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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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If a picture is worth a thousand words, the book 100 Photographs : The Most Influential Images of Our Time is worth more than a hundred thousand. A Time publication, it offers readers a valuable retrospective of our lives and times. Many of the photographs we have seen before; I myself recall seeing at least 80 of them at one time or another and being deeply impressed by them. You too will remember many, if not most, of them.

The format of the book is simple. The photographs are on the right hand pages and opposite each, on the left hand page, is a description of the circumstances in which it was taken, its historical significance and its back story. While the photographs are rivetting, the stories behind them  are no less interesting. This is a book to be read, not merely looked at.

The photographs themselves are divided into three broad categories _ Icons, Evidence and Innovation. Under Icons, there are such memorable images as ” Lunch Atop a Skyscraper”. It shows 11 construction workers casually eating lunch or reading newspapers while perched on the narrow beam of a skyscraper under construction, their legs dangling over 800 feet of air. Just looking at the photo gives me vertigo. Other photos in this category include Winston Churchill’s portrait by Karsh of Ottawa, Betty Grable’s saucy pinup pose which gladdened the hearts of GIs during WWII, Flag Raising on Iwo Jima and Babe Ruth’s farewell appearance at Yankee Stadium. Under Evidence, we have searing images such as Burning Monk ( the self immolation of a Buddhist Monk protesting the Vietnam war), Jewish Boy surrenders in Warsaw, Saigon Execution and A Man on the Moon. Some of these in Somalia, Biafra, Iran, Vietnam and Iraq are so disturbing that I had to quickly turn the page. In the last category, Innovation, there are pictures of Salvador Dali’s hijinks, an X-Ray of the Hand of Mrs. William Rontgen, the First Cell Phone picture and the Oscars selfie. While I understand the iconic nature of the photographs in this section, I found them less compelling than the others.

All hundred photos though are ” important”, chronicling as they do important moments in the human experience. The photographers who took them constitute a virtual Who’s Who of photography. They include Margaret Bourke White, Robert Capa, Karsh of Ottawa, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Dorothea Lange, Alfred Stieglitz, Richard Avedon and Edward Steichen.

The book is notable not only for the photographs but for their back stories and the feelings and emotions that they evoke. For instance, ” Country Doctor” shows Dr. Ernest Ceriani of Kremmling, CO walking home through a weed strewn lot after a hard day of home visits.  Looking at the stark photograph, you can see how bone-tired the doctor is, sense his dedication and innate goodness. You know that no matter how exhausted he is, he will be making his rounds again tomorrow. This is a man who loves what he does; he is not in it for the money.” VJ Day in Times Square” shows a sailor who has grabbed a nurse, bending her back and planting a passionate kiss on her lips. The moment captures perfectly the sense of exuberance and relief that the war was at long last over.

Sometimes the descriptions correct long held impressions. ” Saigon Execution” shows the South Vietnamese chief of police firing a bullet through the head of a bound prisoner. The photo symbolized the brutality of war and galvanized American public opinion against the Vietnam war. What I did not know, and what the book reveals, was that the prisoner was the leader of a terrorist squad that that had just killed the family of one of the police chief’s friends. This is not to excuse the chief’s action but it provides the context for it.

Sometimes, my feelings were at variance with widely held views. One such photograph is ” Muhammed Ali vs. Sonny Liston” It shows the 23-year old Ali towering over Liston whom he has just kayoed and taunting him ” Get up and fight, sucker”. As the write-up explains, the ” perfectly composed image captures Ali radiating the strength and poetic brashness that made him the nation’s most beloved and reviled athlete”. True enough, but what I also remember is that there have been persistent rumors that the fight was fixed, that Liston played dead after a phantom blow to the chin. To my mind, the photo also captures Ali’s arrogance and the cruelty he displayed particularly in a later fight with Ernie Terrell.

This book will evoke myriad emotions in its readers… nostalgia, exhilaration, pity, fear, awe, anger, loathing  and disgust. But above all, it will arouse  a feeling of wonder at the vagaries of human behavior.

You can see the entire project at http://www.TIME.com/100photos.

 

 

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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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I am not a fan of tomato ketchup. Some brands are better than others but many have a tinny after-taste which I dislike . Trouble is, I can’t remember which are good and which are not. At one time, there was also catsup ( Hunts, I think) but I haven’t seen it in recent years. I used to think catsup tasted different ( and better) but perhaps it was just my imagination and because I liked the word ” catsup” better than ” ketchup”. The ingredients  of both are very similar though some claim that catsup is tangier.

