"In this sticky web that we're all in, behaving decently is no small task." -- Novelist Stacey D'Erasmo

Sunday, February 26, 2017

My Mom's Cooking

     Those who pay close attention to my blog -- and, honestly, there's no reason why you should -- may have noticed that I have made several snide, and sometimes downright critical, remarks about my mother's cooking. My mother was a very nice woman, not an evil bone in her body, and I would never want to insult her. But let's face it, she wasn't much of a cook.

     But then, my mother was Irish. And as I've heard it said, there's Italian food, and Jewish cooking and French cuisine. But there is no such thing as Irish cuisine. Not unless your definition of cuisine begins and ends with potatoes.

     Another issue: my mother liked to drink tea. She put milk in her tea. I guess she learned that from her parents. The Irish and the English put milk in their tea. (Hey, the English aren't known for their cooking, either). I could never warm up to tea, until finally, sometime in my mid-40s, I discovered you are allowed to drink tea without milk. And I found out ... it's pretty good!

Dinner's ready!
     To be fair, my mom would occasionally boil up some corned beef. But a salad was no more than a lump of lettuce. And her vegetables were overcooked, and soggy and limp, and often cold by the time they hit the plate.

     She also made spaghetti. But remember, she was Irish, not Italian, so the pasta was limp and the sauce pretty bland. Then there was Friday. For us it was reheated-in-the-frying-pan frozen scallops, or reheated-in-the-frying-pan frozen fish sticks. Take your pick.

     I remember when I went away to college. All the other kids complained about the food in the cafeteria. But, for me, that stuff was great! There was a nice variety; it tasted good, and the food that was supposed to be hot was actually hot!

     The irony is that my mother was not  particularly a fan of potatoes. It was my father who insisted that a meal was not a meal unless there were some kind of potatoes on the plate. Baked, boiled, mashed, roasted, scalloped, French fried, au gratin, it didn't matter. And my father had not one drop of Irish blood in his veins.

     But my parents often went against stereotype. I mean my mother, the Catholic, married a non-practicing Protestant back in 1939. That in itself was a pretty radical move. They couldn't get married in the church; they had to take their vows in some room off to the side of the vestibule, while my mother's parents scowled at my dad and his heathen immigrant family.

     My Catholic mother was also not particularly interested in having a lot of children. It was my dad's idea to produce a crowd of kids who would run around the house, make a lot of noise and tear up the furniture.

     My mother was not much of a housekeeper, either. It was my dad who was neat and organized and at times even fussy. He was the dishwasher in the family. And my mother ... okay, she did like to shop, but she wasn't a clotheshorse, by any means. It was my dad who always wore a suit and tie, usually with a vest and watch fob strung across his stomach, and gleaming oxford shoes shined by yours truly at ten cents a piece.

     But then, B and I don't necessarily fit the stereotype, either. She's usually the one who's ready on time when we're going out, while I'm running around the house turning out lights, checking to make sure the stove is off, and grabbing a last-minute sweater in case it gets cold. And when it comes to negotiating to buy a house or a car, or even just at a tag sale, I'm the one who blusters and postures about what a great deal I'm going to make. But she's the one who always gets the better price, with a smile, a shake of the head, and an eye-popping lowball offer.

     But some things remain the same. B is the cook -- although she is actually good at it, despite the fact that her background is English and German. She does great fish, meat, pasta; her vegetables are fresh and firm; her salads are full of interesting things, and best of all, she has nothing against dessert.

     And then there's something else, something I learned from my dad. I'm the dishwasher in the family.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Question of the Day

     B and I have had several discussions about this topic, but we have not come up with any convincing answers. Maybe you can do better.

     The question is: If everything is so terrible, why are things so good?

     Donald Trump has taken over the presidential reins, and he has seemed to make nothing but enemies, both for himself and the country. His approval rating by some accounts is below 40%.

     The president of Mexico refused to meet with Trump because of what he considers to be rude, aggressive and boorish statements Trump has made about the country and its people.

     The Canadians are appalled at Trump's refugees policy. The Germans are worried about Trump slapping on tariffs as well as his seemingly close relationship to Vladimir Putin. Europeans in general think that Trump is rude and boorish, that he is self-centered and only cares about money, that he is uncultured, racist and sexist.

