The New World

This year, Thanksgiving in the US is on Thursday, 23 November. I have always enjoyed this holiday, mainly because the day itself has escaped a lot of commercialization that other holidays in the States attract, like Christmas and July 4th. Most of the time, holidays are simply an excuse to spend money on things we either do not need or can’t afford. The Lexus December to Remember campaign, while very effective advertising, reveals a very materialistic world, where getting what you want is automatically assumed. Christmas, therefore, is all about what’s in it for us.

With companies working so hard to get our attention, advertisers have ignored Thanksgiving. Well, not entirely. But somehow, Thanksgiving has managed to stay pretty much on course as a celebration of this country’s blessings, rather than being used for marketing purposes. For many of us, we remember being taught that in 1620, “pilgrims” came from England to Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts to establish an American colony in the new world. These undocumented immigrants arrived and immediately ran into trouble. They were only saved by the help of the native-born people of what is now Massachusetts. A Patuxet man by the name of Tisquantum, or “Squanto”, was instrumental in assisting European settlers, really keeping them alive amid hostility by the Patuxet and Nauset people, the harsh winter, and unpreparedness of the pilgrims.

The real first Thanksgiving has been so romanticized that we could hardly recognize the reality if we were actually able to witness it. This event has been depicted so many times in film and literature that it’s nearly impossible to replace those images of the Native Americans, or Wampanoag, and the English settlers gathering at a large outdoor spread, complete with roast turkey and cranberry sauce. We can see women in their white bonnets and aprons, and men with tall black hats and buckled shoes; and the “Indians” in their buckskins with fringe hanging from their sleeves. These images are almost certainly false. Be that as it may, Thanksgiving has become a truly unique American holiday.

These days, Thanksgiving is celebrated in as many ways as there are families celebrating it. My personal preference has always been to serve a roast turkey with Better Homes and Gardens Harvest Stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and homemade croissants. Others might choose a picnic (in warm climates), or traveling to New York City to witness the Macy’s Parade. American Football is also a huge part of the Thanksgiving tradition. I spent one Thanksgiving playing halftime at an NFL game. But that’s a story for another time.

The main reason for the holiday, according to Abraham Lincoln, who first declared it as a national holiday in the height of the Civil War in 1863, is to set aside a day for giving thanks for what we have. In Lincoln’s time, as in times thereafter, we see trouble in our midst, as did those first European settlers; but we must pause to be grateful, to recognize that we have more than we deserve. Many people are going hungry tonight. There is great need out there, and yet we live in one of the richest nations on earth. Perhaps while we are giving thanks we could also think about giving of ourselves.

Maybe that first Thanksgiving wasn’t only about the Pilgrims being grateful for what they had relative to the loss and the suffering they had endured. For the Native people who assembled that day, they might never have known the fate of their civilization at the hands of European encroachment. For them, that event might only have represented the feelings of brotherhood, of sharing what they had so that others would not starve. Some Europeans (Thomas Hunt) did not treat them with as much love and respect. And hostile feelings persisted between some tribes and the English settlers. Tisquantum’s Patuxet village, the entire tribe, was wiped out by the plague, to which Native Americans had no immunity.

Thanksgiving is therefore a more complicated day than we usually consider. The classic* American image of the feast, as the Norman Rockwell painting “Freedom from Want” depicts, may be far removed from anything seen in modern times. Then again, most holidays are not celebrated with any historical accuracy. Christmas, for instance is an appropriated pagan winter festival, and Jesus was most likely born in April, not December. Saint Patrick would probably be abhorred if he saw what they do in his name. Yes, Thanksgiving is now what we have made it. Maybe there will be no turkey. Maybe there will be no dinner at the table. But Thanksgiving is not going to be removed from the calendar where it sits, on the fourth Thursday in November. It’s there. Why not take the day to celebrate something?

freedom-from-want_3_5

white, privileged, middle-class

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How to Eat Breakfast

One summer ago, we had our roof re-shingled. Some people call it having a new roof installed. I think that’s a strange saying, because I envision a crew removing the rafters, the physical framework of the upper part of my house. But in this case, they simply mean that the shingles and the underlying protective layer are being replaced. Here in Texas we have extremes in weather, intense sun and heat, high winds, and hail. These elements really do a number on asphalt shingles. We hired a small crew to install the new roof, and they arrived every morning for four days, shortly before sun-up. As soon as there was a hint of daylight, several men, and one woman, were on our roof, stomping around, dragging cases of shingles and tools across its surface. There was no way to sleep through this.

