Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Dinner at Fawlty Towers

My pasta con sarde is legendary, at least among those fortunate enough to have partaken of it, due in no small part to the effort that goes into its preparation and the superb quality of the ingredients I use, which is why what happened tonight was so appalling.

I sautéed the garlic and mushrooms, while slicing a red onion and green peppers to add to the pan. I sprinkled the mixture with an array of spices and added condiments, including wild fennel, black current, sunflower oil, and salted sardines puree. Next came the cooked shrimp and skinless, boneless sardines, and let’s not forget, the anchovies. Now, it was time to boil a pot of water and add the flax seed enhanced wheat pasta. I opened the carton and, as the stick-like pasta slid into the pot, several black specks rode with them.

The specks, upon closer inspection, were moving, perhaps not wishing to continue the wild water ride that ended in a boiling pot. They skirted and danced along my stove. I stopped them before they reached the larger pot containing my pasta con sarde, sans pasta, and dumped the uncooked pasta into the trash. I let the remaining mixture simmer, like my anger, and headed to the grocery store where I had purchased the suspect carton three days earlier.

I sidestepped the line at the customer service desk and asked the young girl manning it to call the store manager over. Not wanting to trouble the store manager to deal with trivial inconveniences like customers, she instead asked if she could assist me. Noting the ire of the customers waiting in line, who now feared I had cut ahead of them, I replied no, she could continue to sell lottery tickets and cigarettes – which is most of the service provided at this particular customer service desk – and if I had wanted to speak to her, I would have waited my turn in line. You see, bugs don’t respect the boundaries of cardboard containers, and if they are inside one, they are likely inside several, if not all of the other boxes on the shelf. Several bugs escaped from the box as I was speaking, flitting across the customer service desk. An infestation of insects in food products is a public health issue that should be brought to the store manager’s immediate attention, at least, in my opinion. “I’ll tell my manager” doesn't cut it. No, I’ll tell your manager.  

She paged her manager, while I tried to regain my appetite for the pasta con sarde for which I had slaved over a hot stove minutes earlier. A bimbo in the line gave me a puzzled look and asked me if I had checked the expiration date on the box. In my best John Cleese impression, I turned the pasta box sideways, put on my reading glasses, and exclaimed, “Ah, of course! It says so right here. Use within three days after purchase or contents will turn into small insects.”

Not a single Basil Fawlty fan in the crowd. And yes, it’s a true story.  

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Validation: It’s Not Just for Parking Tickets

I was reading an aspiring writer’s profile when I was struck by the answer she had given to the question of why she wished to join a critique group. It was a mere one-word response, yet it struck me as incredibly profound; so much so, I imagined a light bulb appeared above my head announcing my epiphany.

Her stated reason for joining: validation. Although she believed her writing to be good, she sought the consensus of others to reaffirm that belief.

No matter how much we hold ourselves in high esteem, self doubt lingers. Even when we know how good we are, we require the validation of others to make it real. Recall Sally Fields’ earnestly modest 1984 Oscar acceptance speech: “You like me; you really liked me.”

It occurred to me, everyone needs validation. We need it from another person – a lover, a friend, an employer. We need it from society. And it finally explains why people post all those inane or pithy posts on Facebook and wait for the “likes” or comments to appear underneath: they need, and receive, validation online via the Internet.

Feel free to validate below.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Independence Day: Patriotism vs. Plutocracy

Reprinting this often requested Independence Day post:

On this day commemorating the founding of our republic, it is appropriate to take a moment from our barbecues and fireworks displays and reflect on the state of our country and our society. Recently, the Supreme Court, in the Citizens United case, which allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts backing political campaigns and spurred the development of superPACs, effectively ruled money equivalent to speech. But speech can take many forms, and depending on the nature of that speech, past courts have found it necessary and indeed advisable to place certain limits on it. There is a distinction between information and political propaganda (misinformation and lies). When massive amounts of money are spent to distribute misinformation to an uneducated, and frankly, ignorant populace, the result is not democracy but aristocracy. Our society had devolved into a citizenry so poorly educated that when surveyed 40% of it thought the Civil War preceded the Revolutionary War, it knows more about the Kardashians than the Kennedys, and is composed of "low information voters" who make decisions based on snippets and soundbites instead of researching and learning about the important issues of the day. The plutocrats are now spending untold millions on such snippets and soundbites to misinform and misguide poorly informed voters.

