Uncle Guacamole’s Fantasy Lunch Counter

When I was ten years old, my family took the short ride into Manhattan to visit my Dad’s aunt.  A lifelong spinster, she was an accountant who lived high in an apartment building that shot its way up into the sky at 435 West 57th Street.  I was highly impressed with everything:  The midtown location, the doorman, the soft music in the elevator, the tiny, compact living quarters, my aunt’s adding machine with the smooth, green buttons and the frou-frou lunch we enjoyed across the street at the Holiday Inn.

The fancy items on the one-page luncheon menu included such delicacies as blueberries with cream.  My meal consisted of a cream cheese and green olive sandwich, with the crusts cut off the bread, of course.  Now, I had eaten a cream cheese and walnut sandwich with my father at Chock Full O’ Nuts, but this was my first experience with an olive sandwich.  My mother rarely purchased olives on the grounds that they were salty and “not good for you.”

After that visit, I begged my parents for olives on a regular basis, and sometimes they relented.  These delicacies were a beautiful thing to behold as I speared and wrestled them out of their narrow briny prison — first the bright red pimiento, followed by the luscious green orb.  I made Philadelphia cream cheese and olive sandwiches on whatever we happened to have on hand — soft white bread from Waldbaum’s, chewy onion rye from Barnett’s Bakery, a Lender’s frozen bagel, Ritz crackers, matzo.  As my sisters and I, bored on the long, hot, suburban days of summer vacation, pulled chairs out onto the shady patio and attempted to devise methods of self-amusement (long before the advent of video games and the internet), I proposed that we pretend to start a ritzy restaurant like the one at the Holiday Inn on 57th Street.

My first task, I knew, was to develop a menu.  Of course, I included blueberries and cream along with cream cheese and olive sandwiches, as I strained to remember the other items printed on that page in midtown Manhattan.  Now that decades have gone by, one thing remains unchanged:  I still cherish cream cheese and olive sandwiches.  As an adult, I now have the privilege of eating them almost daily.  Even as a vegan (voluntary) following a gluten-free diet (forced by health issues), I enjoy soy cream cheese and olive sandwiches on gluten-free rice bread.

But there is another thing that has remained unchanged as the years go by.  I still dream of starting a little restaurant that serves all the dishes that I wish were on the menu when I visit a restaurant.  A vegan, gluten-free lunch spot where I can walk through the door knowing that I can eat anything on the menu without asking a million questions of disgusted staff.  And just like back in that summer when, at age ten, I tried to develop a menu out on our patio, I still think of what my fantasy luncheonette would serve.  I have developed a no-nonsense menu, based on vegan, gluten-free dishes that I have actually have eaten, prepared either by a restaurant, myself or my wife.  In time, as more gluten-free, vegan items become available on the market and as customers make suggestions for dishes they’d like to eat, I am sure that the menu would be further developed and augmented.  And so, without further ado, I present you with my modest gustatory proposition.

UNCLE GUACAMOLE’S FANTASY LUNCH COUNTER

where everything we serve is vegan and gluten-free

 

Sandwiches served on gluten-free rice bread (add $1 for gluten-free tortilla wrap)

soy cream cheese and olive

soy cream cheese and tomato

PBJ (grape jam, strawberry preserves or orange marmalade)

triple decker (vegan cream cheese, peanut butter, choice of jam)

Tweedledee (melted vegan provolone)

Tweedledum (melted vegan gouda)

California (fresh veggies and avocado – optional: onions, dill pickles, pepperoncini)

Lebanese (hummus, tomato, cucumber)

 

Salad Bowl

protein bowl (tofu, garbanzos, tomatoes, cucumbers)

garden greens (red leaf and iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, green olives,

raisins, sunflower nuts, served with balsamic vinegar)

fresh fruit salad with coconut milk yogurt

 

Spuds, Inc.

baked potato with your choice of toppings (Earth Balance vegan margarine, Tofutti vegan sour topping, Daiya vegan cheese shreds, broccoli, onions, salsa, jalapeños)

 

