daily preciousness

Friday, May 19, 2000

bakery cake

In an hour, I will go to school. I will put on dress socks and suede shoes and a casual shirt to conform with contemporary standards of male dress.

How about clipping my nails? I'll do that, too. And I'll probably comb my hair, which has grown thick and slightly mad professor-ish.

In 45 minutes, I will meet the relations of my friends and classmates. "Pleased to meet you," I will tell them, as I quickly forget their names. At this point, I will say to myself, in the corner of my mind, "I want to thank the Academy. I want to thank my parents. And, above all, I want to thank Allah. For giving me good hair and the self-confidence to share that fact with the world."

I comb my hair. Grab my wallet, breathmints, glasses and keys.

In 30 minutes, I will prepare and set up the graduation reception for my grad school. My friends are matriculating onward and upward.

It is like the Little Death that the French speak of, but only this time, in an academic sense. I shall bring sugary cake to go with the lime-green punch. Sadly, it will be a form of gustatory assault: a terrible crime against good taste.

Thankfully, the reception is for elderly parents who *enjoy* this type of nasty bakery-tasting atrocity, so I can forego the biting criticism of he food, considering the audience.

In 10 minutes, I will poison a multitude of people. This foul mode of cultural food poisoning is called "bakery cake" and its main purpose is social, not practical, in nature. It is conceived, created, prepared, frosted, delivered and presented in order for people to crowd around it with tiny paper plates and plastic forks. The people will encircle the cake, like the tribes of Africa once preyed upon wild game. They will surround it on all sides, greedily finding the choicest cuts. "I want a corner piece," a grandmother will whisper. "I want a center section," the handicapped veteran will instruct. "I don't want any purple icing," the 12-year-old cousin will demand.

And once this ritual has been performed to everyone's satisfaction, the next one will commence: It is the cake texture/color/thematic appropriateness analysis and icing consistency/amount/flavor/color critique.

In 5 minutes, strangers will pour each other punch from the frosted glass bowl into little plastic cups (whose color contrasts nicely with the cake). Thanks will be offered, paper napkins pressed fastidiously against brightly painted lips. Conversation will bloom out of the fertile subject matter at hand: the refreshments served and the graduates' career prospects.

Grateful parents will shake the ceremony-wearied hands of professors. Graduated students will shed their uncomfortable gowns. We will make hasty retreats to local bars and eateries.

And then graduation will be over for another semester. I have a year to go, yet, until my graduation day bakery cake is served. I should begin planning which piece I want to get.

Friday, May 12, 2000

unheard and unseen

I saw Nelson Mandela today.

He spoke at Southern University's commencement. Imprisoned unfairly in his country for more than a quarter of a century, this man won a Nobel Peace Prize for his fight for racial equality in his native South Africa.

Speaking in a weathered, charismatic voice, he expressed his thoughts in a beautiful accent. He told us that his father bestowed upon him a name that means "a broken branch." The connotation of this name is that he was born to be a trouble maker. He was.

But the "trouble" he got into eventually led his country to freedom. When he was released from prison in 1990, he found himself center stage in the dramatic series of events that led him to the presidency of his people.

Mandela spoke about the importance of personal reflection in everyday life -- a subject that's always interested me... "We must find time to simply sit and think every single day," he enjoined. "We have only one chance to pass through this life... We have only one opportunity to do the things which allow us to go to bed at night proud of who we are."

The 81-year old has much to be proud of; he boasted of his 13 or 14 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Of all his accomplishments, he's the most happy about this one, he said: Bill Gates is a very rich man -- but with my family, I know I am much richer!"

But he wasn't always rich. Born in a small village, he was used to small-town life. When he moved to Johannesburg as a small boy, he recalled a thought-provoking incident. One day, he noticed a 20-year-old man walking across the street with a great deal of pomposity. He addressed an elderly gentleman who was watching the same man, saying, "Grandpaw, who is this man who crosses the road thinking that the cars will stop just to admire him?"

"This boy has read *ALL* the books in the world and has passed the matriculation." Mandela explained that the "matriculation" was the word for college entrance exams, meaning the young man had qualified to enter university. Sixty-five years ago, the man he saw on the street was certain that he knew everything. Mandela, who has received traditional and honorary degrees from more than 50 universities around the world, promised that he would never make that mistake. He cautioned the candidates for graduation against being like this young man, advising them to not see their degree as an end, but merely a beginning.

The beginning, middle and end of the speech was marked by this beautiful refrain that sums up his sincere hope that we all pause to reflect and contemplate the bigger picture:

In the still earth, music lies unheard.

In the rough model, beauty lies within.

Following the speech, the wonderful Southern University band played a tribute to the rhythms of Africa. I nearly stood up and danced, but it was a little too hot to enjoy moving around too much. Besides, I had to pause and consider all the music that might be going on unheard in my life. And I made a promise to listen more intently for it.