There has been an enormous transfer of wealth in American society, from the middle and upper-middle classes to the highest stratum of the upper class, on a scale not seen since the Gilded Age. But what the plutocratic billionaires have yet to realize is, once they have filled their coffers to the brim by draining the financial blood from the rest of society, there will be no one left to afford to purchase their goods and services, and their financial empires will crumble. They seek a return to 19th century economics, when the plutocracy grew rich through a cheap labor supply and a growing nation of consumers to purchase the goods they manufactured. But long before America outsourced its jobs, it outsourced its manufacturing base to Japan,  Korea, and China. America is no longer a manufacturing nation; it is a consumer-based nation, and the consumers - whose jobs have been shipped overseas or made obsolete by technology we embraced too rapidly without regard to consequence, whose wages have fallen, whose benefits have been cut, and whose incomes have failed to keep pace with greed-driven inflation - can no longer afford to consume.

The plutocrats distract the masses with high tech toys, reality TV shows, and political kabuki theater. The Romans had a name for that: bread and circuses. Give the peons enough food and entertainment and they will shift their attention from what goes on behind the curtain by those who govern them.

Did you know that the gulf state of Qatar provides each of its 250,000 citizens with free cradle-to-grave healthcare and public education? All without taxing its citizens. Of course, they can afford to do this because they are an oil-rich nation and they have made trillions of dollars selling that oil to America. We Americans are subsidizing free healthcare and education, not for ourselves, but for the Arabs. Why? Because we continue to cling to an outmoded mode of transportation - the automobile powered by the internal combustion engine, devised in 1806. We could put a man on the moon, but not devise a better transportation system (for example, like the high-speed rail systems of Europe and Japan)? Of course we could. But there are plutocrats whose fortunes are maintained through the oil and automotive industries, providing them a strong disincentive to change the status quo. We need to replace the automobile industry, which is based on a centuries-old technology, pollutes, has created massive sprawl, and ties us to oil, a commodity controlled by our enemies. The only ones benefiting from it are the oil companies and the car manufacturers.

The same is true of pharmaceutical companies, who have the same strong disincentive to devote their research and development budgets to curing diseases, when it is far more lucrative for them to create pills that merely treat diseases. Better to have a perpetual market for their product than to harness their collective scientific brainpower to eradicate disease and eliminate the need for their wares.

Our country is in trouble and needs leaders. Instead, we are presented with buffoons: Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry... the list goes on, ad nauseam. Where are the men of the caliber of Harry Truman, Jack Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, LBJ, FDR, Hubert Humphrey, let alone men like Lincoln, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, or John Jay. The current contenders have made a mockery of the presidency, just as jurists like Clarence Thomas sitting on the court where John Marshall, Hugo Black, and William Brennan once sat is farcical. Need I comment on the pathetic state of Congress, with its 9% public approval rating, as it fills its chambers with Tea Party nutcases like Rand Paul and Allen West? When Chris Wallace, of partisan Fox News, asked Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell one simple question: "You insist on repealing Obamacare - if you repeal it, what will you and the Republicans do to insure the 30 million uninsured Americans who will get insurance under Obamacare?" He answered: "That is not the issue." Wrong answer, Senator Bozo. That's precisely the issue. You've shown you and your clown party don't have answers, just partisan lies and attacks.

The only solution is to work to replace these people, who have slipped into leadership positions of our government, with qualified, responsible, progressive reformers. This entails recruiting such individuals and financially backing them so they can be elected. It also requires those of us who are educated to speak out - publicly, loudly, and often - to debunk the misinformation and lies spread by the plutocrats and their lackeys.

JFK summed it up best in his inaugural address (condensed): "The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe: the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God...Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans - born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. ...We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty...United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do, for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder...If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich... So let us begin anew, remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us... And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

The world is very different from the one into which we were born. We have the means to abolish human poverty, yet instead allow our country's great wealth to sit in the hands of less than 1% of its population. Perhaps the new generation of Americans, born in this 21st century can reverse this trend, provide our country with world class health care, education, and public transportation, and restore the liberties stolen from us by the Bush Administration under the guise of protecting us. Perhaps they will produce leaders who, unlike our current congressmen and candidates, realize civility is not a sign of weakness and cooperation, negotiation, and compromise are far from anathema to the proper functioning of government. Perhaps, but I doubt it. As Lincoln said, "A house divided cannot stand." I have been amazed to see so many of my poorer friends reach out to help others in need, while many of my wealthiest friends are quick to adopt an Ayn Rand attitude of every man for himself. The solution to our nation's ills will only come when the plutocrats and those still reasonably well-off join with their less fortunate brethren and ask, as did JFK, not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country and their fellow citizens.

Happy Birthday, America. Enjoy your Fourth of July fireworks and barbecues. They fiddled while Rome burned, too.