Saved by Hummus

hummus1

While visiting my parents in California’s verdant Central Valley this past weekend, my mother griped about the fact that each of her three children have strange dietary habits and that I, in particular, am difficult to feed.

My mother, who will be 81 years old next month, does not really understand why I am a vegan, regardless of the number of times that I’ve tried to explain it to her.  Nor does she understand why anyone would want to subject themselves to such torture.  She seems to have finally resigned herself (with a heavy sigh) to the fact that I do not eat animal products.

On this occasion, I explained that, when you come right down to it, I am very easy to feed.  It took me a while to figure out how to feed myself effectively on the road, but now when I travel, I figure out what I am going to eat in advance and bring my food with me.  Admittedly, it’s not as fun as the adventures of “who knows what little restaurant we’ll end up in and what unknown culinary treasures await our discovery?”  However, it is a lot more fun than unleashing a stream of invective because we have ended up in a place where we can find nothing for me to eat and I am faced with potato chips and soda from a gas station or convenience store.  It is hard to forget our trip to Whidbey Island in Washington State for a job interview last summer.  It took a lot longer to get there than we had anticipated, and we were lucky that a Safeway was open late.  I ended up eating French bread dipped in hummus in our hotel room.  Not exactly a four-star dining experience, but it beats chips and soda any day.  Then there was another more recent trip that involved asking the hotel night clerk to lend me a can opener so that I could open cans of spinach and garbanzos for dinner.  Again, not what I had planned, but goodness gracious, was I ever glad to have them on hand.  “What are you going to do with that?” my wife asked me once I had opened the cans.  I held up a plastic fork from the hotel lobby by way of explanation.  A lot of people can’t believe that I can make a meal out of cold veggies from a can.  It works just fine in a pinch.  And if you’re hungry enough, it starts to look positively gourmet.

I suppose Exhibit A would be our experience on Friday night.  For weeks, we had anticipated dinner at DiCicco’s, one of our favorite Italian restaurants.  It is conveniently located in the community in which my parents reside.  When we arrived, we found the place packed and a charming accordion player entertaining the crowd with classics and Italian melodies (think “Volaré” and “Funiculi, Funiculà”).  Unfortunately, we soon learned that the eggplant with mushrooms and peppers that I so enjoyed last time was not available.  “But, but, we ordered it last time!” I sputtered to the waitress.  “When was that?” she sneered.  “I’ve been here ten years and that’s never been on the menu.”  I offered that perhaps it was only available at lunch.  She shook her head to disagree.  “Maybe it was some kind of lunch special,” she suggested.  I ended up ordering spaghetti with mushrooms, which, I am sorry to relate, was awful.  Not only was the sauce so spicy that even jalapeño-loving Uncle Guacamole couldn’t stand it, but I had to pick out the cheese that was added without warning.  My wife said her calzone wasn’t much better.  We each ended up eating about three bites, paying the bill and leaving.  We didn’t think complaining would have gotten us anywhere.  Sometimes you just have to write things off.  Too many people think vegans are just plain weirdoes.

Once again, hummus and bread saved me from going hungry.  I truly appreciated that Save Mart stays open late.  Not only that, but I felt as if I had hit the jackpot when 99-cent cartons of garlic flavored hummus were on display.  They expired that day and the store wanted to get rid of them.  Very happy to oblige, Save Mart.

Like mothers everywhere, mine feels a discomforting sense of defeat when she is unable to feed me properly.  When I walk in and load up her refrigerator with almond milk, Earth Balance margarine, soy yogurt, Tofurky deli slices and yes, hummus, I think Mom feels that she has somehow failed.

On Saturday night, we all went out to dinner at a place where I knew I could obtain salad (no cheese, no croutons, no dressing) and vegetarian soup.  My wife retired early, while I stayed up to watch movies with Mom.  I am glad that I was able to keep her company for a few hours.  I think she’s lonely.  And where was my father, you may ask?  Watching gory movies about murders on the little TV in the bedroom that they turned into an office.  My father prizes solitude, seemingly above all else.  I suppose my mother could join him, but I know that I wouldn’t, considering the visual fare that he considers appetizing.  Is this what married life is like for octogenarians?  Feeling like a widow even though your spouse lives with you?  Perhaps I should be grateful that my state of health leaves me very little chance of reaching that age.

Later, I had a cup of tea and brought out my hummus and bread again.  I bring my own bread because the types that my parents buy are nearly always dairy, and half the time it has been frozen for some time and then defrosted.  My mother immediately began to fret again about feeding me.  “How about some hash browned potatoes?” she offered.  “Your sister brought some and left them in the freezer.”  My mother produced the package.  “There’s nothing in them,” she assured me.  I removed my eyeglasses to peruse the ingredients listed in tiny printing.  “Contains milk,” consumers are informed in bold type.  No, thanks.

My sister, who is not a vegan, nevertheless shares my “have food, will travel” lifestyle.  And boy howdy, does she travel.  As a traveling sonographer, she spends about six to ten weeks at a hospital before moving on.  She just returned to California from her second stint in Ohio.  Sis had bariatric surgery a number of years ago and now has severe digestive problems.  She is quite limited on what she feels she can eat, and she can’t eat much of it.  This weekend, my mother related the story of Sis’ Valentine’s Day dinner.  Apparently, her date took her to an upscale restaurant, where she proceeded to annoy the bejabbers out of him by asking the wait staff dozens of questions about the composition of food.  She was particularly insistent that her food be prepared without bacon.  After having to excuse herself three times to vomit, she discovered that her meal had, in fact, been prepared with bacon.

Despite striking out on the hash browns, my mother wasn’t about to give up her efforts to provide me with a late night meal.  “How about some eggplant?” she asked.  Now, eggplant is one of my staples, but my mother claims that she only knows one way to prepare it:  Dredge it in bread crumbs and egg and fry it.  If I want to eat eggplant in her home, either my wife or I have to prepare it (baked in the oven with tomato sauce, mushrooms and garlic — delicious!).  “Are you going to bread it with egg?” I asked her.  “No, thanks.”

“How about some canned corn?”

“No, thanks.  I probably shouldn’t have more starch today.”  As a Type II diabetic, I have to watch the starch, which our bodies so inconveniently turn directly into sugar.

“Green beans?”

I do feel sorry for my mother when she attempts to feed me.  Perhaps one day she will learn that I plan my meals in advance, bring along the food I want, and eat it.

It’s really not that difficult.  Particularly when the alternatives are potato chips, soda and cold vegetables out of cans.

scratching cow

A little lower, please… Just to the left… Ahhhh!  (We spied this bovine using a rock as a scratching post out in the country near my parents’ home.  Notice that this bull has been branded.  Beef cattle are big business out on the rangeland.  Go vegan!)

Vegucated

When I arrived home from work on Friday evening, my wife, Pastor Mom and I relaxed by watching the indie film Vegucated on Netflix (click here to see it on YouTube).  This documentary follows the journey of three meat-eaters who volunteer to go vegan for three weeks.  They learn about the factory farms where most of our meat comes from, the horrific cruelty inflicted upon the birds, cows and pigs that become our food, and the epidemic of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer that could be greatly reduced by eliminating animal products from our diets and embracing the eating of vegetables, legumes, fruit and other plant-based food.

I was delighted by the film’s opening sequence, taken from what appears to be a 1950s-era newsreel for school children, featuring Bossie, the happy cow giving us milk and kids petting the cute baby chicks on the farm.  The pneumatic bolt guns used to drive steel through the brains of cattle prior to slitting their throats is discussed later in the film, but not shown.

I had to laugh at the interviews conducted on location in what looks to me like Times Square in Manhattan, particularly the guy who refuses offers to go vegan first for $10,000 and then for $100,000.  The point that Americans love their hamburger was well illustrated.

I highly recommend taking a look at this film and learning what happens to the California dude, the young Latina and the hipster psychiatrist/stand-up comic.  Along the way, you’ll learn about what vegans eat and some of the motivations for adopting this type of diet.

Although this film is about five years old now, I learned about it at a propitious time.  That’s because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a vegan and what responsibilities I have to share my experiences with others.  One hears the phrase “change the world” quite a bit in vegan circles, yet I feel confident that the practice of killing and eating animals will always be with us.  I can’t say that I truly feel that what I’ve been doing for the past year and a half will change the world.  I have long believed that we have no control of what others do; we only have control over our own actions.  This, however, may be enough, as being a living example of right actions remains the most powerful way to influence others.

I have never been one to proselytize or in any way push my beliefs on others.  Still, I often find myself having to rein in my disgust with what others put in their mouths and bellies.  Ultimately, each person has to do what he or she thinks is right.  The prevailing notion among Americans seems to be “if it tastes good, eat it.”  Just where that food came from doesn’t seem to factor into the equation.  Yet I am somewhat reluctant to educate others on this subject, particularly since it seems that many would prefer not to know.  Perhaps ignorance really is bliss.

Some see vegans as ascetics, crazy (a little creepy, even) hippie throwbacks who foolishly choose to deprive themselves of the finer things in life.  I try not to point out that I don’t deprive myself of eggplant, chick peas and cashews, which I happen to view as some of the finer things in life.

It’s interesting to hear the questions I’m asked when folks learn that I follow a vegan diet.  Aside from the usual “Goodness, you can’t eat anything!  How do you survive?” I typically get questions such as “Why on earth would anyone want to do such a thing?” and, of course, “Don’t you ever miss having a hamburger?” Uh, no, actually I don’t.  Although I must admit that I’ve become rather fond of my vegan Boca patties.

Many view a vegan diet as something that one can try for a while as an experiment, but certainly not as something sustainable for a lifetime.  They might be surprised to learn how many of us have been vegans for decades.  A vegan diet has been shown to lower blood pressure, cholesterol and weight.  Although I haven’t eaten meat in about a quarter of a century, ditching the dairy products allowed me to lose about 70 pounds in the first year alone.

A big temptation for new vegans is to get through the meat and dairy withdrawals by relying heavily on refined carbohydrates — lots of potatoes, chips, pretzels and cookies.  Indeed, after all this time, potatoes remain my downfall.  As a Type II diabetic, I have to keep reminding myself that our bodies turn those carbs straight into sugar.  I have been working on this particular problem by making sure to consume less starchy vegetables such as carrots, spinach and tomatoes along with my spuds.  And I’ve been substituting some of my potato-based meals with garbanzo beans.  They also contain some starch, but at least they are high in protein.

To say that tofu is my friend isn’t too much of an exaggeration.  Because this pure soy protein is essentially flavorless, it can be added to anything and spiced up at will.  Then there is the “soy meat” like my favorite Gardein and Tofurky products.  There is fake chicken, fake beef, fake fish, fake cheese, fake hot dogs, you name it.  Most of it is made from flavored soy and textured vegetable protein (TVP).  I can’t begin to describe how delicious this stuff is.  You’ll just have to take my word for it.  Or better yet, try it for yourself and be surprised.

dinner1

My dinner this evening:  Baked yam, Boca patty, rice and garbanzos (seasoned with soy sauce and garlic powder).

The Refrigerator Rules

refrigerator rules

I usually don’t write much about what goes on at work.  This is partly out of self-protection, as I was previously unemployed for a year and would prefer not to walk down that road again anytime soon.  But it’s also partly out of a desire to achieve what in current HR lingo is known as “work/life balance.”  In other words, I work enough hours that when it comes to blogging on my day off, I’d really rather talk about something else.

More often than not, that “something else” ends up being my extended family.  However, I recently discovered that there are limits to what one may write on this subject without causing, well, let us say “discord” and “domestic discomfort.”  In other words, I got in trouble for reporting certain things that I subsequently had to remove.  And since I find it rather boring to discuss the weather (my readers suffering through a snowy winter on the East Coast will have my hide for reporting that it was 78°F here in sunny California today) or the rising price of petrol, I’m pretty much left with tales of my working life.

I’ll start this rodeo by reporting on the six cardinal sins posted on our refrigerator at work.  I realize that the photo above only goes up to number 5, but notice that two different items are labeled as number 3.  Whoever made this sign must be long gone from our workplace, as I work with a bunch of super sharp data savvy people, while the sign maker obviously can’t count.

1. Please do not eat or drink foods that do not belong to you. If you didn’t bring it, don’t take it!  It is nothing short of painful that this rule should have to be spelled out in a workplace that is presumably populated by adults.  This rule signals, loudly and clearly, that at some point someone had stolen someone else’s lunch.  We may never know whether this occurred merely due to lack of sufficient will power to resist someone’s tasty leftovers (as opposed to, say, a boring old PB&J), or perhaps due to a gnawing hunger accompanied by lack of a lunch pail or money to purchase a meal at the café downstairs.  I tend to doubt that it was the latter situation that prompted Rule #1, as we all receive a fairly decent pay envelope each and every month.  If I am wrong about this, however, please see me and I will gladly share my carrots, spinach and tofu with you.  As for the miscreant with the lack of self-control issue, may I take a moment to remind you of a little ditty we learned in kindergarten?  It went something like this:  “I won’t take it, it’s not mine… I’ll have my coworker’s Lean Cuisine some other time.”

2. Do not leave food in the refrigerator to rot and smell. If you brought it and didn’t eat it, throw it away.  I did not fully appreciate the importance of this rule until it was my unit’s turn to clean the kitchen last month.  On refrigerator cleanout day, it is customary to send out an email to all staff members letting them know of the time of day at which unlabeled food will be removed to the counter and then discarded if not picked up by the end of the day.  I had forgotten that I had a water bottle full of almond milk in the refrigerator, my weekly supply to top off my morning mug of tea.  As I was held up by a meeting, when I arrived at the kitchen to join the cleaning crew, I found my bottle sitting on the counter.  I guess I should locate an indelible black marker and clearly indicate my name on my bottle:  PROPERTY OF THE RESIDENT VEGAN.  DO NOT TOUCH OR THE TOFU MONSTER WILL GET YOU.  I won’t get into graphic descriptions of some of the science projects we removed from the refrigerator.  (Shudder)  My own contribution to our little cleanup project was scrubbing out the microwaves.  Oh, and I should mention that we found ourselves without any cleaning materials.  I wet some paper towels in the sink and proceeded to scrub away as best I could.  The larger of the two microwaves wasn’t too bad.  The roof of the smaller one, however, had brown baked-on goo to be dealt with.  As hard as I scrubbed, I couldn’t remove it.  My best guess is that this crud is the projectile remains of someone’s delectable frozen entrée from, oh, 2008 or so.  Something tells me that, long after I retire or die, the phantom brown goo will remain.  And this is a microwave oven in which dozens of employees heat their lunches daily.  Ewww.

3. Do not bring “Costco” size containers. They take up too much space.  Single serving size only, please.  For the benefit of my readers outside the United States, I will explain that Costco is a giant warehouse store that specializes in selling food and household products in industrial sizes appropriate for feeding, say, the entire school or football team or even the population of some of the smaller towns around here.  Considering that one of these packages can easily occupy an entire shelf, of which each of our two refrigerators has only three, I can see the reason for this rule.  I can’t imagine why anyone would want to bring one of these monstrosities to work, unless perhaps they plan to eat out of that lasagna pan every day from now until Christmas.  I would venture to say that no one is likely to fess up to this particular indiscretion and that, should such a package appear in the refrigerator, it would be unlikely to have anyone’s name written on it.  No worries, though.  This rule breaker will be caught on the very next refrigerator cleanout day when the unlabeled package will be unceremoniously evicted from its frosty domain.  You can be sure that we’ll all be watching that counter to find out who comes to claim it.  Remember, the price of anonymity is consignment to the trash bin at 5 p.m.

4. Do not leave foods uncovered. This is especially important when the food has a strong odor.  Better yet, try not to bring foods that may have a strong odor such as garlic or onions.  This is also good advice for your breath during the workday.  I seldom leave anything other than my little bottle of almond milk in the refrigerator.  However, every so often, I find that I have made a bit too much lunch and leave my (tightly-sealed) Rubbermaid container in the fridge for finishing the next day.  Ultimately, however, I plead guilty to this sin, as I am in the habit of liberally seasoning my food with garlic and hot salsa.  I must admit that many of the foods that we vegans tend to have on our regular menus (things like mushrooms, eggplant and carrots) are rather bland.  Palatability is greatly increased by the application of liberal doses of the spicy stuff.  So even if my closed plastic containers do not stink up the entire refrigerator, I probably walk about with dragon breath all afternoon.  Maybe all morning, too, as I have been known to season my breakfast, as well.  I totally love tofu, but — bland, bland, bland.  One day soon I promise to start using that roll of Breath Savers that has been sitting forlornly in my desk drawer for months now.  In the meantime, I’ll try not to breathe on you.

5. If your container leaks or spills in the refrigerator, clean the spill. This reminds me of a sign that was seen around a place where I was employed several decades ago.  It read “Your mother does not work here.  Clean up after yourself.”  The irony was that some entire families worked in that establishment, so it was entirely possible that your mother did indeed work there.  Not that she had any intention of cleaning up after you, of course.  I hope I haven’t inadvertently violated this rule at any point, but my guess is that I will do so sooner or later.  Some of us (I am a prime example) are totally oblivious and unlikely to notice even if we do spill.  And if we do notice a spill, we will likely think it was the result of leakage from someone else’s lunch.

6. Do not look through your coworkers’ food to see what they brought. Generally, those who want to know what I brought for lunch (often due to the delicious smell wafting from the microwave) take the straightforward approach and just ask.  I’m always happy to relate the details of each can that I lovingly opened and dumped into the plastic container now spinning about on High, releasing who knows what kinds of carcinogens in the process.  As the rule states, rummaging around in the refrigerator is a practice greatly frowned upon, as it may appear that you are you going shopping in preparation for violating Rule #1.  Don’t be so curious, George.

I’m sure glad that the anonymous rule poster at least finished up by saying thanks.  With exclamation points, no less.

What lists of rules are posted at your workplace?  Does eating lunch at work involve refrigerator thieves and microwave slobs?  Tell us all about it!

Still Life with Birthday, and Chocolate, and Angst

Birthday Cake

What a lovely domestic scene.  It’s Sunday afternoon at the parsonage.  In the living room, my wife is folding freshly-washed laundry, Pastor Mom is dozing in her easy chair, my little grandniece has toys strewn all over the floor even though she’s only been here five minutes, and I am sitting on the couch with the laptop and a pile of paperwork, trying to catch up and prepare for Monday morning.  My niece is at the kitchen table doing homework for her college classes.  “What’s a dislocated worker?” she asks me, and I yell into the kitchen that it’s someone who has been laid off.  We’ve left the front door open, and the breeze wafting into the living room reminds us that it’s nearly spring.