If I can hear those melodies -- if I can imagine the intricate beauty of the rough-hewn models around me, then I hope that I can be a great man like the unassuming 81-year old who stood before us, draped in the colors of his country. Well, I'll aim for being a good person first, then worry about the rest later. I can look to my parents for fine examples of that. They're both very good people -- their feet are more firmly grounded than mine. I tend to be more the idealist and the dreamer. And their roots go deeper than mine do.

"Visionaries have deep roots in their own country," Mandela reminded us, "but can see past the mountain!"

I hope I can see all the hidden beauty beyond my own mountains. If I remember this truly wise man's words maybe I can be the kind of man that can go to bed proud of all I've done, despite my fears to the contrary... If only I can remember his admonitions against such anxiety:

"Our worst fear is not that we are inadequate. Our worst fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.

"We ask ourselves 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God, your playing small doesn't serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you.

We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some of us, it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."

Tuesday, May 09, 2000

office thought

I work at an office downtown. From my window, I have a view of the filing cabinet. It's not that inspiring. At lunch, I sometimes prepare a picnic and eat on a bench overlooking the Mississippi River. That's crescent fresh.

Today at work, my boss called in sick. The Office of Policy and Research is very quiet without her. So I sit at my desk, doing my work, trying to stay awake. The library is too quiet without her.

My "grandboss," or my boss' boss, came in just now. He walked over to me, put his hand on my shoulder and asked earnestly, "Do you have business vitality?" I was glad to say, "Sure I do! And plenty of it."

He said, no, that's not what he wanted, and asked for an economic policy ranking. I was a little hurt, because I wanted him to know that I, too, was fairly bursting at the seams with business vitality. And if he couldn't see it, then he was blinded by its radiance. (Did he clap so that Tinkerbell would live again? I wonder.)

Last night, I had a thought before I fell asleep: I like vegetables more than biblical characters. I know, what, you are asking, does this have to do with the office? Well, it's vaguely related because I thought about this as I was shelving books today at work.

I like vegetables more than biblical characters. I don't know exactly what that statement means -- do I enjoy fresh vegetables more than those people did, or do I prefer them to people who died more than 2000 years ago? Both, more than likely. No doubt I would get along well with that Jesus fellow and that sassy seller of purple, but otherwise, I'd probably spend more time inspecting the plants at a biblical party than actually enjoying the loaves and fishes.

Speaking of the bible, I spoke with Patrick on the phone. Patrick's not a biblical character, but he sings about them sometimes. He's a canter. That means he's paid BIG BUCKS to sing in church choirs -- kind of a "have sung, will travel" thing. Patrick's music group, De Profundis, will perform an early music concert this evening and invited me to attend. It should be great, since I enjoy that sort of thing.

Monday, May 08, 2000

dot comedy?

I got a fascinating (but possibly practical joke-type) message yesterday:

*** *** ***

Dear Jeffrey,

My name is Ben and I work as a Researcher for a television company in the UK. The show goes out on Channel 4 and is all about the Internet. I've been looking at your site which I think is brilliant and would love to talk to you about the possibility of you coming on to our show to talk about yourself and your web-site.

If you think this is something that might interest you please get in touch so we could discuss this further.

We pre-record the show this Wednesday the 10th May, and would be able to fly you over, put you up in a hotel and fly you back.

Even if you think this is something that doesn't interestyou, I would be really grateful if you could mail me, letting me know that you got this message.

I hope this all makes sense, and fingers crossed I'll speak to you soon.

All the best,

*** *** ***

So I wrote him back and sent him my phone number. Today, after my first final, I come in to a blinking answering machine. The message was from Ben.

He called me from London, to ask if they could feature my site on BBC 4 TV! I was positively glowing with pleasure. Afterall, a little exposure in the British Isles couldn't hurt my site at all... Obviously, I was pleasantly pleased and agreed to send him a few files.

So it's Monday and it's already been a very interesting week for me. I wonder what Tuesday has in store...

Saturday, May 06, 2000


Sadly, I'll probably never experience the joys of time travel. I will have to settle for the vicarious thrills of the Star Trek TV series.

I admit it. I'm a trekker. And one of my favorite passive pleasures is soaking up all the majesty of the science fiction universe of the Trek shows.

I think I love the shows because they have a very optimistic view of humanity and the direction in which we are headed. Everybody knows that the first interracial kiss on American network TV was between that dashing Captain Kirk and the ebony beauty Uhura. Not only was that a sexy scene, it portrayed how immaterial the interracial thing would be in the future.

Another reason why the show is fun is that it explores how people get along with other cultures, ideas and technologies. In this respect, it can be seen as almost like mythology in reverse. Lessons taught from the distant future are similar to those taught from stories of long, long ago. (It's a little bit like the Star Wars prologue: "Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away." Doesn't this strike you as the modern equivalent to "Once upon a time in a kingdom far, far away"?

I love the escapism that the show provides me, also. After a long day at work or school, I adore sinking my teeth into a big gardenburger, sipping some juice and soaking up an episode of great adventure with interesting characters. I love trek.