Hot Stuff

vegan chili (add $1 for loaded:  onions, Daiya vegan cheese shreds, Tofutti sour topping)

vegan “beef” (Tofurky brand) over rice

bunless burger (Dr. Praeger’s GF vegan) with fries and salad

sautéed tofu, mushrooms, onions over rice

nachos (vegan cheese, onions, Tofutti vegan sour cream, guacamole)

eggplant parmigiana (prepared with vegan soy cheese)

macaroni and cheese (gluten-free pasta, vegan soy cheese)

fried potato and tofu tacos (corn tortillas)

loaded fries (vegan soy cheese, Tofutti sour topping, onions)  (chili or guacamole $1)

gluten-free pizza (vegan soy cheese)  (toppings $1 each:  mushrooms, onions, peppers, olives, broccoli, artichokes, tofu, pineapple)

 

Sides

choice of hot veggies:  carrots, broccoli, spinach, corn, zucchini in tomato sauce, vegan “cheesy” broccoli or cauliflower

“ants on a log” (celery, raisins, your choice of peanut butter or vegan cream cheese)

white rice

French fries

chips and salsa

guacamole

beans and vegan cheese

 

Dessert

frozen coconut milk “ice cream” (chocolate, vanilla, cherry chip)

Sugar Plum Bakery whoopie pies

 

Beverages

fresh brewed iced tea, iced coffee, Pepsi products, seltzer (orange, berry or plain), orange juice, apple juice

 

So, what do you think?  Would anyone actually want to eat lunch at such a weird place?  Anyone out there want to raise some capital for this venture?  Has Uncle Guac finally lost his mind?  Talk to me in the comments.

 

Vegan Lessons from Early Disney Cartoons

My little grandniece, who will turn four later this month, loves to watch cartoons on Netflix when she is visiting us.  Although she has been a video fanatic at least since she was two (I am old enough to remember when cartoons appeared on TV on Saturday mornings only), we encourage her to get involved in other activities as well.  While she visited us over the weekend, she played with the cats, got a good look at the chickens, romped about with the neighbor kids, created things with Play-Doh (the blue and red mashed together for so long that all of her creations are now rendered in a sickly purplish hue) and was taught to play Chutes ‘n Ladders by Uncle Guac.

However, it is the cartoons that really take me back.  My grandniece’s fascination with Peppa Pig, Shopkins, Minnie Mouse and the cast of Frozen notwithstanding, I am amazed by how engrossed she becomes in some of the original Disney animation from the 1930s to 1950s, now available anytime on Netflix and YouTube.  This time around, she wanted to watch the short films “The Big Bad Wolf” and “The Three Little Wolves,” not once, not twice, but over and over again.  Aging baby boomers will likely share my fond memories of the “Mickey Mouse presents” Silly Symphonies.  A series of these feature the three little pigs and I must say that the quality of the Depression era animation is mind-blowing.  You can see how the fancy Pixar stuff of today was influenced by these early works.

I am particularly fascinated by the way the three pigs (protagonists of both of these shorts) are drawn.  Their coloring is very pink.  They have appropriately piggy ears, snouts and hooves.  The little curly tail (referred to by the wolves as the “curly cue”) is present.  Only the “worker pig” is clothed on the lower half of its body (in overalls, including a patch over the rear end while a hole for the curly cue to stick out).  The other two pigs are naked below the chest.  Their belly buttons are visible, as are the cracks of their rear ends, but no external genitalia are in evidence.  This, I suppose, not only accommodated the sensibilities of the era, but also made the series more appropriate for children.  I was a bit surprised that the butt cracks were drawn in, and I wonder how this got past the censors.  Perhaps this was deemed okay for animals other than humans?

The wolves all have long bushy tails, lots of black fur and, of course, huge mouths with prominent sets of very white, sharply pointed teeth.  As Walt Disney was involved in producing some of the war effort propaganda, I can understand why the wolves, villains of these tales, speak with a pronounced German accent.  For example, the “father wolf” teaches his lupine offspring from wall charts labeled “choice cuts of pig” and “pig product chart” that include “pigsen feet” for “pigs’ feet” and “schweine stew” (using the German word for “pig”).

