The Happy Lion

The long-range result of most anything is hard to predict, but in general, good begets good. When I was a kid, twice a year or so we had a book fair at school. My mother, God bless her, let me choose a few each time. I remember there being a flyer ahead of time describing the available books so that I could make careful selections. Bound pages with captivating drawings and compelling stories have always been a thrill for me; perhaps it started here. I eagerly devoured each new little book, unaware (as children are) that ideas and attitudes take root in the early years.

I remember only two books specifically, and of these, only one survived: The Happy Lion by Louise Fatio with pictures by Roger Duvoisin. I loved the exotic, Parisian setting and the characters’ foreign names, the lion’s unexpected adventure in town, the looooong sounds of the fire engine, and the sweet, unlikely friendship between the lion and Francois.

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This simple drawing on the last page of the book of Francois and the happy lion together says it all: We are friends, and that is that.  It doesn’t matter what everyone else thinks about that, or if they approve or understand or appreciate. We just are. The text confirms it:

From then on, the happy lion got the best tidbits the town saved for him.

But if you opened his door

He would not wish to go out visiting again.

He was happier to sit in his rock garden

While on the other side of the moat

Monsieur Dupont, Madame Pinson,

and all his old friends came to see him again

like polite and sensible people

to say “Bonjour, Happy Lion.”

But he was happiest

when he saw Francois walk through the park

every afternoon on his way home from school.

Then he swished his tail for joy,

for Francois remained always his dearest friend

I never felt like I had a dearest friend when I was a kid. I had friends, but not a dearest. It sounded very nice. What is a dearest friend? Let’s even forget the superlative for now — what is a dear friend? Once you have been around the block a time or two, you have a general idea about the definition, or at least you have your own definition, and whatever that is, I say stick with it: the way you look at it is the best way to look at it.

As for myself, the very idea of a dear friend warms my heart, and warmth is not usually a quick thing. I don’t think Francois became the happy lion’s dearest friend the first day he visited. Instead, as is generally true, I suspect their friendship happened little by little. One day the sun was shining and the birds were singing and the lion was basking in his safe and comfy world, when along came a boy, not doing much, just near. Maybe he walked along the edge of the moat, glancing up at the tawny gold fluff now and then, staring more than he realized, wondering, admiring.  He wants to be near me, the lion thought, and was happier than he had been before. The boy, for his part, was fascinated with the big, beautiful creature: the lines of the body, the gleam of the fur, the fluff of the mane, the size of the yawn, the graceful gait, the thoughtful eyes. The lion did nothing extraordinary (for a lion) but the boy did just like to be near him. And the lion felt special, chosen even. They made eye contact, which did not scare either one of them, so they looked at each other some more. It was a mutual like — interesting, unthreatening, pleasant. Something to go on.

On another day, clouds blocked the sun and the breeze was a bit chilly, but still the boy came and still the fur gleamed and still the lion’s eyes drew the boy’s attention away from everything else. He sat across the moat, not noticing that the bench was damp from the night’s rainfall, not noticing that he pulled the collar of his jacket a little higher on his neck against the chill, not noticing anything but the incredible animal. He gazed less shyly. Bonjour, Happy Lion, said the boy softly, and the lion smiled to himself and thought: I knew I liked him. Now I think he likes me. It’s not my imagination. Lucky me!

Day after day, the boy came. They did not change the world around them — the sun shined or it didn’t, Monsieur Dupont groomed his beard in that pointy way, Madame Pinson knitted scarves and socks all the day long, the squirrels and birds competed for food and nesting places. But Francois and the happy lion changed each other. They made each other feel different than they had felt before. To be liked, just because, this was something remarkable.  To have a friend, to have someone you could call a dear friend, this too was something remarkable.

Time. Togetherness. Smiles. Softness. More time. Care. Gentleness. More time. Understanding. Ease. Peacefulness. More time. Increasing beauty. Precious moments. Depth. Comfort.

And then a need.

It was not a need at first. The lion was simply curious and took a step through the door of his house and into the bigger world. He did not intend the hubbub that followed. He was just being his calm and friendly self, but the world was suddenly different. Things happened that he did not understand, people acted in ways that confused him.

