabler, Laura, Rebecca West, Miss Julie, Martha, and all the many attractive heroines of Shakespeare’s Comedies – but we cannot forget Amanda, Blanche, Laura, and Alma and how they made us feel. 

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Laura was lonely, despairing, and timid; alone with her glass menagerie but courageous enough to try the outside world one last time.  He disappointment is painful and permanent  Alma hopes that the young man next door will be her emotional savior from her spinster’s life with a sanctimonious father.  Blanche hopes to escape madness with a man, but left as bereft as Laura and Alma.
At the same time, it will be hard to forget Nisan, Efruz, Havva, Seda, and Toprak – soap opera women who suffer the same dismissal, frustrated ambitions, and hurtful relationships with present or absent fathers as Williams’ heroines.  Does their existence within a popular entertainment drama neuter their empathy and influence? 

The theatre critic decided to live in two worlds, that of Broadway and Istanbul; but he was never again so reverential about what came to New York nor so critical of what came out of Istanbul.