Sunday, August 18, 2013


Long ago and far away, while interviewing a chef for a forgotten story meant for a forgotten publication, you learned an unforgettable fact about chefs.  When the head chef is hiring an underling, he or she asks to see that individual's knives.

If the head chef approves of the care the underling takes in the upkeep of these knives, the interview moves on to phase two, which is a demonstration of how the hopeful employee slices, dices, chops, and other significant divisions of various vegetables into component parts of various sizes.

This information has remained with you for at least twenty years, a taunting reminder of how the earliest phases of your education had more to do with acquiring facts at all levels, frequently to the exclusion of any ability to perform useful work with the fact.  Although resistant at first to the prospect of "learning your multiplication tables," you've come to see the value of such exercises.

A chef's basic tools, a set of knives, interested you, but beyond the simple internal exercise of trying to imagine the set of knives of a particular chef, you never had occasion to put the information to any practical matter.

There was one memorable incident when you were introduced to a chef of some reputation, only to discover you had nothing to say to him until your imp of the perverse took over and, noticing the chef's style of dress, you decided on a wild risk.  "My guess,"  you told him, "is that your preference goes beyond the conventional German knives and into something a bit more unusual.  Shall we say Japanese?  Tojiro, perhaps?"

The chef was at first stunned, then impressed because, as he put it, "You don't look the type."  This could have meant any number of things, including a taste for Texas barbecue or that you had give-away mannerisms suggesting a fondness for macaroni and cheese, the former being true, the latter not.

Educations that stress soaking up facts are not entirely without use.  Somewhere, somehow, you the English major, learned of the fine knives meant for Japanese chefs that had found their way into the toolkits of many an Occidental and especially American worker in the culinary fields.

In short, your imp of the perverse had brought you in contact with a memorable meal, overseen by a chef with a European background and education.  You wonder at times if you were not educated into perversity from the fact of having to memorize all those facts, floating around with nowhere to apply them.  

What you've only come to terms with in recent years is to question why being aware of the kind of education you had didn't motivate you to find the applications you were complaining about.  But this exploration is a start to looking at the aspect of what to do with information, how to put it to work, where to set the fulcrum.

Artists, whatever their medium of execution and their style in doing so, are frequently given primary judgment on their ability to draw and to render.

A number of jazz piano players have told you of the importance to their ability to earn a living is an ability to provide accompaniment for a singer.

The equivalent basic for you is words.  You do carry them about the way a chef carries knives.  You have favorites, which is a way of saying there are words you love to use, invent sentences like necklaces in which to display them in a different light.  There are words you've learned not to use, words like very and somewhat, and suddenly.

There are remarkable words from other languages that mean something similar to American English words but have in their sound a touch of garlic or, in Spanish, that delight of a word, ajo.  It is, you've learned, better to be asombrado in Spanish than astonished in English.  El Doctor Livingston, supongo, sounds better than Dr. Livingston, I presume.  In Sanskrit, there are words called bija words that conflate the powers and characteristics of gods, goddesses, and insights so powerful that, when meditated upon, your consciousness is turned into a sitar, on which are played the music called ragas, which are themselves meditations to morning and evening, and other times of day.

If, like a chef, you are being considered for a job, you are asked to show your words in a few sentences, then, if these have any intrinsic power, you are allowed to show a paragraph or two, possibly even a page.

Even though, when you had the chance to chose when you were about twelve or thirteen between Spanish, Latin, and French, you chose Spanish in spite of your understanding that Latin would help you get a leg up on Spanish and Italian and Portuguese, and because you already had a novel written in Spanish that you came close to understanding.

Brian Fagan likes to show off by quoting from Homer in Greek and although you took some Greek, you are only mildly jealous and after all, he cannot recite from memory the first eighteen lines of The Prelude to The Canterbury Tales, where there is that mouth-watering glide from the days before the Norman Invasion, and the French, and that lovely slide into Anglo-Saxon:

WHAN that Aprille with his shoures soote 
The droghte  of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth         
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes,  and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open ye,         
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages:
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmers for to seken straunge strondes, 
To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende         
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seke.
You can almost taste those Anglo-Saxon words, The holy blisful martyr for to seeke/That chem chaath cholpen, whan that the were (two beats in that) sek-e.  Like a dab of German mustard on a bratwurst, exploding against the back of your mouth.

Words, all over the place, and over thirty years of students recalling your screeds against -ly adverbs.  Get a better verb, one with a dash of ajo y chile in it.

Words as tools.  And what do the words do?  They connect facts with use, at long last.  And what are you looking for?  You are looking for ways to make the connections so that the words seem invisible and only the meanings are there, waiting to be inhaled.

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