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Archive for the ‘American Scene’ Category

I was at the gym this morning and, while I was on the treadmill, I couldn’t help overhearing a conversation between two guys who were using the weight machines. They were talking about the stock market and the stocks they held.

One man said,” Whenever I want to buy a stock, my wife finds reasons why we shouldn’t. When I check six months or a year later, I find the stock has doubled in value. Years ago, when Amazon was just starting out, I wanted to buy but my wife said, ‘ Amazon is a river in South America. Why would you want to buy stock in a company named for it?’

I shouldn’t have listened.”

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I was in the checkout lane at the local supermarket and the cashier was ringing up my purchases when she hit a snag. One item had her stymied . She held it up and asked the girl at the next lane,” Do you know what this is?” The other girl knew the answer.

“THIS” was a cauliflower.

This was many years ago. It would not happen today, mostly because every item has a bar code that can be scanned. Cashiers don’t need to know what the items they are checking out are. Otherwise … who knows?

At the time this incident happened, I remember being astounded. How could she not know what a cauliflower was? Then I realized it was not surprising when you consider how few vegetables most Americans eat. Even today, the American diet is heavily meat-centric. When I’ve been invited to dinner at the homes of my friends, the meal has consisted of a salad followed by roast chicken or steak accompanied by potatoes( boiled, mashed or French Fries) and a vegetable.  “Vegetable” usually means carrots, green beans or green peas. This I believe is the standard fare in most American homes. BTW, this comment does not apply to families living in the big metropolitan centers and to first generation immigrants ( particularly Asians) who still eat the cuisine of their native countries. I know this is true when I look at the laden shopping carts of fellow shoppers in the supermarket: Meat, frozen entrees and pizzas, pasta, tomato products, very few vegetables, bags of chopped salad, cereals, eggs, desserts and soda. Though, nowadays the soda has been replaced by bottled water. When I took my friend to an Indian supermarket he was amazed at the number of vegetables on offer, many of which he had never seen and did not know the names of.

Why is this so? Why is the American diet so meat oriented? I don’t know the answer but I have observed this fascination with meat in other countries too. When we were in the Dominican Republic, some years ago, I went to a local restaurant to see what the local food was like. There on a steam table were mostly meat dishes, the only difference with high end hotels being that they were stews and casseroles made with inferior cuts of meat, what we would call ” organ meats” or ” offal”. Vegetables( except for potatoes, onions, tomatoes and carrots) were conspicuously absent and I later found out that vegetables were in short supply and relatively expensive.

Even among the poor, there is a hankering to eat more meat. I remember reading about a riot in Egypt where the rioters marched on the luxury hotels in Cairo shouting slogans, among them ” We eat bread while they eat meat!”

Many of us seem to make a connection between meat eating and upward mobility. In Shanghai, we were dining in a half empty restaurant on some the best Chinese food I’ve ever eaten. Next door was a jam packed McDonalds with a line of customers snaking out the door. Our guide remarked sadly that Chinese never had a problem with obesity until the American fast food chains came to China.” Now”, she said ” kids want to eat hamburgers and fried chicken all the time. They don’t want to eat Chinese food anymore”. The results were not difficult to see. Shortly thereafter, I was looking at the Guinness Book of World Records and noticed that the world record for heaviest child was held by a Chinese boy of 14 who weighed in excess of 350 pounds( I can’t remember the exact figure). I also saw the record for the maximum weight loss was also held by another Chinese boy.

And yet, all this meat eating is not good for the body. My wife had been to a talk by a nutritionist at the public library. After talking about the desirability of a balanced diet with plenty of fiber and lots of grains and vegetables, he mentioned how they aid digestion and bowel movements. Going to the toilet at least once a day was a must, he declare; otherwise retaining this waste in the body for longer periods could lead to illnesses such as colon cancer, besides being highly uncomfortable. One lady in the audience was amazed. ” But I go only once a week !” she said. I don’t know what else was said in response but I can’t help thinking she must have been perennially constipated. What a horrible condition to be in. If I miss going even for a day, I feel terrible and I know I’m difficult to live with. To be in such a condition for a week, week in and week out, boggles the mind. No wonder I see so many TV ads for extra strong laxatives and stool softeners.