I was never what you would call a “morning person.” I typically spend late nights working on little projects, writing, sometimes playing video games. Occasionally I stay up late with work. But I’ve always found something to keep from going to bed at a decent hour. But then here came these roofers, plodding riotously just above my head. Since there is a logical flow of events beginning with the emergence of daylight and culminating with the clamor of office work – phones ringing, chatter, and the tell-tale nervous laughter of hyperextended workaholics – once awake, I needed to get up. That time in between, this morning Thoreau spoke of, is meant to be relished, accepted with joy and dare I say, exhilaration, because morning is truly inspiring. Just ask all those dead poets and philosophers. Yeah, I thought so.

Inasmuch as I am a night owl, mornings do hold a certain mystique that I am still learning to appreciate. Things happen in the morning that you cannot reenact. One of these is breakfast. Breakfast, from the late Middle English for break and fast, in other words, a meal following a brief fasting period, albeit only 10 hours or so, is truly intended for mornings. I’ve had breakfast foods – omelette, waffles, etc. – at various times of the day and night. Yes, night. Something about IHOP at 11:30 pm is just kind of cool, or dorky.

My wife and I, therefore, were compelled to have breakfast together each morning. And even though this clamor of rooftop ballet lasted only a few days, we have continued to make and eat breakfast together every morning ever since. Breakfast in the US usually consists of eggs and bacon or ham. Some prefer pancakes. Our regimen includes oatmeal with fruit, coffee, and grapefruit juice. I prefer steel cut oats, but they take 30 minutes to cook. We sit at the kitchen table and actually talk about things – the expectations of the impending day, weird dreams we might have had, stuff we want to share – and we eat said breakfast.

I used to say that I didn’t have time for this, even though the idea that breakfast is the most important meal of the day has been drilled into my consciousness for decades. Whether or not this is true, the ritual of sharing a morning meal has enriched my life. We carry it into the weekend, where additions are afforded, like sausages and eggs. on rare occasions, waffles. Each morning, preparations are made, and time is carved out for the spectacle. We talk about what’s going on with us, what plans we’ve made for the day. We compare schedules and talk about upcoming events. Quickly then, we clean up, and I get ready to leave. But I’m not in a hurry because I’ve carved out this time. It’s our time, not theirs. And that’s the beauty of breakfast.

I know very few people who have this luxury. But I see it as a necessity. Not the food, but the time spent relaxing and enjoying it; the ritual, the act of breaking bread. My perspective has in turn made it less of a luxury and more of a right, a privilege. I feel entitled to having a meal. I mean, food is a human necessity. Why do we feel we have to defend ourselves for making time to eat? I see my coworkers actually skipping lunch because of work. They say they have no time to take a lunch break. Not only is this absurd, but it is actually in violation of OSHA standards. There’s that precious time, that elusive time, the subject of many poems and songs. Why do we deny ourselves what is our fundamental right?

I still don’t think of myself fully as a morning person. Caffeine is a main source of my morning energy. But I have become somewhat of a creature of the morning now. The night still calls me, but lately I’ve found I actually look forward to sleep, and the following morning with that reward of coffee and and English muffin. Suddenly, the night has less appeal. It’s strange to see such a change in oneself. But these things happen. And I don’t lament saying goodnight to my old ways.

To Serve Man

A day before my 25th birthday, having been accepted to graduate school, my new bride and I packed up all our belongings into a smallish U-Haul trailer and left town. We had spent all our cash on securing an apartment, and we had no wiggle room for the unexpected, which was bound to happen. With no credit cards and an empty bank account, we took a leap of faith, being assured that some grant money was coming in and we had at least a place to land once we got there.

We arrived later that afternoon and checked in with the apartment manager. She confirmed that our rent was paid up for the duration of our lease – six months. Relieved, we asked for the keys. The manager informed us that we couldn’t move in yet because the apartment was not ready. It seems the carpet needed to be cleaned or something. After a longer-than-was-comfortable episode of pleading she pointed us to a few hotels in the area. We explained that we (unwisely) arrived with no money. Our best bet was the local homeless shelter, a ministry run by a local church group. Reluctantly, we made our way to the inn, as it were, for, at the very least, some sleep.

