Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Encore Une Fois ~ Notre Julia (Once Again ~ Our Julia)

Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia ChildHow many books about Julia Child can a person thoroughly enjoy? Three, it turns out. Having read Noel Riley Fitch’s biography, Appetite for Life, and Julia Child’s and Alex Prud’homme’s My Life in France, I wondered if Bob Spitz’s Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child might prove to be too much of the same. It did not. Though time line events were familiar, behind-the-scenes anecdotes and interviews were new.

Because of this third book about Julia Child, I think I understand her thinking and principles and decisions a bit better. Spitz presents more of her hard edges than the other books do. Whether his presentation of her driven, angry, rebellious, and earthy sides is out of balance with the real Julia Child, I do not know. Spitz also reveals business sides of publishing, television, and celebrity. As usual, my favorite take-away was renewed admiration for Julia Child’s belief in herself and her vision, as well as her exuberant taste buds and teaching passion.

The strength of Spitz’s biography is the stories. I didn’t want them to end. Conversations, negotiations, funny moments fascinated me. It is from many of these conversations that the book’s title came; Dearie was how Julia Child often addressed people. The book’s weakness, in my opinion, was a dearth of photos.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

If it feels good, do it

When I first heard the term situational ethics in a university sociology class in the late 1960s, I thought, “What freedom—to decide what’s right depending on the situation! How cool is that?” A few years later, I was thrilled to get an in-your-face-neon-green bumper sticker that urged If it feels good, do it. Although I apparently wasn’t convinced enough of its truth to boldly display it on my trusty ’64 Malibu’s chrome bumper, I did display it—taped on the inside of the lid of my portable gray metal file box.

Although the box contained mostly folders of paid utility bills, I also kept a small notebook of poems in it. When my boyfriend at the time discovered the little lock on the box’s front was locked and I wouldn’t give him the key, he deduced I must be writing poems about other loves, flew into a jealous rage, and kicked in the lid. Ironically, he did no damage to the If it feels good, do it bumper sticker, nor did he access my poems, which, also ironically, expressed my pained loneliness in my relationship with him. At least he did what felt right to him in the moment, though—despite the fact that by anyone but a sociopath’s standards, what he did was a violently disrespectful, damaging expression of anger.

In the 40-plus years since then, I’ve learned a bit more about standards. Those lessons have often come when I followed my feelings, in other words, practiced situational ethics. I’ve discovered it is not freedom at all. Here is just one example:

When my boss [Liz] told spiteful lies about me to my coworkers [In fact, she walked through the office singing those lies], horrified voices shrieked from my wounded heart that I should badmouth her to my coworkers. I knew I’d find sympathy among them, because Liz was in general small and unkind. In addition, temptations to quit this job I loved also began urgently squawking. By this time in my life, I’d decided I’d made enough If it feels good, do it mistakes to acknowledge my need for a Savior, Jesus Christ. I knew it would feel fabulous to sarcastically mention Liz’s mean spirit to even one coworker—and even more freeing to snarkily comment to all of them— but I would try to handle my hurt by God’s standards.

It took me months to do this. While in the process of giving my hurt to God, forgiving my boss, and habitually praying for Liz, I was still in bondage to my borderline hateful feelings. During those months, I went to work each morning with a heavy heart and strong desire to avoid her. At night I spat prayers at God. “God, you say to pray for our enemies, so I’m praying for Liz.” Period. Or, I prayed God would hurt her as badly as she’d hurt me. Funny thing, though, as I obeyed God’s rules about forgiving and praying for enemies, He somehow imbued me with compassion and love for her. My prayers became, “Oh Lord, I ask for your healing grace for Liz.” The morning I went to work with a glorious, beaming smile for this woman, I was truly free. Freedom didn’t come from If it feels good, do it. Freedom came from submitting to the wisdom of the God who created me and knows me best.

Cultural icons of the 1960s also touted the timeless truth “All you need is love.” What they didn’t tout was an overarching truth: Left to human devices, love is unattainable, especially if we do only what fickle feelings suggest. Questions of objective right and wrong are valid. I see now that situational ethics—and its bumper sticker—belong inside a bashed-in box with a lock that won’t open.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Matthew 11:28
Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. Colossians 3:13
… Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you … Matthew 5:44

Monday, November 12, 2012


The only success I’ve had consuming fewer calories necessitated feeling hungry. Not feeling hungry and reaching for a handful of nuts—rather, letting myself stay hungry. Assuring myself I’ll be all right—and better off waiting—until the next balanced meal is brand-new self-talk,  a new language, in addition to learning vocabulary like glycemic index and trans fats. Just as memorizing “La carte des desserts, s’il vous plaĆ®t?” before going to a Paris cafe brings pleasant surprise when the waiter promptly appears with a dessert menu, learning to say “I can make it till dinner without a snack” brings the happy reward of making it till dinner. 

