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Karen’s pound cake

In Lifestyle on July 30, 2013 at 4:13 pm

A forgotten can of pilfered government pound cake and a supper of goi cuon awakens bittersweet memories.

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I noticed the muddy “engineer” boots as I turned the chain adjuster on my motorcycle a few more clicks. They were a square-toed, heavy heeled style, with big metal rings joining heavy leather straps at the ankles. The muddy ones now before me belonged to ‘Marvin’, one of our merry band of high school enduro and motocross fanatics.

“Gavin’s home.”

I nodded and smiled broadly. Gavin was about three years older than me. He had left for the army after a local judge recommended he do so “…as soon as possible.”

“Holy shit. That’s great.” I stood up and wiped my greasy hands on slightly filthier jeans.

Marvin had picked up a screwdriver from my tool bag and began using it to scrape the mud from his boots.

“He’s married too. The dumb fuck. Brought back a woman from over there. His dad’s really pissed. She’s Catholic and fuckin’ Vietnamish.”

“Oh fuck. You’re kidding.” I didn’t know what religion Gavin’s people held with. I was fairly certain they weren’t ‘cat lickers’. They were probably one of the few descendants within Michigan’s old French-Canadian families that wasn’t. They sure as shit were not “Vietnam-ish”.

I frowned at Marvin’s revelation and at his use of my best screwdriver as a mud removal tool.

“You met her?”

“Yeah. She seems nice. But, jay-zus aitch Key-ryst, she barely speaks English and squats instead of sitting in a chair.” In an unfortunate irony, Marvin now squatted next to the rear wheel of my barely (street) legal motocrosser. “She looks like she’s ten fuckin’ years old.”

“Fuck. Barely any of the Polacks around here speak much English. She’ll fit right in.”

‘Fuck’, in those days, often substituted for spoken capitalization and punctuation.

“Wanna meet her?”

I rolled my wrist over to look at my watch. It was the height of fashion to wear one’s watch with the face over the inner part of your wrist. It also kept it from being whacked to shreds as we tore through the jack pines on our motorcycles.

“Sure. I got nowhere to be.”

That summer began my education in Vietnamese culture and cuisine.

“Karen” (Her given name sounded like “k’wor-ahn”. Because she was in love with being an American, she immediately latched onto ‘Karen’ and never tried very hard to teach us the Vietnamese name she was given.”)

Gavin had been smitten by her. She had been one of the battalions of ‘hooch girls’ that seemed to swarm out of the ground wherever Americans set up a few corrugated shelters or musty tents. For a few ‘P’ a day, she would sweep out the soldier’s sleeping areas, catch rats, and run laundry and do errands. Karen spoke fair English. She had attended a Catholic school for several years before running off (or being sent off by hungry parents) to make her fortune as a servant girl to the “mi” (Americans). After putting up with “a bunch of boo-sheet from a gazillion army chaplains and other useless assholes”, Gavin got permission to marry ‘his’ hooch girl. It took them six months to wrangle the army into permitting the marriage. They (against the odds) kept their relationship going when he was ‘unexpectedly transferred’ a few days after discussing Karen with a (previously) kind chaplain.

I glanced cautiously at the little form standing in the driveway next to a (now) scary-thin and scraggly-handlebar moustachioed Gavin who was (as expected) working on his own motorcycle. The top of her head scarcely reached the height of the cycle’s handlebars and it bobbed a good two feet below the one on her husband. A Scooby-Doo beach towel hung from her skinny shoulders and dragged in the dirt and leaves that littered the cement around her bare feet. She clutched a few greasy wrenches in one hand and a sweating bottle of Coca-Cola in the other. Marvin and I climbed off of our bikes and did our best to ‘saunter’ to take positions opposite the shyly smiling girl.

You wan’ vee’?”

Gavin nodded in our direction. “Yeah, Sweet. They want beers. Bring me one too.”

The waif with an impossibly flat face grinned broadly. She tossed the tools into the grungy toolbox spilled out on the cement and set the pop bottle next to it. Giving her coal-black hair a toss, she scurried toward the house. After tripping on the edge of the towel, she wadded it up and tossed it into the grass next to the driveway.

“And, fer fucksake, put on a shirt or a robe or something!” Karen was wearing a painfully bright blue bikini. She did look to be about ten years old. Flat-chested and with a butt like a young boy, the bikini fit as though it had been borrowed from a much older (and much more developed) sister.

“She seems nice. Pretty smile too. Congratulations, Gavin”

Gavin looked toward the house. “She’s scared shitless. They smile like Cheshire Cats when they’re nervous. But thanks, man. She’s really far out nice and a good cook too. You’ll like her.”

Marvin and I looked at our boots when Gavin used they to describe his wife’s behavior. Political correctness was decades down the road, but his choice of words seemed odd or disrespectful.

Over the rest of the summer, we spent a lot of time with Gavin and his strange, new wife. She was immensely generous with their meager food supplies and seemed able to make huge pots of (sometimes evil-smelling and odd-looking) ‘stuff’. She was happy as a clam to cook for us or ‘run beers’ in exchange for a cigarette (from which she promptly broke any attached filter).

Salem and Marlboro filtered cigarettes were “Num-bah ten-tow-zen”. Gavin’s own Camel ‘studs’ were “Num-bah one!” The learning curve on cigarettes and Karen was short and steep…

…Whenever a guest’s pack appeared, Karen’s hand (waiving, palm down) took furious flight. It was a mistake to toss her the whole pack or to tamp out more than one smoke. Packs entirely disappeared inside of her shirt, robe, or (usually) the very worn Scooby-Doo towel.

