Sunday, 31 May 2009

Do you need eeet?

Empty boxes in every room begin to collect our home contents. As I gather our material things — important, historic, necessary, uncertain, forgotten, useful and useless — the question tumbles through my head with compelling urgency, “Do you need it?” Each reluctant “yes” moves the object to an assembly line of newsprint-wrap, bubble-wrap, and careful settlement into sturdy corrugated box. These old cartons launched their journey in Florida, floated by ocean freight to England, and soon will cross the pond again, this time bound for Lincoln, Nebraska.

Though purging belongings does lead to some satisfaction — particularly the weekly bin collection — in all other respects this is a disagreeable activity. I revive our Father’s oft-repeated motto, the one with power to transform any object, owned or coveted, into a state of uncertainty:
Do you want eeet?
Do you need eeet?
Can you afford eeet?
Can you do without eeet?
If even one of these yielded the “wrong answer,” the impulse was to be abandoned without protest.

Inside retail stores where marketing tricks tempt with relentless lure, Father uttered the refrain to his impressionable children with a knowing, beaming grin, the kind that arranges one’s priorities into new order. So many times was the mantra delivered, it still tumbles through our heads uninvited, over and over like Disney’s “Small World After All.”

My thoughts wander to my parents’ kitchen cabinets. Here, curiously, this worthy citation seems malpracticed by its very endorser. Take the mug cupboard, for instance, and the scenario that leads to its state of affairs.

Our Father, in the company of our Mother, unexpectedly veers off-course to kitchenware inside Asda/WalMart-type establishments. Here, dishes and cups in new designs — painted with nature scenes, unbreakable, made in China — call out to him, “Pick me up, pick me uuup.”

“Looook, Aliiiice, let’s get two for variety.”

Mother reluctantly abandons the towels and meanders to the voice a few aisles away, mainly to terminate the alarming decibel extended to all shoppers.

“Bedg-ch’ounink, Movses.”*

Movses’ hearing-impaired ear is always turned to the side of unheeded exchange.

“LOOOK, eee’ts very cheeep! On special offer! Abbo-o-o! Can you beleeeve it? Buy three get one free! Aliiiice??!”

Vocal crescendo peaked to ultimate urgency, a quick stop for shoe polish morphs into unexpected bargain-thrill. The four questions unconsulted, the discovery travels to the till, into plastic bag, and to destination hazard — the kitchen cupboard filled with once-in-a-lifetime offers so dangerously stacked only Mum can organize. Cabinets must be opened slowly, cautiously, like overhead compartments that shift during takeoff and landing. Here, objects of his affection become object lesson.

It’s not just him

How effortlessly, intuitively we justify what we should have, why we need, why we do... Our discriminating minds programmed to believe opportunity only knocks once, and this one thing will make us more complete. By our very nature we desire better, bigger, smarter, newer... Until we amass a collection of duplicates, and hang on to things as fast as life itself. I consider those who have not so much or none at all. And what of the virtues of “less is more” which I extol? Principles of simplicity and other ideals by which I live and contradict simultaneously?

I review our own lifetime collections, footprints of our times. “Do you need it?”

Back home, the Seniors set their kitchen table with a different collage every day. “Variety is the spice of life!” Father asserts with his signature smile.

Their cabinets are filled with odd and wondrous bargains — countless mini-collections of novel, shatterproof dishes and assorted cups of many colors. The set of matching china is reserved for “special guests,” while their table is adorned with a range of delights in bright plastics; and memories... The glasses we drank from when we were kids; the knife grandmother used to piece cold butter onto warm toast; the melamine orange-floral plates missionaries left behind — scratched, faded, mismatched, indestructible.

And there’s joy at their table. All the world’s coordinated china can’t buy that.

I pick up the pink teacup and saucer my mother bought with her girls in mind, the one with a heart embossed in its base, and wrap it carefully for the journey to the other side.


*“We don’t need it,” in Armenian.

