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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 is enjoy 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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When I saw the book” Bamberger’s : New Jersey’s Greatest Store” by Michael J. Lisicky, I knew I had to read it. When my wife and I started married life in Edison, N.J in 1973, Bamberger’s at the nearby Menlo Park Mall was where we shopped. Bamberger’s and Alexander’s were the two bookends of that mall and we spent many hours there. Alexander’s was low-end, Bamberger’s the more classy.

Lisicky who has made a name for himself as a “department store historian”, perhaps the only one in the U.S, has written a fascinating book about a fast vanishing piece of Americana. His book details the history of Bamberger’s from the 1893 opening of its first store at the corner of Market St. and Liberty Street in Newark, through it’s early struggles, the dynamic enlightened leadership of Louis Bamberger, its 1929 sale to R.H. Macy’s, its subsequent spread all over the Garden State and its absorption into Macy’s. Along the way, the reader picks up some interesting tidbits such as the fact that New Jersey’s first escalator was installed in Bamberger’s Newark store way back in 1901. And that the radio station WOR first went on air in 1922 from that same Bamberger’s store.

Reading the book also made me aware of how many of our department stores have vanished. Some of them have been absorbed by others ( notably  by Macy’s) but most have closed their doors for ever. Nationally, the number of these vanished stores is in the hundreds, if not thousands. In New Jersey alone, the list is long  and makes for sad reading. Some of those that I have shopped in, and are now gone, are Alexander’s, S.Klein on the Square, Sterns, McGrory’s Two Guys, Ohrbach’s and Woolworths. Others that are still around but are hanging on by  a thread include Sears, KMart and JCPenney. How long before they too are gone?

In the past year, I think I have gone only twice to a department store, Macy’s, and it was a dispiriting experience each time. Where once the aisles were full with bustling crowds there were only a few desultory shoppers. Or were they merely lookers? Except during the Christmas shopping season, I can’t imagine that the picture changes much.

I suppose that with the rise of big-box stores such as Costco and BJ’s, of discount giants like Walmart and the increasing popularity of Amazon and on-line shopping, the demise of the department store is inevitable. It is so much easier to purchase things online and have them delivered at no extra cost ( thanks to Amazon Prime) than to brave the traffic and actually go to a brick-and- mortar department store.

I was never one to go a store unless I needed to buy something. I was never one for whom ” Shopping” was a hobby. Nor was I one for mall-walking, a popular pastime of retirees, particularly in winter. I also admit that it is much much easier to buy things from Amazon on-line. Still, I will be sorry when the last department store is no more. As it disappears forever, it will also take away a part of my past.

 

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Last night, my wife and I attended the Chinese New Year dinner at the clubhouse of our Active Adult community. I had been looking forward to this evening for quite some time, for two reasons. First, I am a glutton for Chinese food and am always ready for more. Second, I am very curious about the actual number of Chinese families in our development.  I personally know only two Chinese here, one with whom I play table tennis and another who is a member of our duplicate bridge group. Occasionally, I see two Asian couples when I am out walking but they could be Korean. I never see Chinese in the clubhouse at any of the many activities that are held there. Surely, there have to be more in a development of over a thousand households?

Well, the Chinese food was a huge disappointment. It was catered from a local Cantonese restaurant and was kept warm on steam tables. Chinese food, as all foodies know, has to be eaten piping hot; if re-heated, it is not the same. At last evening’s dinner, the fare consisted of soggy spring rolls( limit one per diner), vegetarian noodles , pepper steak, sweet and sour chicken, vegetarian fried rice and dumplings. Allegedly, there were also shrimp, but ours was the last table to be called and by the time we served ourselves the shrimp were all gone. About the overall quality of the food, let me say this: even if it had been served fresh and piping hot, it would have been at most mediocre.

However, the rest of the evening was  very enjoyable.  Those seated at our table included two of our neighbors, and  John and Ursula as well as a Chinese couple Ming and Mary who it turned out had been living on the next street over from us in Edison. Though we had lived in such close proximity for almost twenty years we met them for the first time only yesterday. From Mary we learnt that one of the traditions for Chinese New Year’s Eve is  Reunion Dinner when children visit their parents. It is a tradition that is carried on by Chinese- Americans too and thus there were only three Chinese couples at the dinner yesterday;  the rest were visiting their parents. Mary also told us that there were about 35 Chinese families in our development, many of whom had moved there recently. Consequently, there was no Chinese- American club though one was in the process of being formed. The dinner we attended was organized by the Home-owners Association of the development and this accounted for the disappointing food.

