Reviewing Chef: a real feel-good movie

Chef Movie Poster

Reading Ross Douthat’s essay, The Parent Trap, reminded me of another reason I liked the movie Chef so much.  (Requisite spoiler alert here: I’m going to spill everything. If you haven’t seen it and plan to, close your computer and head to your local theater. Now.)  I’ll get to Douthat’s essay in a minute. For now, here’s what I loved about Chef:

It was delightful. Basic premise—a once cutting-edge chef finds himself out of work due to creative differences with the owner of his restaurant and a bitter Twitter exchange with a food critic that goes viral. He is also a divorced dad who doesn’t quite have the knack of spending four-star quality time with son.

His four-alarm chili of a Latina ex-wife has been encouraging him to open a food truck. When the shitake hits the fan at the restaurant, Chef accompanies his ex-wife and their child on a family visit to Miami where her second ex-husband (Chef being the first) stakes him to a run-down food truck. He and his son (along with a sous-chef from the restaurant) make a cross-country trip back to LA, serving up kick-ass Cubano sandwiches every stop they make. The son cooks and texts, tweets and vines the whole way, ensuring hungry crowds wherever they go. By the end, father and son are tight as bagels and lox, he remarries his wife, and the food critic stakes him to opening his own restaurant.

I kept waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under me. I kept waiting for that air-tight never-to-be- compromised plot device where the hero is held back from achieving his goal, where he faces huge conflict and betrayals, where he loses big before learning the ultimate lesson. But there were none. Chef never falters or screws up. His son never cuts off a finger with the set of knives his dad buys him; the department of health never cites them for infractions; his former co-worker remains an integral part of the team, never once trying to wrestle away his success.

What also never happens is that social services doesn’t bring the dad up on child abuse charges for employing a minor and/or sequestering him in an unwholesome and potentially dangerous fire-hazard environment. This is where Douthat’s essay comes into play. Douthat wrote about the increasing way parenting (as we once knew it) is coming under fire. Parents have been brought up on neglect charges for letting their kids walk home at dusk, for leaving an 11-year-old in a car while dashing in to pick up a quart of milk, and most outrageous, police were called when someone saw a five- and seven-year-old run across a parking lot alone. Their parents didn’t know; the parking lot was near the kids’ houses. Really. Someone called the police.

I guess this is what I loved best about Chef: a father and son have an adventure replete with sharp knives, hot flames, serving food to strangers, driving long distances without bathroom stops (this definitely wouldn’t have worked with a daughter), making friends and rebuilding their relationship mile after mile. And no one says Boo.

I say Yay. And even if I’ve spoiled the movie, go see it. Even spoiled, Chef will leave a great taste in your heart.

Debra Darvick reviews Robert J. Wicks’ book ‘Perspective’

Brother, courage comes and goes. Hold on for the next supply.
Thomas Merton

The first of three journals I kept, Elliot's first hair cut, his birth announcement in the NY Times.

The first of three journals I kept, Elliot’s first hair cut, his birth announcement in the NY Times.

The first three years of my son’s life, I kept a daily journal.  Unbelievable, right? Through diapers and colic, first teeth and first words, I made time to record the wonder of our days.

Somewhere in those pages, sleep-starved and overwhelmed I wrote, “I just want to have perspective! I want to know that everything is going to turn out OK.”

Years later I found the journal and began rereading it. I couldn’t help but smile at the mother I was so long ago. Rereading that dramatic and universal cri de coeur, I realized what was impossible to grasp as a new mother: By its very definition, perspective requires time and distance from the very thing one strives so hard to see clearly.

I thought of that journal page when Robert J. Wicks’ book Perspective: The Calm Within the Storm came my way. Instead of time and distance, Wicks guides readers to perspective by “improv[ing] our sense of reality and acceptance of it.” The personal growth goals Wicks writes about are not new, but his approach is worth considering for those who strive for a healthy perspective.

Wicks structured this clear and useful book so that it is rich with bullet points, questionnaires for self-reflection, and carefully honed text bytes that can form the basis for a lifetime of step-by-step personal transformation. In addition to explication, educative text and recollections drawn from his own life and that of other seekers, philosophers, and authors, Wicks shares insights culled from the most up-to-date research in cognitive behavioral therapy and the psychology of optimism.

The chapter I found most intriguing focused on achieving perspective on one’s “personal darkness.” Recognizing that trauma is a part of life, Wicks invites readers to acknowledge trauma as a terrible experience and then recognize its potential as an opportunity for powerful growth and meaning. Reading this chapter, I was reminded of a quote by Thich Naht Hahn: No mud, no lotus.