“I can’t think,” said the happy lion, “what makes them do that. They are always so polite at the zoo.”

He began to lose faith.

“People in this town are foolish, as I begin to see.”

Just when the situation might have gotten ugly and frightening, along came Francois and met the need of the moment perfectly.

SUDDENLY,

behind the lion,

a little voice cried, “Bonjour, Happy Lion.”

It was Francois, the keeper’s son, on his way home from school!

He had seen the lion and had come running to him.

That’s what friends do. They run to us, come alongside us, walk with us through the confusing stuff, the scary stuff. They make us feel better just by being there.

The happy lion was so VERY HAPPY

to meet a friend who did not run and who said “Bonjour

that he forgot all about the firemen.

And he never found out what they were going to do, because Francois put his hand on the lion’s great mane and said,

“Let’s walk back to the park together.”

“Yes, let’s,” purred the happy lion.

“Being there” used to mean being there with someone, with in the sense of physical presence. Francois met up with the lion in the confusing city scene. Two kindred spirits, side by side, faced it together. In almost all cases, being with someone includes not only presence but also some kind of touch, a sense of comfort or perhaps even safety, and words. Words may be slippery and at times unreliable, but they have been part of our world for a very long time. In-person interactions include words as well as instant responses, the option to show rather than tell, and lots of nonverbal cues, mood indicators and behavior predictors. But we are not always in person. Sometimes words are written and communication changes.

Don’t get me wrong – I am ever grateful for written language, poor and incomplete a tool of communication as it may be at times. Words of greeting, news, counsel, humor, or desire help people who are not in the same physical space connect with each other. Until not so very long ago, distance communication between two parties was mostly limited to words on paper, sent via painfully slow routes. Letter-writers waited (interminably it seemed) for responses. Couriers sped along when a matter was urgent, and telegrams improved that speed. When the telephone was invented, people got used to hearing a voice through a device. And then the internet came, and email and cell phones and texting and skype and facebook.

I remember when email was new. I remember explaining it this way: I will type a letter to my friend and see the words on a screen in front of me, and then I will hit one of these buttons (keys, we now call them) and the letter will be sent (God only knows how!) to the person I am sending it to, who will be able to read my letter on their own screen. What a wondrous thing!

The frequency and methods of communicating not in person keep increasing. All this technology, in theory for some and in practice for others, improves the connection between people, easing the physical distance. Each advance seemed specifically designed to get closer and closer to the real thing, to enhance that connection, to lessen or seemingly negate the physical separation.  Email and text afford nearly instant responses (assuming you respond to every beep and buzz), and often include visuals that add enjoyment and understanding. Face to face video interactions (skyping, facetiming, whatever you choose) get you closer still.

I will grant there is good in technology – a lot of good — and I am very grateful for it. We do keep trying to get close. We do recognize the value of closeness. We know and want the real thing and we do what we can despite the miles. Also, while technology may not be the real thing, it is something, and something is better than nothing. We have more something than we used to.

But I will not grant all good. Technology is not the real thing, no matter how good it gets. The screen may be a window, but it is also a barrier. No technology will replace physical presence. Words on paper or on a screen are still devoid of eye contact, touch, smell, intonation, smiles, detail, and subtle clues that something is delightful or amiss or needed. Emoticons help a little. Video goes a step farther. I applaud the effort and intention and the bits of time people spend thumbing a text to a friend, but I will venture that if the happy lion had a cell phone during his rather confusing and challenging situation, he may have heard the beep and seen “Bonjour, Happy Lion” from Francois and it would perhaps have helped a little, but I doubt it would have met the need of the moment perfectly, as Francois being there in person did. Francois put his hand on the lion’s great mane and said, “Let’s walk back to the park together.” There is no emoticon for that, no substitute.

The other downside of communicating via technology is that it can remind us of what we don’t have. Like having bowl of steaming soup in front of us on a cold day that we must just stare at but are not allowed to eat. Like window shopping when we have no money. Like watching lovers when we are alone. Is something always better than nothing? We each must decide what, and how much, we can handle.