“Phone?  Phone?”  The little one begs my wife for her mobile.  My niece gives the okay and our two year old pride and joy begins playing her favorite videos of wildly colored “surprise eggs” being opened for the toys inside to be revealed.  This time it’s the one with one hundred Christmas eggs.  My grandniece has been mesmerized by this stuff for months.  Despite the Christmas eggs, I think she finally realizes that the holidays are over.  Halfway through January, she was still making the rounds of our home, wishing each of us “Me’y Kismiss!”

Today Little Miss brought her pink Frozen backpack with her.  Aside from the eggs, her other fascination is with Olaf, Elsa and all the rest.

When I step into the kitchen to make some PB&Js, I see that my niece is reading aloud from a textbook for her humanities class.  She is clearly struggling with some of the academic language and we begin chatting about perception, reality and context.  Somehow we flit from Descartes to Freud to Santa Claus.  She reads a paragraph about turning humans into objects and I volunteer that the ultimate example of this is murder.  She gives me a quizzical glance and I explain about turning a conscious being into a corpse, a mere object.

She asks me how I “remember all this stuff.”  Did I have some super method of studying when I was in college that allowed me to retain everything for years?  Do I have a photographic memory?  I assure her that nothing of the kind is true and that, in fact, I am a horrible studier and didn’t do all that well in school.  Certain things just stick with you, I volunteered.  My wife agrees and begins reciting snippets of Shakespeare that she still remembers from high school.  She mentions my father, who, at the age of 81, can recite from memory dozens of lengthy poems that he studied more than half a century ago.

I was delighted when my niece showed up with her daughter unexpectedly late this afternoon.  She needed us to perform babysitting duty long enough to allow her to finish her homework assignment.  Even with the attentions of my wife, my mother-in-law and myself, the little one kept wandering into the kitchen to be with her mom.  In her silliness, she began biting the tablecloth, making a hole in it.  For this transgression, she earned a tearful time-out and a detailed explanation that we eat food, not tablecloths.

I don’t generally see my niece very often, even though she lives just down the road.  With work and college and raising a two year old, she doesn’t have time to breathe, much less to visit family.  On Monday nights, she works the graveyard shift and we keep the little one all night.  She has her own bed here in the office, but partway through the night she always wakes up fussing and we take her into bed with us.  We lay three across in contented familial somnolence until I roust myself out of bed at 4:30 in the morning to get ready for work.  I am gone to Sacramento by the time my niece comes to retrieve her daughter.

So it was a bit of a surprise that I got to visit with my niece two days in a row.  Last night, she was here along with her daughter, her mom and her two brothers in honor of my birthday.  Earlier in the week, my wife told her that she planned to shop for a vegan dessert for me.  “Can I make him a cake?” she asked.  The result was one of the most delicious chocolate cakes I have ever tasted, with chocolate icing, no less.  My wife and I drove over to Little Caesar’s and brought back pizza for everyone.  My grandniece was in a happy mood, running amok and basking in the attentions of uncles and aunts of all ages.  My niece is taking some kind of exercise class for her phys ed requirement, aerobics or yoga or something, and she tried out some of her moves with her mom in the middle of the living room floor as the rest of us egged them on and indulged in lots of laughs as they bent, stretched and lunged.  My nephew picked up the little one, turned her upside down behind his back and walked around the house holding onto her feet, calling for her and pretending he couldn’t find her anywhere.  We could hear the giggles from one end of the parsonage to the other.

We couldn’t find any candles, but they all sang “Happy Birthday” anyway and I opened bars of vegan chocolate and gift cards for Starbucks and iTunes.  My best present was the one wrapped in lavender tissue paper that my grandniece eagerly tore apart for me.  It was a framed photo of her first drawing, one that will proudly grace my cubicle at least until she is old enough to find it thoroughly embarrassing.  We talked about maybe home schooling her, and with all of us assisting, did we think we could actually pull it off?  Yes!

I don’t actually try the cake until the guests have left and I have made myself a cup of hot tea with almond milk.  The cake tastes as incredible as it looks, and I text my niece that I would gladly pay to have her bake this any time at all.  “I hope I get to eat this every day in heaven,” I blurt out to my wife.  “You don’t even believe in heaven,” she replies, and I grin stupidly.  It is such a blessing to be so loved by family, to drown in it, to blow its bubbles out your nose and mouth and bathe in its pure wonderfulness.