The young perspective-seeking mother I was might have written that in her journal. And even though I long ceased writing about my children each day, as blessed as we have been, I sometimes still wish I could be assured that everything will turn out OK.

First page of the journal begun when Elliot was three months old. The apologia in red at the top of the page refers to a first three months of feeding and wiping...
First page of the journal begun when Elliot was three months old. The apologia in red at the top of the page refers to a first three months of feeding and wiping…

Care to read more?

A NOTE from ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm …

  • ROBERT WICKS INTERVIEW—Related to Debra’s review, you also will enjoy our in-depth interview with Dr. Robert J. Wicks about his new book.
  • Cover This Jewish Life by Debra DarvickGET DEBRA’S BOOKReadTheSpirit Books produces important books covering interfaith and cross-cultural issues and is proud to publish Debra’s signature collection of real-life stories, This Jewish Life. In this wide-ranging collection of true stories, Debra carries readers through an entire year with dozens of men, women and young people who shape their lives around their shared Judaism. Whatever your faith, This Jewish Life is an adventure in meaningful living. Using Dr. Robert J. Wicks’s language: It’s a book with a valuable perspective on life.

Happy Birthday, Elliot

Elliot, five minutes old

Elliot, five minutes old

My boy has a big birthday coming up soon. How did the years fly so swiftly?

Decades ago, soon after my pregnancy was confirmed, I began getting boy vibes. This was confirmed by everyone once I began “to show” (quaint  last-century euphemism for this century’s  “baby bump.”)

I carried high. A boy! one neighbor predicted. I was glowing. Definitely a boy, declared Aunt Ruth. You NEVER contradicted Aunt Ruth, and so I began thinking up boy names. As the weeks progressed and the bump turned into a bulge and then a behemoth, it felt like my abdomen had been invaded by rock ‘em sock ‘em robots. Boy, definitely boy, said a co-worker whose wife’s second cousin had three sons and who swore each one behaved as if her uterus were Madison Square Gardens boxing ring.

As the eldest of three sisters and the daughter of one of three sisters, boys never registered for much of my youth. They were pretty much an alien species until sixth grade when I developed a huge crush on Edward Lamb. What if my intuition, the neighbor, Aunt Ruth and that second cousin who named her sons Evander, Sonny and Tyson were right? What would it be like to raise a son?

I could have never imagined over those nine months the myriad of unexpected delights that awaited me—the thrill of watching utter physical abandon as my son raced across fields, his childhood obsession with tools, his lifelong passion for cars, a spur-of-the-moment jump into a lake to dog paddle with a Labrador Retriever. Elliot and Lab

There was the nightly heart-brimming joy of peeking into his room to watch him sleep, and the pride of watching him graduate from high school and then college. There was the frantic trip to the emergency room to stitch up the cut to his inner cheek when he decided to play trampoline on the toilet seat. There were dandelion bouquets, endless readings of Richard Scarry books, and a Mother’s Day poem a few years back whose pages I bound within beautiful paper and keep by my bedside. There was also that tumultuous fifteenth year when querulous aliens possessed his body. They departed as swiftly as they arrived, returning to us the familiar kind, thoughtful, funny, creative son who suddenly needed a razor and had an unending affinity for Polo aftershave.

My boy has a big birthday coming up soon. Aunt Ruth and the others never told me about the singular sweetness of boys and a mother’s astonishment at their manliness. How did such a big man come from me? I have watched my son triumph in achievement, and grieve as some dreams were set aside.  He has never allowed the former to swell his head nor the latter to curtail his future. My hopes for him expand to include his sweet and beautiful wife. And a baby bump one day?

My boy has a big birthday coming up, and so I wish for him the realization of all his dreams and more. May he be blessed with health and long life, with laughter and good deeds. May he come to know the joy of parenthood and to remember, should aliens ever possess his teen-aged children, they will depart as swiftly as they arrived.

Elliot fifteen million minutes and then some

Elliot, fifteen million minutes old and then some

Take the Plunge!

Duck Destiny watermarkedDuring a rare break in the frigid Coldzilla winter this year, Martin and I walked to nearby Quarton Lake. We watched as one brave duck left his compatriots huddling on a shelf of ice and dove into the freezing water. Until he shared the photo with me, I’d forgotten that my husband had captured the moment.

“See what you might come up with for this one,” Martin said. I loved the image. It was so rich with possibilities, what with the ducks embodying all sorts of metaphorical human reactions to taking the plunge in life.

