Tuesday, January 30, 2007

cor bestiae devoravimus

Samarkand, great city of the Silk Road in Uzbekistan.

Sometimes you find yourself wandering through the far reaches of Queens carrying an umbrella and a wedding dress, looking for Uzbek food.

Let me explain, though it be a long story. Imperatrix pulcherrima Africae occidentalis had a knee operation a year ago and I found myself in the position of nurse (I'm sure everything would have been better had she followed my advice and let me perform the surgery at home with a corkscrew and a rubber band, but...). I asked in return Uzbek food, since I had read there were so many Uzbekis in Rego Park, Queens that the area is often referred to as "Regostan."

Things move slowly. A year later, Imperatrix pulcherrima Africae occidentalis had healed from her operation and had been proposed to. She had Martin Luther King Day off and we went to Queens to pick up the wedding dress she had picked out the day before (Imperatrix pulcherrima Africae occidentalis has been handling the wedding preparations with ruthless efficiency). So we decided that afterwards we would follow the "R" train out to Rego Park in eastern Queens so I could finally cash in on the Uzbek food. We went to the bridal store where I looked away from the dress, lest I be blinded, held out my credit card, and paid extra money for a bag that would keep me from seeing the dress by mistake. I then draped it over my umbrella and we set out for the Silk Road, New York City.

The restaurants in Regostan are all kosher (which I love, since I'm allergic to shrimp and I never have to worry about eating it by mistake in kosher restaurants). This is because most of the central Asians who have come to Regostan are Bukharian Jews, who trace their origins back to the Babylonian captivity, and 90% of whom have emigrated to Israel and the United States since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Bukharian Jews, circa 1890.

The Bukharian Jews spoke their own language, a mix of Hebrew and Persian, and lived a culture that went back thousands of years.

After a bit of googling, I had settled on a restaurant called Cheburechnaya. Unfortunately, the one website that gave a subway stop gave the wrong one, and so we had quite a walk to the restaurant carrying a heavy wedding dress. We finally made our way down 63rd Drive, a commercial street with signs in Russian and English. We reached Cheburechnaya, a brightly-lit place with a big neon sign across the street from an old white wooden Lutheran church that must have been built in a very different kind of neighborhood.

We sat down at the table and looked around us. I believe we were the only non-Bukharians there. The televisions displayed Russian music videos. We carefully examined the menu (warning to Crystal and Sandalstraps and other vegetarians: strange animal parts to be featured). We started with soup. Imperatrix pulcherrima Africae occidentalis had a succulent and filling oxtail soup (shurpa), and I had lagman, a soup with a Silk Road connection -- lagman is apparently connected to Chinese lo mein, and features wonderful handmade noodles and delicious broth. We also had cheburikis, pastries filled with mushrooms and cabbage.

Then it was time for the meat. The restaurant offers a number of kebabs on big sword-like spits. We ordered three. Lulya (a kind of spiced meatball), veal sweetbreads, and...


That's right. We devoured the heart of the beast and took from it its strength. Unfortunately, it wasn't still beating when we gnashed it to pieces with our teeth, but the good thing was that, like any other part of a lamb, it tasted like lamb. It was good. It wasn't the funkiest lamb part on the menu, either.

We both enjoyed the lulya. I liked the sweetbreads, but Imperatrix pulcherrima Africae occidentalis was not as enthusiastic about its texture. It is the animal's pancreas, after all ("A certaine Glandulous part, called Thimus, which in Calues... is most pleasaunt to be eaten. I suppose we call it the sweete bread..." John Banister, The historie of man, 1578. Thank you, OED). I found it very tasty. It melts in one's mouth.