I want to make it clear that I am not a vegetarian. I do eat meat, all kinds of meat ( beef, pork, chicken, fish), though in much smaller quantities. I do not eat it at every meal though I have some protein every day. When I eat meat, it is the supporting, rather than the main, component of the meal. While I occasionally will have a steak or roast chicken, most of the time I eat meat in the form of curries, casseroles, stews or chili. And , of course, plenty of vegetables, sprouted grains and legumes. To my mind, the Japanese and the Chinese have the ideal diets; small quantities of meat or fish in almost every dish and plenty of vegetables, often raw or par-cooked. Perhaps a strict vegetarian diet is best, as some diet gurus aver, but it is not for me. I like the taste of meat and to satisfy my  body’s protein needs entirely from vegetarian sources would be difficult and too much of an effort.

 

 

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While watching the smash hit  Netflix series The Crown, I was struck by how the Duke of Windsor has gone from being a hero to a shallow,  selfish dilettante and quite likely a Nazi sympathizer. Initially, he was admired by many of my parents’ generation for giving up the throne of England to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. That view has long since been discarded. Historians now feel that it was lucky for his country that he abdicated, paving the way for his younger brother to become King George VI.  By all accounts, the latter was a man of sterling character who overcame his insecurities and worked well with the wartime prime minister Winston Churchill to guide Britain through her darkest days. The Duke meanwhile was an embarrassment who was appointed Commissioner to the Bahamas to keep him out of the way and spent his later years as little more than a pitiful shell of a man who spent his days travelling and attending endless parties.

An even more striking example of changing perceptions is Herbert Hoover, the most derided American president of his time. His image is forever tarnished by his ineffectiveness during the Great Depression  which began in October 1929, just eight months after his inauguration. Hoover’s insistence on balancing the budget even at the cost of raising taxes sent the economy into a tailspin from which it never recovered until FDR succeeded him. And yet, there was much about Hoover that was laudable. His early years read like a Horatio Alger story. Orphaned at age 9, he was sent to live with an uncle who disregarded the young boy’s brightness.   He was sent to work as an office boy even  before he completed high school. At age 17, he passed an entrance exam that enabled him to attend Stanford University, then a free school. After graduating from Stanford with a degree in geology, he was unable to find an engineering job. He took a job loading ore carts at a gold mine in Nevada City  CA, working 10 hours a day, seven days a week for the miserable pittance of ten cents an hour. After several years of this dead end job, he was chosen as trouble shooter for a British mining company where he rose to become chief engineer. When World War I broke out he helped evacuate Americans stranded in Europe by the war and displayed remarkable efficiency in bringing home 120,000 of them home. His finest moments were after the war when he was chosen to head The Committee for Relief in Belgium. At the time, Belgium was in sad shape , its  farms destroyed, its factories shut and its food stocks depleted. The Belgians were in grave danger of starving but Hoover managed to supply them with 20,000 tons of food, every week for a period of 2-1/2 years – a feat which made him an international hero and earned him the title of the Great Humanitarian. However, a  recent book by Bill Bryson is not so laudatory. Bryson’s book says that Hoover missed no opportunity to publicize his humanitarian work and that others, such as Myron Herrick, the U.S ambassador to France worked just as tirelessly but never sought the spotlight. So how should Hoover be remembered … for his humanitarian feats or for his ineffective Presidency? There is no easy answer.

In bygone days, celebrities were usually protected from the results of their peccadilloes and their character flaws hidden from the public. JFK , for instance, was  a serial womanizer whose affairs were kept under wraps until long after his assassination. Journalists felt an obligation to do so out of respect for the President, the position not the man. In those days, there was too little information about public figures. Nowadays, there is too much. Every action is dissected, audio and video equipment intrudes on every moment, public or private. News is mostly opinion and it is difficult to know what the truth really is.

The British cricket writer , Peter Roebuck, tells in his autobiography of a chance encounter with a soldier.  At the time, Roebuck had been dealt with rather shabbily by the powers that be. The soldier approached, shook his hand, wished him well and said” The closer you get to men of substance, the more they seem like shadows.”

How true.

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On the outskirts of Philadelphia is a very exclusive country club does not admit women. The prohibition against women is so strictly enforced that members are even discouraged from having their wives drop them off at the clubhouse. Indeed , some of the stories about how far the club goes to preserve the sanctity of this all male bastion are difficult to believe.

