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Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Tipping or service charges are so much a part of eating out in America that it is strange to be in an environment where tipping is not the norm. Five years ago, on a trip to Tokyo, we were taken aback to find that tips were not expected, where they were politely returned to us. We learned quickly and did not repeat our mistake. It was a practice that I wish existed elsewhere.

Though I always add tips when paying restaurant tabs, it is something that leaves me feeling either foolish or parsimonious. Did I tip too little or too much? Sometimes, I am not sure. Years ago, 15% was the standard tip, then it became 18%. Now , we are told it should be 20%, even 25% for exceptional service. Why? Why do these standards keep changing, always going up? Also, initially, the percentage was supposed to be calculated on the food and beverage cost; then it switched to a percentage of the entire bill, including tax. Finally, with the hefty markup on wines and drinks, the expected tip increases out of all proportion to the service being provided.

Tips were supposed to be optional, not mandatory. Now, they are expected as a right. They are even suggested and encouraged where they should not be. At the coffee shop where I pick up a bagel and coffee, there is a tip jar on the counter. What exactly is the tip for in this instance? For ringing up my order and handing it to me? I don’t buy it.

Service charges are not the answer. They merely mean a mandatory tip, whether the service is good or not and just take the guesswork out of figuring out what is appropriate. Besides, one has way of knowing how much of the service charge actually goes to the wait-staff and how much is skimmed off by the management, something I suspect happens a lot.

By not including the service in the basic cost of the meal, restaurants are doing what the airlines do. Keeping the stated price low and then socking customers with extras. Airlines do it to hide the true cost of a flight; restaurant owners do it to pass on the cost to diners and to avoid paying employees a living wage.

I’m glad therefore glad to read that some restaurants ( many of them owned by Danny Meyer) in New York City have abolished the practice of tipping. The prices listed on the menu ( plus tax) are the total cost of the meal. No hidden charges. This way, I can look at the prices on the online menu and decide whether a particular restaurant is worthwhile or whether it is too rich for my blood.

P.S The above might make me seem a curmudgeon but I don’t think I am. I am careful to tip ( and quite generously too) at ordinary restaurants. At low end restaurants, I tip more because I know the servers don’t make much. What gets my goat is the outsize charge for service at the upper end restaurants that I occasionally eat at.

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The Tasting Menu

The tasting menu has been all the rage at upscale restaurants for the past decade. Instead of  selecting from an a la carte menu,  diners enjoy smaller quantities of an assortment of dishes from a set prix fixe menu. It is an expensive option, often running to $250 or over, per person ( without wine). Now, even as more and more restaurants offer these tasting menus, there seems to be a backlash against them.

Not only are the meals very expensive, they are marathons lasting three or four hours, and they leave diners feeling bloated  and bored by the experience. As the succession of dishes arrives at the table, one feels like throwing in the towel and crying ” Enough!”

I haven’t much experience of such menus. I’ve only eaten from them three times at Morimoto, the last occasion  eight years ago. The dinners were hosted by my brother-in-law and namesake, and each was a memorable experience

I will never forget the first time at Morimoto. Each dish was a revelation, an explosion of flavor and what made each course special was the presentation. The dishes they were served in were beautiful and different from each other, unique, works of art. The artfully designed food was almost jewel- like in appearance, a feast for the eyes as well as the taste buds. Each dish elicited ” oohs” and “aahs’. I wish I could describe how beautiful it looked but words fail me as does memory. ( This was, after all, several years ago.) There was also a “layering” of flavor such as I had never experienced before. Just as I thought, I knew what a morsel tasted like on the tongue, the taste buds detected another underlying flavor. ( Was  that a hint of yuzu? And that hint of sweetness…where did it come from?)The wait-staff was solicitous and efficient and we diners felt pampered. The first time is always the best but the second and third time were almost as good though the sense of expectation and wonder was somewhat dulled.

There were only two shortcomings to this luxe meal. One:  So many different flavors that, by the end of the meal, I was overwhelmed. Scant hours later, I did not have a clear idea of any of the dishes. I liked all of them but I could not tell you what they were. There were many different ingredients in each dish that I couldn’t tell you what they were without referring to the menu. Second: though there were many dishes in the multicourse meal, the quantities were small and at the end of the meal, even though I do not have a big appetite, I was not quite full…. which, when I consider how much it must have cost, was troubling. (Anticipating this problem, the host also ordered two dishes from the a la carte menu so that we did not feel peckish at the end of the meal).

My last words on tasting menus: They are an experience to be savored once or twice, if cost is no object, but they are not something I would enjoy regularly.

 

 

 

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Elmore Leonard offered a much quoted dictum about the use of exclamation points ( or exclamation marks) in his book  10 Rules of Writing : “ You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” For most of my life, I had no problem adhering to this rule because I rarely used a punctuation mark. It seemed artificial and I was well able to manage without it.

The purpose of an exclamation point is to ” indicate strong feelings or high volume” and it often marks the end of a sentence.  Initially used to convey joy, wonderment ( ” Eureka!”) or other positive feelings its use was later expanded to communicate  astonishment in a negative sense ( ” Alas!”). Since I never used such interjections, it was easy to avoid using the exclamation point.

