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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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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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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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