Perhaps my aversion to ketchup is conditioned by the fact that I was brought up on fruit ketchup. In India, tomatoes were relatively expensive and food companies substituted them with cheaper ingredients like bananas or even pumpkin. ” Tomato” was dropped from the product designation and the bottles were labeled just” Ketchup” or , sometimes, ” Fruit Ketchup”. Growing up in India, this is what we had most of the time  and this became the standard. Not surprisingly, it was sweeter than regular ketchup and this accounts for my bias. Fruit Ketchup is also manufactured in other Asian countries, notably the Philippines. One of the popular brands, Jufran, is available at Asian stores in the U.S. Check it out.

A Washington D.C company , Chups, makes fruit ketchup in 6 different flavors ( cranberry, mango, peach plum, blueberry and spicy pineapple) and adventurous home cooks make it in flavors such as tomatillo and sweet cherry. Another company, Blackberry Patch, makes ketchup in three flavors… raspberry Chipotle, Blueberry and Blackberry. These artisanal products sound intriguing but they don’t interest me … they seem far removed from ketchup.

Ketchup has been steadily losing ground in the U.S  because of  demographic shifts. Americans, particularly those on the coasts and the big urban centers, have developed a taste for spicier condiments and about 15 years ago, salsa overtook ketchup both in sales and popularity. Of course, a major reason is that salsa is a dip that goes very well with tortilla chips, a popular munchie at parties. I like salsa but prefer the homemade kind to the bottled variety.

My preferred condiment is hot sauce. I started out with Tabasco and Red Devil but found that their acidity overwhelmed the dishes that I was adding them to. I switched to Asian hot sauces such as Chili paste with garlic, and Sambal Oelek. They were fine but , once I discovered Sriracha, there was no going back. Sriracha has a more rounded taste and it complements whatever it is eaten with. It is amazing to think that the Sriracha company was only founded in 1987 by a Vietnamese immigrant to the U.S. So popular is it that it’s name has become synonymous with hot sauce just as Xerox was once with copiers. Of course, success breeds copycats and competition. Since the name” Sriracha” cannot be copyrighted ( it’s the name of a town in Thailand), Sriracha has spawned a host of imitators, including Texas Pete and Badia. Many of these are quite different and inferior in taste to the original. I make it a point to always buy the original products which can be distinguished by the Rooster logo.

Recently, I was surprised and delighted to find squeeze bottles of Sriracha Hot Chili sauce Ketchup at my local supermarket and it has since become my condiment of choice. I still use the hot sauce regularly but, when I want ketchup, I use the Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce Ketchup. It’s excellent.

Just as Sriracha has expanded into the ketchup business, Heinz has gotten into the hot sauce genre. The company not one but four entries in this category.. Hot Pepper Chili sauce, Sriracha ketchup, Jalapeno Ketchup and Balsamic vinegar ketchup.

I guess turnabout is fair play.

 

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When well meaning friends call us from the West Coast in winter, they often ask how we are managing, how we are holding on. Accustomed to balmy weather year round, they are perturbed when they see temperatures in New Jersey hovering in the teens and twenties. Actually, it is not at all bad and there are pleasures to be had here which people in warmer climes never experience.

It is a misconception to think that winter temperatures in New Jersey are low all the time. As I write, it is 59 deg. F ; tomorrow it will be 74 deg F. Last week we had six inches of snow and the temperature hovered around freezing ( 32 degrees F) for several days . Back in January, it even went as low as 8 degrees F. That was an anomaly and I think the average winter temperature is probably in the high thirties or low forties. The other saving grace is that the sun is out much of the time, unlike Northern Europe where it disappears for weeks on end and the winter skies are gray most of the time.

No matter how cold it is outside, the house is well insulated and, if we dress sensibly, winter is no hardship. This is particularly true for retirees like us who do not have to go out unless they want to. The snow removal crews in our Active Adult community are very efficient and the snow gets removed promptly.

” What are these winter pleasures?” you ask. Well here are some of them…

Winter foods: In winter, we cook differently, the emphasis being on piping hot soups and hearty stews and casseroles. The slow cooker comes into its own now and it is wonderful to pop the ingredients in, cook them long and slow overnight and wake up next morning with lunch already done. There is a certain ” rightness” to sitting down to a meal of Slow Baked Macaroni and Cheese or Corned Beef , Cabbage and Carrots or Pork and Celery Stew. These dishes taste especially good when it is cold and snowing outside; they just don’t taste as good in hot weather.

