Monday, January 31, 2011

Three strikes and Sam is out

Google "Walmart Sucks" and you can be entertained for hours.

I go for the groceries and little else. I resisted even that until the day my local grocery store wanted $3 for a little can of corned beef hash.

Occassionally I permit a little spasm of optimism to shake up my generally cynical outlook. Today was such a day. I needed three things: a children's book, a set of book-ends and a "forced" bulb -- a bulb in a pot. I had 30 minutes on my lunch break so thought I could sweep it all up at Sam Walton's megapolis.

Stop One: The garden section. Says the stocker to me, "We aren't carrying those (forced bulbs) right now."

Perhaps they are waiting for July, when forced bulbs are all the rage. Please note the sarcasm.

Stop Two: Household goods. No sign of book ends. I track down a clerk. "We don't carry those anymore," sales associate says.

My rather flimsy temper is beginning to fray. "Don't people put books on shelves anymore?" I ask. She just looks puzzled, poor thing. Maybe doesn't know what a book is.

Stop Three: Book section. I go back and forth amidst trashy paperback romances and coloring books, in a vain search for something resembling children's literature. Walmart's stock, at least at this urban location, consists of about three picture books and some pathetic Disney princess paper-waste.

Strike three, you're out.

I have come to understand the big box store strategy: Convince the world that you sell everything. Drive your competition out of business with your falsified claim. Then carry almost nothing.

But of course I have only myself to blame. Sam depends on people like me to fill his pockets. If millions of joes like me were to go elsewhere, his empire would crumble.

Unfortunately, I would have to be willing, once again, to pay $3 for a can of corned beef hash.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Can't hear ya, sonny!

Among the things that frustrate me -- people who are hard to understand.

Of course, some people have speech impediments. I'm not talking about them. Nor am I talking about people who have learned English as a second language. They deserve credit for whatever level of mastery they have achieved with our difficult language.

No, I'm talking about mumblers, for the most part, chronic mumblers ... who could improve their speaking skills if they tried. Or people who for no explainable reason, just are hard to understand.

I work with a certain someone in a position of authority over me who I think must stick their cellphone in their mouth when they call me, because I CANNOT UNDERSTAND them. I struggle and strain and try to comprehend at least enough verbage to gain some idea what they are talking about. They sound like the teacher in the old Charlie Brown shows, I kid you not. Wa-wah-wa-wah-wa-wa. Every so often, I ask them to repeat themselves, and the muted trumpet just plays the same song again.

I spent six months of my life in a fog of utter non-comprehension, as I tried to learn one of the world's toughest languages, by immersion in its native land. It was the hardest mental challenge I have ever endured -- utterly exhausting. Frustrating. Humiliating. One is reduced to the level of a little child, pointing for what one wants, dammed up mentally, making linguistic gaffes that are difficult to correct. What one wants to say is a whole roomful of words, that must squeeze through the keyhole of your suddenly incapacitated lips.

Your native idioms and witticisms, become useless. You can no longer say, "Miss, I sure would like another slice of that great-looking crusty bread on yonder platter. Simply delicious! What's your recipe?" Rather, at best, you say, "Bread. There. Some please mud. Where cow's bicycle?"

Having endured that once in my life, I don't care to endure it again.

Today is a day to remember heroes and Heroines of exploration

I distinctly remember the day, 25 years ago this morning. I was in eighth grade. I rode my bike to school as always, and locked it up in the racks.

Something was in the air, an odd feeling, as I went inside the building. The teachers were huddled around a television in the teacher's lounge. The space shuttle had exploded in flight, killing all the astronauts aboard.

I wish I could remember exactly how I felt. I had just begun to keep a journal that year but I didn't write anything. Maybe I just didn't know what I should write.

It was a heart-breaking day. I know that much.

The essence of humanity is curiosity -- the vision,the craving for knowledge, the urge to explore new places. That day, the dream, the drive, had painful consequences.

History is filled with the stories of brave men and Women who advanced human knowledge and experience. Such was Pocahontas. We learn of John Smith and the rest of the Jamestown crew and marvel at their courage. But their Old World was for Her a completely New World, which took incredible bravery on Her part to visit.

What of the first adventurers to climb Mt. Everest? To visit the North and South Poles? What of the long-ago Polynesians who settled the Pacific islands with no navigational guides but the stars to aid them?

The expansion of human knowledge will ever have moments of exhilaration, and moments of great tragedy. But we must go on. We are not meant to be mere animals, living in the bubble of the present, living only to fill our bellies and reproduce the species. We are meant to step into the unknown and find answers to the questions there ... and find more questions for which to seek answers.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Pomp and Circumstance

"I don't go to the graduation ceremonies," said a colleague of mine in the school district. "I didn't even go to my own. I just don't do pomp and circumstance."