After the dinner, there was a short presentation by a Chinese gentleman about the meaning of Chinese New Year and the traditions associated with it. Some of it was new to me and all of it was interesting.

The Chinese New Year is based on a lunar calendar and always falls on a New Moon  day between January 21st and February 20th. 2017 is the year of the Rooster, the only bird in the Chinese zodiac. In addition to the aforementioned Reunion Dinner, New Year traditions include cleaning the house thoroughly ( to sweep away bad luck and usher in good fortune), wearing new clothes, decorating doors and windows with red-colored signs with wishes for good fortune, health, wealth and happiness, giving friends nd relatives gifts of money in red envelopes and lighting fire-crackers( colored red of course). The fire  crackers are intended to drive away evil spirits and red is a lucky color that signifies joy, truth, virtue and success.  The number 8 is considered lucky; monetary gifts therefore come in sums that include the number 8 e.g $ 8, $ 80 etc.

There are several food traditions associated with this auspicious occasion. Among the dishes traditionally served at the Reunion Dinners are Buddha’s Delight, dumplings, fish, and’ long life’ noodles. The dumplings are vaguely reminiscent of ingots of gold and silver, signifying prosperity, and the noodles are fabricated uncut to signify long life. The fish is never completely finished at this meal ; some of it is saved for use the next day to ask for the boon ” let there be more every year”.

All in all, it was a very nice evening and I will be there next year , particularly if the Chinese – American club is the one organizing it.

 

 

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Ichiran, a Japanese restaurant chain, opened its first New York City restaurant earlier this year and it is based on a very strange concept. About half its 82 seats are ” flavor concentration booths”, the rest regular group seating. These booths are like library carrels with dividers on either side and in front so that the diner is utterly alone. After filling out a menu with his choices, the diner pushes a call button. A”faceless server “then retrieves the menu -” faceless” because the booth is constructed with a movable shade to reveal only his/her torso – and delivers the order when it is ready. Throughout the entire meal, the diner never interacts with any other human, presumably so that he is free from distractions and can concentrate solely on the food. The average meal time (in Japan) is only about 20 minutes which makes for a quick turnaround and enables the restaurant to enhance  turnover.

But what does it do for the diner? I don’t know.

Forget about the supposed intent of enabling the diner to have a heightened dining experience because he is concentrating only on the food. Ichiran is a ramen restaurant serving only one kind of soup ( pork-bone-broth tonkotsu) though diners can customize their soup by specifying the richness of the broth  and the strength of the dashi. Ramen lovers may blanch at my assertion but… ramen is ramen. Dining at a ramen restaurant is like eating at a pizzeria or at a barbecue joint. A fine dining experience it is not.

Leave it to the Japanese to come up with a concept like this. There is much to admire about the Japanese but they have some strange quirks. Remember the tube like ” hotel rooms” that guests can crawl into  and sleep when they want an economical overnight stay. Just the thought of it gives me the willies.

While I agree that food is the main ingredient of the experience of dining out, it is not the only one. The total experience includes such things as the ambience, the table settings and the interaction with other diners and the restaurant staff. Without them, one might as well take out food and eat alone at home.

I wonder how long Ichiran will last in New York. New Yorkers are canny customers and I expect them to see through the gimmick very soon. No matter how good the ramen and the broth, there are plenty of other ramen restaurants in New York to choose from.

 

 

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Twelve years ago, when my son first started work, I was concerned about his diet and how he would find the time to cook for himself. Those first two years, he regularly put in 70 hours a week at the office, sometimes even 80 or 90. There was no time to do anything much else except sleep and commute. The company did provide meals at lunchtime ( all the better to keep workers at their desks) so lunch was no problem. The rest of the time he ordered take-out food. Not the best option because it is loaded with fat, salt and sugar but, at the time, almost the only option.

How things have changed over the past few years!

Now, there are a number of firms that deliver meal-kits, or meals in a box. These kits include exact portions of meat, fish, vegetables , sauces, spices etc. along with recipe cards that tell buyers just how to use them into a satisfying and healthy meal. Generally, there are two options: three dishes / week, each serving two persons or the family plan : two dishes, each serving four people. Among the companies selling meals in a box are Blue Apron (emphasis on easy, healthy recipes), Plated ( sustainable foods), Pete’s Paleo,  Peachdish ( Southern food), and Purple Carrot ( vegan). Subscribers sign up on-line and select recipes from about 6 to 8 options each week ; the cost works out to about $ 10/ serving, about a dollar less for the family plan. Certainly advantageous to these young people, both in terms of money and time. Since all the ingredients are premeasured and prepped, it takes only about 45 minutes to cook a meal.

