Thursday, July 22, 2010

Kanji in the Kitchen

6 ~ Kanji Right Livelihood
“The verdict you pronounce upon the source of your livelihood is the verdict you pronounce upon your life” ~ Ayn Rand

I started mowing lawns when I was 12. My dad, a college professor had impressed on us all the virtue of hard work namely by letting up know early on that his meager salary would barely keep the roof over our heads and if we wanted anything else it would be up to us to provide it for ourselves.
Regardless of how hard he seemed to be pressed to keep bread on the table and the electricity flowing come Christmas or Easter morning there was always a bounty to be found around the hearth of our simple home.
I call it simple but it was really much more than that with the dynamic of four siblings, a highly spirited Cuban mother and a father whose favorite time of his life seemed to be when we were toddlers and would look up at him with unfailing and unquestioning love in our eyes.
No matter how loud it got in the house during the day with the natural sonic disturbance that‟s the daily life of any household, come nighttime, while all the children were packed away upstairs vainly fending off sleep like they were going to miss something, anything, my dad would make the rounds shutting off the lights, banking back the furnace, closing blinds and making sure that his prized Doberman, Pepita, had all she needed to guard us all vigilantly against the darkening streets.
He‟d then, in complete darkness, sit down at his Yamaha grand piano and play. Softly at first he‟d start with old ballads, sweet with longing then, changing the tempo he‟d pound out a honky-tonk and then finally build up to some Aaron Copeland arrangements full of counter melodies and pumping back beat.
I fell asleep almost every night I lived in that house with the sound of my father‟s tinkling ivories dancing up the stairs to sing me off to slumber. It‟s one of the kindest, most serene memories of my dad and our family at 321 Woodmar Ave. Its recollection would succor me through some dark doubting moments, long after he was gone and the piano and gone silent.
I finally got the nerve to ask him why he played at night and not, maybe just maybe, play during the day when I might sing along with him; I so desperately wanted to be with my dad when he played – to be part of that man, shit man that was cool.
He took a while to answer me, perhaps gauging my ability to understand more than his words but more importantly, his intent.
“I do it for me. It‟s the one thing I keep for myself”, he said with a sadness I hadn‟t heard from him before.
“At one point in my life all I wanted to do was play piano in a smoky bar with a tip jar on the top and some sultry dame leaning against my instrument”
Of which instrument he meant I was still a bit wet behind the ears to have even asked.
“But that‟s not the way it worked out and so I keep this for myself to remind me of who I was once and what I aspired to.”
No matter how he complained about the bureaucracy of the intellegencia, parliamentary procedure, tenure, the ignorance of some of his students or the intricacies of working in a university my dad really, really loved teaching. The accolades of his students and for the most part his contemporaries bore this out as he was given the Chair of the Modern Languages department at Purdue University and other awards.
One of his manuscripts is still being used in advanced Spanish classes I understand.
It was perhaps fitting that on a Monday morning during class that he collapsed and was rushed to a hospital emergency room. I was in England at the time serving in the USAF. The old man dodged a bullet that time but it would come back to claim it‟s prize several years later after he had finally come to terms with his remaining years by planning a cross country camping trip with Pepita‟s replacement, the precocious Fina de Casta Van Worlock; or as we called her, „The Little Bitch‟.
He never got to make that trip.
He cast a mighty shadow when he lived and sometimes, when I am quiet enough, I can hear piano music coming from somewhere just out of sight, right around the corner.
So, if all he wanted was to be a honky-tonk piano player, how the hell did he end up teaching Spanish to my high school Spanish teacher?
Why, love, of course.
His ego may have wanted to be a musician for the same reasons that mine did but it was Love that won out in the end.
After he got out of the Coast Guard he went to work at a meteorological company based in Boston, his hometown. Batista, down in Cuba – whether a US stooge or just someone who was getting tired of his country getting its ass kicked every hurricane season, contracted with several US firms, one having just employed a fresh faced kid ready for anything, or so he thought.