     In just one article on Sunday's New York Times our president was described as laughable, terrible, deluded, petulant, vulgar, boastful, narcissistic, and spectacularly wrong -- a freak who screams, hurls insults, makes fictitious claims, flings lies, colludes with the Russians, hallucinates, suffers meltdowns, and who is in "palpable trouble."

     Meanwhile, other newspapers have questioned Trump's sanity and reported on whispers of impeachment -- all in just a month or so since he's taken the job!

     A lot of Americans feel the same way. There were large crowds of women who descended on Washington, as well as multiple other cities, the day after the inauguration to protest what they perceived as Trump's assault on women's issues. Protests have sprung up in American streets and airports over the issue of immigration.

     As the Washington Post sums up: "We've seen an immigration order stopped in its tracks by a federal court, a national security adviser resign amid questions about his contact with Russia, several contentious confirmation battles in the Senate and a sudden reversal in Trump's approach to China. And there's more -- don't forget Trump's Supreme Court nomination, his awkward phone calls with world leaders, escalating criticism of the media, or persistent, evidence-free claims of voter fraud during the election."

     And yet . . . if everything is going to hell in a handbasket in Washington, then why is the American stock market at all-time highs, signaling a more robust economy than we've seen in years? It's easy to say the stock market is controlled by the one percenters on Wall Street -- except in large part the stock markets are not controlled by Wall Street financiers, but by the people running pension funds for teachers, firefighters and other state employees, by nonprofit organizations and university endowment funds, and by the millions of people who invest in IRAs and other retirement accounts -- all of whom presumably see a bright future ahead of us, either despite or because of Trump.

     Meanwhile, the unemployment rate is just 4.8%, the lowest in years. And consumer confidence, which measures how regular consumers feel about the economy in general as well as their own personal financial situation, hit its best rate in December in 15 years.

     Now I realize that a political situation is not the same as the economic situation. Look at the Chinese, for example, who suffer from an authoritarian government yet enjoy increasing economic prosperity. But are there any countries that suffer domestic turbulence and social dissolution that also enjoy record-high consumer confidence and a growing economy?

     Something is wrong here. Either consumers and investors are living in fantasyland, or political commentators in the newspapers, on facebook and all around our communities are the ones who are deluded and spectacularly wrong.

     I realize that not everyone is anti-Trump. Maybe some people rail against Trump's personality and some of his policies, but really agree with him on a number of issues -- or they think the political issues don't really touch them on a personal level. Or maybe Trump's critics just don't "get" what he's doing and they're suffering from hysteria. But it seems like the country is split in two -- and Trump supporters do not comprise the larger part.

     I don't know. I can't explain it. Just seems like a curious situation to me.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Into the Wild

     Over the weekend we attended SEWE (pronounced see-wee), the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, held every year in Charleston in late winter, although with temperatures in the 70s it feels like late spring to me.

Cooking demonstration
     The city's Gaillard Auditorium is filled with booths and tables selling and promoting all kinds of hunting and fishing gear, as well as outdoor-themed clothes and artwork. The art center exhibits wildlife paintings and photographs. Marion Square features bird and reptile exhibitions, cooking demonstrations, music, food, handmade crafts and locally grown products.

Young owl
     I confess I am not a hunter. The last time I shot a gun was when I was about 14 and visited my uncle up in rural Connecticut. The last time I went fishing was with my son when he was about six years old. And the last time I went camping was with a girlfriend in 1973. But I am an armchair environmentalist, and so SEWE is a fun thing to do . . . although I do wonder: Is it possible to be an environmentalist and then go out and shoot wild animals to death? Well, that's a question best left to people smarter than I am.

Three-year-old American alligator

    Anyway, another venue over by the Ashley river offers more food, more music, plus flyfishing and gun dog demonstrations. But the capstone event, for me, is the dockdog competition.

The dog is launched
     Any breed can be entered. Each dog gets two tries. And the winner is the dog who jumps the farthest off the dock.

Going for it
     Each handler gets one minute to set the dog, throw the shuttle and have his dog leave the platform.

Soaring over Charleston

     They mark the distance at the point the base of the dog's tail hits the water. Most of the dogs jump 14 to 19 feet. A few jump over 20 feet. And the winner of the event I saw landed at some 28 feet off the board. That's one giant leap for dogkind!

Flying high

     And just so you know I am indeed in the south, here is proof:

Bluegrass music

     And if you're still not convinced, here is proof positive:
Certified Southern fare

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

City by the Bay

     Not that bay. Charleston bay.