I do regret we didn't try one of the salads, it would have gone well with the meat. We washed the whole thing down with gallons of green tea, had a lovely almond cake dessert, paid the ridiculously small tab, and left, a wedding dress in our arms and a desire to return for more in our hearts. The Uzbeck food adventure had been thoroughly successful.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


Jean Fouquet. Portrait of the Ferrara Court Jester Gonella. c. 1442. Tempera on wood. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

Sometimes quite by chance I come across evidence of what an unapologetically silly person I can be. Today, when trying to figure out how to use MS Access to print out reports on my charters, I came across a nonsense database I created when first learning to use the program, the "database of desire." I had wanted to have one large text field since I knew I would be typing in extensive notes on my charters, so I created a field of fake novel excerpts. Without further ado, I present them for your reading enjoyment:

She was dark, dark like the night. O! that I could know her, touch her cabbages, call her Tiny Jim…

Gretel held the ostrich egg in her hand, wondering how many people she could feed after frying it sunnyside up. What are we talking about here -- she thought to herself -- dinner-plate size? Pizza size? Hula-hoop size?

"No!" She shouted, her eyes blazing in righteous nausea….

Green, green flowed the lawnmower over her heart of bliss. Ach! Bitter was the schweingartenmeister…

How high the moon? Not high enough, he said, sadly, drinking his pesticide and gin.

The football cruised to an uptight velocity and then turned ever so slightly, as if to graze the cleavage of the Romanian cheerleader. That was the sign that blood rains would drench the field before the third quarter….

We knew then that there would be no giving up, no time for sniffling, just a moment before the shell broke on the counter, covering the kitchen floor in unbeaten ostrich egg…

The ides of march fell on a Tuesday that year, which surprised everyone in the gallery…

That was the year we were going to make it to the finals that year, but our star forward was trapped in the desert and had to eat his own foot…

My mind was floating across the idea that I would never see her again, when the shark shook me out of my musings...

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Five things you perhaps do not know about me

One thing you didn't know about Emperor Frederick II -- he played basketball (the ball is in his left hand).

It seems that the only thing that will get me off my fat Irish butt and blog is to be tagged for a meme. Talmida hit me with this one. Let's see how many of you know these things (or if you care).

1. I'm getting married. Yes, it's true. I kept planning to make a formal announcement on the blog and I never got around to it. Imperatrix pulcherrima Africae occidentalis and I are tying the knot next October. I proposed to her last September at the Cloisters after an elaborate ruse which successfully aimed at taking her off guard and thus confusing her to the point at which she would say yes.

2. I can play several instruments very badly. Over the course of my life I have taken lessons in piano, trumpet, guitar, saxophone, cello, and accordion (from a Bulgarian in Madrid) -- never at the same time. I have a four-track recorder (now gathering dust at my mother's house) and at one point I recorded songs, accompanying myself on guitar, bass, accordion and percussion (a plastic box of dry lentils -- ker-SHUNK). Alas, my love of music was never matched by my talent.

3. As a child I met John Wayne. He was a friend of a client of my father's, and we met him in central Utah. I may meet men who are taller and men who are fatter, but I will never meet a man as big as John Wayne.

4. When I was fourteen, I wanted to be an actor. My uncle is a playwright and theater has always been in my life. In fourth and fifth grade, I wrote the school play and as a teenager I was acting in plays my uncle produced (for example, we did a fifteen-minute version of Richard III on the city buses). An actor, however, uses his body as an instrument, and I'm afraid I have always been a bit too clumsy to be at ease on stage. The last thing I was in was a bilingual production of The Tempest in Madrid. It was good training for my voice, though, and I do fairly well at public speaking -- lecturing, doing poetry readings, or being a lector at church.

5. I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. Okay that's not true... Let me try again.

5. In my past lives, I was an Egyptian pharaoh, a Roman poet, a Templar, and an Elizabethan explorer. Okay, that's not true either. I don't believe in reincarnation, but if I did have past lives, odds are I would have been one of the 99.99% of humanity that throughout history spent their time shoveling cow poop.

5. I was briefly married to Mae West. No, that's not true either.

5. I make a mean roast chicken. That is actually true. A very good roast chicken.

Who shall I tag? Well, let's say Jeff, Sandalstaps, Guillaume le Fou, and mi primo.

The engagement ring.

Thursday, January 11, 2007


Caravaggio, St Catherine of Alexandria.

Crystal has tagged me for a contemporary theology meme, which is a bit of a problem for me since I found my way back to the Church while in grad school and thus have had very little time to read things not written in or about the Middle Ages. I will give it some thought.