Unlike the 19th century “three little pigs” folk tale, in Disney’s “The Three Little Wolves,” the pigs appear to reside together in a single structure rather than in three separate dwellings.  Perhaps this is a reference to the wolf’s prior destruction (“I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down!”) of the flimsy houses built by “fiddler pig” and “piper pig.”  In fact, it appears that “worker pig,” who is so busy with bricks and mortar, is constructing an addition to its home, perhaps because its existing residence is too small to accommodate the porcine threesome.

In addition to this reference to the original “three little pigs” story, “The Three Little Wolves” also includes significant elements of “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”  The former character appears early in the film; “fiddler pig” and “piper pig” attempt to escort her to Grandma’s house via the short cut through the woods known to be frequented by the wolves (against the advice of the ever practical “worker pig”).  The two musical pigs also play a trick on the worker pig by blowing a horn (hanging from a tree below a sign reading “wolf alarm, for emergency use only”) when no wolves are in evidence.  The worker pig (who hits its head on a board and nearly shoots itself in its rush to arrive on the scene) warns the other two that such antics will result in no response to the horn when the wolf really is in the area.  It’s amazing how smoothly Disney manages to mash these three stories together.

As a vegan, I have to wonder whether “The Three Little Wolves” contains a subtextual protest against carnivorism.  Not only do the lupine villains speak with German accents, but they crave “choice cuts” of pork, a German staple.  One pig is industrious and the other two are happy-go-lucky musicians, but their contributions matter not to the wolves, who visibly salivate at the thought of eating them.  When the wolves finally do catch up with the two musical pigs and truss them side-by-side in a pan, they are ordered to say “Ah!” so that an apple can be shoved into their open mouths prior to cooking.  The pigs in the pan are just on the verge of being placed on the fire when the wolves are interrupted.  Apparently, the plan was to roast the pigs alive.  While I like to think this is designed as a display of the animal cruelty involved in cooking animals, more likely it was intended as a reference to the cruelty of the Germans during World War II.  The bottom line is that we sympathize with the playful pigs who are forced to spend their time devising ways of escaping being eaten by the wolves (building a “wolf appeaser,” blowing the emergency horn) or running away from the pursuing wolves.

While this cartoon makes it very obvious that the wolves wish to eat the pigs, Disney never shows us what the pigs eat.  However, the theme of opposing the consumption of animals is extended in another Disney short film, “Lambert, the Sheepish Lion,” which my grandniece also watched several times at our house.  In that film, the wolf, forever the carnivorous villain, is after sheep rather than pigs.  At the very end of the eight-minute cartoon, after the antagonist is soundly vanquished, the audience is told not to worry about the fate of the wolf.  Although the wolf is kicked off the edge of a cliff, it is shown clinging to a branch that adequately sustains the wolf because it grows berries “every spring.”  The carnivore converted to a vegan!

My guess is that these lessons are totally lost on the generations of children for whom they were intended and that the adults watching with them just don’t give a damn (after all, the roast is in the oven).

 

Just So Yummy (A Vegan Allegory)

Among the many difficulties of eating a vegan diet is that you are constantly challenged — by well-meaning family members, by coworkers, by mere acquaintances.  My advice to anyone considering going vegan is that this aspect of the lifestyle is far more difficult than the matter of finding something to eat.  The fact is that, without adequate support, you’re always going to be the odd person out.

What is worse, however, is that you can count on being frequently called upon to defend your practices and beliefs.  It’s a bit different than practicing a minority religion (which, as a Jew, I do as well), as the United States and most western nations have laws prohibiting discrimination based on religion.  While there are exceptions, for the most part you can plan on those raising an eyebrow at your turban, yarmulke or hijab keeping their bigoted opinions to a nudge and a wink, or to comments made outside your presence.  Vegans have the advantage of not being identifiable by external symbols.  Some vegans choose to take advantage of this fact by staying “in the closet” to the extent possible, at least outside of safe spaces.  The irony, of course, is that there are no “safe spaces” for vegans.  Once your dietary preferences become known, you should expect pot shots and low blows to hit you from any corner, including from those with whom you have regular contact.  Not only is this awkward, but it’s also pointless and unnecessary.  So you can understand why there are times when I feel that it is always open season on vegans.  Simple acceptance of a minority viewpoint would be great.

