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(In a previous post, I had written how Denmark is judged one of the happiest countries in the world, year after year. Last year, in 2016, it was the happiest and this year , in 2017, it is third. I also mentioned  Hygge,( pronounced Hue-gah), the term that Danes use to describe their happy state of mind. It is a word that has no exact equivalent in the English language though ” cozy” comes closest. Hygge is best described in terms of examples: Sitting before a roaring fireplace while it snows outside. Curling up with a good book . Having dinner with family and friends. Enjoying coffee and cake with a loved one).

A Danish friend wrote to tell me of hyggelistic parties for example, a big birthday bash  in a rented hotel ballroom, where one is served the exact same food ( soup, pork roast and ice dessert) to be  enjoyed in the company of the same group of friends as the previous year. The prospect gave me pause. While I understand the comfort that one feels in the familiar, the prospect of attending such parties is not one that appeals to me. No matter how enjoyable an experience, it is not one I care to repeat ad infinitum.

Some thoughts on the subject …

In the nineteen seventies, time-shares were very popular in the U.S. For what seemed a bargain amount, families could spend a week (or two) at their choice of dream destinations. Hawaii, San Diego, Jamaica, Puerto Rico or wherever. However, the prospect of  staying  in the same furnished condo at the same time every year was one that never appealed to us. Why would we want to tie ourselves down, vacation wise, to the same place again and again when they were so many different destinations that we wanted to visit ? ( The time share companies did allow customers to trade their slots with other customers but it was a hassle and the transfer fees were not cheap). We never went in for a time share  and many of our friends who did later regretted their decision. The only  one who didn’t was a chap who lived  in Los Angeles and who purchased a time share at a resort very close to his home. The time share included use of the gym facilities year round  and he was able to enjoy them at less than it would have cost him to join a gym. Besides, during those two weeks every year, he was able to put up friends who were visiting Los Angeles if he didn’t have place for them at home. Smart.

Another example: We used to attend a community picnic at a nearby park on the first Saturday in August. We did it for perhaps fifteen years but each year it became less and less a pleasure. The same people, the same conversations, the same food. It soon began to pall. The picnic still is held in the same place every August but we haven’t been there for the last twenty years.

When it comes to restaurants, one very soon develops a list of favorites that one goes to again and again but even here we take care never to order the same dishes every time. Some of the dishes we order are tried and true favorites but each time we make sure to try something new. If it’s a flop, we won’t order it again but if it’s good it is added to our list of favorites. The same goes for the dinner parties we have at our home. Neither the menu nor the guest list is ever exactly the same.

Coziness is fine, familiarity is good… but, in my case,only up to a point.  After a while, the prospect of the new eclipses the charm of the tried and true. How is it with you?

 

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Remember Sidney Poitier? The groundbreaking black actor who won an Oscar for Best actor for his role in the 1968 film ” Lilies of the Field” ?  He was handsome, charismatic, polished and urbane, effortlessly projecting an air of refinement and class. I recently read that, until he was ten years old, he never saw his face in a mirror, never knew what he looked like. His parents were Bahamian tomato farmers who had traveled to Miami to sell their crop when his mother went into premature labor. Sidney was born and immediately became an American citizen. He spent the first ten years of his life on Cat Island in the Bahamas, a sun-drenched Caribbean paradise without glass doors, windows or storefronts. Without man-made reflections, young Sidney had no idea what he looked like.

This anecdote started me thinking….

We look at ourselves in the mirror daily, many times daily. We know exactly what we look like or, at least, what we think we look like. We are familiar with our facial features even if we subconsciously alter our perceptions and think ourselves younger and better looking than we really are.

How do we appear to others? People meeting us for the first time assess us, our character, our personality by what they see in our faces. Their first impressions, based on their reading of our faces are, more often than not, correct and are borne out by continued interactions.

In fact, there are face-readers who claim to see our past, even our future from what they see on our visages. They are to be found mostly in India and China and usually combine face reading with palmistry and astrology. Now I can understand that they can read our past based on face-reading, the experiences of the past may have left their mark on our faces, but how can they possible foretell the future? I never believed this possible until the amazing experience of a friend of mine. My engineering colleague “Albert”, unhappy with his future prospects, decided to sign a three year contract to work in Saudi Arabia and make some real money. However, before he signed on the dotted line he decided to consult a face reader and I went with him to New York’s Chinatown. The face reader was an elderly man, poorly clad and unprepossessing, who had set up shop on the pavement. I was unimpressed by him and felt he was a charlatan. He looked long and carefully at Albert’s face before making his prediction; Albert translated his words for me as we walked back to the office. Apparently, after correctly telling Albert about some incidents that had already happened, the man said flatly that Albert would not be going to Saudi Arabia, that he would remain in New York for the  forseeable future. Albert was unconvinced and decided to go head with his plans. What next happened is still difficult for me to believe. That very night Albert got a call from Taiwan telling him that his father was desperately ill and was not expected to survive. Al immediately took compassionate leave and flew back to be at his father’s bedside. He remained there for the next three weeks as his father made a miraculous recovery but in that time Albert’s window to sign the contract expired. Just as the face reader had predicted, Al stayed on in New York for several years more.

We ordinary folk can’t be face readers, at least in the sense that we cannot predict the future. However, it may be instructive for us  to take a closer look at ourselves in the mirror. Tomorrow, when you look in the mirror, look a little deeper. Not just whether your hair is combed or if your lipstick is on just right. Look deeper, at the person behind the mask, under the skin. What do you see? What do you think others will see?

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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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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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The King is back! Roger Federer wins the Australian Open ( and his 18th Grand Slam) in epic fashion over his arch rival Rafael Nadal!

Who would have thought it ? Even his legion of supporters , of whom I am one, could not have hoped for such a fairytale ending. Last year at Wimbledon, when Roger made his improbable run into the semi-finals and came a cropper against Milos Raonic we all thought that was it: that there would be no more Grand Slams and that it would be his last hurrah before he rode off into the sunset. Instead, at age thirty-five, coming back from a six month layoff caused by injury, five years after his last Grand Slam win the Fed pulled off a remarkable triumph.

When the Open began, I thought , as most fans did, that Federer would win a couple of matches and then lose to one of the higher seeded players. Knowing how short of match practice he was, I didn’t think he stood a chance against younger, fitter players who could wear him down in a five set match. His first two matches, both against qualifiers, didn’t really prove anything but his three set demolition of 10th seeded Thomas Berdych, a player who had beaten him in the past, was food for thought. Against the fifth seeded Kei Nishikori, a tenacious returner, I thought he would finally hit the wall. Not only did Federer win, he seemed fresher than the younger Nishikori towards the end of the five -set match. By this time , of course, Djokovich and Murray had already departed and when the Fed outclassed Mischa Zverev in straight sets, I began to hope. When he defeated old friend and compatriot Stan Wawrinka, I began to root for Dimitrov to beat Nadal because I thought Roger had a better chance against him than Rafa. Didn’t happen, as Rafa prevailed in 5 sets. Could Roger pull it off ? The odds seemed against it as Rafa has had his number in recent years.

As Derek Cahill, one of the on-air commentators at the Open advised Federer fans, ” Relax and enjoy the match, if you can.” Luckily for me, I was watching the final in the U.S and knew the result even before the telecast began. I don’t think I could have been able to stand the tension of watching it live. As it was, I could watch the match secure in the knowledge that Federer had won. I was therefore able to relax and appreciate the amazing display that both men put on.

What a wonderful match! Unbelievable that two players in their thirties, both returning from injuries, could play a five set match at such a high level. There is no need for me to re-hash the match, shot by shot, game by game. If you didn’t watch it, you missed a historic match.

When Nadal broke Federer at the beginning of the fifth set and went on to take a 3-1 lead, I thought it was all over. All of us Federer fans gave up hope and even his wife watching the match courtside seemed to do so. What followed will be the stuff of legend. Federer seemed to shift to a higher gear, broke Nadal twice and reeled off five straight games to win the set  and the match. The shots that Nadal ran down earlier in the match , he was now unable to get to.  Gallantly as Nadal played ( he saved nine break points in the fifth set), he had no answer for Federer’s sublime shot making. Once again, we were able to savor those flowing backhand cross courts, so smooth, so seemingly effortless and yet so deadly. Simply beautiful to watch!

The presentation ceremony carried on where the match left off. How fitting that the legendary ” Rocket” Rod Laver was on hand to present the trophies. Nadal made a very gracious speech, as did Federer. How different from the chest thumping that one marks the NFL or the NBA. A great ending to a magnificent match, a wonderful day of tennis.

With this victory, Roger Federer pulled ahead of Rafael Nadal, 18 Grand Slams to 14, but I don’t think this is the end of the race.  Nadal has to be the favorite to win the French in May  and that will get him to within three of Roger. He is five years younger than Roger and , at 30, he still has three or so good years left in him. If he is able to stay injury free, there is no reason why he cannot challenge Roger’s total of eighteen Grand Slams. Whatever happens, happens. I leave it others to argue over who is the Greatest Of All Time. For me, because of the beauty of his game as much for his stellar career, Roger Federer will always be Number 1.

 

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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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