The fireplace: Unlike the fireplace in our old house which required real or faux wood, our new fireplace is gas fired. So what if it isn’t authentic; it heats up quickly and disseminates the warmth efficiently. Every now and then, I love to get up from the recliner and toast myself on both sides by standing close to it. What bliss !

Snug as a bug in a rug: describes how I feel at night under the down comforter. In winter, I am comfortable all night and drop off to a dreamless sleep in minutes. Not at all like  summer when, in spite of the A/C, it feels stuffy in the middle of the night and I wake up. This usually happens at around 3 am, too early to get out of bed and, yet, difficult to get back to sleep.

Watching it snow: It’s so wonderful to sit at the window and watch the snow come down knowing that one doesn’t have to go out. There is a magic in watching the snowflakes fall, accumulate slowly on the grass, the road and the roofs of the houses opposite. With fewer people up and about, everything is shrouded in a silence that makes you feel as if you are in a cocoon, warm, comfortable and relaxed. With hardly anyone about, it feels like a still life, pristine and serene in its snow white purity.

Reading: I always love to read but, in winter, there is a special charm in curling up with a good book. With few other options, there is much more time to read and that’s all good.

This is not to say that I like everything about winter. Among the things I don’t like:

Black ice: When a thin film of ice forms on the road surface or driveway, it makes for treacherous footing and can result in falls. Extended periods when the sun is hidden from view: Luckily this happens seldom, perhaps three times in a winter. Early sunsets: which means that it gets dark as early as 4 pm in late December. Luckily, the days lengthen pretty quickly and by late January it is light until past 5.

Karen, a friend of ours, says that winter is her favorite season. When it snows she loves to put on her snow boots and go for a walk. I don’t love winter that much but I do like it and wouldn’t want to miss out on it. There is a certain rhythm to the changing of the seasons; it would be boring if it was ” perfect” all the time.

 

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Going All In

( As poker players know, ” Going all in” means betting everything you have on a single pot. In the larger sense, it means giving it all you have and not holding anything back, of risking everything and not keeping anything in reserve).

A couple of Sundays ago, my wife and I went to the Villagers Theater in the Franklin Park Municipal complex to watch ” Altar Boyz”. It is an off-Broadway musical that ran for over 2,000 performances ending in 2010 and is now playing the small town circuit. It’s about a touring Catholic boy-band that is out to save the lost souls in the audience, one soul at a time, and has catchy music and spectacular dancing. We enjoyed it thoroughly.

But this post is not about the musical itself. It’s about the five dancer-actors who play the members of the band ( Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan and Abraham). They are all young guys in their twenties or early thirties and it is apparent that acting is their life. While on stage, they show such verve and enthusiasm and are so fully in their roles that it is beautiful to watch. I looked at their bio-data and it was impressive. All of them have spent years honing their craft, singing, dancing and acting in a number of plays  at community theaters, Knights of Columbus Halls, YMCAs and other small town venues. Typically, such productions pay performers very little and , out of curiosity, I tried to figure out how much they could possibly be earning.

The Villagers Theater is larger than it appears from the outside. It seats about 240. For Sunday’s performance it was almost full. Say 220 viewers. The performance was to benefit charity, so tickets were only $ 15. Normally they are $ 22 apiece ( $ 20 for seniors).  At $ 15 per ticket, the total gate comes to about $ 3,300. In addition to the five actors, there were five musicians and three production staff… a total of 13 people to be paid. After deducting expenses, it is doubtful that each performer got much more than $ 150. Considering that these productions are limited engagements, I don’t think the actors could be earning more than $25,000 a year each. Even if they make it all the way to Broadway later in their careers ( very inlikely), they will never strike it rich. Yet, in spite of the meager pay, the  poor prospects, they persist in their craft, giving it everything they have.

I mentioned this to my wife as we were driving back and she had a different perspective. She felt that the actors were doing what they wanted to do, enjoying every moment they spent on the stage or even in rehearsals. She went on to say that they were living their lives fully, in a way that the rest of us cannot even imagine.

She has a point but I also know that I could not do what they are doing, even had I the talent. Most of us are like that, conditioned to think of  steady employment,  a good career, security. I am too but I respect those young men and I admire them. I admire them deeply.

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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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