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

We are all given to each other on loan

Photo taken October 2008

Joanne Claire Elmadjian (née Pain)
30 AUGUST 1964 - 26 MARCH 2009

it is hardly fair to sum up a
beautiful life
in a few paragraphs
to honour an
ordinary woman who
has touched us in
extraordinary ways
- - -
Wife of my brother Alex, mummy to Aaron, 10,
daughter, sister to six, friend to many

Saturday, 28 February 2009

The sign

A devotional

It was the day before the big snow, more snow than this land had known in decades. Distraught over all manner of stuff, she hadn’t slept much the night before.

Morning came not a moment too soon. She poured tea, stared out the patio window over the rooftops to a small patch of visible sky and said, out loud, “I need a sign in the clouds.”

The notion was not premeditated. Words were thought and spoken in tandem. Surprised when she heard them she reasoned, I don’t do these things — close my eyes and point at random Biblical texts; forward emails and wait for undefined promissory miracles. I don’t expect personal signs from the heavens above or the earth below.

She cast the concept aside. And anyway, what kind of sign did she expect from this sky?

It’s a grey-dreary day. The heavens dull, thick, featureless.

But the unremarkable sky yields.

She blinks. Weary eyes play tricks, she thinks. She looks away and back again. Still there: An enormous outstretched hand with a little white cloud jumping (almost) out of it. The generous hand is open in a gesture of compassion while the elfin cloud leaps like popcorn frozen in time. And with so much vigor, it’s dreadfully close to bolting out. Farther to the right, a tiny demonish character sneers above the outstretched hand, but the beast is trivial in comparison.

Silly me, she thinks, if you want to see pictures in the clouds you usually can. With every remaining sip, she observes keenly for the next creative allegory.

But when the hand and restless cloud pass, there are no more clouds — only the overcast backdrop like before, a canvas without form and void.

A statement of condition. A caution, like a street sign that warns yield.

She didn’t ask for answers. She asked for a sign.

Now to stop jumping.

Monday, 22 December 2008

The tenth lesson and carol

With no oils, pencils or electronic devices, this is a Christmas card to paint yourself. When you are finished, we hope you hear the music, too.

Begin painting now.

Durham Cathedral — venerable, larger than life. A cold, rainy afternoon, everything feels grey. Inside, under the vaulted dome, candles pierce the pale air, lit by those who offered prayers earlier today.

It’s nearly Christmas.

The seats begin to fill. Some come decked in holiday fashion, red, green, glittery. But most in the pews are not typical church-going fare. They don’t pretend to be pretentious. They can’t attempt the superficial. Outward appearance is of no consequence. They’re out-of-sight, sometimes ignored, best tucked away.

The organ begins to play, the Cathedral choir files in.

To open the Nine Lessons and Carols we rise, sing “Angels we have heard on high,” and sit. In that gap of silence, from the creak of wooden pews and the soft shuffle of clothes, a deep male voice bellows a loud dissonant melody.

The program continues. No one silences the singer.

Simultaneously sad and beautiful, mentally handicapped of all ages begin to create a huge tableau of angels in paper wings, shepherds, “wise” men. So brave, so proud they walk the 201-foot nave to their designated spots in front. An angel loses a halo. A shepherd trips. The golden cardboard crown tips off the tallest wise man. In the course of each Lesson and Carol, the Cathedral crossing fills with a hundred colorful figures.

It is almost time for Mary, Joseph and the baby to complete the picture.

The narrator can read, but only just. He’s been assigned several long passages of scripture (the Lessons) which are also printed in our program. He stumbles over the simplest words, though he has practiced them for months. He skips phrases he can’t tackle, sometimes entire lines (giving new meaning to Synoptic Gospels).

Mary and Joseph make their entrance in wheelchairs. Baby Jesus cries during his entire appearance while the congregation sings, “Away in a manger.”

On that day when they are made whole — these angels, shepherds, wise men — decked in golden crowns and wings that fly, with voices raised in unison will come before His presence. “I wasn’t perfect and you took me in.”


This story predates my blog. On December 20, 2003 we attended a Cathedral carol service produced by MENCAP — the society for the mentally handicapped in County Durham. We were invited by our friends the Smiths who have foster cared the mentally challenged for years. I reread the story this year and was moved by the painting again.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

The Last Postum

Posted by Ben Holdsworth

We are sad to report the extinction of the last Postum on the planet.