Can you be or have a dear friend using technology alone? Of course. You will just miss some things, and will miss them by noticing the absence of them and possibly by lamenting the absence of them. You will miss the gentle touch of a hand on your shoulder (or your mane, as the case may be), the smell of coffee brewing in the background, the almost invisible look of delight when a certain something is mentioned. An hour with someone we care about is worth a thousand texts. Nonetheless, we do, and will continue to do, the best we can with the tools we have. Technology will improve yet again and will get us as close as we can be without actually being there. But I will hope that we are coming full circle, that all the advancement in ways to simulate physical presence will serve to remind us more pointedly of what we’re missing and this in turn will urge us strongly to get to a place that is not simulated. Now that’s something to look forward to.

In the end, dear friendship involves doing what we can with what we have, working within our own bounds of time, resources, comfort and ability to enrich, strengthen and protect the life of someone we care about. In the pencil drawer in my desk is a tattered index card with the following quote handwritten on it by me long ago. More times than I can remember, it has reminded me that I don’t have to do everything, but I should do what I can.

I am only one

But still I am one.

I cannot do everything, 

But still I can do something.

And because I cannot do everything

I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

                                        —Edward Everett Hale

Francois did what he could do, and look what it meant to the happy lion. What he did was very good, and it was enough. Technology or no technology, that’s all any of us can do. And the best thing to do next? Rest. Smile. Then do more.

Sauce and cheese

This week I was reminded how words can mean such different things to different people, how easy it is to think someone else knows what we mean, how words are so little yet encompass so much.

Two little words: sauce and cheese. You know what I mean, right? I don’t have to say more. If you would look in my freezer and see a plastic container labeled sauce, you would know what is in that container and what it goes with. You would know how often I make it, how often we eat it and what else would be on the table with that meal. If we were at the table together and I was eating soup and I said This would be really good with cheese, and got up to get it, you would know before I returned to the table what I was getting. You would know what color it is, what has been done to it since it was purchased and how and where it is stored. We would understand each other, right?

When I was growing up, we ate pasta three times a week. We did not call it pasta. We called it macaroni. You boiled the macaroni in a big pot on the stove, and in another smaller pot you heated the sauce. On Wednesdays for dinner (5:00ish) and on Sundays for dinner (1:00ish because you ate Sunday dinner after church) we had our macaroni with a red, meat sauce, a.k.a. sauce. We had it so often that there was no need for modifiers. Seriously we ate this every Wednesday and every Sunday of my childhood. That’s 104 times per year x approximately 18 years, or somewhere around 2000 times. The very same meal.

My mother made sauce (not the sauce, mind you, just sauce) on a regular basis such that we were never out. It would be inconceivable to not have sauce ready to go on Wednesdays and Sundays. I am quite sure my mother would never have let that happen. The basic ingredients were the same every time, but if we had had a pork or lamb roast recently, she added these bones for flavor. Here is the recipe exactly as I wrote it many years ago when I decided it needed to be in my cookbook for reference. I did not need it myself of course. The recipe is etched in my mind’s file. But someone else might need it.

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This recipe is perfectly clear to me. You could follow it, right? You would know how many onions and how finely to chop them. You would know what chop meat means and what percentage of fat content was normal. You would know to put these first two ingredients together in a large, heavy pot over a medium flame and cook them together until the onions are clear and the meat is browned. You would know what size the cans of tomatoes are, what brand to buy, and whether they are whole, plum, chopped, diced or pureed. You would know what paste is, and how to get it all out of the can — even the parts that stick stubbornly to the sides — and why you need two cans of water per. You would know to dump all of this over the meat and onions at just the right time and stir it up. You would then know to add just the right amounts of s&p, garlic powder, oregano and basil. Strictly following tradition, it would not occur to you to use fresh garlic, oregano or basil. You would shake these out of jars you bought in the store and you knew the perfect quantities to shake and how big each little pile would need to be as it sat on top of the tomato-meat mixture in the pot. You would stop shaking when each pile was the right diameter and height. If you had leftover bones from a recent roast, you would add them in at this time. Then you would mix it all together and turn it down. You would know how low to turn the flame down, and you would let it cook for a few hours and walk away and do something else. You would know by the smell that it was done. The smell was normal. This was home.  Every Wednesday and every Sunday we had our macaroni with sauce for dinner.