(I learned much later, that the obviously highly-prized Scooby towel went almost everywhere with Karen. There was one infamous incident, a few weeks after our first meeting, where Karen squatted under the filthy towel in the rain to wait for the mailman. Gavin’s blue-collar (Polack) neighbors were aghast and one called for the police to “See what’s going on over there.”)

Karen’s potluck suppers usually consisted of a huge bowl of sticky rice and another of steamed cabbage leaves scattered with canned tuna. Sticky rice (‘xoi’) came in several varieties. Sometimes, it was red and pungent with peppers and garlic. Other times, it was bright yellow and had bits of (canned) chicken throughout (‘xoi ga’).

Karen never made the famous Vietnamese ‘spring rolls’, or goi cuon (lit. ‘salad rolls’), for us. Asian markets were far and few between, even in Detroit (where you could buy dozens of brands of Polish sausage). Consequently, the required rice paper was not to be found locally in those days.

Along with cigarettes, Karen had an absolute love for pound cake. She had loved the stuff since growing up in Vietnam. Until arriving in America, Karen had never seen a pound cake presented in anything but dingy, olive-drab cans that were slightly larger than a can of tuna.

The canned cakes had substance. When you shook the can, you got a satisfying ‘thud’. There is nothing like it. The closest approximation would be to shake an unopened can of tennis balls. But, even then, there would not be that substantial feel of a canned pound cake.

I last saw Karen in 1974.

I was on leave from my merchantman, docked for repairs to a trashed screw (propeller).

A few weeks before, we were cleaning out galley stores and we found (hated) boxes of ‘C-rations’ under a tarp. We pitched most of the stuff overboard while the officers slept or hid in the day room, except for a case of Karen’s beloved pound cakes. I stowed them in my locker and vowed to take them to her.

Gavin was in Alaska, working on the new oil pipeline. Karen was keeping the home fires burning and was contentedly caring for their three (still in diapers) children. She snatched the case of cakes from me and scampered to the kitchen, opening can after can so she could feed bits of the hard yellow stuff, birdlike, to her brood of Asian-featured children. Karen tossed me an unopened can, yelling as she waggled a finger at me, “You keep. You nevah know when you ung-wee.” After making small talk for a few minutes more, I left her place and set off to experience the rest of my life.

A few weeks ago, while cleaning out boxes of old keepsakes and the accumulated ‘crap’ of nearly six decades, I found a dented and badly scratched tin of pound cake. I hiked up the basement stairs and set the can next to the keyboard on which I now type these words.

Gavin was killed in a car wreck in 1986. His obituary did not mention a wife or children.

Last night, I made a big batch of goi cuon and a bowl of pungent nuoc mam in which to dip them. My wife adores the tacky, flimsy rolls and the salty-fishy sauce.

We had pound cake for desert.

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Look how far we’ve come!

In Editorial, Lifestyle on July 26, 2013 at 12:21 pm

Some folks don’t understand symbols of servitude.

The cruel irony of electronic ‘conveniences’…

th-1I have an answering machine. It is always turned off. I have ‘call-waiting’ service. It is disabled. I have voice mail on my cellular accounts. They have never been set up. I have numerous email accounts. I check them twice a day. From sundown on Friday to sunset on Saturday, none of those communications devices are used. That period is Shabbat. It is time I set aside for prayer and to spend time with my wife.

“What do people do if you don’t answer? How can they leave a message?”

They can call back. If something is important enough to disturb me with, they will call back. If not. Well, I guess it wasn’t that important.

People don’t like my system. No. Not at all.

Someone began to lecture me about how ‘rude’ I was not to immediately answer my telephone or to at least use voice mail or an answering machine so callers could conveniently leave a message.

No. It is rude for callers to assume they have a right to convenience. It is rude for people to assume that they are so important that I would go Pavlovian whenever the phone rings, or that I would rush, butler-like, to obediently listen to their messages.

A pharmacy clerk got antsy when I declined to provide her with a phone number, email address, or a cell phone number for text messages to tell me that my refilled prescription was ready.

“It’s heart medication,” I explained, “If I don’t take it, my heart tries to kill me.”

That seems like a pretty good motivation for me to check on my own refills; or, for the pharmacy to take time to call me again if I don’t answer.

You see. I regard my telephones to be like small doors that passersby can open and yell to me.

Every swinging dick can stop by and yell, “Hey! I wanna talk to you.”

Nope. Such things are not ‘conveniences’.

The sins of Paula Deen mount…

My news feeds are another annoyance. I’ve shut most of them down.

A story (what an appropriate noun) on one of the services told me that Paula Deen was being accused by a former employee of yet more racist behavior.th-7

Deen allegedly asked some of her African-American employees to stand, dressed like ‘Aunt Jemima’, and ring a triangle dinner gong in front of one of Deen’s opening venues and yell, “Y’all come an’ git it!”

One employee refused and is now (allegedly) suing Deen (There, ya go!).

“That dinner bell represents a painful period for my people”, she explains.

Tell that to a cowboy, Sweetie. My wife grew up on a po’ white farm and was called to supper by a bell. A lot of folks still use ‘em. She had no idea that the bell was a symbol of minority oppression and white power.

She always thought it meant, “Supper!” Shame, on her. Poor, benighted white girl.

As for the sin of an Aunt Jemima outfit?

When people change history in order to race-bait, all manner of crap happens.

Aunt Jemima was a widely-recognized brand symbol until the mid-1960s when the proto-politically correct told us she, and Mrs. Butterworth, were demeaning to blacks.

Both were stereotypical representations of the ‘mammy’.

‘Mammies’ usually held beloved status in a home, just short of one’s own mother.