My parents couldn’t make it because they don’t like to stay overnight, and it would be a long ride home in the thick Central Valley nighttime fog that is a hallmark of our California winters.  We will head south to visit them at their home next weekend.  My Bay Area nephew wishes me happy birthday via email, writes me all about his new job at a Silicon Valley startup and we begin conspiring about what we will do for Grandma’s 81st birthday next month.

The Measles Comes to California

My mother called a few days ago to warn me that measles is going around.  Although I initially cocked my head and squinted an eye at this information, it turns out that she’s right.  An email notice sent out to state government employees yesterday stated that there are now 75 confirmed cases of measles in California.

At least to me, measles seems terribly old-fashioned, a disease that, like polio, should long ago have been vanquished by the miracles of modern medicine.  When I was a kid, the childhood diseases were measles, mumps, rubella and chicken pox (before it became fashionable to refer to it as “varicella”).  I managed to contract the last three, but certainly not the first.  Before parents could register a child in the public schools, they had to provide immunization records showing that their kid had been vaccinated against such dread diseases as smallpox, polio, diphtheria, tetanus and, yes, measles.

I imagine that measles must continue to be a vast public health threat in underdeveloped nations in which immunization is not widespread.  But here in the United States?  I think of Cheaper by the Dozen, in which the twelve Gilbreth children all came down with measles in the 1920s after they moved from Providence, Rhode Island to Essex County, New Jersey.  But that was a good ninety years ago.  Ancient history.

Mom listens to talk radio as she putters about the kitchen, and she told me about a local talk jock who characterized measles as a thing of the past only to have a middle age listener call in to say he had it as a kid.  Mom says it’s obvious that he doesn’t know the difference between “German” measles (rubella) and the real deal.

I suppose my mother has the right to be suspicious, considering that she really did have measles as a child.  She proceeded to tell me the story of how she was eight years old when she became sick with a high fever and then the famous spots.  Her mother never allowed her to stay home from school just because she didn’t feel well, but this was different.  It was one of the very rare times in her elementary school days that she couldn’t possibly go to school.  My grandmother was working behind a sewing machine in her brother’s factory at the time, and she felt that she could not stay home from work.  Thus, my mother had to stay home in bed alone.

Remember, this was about 75 years ago.  The really scary thing about measles back then was the high fever, from which kids died or were left deaf or blind.  Fearing for my mother’s eyes, my grandmother closed all the blinds, leaving my mother in a darkened room.  After a few days of this, my grandmother told her daughter that Aunt Rose, wife of the factory owner, would be coming to visit her during the day.  Now, Aunt Rose had a reputation as a nasty, vindictive person.  As evidence of this, my mother points to the time that she fell and scraped up her knee.  Aunt Rose tended to it by pouring boric acid on the wound.  My mother claims to remember to horrible pain still.  Well, on the day that Aunt Rose came to visit her little niece with the measles, she immediately pulled opened all the blinds and curtains to fill the room with light.  Then she said she would fix my mother some soup, if only she could find a match to light the stove.  Unfortunately, my grandmother had hidden all the matches for fear that her daughter, left alone and to her own devices, would burn down the entire apartment building.  So Aunt Rose ordered my mom out of bed, measles or no, to crawl on the floor on her hands and knees to look for a match under the stove and the refrigerator.  Of course, my grandmother had hidden the matches much better than that, and, oh well, there would be no soup after all.  Aunt Rose waltzed off on her merry way, and my grandmother was livid when she returned home in the late afternoon to find light streaming into the small New York City apartment.

I only hope that the measles does not turn into an epidemic in California, instead disappearing as quickly as it arrived.  Health officials are saying that it was introduced by a sick child visiting Disneyland during Christmas week.  I can see what a public health nightmare can develop in the blink of an eye by something as virulent as the measles.  I think about my own workplace, where more than two thousand of us are packed like sardines into 34 floors of tiny cubicles.  As it is, bronchitis went around recently and every single member of my team, including their fearless leader (moi), came down with it.  It took nearly a month and two courses of antibiotics for me to get rid of that nasty bug, and now a lot of us are coming down with colds again.  And it’s just barely February.  Clearly, winter is not going to go out with a whimper.

With a little luck, we may be fortunate enough to escape a plague of measles here in California.  For the time being, however, I am glad to have had two hour-long phone conversations with my mother this week, and particularly that she was in the mood to share some of her childhood stories with me.

Priceless.

But Honestly…

I am sorry to say that honesty appears to no longer be a valued virtue in our society.  Many of us stretch the truth to the breaking point or even make up outrageous stories to get what we want, whether it be some type of advantage or just to avoid the consequences of a previous misdeed.  The illegality of fraud seems to have been reduced to little more than a technicality.

I say that honesty is “no longer” valued because I believe that, at one time, honesty was standard operating procedure both in the business world and in our personal lives.  Perhaps I’m just being naïve and no such halcyon time ever existed.  Perhaps we just covered up our deviousness better way back when, while today dishonesty has become so prevalent that it can be practiced openly without fear of denunciation or derision.

