It’s one of those made up words that can make you sound smart when you say it, or it can be a fun name for two dogs—Zeit and Geist. Either way, it’s a real stinker to translate.
In addition, zeitgeist is a word that comes in handy when you’re trying to explain why people do the strange, curious things they do or think the convoluted, murky things they think or want the bewildering things they want. It also helps explain why my grandfather was never embarrassed to play his accordion while dancing the polka.
It is “the spirit of the age,” or “the spirit of the times.” Simply put, zeitgeist is the influence of the place and time in which a person lives on how that person puts on their pants—if they wear pants, of course. For my family the idea of zeitgeist is best illustrated by the chopping of broccoli, while wearing pants—or not.
Let me tell you, my grandmother could chop a stalk of broccoli. Her skill with a paring knife was to be envied and studied. Every floret was cut precisely and surgically. Once she finished with the frilly head of the broccoli, she continued cutting the stalk into perfect cubes, and when the stalk got tough and woody she’d whip out a potato peeler and peel that sucker right down to the end and then cut the peeled part of the stalk into sugar cube shapes.
The peels went into the coffee can under the sink and then into the flower garden to fertilize the azaleas and camellias. She never wasted one speck of broccoli, and it wasn’t because she liked it. She didn’t have teeth. She couldn’t even chew the stuff when it was cooked. Her broccoli chopping was evidence of zeitgeist, a tangible clue to “the [ghosts] of her age,” ghosts that never stopped haunting her.
My grandparents lived in Chicago, Illinois during the worst financial disaster this country had endured. Before the depression, my grandmother had been a proofreader for a publishing house, and my grandfather a musician. They became junk dealers. They scrounged for junk, refurbished junk, and sold junk to survive. They saved everything from string to stoves. The spirit of their time was fear and hoarding.
They never risked throwing anything away ever again, including the hard ends of a broccoli stalk.
With a little less flare, my mother chopped her broccoli, not as carefully as my grandmother or as precisely. My mother was concerned about waste and want, because her parents had been concerned but not as concerned. She flailed away at the top of the broccoli and the tender part of the stalk. She never peeled.
During World War II, my mother remembered being spanked, when her mom and dad caught her playing with the ration cards. She was a little girl and didn’t understand that those cards represented a week’s worth of milk, sugar, flour, and coffee. America was feeding her soldiers first, her citizens second. If you wanted broccoli you grew your own, in a “Victory Garden” in your backyard; it was a garden grown as part of the war effort, a blitzkrieg of beets and radishes to beat back fascism.
For my mother and father, scrounging through city dumps or starving in the Smokey Mountains during the depression were old, fading ghosts when they married, but their zeitgeist brought its own haunting. Its ghost carried a hammer and sickle, shipped missiles to Cuba, and made their kids have to practice the proper way to huddle under desks at school, waiting for a cold war to get hot.
Still, dads had jobs. Moms had cash. The Piggly Wiggly had broccoli, and a clown named McDonald built his first hamburger joint in Orlando. The Russians went down in a hail of Levi’s Jeans and French fries and everybody relaxed enough to chuck the hard part of the broccoli stalk into their new trash compacters.
I paused over the garbage can in my kitchen, my hands full of damp, ragged broccoli bits. My mother’s timing was without flaw when it came to being awkward.
“Are you going to throw all that away?”
“Yeah, sure. The tree part is the only part the kids will eat and only if it’s dripping in ranch dip. At least I’m trying to get some kind of green stuff in them.”
I flopped two fistfuls of garbage into the can. My mother placed a hand over her heart in a practiced, elegant gesture of long-suffering.
“You’re grandmother would turn over in her grave.”
“Gramma is still alive. She can’t turn over in her grave. She could dance a Polka on it, but that’s about it.”
“Someday, we’ll all regret this,” she sighed, cryptically. “Who knows what those Russians are up to?”
I looked at the lump of vegetable mush and thought that the geopolitical ramifications of Soviet re-ascendancy and global KGB conspiracy theory a lot to put on a stalk of broccoli.
I shrugged, confident of my place in the eternal cycle of supply and demand.
“Don’t worry, Mom; Wal-Mart will make more.”
I believed that, because from the spirit of my times has evolved the expectation that what I needed I got—mostly. What I wanted would be under the Christmas tree—pretty much, and what I desired was out there, somewhere—probably on Ebay.
My six-year old granddaughter, Emma, asked me for a piece of chicken, recently. I placed a lovely hunk of homemade Southern fried chicken on a paper plate made out of plastic for her. My fried chicken was a crispy brown tribute to a culture dedicated to deep fat and smelled like a picnic on a humid day next to a pond with turtles sunning on a log.
She looked. She sniffed. She wilted like old broccoli.
“No, YaYa, not this chicken. I want chicken that is orange.”
“But sweetheart, chicken isn’t orange. What kind of chicken is . . ?”
I let the question trail away, realizing that Emma was not asking me for a lovely hunk of my Southern fried chicken. Emma was asking me for a nugget—a strangely shaped, artificially colored, chunk of mystery meat—possibly poultry. She refused to eat any of the non-orange chicken. I suspected it would not be the last time.
I like to imagine that someday, from the sacred confines of my antique rocking chair, I will lean forward and take Emma’s hand in mine; the other grandchildren will scoot closer, fascinated and intrigued.
“Emma, have I ever told you the Zern family fable called ‘The Chopping of the Broccoli?’”
She will shake her head. Several of the little ones will blink their big lemur eyes at me.
“Well, once upon a time there was a strange, wonderful vegetable that looked a lot like a tiny green tree. It was grown from seeds, in the dirt, in people’s backyards next to a stack of rubber bicycle tires waiting for the rubber drive . . .”
It’s not Emma’s fault. It’s zeitgeist, the spirit of her times: fast food, fast cash, fast gratification, and chicken the color of traffic cones. The wheel turns. The timeline gets longer. The ghosts fade in and out, and the children learn to chop broccoli with a style all their own, or not.