Still, feeling hungry is an odd sensation. I am of course not speaking here of ribs-protruding, malnourished starvation. Nor am I speaking of a ravenous need for protein and carbs after running a marathon. I am speaking as a well-fed person on a normal day. My hunger is just a cute, furry, pipsqueak of a mouse quietly nibbling at my stomach. Its whiskers softly brush a nerve that whispers to my brain, “There’s a little hole to fill here—how about some nuts?” And I typically head straight for the almonds in my freezer. But if I’ve planned balanced meals wisely and no low-blood-sugar alarms clang, I don’t need those nuts, or the calories.

I don’t like to admit I am given to instant gratification. But when it comes to food, apparently I am. Eating less is good practice. It’s central to controlling my weight. Letting pipsqueak gnawing go for a few hours also takes self-control, one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, which reminds me of my need for God. As the song says, “Hungry I come to you, for I know you satisfy.”* And learning this new hunger language will help prepare me for necessary budget cuts in our home, which I’m really not looking forward to. Let me try out that new self-talk here: “I’ll be all right without buying expensive Christmas gifts this year. Even though I have two left thumbs and very little patience for crafts, I can make some very lovely gifts.” Do I sound convincing? No? How about a nice jar of almonds for everyone on my list? They’re already in my freezer; all I’d need is some shapely jars and wide red ribbon.

*Lyrics to “Hungry (Falling on My Knees)” are by Kathryn Scott.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Hope ~ quiet desperation notwithstanding

 Review of Empire Falls, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Richard Russo

Miles Roby is Everyman, or at least every middle-aged person. Well, at least he would be if all of us were as honest about his or her motives as Miles is about his. For me, Miles Roby’s thoughts and emotions were the most compelling aspect of Richard Russo’s Empire Falls. Who among us has not wrestled with finding fulfillment in life, choosing how to treat difficult people, cowering under and climbing over weighty fears, trying to understand our family members’ choices, piecing together childhood flashbacks, sorting through others’ expectations of us? Russo has crafted a story that certainly inspires contemplation of the motivational strength of good and evil, love and hate.

The story in Empire Falls spans three generations, although present action takes place in just a short period of months. For all Miles Roby’s introspection and Empire Falls’ small-town simplicity, the story also contains a fair amount of action, some violent. Forty-two-year-old Miles manages the Empire Grill, and most main characters have a long history with the town of Empire Falls, so the story weaves long-standing and new conflicts with comfortable, candid friendships as Miles confronts his seemingly impossible dreams.  Conflicts and friendships are among family members, among Miles’ high school friends, and with Francine Whiting, the wealthy woman who “owns” the town and whose mantra is “power and control.”

This is a book you will not just read—you will experience. The hair on the back of your neck will prickle when edgy Jimmy Minty enters a scene. You’ll prickle, plus hold your breath, when his menacing son Zack walks onstage. You might want to shake Max until he develops a conscience; you’ll certainly marvel at Miles’ loving patience with him. You’d like to grab a cup of coffee and sit down with Father Mark. Sometimes you’ll pity Janine; other times you’ll wash your hands of her. You’ll want to put protective arms around Miles’ and Janine’s teen daughter Tick, just as Miles longs to. You’ll root for Miles and his yearnings. These and other characters are so well-wrought, you’ll live their scenes right along with them.

A few miscellaneous comments … I think this story could have been told with much less crude profanity. I like the undercurrent of Miles’ faith as anchor, comfort, and source of wisdom. And I love Russo’s signature wry humor. Here’s just one example: “For Miles, one of the great mysteries of marriage was that you had to actually say things before you realized they were wrong.” I like how Miles perseveres to find life in an economically depressed town and how he chooses people and kindness over more alluring pursuits. I like the cerebral nature of this book; Miles thinks through his relational dilemmas and has a pivotal epiphany—with Russo revealing Miles’ ponderings all along the way. And I like how Russo explores Miles’ relationship with his mother. Although she died long ago, she is ever present in Miles’ life, not just as a shaper of his character. It is a mystery of her life that Miles must solve in order to surmount his fears. Russo is a master storyteller of interpersonal relationships, and I highly recommend this Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel.