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“They Say” that the French are small minded xenophobes who hate those who don’t speak French, that they are stingy and ungrateful and altogether despicable.

Scene I.  It is 1977 and my wife and I are in Paris on a vacation. We are in a Metro station trying to figure out the ticket vending machine and we are failing badly. Next to us is an elderly Frenchwoman, a grandmotherly type in a shapeless dress, who has no such problems. Hesitantly, I approach her, a French banknote in hand and, in my broken French, explain my problem. She responds in rapid fire French which of course I don’t understand. Shaking her head, she reaches into her copious handbag, pulls out some coins and feeds them into the vending machine. It spits out two tickets which she hands over to me. I am grateful and extend the banknote to her in payment. At least I try to. She waves me away, as if offended, and scurries away. I follow her trying to get her take the money but she is adamant. Mind you this is not a rich woman. From her appearance, she appears to be an old age pensioner. Yet, she helps out a stranger with her hard earned money. Forty years later, I am still humbled by her gesture.

“They say” that New Yorkers are the worst. That they are rude, obnoxious and heartless with no time for anyone but themselves.

Scene 2. A packed E train during the morning rush hour. People are packed in like sardines. Suddenly, a childish voice pipes up. “Mommy, I HAVE to go.” It is a five year old boy, his face scrunched up in discomfort. His mother shushes him, saying “One moment.” She pulls out a half full bottle of water, quickly gulps it down. She unzips his pants and holds the bottle while he does his business shielding him from the public gaze. Not that she needs to. The people next to them look away and give them privacy. The child finishes his business, the mother zips him up and caps the bottle. Another passenger hands her a tissue to wipe her hands and yet another gives her a plastic bag to put the bottle in. All this without a word being exchanged except for murmured “Thank you’s” and “You’re Welcome.”

What did I tell you about New Yorkers…

“They say” that the poor are lazy bums who prefer to walk the streets rather than do an honest day’s work. That most of them are alcoholics or drug addicts in search of their next fix, their next drink.

Scene 3. (The Final Scene). Circa 1982. Late evening. A woman in a NYC apartment receives a phone call. A male voice she does not recognize asks, “Is this JoAnne?” Hesitantly, she replies,“ Yes. Who is this?” The man continues, “Listen. You simply have to make up with Bill.  If you don’t, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. He truly loves you.” Mystified, and a little angry, she demands” Who IS this? Are you one of Bill’s friends? Did he put you up to this because he didn’t have the guts to call himself?” The man doesn’t answer the question but continues to plead Bill’s case saying she will never find anyone else so well suited to her, who loves her so much. By now, Joanne has had it. She snaps, “If you don’t tell me who you are … right now… I am going to hang up.” At this, the man comes clean. He is a homeless man who had been rooting through a dumpster looking for food when  he came across a bundle of love letters that Bill had written to Joanne and which she had thrown away when they broke up. What is remarkable is what this man says next. He says “ I would have called sooner but I didn’t have the money for the phone call.” Imagine that. This homeless man who didn’t know where his next meal was coming from was willing to spend his last dime to help a stranger.

So this is what I think …

Generalizations are wrong. People are individuals first and last. Fifteen year old Anne Frank wrote in her diary,” I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.”

Can we believe any different?

( The first story happened to my wife and me as described. The second is a recent one from the N.Y. Times; so is the third, dimly remembered from almost forty years ago.)

 

 

 

 

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When it comes to the division of labor between married couples, the task of cooking almost always falls to the lot of the wife. With rare exceptions, it is she who is the better cook and, besides, ” it’s in her job description”. Men, when they do cook, only do so occasionally to provide much needed relief from the daily grind of planning and preparing meals. It is only summer barbecues that are their domain.

Retirement brings big changes. After 40 or more years of cooking daily meals, women are understandably tired, and bored.  Cooking for just two seems an unnecessary burden. So much easier to eat out. Many of the couples in our Active Adult community do just that, eating out almost every day. Not my wife and me. While we do eat out more often than we used to, we still eat at home (or at friend’s homes) 90% of the time. Eating out is great, but not on a regular basis. Nothing to beat home-cooked food.

It helps that we both like to cook. My wife is an excellent cook in many different cuisines and I am not bad though my repertoire is more limited and I have to have a recipe to refer to. Since I don’t cook as much, I’ve never developed the familiarity with dishes that women cooks or housewives do. I mostly cook Chinese, Thai and other Asian dishes and always like to try out different things. In the kitchen nowadays , my wife and I have become an effective team. I do the  prepping -washing, paring, cutting and chopping; she does all the cooking. In other words, I am the garde manger, she is the chef. It works out well though there are still some problems.

The biggest is cooking for just two people. We get around that by cooking for four and freezing the leftovers for another meal. However, when it comes to cooking Chinese or Thai food, that is not an option because the food has to be eaten piping hot and immediately; it just does not taste the same when reheated. Also, when one cooks in small quantities, the specialty ingredients are used up at a very slow rate  and remain in the pantry for ever. Sauces and bottled ingredients have to be refrigerated and that too is a problem now that we have only one refrigerator. There is just not enough space to save condiments and sauces that are used only rarely. Right now,I have a bottle of fish sauce and another of shrimp paste that I will have to junk because they are well past their use-by date.

Having friends over for dinner has its own set of problems. People have all sorts of restrictions on what they can eat and the list seems to grow longer and longer. It used to be that people were either vegetarians or non -vegetarians. Now there are sub-divisions in both categories.  I have non-vegetarian friends who will eat only chicken, others who eat only shrimp and fish. Furthermore, as people age, they develop allergies to certain foods and they also give up other foods voluntarily. Some vegetarian friends are allergic to green peppers and cabbage, others do not like yoghurt and still others have to stay away from cloves. It’s difficult to keep all this in mind when putting together a guest list. Consequently, we usually have potluck dinners to cope with this problem.

Because of all these obstacles I have not been cooking much myself.  In the last three months, I think I have cooked Chinese food perhaps four times. Not nearly enough. I find myself chafing at the bit to start up again. Once in a while, I want to be the chef, not the prep cook.  I think I’ve hit upon a plan to resolve the problem of cooking cuisines with specialty ingredients. One part of the plan is to cook those cuisines which do require few such ingredients. Greek and Turkish food comes readily to mind and, with spring around the corner, they are ideal for the season. The second part of my plan is to concentrate on one cuisine at a time so that I can use up the ingredients required for it in several dishes spread over a month. Less demand on storage space and no wastage.

This has an additional benefit.Recently, our go -to Japanese restaurant closed down without warning when the owners decided to return to Japan. The other neighborhood Japanese restaurant that we like is too expensive. How great would it be to cook Japanese at home ! Not sushi or sashimi, of course but dishes like oyako- donburi, pork tonkatsu, miso chicken thighs with a side of tiger salad ( scallions& cilantro salad with  ponzu dressing) or shoyu-ramen. I can hardly wait !

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Notice I said Souper Bowl, not Super Bowl.

Each year, in spring, the Women’s Club at our Active Adult community organizes three or four Souper Bowls to raise funds for charity.  For an eight dollar donation, members and their guests who sign up enjoy salad , bread and butter and desserts. My wife and I had heard of these events for the past four years but had never experienced one until last week, the last such event for this year.

The event was  to begin at 12:30 and we were there a few minutes earlier , only to find that almost every seat was taken. These events are [popular! Luckily, my wife and I and two of our friends found seats together in a corner of the Grand Ballroom where the Souper Bowl was being held. As first time attendees, we were entitled to receive bowls     (repeat guests bring their own), so we picked them up and got back to the table. By that time, the salad bowl at the center of the table was sadly depleted as the ‘early birds’ had been busy. We did manage to get some salad though and it was very good. Nothing fancy; just iceberg lettuce, olives, cranraisins, some slivers of onion and tomato wedges lightly bathed in a vinaigrette. The whole, however, was more than the sum of its parts as the vinaigrette had been dispensed with a master’s touch. The salad bowl was re-filled soon after but the new batch was not near as good. We barely had time to taste the salad and tear off a hunk of bread to eat with a dab of butter when the soups made their appearance. Volunteers had donated  large tureen of their specialties which were carried in and placed on the serving tables at one end of the room. The volunteer cooks then stood proudly behind their creations ready to dish them out. Their were five different soups: chicken soup ( two kinds), minestrone , bean and ( for the vegetarians) lentil soup. Since there were 10 tables with 150 diners in all, we were summoned by table number and to my surprise and delight, our table was the first one to be called. Both my wife and I had the chicken soup but hers was decidedly better. It had been made by a Puerto Rican friend of ours  and it was rich with chicken cubes, a variety of vegetables, noodles  and herbs . Full of sabor. My own was a regulation tomato based variant, thicker and heartier but not as flavorful. I should have taken the minestrone.

The soup was the main item but there were plenty of others. Some local businesses had donated their products: three kinds of pasta, cookies, pastries and bagels. As if this was not enough, one of our members was celebrating his 75th birthday and there were two huge cakes to celebrate the milestone. I had a slice of each  and they were both very good.  I really shouldn’t have but , what can I say… the flesh is weak.

As good as the food was, the most enjoyable part of the afternoon was sitting with a bunch of people whom we did not know earlier and being able to chat with them. In such situations, once the ice is broken there are plenty of things to talk about. The lady next to me had been a teacher in Queens and she was perfectly familiar with Indian names and the Indian- American community. Next to her was a lady who had taught in Edison N.J for many years and had lived there for almost 40 years as we too had done. It turned out that our houses had been within a mile of each other. A third lady, another teacher, happened to have a niece in the U.S Foreign Service and we were able to exchange experiences with each other since our daughter too is a diplomat. We were strangers when we sat down but friends by the time the Souper Bowl was over.

Next year, you can bet we will be attending the Souper Bowl again, perhaps more than once. Not only that, but we’ll be there early to get that yummy salad and, knowing what we do now, I’ll be more expert in picking my soup.

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This past Sunday, I went to the St. Patrick’s Day party at the clubhouse in our Active Adult community and got to be an Irishman for a day. It was great fun and I had a wonderful time.

St. Paddy’s is one of the most popular parties and the Grand Ballroom was packed with one hundred and fifty celebrants seated at tables of ten people each. Most of the attendees were ” temporary” Irishmen like myself but you couldn’t tell by looking at them. Everyone was wearing green: green hats, green vests,  green dresses etc. At the table next to us was a man with a green hat with tiny green lights that blinked on and off. At the same table was a woman, probably his wife, whose earrings also had similar green lights. Green klieg lights focused on the ceiling and walls turned everything green; the Auld Sod itself could not have been any greener. After an hour of socializing, liberally greased by wine and spirits ( It was a BYOB event), dinner was announced. As our table numbers were announced, we trooped into a nearby room and partook of the sumptuous buffet. The fare consisted of corned beef and cabbage, fried chicken, roast salmon, carrots, potatoes, pasta primavera, salad, bread and soda bread. Because there were servers and because there were four lines, service was a snap and we were tucking into our food scant minutes after we had been called to the buffet. The corned beef and cabbage was very good and my wife told me the salmon was excellent. The food was hearty and fulfilling; I did not feel the need to go back for seconds. Dinner finished, we sat back to listen to the live five – man orchestra as they played a series of Irish favorites. There was ” When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”, “Abie’s Irish Rose”, ” It’s a Long Long way to Tipperary”, ” Danny Boy” , ” A Bicycle Built for Two” and others I didn’t know. There was also a whiskey drinking song of which I only caught the chorus” ….. Whisky in a Jar’. The music really livened up the party as people really got into it, singing along and keeping time. And, of course, they were dancing. What fun to see every one happy and having a good time. The piece de resistance of the evening was  a hefty blonde haired woman, who marched in playing the  bagpipes and performed several numbers that were enthusiastically received. Towards the end of her performance, partygoers were invited to march with her. As she played yet another favorite, a conga line formed up behind her and they all sashayed round the room in a miniature St. Patrick’s Day parade.  There is something plaintive yet appealing about the sound of bagpipes that makes listeners sentimental. And so it was with us as we watched and listened and sang along.  The final number , in which the band joined in and everyone stood, was America the Beautiful , a fitting end to a most enjoyable evening. BTW, before you ask” Aren’t bagpipes Scottish rather than Irish?, let me repeat what we were all told ” The Irish invented bagpipes, the Scottish perfected them”. So, there.

The Irish are my favorite ethnic group. I get along with everyone but with Irish better than the others. My feelings are no doubt highly colored that for 22 years my boss was an Irish American who took me under his wing and is one of the finest people I know. But it is more than that. I find the Irish highly sentimental, poetic, literate and emotional, less driven and more interested in the finer things of life. Yet, as each St. Patrick’s Day celebration proves, they know how to have a good time. I’ll sign up for the 2019 party as soon as the flyers are out and , next year, I’ll be wearing a green hat too. Perhaps one with blinking green lights.

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Last November, we were in Henderson, Nevada for a wedding. We stayed with a close family friend and one of the pleasures each morning was reading the newspaper, an actual printed newspaper. I get the digital version of the New York Times at home and it is great but, as I realized in Henderson, there is something to be said for the “real” thing, something you can hold in your hands and turn the pages. I love the digitized version of the Times but it has its drawbacks. One of them: you very soon fall into the habit of skimming , reading only the highlights or the headlines. Very rarely do I bother to turn to the sections and read the lesser stories.

When I started reading the Las Vegas Review Journal, I found myself reverting to my earlier habits. I skimmed it from the first page to the last and found myself reading not just the news but the columns and the restaurant reviews and doing the crossword puzzle. Almost immediately, however, I found myself puzzled. The Review Journal is a conservative paper with a conservative platform but I found the inner pages to be decidedly liberal, often taking positions contradicting those on the front pages. Then, I noticed that the inside of the newspaper was titled The Las Vegas Sun. I checked with my host and found that what I was reading was actually two newspapers in one. Back in 2005, the Review Journal and the Sun signed a joint operating agreement and the Sun became a section of ( and an insert in) the Review Journal. The two continued to have independent staffs and operated their own websites.  In doing so, they both saved a bundle in operating and distribution costs and have managed to stay afloat even in these days of declining newspaper readership.

What I find amazing is that the two newspapers have managed to preserve their independence despite being joined at the hip. They had been battering each other for over 50 years and have continued to do so, often attacking each others positions on the issues of the day. Even after the Review Journal was bought by the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, the Sun has been able to maintain its independence thanks to the joint operating agreement. (It must be an ironclad one!) The Review Journal meanwhile has seen increasing interference from Adelson with several news-stories pertaining to the casino industry having been killed or changed on an almost daily basis.

For readers though, this unique two in one newspaper is a boon. The Sun would definitely not been able to survive on its own and even the Review Journal would have been under financial pressure. The other advantage is that readers get to know both sides of the issue, an important benefit for all but those at the far ends of the political spectrum. Readers like myself who are closer to the middle can pick and choose what they want to read and thus obtain a more balanced viewpoint on the issues. I just wish that it were possible for those who rely on TV for news. Fox News is so far apart from almost everyone else that viewers who watch it  are in a world of their own.

To get back to the Las Vegas newspapers: In addition to the contrasting viewpoints, it was great to see a daily bridge column, an advice column by Ann Landers and two different crossword puzzles. The one in the Review Journal was more difficult than the Sun but both were doable for one with my limited skills. Too bad I can’t have those with the Times but I do have two New York Times books of Sunday puzzles which will keep me occupied until the end of the year.

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I write a feature called Your Turn for our community newsletter in which I ask fellow residents their opinion on a topic of general interest. A couple of months ago, the topic was ” Which do you like better… Hamburgers or hot dogs?” As you might expect, the answers were varied and interesting and were split down the middle.

One of those responses was from Tom ( not his real name). He said he preferred hamburgers and told me how he liked them cooked. Then he added” What I really love are venison burgers. I hunt in season and when I bag a deer, I field dress it and grind up the meat to make burgers. Because deer forage for themselves and are constantly on the move, the meat is very lean, so I add a little chopped bacon to the mix to make the burgers moist.” His response was freely volunteered. I took down his words verbatim and readied my article. One day before the issue was sent to the printers, I got a somewhat panicky call from him asking me to delete that part of the interview. He was concerned , he said, that his friends might find his hunting activities objectionable and give him grief about them. I thought of telling him that he was worrying too much, but then decided against it. I didn’t want to talk him into something he wasn’t comfortable with.

I admit that, many years ago, I would have been upset with Tom because he hunted. That is not true any more. I myself have never hunted, never wanted to and never will but I recognize that hunting is a necessary evil. In today’s environment, deer have no natural enemies and their population would increase exponentially if unchecked. I read about an estate owner in France who was staunchly opposed to hunting and posted her fenced in property to forbid it. The deer herds on her grounds quickly  grew unmanageable, ate up all the shrubbery and even the leaves of trees as high as they could reach. Soon, they were starving and the local government tried to get her to allow them to thin the herds on humanitarian grounds. She refused, even when the deer began dying of starvation. Only when she herself died were the local authorities able to bring in professional hunters to cull the herd.

Shooting wild creatures, particularly lovable ones like deer, seems cruel but consider the alternative. As areas get built up. deer habitats get more and more tenuous. In the suburban area where I live, deer are constantly getting hit by automobiles. Almost on a daily basis, I see deer carcasses lying by the roadside and it gives me a pang each time. And what of the deer who manage to avoid being hit by a car? What happens to them? Well, in winter they die of cold and starvation. We don’t see this happen and aren’t aware of it, don’t think about it. Much as we might like to deny it, being a prey of hunters is a better alternative.

This is not to say that I fully endorse hunting and hunters. I have nothing but contempt for those who kill wantonly, for the sake of killing. Back in the late 1800’s, a titled Englishman undertook a train journey across the Great Plains. In the rear of the train was a open sided car which served as his shooting platform. With him was a man servant whose duty it was to re-load and pass the guns to him. In the space of about two months, this sub-human POS shot over 7,000 animals, mostly bison, leaving them to rot where they fell. No condemnation can be too strong for him or for those buffalo hunters who shot bison mainly to harvest their tongues which were considered a delicacy.

I draw the line too at those big game hunters who kill elephants for their tusks or those who hunt rhinos for their horns because powdered rhino horn is considered an aphrodisiac. Nor do I care for those trophy hunters, ” sportsmen” who hunt game on fenced in ranchlands in Texas and elsewhere.

The hunters I respect are those who hunt for food, who follow the rules and who do not kill indiscriminately. Good examples of such hunters are the Lapps for whom reindeer are a large part of their diet, Eskimo seal hunters and the Native Americans who used to hunt buffalo. All of them, after they had downed their prey, said a prayer for the soul of the departed animal and thanked it for its sacrifice. This may sound corny , even silly to some of you but, in acting as they did, these hunters exhibited a reverence for life and Nature that is sadly lacking today.

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Chance Encounter

Last week, I was at the lab for a (routine) blood test. There were several people ahead of me; there was a 20 minute wait. I was sitting in the waiting room, listening with half an ear to the TV.  It showed a number of ads for medical treatments and I didn’t really pay attention until the guy sitting across from me said” That’s what I have.”

I looked at him as he jerked a thumb at the TV and continued, ” Rheumatoid arthritis. That’s what I have.” Perhaps my incomprehension showed on my face or perhaps he just wanted to unburden himself, because it all came pouring out.

” Every two weeks I gotta get my meds otherwise the pain is more than I can bear. It costs me $ 386 each time but, luckily, the insurance takes care of it. Then , because the medications are so strong, every four weeks I’ve gotta have a blood test to make sure there ain’t no side effects.”

I really felt for the guy as I wondered how he managed. Since I felt some response was expected of me, I shook my head in commiseration and asked him how long he had had this condition. ” John”( not his real name) then proceeded to tell me his life story.

He has been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at 21, but it was only after the age of 32 that the disease really worsened. He was now 57 and he had been on medications for 25 years. Without them, he said, he would have to just lie in bed because the pain was too intense. The meds caused their own problems; after taking them he was unable to do much for the next couple of hours. He was on partial disability and he worked part time as a landscape architect. Luckily, he said his boss was understanding and allowed him to set his own schedules , within reason. After the blood test, John said he would be going to work. Since his condition prevented him from driving, he would have to take a Uber to the office. All of this was said in a matter-of-fact voice. He wasn’t looking for sympathy, just making a statement of fact.

I just sat there, wondering at the hand that a cruel fate had dealt him. I didn’t want to ask any questions because that would have been intrusive and besides, I really didn’t want to hear more. What would be the point? Just then, my name was called. I wished John well and went in for my blood test but I kept thinking about him for the rest of the day.

It is a very human tendency to compare oneself to those who are better off , and then to feel bad about what we don’t have. Perhaps it is better to compare oneself to those who are less fortunate and be happy for what we do have.

 

 

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