Mopping versus Cleaning, and more

Some years ago, I hired a woman to do a deep clean of my house. She and a crew of her children plus a cousin or two came in for about eight hours. That seemed like a long time, and they worked straight through except for a single pizza break. One part of the operation she did alone. She loved cleaning floors, and the others obliged her.

I noticed that she did not simply sweep then mop, my usual routine. She swept several times, then mopped several times. When she was done, she came to me and said, “The floors are clean and fresh.” The scent of lavender product (Fabuloso, which I’d never heard of at the time) filled our home, sweet and calming. I was pleased. I asked her why she mopped the floor so many times. She said it needed to be cleaned. Perhaps she thought my question a bit odd, the answer a bit obvious.

This woman was from Central America. Her English tended to be precise and brief. My “object” here is language: The use of one word instead of another, and the power of that choice. When I say I am going to mop the floors, the meaning is limited to that action. When my better example came, this woman taught me that I need to clean the floors. The change in attitude is my topic today.

Last week in Nashville, we saw more than the eclipse. There was music to be had downtown, including Aaron Lewis. We’d never heard of him, but the Ryman Auditorium was filled with his fans singing along with him on every song (including “That Ain’t Country,” included for your listening pleasure). It was quite the sociological experience. I learned what a pedal steel guitar is, an instrument I’ve always called an electric dog, out of ignorance and very slight cleverness.

The Belmont Mansion was our choice for Saturday. The original owner was a woman named Adelicia Acklen. Her story is quite remarkable—wealthy, beautiful, savvy, involved, she had several husbands from whom she had to protect her money; the last one was “dismissed” to live in a boarding house. We didn’t ask why. Of her ten children, only four survived to adulthood.

On the excellent tour, guided by a docent named Dani, we learned many things, the most important being the use of a concept related to mopping and cleaning. Dani pointed out the pallet at the foot of one of the children’s beds. Its purpose, she said, was to have one of the enslaved women sleep nearby at all times. Not a slave: enslaved.

What a difference that makes. Suddenly the responsibility for that person’s condition in life shifts from noun to verb, from being a thing to a description of circumstance, from non-entity to person. It is an ennobling change, in my mind. Dani was most proud of a new book for sale in the museum shop telling the stories of these people. It’s not on Amazon yet, but she said, “If you are only getting one book, let it be this one.”

These days, the symbolic presence of Confederate statues troubles some, with a view to putting them in museums and cemeteries. Others worry about the unintended consequences of erasing reminders of a history replete with difficulties.

For now, the change I support is simple: Stop speaking of slavery and begin calling it enslavement. It’s more powerful, more pointed. It continues in the world inside and outside our country. Perhaps our efforts should be directed where they can do real good, as in opposing human trafficking. This is a long way from mopping versus cleaning. The leap seemed reasonable, the visual of a mop easier than some I might have chosen…

The/an/my eclipse

So what was the big deal? Earth goes around sun, moon goes around earth, sometimes the moon gets between and casts a shadow, and there you have it…But no. For many people, the event takes on bucket list status. A total eclipse of the sun is rare enough for us—the last one to cross the United States occurred in 1918. Partials, common enough, generate some excitement but cannot compare to the drama of totality. The puzzle remains: What is so emotionally riveting about a total eclipse of the sun?

We use words, an inadequacy when describing those things to us most (insert adjective: wonderful, amazing, beautiful, meaningful.) Shakespeare could turn a phrase, and Dostoevsky. Marcus Aurelius said, “Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” Nicely done. But the actual experience of almost anything cannot be put into words by definition. Wordsworth comes close: “My heart leaps up when I behold/A rainbow in the sky.” Yes, mine too. What fails is the literal/figurative divide between what those words mean and the sensation of joy at the beauty I see.

Facts, the things we think we can rely on when words fail, don’t help much in this quest. Each eclipse is unique. Different parts of the world are touched, angles create different scenarios, and the same phenomena do not occur at every event. Times can vary widely, and the weather can interfere. Someone we heard from today reported rain with thunder and lightning which cleared enough to see the totality. The science contains so many variables, in other words, that it’s impossible to say “This is what you will see.”

Emotions flowed at the eclipse. Grown men wept or exclaimed in exultation or both. The couple next to us kissed. A collective gasp was followed by applause. The musicians were silent. Throughout the day in preparation and afterward as we compared notes, a sense of community was palpable. Some said the eclipse was good for the country. We agreed. And then we left. Mission accomplished, in a way.

Still, what was it like? The flash as the edge of the moon’s uneven surface covers the sun’s light creates a diamond ring effect. Before that moment, however, without special glasses or without noticing the patterns of the moon’s shadow through leaves, it would be possible not to know that anything special is happening. Suddenly, the sun is gone. The entire horizon looks as if the sun had set, not just a glow in the west. Venus appears, bright as in the night sky. Birds stop singing. Simply put, it is like nothing else. For those few seconds, we can see something that places us in a spot on a world in a solar system that circles about in a galaxy that we usually cannot imagine the workings of, much less our running with its stars. We can throw our imaginations out past Jupiter, with no large effort, but to stand in witness of a mere shadow darkening that sun which gives us life, that is something to see indeed, with or without the words to do it justice.