Oh, but it gets worse still.  After a few years of this, just when you feel settled into a pattern of healthy vegan eating, just when you think you have the right comebacks for almost any remark, you may find yourself lapsing into a morass of self-doubt.  Is always being different really worth it?  Trying to be an educator and a role model gets old and you have to wonder if there is some truth to the adage “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

The pressure to conform is even greater for vegans who are also gluten-sensitive.  Now you have not one, but two different types of deviation from the “standard American diet” (I love that this is abbreviated SAD).  Being gluten-free is something that people can at least understand, even if they think that accommodating you is a serious pain in the ass.  There is not much that anyone can say about dietary restrictions resulting from health problems.  But why do you have to be a vegan on top of it?  Is it really necessary to be so difficult?

I try to avoid this line of destructive thinking as much as possible.  I bristle for a moment at insensitive comments, then turn the other cheek.  But it all hit me like a tidal wave this past weekend, and at an unexpected moment.  I say “unexpected,” as you don’t usually expect encountering a relatively familiar situation to serve as a trigger.  I am learning that being a vegan can mess with your head.  Has anyone else out there experienced this?

During a most enjoyable weekend away in Reno, we considered having dinner at one of the casino buffets.  My wife doesn’t particularly care for buffets, but I have always liked the variety, all the more because there is likely to be something even a gluten-free vegan can eat.  It’s also nice to be able to serve yourself rather than engaging in the usual eating out litany of “no butter, no sauce, steamed only, does that have flour in it?”

My wife stood at the buffet entrance while I asked to go in and take a look at the offerings to determine whether this was going to work or not.  A quick walk-by looked like it would be possible.  There were plenty of salad fixings, garbanzo beans for protein, fruit.  Then I ambled past a large pile of breaded, fried fish.  I should explain that, in my former life, this was one of my absolute favorite foods.  I would indulge at any opportunity.  I can wax nostalgic about wonderful fried fish I’ve enjoyed from Maine to California.

Suddenly, I wanted to grab a plate, pile it high with fish and tear off the breading so that I wouldn’t end up in the rest room all night.  It was a weird feeling.  And, with a little shudder, I turned around and walked out.  We had dinner elsewhere.

I gained an interesting insight from the experience.  How could I be so easily tempted to throw away my beliefs for a plate of food?  This brought to mind Esau who, in the Book of Genesis, sold his birthright for a mess of pottage.

The visual cue of that fried fish struck a primordial nerve that screamed “I want it!”  This is not too different from the 1960s mantra “if it feels good, do it.”  Or, to be more accurate, “if it feels good, screw everyone and everything and just do it.”  I believe the proper adjective for this sentiment is “hedonistic” (although, perhaps “selfish” would be more fitting).  The implication is one of “you deserve it, so don’t overthink it.”

In fact, Big Food and Madison Avenue would rather that we don’t think about what we eat at all.  We’ll keep making tasty stuff, you pay us money and eat it.  End of story.  It is highly inconvenient when consumers begin to think about where their food came from, how humans and animals suffered to bring it to their plates and what alternatives might be out there.  My cynical side has long believed that it’s all about money, but I now realize that, while it is about money, it’s more than that.  It’s about the idea that denying one’s self anything is the epitome of uncool.  How others are affected is not supposed to come into the picture.  The advertising world counts on the predominance of the brain candy that is the moment of “I want it!”  It’s nothing short of pandering to our inner three year olds.

However, we are not three year olds.  As adults, we have the capacity to appreciate how our actions and words affect others.  Those whose psychological makeup does not permit this are often labeled “sociopaths.”  Who cares what anyone else thinks or feels?  It feels good!

This is where fried fish comes in.  That pile of food represents many dead sea creatures, hooked in the mouth or strangled in a net and dragged bloodied onto a boat to head for “processing.”  I have to wonder what that sharp hook piercing my mouth would feel like or how I would thrash with suffocation as I was pulled from the water and left to die.  And why should this happen?  So that my skin could be flayed off and my body cut up and frozen to eventually be dredged in bread crumbs and thrown into a vat of hot oil.  Over six billion fish are killed annually so they can go down our gullets.