“What is Postum?” some may ask.

Postum was an instant coffee substitute made from roasted wheat, bran, molasses and corn. It was a “healthy” alternative invented in 1895 by CW Post — a student of Dr John Harvey Kellogg — who wanted to avoid drinking tea and coffee due to ill effects of caffeine. It was a Euro-American institution (in some circles) until Post/Kraft stopped production in 2007.

Postum was marketed by an invisible cartoon ghost named, “Mister Coffee Nerves,” who would appear in situations wherein normal human characters were shown in uncomfortable life-situations (e.g. irritability, lack of sleep, loss of athletic prowess) due to their use of coffee and its negative effects. These cartoons always ended with the humans switching to Postum and Mister Coffee Nerves running away.
— James Lileks, “The Adventures of Mr Coffee Nerves”

A jar of Postum was recently found in the dark corners of our pantry — probably the last Postum on the planet. The Postum in our jar was 21 years old (use by date: 1987). When it was opened a few weeks ago as one of Ani’s archaeological finds on our food shelves, it took a knife and some heavy pounding to flake off bits big enough to discolor a cup of hot water.

Given her discovery, my wife got on a Postum kick that lasted a few weeks, probably due to the early arrival of winter’s cold, and decided today was the day to finish the last Postum (extinction of a species — errr specious beverage in my view). It was to be a ceremonious, nostalgic, fond memorial service.

As we were making lunch, Ani, too cold to wait post-meal, heated water in the kettle, and without my being fully aware of what she was about to do, poured it into the Postum jar. Her logic was to get the last dregs she was unable to dig out by pounding knife.

Before I could open my mouth, the jar cracked. Ani had already whirled around to find her cup, at the crucial brewing moment. I knew she better not pick up the jar — the crack was loud enough to know she needed a towel fast. As I began to say, “don’t pick it up,” she did, and the last hot Postum on the planet ran across the counter, under everything, into drawers, the cupboards below, and finally to the floor.

Of course she was unhappy — I think more from not getting her last sip, than the hour it took to find and wipe cold smelly Postum from under every lid and drawer item, the back of our largest storage cabinet, every pot, Tupperware, and items unseen since we moved (“Ohhh, that’s where that was, I’ve been looking for that.”)

So our cupboard and drawers are clean, and our counters are decorated with Tupperware, glassware, and whatever’s been washed and left to air-dry before it all goes back in. An unceremonious end to our 21-year old instant hot beverage, Postum Original, Rich Full-Bodied Taste.

Now she’s sipping decaf.

Friday, 18 July 2008

“Gromit, that’s it! Cheese! We’ll go somewhere where there’s cheese!”

(All quotes from Wallace and Gromit, A Grand Day Out)

Being vegetarian is easy here. Fresh fruit and veg is well-presented, often prewashed, always overpriced. Prepared foods display a green “V,” and the grocer’s cooler is packed with sumptuous meals sans meat.

But organic and vegan... The first, in its purest sense, I’m unable to afford; the latter, too lazy to embrace.

In regard to veganism, I’ve adopted a less-than-ideal compromise. Much like “vegetarians” who eat fish and chicken, I presently drink soymilk and eat Feta. I’m a strict semi-vegan.

Dairy is simply better here. Exhibit A: Wallace and Gromit. In addition to gleaning awards for extraordinary claymation, they unexpectedly revived the nearly-bankrupt Wenselydale Cheese Factory into a thriving dairy. Exhibit B: There’s no exhibit B. Take my word, or that of the adventure-seeking clay creatures who traveled far to find fine cheese.

Produced in
North Yorkshire,
Wensleydale cheese
tastes like Fontinella

“Everybody knows the moon is made of cheese”

It isn’t just the cheese. If Google can’t yield a proper vegan creamer for my decaf, I remain in the camp of the cowards. Us vegan wannabes insist on full-flavor low-fat substitutes before we convert. Oh, don’t go there... Tofu doesn’t work no matter how much vanilla you pour in. Puréed almonds (plus vanilla) was someone else’s “delicious” idea. Any recipe with vanilla is suspect in this regard. I’m not making a smoothie, I want a creamy coffee.

