Sunday, August 30, 2009

Beluga Whales

Yesterday, Gloria and I spent about forty minutes in the water with three Beluga whales at Shedd Aquarium, here in Chicago. If you ever get the opportunity, you should do so.

To touch these magnificent creatures, to see them swimming at your feet, gliding their large bodies against your own, is humbling and joyful. I felt that I was in the presence of an intelligence that likely rivals our own. We were able to pet their heads, bump our own heads with theirs, touch their flukes, and – the whales’ favorite – tickle their tongues. The Shedd trainer, Jessica, taught us several simple commands that we were then able to execute. We each had the opportunity to ask a whale to vocalize, rise up and out of the water, turn around several times, and to spit toward us – both underwater and above water. To get one of these Beluga’s to spit underwater, you plunge your closed fist into the water in from of him and then open it wide. Once you do, you feel a steady stream of the Beluga spitting water at your hand, which is an extraordinary feeling. Want to whale to spit at you above water? Simply splash water at her face while she is looking at you – she will quickly gather water into her mouth and spit it towards you repeatedly. (I got soaked doing this, and loved every minute of it!)

Tickling a Beluga’s tongue is humbling and joyful as well. Humbling because putting your hand into the mouth of a sixteen hundred pound whale that could easily take you into the water and drown you on the bottom if she wanted to is, well, humbling. Joyful because she enjoys it so much. While stroking her tongue, the beautiful Beluga closes her eyes in joy, just like we might if someone is rubbing our shoulders in a particularly pleasurable way.

I’ve long had mixed feelings about any institutions that keep animals and other wildlife in captivity. However, if they succeed in raising public awareness regarding how important it is that we protect these species (many of which are threatened or endangered) then I suppose they are performing a critically important task. Whales – cetaceans - have populated the oceans of the world for fifty million years. They are warm blooded, they breathe air, and they feed their young milk from mammary glands. Sound familiar? How is it that they have managed to find a way to spend fifty million years on the planet without threatening their environment, when we humans have walked the earth a fraction of that time and find ourselves facing the threats of global warming and extreme climate change? Might we have something to learn?


Sunday, August 23, 2009

Taking Time to Look

For most of this blog’s relatively short lived life, I have signed off each post with the word, “Namaste.” There are several slightly differing definitions of this term that derives from the Sanskrit word, “Namaskaram,” including: I bow to the divinity inherent in you; I respect divinity in you that is also within me; and, my favorite: The light within me honors the light within you.

You see, everyone – from your closest friend to your worst enemy to that sibling that knows precisely how best to push your buttons and get under your skin – has a light within, a loving place, a place with which we can empathize – if we take time enough to look. It is so easy in our fast-paced, highly caffeinated, plugged in world to make snap judgments about people and their intentions. It’s so easy to assume what “sort” of person someone is by how they carry themselves at the office or how they order their half-caf triple mocha. We all too often instantly categorize folks into a folder or box of some sort, telling ourselves: “He’s aloof” or “She’s a whiner” or “She’s the quintessence of hipness” or “He’s just a jerk.” How often does it then happen that we encounter that person about whom we made a snap judgment in a different environment? Or, there arises an opportunity to see them in a new light, and – aha! – we were wrong! What seemed to be aloofness was, perhaps, concentration and passion for getting the job done right the first time. I know I’ve experienced these reversals of perceptions, and if you are honest with yourself, you’ve probably been there too.

Yesterday afternoon I was walking home from my local Starbucks and I was smoking a cigarette. (I know, I know, I should quit. Working on it. At least I’m only smoking out of doors these days.) At any rate, a man was walking toward me and he asked me for a cigarette. I said, as I always do when asked for a smoke from someone I don’t know, “I’m sorry, man, no.” As he passed me, he said, “No smoke for the black man, eh?”

I was stunned.

I turned around and said, “Listen man, it has nothing to do with your race, these things are expensive, you know? I wouldn’t give you a cigarette is you were white or Hispanic or whatever!”

“You’re just a racist, white boy, just like everyone else is, and you may as well admit it,” he shouted back.

I wish I could tell you that I found a way to see the light within this man at that moment. I didn’t. I told him where he could go and walked away.

But there is a light in him just as there is a light in me. And on further reflection it occurred to me that this must be a man who has felt the bitter pain of racism on numerous occasions. That doesn’t make it right for him to accuse me of being a racist, but it does allow me one small way to empathize with him, to begin to see how the light within him has been systematically diminished over time through the brutality of racism. I say “diminished,” not “extinguished,” for I’m certain it remains within.

I wish I’d had the quickness of thought to say to him, “If I were to give you a cigarette, would that mean that you would no longer see me as a racist? What if I gave you a whole pack of cigarettes? Or twenty dollars? Would I then just be a racist who had a small streak of kindness?”