Fortunately for most of us, the pain, suffering and death experienced by marine life is largely out of sight.  It’s convenient that we don’t have to witness the ugliness that occurs on the way to our plates.  Out of sight, out of mind.  The disembodied piece of protein before us doesn’t even look as if it were ever an animal.  Thank goodness we don’t have to think about it.  That way we can be like everyone else instead of being some weirdo who doesn’t eat meat.  That way we can go back to the buffet for seconds.

After all, it’s just so yummy.

 

Commatose

Commas are a bit like farts:  They usually stink and they can be quite funny.

If you are on excellent terms with the comma, I salute you.  If you’re not, however, you are in good company.  And if you have any doubt that commas stink, just ask the opinion of a third grader, or for that matter, of a college student struggling through the ordeal that is freshman English.

Should you wince at the mention of the comma, finding nothing funny about it at all, I direct you to the panda that is the subject of the famous “eats shoots and leaves” joke (and also to Lynne Truss’s grammar book by that title, comma added after the first word).  And if that’s not enough to free your inner belly laugh, I refer you to some of my experiences as a proofreader with a major pharmaceutical company, some 35 years ago.

Now, you may argue that proofreading is about the deadliest dull occupation in existence.  Like anything else in life, however, it is what you make of it.

One of my fellow proofreaders was seriously mismatched for the position (she had previously been a printing press operator for the company and, well, we had a labor union).  English was not her first language, she was very poor at spelling and she had no interest whatever in grammar or punctuation.  I am not proud to say that I joined the other proofreader in making some rather cruel jokes at this poor woman’s expense, particularly after one of her written instructions to the typesetters indicated a missing coma.  You have to work for a drug company to truly appreciate that one.

After that incident, we proceeded to make horrible comma jokes at every opportunity.  I’m talking about everything from “Can you comma over here for a minute?” to bad karaoke attempts at singing James Taylor’s “Handy Man” (click on the link and listen to the end of the song if you don’t get the reference).  From there, we moved on to mangling other forms of punctuation in the name of medical proofreading humor (correcting an improperly punctuated sentence might involve a “semicolonoscopy”).

I thought about those long ago days while I was standing in the checkout line at the supermarket this morning.  I noticed a sign regarding the use of plastic bags.  Let’s just say that this topic has become something of a big deal in our fair county since a local environmental ordinance, passed by the Board of Supervisors earlier this year, requires supermarkets and box stores to charge ten cents per plastic bag.  Many of my neighbors drive across the county line to Roseville to do our shopping, where no such ban is in place.  But even the “avoiders” may be out of luck come November, when an initiative to extend the measure statewide will be on the ballot.

The sign in question read:  “Say so long to single use plastic bags.  Bring Your Own Sac.”

Whoa, Nellie!  Sac?  Seriously?

My Webster’s defines the word as “a pouch within a plant or animal, often containing a fluid.”  I also checked one of the online dictionaries, which added the note “can be confused with sack.”

No kidding.  Just when I was processing images of shoppers bringing cow stomachs and goat bladders to the supermarket, I realized that that the issue was not one of spelling, but one of punctuation.  To understand this, it helps to be aware that, locally, “Sacramento” is often shortened to “Sac.”  Apparently, the statement in question was intended as an instruction to county residents.  “Bring your own, Sac,” has quite a different meaning than the same sentence without a comma.

It’s been a while since I’ve discussed grammar or punctuation in this space, so let me know if you’d like me to do so again (or conversely, feel free to lob rotten tomatoes at me).  In other words, please leave me a comma.

 

Growing Up Jewish and Racist

My wonderful wife has a heart of gold. After all the years we’ve been married, she still amazes me. For one thing, she cares deeply for people. For another, she has an intuitive understanding of others that’s almost scary. Words will come out of her mouth that are dead-on perfect while I’m still muddling through my feelings and trying to figure out what’s really going on.

Like last week, for example. We were having lunch in a nearby restaurant on Saturday afternoon. I started chattering about police-involved shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement when my wife’s comment stopped me in my tracks. “Am I the only one who feels like walking up to a black person and apologizing?” she asked.