Meanwhile, I finished adding all of Queen Urraca's charters to my database and decided to celebrate by wasting time bouncing around the internets. I hit beliefnet and came across a couple of articles on praying for a parking place. One, by Patton Dodd, was very serious and its general tone was summed up in its title: Praying for Parking is Evil. The author's point was that a God who will find you parking but won't stop the Holocaust leaves something to be desired, and seen from that perspective it's difficult to argue with him. In the end, though, it seems terribly rigid and gloomy -- we all have to be very serious about this and frivolity is morally dangerous. The specter of Puritanism rears its dour head.

The other article, by Father James Martin, is on the opposite side of the spectrum, investigating what saints are to be prayed to for finding lost items:
St. Anthony, St. Anthony, please come around.
Something is lost but cannot be found.
Or finding a husband:
St. Catherine, St. Catherine,
O lend me thy aid.
And grant that I never shall die an old maid.

Or even finding a parking place:
Mother Cabrini, Mother Cabrini,
please find a spot for my little machiney.
Of course, serious Christians will scowl and say that the two articles cannot be compared. Dodd's article is theological, whereas Martin's is folkloric. It goes along with memories of the Irish nuns teaching school and long-away Sundays when we were altar boys. At worst it's superstitious and at best frivolous. It helps us in no way spiritually.

Or does it? Why is the playful excluded from the spiritual? The center of my own understanding of God is apophatic (as I understand that term) -- I think God is beyond our comprehension. This does not make our ways of approaching God (scripture, liturgy, theology) invalid, but we cannot approach God without our limitations. On one hand, it is important to be rigorous and use our intelligence to clarify what we mean when we speak -- we were given intelligence for a reason, after all. Also we must make moral choices based on love of God and our fellow human beings. There is, however, a kind of arrogance in being too rigid and judgmental. We must remember how limited even our greatest flights of understanding are.

I believe many of our traditions have grown around deep psychological and spiritual needs that we have, and to reject them out of hand because they do not fit a limited understanding of scripture or theology will impoverish our spirituality. Veneration of saints is a good example. Yes, if we forget Christ because we only concentrate on saints, or if we feel that a prayer is magic spell that can compel heavenly action, we are probably wandering away from where we should go. Yet praying to saints is also a way of responding to the feeling that we are in a Church, a community, that includes the living and the dead, and that after the incarnation the distance between human beings and God has been bridged.

I love reading Aquinas and other theologians because there is something magnificent in the edifices they build when they apply reason to religion. There is something holy in it as well, but it's only a part. The core is mystery. I have an acquaintance who called mystery the perennial Catholic cop-out, but to me I can't really believe that, in the end, we can completely understand the divine with our heads. That conditions how I see intercessory prayer, a subject which creates a theological difficulty. After all, if God is perfect and how God acts is perfect, how could we move God to change the way he/she is working in the world? As Dodd suggests, what kind of a God finds parking spaces but ignores our pleas for peace in Darfur? On the other hand, what kind of God does not listen to the cries of his/her children?

The question ends, like most others, in mystery. I see intercessory prayer as hope made active before God. Hope, we are told, is a virtue whereas despair is a sin. If we do not express our hope to God, to whom will we? Like thanking and praising, expressing hope in the form of prayer is a basic way of behaving towards the divine. How it functions -- where, when, why and if God intercedes in our world to change it in the direction we hope it to change -- is a mystery. Still, it would be foolish not to hope.

This includes frivolous and playful hopes as well, which can be expressed in playful ways, such as in the rhymes above. It is true if you spend all your time hoping for the superficial, you become superficial, and if your hope becomes vain desire, you're setting yourself up for disappointment. Still, playfulness is part of life and I believe the playful has its place in the spirit.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Año nuevo, vida nueva

Happy New Year, everyone. I have returned from the Western mountains, where Imperatrix pulcherrima Africae occidentalis and I did little more than sleep, eat, and lay about, which was pretty much what we needed to do. Now I am ready to attack the charters with renewed vigor, and I hope that I can organize the rest of my life as well. I won't be as foolish as to state resolutions here on the blog that could come back to haunt me, but I do hope to write a bit more. We'll see.