Organic, on the other hand, has become surprisingly feasible, with little effort and no extra cost.

In the British Isles, “Display Until” and “Sell By” dates are observed more strictly than the Laws of Nature. Whether animal, fruit or vegetable, dates stamped on every consumable product wait to be expired and marked to half price or less. Remarkably many of these items are perkier than their “fresh” counterparts. And organic foods at half price are cheaper than regular foods at full price. A routine survey of yellow mark-down stickers yields a bagful of organic stuff for less.

The sport has produced some interesting new flavors and unusual meals. Fennel in stir-fry was one such surprise. Celeriac soup, however, remains resident in the back of the freezer, a lifer beyond freezer-burn.

A Grand Day Out

In this milieu, join us on a recent journey to Hadrian’s Wall, as we muse the very topic of health and wellness while Ben obeys the speed limit (for a change) behind an ozone-wrecking truck in a no-passing zone.

“At this leisurely speed,” I observe, “we can enjoy the view and read the signs that point to interesting places.” Cough. “Will you please pull over and let this guy get ahead?”

Just then Providence smiles and we spot a hand-written card, not unlike “Will Work for Food.” With a crooked arrow pointing right, “Organic Café” it says.

We are driving through a region of two-farm villages named Once Brewed and Twice Brewed. We’d be lucky to find any food establishment where second-century Roman ruins rule, let alone one
of the organic nature.

We agree to investigate and gladly trade our emissions trail for pristine farmland, cool crisp air, and the occasional whiff of honeysuckle and cowpasture.

We turn into a small courtyard. There’s a farmhouse to the right, a shed-turned-toilet in the center, and a cozy Café to the left. An elderly dog wakes, moves wearily to my car door and sniffs. Don’t jump, I say through my teeth. He walks away, too tired to waste time on a transient. A middle-aged woman is fetching coal. Quaint. Chickens free-range everywhere. Large metal milk jugs are stacked outside the shed-toilet. Organic cows graze in fields behind.

Inside the Café we review the chalkboard menu. We are the last lunch customers. She returns from coal duty. (Will she wash before she touches our food?)

There’s one piece of home-made organic quiche, she says. I relinquish that to Ben. I’ll forgo the cheese today.

They make their own cheese. Organic, she stresses. Never mind, I’ll have the soup. Red Soup or Green Soup. Named as they are, the options don’t tease my palate. I ask, “What’s in the Red Soup?” She utters rather smugly, “Red vegetables.” And in the green? I don’t ask. She thinks she’s clever. Against my better judgment, from the sparse selection on the board I choose Green Soup, which only interests me because it is served with Roman spelt muffins — a first-century bread recipe found at nearby Vindolanda, she says. She’s the owner, obviously proud of her organic fare. Can’t remember when she last stepped into a supermarket. Buys all her produce from local organic growers.

I’m instantly anxious she knows I shop at my neighborhood grocer. She’s given me the look. I flush, how very inappropriate of me. I feel disdain toward our irresponsible lifestyle, convinced I must convert — seek organic farmers, grow my own. My mind skips to our patio. I replace the pansies with parsley, add a goat to graze the grass...

Upstairs, there’s a loft with four small tables and a large window. We head for the view.

I’m not happy with what I ordered. I want to change it but she’s disappeared into the kitchen. We are committed. My eye moves from the distant panorama to the scene just below the picture window.

Transfixed on the manure pile with visions of “Green Soup,” I recall our College cafeteria where yesterday’s vegetables were routinely disguised into new and creative forms. Cauliflower-breadcrumbs-and-eggs, peas-and-carrots, all mashed into shapes, sometimes flat, sometimes round or conical, with gravy, always fried, never tasty even if named Petit Pâté d’Oeuf et Poissons.

My soup arrives piping hot. My muffins, too. Ben’s quiche is served with a generous salad of wild greens and sprouts. I rarely butter bread but no amount of spread improves these muffins. They would start a food fight in College. While Ben enjoys his quiche, I offer a taste of my soup in hopes of a reciprocal gesture. I’m awarded a morsel. It is absolutely delicious. He declines my soup. A second bite of quiche is unlikely. I pour in salt and pepper. I’ve no idea what’s in the soup. It’s ugly. I’m starving so I eat without looking. I can’t look at the view, either.