No, my dear, you’re not. That’s exactly how I feel, though I hadn’t been able to define it. And I suspect there are a lot of us white folks out there who feel the same way.

I can hear the criticism now. “Feel sorry for what? I didn’t do anything to them.” Well, there has to be a collective sense of guilt. For referring to those with a different skin color as “them,” for one thing. There is no “them.” There is only “us.” An injustice done to one is an injustice done to all. We are all connected.

Each Passover, observant Jews read the Haggadah’s warning that he who fails to acknowledge his freedom from slavery on the grounds that he was never personally a slave to the ancient Egyptians is a sinner who, had he lived in Egypt in those times, would not have been deemed worthy to be redeemed.  Dare we ignore our brothers’ legacy of slavery and their continued oppression and marginalization in modern times?  We do so at our peril.

This puts me in mind of the prejudices deeply instilled in me during my upbringing. Trust me, these early influences are extremely difficult to overcome. Intellectually, of course, I know better. But it is frightening how those preconceived notions continue to sit there in my subconscious, waiting for the right moment to invade a split-second thought.

I grew up in a lily white suburban neighborhood where I rarely encountered anyone who looked different than I did. Segregated neighborhoods resulted in de facto segregated schools. Oh yeah, also the teachers all were white. And this was in New York, not Mississippi!

I attended a very large junior high and I don’t think there were ten black kids in the whole danged school. They must have lived right on the district line. The only black kid I remember was named Leroy (hanging my head in shame) and he was constantly in trouble. I watched him set a fire in the boys’ room once.

At home, blacks were schvartzers (or worse, if my parents were angry). The Yiddish word just means “blacks,” but was always uttered in a tone dripping with contempt. By the time I was five years old, I knew that a vast chasm stood between “us” and the schvartzers.

Us: People of the Book. Value education.
Them: People of the Street. Can’t speak English properly.

Us: Doctors, lawyers, accountants.
Them: Maids, cooks, janitors.

Us: Married with two children.
Them: Single women with five kids by different daddies.

Us: Hard-working. Law-abiding.
Them: On Welfare. Criminals.

Us: Sip of wine in synagogue.
Them: Bottle of wine in a paper bag on the street corner.

Us: Kosher
Them: Hazer (pig) lovers

Us: Academic track. College bound.
Them: Detention, suspension, things too horrible to mention.

Us: Success.
Them: Failure.

I learned early on to stay as far away from the schvartzers as possible because they were no-good troublemakers. They would steal your money, beat you up and kill you.

I am crying as I write this.

There is no pennance I can do that would begin to atone for the hate instilled in my heart when I was a kid. Al het shakhatanu… For the sin which we have committed. The sin of hate, for which there is no forgiveness.

Can hate and fear be unlearned?  Can I forget my father’s ugly racial slurs, cruel jokes, imitations?  Can I replace these memories with love and blot out that evil forever?

And then I went to high school and the world changed overnight. It was 1973 and we were now integrated. Uh, sort of.

A lot of the seniors were still hippies with their faded denim jackets, ripped jeans, flower decals, beads, peace sign chains, pot smoke. The school was beyond capacity, bursting at the seams courtesy of the baby boom. And a few hundred of us were black. (I hadn’t yet heard the term “Hispanic.” Oh, you mean Puerto Ricans?)

The school district was heavily into tracking. The extent of one’s exposure to teens of another race largely depended on one’s track. “B” class? (Remedial level) Nearly all black. “O” class? (Average track) About 3 whites for every black. Advanced placement or honors class? Lily white.

Well, everyone has to eat. The cafeteria, you would expect, would be the great equalizer. You would be wrong.

The student newspaper denounced the lunchroom’s “invisible line.” The white kids sat on one side, the black kids on the other. I thought it was just plain dumb. No one dared cross over to the “wrong” side. This self-imposed racial segregation was accepted by most of us as an ironclad rule that could not be violated. I don’t recall any brave soul from either camp ever attempting to break down this barrier.