I have a dear friend, a stout Marine-type who can belly-laugh through tellings of Old Yeller, but he mists up when he talks about his mammy. “She was a dear, saint of a woman”, he says as he shakes his head in sad remembrance.

He grew up in ‘LA’…Lower Alabama.

I grew up in Detroit.

There were no mammies in Detroit. There were loads of ‘maids’ and ‘domestic workers’. Most of them were black.

On Thursdays, the shops were crowded with black women pushing carts and leading a pack of rowdy youngsters between the displays. Thursday was the traditional maid’s day off.

Maids put together a pretty good living. Suburban housewives were willing to wage neighborhood warfare if another homemaker courted their maid. Maids knew this and jockeyed for better pay and working conditions through using it.

Maids were respected almost as much as doctors and certainly more than lawyers.

The prototype PC-ers and race-baiters told black women they were ‘too good’ to work as maids.

They were so good, they were told, that they should quit those demeaning positions and take the welfare payments that white politicians were handing out instead.

That worked out well. Look at the symbol of equality that Detroit has become in the years since maids fell out of fashion there.

Gratin: It’s not just about potatoes

In Lifestyle, Recipies on July 17, 2013 at 2:13 pm

The Phyne Dyner made a few lifestyle adjustments and summertime greeted him with a bounty of fresh vegetables. So, why not ‘go gratin’?

A development during the recent hiatus of the Phyne Dyner was our household’s switchover from conventional foods to all organic and low glycemic index food.

For decades, my breakfast has alternated between a bowl of Israeli-style salad with a small helping of cottage cheese or one cup of rice slathered with sambal oelek or Vietnamese chili paste. Until 19 March of this year, my rice was white and our proletarian-style meals usually had its starch component filled with potatoes. Our meat (almost never eaten, except on Shabbat) was previously the supermarket variety. Now, its cage-free chicken (rarely free-range beef) that has been air chilled instead of cooled in a ‘fecal water bath’ by the packer.

My morning repast remains unchanged, except that the rice is an organic, brown jasmine variety. Because brown rice metabolizes more slowly into glucose, there’s no glucose/insulin spike. Consequently, my morning hour of meditation doesn’t find me in a sugar high that crashes halfway through the session.

The health benefits are just becoming noticeable.

I’ve lost about twenty pounds and I’m able to snug up my belt by two more notches.

It’s been a good trade.

While our weekly grocery bill is about 20% higher than with standard supermarket fare, we find we eat far less food because the meals are more satisfying. This is especially true of the meals containing chicken.

The higher quality chicken doesn’t cook down or shrink because of a high fat content or because the meat has been permeated with water during processing. One chicken leg (Can you believe?) satisfies me. The rest of the plate gets filled with seasonal vegetables that now constitute about 95% of our diet.

With the advent of summer, eating vegetarian is a snap. My garden is just coming in and we have had fresh herbs since May. My dehydrator runs 24/7 to deal with the surplus of basil, tarragon, oregano, mint, chives, and sage. Zucchini and eggplant abound and menus vary according to what I pick each day. That means ratatouille will be in my future very soon. Right now, I have a pretty good mix of root and leafy stuff and that goes into quiches, galettes, or gratins.

Most people are only familiar with gratin as a potato and cheese affair and that’s a shame. So, to help you out of your own potato rut, I’ve decided to run with a mixed vegetable version that also includes a good handful of fresh chard. It’s a colorful and satisfying meal that you can assemble from what’s in the fridge. Enjoy!

You’ll need (makes about 1.5 to 2 liters):

2 medium zucchini, sliced

2 shallots, minced (abt 3 TBS), divided

2 ribs celery, diced

2 C diced carrot

1 small bunch fresh chard

1 medium yellow onion, minced

6 green onions, sliced white and green parts

2 C diced white mushrooms

4 cloves garlic, cut into matchsticks

½ C dry white wine

1 ½ C milk

1 C water or vegetable stock

2 tsp dry Herbes de Provence

½ C flour (may use 50% whole wheat)

1/3 C Romano cheese, grated

½ C bread crumbs or matzo meal

4 TBS butter or olive oil

salt and freshly ground black pepper

fresh chives for garnish

Melt the butter (or use olive oil) in a Dutch oven or deep skillet over medium low heat. Stir in the shallots, carrot, and onions. Cook until just beginning to sweat (about 8 minutes), being careful not to brown the vegetables. Stir in the garlic and cook until its fragrance blooms. Scatter the flour over the vegetables and stir constantly until the flour just begins to darken. Increase the heat to medium and deglaze the pan with the wine, being sure to scrape up any clinging bits of flour from the bottom of the pan. Immediately stir in the water (or stock) and the milk. Add the herbs, salt, and pepper. Bring to a gentle boil and reduce the heat to low. Simmer, uncovered, (stir often) until the mixture thickens.

Meanwhile, bring about 3 quarts of salted water to a slow boil. Clean the chard well to remove any sand or grit and then tear the leaves from the tough stems. Blanch the chard for about 4 minutes and immediately drain in a colander, and quench the chard under cold running water. Pre-heat the oven to 350F. Carefully wring as much water as possible from the chard and cut it into bite-size pieces. Stir the chard into the vegetable gratin mixture and remove it from the heat.

Oil a large baking dish or casserole. Mix the breadcrumbs (or matzo) with about 1 TBS of olive oil and the grated cheese. Season this mixture with a bit of salt and pepper. When the gratin mixture is cool enough to handle, spoon it into the baking dish and spread it evenly across. Scatter the breadcrumb mixture over the gratin and bake the gratin for about 30 minutes, or until the breadcrumbs are golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow the gratin to rest for about ten minutes. This will allow it to thicken a bit more. Garnish with minced chives and serve in deep bowls with a fresh garden salad.