The scientific thinking at the time was that if one could lace clouds with silver iodine crystals it would create a natural disturbance within the upper trade winds that would normally steer hurricanes from the warmth of the African coast eastward.
Instead of steering currents aimed at defenseless and desperately unprepared populaces from Bimini to the Gulf of Mexico the silver iodine would create wind sheer, slicing at the heart of the beast and leave it whimpering with a few gale winds and some much needed rain for crop rotation.
Sadly, as it‟s been demonstrated time after time, man‟s attempts to control the normal, nay necessary cycles of the Mother are only so much spittin‟ in the wind.
During the year and half that the experiments were being conducted my father was stationed in Cuba without nary a guidebook nor a how do you do. The chief mathematician of the project, Manolo Lopez, took pity on this gringo that couldn‟t eat because he spent most of his time in the out house. Manolo would invite my dad to his house for the weekend. Manolo was a naturalist, adventurer; quick to laugh and patient
to an outsider. He was also married to the eldest daughter of a family of seven, five of which were women of captivating beauty and a lust for life as it was lived for the fortunate few of the early 50‟s in Cuba.
My dad would hold court in the front room, playing the piano and generally making the women laugh, sing and swoon at the thought of this sophisticated, handsome, single American.
Once, early on in his assignment, my father had called his mother back in Boston and pleaded to come home because he felt out of place and was rebuffed; the old girl had a right to live her life too now that the tyrant of the house had thankfully dropped dead, When he finally did come back state side it was with a heart full of the Cuban people, culture, of a sense of belonging to that witchy island and the Spanish language.
Instead of following through on his meteorological career, one for which he was trained and now experienced in the world and playing piano in his off time he went back to school. This time he would study Spanish, get married and get his Masters in Modern Languages. He had his first child and when his doctorate was almost complete, had his second child, my brother Jason.
Upon Jason‟s birth he sold the watch his father had given to him to keep it all going, all the while dreaming of sharing his passion for the Spanish people, their history and their language.
Why? What could possibly drive him to a life in academia, moving his family, now complete with two new daughters, four times in ten years; each time learning a little more, sharing a little more and gaining ground until we found ourselves in Hammond Indiana and he, apparently, having finally arrived.
He followed his passion and shared it. Kind of what I do, certainly what his grandson Anthony James Lamb does, he teaches middle school; something that he didn‟t decide until his third year of college when it became his passion. My son is doing very well and is highly considered by his kids and fellow faculty members; sounds like someone I once knew. I‟ve given him the plaque that sat on my father‟s desk that says, Dr. Anthony J Lamb, because I know that he‟ll achieve that and more, as long as it remains his passion.
I‟ve cut lawns, delivered papers in sleet and rain, sold Thom McCann shoes, jeans, bussed tables, worked at a summer resort in Michigan every year I was in high school, worked in a steel mill and served in the Air Force.
No matter what I tried I ended up back in the restaurant business. Not because it was easy because anyone in the business will tell you it‟s akin to blood money, but because it has been my passion and I‟ve wanted to share it; with the guests and, especially, the guy or girl on each side of me because together, today, we can make a difference in someone‟s life.
Just because we‟re moved to share our passion.
I‟m a chef but I‟m also a teacher. I come from a strong line of teachers, each of us have chosen what we‟ll teach and to whom.
Who knows but I‟ll tell you this, and this is how I know that this is my right livelihood, I‟d be doing it, even if it never paid.
I think that‟s what my dad tried to teach me.
Just a short postscript: it took me years to figure it out but no matter how busted out my old man would make it sound he‟d wait till the night before Christmas then head out to the all night sales and go into hock for the entire next year building a pile under the tree just to see the look on our faces come the morning; I guess to him that one moment was worth whatever he had to do to make it happen.
Pretty cool, if you ask me.

No comments:

Post a Comment