For instance, it is rumored that once or twice a year, a burka clad figure can be seen flitting about the clubhouse offices. No, it is not some religious fanatic; it’s merely the female accountant who has been smuggled in to balance the books. Then there is the apocryphal  story about the time, some years ago, when a club member passed away and left a substantial sum of money to be used for the renovation of the the clubhouse. The bequest was gratefully accepted and the renovation completed but the club stewards then faced a tricky problem. Should the widow be invited to the dedication ceremony? There was a long discussion, behind closed doors, and an agreement was finally hammered out. The widow was invited to attend … providing she left the premises immediately after the ceremony.

One final anecdote : A club member was stricken with chest pains while he was in the clubhouse. He was made as comfortable as possible and the First Aid squad summoned. The ambulance was there in minutes  and two EMTs quickly alighted and rolled out a gurney. But there was a problem and you can guess what it was. One EMT was a man, the other a woman. Even in this dire situation, the club stuck to its rules; the female EMT was told that she could not enter the premises. Luckily, the male EMT was able to load the patient into the ambulance with the help of the other club members and  rushed to the hospital where he made a complete recovery.  Some weeks later, when he was back at the club, he was told what had transpired and is reported to have responded: “Had to do it! Had to do it! Perfectly understand!”

No doubt, you who are reading this have questions to ask . Questions like ” What is the membership of this club like? What’s so great about the club? And, finally, How can such blatant discrimination be tolerated nearly one hundred years after women secured the right to vote? Here are the answers:

The club members are rich old white men, most of whom have their money in a variety of businesses.( They have to be rich because the annual membership dues run into the tens of thousands). They like the club’s all-male environment because they can make business deals in peace and’ boys can be boys’. The club does boast an excellent golf course but it is underused. It also has an excellent kitchen which puts out gourmet food. The members don’t come to the club to play golf; they come there to eat, drink, gamble and doing whatever they want unfettered by the presence of women. Gambling is very big at the club. A member once wagered and lost his car lease on a bet. Another member is reputed to have gambled away a million dollars in a single year. Yet another, no doubt under the influence of drink, is supposed to have played a ground of golf while clad only in his underwear. Crude behavior, it seems is not only tolerated, it is the norm. One member, a Cardinal no less, is alleged to have let out a loud fart while in the clubhouse and said, unapologetically, ” Cardinals fart too”.

Which woman would want to be in an environment like this where crudity and boorishness are the order of the day? No wonder women have not tried to overturn the restrictions against female membership.

 

 

 

 

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There are several lists of the dirtiest jobs in America. Some of the jobs on those lists are:

Septic Tank Servicer         Horse Castrator        Sewer Inspector          Pig Slop Processor

Charcoal Maker                 Road kill Cleaner      Termite Controller      Embalmer

Bloodworm Hunter          Animal Vet                Bat Cave Scavenger      Coal Miner

Slaughterhouse Worker

As bad as these jobs are, and they are all really really bad, there is one that is worse than any of them. The crappiest job in America is White House Press Secretary (in the present administration). Consider what poor Sean Spicer has to go through every day. As in many of the jobs listed above, he has to deal with a whole lot of crap. In his role as spokesperson for the executive branch, he has to explain actions and events within the President’s administration to the world. Thus, he has to deal with the White House Press Corps on a daily basis and explain the President’s latest snafus. He has to use his wiles to evade… and deny … and deflect … and obfuscate. In short, everything short of outright lying.  After tying himself up in knots trying to do the impossible, he is regularly undercut by his boss who contradicts what he has just said. How he must dread those early morning Tweetstorms!

As if this is not enough, he is the butt of jokes and is regularly caricatured on Saturday Night Live and by late night show hosts. As someone has said, working in this administration means being perceived either as a fool or as a liar.

When something goes wrong, as it invariably does, it is never his boss’s fault; it’s his. He may be a decent chap but he is mistrusted by everyone, thanks to his job. Nor can there be any satisfaction in the job itself. Every day is worse than the last and, when his head hits the pillow at night, he must have nightmares about what the next day will bring.

Finally, as hard as he works, his job security is nil. There is constant speculation that he is about to be fired and, in the last week, the whispers have been growing louder. If I were a betting man, yesterday I would have been willing to wager that he would not last six months. Today, amidst reports that a Fox News correspondent is being considered for his job, it seems I was too optimistic. He may not last out the month. Yes, this is the crappiest job in America and Sean Spicer will probably heave a sigh of relief he hears the dread words  ” You’re fired!”.

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I have been following with great interest the controversy caused by ” Fearless Girl”, a 50- inch high bronze statue of a little girl, standing in a defiant pose with her fists on her hips. The problem is not the with the statue itself but with its location : it has been placed just a few feet away from a 7000 pound, 11 foot high statue of a Charging Bull which has been there since December 1989. Both statues are located in Manhattan’s Financial District.