 

The American descent into madness

In Lifestyle on July 15, 2013 at 11:41 am

There is an epidemic of control-related mental illness in America. We now have the madmen running the asylum.

 

I believe that the majority of people are mentally ill. It is especially the case with proponents of American-style democracy.

What is democracy?

One person gets one vote. The majority opinion decides. Think apartheid.

American-style democracy is supposedly tempered because we have a representative subspecies of the style. It works like an absolute democracy, but the majority elects representatives who are supposed to consider the potential effects of majority wants upon the entire citizenship. Consequently, even if a majority of Americans wanted to enslave a portion of the populace (presumably) the representatives would not codify slavery into accepted behavior because slavery is wrong.

Unfortunately, the system is fatally flawed.

People flock to power like moths around a porch light. Tolkien’s character ‘Gollum/Smeagol’ would be more likely to surrender his precious ring than would any elected representative give up power. Consequently, elected representatives gleefully give into the wants of any majority who elects them.

By default, the electing majority is now made up of control freaks.

Control freaks are mentally ill people who have irrational fear of error. America is going through an epidemic of control ‘freakism’ and it expresses itself in the voting booth.

A control freak tries to turn the chaos of living into an orderly process. They wrongly believe, if they can only create a rigorously controlled environment, no mistakes will be made. When mistakes (unavoidably) take place in the controlled environment, the control freak believes the error happened because there were still insufficient controls in place.

What makes someone into a control freak?

Control freaks have deep-set fear of abandonment and/or they grew up in a home where deserved praise was seldom given (or it was qualified).

The abandoned kid begins to believe his mother and/or father left (or was constructively absent) because the kid misbehaved or failed to follow the house rules. They think, “Mommy would be here if I were a better kid.” The parental absence has nothing to do with the kid (in virtually all cases), but the child strives to follow all of the rules and even sets itself up to obey even more Draconian rules than the parents ever set down. “Maybe if I am better and make no mistakes, Daddy will play catch with me.”

The other version involves the “Why isn’t your B, an A?” phenomenon.

No matter what the kid does, it’s never good enough. “Good enough”, to the child, is capricious and ethereal. He simply knows he must perform better. Mistakes are not an option. The kid brings home a report card with an A in English. Daddy either says “Why isn’t it an A+?” or Dad shrugs and says nothing. (The kid may also have an abnormal sense of ego and dismiss any praise except one accompanied by a marching band.)

In the end, the kid sees mistakes as an enemy that must be vanquished. They grow up to be fixated on data, charts, motivational posters, seminars, and all of the other trappings designed to eliminate mistakes or create a perfect world. They set forth, armed with policy manuals and rule books, and tyrannize their fellow man in the workplace and from within the voting booth.

“Zero tolerance!” they cry. Their buttocks are so tightly clenched that a lump of coal between them would emerge as a diamond.

Of course, the more tightly they regulate their environment, the more likely it is that one of their fellow humans will transgress some rule or policy. These inevitable violations trigger another volley of new rules, all designed to prevent similar mistakes. The control freak gradually paints himself into a corner…using invisible paint.

It does no good to try to educate a control freak about their illness. For them to change, they would have to recognize their control issues as mistakes. But remember, to the control freak, mistakes are the enemy and mistakes will not be tolerated. A control freak will use every defense mechanism (from violence to denial) to avoid admitting that their drive to control is the problem.

Finally, how does all of this relate to what we are seeing today in America?

From the mid-1960s, children were abandoned by mothers who set out to empower themselves with careers and by fathers climbing the success ladder. Latch-key kids became the norm. Parents pushed their little protégés into soccer, karate, golf, foreign languages, and all sorts of advanced placement programs designed to mold kids into error-free perfecto-pods.

It worked.

We now have at least two adult generations for whom failure is not an option. Deep in their psyches they know that Utopia is just one more rule away. These grownups clamor to proxy leaders who promise, “With passage of this law, we will now have the tool(s) to be health, wealthy, and wise”.

That’s just sick.

A Phyne Phinale…C’est largement suffisant!

In General Information, Lifestyle on April 12, 2013 at 12:34 pm

w2OIf

 

A smart man knows when to call it a day. A successful comedian leaves the stage after telling his funniest story.

I’ll take that as wise counsel. But, first, a re-cap:

Phyne Dyning has been chugging along for almost three years. It got its start as a mini-rebellion against the foodie craze that sent legions of amateur food critics into bistros, cafes, slop-houses, and award-winning restaurants. Enlightened by jargon they picked up by watching Gordon Ramsay and armed with a credit card budget and a word-processor (maybe even some graphics design software), they tore into the livelihoods of professional cooks. (“The boy kills the frog in sport. But the frog dies in earnest.”)

A few months later, Phyne Dyning changed lanes and followed a path blazed by Jeff Smith, a personally troubled Methodist minister cum Frugal Gourmet. These pages began to feature the preparation of elegant peasant foods, particularly those from the Middle East, North Africa, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe. Lately, the Phyne Dyner ventured into French peasant foods and France’s rural gastronomie.

And, there was politics: specifically, libertarian socialism.

The sad reality about politics is that people don’t care much about it while they have a full belly and bountiful entertainments.

That’s not new.

Only about 20-25% of American colonists took an active side in revolutionary ideas. Victor Hugo often lamented the French apathy about matters of freedom; the failed June Rebellion in 1832 inspired him to write his epic Les Misérables. Fyodor Dostoevsky was perplexed by the Russian people, almost entirely Christian, who stoically (somewhat bovine) endured abuse by the Russian monarchy. Russian malaise inspired Dostoevsky to pen The Idiot.