We’ve all been each of these ducks, haven’t we? Who of us hasn’t turned away, or watched from the sidelines of the dance floor, aching for the gumption to ditch our self-consciousness and rock out to the beat? Hopefully, more than hugging the shore or tucking head into wing, we have also headed out for adventure, paddling uncertainly perhaps yet gaining buoyancy and direction as we go forth. Whether it’s moving to a new city, leaving the comfort of a steady job to pursue a dream, embarking solo on vacation or speaking truths everyone else wants kept below the surface, there is always one brave duck who dives in first, hopefully inspiring others.  I no longer remember if or how many followed Mr. Mallard above but surely some did.

Is there a special duckling in your life who needs a bit of encouragement before taking the plunge?  Or a graduate who is ready to take flight? Head on over to my Etsy shop where this card and others are waiting for you. Or buck up your entire circle of friends in one fell swoop!  Send them a link to this column or post it on FB.

What’s going to be your take-the-plunge-moment this week? Dive in and share the time you held back. What did you learn? How did you use the lesson to modify your life?

Like Water from the Rock

Darvick-Chukkat-water-from-the-rockFrom time to time I have been invited to give the weekly Shabbat sermon at synagogue. Each Shabbat has  name, which is drawn from the weekly Torah portion that is read at services, in part on Monday and Thursday mornings and more fully on Saturday morning. This week’s portion is called Shabbat Chukkat. It is most widely known for the laws about the red heifer, a perpetually mysterious ritual of expiation for sin.  

However, when I sat down to write my sermon other events to explore in the portion piqued my curiosity — the death of Moses’ siblings Aaron and Moses and Moses’ fateful striking of the rock to bring forth water.  Grief has been a  prominent emotion these days (alternating with the still resonating joy of our son’s wedding), making this perhaps a good time to revisit the sermon. Thanks to Martin, as always, for the perfect image.

Two elements in Parshat Chukkat are rich with possibilities for exploration. The ceremony of the red heifer has kept scholars busy for centuries. This parasha is also pivotal in that the generation that left Exodus by foot is dying out. Rashi goes further, interpreting the phrase “kol ha eda/the entire community” to mean that all of those who were meant to die in the wilderness have died. Only Miriam, Aaron and Moses remain.

But as I read through these chapters again, something else caught my attention, and that is what I would like to explore this morning. Chapter 20 begins thirty-eight years after the red-heifer commandment. It opens with this verse: “The Israelites arrived at the wilderness of Zin and stayed at Kadesh.” And then the last half of that verse: “And Miriam died there and was buried there.” Vatamat sham Miriam vatikaver sham.

Boom. Five words, not even an entire verse, and one of the three siblings upon whose shoulders this journey has rested, is gone. There has been no foreshadowing of Miriam’s death. No instructions from God as to the disposal of her body. No explanation or rationale for her death, either. And most striking (no future pun intended), no mourning.

Twenty-three verses later both Aaron and Moses get a heads up from God that Aaron is about to be “gathered to his kin.” There is ritual as Aaron’s vestments are taken from him and are placed upon his son Eleazer. Aaron dies on the summit of the mountain. Moses and Eleazer come down from the mountain (where we could assume they spent time mourning the death of their brother and father) and we are told, “the whole community knew that Aaron had breathed his last breath. All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days.”

Miriam’s death was recorded with none of this: no ritual passing on of her legacy as was done in transferring Aaron’s vestments to his son; no assumptive mourning by her siblings. And who in the community bewailed Miriam’s death? No one it seems. The text gives no evidence that anyone did, for a day even, much less thirty.

And not only does the community not bewail Miriam’s death as they will soon do for her brother, but they forget about her completely. The very next verse tells us, “The community was without water and they joined against Moses and Aaron.” The Children of Israel do what they have always done when their comfort is compromised: they complain. They blame. They pine for Egypt where it was comfortable and cozy and filled with pomegranates and figs.

If we follow Rashi’s insight that none of the original community was left, then those who are griping immediately after Miriam’s death are the progeny of the former slaves. They learned the lessons of their elders to think only of themselves when the going gets tough. “There is not even water to drink!” they wail without ever thinking why their life-sustaining source of water is no more. Not one lamentation such as: “Oh woe. Our sister Miriam is gone. And so is our water.” They don’t even bother to connect the dots between Miriam’s absence and this sudden absence of water. The depth of their self-centeredness is enough to make you want to strike a rock.