On Fridays for dinner (5:00ish), being Catholic, we had our macaroni with a non-meat sauce, maybe red and maybe not. The non-meat red was called marinara and the non-meat other could be onion or ceci (you know what those are, right?). In my memory we ate all macaroni meals with a salad. We did not additionally (and it never occurred to me until much later that others might) eat long thin loaves of crusty white bread. On Sundays, however, you might also have meatballs (either softened from having been taken from the freezer and heated up in sauce, or crispy from having been freshly fried in oil) or a veal or eggplant parmesan or a roast (beef, lamb or pork) on the side. Thus the leftover bones that might go into the next batch of sauce.

Onto any of these macaroni dishes you put cheese. You put imported, finely grated, sheep’s milk peccorino romano stored in a little glass jar which had little holes in the chrome screw-on lid. This jar was stored in the cabinet, by the way, not the fridge. You turned this jar upside down and shook it, and cheese landed on your macaroni. At some point prior to the meal someone had taken the four-sided stand-up grater out of the cabinet and stood there holding the fist-sized hunk of cheese in one hand and the handle of the grater with the other hand, and with well practiced vertical up-and-down motions, pressing the hunk against the sharply perforated side of the grater, created tiny, slightly curly shavings of this ivory colored, aromatic, aged wonder. I did not think of it as a wonder. It was just cheese. Cheese went on macaroni. Macaroni had sauce.

The conversation about sauce came about because Samuel was fishing around in the freezer and found a container labeled SAUCE. What kind of sauce is this? he asked. What kind of sauce? Is there another kind? I see SAUCE on top of a plastic container in the freezer and I know exactly what is in there. But he doesn’t. Oh.

Can it be that he wouldn’t know what I mean when I use a simple word? I thought everybody knew what that word means.

What about cat?

House?

Party?

Surely he knows what those are. Surely you do.

Words evoke images. Do you have a lithe, grey feline in mind, one that snags large moths and bats them around until they give up? A white clapboard Cape Cod with three dormers set up on a hill with a large stand of maple trees behind it? A lot of well dressed people in a small room, holding fancy drinks and trying to hear one another above the loud music? Or do you imagine a tiger, a brick ranch, and a wild frat house?

This gets harder when the images associated with the words are not so concrete:

Honorable.

Divine.

Patriotic.

It’s no wonder we get tripped up sometimes. I am sure you know what I mean when I use certain words and you are sure I know what you mean. But do we really? John Durham Peters in his Speaking into the Air, says that there are hints and guesses in communication, which “at its best may be a dance in which we sometimes touch.” Thankfully we use lots of words to fill in the mental pictures, and usually manage to understand and be understood. Usually.

At least we are now clear about sauce. After Samuel fished it out of the freezer and I explained it and thought I knew what we were having for dinner, he asked another question: What’s onion sauce? Ah, onion sauce!

Chop three large onions. Saute them slowly (I mean slowly) in butter until they are soft and golden. This will take at least half an hour. Turn on the pot to boil the macaroni in only when the onions are almost done. In the meantime, finely dice that wonderful aged peccorino romano till you have a handful or so. Once the water is boiling, put small macaroni like ditalini in there with some salt and stir to make sure they do not stick to each other. When the macaroni is almost done, put the cheese in with the onions and butter. You don’t want to melt it, just soften it. Some ground black pepper and a little bit of cream in there with that rounds it out nicely. By now your macaroni is done. Put your colander over the bowl you will serve this in. Pour out the pot of boiling water and macaroni so that the water ends up in the bowl and the macaroni ends up in the colander (this makes the bowl hot, which keeps the food hot on the table longer). Dump the water out of your serving bowl, put the macaroni in there, top with the onion mixture and stir it all together. The word for this is divine.