Borderline nihilism is nothing new to mankind.

Knowing so hardly inspires a desire to arise from one’s bed at 3am to pound out original material for a few readers to masticate upon in the morning.

What now?

It’s almost enough to make me chuckle.

I have a completely written cookbook that lacks only some final graphics work before I self-publish it.

I know. Everybody writes cookbooks. It’s okay.

Really.

Then, there is my ‘great American novel’ that molders in my hard drive. It’s a post-apocalyptic thriller, based on medical realities, in the vein of Michael Crichton’s early SF work.

[I have the opinion that George Stewart’s 1949 Earth Abides was the apogee of the post-apocalyptic genre. I first read the book in 1965 and I’ve probably read it at least a hundred times since. Neck-in-neck for close second stand two books: William Forstchen’s 2009 One Second After and S.M. Stirling’s series that began with Dies the Fire (2006). (Forstchen scratches past Stirling a bit because Stirling failed to leave the stage before allowing his series to degrade to a Tolkien-esque conflict between supernatural cults.)]

I’d be remiss to close this out without expressing gratitude to my loyal tens of readers. It’s been an enjoyable three years. I’m grateful too, because the Phyne Dyning blog connected me with Linda, my writing coach and, now, agent.

It is all her fault that the curtain now falls on Phyne Dyning. She astutely pointed out that I am entering my sixth decade and that my novel isn’t going to write itself. “Finish writing the damned book. Worry about the mechanics later. Don’t worry about publishing. Tell the story.”

That’s what I shall do.

[No, Linda…”…Wouldn’t touch my cookbook with a ten-foot pole.” Gee!]

(SPECIAL EDITORIAL) ‘For the Children’: Enough already!

In Editorial, Lifestyle on April 2, 2013 at 9:33 am

“As a result, I have five-gallon plastic buckets emblazoned with warnings that they may cause drowning if a tot falls headfirst into one. My newest window blinds were festooned with so many warning stickers that, once hung, the warning literature obviated the need for the shades entirely. My garden hose came with a sticker (which I promptly tore off) warning me not to drink from it because it contained ‘substances known to the State of California to cause cancer’.”

 

Shanda Boone and Jamie Geneser experienced an unimaginable tragedy two years ago when their 4-year old daughter fell out of a third floor window and suffered fatal injuries in the fall.

Now, Boone and Geneser have embarked on a crusade. They have taken up the cause to coerce and cajole Iowa lawmakers into passing ‘Hannah’s Law’. And, as with similar laws designed to ‘protect the children’, it is likely to spread like a prairie fire across the entire nation.

Hannah’s Law would mandate installation of fall resistant window screens on multifamily, multilevel homes. Also under the proposed law, if fall-resistant screens are not installed, it would mandate that the windows on such homes be restricted from opening more than four inches.

After every child death and tragedy, there emerges a new crop of laws and regulations intended to stop similar, ‘senseless’ deaths. Parents and loved ones seek to turn their grief into something positive by forcing someone else to do something ‘to keep this from happening to someone else’.

I understand it. I sympathize. And I understand the psychological mechanics behind such attempts. Grief counselors typically recommend activism as therapy for the bereaved.

[NOTE: Mothers Against Drunk Driving emerged via this mechanism and has since morphed into a contemporary Women’s Christian Temperance Union bent on abolishing the use of alcohol as a beverage.]

But such efforts are wrong. They are akin to forcing an entire community into a funeral cortege under penalty of law. Unfortunately, the press flocks to these human interest stories like moths around an August porch light and give unwitting support to yet another senseless, burdensome, and futile law.

Futile? How?

There are millions of ways to die or to be maimed. It is futile to attempt to prevent all of them. In an unfortunate choice of methods to assuage their grief, parents and loved ones of deceased children subsequently seek all sorts of new eponymic laws specific to preventing the unpreventable. There are even laws bearing the name of beloved, deceased pets.

As a result, I have five-gallon plastic buckets emblazoned with warnings that they may cause drowning if a tot falls headfirst into one. My newest window blinds were festooned with so many warning stickers that, once hung, the warning literature obviated the need for the shades entirely. My garden hose came with a sticker (which I promptly tore off) warning me not to drink from it because it contained ‘substances known to the State of California to cause cancer’.

[One wonders where kids playing ‘fort’ now get their water? Actually, children don’t’ play ‘fort’ anymore. The kids are all inside, punching buttons on a computer game or iPod and drinking bottled vitamin water. PD]

I condole with Boone and Geneser. I sympathize.

But I want to open my windows. I don’t want thick screens on them that block the light and keep out the air.

If I wanted them, I would buy them. If I had small, rowdy children I would definitely look into them for my home.

If Boone and Geneser were to embark on an educational campaign to make parents aware of window locks and fall-resistant screens, I would be in the gallery cheering them. But seeking to legislate their use and installation will only paint us further into a corner where we are free to do anything as long as it is 100% risk-free.

Ms. Boone and Mr. Geneser, you have done your community a great service. Your daughter’s untimely death motivated you to make your neighbors aware of a risk that took her from you. But it is time to move on, to mourn, to heal, and to leave the rest of us to our fates.

No matter how irresponsible and dangerous that may seem to you.

Food and social decay, a proposal to reverse the trend

In Lifestyle on March 20, 2013 at 11:07 am

The time spent on the most basic of human social interactions has shrunk to ten percent of what it was just forty years ago. It got me thinking that it is no small wonder society is in decay.

 

“In 1972, Americans averaged two hours and forty-five minutes, per day, spent on meal preparation. In 2011, they spent…

…seventeen minutes, per day.”