All that changed with the advent of e-mails and, more particularly, text messaging. The use of exclamation points exploded and it is not unusual nowadays to see them used in bunches, three or four of them one after another. I must confess that I too am now an inveterate user of exclamation points in my text messages( though only one at a time) and, to a lesser extent, my e-mail.

Why this sudden change?

There are two reasons that are advanced to explain this phenomenon. Eliot Hannon writing in Slate calls exclamation points ” a tonic in the grayness of electronic communication.” He adds” the more insignificant the message, the more the exclamation points.”  Others have put forth the idea that exclamation points are a sign of ” the general exaggeration, aggressiveness and extremism of our culture.”

I subscribe to the first explanation. Often, after I have tapped out a text message and am reading it prior to sending it, I find it sounds abrupt and unfeeling, somehow incomplete. The solution: Add an exclamation point. A text message is not so much a written communication as a written conversation and, because it has to be brief, it is well nigh impossible to convey tone and emphasis without resorting to exclamation points. Twitter  demands even more brevity and Twitterers use exclamation points even more freely. I also suspect that many writers on social media are poor communicators and don’t have the language skills to convey what they want to say without devices such as exclamation points.

Not that Elmore Leonard followed his own rule. In his 45 novels, he used an average of 45 exclamation points per 100,000 words, about 16 times as many as he recommended.  However, he is still better than most others. Salman Rushdie used 204 ( per 100,000), Tom Wolfe  929 and James Joyce 1,105.*

Ultimately, it is up to individuals to use as few ( or as many) exclamation points as they want. Elmore Leonard notwithstanding, there are no hard and fast rules for the use of exclamation points. Let it also be said, however, that an abundance of exclamation points is visually unappealing and causes the discerning reader to have a poor opinion of the writer.

P.S I didn’t use a single exclamation point in this post ( except to give an example) and it wasn’t really difficult to do so.

  • Figures are from Nabakov’s Favorite Word Was Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers and Our Own Writing  by Ben Blatt.

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I am a little tired of hearing the adage” Money can’t buy happiness”. It’s true, of course, but the words are often conflated to mean many things that are not true. They do not imply, for instance, that money is bad. It’s true that having a lot of money can lead to selfishness and greed, but it is also true that having money is better than not having it. Very much so. And properly used, money can buy happiness. Consider the following findings, all the product of research studies:

  1. People who spend their money on experiences are happier than those who spend it on material things. Experiences can be re-lived over and over again ( even the bad ones if they are shared) but that new videogame, that dress or that curio soon loses its appeal.
  2. Social experiences bring more happiness than solitary ones. We enjoy an experience more when we do it in the company of others.
  3. Spending money on friends or family makes us happy because it brings us closer to them.
  4. Using money for good deeds also brings positive feelings and
  5. ( This one is my favorite insight). According to an article in Emotion magazine, the amount of cash in your checking account is a good indication of your happiness and satisfaction with life. Not your investments, income or net worth. Your Checking account. When I first read this, I was a skeptical. Isn’t the total amount of money you have the most important indicator of your well -being? A little thought soon set me straight. The cash in your checking account is what you can spend, what you will spend one day soon. Your investments and net worth, on the other hand, are good for your peace of mind, your security against a rainy day. You will probably never ” enjoy” that money.

    Simple when you think about it, isn’t it?

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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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We humans are intensely interested in what the future holds for us, particularly in how long we will live. Palmists, astrologers and others tout various ways of determining how many years we have ahead of us. Even though there is no scientific basis for such predictions, these forecasters thrive. There is one numerologist/ astrologist whose ubiquitous TV ads  claim that he has” half a million satisfied customers” in the U.S. I suppose that are always those who want to believe, who are desperate enough to think that someone can help them find what the future holds. As P.T. Barnum famously said,  ” There’s a sucker born every minute.”

As for myself, I remember what a friend of mine discovered when  he was working  temporarily as a morgue attendant. He knew a bit about palmistry and he ” read” the palms of several of the corpses, mainly those who had died young, in accidents. Many, many of them he told me had long tenar lines which are supposed to indicate the length of one’s life. And , yet, there they were in the morgue, well ahead of their time.

There is one story about the length of one’s life that I love. Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov ( 1698- 1760) taught that each of us is born with a fixed number of words to speak.  This number varies from person to person and, when we have spoken our allotted number of words, we die. The words we speak are up to us, the number is not. The moral of the story is that since we do not know how many words we have left, we should be sparing with them; that, whenever we are about to speak, we should stop and ask ourselves” Are these words worth dying for?”

This is, of course, a teaching story , one intended to make us careful with our words. I wish though that I could tell it to a couple of my long-winded friends and convince them that it was true. Wonder if it would have any effect.

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At the library, I came across a book with the arresting title “ Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate” by Brad Warner. How could I resist it ? I didn’t and it was an interesting read. One passage that I found particularly striking was this:

” Those who hope for purity and righteousness always try and destroy that which disturbs them. They think the disturbance comes from outside themselves. This is a serious problem. Wars, suicide bombings and all sorts of nasty things start from the premise that we can destroy ” evil’ outside ourselves without dealing with the evil within.”

How true. The example that leaps to mind is the societies of the Middle East where men try to avoid temptation by forcing women to cover themselves from head to toe. It is a custom that is doomed to fail. One Western visitor noticed that in Kabul, young men hang around hoping for a glimpse of an ankle as women raise their chadors or burqas  when stepping over a high roadside curb. Enough said.

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