On hate…

Rather than writing something new, this week consider a piece on hate I wrote for the Dallas Morning News. Here is a link to a Chicago Tribune article about last weekend’s violence and how to respond to hate. I don’t know anyone on the alt-right and doubt any of you do either. Thankfully, the movement seems small. Interestingly, the ACLU intervened so they could meet in Charlottesville at all. The First Amendment prevailed. This article highlights an individual’s response ; he happens to be Jewish. What seems prevalent is the universal rejection of hate-filled rhetoric. Good news indeed. If you think of something to do, whether real or symbolic, to counter the dark side, consider sharing it in Comments.

Not long ago, a neighbor child asked my 10-year-old grandson, “Don’t you just hate black people?” He was stunned; his mother was livid. The great cosmic force of life sometimes engineers a change, so a black family has moved upstairs from the happily hating child.

Before we leap to conclusions about that why this child said such a thing, let’s set the obvious aside and look deeper. A young child lacks the capacity to hate, really, but can parrot the adults around her. What the rest of us must do is stop using the word “hate” so readily.

Hate is everywhere these days, or so we’ve been led to believe. It is a particularly popular, wide-net explanation. White people hate black people. Black people hate Mexicans. Republicans hate poor people. Democrats hate rich people. Terrorists hate the West. Everyone hates Muslims. I’ve seen each of these sentiments, whether obliquely or blatantly expressed, on Facebook, on television, and in The New York Times.

The problem? None of these statements is true. The realities are far more complex.

The truth about hate is not that it’s everywhere but that it’s too easy an out. “Haters be hating” is one of those dismissive misunderstandings that make the speaker feel superior to the target.

The terrorists must hate us. What other reason could they have for such unspeakable violence? And maybe Pamela Geller of the American Freedom Defense Initiative hates Muslims. Or maybe she’s just a media-seeking self-promoter who doesn’t know my friend Ajaz or the millions of other perfectly wonderful Muslims around.

The word “hate” is one of those original stems from the base language of most that we know — PIE, or Proto-Indo-European. The only real possibility for assistance in getting to a source is its use as “sorrow,” which, finally, doesn’t help much. The meaning of all this lack of meaning? We’ve had it as long as we’ve had love and probably can’t define it any better.

We use it far too lightly, just as we do “love.” We say we hate broccoli (though that did get President George H.W. Bush 41 in trouble). With this kind of hate, we simply avoid the object. Very, very few of us hate anything seriously enough to take action of any real sort.

Hate’s nearest ally — fear — is a good motivator, but it is notoriously hard to sustain. Consider the unity after 9/11; it lasted long enough to start a war, but not long enough to end it. Even within a war, the need to demonize the enemy so that the populace can fear and, thereby, fight, takes a monumental effort and set of resources. My father would not allow us to eat rice after World War II — the propaganda lasted that long. He’s been gone for almost 30 years, and now everyone in the family drives a Japanese car.

So as we try to make sense of the world, we must accept that there are some bad things in it, and some bad people who do horrible things without good reason. Some people just want to kill others, as simple as that sounds. Hate is a real, visceral human emotion. As such, it does have a purpose: Honorable, upstanding people should hate—injustice, for example. We need to stop giving the bad guys a legitimate cause for the unspeakable and call them what they are: wrong.

The joys of a good knife

Last October, I was called out for not having a good knife. I thought I did—a brand I won’t mention because your niece/godson/third-cousin-twice-removed is selling them as we speak. Some months later, a professional chef was in my kitchen with a collection of her own knives, carefully kept in a wonderful leather roll. That the pouch cost more than all my cutlery should have told me something. The chef graciously walked me through the information I’d need to purchase a good knife of my own: forged not stamped, Japanese or German, hand-tried and balanced, Sur la Table, on sale if possible, or Amazon.

So off I went with some idea of what to look for. I purchased a Miyabi Koh, on sale of course, but also available at Wal-Mart, thereby lessening the panache of Sur la Table. I bought a Messermeister holder for it, to prevent its doing harm to other utensils in the drawer as well as my unintentional grab. I put it away.

Now here’s the interesting thing: I had never actually used a good knife. With the chef’s tools, I was merely a beholder, not a handler. Being chided for not having a good one meant very little. In essence, I didn’t know what I was missing. When I first used the knife to cube some chicken for tikka masala, my reaction was simple: “Oh. That’s what a good knife does.”

A few weeks later, a daughter-in-law was invited to use it. Her response was less enthusiastic than one would hope, a “ho-hum, sure” sort of reaction. But then she sliced into some potatoes. Her immediate call to my son to come check this knife out was gratifying. Oh. It is different.

For years I have misquoted Albert Einstein, who said: “Example isn’t just another way to teach. It is the only way.” My change is to substitute “experience” for “example.” It has a corollary in “Telling isn’t teaching,” but I don’t always have to be a prof so we won’t go further. I do believe that reading can and is an extension of experience; fiction allows us to have experiences without the messes. The cliché that will suit today is, of course, “You don’t know what you’re missing.” Dangerous, perhaps, but relevant if taken with care.

So I invite you to experience the joys of a good knife. If you don’t want to purchase one, ask a friend. Come to my house, and we’ll cube some chicken. Perhaps you will then say, “Oh.”