I imagine Moses at the end of this journey, aging and tired, grieving for this sister. Water has bound them together since his infancy when she set him afloat upon the Nile to save his life. Through her merit, the Midrash teaches, a well of water accompanied the Israelites throughout their journey. Was Moses given time to mourn this sister whose merit was so great God provided for the children of Israel a portable well of water? No, Moses is immediately set upon by the community to provide water, to take his sister’s place, or at least her role in providing water.

Grief can make you do strange things. It’s not uncommon for anger to follow upon grief’s heels. Anger at God for stealing our loved ones or robbing us of our own good health. Anger at our own bodies for betraying us. Anger, even, at the one who has left us behind, crushed, spent and devoid of all hope. Moses, whom we have not even seen rend his clothes in grief, has to take up the mantle of leadership and serve his people once again. But this time he falters. Or maybe he has had enough.

Instead of following God’s directive to speak to the rock to bring forth water, Moses speaks to the people, addressing them as rebels, morim. In the Women’s Commentary, Ora Horn Prouser notices that the consonants in morim and Miriam are identical. Perhaps here is Moses’ anger, directed not only at his people, but at his beloved sister for leaving him behind. His own eyes devoid of tears, dry as his sister’s well, Moses makes the fatal misstep. He strikes the rock, not once but twice.

I imagine this act as Moses’ kriyah. We never read that he rent his clothes; we do not hear the sound of cloth tearing. But we can imagine the sound that Moses’ staff made against the rock. If the striking of the rock stands in for Moses’ kriyah, perhaps the water flowing from the rock stands in for his tears. That water, flowing copiously we are told, carries with it Moses’ fate. For not obeying God’s instruction, he will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land.

What are we to learn from this punishment? It is as puzzling as the red heifer story. How can Moses be punished for such a seemingly small, and infinitely understandable diversion? What was he really being punished for? Not listening? Getting angry with his thirsty crabby tribe? Rabbi Gail Labovitz imagines that God punishes Moses for misdirecting his anger onto his own people instead of onto God’s own self. It was this failure of faith in his relationship with God, Labovitz posits, a lack of confidence on Moses’ part that God could comfort him in his grief that led God to keep Moses from entering the Promised Land.

Whether that sits well with you or not, it still doesn’t answer the question why Miriam’s passing receives the barest of notice. My first thoughts ran along feminist paths. Women’s work always gets short shrift. It’s so invisible, so basic. Everyone looks at the machine and thinks that’s where the importance lies. No one considers the silent and invisible oil that keeps the gears turning so they can run the machine. And while I don’t necessarily want to graft upon this text feminist plaint, I will suggest that the silence about Miriam’s death is a reminder not to take for granted the most basic of gifts in our lives: good health, food, a warm and clean place to sleep, the love given us from family and friends, the reality that here in America I am free to explore Torah with you on a Saturday morning and you are confident that you can roll out of bed and come here. Or not.

The metaphor between water and Torah is strong. Our thrice-weekly reading is based on the teaching that since our physical body cannot go more than three days without water, our soul cannot go more than three days without Torah. If Miriam’s gift of water was so easily taken for granted, perhaps the lesson of the silence upon her passing is to caution us against taking for granted God’s gift of metaphoric water — Torah.

Grateful for Those Openings and Closings

Asher YatsarWe don’t talk about pooping in polite company but boy if you can’t poop, it’s nearly all you can think about.

When I was creating the Mom’s 10 Commandments of Health poster, I knew I wanted one of them to focus on the miracle of the systems of the human body—circulatory, respiration, digestion—all those (usually) silent systems that keep us going by oxygenating our blood and lungs, digesting our food and sending the nutrients where then need to go and sending the waste on its way so we can go.

A couple of years ago I participated in a year-long Jewish education class. One of the requirements was to adopt a new ritual—blessing the Sabbath candles, studying Torah (Hebrew Bible), finding a weekly reading to share with others. I decided to memorize the Hebrew text for what is colloquially called “the bathroom blessing.” Yep. We Jews have a blessing that can be recited after doing one’s business (wash hands, leave the loo, then say the blessing). In Hebrew, the prayer is referred to as “Asher Yatsar,” which references the One Who fashioned our bodies. It is included in the series of daily prayers recited each morning.

“Blessed are You, Hashem our God, King of the universe, Who formed man with wisdom and  created within him many openings and many hollows. It is obvious and known before Your Throne of Glory that if even one of them ruptures, or if even one of them becomes blocked, it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You (even for a short period). Blessed are You, Hashem, Who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.”