Interestingly, parents still expect honesty among their children.  Lying, fibbing, telling whoppers and every other variety of prevarication is preached against, strictly prohibited and sternly punished when it rears its ugly head despite our best efforts.  I recently posted about parents requiring their kids to share, even though sharing is not at all valued among adults and is, at least to some extent, discouraged.  I believe that lying belongs to the same club as sharing.  We require such things of our kids not because they need to learn these values to be productive adults, but because sharing and honesty are convenient for parents.  How will we know who to punish if Sally blames Johnny for her own misdeeds?  We certainly don’t want to look foolish when we’re called into school to account for Jimmy’s behavior when he dishonestly swears up and down that he did not copy from his neighbor’s test paper.  The list could go on and on.  The fact is that dishonesty among kids makes the job of parenting a lot harder.

Ultimately, of course, kids tend to model their parents’ actions, not their words.  “Do as I say, not as I do” is a ridiculous pipe dream and a cop-out to boot.  Children who see their parents bending the truth more than just a little (“oh, it’s just a teensy white lie”) are likely to internalize the idea that dishonesty is a perfectly legitimate and convenient technique of getting from Point A to Point B.  They may have to wait until adulthood to exercise this prerogative, but then they have the rest of their lives to “do what they have to do” to “get mine.”

When I was a child, my father would tell me such instructive stories as “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and, of course, the myth about George Washington refusing to lie about chopping down the cherry tree.  This is the time of year that every bakery and restaurant sells cherry pies in honor of this ridiculous story, designed to teach the virtues of taking the punishment we deserve.  The wolf story takes a different approach, warning kids that no one will believe a thing they say once they develop a reputation as a liar.  Based on the events of recent decades, I would hazard a guess that the boy who cried “wolf” now works on Wall Street.

As a whole, I believe that we have become a nation of liars.  Parents work at teaching their children the difference between fantasy and reality, no thanks to the barrage of Disney movies and animated TV shows.  Apparently, parental efforts are not working.  As adults, we seem to have lost the distinction between truth and falsehood.  We now live in a perverted utopia where the truth is whatever you want it to be.

In court, when a person takes the witness stand, the clerk requires that he or she take an oath to “swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you, God.”  I am told that a person who refuses to take this oath is deemed ineligible to testify.  One who takes the oath and then knowingly testifies falsely is guilty of the crime of perjury.  I have no doubt that many witnesses perjure themselves for many reasons and often go unpunished.  Far more sinister, however, is the case of those who manage to convince themselves of the truth of whatever made-up story is most convenient at the time.  We don’t particularly expect young children to be able to distinguish between truth and fantasy, but today it seems that many adults are unable to tell the difference either.  The concept of our American judicial process is that many witnesses will be examined and cross-examined and that, in the end, the truth will emerge victorious.  Often, we depend on juries to determine just what the truth is.  This has the capacity to fail on a number of levels, including jurors whose votes express their opposition to the law as written (a phenomenon known as “jury nullification”) and jurors who are themselves so impervious to lying in everyday life that they no longer have the capacity to distinguish between a truth and a falsehood.  Then again, one could say that it works out in the end because all the Constitution guarantees is a jury of one’s peers, and it is likely that jurors are no more prone to truth telling than are the defendants or litigants.

My niece shares an apartment with a roommate who is experiencing difficulty in passing his college engineering classes.  I am told that he is a foreign student whose wealthy parents send him whatever funds he needs from abroad.  However, he is required to account for all of his expenses.  Among those expenses was hiring tutors to help him get through.  More recently, his parents’ money allowed him to incur the expense of paying others to take his tests for him.  If he can’t pass the exams himself, no worries.  If you have enough money, you can always take care of whatever little inconvenience comes your away.  The fact that this violates the school’s honor code appears to be of no consequence.  If his dishonesty were ever discovered, I wonder whether throwing thousands of dollars at the college would prevent him from being expelled.  My guess is that, should his luck run out, the family money would bankroll a cadre of lawyers dedicated to the art of obfuscation who would tie the case up in litigation until long after he graduated and returned to his home country.

But who can blame the guy?  He’s learned a lot during his short time in the United States.  After all, dishonesty is the American way.

Just Words

Daisies

I was annoyed that some kind of message had popped up on my iPhone screen while I was attempting to play my turn in a Words with Friends game.  My annoyance turned to horror when I read the inconvenient little missive, warning me that the sexting app I was about to download contained graphic images.

Where the hell had this come from?

Sitting a few steps away from me, my wife could see that I was perturbed.  “What’s wrong?” she asked.  “You tell me!” I blurted out in response.