I was just about to turn off the television when the above factoid crackled from its speaker as I read a book. I was so stunned (and later, disturbed) that it took me almost two hours to fall asleep. When I heard it, I sat bolt upright. I was so amazed that, by the time I found pen and paper, the announcer had moved on to other news and I missed her citation of who had made the finding.

The next day, I hustled off to do some quick research.

I never ran the citation to ground, but I found some very interesting data to distract me during my searching. Some of it is worthy of my pixels.

Between 2001 and 2004, UCLA researchers evaluated America’s use of convenience foods and the frequency they ate meals in restaurants or as take-away. According to their findings, Americans eat 77% of meals at home, but only 22% of those meals do not consist of convenience foods.

Here are some other findings from their investigation:

–       Only 59% of families ate together, even when all of the family members where home.

–       67% of families ate together when at least one member was absent.

–       During the monitoring period (three random days) only 17% ate together on all days.

–       23% of families never ate together.

–       63% of families had members eating at different times from other members.

–       50% of fathers were not home at any mealtime.

Here’s the good news:

Over three-fourths of Americans eat their meals at home.

Here’s the bad news:

Over three-fourths of the meals prepared consist of convenience foods and the family eats just over half of them communally.

Eating and sharing food is a primal human need. Hostage negotiators have long known that success (released hostages without the use of force) are more likely to take place if the hostage-taker has been willing to accept food from the negotiator.

Take home message: “We don’t kill or maim people we share food with.”

[NOTE: I am married to the most delightful woman on the planet. Unfortunately, the poor thing cannot cook. Even convenience food challenges her. In the early days of our (long past thirty) years together, our smoke detector announced, “Dinner is served.” I took over cooking duties as a survival measure.]

I’m not a neo-conservative. Consequently, I’m not about to hold forth with nonsense like, “This the way I do it. So, everyone must do (or suffer) as I do (have) in order to be happy or successful.” The following is just ‘one way’ offered in example and with the hope readers will explore their own methods.

Let’s look at the fundamentals first.

Most of us spend our lives hurrying through one thing so we can get started on the next task (which we hurry through)…to get to the next (hurried task).

Cooking is often a hurried task for most people and meals go like this:

Get the food cooked. Get it on the table. Get it in your gullet. Get cleaned up. Do something else.

Diners sometimes end up with a bag of ‘something’ passed around eager hands as they lean over the sink to eat it. Once ‘feeding’ has ceased, the family scatters. Prepared meals, according to the researchers, typically involves opening a pouch, can, box, or bag. Stuff gets mixed in or the food is served ‘as is’. The meal is then gulped down by diners unencumbered by social contact.

Until my Buddhist friends pointed this out, I didn’t realize that the Phyne Dyning meal-style and food preparation was a mindful way of dealing with food.

Here’s how it works.

At our appointed times, we convene at respective mealtimes. Dinner (‘lunch’ in Yankee-Speak) is a quick and simple meal consisting of one or many of the following: tinned fish, cheeses, boiled eggs, pita and hummus (or herbed oils) and cups of hot (usually mint) tea. Eating light at dinner means there will be no subsequent torpor (stupor?) from waddling around, stuffed.

[NOTE: Breakfast is equally simple. Israeli salad, boiled eggs, brown rice, or oatmeal usually fills the bill.]

Supper is the highlight of the day.

We convene in the kitchen while I do the cooking. Banter about our day fills the air as I chop and slice ingredients. She runs things in and out of the freezer or fridge as I work. Prep dishes and equipment gets a washing as soon as they are no longer needed. If it is Shabbat or Yom Tov, we enjoy cocktails as I work. (As our part of mindful living, we no longer drink alcohol routinely.) When the meal is finished cooking, so is all discussion of politics and work.

At the table, our conversation is carefully limited to positive topics and happy discussions. Again, if it is Shabbat or Yom Tov, we enjoy a glass of wine or two as we eat. At every meal, our little greyhound gal entertains us with a floorshow (begging for bits of bread, if any) while we eat. Mozart, Vivaldi, light Israeli pop, or other music plays softly (barely audible) as we converse and eat.

We think it is a magnificent way to eat routinely or when we socialize with guests.

Our ancestors, in times of peace and plenty, ate and prepared meals in a similar manner.

Even in the most desperate of times, people in desperate days attempted to keep balance and internal harmony by eating and sharing food in a civilized manner. In dire times, that kind of civilized dining is often the last vestige of humanity to be surrendered to purely animalistic survival.

Conversely, I believe it is equally probable that, even in times of relative peace and plenty, when people abandon their most basic civil food behaviors, they also descend to more base manners of thinking and living.

It seems worthy of some thought.

Spending only seventeen minutes (per day) to prepare unshared food may free us up to earn more money or to spend it on (unfortunately, usually solitary) entertainments.

But I think it has cost us our humanity.

Eat, and share, your food in a mindful manner with others. It’s human nature to do so.

Take-out Asian cuisine from leftovers

In Lifestyle, Recipies, Tips and Hints on March 20, 2013 at 9:24 am

We eat a largely vegetarian diet. And just like our entirely carnivorous neighbors, we suffer from occasional gluts of leftover bits of this and that. Wasting food is anathematic to Phyne Dyners, so we make a weekly sweep of food stocks to make sure we use the stuff from open containers and search the freezer and fridge for single servings of ingredients that might otherwise go to waste.

This week’s scavenging yielded two too-small tilapia fillets, a few small carrots, a small crown of broccoli, a few cauliflower florets, the last bit of a head of garlic, the center of a head of bok choy, and a half a box of whole-wheat angel hair pasta.

In about fifteen minutes, supper was on the table.