Three of the biggest advantages are: 1) No need to spend time grocery shopping, 2) No danger of excess food spoiling in the refrigerator and 3) Portion control. Servings are about 800 calories apiece, plenty enough for a meal but not excessive. When one cooks from scratch, the tendency is to buy more than what one needs. Either the excess food goes to waste or you wind up cooking and eating too much.

There are several other advantages too.  These meals are far superior to take-out food, and easier than cooking from scratch. The ingredients are high quality and the detailed instructions that come with the recipes make it easy to put a meal together. There is a lot of variety;  many of the services guarantee that recipes will not be repeated for at least a year. Cooks can also alter the recipes to their liking, by adding a little of this or a little of that. And the recipe cards can also be a guide in the future when cooking from scratch. In fact, cooking with these meal-kits often leads to a revived interest in cooking.

Nothing is perfect , however and there are some drawbacks to these meal kits. There are a few, very few, mishaps with the shipping but they are not worth bothering about. A more serious problem is that cancellations or skipping a week’s delivery have to be done well in advance; usually a week, which is not always possible. Another, which will bother the socially responsible, is that there is a lot of packaging to be garbaged each week.

For those who cannot spare the time to cook, not even 45 minutes, there are services like Munchery which provides ready made meals at about the same cost. All that buyers have to do is reheat the delivered meal for about 10 minutes.

My son also told me about another service which makes it easy to host a party. All you have to do is to specify the kind of food you want ( Thai, Chinese, Italian etc.), and the number of people expected at the party. You put out the requirements on the internet and take bids on your smartphone. Once the price and menu are agreed upon, you can sit back and relax. On the appointed day, a chef turns up and prepares the food in your kitchen. Once again, the cost works out to less than you would spend at a restaurant. Two other advantages are that since you don’t have to cook, you can spend a relaxed evening  with guests, and there is much greater leeway in selecting the food.

Yes, things are much different now; I no longer worry about my son’s diet.

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I had written in my previous post about how meditati0n has become more and more popular in the West. However, I was still surprised by a (free) app called Insight Timer which my wife was turned on to by a friend. It contains a variety of meditations for different purposes ( sleeping, relaxation, eating etc.) some of which are just music, others just words and still others a combination of both words and music. Each meditation is timed and there are meditations of different lengths ranging from a few minutes to over half an hour. Many of them appear to have been composed by English people though there are quite a few by Americans. There are even some in languages other than English. What is also cool is that as you participate in one of these meditations you are made aware of the number of other souls from all over the world who are listening to that exact meditation at the same time. The number is usually in the thousands.

Not all the meditations are of great quality or , I should say, will necessarily appeal to everyone. Sometimes the music is too jangly. Other times, the volume of the music drowns out the speaker’s voice. But you will find something that appeals to you if you search the various choices available.

The one I like best is a sleeping meditation narrated by a woman. She has a very soft, gentle voice and uses words like ” calm”, ” relax”, ” let go”. It is a very effective meditation because I fall into a deep dreamless slumber within a few minutes. I have never yet heard the end of it because by that time I am fast asleep!

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In my previous post, I had mentioned how meditation has become almost mainstream in America. There are many courses that one can attend and a large number of people- both young and old- do. Recently, my wife even discovered a free app called Insight Timer which is  worth exploring. Using the app, one can try out any number of different meditations. The app allows one to explore meditations for stress reduction, for walking , for eating, for sleeping and for relaxation. Some are just music, others are verbal and still others a combination of music and words. They are in various languages, though the vast majority are in English. Surprisingly, many of them originate in England. An interesting feature is that as you are doing a particular meditation on the app, you can also see how many other people around the world are doing it at the same time . The numbers are usually in the thousands.

Not all the meditations will appeal to everyone and they are uneven in quality. Sometimes,  the music jarring is jarring; other times, the background music almost drowns out the words. At still other times, the voice does not appeal. However, there is enough choice some that are bound to appeal to you.

Personally, there is a sleeping meditation that I find very effective. It’s in a very soothing English voice and contains words like ” peaceful” , ” calm”, ” relax” etc. I know that it is very effective because I have never yet listened to the end of it _ I am fast asleep in minutes, well before the end. This particular meditation begins by cautioning people that they should not listen to it when they are driving…. definitely very good advice !!

 

 

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