I contemplate offering her my mother’s lentil soup recipe aptly renamed “Birthright Soup.” Like Wallace and Gromit for Wensleydale, it would launch her little business into a new level. I don’t. Ben is quite happy with the meal I thoughtfully yielded. He is smiling. He throws a few salad sprigs my way. I do love the salad but I want quiche.

“No cheese, Gromit. Not a bit in the house.”

Carnivore, vegetarian or vegan, click here for a memorable minute-and-a-half. You’ll never make spaghetti quite the same way again. Pes gets a million hits on his website per month.

20 July, 2008
Ben Holdsworth wishes to comment with an image he captured on today’s walk:

This is what free-range organic looks like.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Nothing happened

Tate Modern, London

We bump into her group at the Ave Maria installation by Maurizio Cattelan: Three male right-armed salutes protrude from a white wall. The first, she says, “represents Hail Mary, when Angel Gabriel announced she is to become the mother of God. The next arm...” She draws a blank, walks to the wall, reading glasses to nose inspects the plaque. “Yesss.”

“The second,” she continues with authority, “is Hail Caesar, and thirdly, Heil Hitler, representing the ideologies that killed the Son of God and tried to wipe out His children.”

A petite figure garnished with pure white hair and sweet smiling eyes, the tour guide lectures in melodious speech with hints of Frenchness.

Before this chance encounter we had explored the museum for several hours. We read the fine print beside each piece, studied brush strokes by hands of Masters. In the dimly-lit Rothko room that swiftly siphons joy, some gazed in awe, some in disbelief. After an informative film, I conclude no one’s interpretation of Modern Art is reliable, not even the artist’s. Each voice expressed in color, texture, shape, speaks to another in an unknown tongue. Awakening the desire to know, to understand, may be an artist’s highest purpose.

As we eavesdrop on the tour in progress, the idea of a guide suddenly seems agreeable. We linger two steps behind. As promised, she says, she’ll conclude in front of Picasso.

“I shall tell you now a story from many years ago, when I was a young girl in Paris.”

Her flock’s attention doubles.

“I walked to Picasso’s studio every day for many weeks. There, I stood in front of his door for hours for my chance to go inside, and to meet him.”

A handful of fresh-faced fans, hopeful models, tireless pilgrims congregated daily — not unlike those who spend nights on cold sidewalks for a glimpse of their favorite rock star. When the mood struck, Picasso would summon his butler to select a few and bring them in.

After countless failed attempts, she learns Picasso likes Polish chocolates. With renewed optimism, candy in hand, she logs more time in line.

One afternoon the door opens and she finds herself among the favored few. Crossing the coveted threshold, she presents the chocolates to the steward, wrapping now worn in a terrible state.

The group is escorted to the studio. Eager to see paintings, they discover the canvasses turned, facing the wall. Picasso looks up from his easel, surveys the lot, and points directly at her. “You. Follow me.”

He leads her alone up a long staircase, to a painting on the wall — a vulgar canvas he has recently rendered. She stares without reaction, stunned, dazed in his presence and by this exhibition of intense indecency.

“And I am wondering, what next?”

Our tour group moves in. She pauses. Months of anticipation — fondness, admiration, and now in the company of devotion — are intensely summed on her face. She clears her throat.

“Nothing happened,” she says in French inflection softened by London. “Which, I suppose, is a good thing, since many of Picasso’s women committed suicide, and I could have ended like one of them.”

“This is the end of the tour. Thank you.”

Without delay, part embarrassed, part proud, part enraptured — not unlike the day she met Pablo Picasso — she turns and walks away.

I catch her in the next room and ask if she would pose beside one of my favorites. She agrees. There are no signs but I suspect photography is prohibited in venues of priceless art. As security cameras move in, I expect someone to shout. I raise the flash (yes flash) and snap.

Nothing happens.

Picasso, Femme nue assise, oil on canvas, 1909, Tate Modern, London