     We are visiting Charleston, SC, as snowbirds. We are also meeting up with friends and family -- not native South Carolinians, but transplants from the Northeast who are living here now.

     Charleston is a mid-size coastal city which is growing very quickly ... and has lots of traffic. It is known especially for its role in American history. The city was invaded and held by the British for two and a half years during the Revolutionary War. South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union and of course, as everyone knows, Charleston is home to Fort Sumter, where the first shot of the Civil War was fired.

     Charleston even played a tangential role in the two World Wars: A German submarine was discovered outside Charleston bay during World War I, and today its harbor provides the final berth for the USS Yorktown, an aircraft carrier that served in the Pacific during World War II.

USS Yorktown

     The USS Yorktown was named after the 1781 Battle of Yorktown, which effectively ended the American Revolution -- and resulted in the British moving out of Charleston. I didn't know this, but during the Revolution the British offered American slaves their freedom if they would turn against their owners. When the war ended, thousands of black slaves clamored aboard British ships as they left the Carolina shores. Some were brought to Canada, some were carried back to England, and others transported to Sierra Leone and Liberia in Africa.

View of Charleston skyline from Fort Sumter

     Speaking of slavery, we took a trip out to Fort Sumter -- only to find out that the very first shots fired in the Civil War were not at Fort Sumter. They actually occurred three months before.

     South Carolina seceded in December 1860, after Lincoln was elected, and demanded that federal troops turn over Fort Sumter. After they refused James Buchanan, who was still president, sent a merchant ship called Star of the West to resupply the U.S. troops. When the ship arrived in January, Confederate cadets fired from the mainland, hit the ship three times, and forced the supply vessel to abandon its mission.

Gun emplacement in Fort Sumter

     It was on April 12, 1861, after Lincoln took office, when the war began for real. Gen. P. T. G. Beauregard ordered his batteries to shell Fort Sumter, which was commanded by Gen. Robert Anderson, who once had been Beauregard's artillery teacher at West Point. The bombardment continued for 34 hours until Anderson surrendered, and the Confederates took over the fort, allowing the U. S. soldiers to be transported to a Union ship and taken to New York.

     Eventually, Union forces returned to Charleston and reduced the fort to a pile of rubble; but the Confederate army held the fort until the conclusion of the war.

The crowd on King St.
     We also visited a former slave market (now a museum), an art gallery, the College of Charleston, and then participated in Second Sunday, which has no historical significance whatsoever. But Second Sunday does have significant commercial value as King Street is closed to traffic, stores stay open, and local restaurants set up tents and tables out on the sidewalk.

Dogs allowed

      Did I mention that Charleston is a dog friendly town? Many of the shoppers brought their dogs as they promenaded up and down King Street.

Barbershop quartet

     There's also entertainment from barbershop to bluegrass, as well as face painting, free giveaways and some sidewalk sales.

Local bluegrass band

     But no matter where you go in Charleston, you're never far away from the modern symbol of the city -- the Ravenel Bridge, opened in 2005 to ease traffic to the suburb of Mount Pleasant and then parts north.

Ravenel Bridge, from the Fort Sumter ferry


Sunday, February 12, 2017

Living the Good Life

     This morning I read one of those aol stories (doncha hate aol?) that offers ten ways to look younger than you really are.

     Get plenty of sleep . . . check.

     Avoid stress . . . check.

     Get plenty of exercise . . . hmmm, maybe.

     Engage in enough sex . . . not tellin'.

     Don't consume too much sugar . . . darn!

     But it seems that living a longer, healthier life is on the minds of more than the headline writers at aol who can be counted on to overpromise and underdeliver. It's on the minds of thoughtful, substantive Baby Boomer bloggers as well.

     Carol Cassara of Heart, Mind, Soul shows us how to succeed with the latest healthy eating and detox plan. So run over to her blog to read about How to Succeed on the Whole 30, a regimen that eliminates dairy, grains and sugar from your diet -- but apparently allows potatoes, chicken, fish, bison meat and (like every other healthy diet) all the vegetables you can eat.

     And for a checkup of your mental health, you might take a quick look at Who You Are which suggests that who we really are may not be who we imagine we are.

     Another person concerned with mental health is Laura Lee Carter, who in The Lives of Frontier Women and Me wonders about relocation in retirement. The pioneers, she points out, were often going west in order to try to find themselves, or else to try to lose themselves. Sometimes, in retirement, aren't we doing pretty much the same thing?

