Please let it be new

How often have you heard someone talk to you in a lively, animated matter, then develop a sort of woodenness in their tone?  This happened to me at the gym yesterday. To new members the gym we have joined offers two free training sessions; an assessment and a training routine, both provided by a personal trainer. I met Heather (not her real name) accidentally in the women’s locker room, when I overheard her say something about how you can’t spot-reduce in response to another member’s complaint about her stubborn love handles.  We hit it off after a mini-conversation, and I decided she’d be my (free) personal trainer of choice. She was warm and well-articulated and that too drew me to her.
Fast forward to the actual assessment session in her office yesterday morning. Everything was going great. After a few pleasantries we went through my health, workout habits, goals and so on. Then she produced a clipboard and started to go through a series of statements and disclaimers. Quite suddenly her tone changed completely! Gone were the warm undertones and the complicit twinkle in the eyes. It was as if faced with the pre-formed, oft-repeated phrasing of what she had to repeat who knows how many times a day, her brain refused to engage or even enunciate properly. Instead it produced a drone that we’ve all heard when someone reads for the hundredth time from a form.
This obvious demonstration of her momentary ennui made me think about novelty and its pursuit. The newness, ne plus ultra, the trend of the moment, even the retro made modern again; all of these speak alluringly to the thrill seeking part of our brains. Something that also makes us the perfect audience for marketers to hawk the new and improved version of whatever it is they’re selling. Growing up in francophone and francophile Lebanon, I even remember odds-and-ends stores simply called Nouveautés, meaning generically “what’s new.” It’s possible that our brains seek novelty because we are wired to be perpetual learners. Watch a child experience something new and the first thing they’ll ask is to experience it “again!” The feedback loop seems to be built in to facilitate absorption. According to a newer field of study, that of interpersonal neurobiology, one of the great discoveries of our time is “that the brain is constantly rewiring itself based on daily life. In the end, what we pay the most attention to defines us. How you choose to spend the irreplaceable hours of your life literally transforms you.”(Click here for the NYTimes article) Personally, this may also mean that my attempts to keep challenging my brain by learning Italian could end up being more fruitful than expected.
Speaking of learning Italian, I’ve been reading exclusively in Italian for the past few years. Reading for pleasure, that is. And the pleasure of allowing my neurons to soak up the vocabulary and syntax of a different language is the closest I can come to learning like a child: by osmosis. The latest book I’m reading is by Natalia Ginzburg, entitled “Lessico Famigliare,” meaning family lexicon.  The book describes the author’s childhood and later years via words, expressions and idioms that her parents and siblings would use.  The love and loyalty towards these phrases solicit the vivid memories that are almost involuntarily associated to her life story, thus underlining the role language can play in maintaining and forming our memories.  Is it possible that the creation of family specific, thus familiar lexicons could have also functioned at the level of community or even tribe or nation, with each new iteration leading into dialect, and later language differentiation?
It’s certainly comforting to know that learning can happen all the time, even as we age.  However, can we handle all new all the time? Is there a saturation point? Could it be that when our brains have been in a state of being bombarded non-stop by novelty, they may tire and become jaded? Maybe that’s how certain lazy brains could be explained: the ones that don’t deviate too far from the worn grooves of tired adages and minimal vocabularies; the ones that demonstrate lassitude and burnout.

Is it enough to just say it?

On a tangent,  a recent article described how long-term caregivers can suffer from symptoms of secondary post-traumatic stress caused by their selfless behavior. These symptoms are referred to as compassion-fatigue. When these caregivers are unable to tend to their own selves, they become unable to empathize and unwilling to provide care.  If compassion fatigue exists, then shouldn’t there be novelty-istlessness as well?  Then again, while there may be comfort in what’s known, it’s wonderful that the uncharted beckons strongly enough to give rise to discovery and innovation, both in science and art.  Culturally speaking, art can even be thought of as fueling a pursuit of the new; from within as well as without.  The process of creation, connecting artist to audience, itself gives rise to a dialog based on new stimuli that engender new responses and can in turn enable new creation.

The kids in my street draw six-pointed stars.
Done with the physical assessment session, I went back to the locker room.  Given that it was mid-morning, and that the gym is located in Beverly Hills, the sector of the member population best represented was that of Iranian Jewish women. They were all in various stages of getting ready to head out. An older woman kept turning the blow dryer off and back on, as she tried to listen to her neighbor telling her about her mother visiting from Argentina for health needs. We all heard her explain how after her father’s death her mother had moved to Argentina to be closer to her sisters, but had kept her US health insurance and came back every year for medical checkups. At one point, the hair dryer had to be completely silenced, as further details were being provided. In the ensuing relative quiet, a younger woman could now be heard saying her mother had told her the flower decorations at so-and-so’s daughter’s bat mitzvah were exactly the same as the ones she had spent so much time researching and creating for her own daughter’s coming of age festivities.  Besides expressing her annoyance that anyone would imitate her ideas, she was particularly upset at the florist for recreating the same exact floral arrangements, because the florist knew that they were even friends with so-and-so. Her friend’s consolation attempts ended with: “Why wouldn’t they want to come up with something unique and new?” Why not, indeed? Could there have been any trace of flattery hidden in this act of blatant imitation?
Jars formerly used for grape leaves now house homemade pepper paste.

Once home, I went about preparing lunch. The pre-cooked lentils from Trader Joe’s went into the microwave while I diced half an onion and a bunch of mint leaves.  Adding ground black pepper and cumin, as well squeezing half a lemon and drizzling some olive oil started bringing the lentil salad together. But something was missing. Ah, red Aleppo pepper… When packing to move to LA, my spice collection had been deemed unnecessary and easily re-stockable in situ. But while I’d remembered to buy cumin on a recent shopping spree, crushed red pepper had been completely forgotten.  But wait! Hadn’t I noticed jars of pepper paste at the Mediterranean store in Pasadana? “Special Homemade” said the sign, making them even more irresistible. Out came the jar from my own fridge and I added a generous tablespoon to the warm lentils.  The aroma transported me to the Armenian village of Anjar, in Lebanon, sometime in late summer. That’s where I’d seen pepper paste being made in large cauldrons over open fires. The flames would blacken the outside of the pot, while the smoke of burning wood would curl around and make everyone’s eyes water. The paste would initially bubble, then as it thickened, it would splatter. There would be a woman, invariably with flushed cheeks,  tirelessly stirring it with a large wooden spoon. Afterwards, when it was ready, the new paste would almost shimmer, inviting a taste or more. I licked the spoon and tasted the lentil salad. A “new” way of making it had just been created and my palate was highly appreciative of it.

Lupicia teas: easier to find than expected.
More than a year ago, I’d tasted a particularly pleasing green tea at Yoshi’s in Oakland. Its label had sent me on an on again/off again quest to find the family of teas it came from. Quite by accident, I recently found it in LA, while my husband was on his own search for the perfect coffee. There were so many different aromas to choose from at Lupicia Teasthat it was difficult to settle for just a few. But the one that could ultimately balance the lentil salad’s earthiness with its ethereal fragrance was the momoko: redolent of Japanese white peach on newly mowed grass, it also satisfied my yen-de-jour for the new.P.S.: For full disclosure, the above blog post is itself not new. Ironically, I  had to re-write the post after losing the whole thing yesterday evening while editing it. And re-write is probably not the correct term either, as it obviously changed; some parts were replaced and new ones were added. As Heraclitus of Ephesus said: “You cannot step twice in the same river.” 

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