Years later I would repeat this story with the message that everyone should deign to have that experience, letting go of pride and humbling oneself. Yes, it was only for one night, but my student ID photo the following morning would capture the gravity of the situation. There we were, newlyweds, separated by floors – women on the second floor and men on the third. The accommodations were meager, as you might expect. It was a cold night, and sleeping in the car was out of the question. We were grateful, and a little terrified. The whole shelter was entirely chaotic; people were shouting and having conniptions. I was constantly worried for my wife – that concept had still not sunk in. Was she okay? Was she scared? Then came the delousing.

Many years later (actually, I think it was only 6 or 7) we attended a church in an upper-middle class area. The gentry that made up the congregation formed a shelter ministry group. Those familiar with church-going folk of this mostly white, suburban, middle class ilk will be familiar with the over-achieving endeavors to reach out to the community, or even beyond it, in keeping with several places in the Bible where Jesus tells the people that they should heal the sick and feed the hungry, visit those in prison, and so on. Basically, things people in their 20’s don’t think about, outside of hearing sermons and seeing ads for charities bringing some relief to famine-struck areas in the world. Our particular church’s mission was, in teaming up with other churches in the city, providing a hot meal on Sundays, and making sandwiches that would last until the next weekend. It was unclear just how far those sandwiches went, but the hot meal we ported down there was fully consumed by the men, women, and sometimes homeless children in the shelter by the end of the night.

My wife and I signed up, being the social realists that we are, hoping we were doing enough, inasmuch as we would be returning to our comfortable, if modest, suburban home later that night. As much as I knew it was a good thing, I often would dread it. How much I would rather have been enjoying a Sunday evening, watching TV or some equally banal activity. This was before the web was prevalent, and much before social media and streaming video arrived on the scene, if you can imagine it. Late in the year, it was already dark when we would set out, so it was kind of a drag. But the experience was so fulfilling. I think about how it must sound: schlepping hot food in minivans to an unwholesome district across town to assuage our need to be redeemed. I don’t know why most others did it. But to this day I think I made a difference. The shelter had a couple hundred “beds”, but on cold nights there were close to 300 people. One by one they came through, extremely grateful as they received some hot food and a sandwich. Some of them looked like they could be anyone. And a lot of people in the ‘burbs are one crisis away from such a fate, which is pretty damned scary.

Like I said, I used to tell people they ought to spend a night in a shelter, if only once in their lives, to understand how fortunate we are. But I’ve changed my message over the years. Those bedrolls, cots, and mats are at a premium. Taking a spot from someone who really needs it isn’t proper. If you have a place to stay, go there. I still think we could learn a lot by walking in another’s shoes, but shelters need the space. So, give money. Serve a meal. Donate time and talent. Raise awareness. There is always going to be great need among us.

Is it Safe?

I was in a restaurant the other day when I caught a whiff of ammonia as one of the employees was spraying Windex liberally on tables and other surfaces to clean them after diners left. The whole place smelled of ammonia, and the fumes irritated my eyes and my throat. I mentioned it to a friend who told me it wasn’t such a big deal, and they needed to disinfect the tables after people ate there. I reminded my friend that you can disinfect using distilled vinegar. He said he didn’t like the smell. Okay, but the “smell” is not a toxic compound produced the chemical giants like P&G or Dow. White or distilled vinegar, among other varieties, are not only nontoxic, but you can actually ingest them in small quantities without any harmful reaction. The fact is, I make glass cleaner from an ingredient I could use in salad dressing. And it has been shown to be an effective disinfectant. Plus, it’s cheaper.

Chlorine is also widely used in restaurants as a cheap disinfectant. I admit it is quite effective in preventing the spread of bacteria like salmonella. For the kitchen and restrooms this is perfectly acceptable in protecting the public from harmful pathogens, and restaurant staff should take such measures after the establishment is closed for the night. Exposing patrons to ammonia or chlorine is potentially problematic, but if these chemicals are combined, the results can be quite toxic, and the combination should be avoided in all circumstances. I think it’s fine to mop the kitchen and dining room with a bleach water solution after closing time. A little chlorine goes a long way. Ammonia as a glass cleaner is not absolutely necessary. See this California Childcare Health Program article for more information.

I routinely clean my house with non-toxic solutions. I make a glass and surface cleaner from a mixture of distilled vinegar, water, and a drop or two of mild dish soap. This is surprisingly effective in cleaning dirt and residue from surfaces. I use other less-toxic solutions for disinfecting, and I use chlorine-based cleaners for sanitizing the bathroom fixtures and the kitchen sink. I’m kind of a stickler about what can be called “clean”. I eat off dishes that I consider clean, and I generally do not use bleach to get to that level of cleanliness. But if I were to eat mac & cheese off my kitchen floor, you’d better believe I’m going to scrub that son of a bitch down. Is it largely psychological, the fact that my dishes are not nearly as clean as my floor, and yet I find it repugnant to eat off the floor? Yes, I’m sure of it. I will not be dining dal pavimento anytime soon.