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I am a techno-idiot.  As my wife likes to remind me, I break computers.  If there is a way to mess up an electronic device, I will find it.  Those who create foolproof hardware and software never bargained for a fool the likes of me.

In this case, not only was I alarmed by the nature of the warning, but the message box covered most of the little screen and I had no idea how to make it go away without clicking “Download.”  This I most assuredly was not about to do.  I expressed my opinion that this was horrible stuff and that I had no idea how all manner of trash seems to download itself spontaneously onto my phone by some sort of electronic voodoo.

I brought the phone over to my wife, who pressed some buttons, swiped her finger, gave the phone the evil eye, and did a bippity-bop and an abracadabra, quickly returning the phone to its normal state and me to my Words with Friends game.

But she was clearly annoyed with my reaction.  “It’s not horrible, it’s just words!” she insisted.  Her remark returned me to a dilemma I’ve faced for years.

I believe that words are powerful.  I have always loved the aphorism that “the pen is mightier than the sword.”  I don’t think that I could be a writer, even of a lowly blog, if I believed otherwise.

I find that words can inspire, disgust, convince, perplex, soothe, and yes, even change the world.  However, I have also discovered that not everyone agrees.  When I was a kid, my father liked to recite “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never harm me.”  I, of course, knew otherwise, and not just because of some of the choice bits of vocabulary leveled at me by my schoolmates.  I witnessed the visceral reaction of my mother when my parents were arguing and my father used certain Yiddish invective against her.  And, as a bookworm from an early age, I knew how those black letters on the white page could toss me about on an emotional roller coaster.

Three or four jobs ago, I found myself engaged in a running argument on this topic with one of my coworkers.  The usual context of our debate was the appropriateness of profanity.  My position was that the use of certain words raise powerful reactions in the reader that are likely to derail the author’s intended message.  “Oh, they’re just words,” she’d roll her eyes and tell me, implying that I was some kind of prude or maybe just a big baby.

Just words??!!  Does that mean that the Bible is just words?  Does that mean that the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are just words?  I’m sorry, but when I recite the ninety-first Psalm or the Pledge of Allegiance, these are not just words to me.  They mean something.  Granted, what they mean to me may be very different from what they mean to you.  But to utterly dismiss our means of expression, our innermost thoughts and our fondest desires as mere words is a nihilistic proposition that exceeds the bounds of even our most existential of philosophers.

Another pithy saying I learned as a child was “actions speak louder than words.”  I quickly came to understand that this meant that politicians, and almost everyone else as well, were liars and big talkers who would say one thing and do another.  Once again, words were discounted as worthless and devoid of meaning.

And then there was that other glib saying, “silence is golden.”  Apparently, words were so misleading and evil that they were not even worth uttering.  Even the solitude and separation imposed by silence was preferable.

As I grew up, I became amazed by the extent to which people feared words.  Eventually, I came to see that one way of dealing with fear was dismissal.  If you convinced yourself that words were nothing but a load of trash, then you could rob them of their power.

In junior high, when I first studied the Bill of Rights in detail, I learned that freedom of speech is not unlimited.  Because words do indeed carry the power to injure, they have to be reined in to some extent.  The example with which we were provided is that it is unlawful to precipitate a deadly panic by shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

This was something of an “aha” moment for me.  So words do have meaning.  Actions may speak louder than words, but boy howdy, words sure can lead to action.  Action like a mad stampede out of the theater in which scores of people are crushed to death.  Just as surely, effective words can inspire people to perform good works and to engage in amazing acts of kindness and beauty.  Or they can rouse people to fits of anger, to die for a cause, or to commit crazed acts like the murder most of the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo.

It didn’t take me long to come to the conclusion that words themselves could be beautiful or ugly.  This is not because of the shapes of the letters of which they are composed on paper or the contortions of the mouth in which one must engage in order to pronounce them.  True, the very sound of a word may be mellifluous or grating.  But the inherent beauty of words lies in what they represent.  They are symbols that stand for real things, ideas, emotions.  Say “daisy” and I will likely picture the wildflowers that popped up unbidden on the lawn of my childhood home or the yellow lovelies that now sit in a vase on our kitchen table, courtesy of our generous niece.  Say “war” and I will conjure up images of blood and guts and deafening explosions and tanks and planes and smoke and fire and mortally wounded soldiers writhing in pain.

So no, it’s not “just words” when someone uses profanity and I feel an involuntary jerk in my gut.  And it’s not “just words” when a message pops up on my screen warning me that I am about to download porno.  Horror and disgust are valid reactions to words because words do have meaning, do have import, do have power.

What I have learned is that there are some who I will never be able to convince.  To them, all of my arguments on the subject are undoubtedly “just words.”