I thought about his words. Is he enlightened or impoverished?

Ceremony is part of human culture. We celebrate birthdays, comings-of-age, graduations, weddings. We honor the departing soldier, the returning veteran and the dearly departed. Some people pay close attention to the changing of the seasons. In Japan, there is a day set aside to honor boys; another to honor Girls.

The ceremonies we cherish, change over time. Christmas as we know it, is a very modern Western idea -- it would be unrecognizable to our forefathers, even the most devout Christians of them. Halloween is completely different today than when it began .... and at least where I live, trick-or-treating door to door is nearly dead -- certainly, dead is the idea of people offering apples, warm cookies and cider to the costumed pixies at their doorstep.

As the Western world continues to cut loose from the moorings of religion, will the time come when its sacred holidays fade completely away? If so, what will remain? Some people kneel at the altar of the Superbowl; the Wave becomes today's genuflection; and the grid-iron athletes are the new apostles.

Others offer their devotions to celebrities as fervently as a former generation did to the canonized saints. They don't burn candles but they devour People magazine.

Is this progress or retrogression? Praiseworthy or pathetic?

A thousand years from now, what ceremonies do you suppose we will cherish and what will be utterly forgotten? Remember that the whole idea of high school and even college is a novelty in world history; consider that marriage in the Western world is an endangered species; and that, even though Og the Caveman probably tossed a ball of animal hide or maybe his neighbor's severed head for fun, the sports we know today -- football, basketball, etc -- are babes in the nursery, basically fads.

Will we come full circle? There are devoted groups now attempting to resurrect ancient Greek paganism. There are people who fervently wish to reclaim the idea of "good witches" from its exile in fairy tale literature. Will they succeed or will the law of diminishing returns exact its toll?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A profoundly unprofound post

This will be my last blog post of the week about food. I promise.

"How did you like your meatloaf?" someone in the family asked me as we wrapped up dinner out last night.

"Not too great," said I. "It was ... too ... creamy."

That was the best word I could think of. And pondering this incredibly unimportant detail later, I remembered a comment my Sweetie made to me a few weeks ago. She told me:

"You like your foods to have texture."

That is probably why I prefer big, sharp-edged Doritos to flimsy little Lay's potato discs. Why I like rice pudding, which most people hate. Why crispy fried chicken will always tempt me over the broiled kind. Why I would sell my soul for hash browns but not mashed potatoes.

My Beloved knows me so well. I had to step out while the family was ordering but She knew exactly what to tell the server: I wanted meatloaf. I am a passionate fan of this blue-collar, much-maligned food item. Just not, I realize, of the version they served at Restaurant XYZ.

Too creamy.

Another soul might sing the praises of meatloaf that sort of melts upon your tongue. My meatloaf should have a crispness to its crust, and within ... texture.

In the great, vast universe, this is a detail of less significance than the undulations of a protozoan in a rain puddle. But a blogger can be insignificant now and then, methinks.

(The photo above is from the Food Channel online, a succulent-looking, TEXTURED meatloaf with cheese.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Movie I might go see ...

"The Way Back" looks like the kind of movie I might just go see this year. I don't watch too many movies; Hollywood generally tends to irritate me, and its conceited, soft-headed, leftist glitterati don't deserve a penny from my pocket.

But this film seems cut from different cloth, er, celluloid, purporting to be based on "the real life saga of three prisoners who in 1940 escaped the Soviet gulag and walked 4,000 miles across Siberia, over the Himalayas and on to refuge in India."

We need these reminders, very badly, of the kind of world that results when we allow a government to make promises and to become the master rather than the servant of the people.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

In praise of parsnips

I travel eagerly the roads of discovery, listening, touching, tasting and seeing, reveling in the joys of being alive.

When I learned by chance that one of the favorite dishes of old Augustus Caesar was parsnips drizzled with honey, I sought out this odd, old-fashioned vegetable and gave his recipe a try.

To this day, I love it. I slice and steam them until they are soft, then drip the honey over them.

How to explain the taste of a parsnip? I find it somewhat similar but superior to the common carrot -- spicier and yet not quite as musky-strong. Do not be put off by its pallid complexion. Certainly don't confuse it with a turnip, which is round, bitter and of a different plant family altogether.

I was excited to discover a recipe for parsnip bread recently. But I was disappointed with the results. The ingredients were quite standard: flour, an egg, oil, salt, cloves, allspice and cinnamon, as well as, of course, two peeled and shredded parsnips.

It also called for a full cup of sugar. I don't care for bread that is "crunchy" with sugar crystals so I halved the amount. If anything, that should have made the resulting dough even less dry than it was. But confronted by a powdery, clumpy pile in the baking bowl, I added about half a cup of milk, nowhere called for in the recipe, until a state of batter was achieved.

The results were still somewhat dry and somewhat flat and quite disappointing. I am sure that good parsnip bread can be made but I will have to find a different recipe.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

I give a hoot but we all pollute

On the back of a big truck today, I saw a placard declaring:

"CO2 is not a pollutant."

I wondered about the reasoning behind such a statement.

What, after all, is a pollutant?

I would venture, any substance introduced into an environment, that has an adverse effect upon that environment. Makes no difference if it is generally benign or "natural." It is entirely possible that a tanker truck of orange juice could tip over into a creek and kill the fish, thus making O.J., in this case, a pollutant.

Carbon dioxide is rather common. You make it within your own body. It won't kill you to breathe it ... so long as there also happens to be some oxygen in the neighborhood. Perhaps the placard people meant to emphasize this fact.

Of course, the current worry is that too much CO2 is heating up our planet. Perhaps the placard people disagree. Guess we will all know soon enough, one way or the other.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Treading into technology

Over the weekend, I practiced using the Nook e-reader that my Beloved bought me for Christmas. The tiny keyboard is hard on my big, clumsy fingers. But I am beginning to get the hang of the thing.

First book downloaded: Remembering Smell, by Bonnie Blodgett. As a person who unabashedly delights in the joys of the senses -- touch, taste, hearing, smell -- I've wanted to read Blodgett's exploration of the olfactory world for quite some time.

It cost fourteen dollars to download. Not much of a savings from the bookstore shelf. That was irksome. For what one pays for an e-reader, the books should be a lot less expensive, methinks.

Later, I downloaded a free edition of St. Augustine's City of God,the paper and ink version of which I am about half-finished reading. Disappointment number two: It was apparently scanned from paper and ink, and utterly unreadable, with gibberish goofing up most of the text.

On a brighter note, my little brother convinced me this weekend to try out Skype, and that was fun.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Giving up on Pakistan

Reading through the comments following the announcement of throngs cheering for the reprobate scumbag who killed an advocate of moderation in Pakistan this month, namely a man who simply said that death should not be the punishment for blasphemy ...

...I understand the feeling behind the cry to cut off all U.S. aid and support to Pakistan following this news. But that would be exactly what the fans of a Stone Age civilization for Pakistan would like us to do.

No more Americans treating sick Pakistan children and clearing up birth defects, digging wells, funding micro-businesses. Just a sick country left alone to stew in its misery with the extremists and their madrassas as the only voices speaking and the only beacon of hope.

Such a policy worked really well in Afghanistan ... until a little thing called 9/11 woke us up to reality.

Tucson thoughts

We must be very, very careful that the current call for more civil discourse does not translate into any laws suppressing discourse. American politics have always been rough and tumble. Ain't nothin' new.

I'd rather have 10,000 talk show hosts on the right and the left screaming their throats out at each other, and politicians slinging mud like they were trying to dig down to China on a 3 p.m. deadline, than live one day in a place like, say, North Korea, where the official line is that nothing bad ever happens and Dear Leader can do no wrong. No mud gets thrown there. People just quietly starve to death.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Ted Williams

So I have learned that the media went crazy, falling over each other to thrust their mikes in front of Ted Williams, the "golden-voiced" homeless man.

I pray not only that he can stand the spotlight, but also the ice-cold moment when the fickle media turn away again, as they will, and leave him on his own, the former flavor of the day.

I also think there's a lesson here. There are thousands of homeless men, Women and children in this country. Ted is/was just one. I wish him all the best. What are we doing for the rest? Is it possible that inside each and every one of these our fellow human beings, is a seed of hope that could be nurtured?

Instead of falling over each other for the exclusive next interview with Ted and his mom and everybody that ever knew him, why not send your more thoughtful reporters out to find more Teds on other street corners?

New year

Okay, so I am late commenting on the new year, very late. I do hope this will be a year of more peace, more love, more joy in the world.

As the song says, it has to begin with me.

I look for a year of service, of learning, of new friendships. Of new opportunities, new foods tried, new words learned.

I look for a year of less time wasted and more thought given to what I say and write.

I am just a man, a flawed, temperamental man. But I like me, on most days. And I probably like you. I'll lend a hand or a buck if you need it. I don't kick puppies or make children cry or deface public property.