In the meantime, I’m comfortable cleaning with my vinegar solution. Ammonia is overkill, and it makes my eyes and throat sting. Oh, did I mention that my wife has multiple chemical sensitivity? Some people don’t believe this is real, but besides any doubt many people have, there is no denying that chemicals are used in increasing quantities and concentrations. The unfortunate side effect to the public is becoming desensitized to these harmful agents, except for the growing number who for unexplained reasons become more sensitive to them. Living in a toxin-free environment (or as close to one as I can be in the 21st century) has made me more aware of the onslaught of chemicals encountered in the supermarket. I think I was not aware how noxious the detergent aisle was until recently. Meanwhile, vinegar doesn’t bother me at all.

Some of my ancestors lived beyond 105 years. And that was before anyone knew about microorganisms. They did not have modern cleaning products in the 18th century, and yet they lived ostensibly healthy lives. Of course this is not to say that people in the 18th century didn’t contract illnesses due to bacterial infections. But maybe people had higher resistance to germs because they didn’t use hand sanitizer every fifteen minutes. I think we are so afraid of getting sick, we are in danger of making ourselves more guarded against the bug. Perhaps we can embrace it. Just don’t get too complacent.

So for the time-being, I hope restaurants would at least stop exposing people who are trying to eat to harmful chemicals. You can still douse the tables and booths with super-concentrated Clorox after everyone has left. Just use the buddy system in case you get a little too much of a good thing. Or better yet, think of alternative cleaning methods.

 

Perseverance

I was raking leaves in my front yard one day when I stopped to notice the bustle on my neighborhood street around me. Cars were driving by, and people waved at me as they passed my house. Kids on bicycles and skateboards drifted along, while others played basketball in the street, occasionally interrupted by a passing car. I started thinking about how idyllic the scene was, yet surely not everyone would share my joy for what I took as the perfect day. While I felt like there was hope, perhaps another felt despair. I relished in the simple joys of the perpetual struggle against the cycle of nature, while someone else might perceive it as eventual defeat. Nature always wins.

Must we always think of things in terms of being successful or failing? I thought of the saying, “slow and steady wins the race.” But what race? When shall we say, “I have won?” Naturally, there are moments when we do compete: when interviewing for a job, in a debate, or playing a sport. Of course you can be declared a winner in many situations, but oftentimes there is nothing to win. Take gardening, for instance. As I raked the leaves, or as I pulled weeds and grass out of flowerbeds today in preparation for planting, it occurred to me that it will never end. As long as I want to have a garden, I must work to keep nature from taking over. Year in and year out, I return to the flower beds, get down on my knees and toil. All summer, too, I struggle to keep the unwanted plants out, while fighting to maintain the ones I want. I clip and prune, mow, and mulch. Slow and steady, yes. But winning is not possible.

Some things don’t seem worth the trouble. When I see the results of my determination, however, I realize giving up was not an option. All summer I get to enjoy the flowers and watch the bees and butterflies hop from one to the next, rejoicing in the richness in the array of beauty.IMG_9251_lgIn a few months it would all fade away, and I would be faced with the task of preparing for the next season. The show was fantastic, and the denouement deflating. But I convince myself to start again from scratch each year, knowing I won’t “win”.

Looking at the picture above, I am inspired again. It amazes me what can result from simply planting seeds smaller than the tip of a pencil. But gardening is not an activity for the slacker. It requires dedication and perseverance. You must keep at it; otherwise your beds will be overrun by invasive roots, vines, weeds, and ants. Pretty soon, you have anarchy.

I often like to use this as an analogy for working hard in spite of the obstacles, but sometimes a flower bed is just a flower bed. And I’m losing daylight.

The Middle of … Everywhere

I get a little bummed sometimes when I think about where I live. It’s not that I dislike my home, here in North Texas. It’s just that there are so many cool places, but they are several days driving distance. I hate having to pay outrageous fees to fly. My friends in Europe tell me about great airline deals there, and the trains. Travelling from Fort Worth, Texas to Houston only takes 35 minutes by air, and it’s only 3 1/2 hours by car. But it’s Houston, so yeah.