Living La Pura Vida
     Meanwhile, Meryl Baer and her husband are off on a trip to the land of Pura Vida, or Costa Rica. While her travels, as detailed in her post Exploring the Country of La Pura Vida, might produce enough stress to drive you to an early grave, the concept of Pura Vida, which tells us to take it easy and enjoy ourselves, definitely sounds like a recipe for a long and happy life.

     Rita Robison takes on the negative health effects of violence in the media. In case you missed it, go to Superbowl 2017: Ads Mostly Unremarkable but Violence Takes a New Turn to see her examples: a man gets slapped when he tries to grab a sandwich, people destroy a restaurant in a brawl, aging bikers get in a fight, and a T Mobile ad makes a joke of violence against women.

     I think we can all agree that violence plays no part in a long and healthy life. And so also stay tuned for Robison's upcoming analysis of the current Oscar nominated movies for violence, ageism and sexism.

     Finally, Kathy Gottberg in Happy Relationships Are Key to Positive Aging reports that she and her husband are experimenting with their diets by lowering their consumption of wheat and sugar. In the process she has discovered that one of the great gifts of a good long-term relationship is its positive impact in the areas of life satisfaction and well-being. But don't necessarily believe her, or me. She points to studies showing that happy, connected people have stronger immune systems, better heart function and longer lives, regardless of baseline fitness or other life circumstances.

     But for all of us, no matter what our diets or relationships, no matter how much or little we have in life, maybe we can realize that we are all here together, and life is short, so we can start living it "pura vida" style.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Champagne Problems

     Did you ever hear a person complain about some issue in their life, and think to yourself: Boy, I wish I had that problem?

     That's a champagne problem, a term I ran across in a recent book (although I can't remember which one . . . perhaps in a senior moment, which may in itself be a champagne problem).

     The urban dictionary defines a champagne problem as a "trivial middle-class grievance," or a problem that is insignificant compared to the issues of poverty, racism and natural disaster, yet a problem that needs to be addressed nevertheless.

     For example, maybe you sold your house, or received a windfall of some kind, and you have a lot of money. But what do you do with it? You can put it in the bank and get virtually no interest, or you can invest in the stock market at all-time highs and risk losing some of it. A champagne problem. But a problem nonetheless.

     Or, another way to put it, it's a problem where you have to make a decision, and either way the outcome is positive. The kid who gets in to both Stanford and UC Berkeley. Tough decision; but you know the kid is going to be fine either way.

     It's the opposite of a Sophie's choice, where you're between a rock and a hard place (from the William Styron book in which Sophie had to choose between her children). And it's different from a Hobson's choice, where you're forced to take it or leave it (from Thomas Hobson who ran a stable in England and offered customers the choice of taking the horse in the stall nearest the door or taking none at all).

     Actually, there's a 2016 Meghan Trainor song Champagne Problems that  details some of these issues -- ones perhaps suffered more by Millennials than people our age, like the wi-fi doesn't work, the Uber is late and the iPhone dies.

     So where am I going with this? I got champagne problems.

     I went to Florida to get warm for a while. The weather was beautiful. But B couldn't come with me, so I was left on my own. A champagne problem.

     I did meet up with a friend of mine one day, and we played golf. But I played horribly and lost $2. Another champagne problem.

     Now I've traveled up to South Carolina and met up with B. Oh boy, it was great to see her! But yesterday the temperature was in the 40s, and ... we're freezing! Another champagne problem, although it's supposed to be back up in the 70s by Tuesday.

     My other problem: I hurt my knee playing pickleball when I was in Florida. (Don't know pickleball? It's the latest game for seniors, kind of a cross between tennis and Ping Pong -- but that's a subject for another post). So I've been hobbling around for the past week, gobbling Advil during the day and icing my knee at night. A problem, for sure. But it is getting better, and I'm hoping it's good enough by Wednesday so B and I can go dancing. And compared to a lot of people my age who have heart problems or who have had to deal with cancer or diabetes or some other serious condition, my sore knee is nothing but another champagne problem.

     So the temperature here is forecast to reach into the high 60s this afternoon. Do we go to the beach, or not?

     May all the issues in your life not be a Sophie's choice or a Hobson's choice, but simply . . . a champagne problem.