I steamed the fish and vegetables while the pasta cooked. Then, I tossed together a Southeast Asian-inspired sauce to pour over it.

When everything was cooked, I layered the fish, pasta and vegetables in deep bowls and poured the sauce over the whole mess. It was absolutely delicious.

[TIP: When using bok choy, be sure to use the leaves too. They can also be used to wrap seasoned small fish (or shrimp) before steaming.]

The sauce is an adaptation of a peanut sauce I make in which to dip goi cahn, those delightful Vietnamese spring rolls filled with vegetables and rice noodles (and fish or shrimp if you like). Both versions combine the earthiness of peanuts, the pungency of garlic, the sweet tanginess of hoi sin, and the fire of chilies.

Be sure to make enough. After one bite, you’ll want to slather it on like whipped cream over pumpkin pie.

So, get poking around in your provisions. The sauce works wonderfully with almost anything you can stir fry, steam, or grill.

You’ll need:

2 large cloves garlic, smashed into paste

¾ C hoi sin

¾ C water

3 TBS cider vinegar

1 to 3 TBS Sriracha sauce (to taste)

3 TBS creamy peanut butter

1 TBS canola oil

Smash the garlic into a paste using a mortar and pestle. Heat the oil in a small saucepan or skillet over medium heat and fry the garlic in the oil for about one minute, or until its aroma ‘blooms’. Reduce the heat to low-medium and stir in everything except the Sriracha. If the sauce appears too runny, dissolve a teaspoon of cornstarch in a tablespoonful of cold water and stir it into the sauce. Raise the heat until the sauce is just simmering and stir in the Sriracha, tasting frequently if you add more.

Cherán, Mexico leads the way!

In Lifestyle on March 13, 2013 at 9:58 am
Cherán, Mexico (Web photo)

Cherán, Mexico (Web photo)

According to an article in today’s Christian Science Monitor (13 March 2013), the citizens of a small town in the hills of the Mexican Michoacán state got fed up with drug-related crimes and violence. To solve their late crime spree the villagers…

threw out the police.

The villagers were tired of illegal loggers speeding through their town. Because many of the loggers had connections to drug cartels, villagers who complained sometimes disappeared, with more than a few found dead.

At first, the women of the village mobilized the men to gather along the roadway where the loggers traveled. Using only rocks, sticks, and machetes the men ‘detained’ four errant loggers and ‘impounded’ their trucks.

The police intervened…

…on behalf of the loggers.

The townsfolk tossed the police out of town, along with the rest of the loggers and all of the local politicians.

At first, the Mexican government was outraged and snorted, “There’s no rationale for a group of people taking justice into their own hands and going above the law.” Six months later, because tradition and autonomy is the law for Purépechans indigenous to the region, Mexico gave Cherán its autonomy.

There was no social breakdown, no chaos, and no ‘anarchy’. Indigenous guards, appointed by the villagers according to tradition, now keep the village peace.

According to the article, kidnappings and attacks are a thing of the past.

The guards are a casual lot.

Dressed in black cargo pants tucked into boots, black t-shirts, and with rifles slung over their chests, they enjoy gaily colored churros as they man a checkpoint. And while most of the guards prefer not to be identified, eighteen year-old Santiago Rodriguez wants the lawless element to know who he is.

“If someone wants to come and get me, fine,” he says. “What they were doing almost destroyed Cherán. And that’s why I’m here.”

Bravo! Viva Cherán!

Yes Virginia, we do have an off switch.

In Lifestyle on March 1, 2013 at 12:27 pm

“I have too much going on.”

I hear this complaint from libertarian-capitalists, libertarian-socialists, state-capitalists, state-socialists, Republicans, Democrats, Greens, and even people who declare they have no interest in anything of a political nature…or anything else. There’s a lot of free-floating anger out there. People are working harder and getting less. Every moment MUST be filled with some activity. Even when they are perched on the ‘head’ for mandatory down time, they’ve got an e-do-dad to poke at to keep them amused as they crap. Phyne Dyning encourages you to look for your ‘off’ switch.

I want you to follow these instructions:

– Stop reading. Stop doing anything.

– Take inventory of your thoughts. What’s going on in there?

– ‘What will I do next?’

– ‘I should be doing something else?’

– ‘I wonder what I’ll have to eat later?’

– ‘What could be making that sound in the car?’

– ‘That #%&@ political party!’

The above list could go on, and on, and on…

It does!

Let’s do another exercise. Go to any online career site (something like, CraigsList or Career.com). Pull up random job postings and look for the following stock phrases:

– ‘Must be able to multi-task.’

– ‘Responsibilities include being able to network with…’

– ‘Able to understand and collate complex data.’

– ‘Interface with (clients, customers, co-workers, etc.)’

You won’t have to search very long. Now, what do each of those HR catch phrases share in common?

Yes, it’s ComputerSpeak. The person posting them isn’t looking for an employee; they’re looking for a machine.

“Mr. Jones, Selma the cashier just walked out. I guess she quit. What do we do?”

“Get Smith from the stockroom and have him run a register.”

(Translation: “A machine has malfunctioned. Go to the stockroom and get one of the stocking machines. Drag the machine to the check-out counter and plug it in.”

One more, introductory point:

Americans work about 1790 hours per year. Only the Australians, South Koreans, and Japanese work more hours per year. That’s a lot of lifetime spent as a machine.

It also explains why, according to nearly every survey measuring happiness, Americans are among the least happy people on the planet (along with the Australians, Koreans, and Japanese).

We are overworked (literally) and our minds are being asked to work even longer hours.