I was looking for some good hikes without having to travel very far. North Texas is remarkably flat, so you do have to drive at least two hours, depending on where you start. Palo Duro Canyon is a great place for hiking and mountain biking. But it’s 7 hours away, and there’s not a lot to see along the way. By contrast, there are a number of historic places and national parks within a few hours of Washington, DC. The nearest mountains to my location are in Arkansas, and I wouldn’t call them mountains. Mountains or decent beaches are 12 hours by car, 2 hours in the air. Now, I know it sounds like I’m complaining. I am, so you’re pretty observant. But I do have some things to be thankful for.

For one, it’s sunny about 80% of the time. Tomorrow, 1 February, is expected to be mostly sunny and 22ºC. Perfect, in other words. This is not to say it doesn’t get cold. Just the other day it rained. But the sun came out later the same day. And we haven’t seen snow in a while, like 2014. And it gets very hot in the middle part of summer, July-September. The rest of summer is actually nice. I have family in Southern California. I’d live there, too, but the house I own in Texas would be worth millions there, and I couldn’t afford the taxes.

I do like my home. I can’t really imagine living anywhere else, despite every street corner looking like any other one, or a proliferation of BBQ joints. It’s not so bad. But you really have to see it, this place. So flat, so hot, so dry. A dear friend of mine from Oslo loves it here. I suppose it’s the opposite of Norway, so that must be refreshing in it’s own way. But where else could you get sunburned in January? (Sydney, perhaps). Therefore, tomorrow, I will wake up to a mild February morning – I don’t think I’ll need a jacket. Then I’ll drive for 17 minutes to work. I barely have time to listen to the radio. I guess it’s worth being in the middle of everywhere. That’s the deal. The middle is equidistant from any point.

Did I mention the cloudless skies?
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Gastronomique

I am a man of passion. I am passionate about language. I have a passion for art, particularly photography. And I am passionate about cooking. I love to cook. But it goes well beyond a fondness for making meals. Since I was very young, I have had a yearning to create things. And for me cuisine provides the best palate: the human senses of taste, smell, touch, sight, and hearing. When you combine all these in various aspects, you can create something that is not achievable from the sum of these senses. A photograph only appeals to one’s sight. Music is often only perceived by the ears, but sometimes it is seen and heard. But when we eat we experience something more.

When you peel open a navel orange, the zest bursts forth its oily essence, releasing the unique properties for your olfactory receptors. That, combined with the juicy flesh of the fruit, awakes the senses, bringing together the sight, smell and taste. Texture is a part of the experience, too. And let’s not forget about the sound the peel makes as you tear it open. You might have to really pay attention to get all five components. Maybe we are in too much of a hurry when we eat to take notice. It is easy to blame the fast food industry for this catastrophe, but we are also partly to blame. Humans are pre-programmed to crave fat and salt. We can’t help it, and so when offered the choice, it takes a lot more than willpower to resist it.

Why do we eat, really? I guarantee it is not just for sustenance. Our ancient ancestors did forage all day, hunting for meat and hides to cover their bodies, and eating whatever they could catch. They had to do this to survive, but then they discovered cultivation. They settled in one place, formed civilizations, and the rest, quite literally, is history. So when did we go from eating to survive to making meals more significant? Well, it probably happened about the time that grain was harvested and stored. Eventually, someone figured out that you could make stuff with it. Once mixed with naturally-occurring yeast, humans had discovered beer and leavened breads. And there was much rejoicing.

Actually, cooking has been around a lot longer than agriculture. Prehistoric peoples, I am sure as soon as they discovered how to make fire, began to cook food. It must have been that it improved the taste and texture, because it’s hard to imagine that they were concerned about microbes. But we may never really know. About 80 thousand years later gastronomy evolved. Ancient Egyptians have been credited with inventing beer. They at least learned how to cultivate grain and turn it into bread. This was a game-changer for civilization.

Now, 6000 years later, we have evolved again, with the advent of molecular gastronomy, featuring dishes like “carrot air” and Massimo Buttura‘s “Five Stages of Parmigiano Reggiano”. These dishes typically push the envelope of texture and visuals, but I don’t know if the flavor has been improved. Also, the price has increased exponentially. Of course, we get what we pay for. You can live on canned beans and powdered milk, if you want to call that “living.”

My passions lie in the making of simple dishes, actually. Lentil stew, baguettes, roasts, fricassee. Some would call it peasant food. Massimo says, “when you ask Italians where to get the best food, they say, ‘Mama’.”

Well, I’m off to the market to get some fresh thyme for my Superbowl Chicken. Go Broncos!