If I ever see him again, I will try to ask these questions. I will try to allow him to see the light within me just as I will be taking the time to look, and to look hard, for the light within him.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Note to Restaurateurs

When you encounter a customer who tells you that he is deathly allergic to the plate that has just been put before him, it is best not to argue the fact.

True story: Earlier this evening, my wife and I went to a restaurant that we had previously patronized with good results. I thought (mistakenly) that I had previously had their red sauce and that it had been fine. You see, I am deathly allergic to the acid in fresh tomato, but a nice, long cooked tomato sauce on delicious pasta is just about my favorite dish on earth. (If it’s cooked long enough and doesn’t have big chunks of tomatoes, I have no problem with the allergy – the allergy is to one acid or another that is in fresh tomatoes.)

Well, thinking that I had previously successfully ordered a red sauce from this particular restaurant, I gamely ordered the linguine with meatballs in marinara sauce. Oops!

When the plate arrived, I saw some terrific looking meatballs, served over a bed of lovely looking linguine, surrounded by large chunks of tomato. Uh-oh.

I called the server over, apologized profusely, and said, “I’m so sorry, I thought I’d had the red sauce here before, but this has huge chunks of tomato, and I’m allergic to the acid in fresh tomato.” She assured me this was no problem and said she would bring me a menu so I could order an alternate dish.

Then, the trouble began.

A manager of some sort came by the table a few minutes later. She said, “This tomato has been cooked a long time, at least two hours here. And, we buy it chopped up in large chunks, because we don’t want to blend it or have paste or anything like that, but it’s been cooked for a long time and was likely cooked for a long time before it was canned.”

I shall not bore you with how much longer she went on with this. Suffice it to say that she was not listening to a word I was saying. I said, “The acid to which I’m allergic stays in large chunks of tomato. I’m scared to eat this. My throat closes up if I eat this and that acid is in there.”

I have never in my life – before tonight – encountered someone in a restaurant so seemingly uncaring, insensitive, about a customer’s potentially life-threatening allergic reaction to food. She was arguing with me, saying, essentially, “It’s fine, don’t be a wussy, eat it!!!!” She was trying to convince me to try the marinara sauce, even after I told her that my throat would close up if there were too much tomato acid within. I felt like asking her if she happened to have any Benadryl on hand in case the worst occurred.

Rather, I ordered a replacement dish of linguine carbonara, with prosciutto et al. It was overwhelmed with onions, but that’s not the point. The point is that if a customer presents him or herself as an individual who has serious food allergies (my wife carries Benadryl in her purse at all times, for me!) then you’d best take that seriously.

I will never frequent this restaurant again, because they demonstrated in no uncertain terms tonight that they just don’t really care. It’s too bad, too, because we’ve had some nice meals and experiences there before. But not tonight.

So, to you restaurateurs out there who might just possibly happen upon this blog? Take note. If you have a customer with a food allergy, don’t try to convince him or her that he or she will be all right. Attend to the issue. And for Pete’s sake, don’t argue with the customer!!! I was frightened, scared, petrified, to eat the food in front of me. Can you imagine what it feels like to have a restaurant manager tell you that “it’s all in your head? It’ll be fine, really. Just try it.”

Yeah, well, when you’ve had your throat close up such that you’ve had to OD on Benadryl, YOU try it!

Those of us who suffer from food allergies do not enjoy it. We hate it. But it’s real. We can’t wish our way out of it, as much as I think most of us wish we could. We despise being the “problem customer,” but we have to be, for the sake of our well being, indeed, our lives.

In general, I’ve noticed that restaurants have become much better about understanding the realities and consequences of food allergies in the past 10-15 years, but tonight was an appalling instance of the management seeming not to care a whit. I won’t be going back there.

Namaste. And, bon appetit!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

“The Air Around the Butterfly” – a gem of a poetry collection

Katerina Stoykova Klemer’s first book of poems, The Air Around the Butterfly, has recently been published by Fakel Express, a publishing house in Sofia, Bulgeria. While she originally wrote all of these poems in English, she has also translated each of them into her native Bulgarian language and they appear in the book side by side, English and Bulgarian.

Her poetry is elegant, concise, witty, inventive, and often very surprising. She has a knack for bringing inanimate objects (like a spare tire, or letters of the alphabet) to vividly engaging life. Her observations about the world around and within are keen and deeply insightful. Her work is among the most engaging poetry I’ve ever encountered.

I cannot recommend this volume highly enough. Full disclosure: Katerina is a friend and classmate in Spalding University’s brief residency MFA in Writing program, but my personal relationship with her has zero bearing on my deep admiration for her work.

Get this book and savor the poems within. You will not regret it. (It is available to order on Amazon now!)