Newspapers, television, radio, and even so-called non-work entertainments prod us to think, and think, and think, and think. Even when we close our eyes, our mind replays events, conversations, and images. Or, our mind gives us ‘coming attractions’ of events, conversations, and images that have not yet taken place. Of course all of this replay and preview thinking goes on at the same time we’re already doing something else.

That muffin you’re eating. (You are eating a muffin?) Do you even taste it?

Or, are you reflexively chewing on autopilot. Are you swallowing the chewed muffin only because doing so is the automatic thing to do with food that has been chewed?

Why am I bothering to analyze this?

All of this work and thinking is taking the place of doing. It’s taking the place of living.

And it’s beginning to piss people off.

There’s a lot of free-floating anger out there and it’s worrisome.

Yesterday, I committed the heinous crime of pausing to check my grocery list without moving my cart to the side of a supermarket aisle. I felt a sharp poke in my backside and I turned to find a red-faced lady glaring at me. “How about you thinking about someone other than yourself and get out of other people’s way?” she hissed through clenched teeth.

I apologized and moved aside. She breezed by, stopping a few yards distant, in front of the cans of spinach. Her face was now entirely serene as she pulled down a can and examined its label.

We met again in the next aisle and I did something rather out of the ordinary and (now I admit) a bit risky. I stopped beside the woman and smiled. Her eyes went blank and then widened. I spoke in my most respectful and solemn tone:

“It was inconsiderate of me to block the aisle. I’m not going to offer an excuse. But I do want to ask you a very serious question. I’m not going to judge your actions or your reason for doing them. I just want to know why my minor gaffe made you so angry as to warrant your shoving your cart into me? I just want to understand, that’s all.”

I honestly expected her to raise a middle finger in my face and stomp off, glaring at me over her shoulder.

“I just get so tired of people being inconsiderate. I’m in a hurry. I’m on my lunch break and I’ve got two employees out with the flu. The roads are slick and it’s snowing.” She went on with a list of frustrations and pending disappointments. Her eyes bounced around in their sockets and then fixed on the floor between us.

“I’m sorry I bumped you. That’s not really how I am. I honestly don’t know why I did it. I just did. I guess I had ‘had it’ up to here.” Now looking directly at me, she held her hand above her eyes as though she were shading them from the sun.

“I’m sorry.”

I thanked her for her time. She looked at me quizzically and started to push her cart toward a stack of boxed saltines. She stopped and asked, “Are you some sort of counselor? A minister?”

I laughed and assured her I was in none of those professions. I told her I was merely curious and that she had looked unlikely to scream and squirt me with pepper spray in a second encounter. She laughed and said, “I do have pepper spray. It’s probably ten years old though and it’s somewhere in the bottom of this.” She held up an enormous purse.

A little while later, we stood in different checkout lines. We smiled at each other in greeting when raised voices reached our ears from the nearby express lane.

Someone had gotten in line with fifteen or twenty items in their tiny basket. The sign above the lane warned, “Twelve items or less, only.”

Outside, a pedestrian shouted an insult at a motorist who had nearly run over him. The car slid to a stop. The car’s window glided open and a female voice from inside shouted. “Use the crosswalk. Asshole.”

We are desperately in need of an ‘off’ switch.

We do have an ‘off’ switch for our brain. Most of us don’t know where it’s at or how to use it, even though it’s in plain sight and simple to operate.

Our brain makes it hard to find. Once we find it, our brain gives us something more interesting to look at. The brain is one, selfish bastard. It wants us to entertain it. We replay past events in an attempt to improve something already in the past. How foolish is that? We preview events that have not yet occurred so they will come out favorably; setting ourselves up for disappointment when our plans go off track. We replay and preview events and thoughts to keep our brain happy; simultaneously forgetting all about the ‘off’ switch we found.

That’s where meditation comes to play. It’s where the ‘enlightenment’ is found.

Meditation (nor enlightenment) is not a hippie-dippy blissed-out state of mind. It’s not, not thinking. It’s, simply put, merely not evaluating our thoughts. It is mindfully doing ONE thing. Despite its simplicity, getting there is a challenge. I work at getting there, twice a day, every day.

But ‘getting there’ or striving to ‘get there’ is exactly counter to the entire purpose of meditation. The minute we sit to get somewhere, sitting becomes pointless. I’m learning to sit…to sit.

It really doesn’t have to be ‘far out’ in concept or ‘deep’. Doing one thing is what we all want to do. When you sit, you have one job. You have one purpose. For ten or fifteen minutes, just do one thing.

Breathe.

You say: “That’s easy. We do it all the time without thinking about it.

Not so fast, Weed Hopper.

In (zazen) meditation, we do the one thing we almost never think about…while we attempt to only think about doing it. (We think about it to do it, not to evaluate it.)

In…out…in…out…

All the while, our brain is stomping around and throwing a tantrum in an attempt to distract us from doing one thing. That persistent little twerp starts tipping over the furniture if we fail to label and evaluate the ticking clock above our head, the chirp of the bird outside the window, our stomach growling.

“Don’t think about the one breath. Pay attention to meeeeeeeeee!”

Our tyrannical brain gives us tasks to perform. Everything must be evaluated and judged. Then, it gets pigeon-holed into a category. The categories are judged. The process goes around and around to entertain our brains.

In the book, The Wisdom of Zen, Frederick Franck is quoted to observe:

“Quickly we stick labels on all that is, labels that stick once and for all. By these labels we recognize everything, but see nothing. We know the labels on the bottles, but we never taste the wine. Millions of people, unseeing, joyless, bluster through their lives in their halfsleep, hitting, kicking, and killing what they have barely perceived.”

Impatience? Anger? Fear?

Flip the switch…breathe.

Screw the label!

Taste the wine.