This blessing encompasses all the working wonders of the human body. It is so simple and yet so profound. Where would any of us be if our openings didn’t open and our closings didn’t close in tandem with one other? Asthma, heart attacks, constipation—all conditions where our openings and hollows are stricken. The blessing also acknowledges the body’s miraculous powers of self-healing, properties which are now being assiduously studied as part of the cure to any number of diseases.

About the time I had memorized the entire Hebrew text, and was pretty good about remembering it each time I needed to recite it, my mother (now of blessed memory) was diagnosed with rectal cancer. Surgery to remove the cancer also removed the God-given openings and many hollows. The miracles of modern science crafted for her new, and permanent, opening and closing. For a while, every time I recited the bathroom blessing, it was with sorrow for what had to be done to my mother’s body and admiration for the equanimity with which she managed this new process.

photo credit: R.H. Hensleigh

How We Know What We Know/photo by R.H. Hensleigh

Good friend and artist Lynne Avadenka turned to this blessing for inspiration in creating her sculpture How We Know What We Know. Lynne was one of eleven artists invited to create a work based on discussions with scientists and doctors affiliated with the Taubman Cancer Institute in Ann Arbor, MI. The works were auctioned off with proceeds used to benefit the facility.

Her conversations with Dr. Lawrence, who works at the Institute, “ranged from topics of scientific complexity to notions of empathy, the gift and luck of good health, and the awareness of the time we have to do our work.” Avadenka said this led her “to consider a traditional daily prayer of thanks that draws attention to the miracle of the inner workings of our bodies: the openings and closings that allow us to be alive.”

Avadenka_2

How We Know What We Know/photo by R.H. Hensleigh

How We Know What We Know/photo by R.H. Hensleigh

 It’s your turn …

Create an atmosphere of gratitude for your family’s own openings and hollows. Order Mom’s 10 Commandments of Health and maybe even invite your kids to create a version of the bathroom blessing for your own family to memorize.

Captivating Reading: ‘Invention of Wings’ and ‘Room’

REVIEW: ‘The Invention of wings’
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I didn’t realize when I checked out these two books from the library how both plots focus on the theme of captivity and what it takes to be freed.

Sue Monk Kidd’s latest—The Invention of Wings—is a novelized account of the life of Sarah Grimke, one of America’s first female abolitionists and one of the country’s first feminist writers. Told through the voices of Sarah and Handful, the slave given to Sarah on her twelfth birthday (against her most fervent wishes), The Invention of Wings explores the horror of slavery, the immutability of societal structure, and the changes that can be forced by the determination of even a few relentless individuals.

Care to read more about the remarkable Grimke family right now? Sarah and her fearless sister Angelina were featured in a recent PBS documentary and they both are profiled in the ReadTheSpirit Interfaith Peacemakers project.

REVIEW: ‘Room’

Room, by Emma Donoghue, is told from the perspective of five-year-old Jack, born in captivity to a mother kidnapped from her college campus some seven years prior to the book’s opening. Room is all Jack has known; through his mother’s inventiveness, love, and determination to normalize their captivity, Room is home.

To the rest of us, the horror of their situation is made all the more so by virtue of Jack’s matter-of-fact delivery. For instance, Jack’s and Ma’s after-nap activity is a game called “Scream” where they  climb up on their only table and “shout holler howl yowl shriek screech scream the loudest possible.” Jack doesn’t wonder why Scream is not a Saturday or Sunday game; the rest of us don’t have to. Through Donoghue’s skillful invention, Jack describes their lives in such detail that I found myself getting up from my chair and walking around every few chapters just to loosen the bonds of his narration.

SPOILER ALERT

Each book builds to the protagonists’ eventual freedom: Handful as a stowaway on a ship leaving Charleston, Room’s residents in a desperate plan that hinges completely on Jack’s ability to remain “scave” (scared but brave). Handful’s fate is left to the reader’s imagination. Freedom for Jack and Ma is not synonymous with liberation. Ma’s prison had all the comforting contours of home to Jack; what Ma fled, Jack longs to revisit. One single line launched early in the novel lands with stunning impact at the end. Was it serendipity or had Donoghue planned from the start to reinsert this line as she brings the book to a close? This country still feels reverberations of the slavery depicted by Sue Monk Kidd. Given the discovery just last year of three Ohio women held in captivity for a decade, one wishes in vain that the horror depicted in Emma Donoghue’s Room, were only the stuff of fiction.