Knowledge for the Good Life

One of mycousins called the other day to tell me that she wasn’t interested ina cousins reunion. “Well, that’s unanimous — if I count silence as ano,” I said. Even though our parents had a family circle that metmonthly, it looked as if their kinder rejected the idea to meet justonce.

Then my cousin and I talked about my new icon,Martha Stewart — the mother of all balebostes — and we jokinglyasked, what if we had a mother like Martha? Would we be making ourown potpourri from herbs grown in the greenhouse we had built theyear before? Would we be refinishing the dining-room table that wehad constructed from old ironing boards?

When I first saw Martha on television, she usedexactly three sheets of The New York Times Business section to make aroaring fire. I considered myself an expert fire maker, but I neededthe entire Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times. I watchedMartha and took notes.

The last time I paid such close attention totelevision was during a PBS show about the relationship betweenhumans and elephants. The elephant owner made 200 leafy sandwichesevery day for his elephant, and they had to be constructed in acertain way for the elephant to trust the handler.

Detail from “The Entry of the Animals into Noah’s Ark” byJan Brueghel, 1613.

I also learned how to bathe an elephant, which isthe essential bonding experience between elephant and human. Theelephant is on its side in the water — a very vulnerable position –and the human efficiently and lovingly scrubs the elephant’s hide,ears, footpads. We’re talking tons of dependent animal relying on theskill and compassion of one frail person.

The elephant has this keen intuition about whoreally cares for him and who’s mistreating him. When the elephant iswell taken care of, he’s capable of loyalty and hard work unknown toany species. When he’s mistreated, he enters your tent late at night,picks you up with his trunk and throws you against a tree.

Although I wish people who mistreat children wouldbe thrown against trees, I don’t get to use much of myelephant-bonding information. But my newly acquired fire-makingability definitely is impressive. I wait until the embers ofnewspaper fly through the air and people start choking, and then Ishyly ask, “Is there anything I can do to help?” The frustratedfailure of a usually male fire maker asks, “What do you know aboutfires?”

Hemingway once wrote: “The old man taught the boyto fish, and the boy loved him.” My first husband and his father wentto the racetrack together. The father taught the boy to read a racingform, and the boy loved him. And when the boy became a father, hetaught his son how to handicap, and the son loved him. My grandmothertaught me how to sew, but Gloria Steinem said that I had choices. Somy daughter and I didn’t sew together. We walked picket lines. Weshould have sewn too.

I had a teacher in college named Dr. Fiore. Shewas a slightly built woman, perhaps in her 30s. She was intense,quiet, with a slow smile. After flunking gym and physics in myfreshman year, I decided to drop out of college and went to heroffice to tell her. Why tell Dr. Fiore, I don’t remember. Shelistened as I matter-of-factly told her that I wasn’t collegematerial and that my mother was right — that I should stop foolingaround, enter the real world, learn how to type and earn aliving.

Dr. Fiore told me to stay in school and to learnsome patience, that I had talent. If I left, the shape of my lifewould be carved from regrets. Dr. Fiore, who did not know me, knewwhat was good for me — good for my soul. I love her to this day forthat knowledge.

Socrates said that health, wealth, beauty, allthese are good insofar as they are well used. And a good use of thegoods of life demands knowledge of their appropriate employment.

Linda Feldman, a former columnist for the LosAngeles Times, is the co-author of “Where To Go From Here:Discovering Your Own Life’s Wisdom,” due out this fall from Simon& Schuster.

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