But perhaps a little background is necessary…

Charging Bull is the creation of an Italian artist Arturo di Modica who conceived the statue as a tribute to America’s rebound from the 1987 stock market crash. Spending        $ 320,000 of his own money, he created the statue and illegally plunked it down near Wall Street  in the middle of the night in December 1989. Because the statue did not have a permit, it was removed by the  N.Y.C. Parks Department. Because of public clamor, it was later brought back and installed at its present location in Bowling Green. It is very popular with tourists who often pose with it for souvenir photographs.

Fearless Girl is a creation of the sculptor Kristen Visbal, commissioned by State Street Global Advisors and installed last month in conjunction with International Womens Day. It is intended to support gender diversity and greater representation for women in leadership roles and on corporate boards. It was initially installed under a one month permit that has since been extended to one year. It too has become a great hit with tourists and office goers.

Arturo di Modica, the sculptor of Charging Bull, claims that the placing of Fearless Girl so close to his own statue and in juxtaposition to it violates his rights and changes the creative dynamic because she ( the Fearless Girl) appears to be ” attacking the bull”. His lawyer adds that the Bull ” no longer carries a positive optimistic message” and has been transformed into” a negative force and a threat”. Therefore, he argues, Fearless Girl should be removed and relocated elsewhere.

I used to work downtown for more than thirty years and I often walked past the Charging Bull and admired it. It is a powerful sculpture, projecting power, strength and optimism, but I never thought  it was spreading a message of ” Freedom in the world, peace, strength, power and love.” as its creator claims. If anything, because of its location, I saw it as a symbol of capitalism ( as in ‘ the bull market”). Nothing wrong with that, capitalism has made this country what it is. I also have no doubt that the placing of the Fearless Girl statue was deliberate and intended to play off the sculpture of the bull. What I fail to see is how it violates the copyrights of the Bull since it is located perhaps 30 feet away. No one has a right to dictate what may or may not be placed close to the location of one’s  artwork. At least that’s my opinion. Let’s see how this dispute gets resolved.

Aside from that, I genuinely like the Fearless Girl Statue. Even if it does not lead to a greater role for women in Wall Street, it has already struck a chord with young girls many of whom love the feisty pose of the little girl and her fearless demeanor. That is what will be needed if women are to breach the overwhelmingly male bastions of Wall Street.

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Last year, Denmark was selected as the happiest country in the world ahead of Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, and Finland. The United States was in 13th place, the U.K 23rd and Japan 53rd.

What is it that accounts for the Danes happiness? Well, it is not about having things. The Danes have a name for their condition ; it is hygge ( pronounced hue-gah). There is no easy one-word  definition of this term but it can be understood to mean creating an atmosphere of warmth and intimacy and enjoying the good things of life with good people. It also means building sanctuary and community and connecting to others whether they be family, friends the community or the earth itself.  And it stresses small pleasures over the pressure to be perfect.

The first part of the definition ( enjoying the good  things of life with good people) is not new and is not unique to the Danes. People in countries the world over are well aware that happiness does not lie in excessive materialism and that it is the small things in life that are important, particularly when enjoyed with other people. Some such pleasures: family get-togethers, tucking into delicious food in the company of good friends, tea served in fine china, curling up with a good book, and a summer afternoon at the beach. These are some of the things that give value and meaning to our every day lives, make us feel at home, generous and content.

It is the second part of the definition ( about living in a society that stresses the importance of community) that is unusual. Danes like living in a society that provides a solid social framework and emphasizes personal contentment instead of status. Some of the features of  Danish society  are trust, a supportive education system and affordable healthcare. I’m sure Danes grumble about the high taxes they pay but they also know what they get in return and are happy with the compact. It allows them to have a good work-life balance and creates a strong foundation for fulfillment.

I can’t help thinking of the United States and the situation we find ourselves in today. Here, we stress individual freedoms to the point where the feeling of community is being undercut. When I speak to older Americans, they longingly remember the sixties as a time when there was a sense of unity, when most of the country was middle class and there was a sense of optimism about the future. None of these are true today. Last year the U.S was 13th on the list of the happiest countries in the world; next year I fear that we will be lower. All we can do to enjoy is to remember hygge … enjoy the little pleasures of life, live completely in the present moment and nurture the relationships that are important to us.

 

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