After a year and a half of accepting without understanding, my mother took a job an hour and a half away and I found myself in another giant high school, this one on the edge of farm country. White as the January snow. I learned what an evangelical Christian is. They learned what a Jew is. I came to the conclusion that being different just wasn’t worth it. I stopped wearing a yarmulke when I ate my tuna sandwich in the cafeteria. I joined the chorus and figured out that it wouldn’t kill me if I sang a song with the word “Jesus” in the lyrics. But the impromptu prayer meetings after school was where I drew the line. So I was never a real native, even though most of the time I could pretend. What if my skin were black? Would I have been able to blend in then? And would I have been welcomed at the prayer meetings?

Flash forward to the present. My efforts at color blindness have met with mixed success. I say “mixed” because there are so many interracial relationships now that I often couldn’t make a racial identification of a particular individual if I tried. I am far more interested in what a person knows and what someone can do than I am in what he or she looks like.

Case in point: My family has become a melting pot. (Whispering: And I love it.). My twice-divorced sister-in-law had married two Hispanic men. We have a lot of fully and partially Hispanic nieces and nephews as a result. They all grew up and many of them got married, to spouses of every race, skin color and cultural background. So when we attend our grandniece’s third birthday party (Hispanic mom and African-American dad), we know there will be a piñata, hard core rap music, and American burgers and hot dogs on the grill.

We all need to be involved in narrowing the cultural chasm, the racial divide instilled in me as a child that I continue to struggle to overcome. I see my landlord as a role model. He and his wife are Ukrainian-Americans. His wife emigrated as a child. He owns his own business and rents us a house that he built with his own hands. They home school their children, attend a Russian church, speak excellent Spanish and hire employees of every race and culture. If the American Dream still exists, surely this is it.

I was disappointed recently when I read about how a “Black Lives Matter” posting on an employee white board (!) at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park was crossed off and replaced with “All Lives Matter.”

Really? With the epic gun violence and shocking murder rate in our country, I am led to believe that life is cheap. It’s hard to believe that “all lives matter” when the pettiest slight will get you shot and no one seems to care if you live or die.

So all lives matter, eh? Do white-skinned people have to worry about racial profiling? Do white-skinned people have to worry about being automatically thought of as criminals? Do white-skinned people have to suffer the indignities of serving as the butt of tasteless jokes based on racist stereotypes? Do white-skinned people resign themselves to being shooting targets for the cops? Do white-skinned people have to live life knowing that many consider them utterly disposable due to their appearance alone?

I was relieved that Mark Zuckerberg chastised his staff for crossing off the “Black Lives Matter” sign. Insisting that “all lives matter” diminishes the pain and suffering experienced by African-Americans. The aggressor is not entitled to share in sympathy extended toward the victim. And don’t tell me that you never did anything to “them,” that what happened to “them” is not your fault. Let me say it again: There is no them! There is only us!

We’re all responsible for this horrible mess. I bristle when I hear the words “check your privilege,” but it’s true! I enjoy white privilege that my darker-skinned brethren will never have. And although I can’t undo that, I can only hope that this privilege will erode through a combination of education, exposure and cultural melting. For it is only then that our nation’s ideal of E. Pluribus Unum will become a reality: Out of many, one.

Revolt of the Toys

Toys 1

Toys 2

You always know when my three year old grandniece is visiting because our tiny two-room rental house begins to bear an uncanny resemblance to a toy store.  As my wife works from home, having a pile of toys around usually serves as sufficient distraction to allow my wife to take care of her job responsibilities.  Granted, Little One would rather be watching a Disney movie, kidvid on Netflix or (her preference) YouTube videos on my wife’s iPhone.  Hence, the toys.  Even at her young age, I think the kid is addicted to electronic devices.  The upcoming Generation Alpha (those now under five years of age) are more connected to the world than any previous group, including their millennial parents.

We’re not sure how we feel about that.  We’d rather that Little One take time to be a kid and not grow up so fast.  It’s not that we want to hold her back or anything, but watching her glazed eyes mesmerized by the screen is a bit unsettling.  Accordingly, we try to balance the electronic with a healthy dose of low-tech fun.  This includes playing outside with the landlord’s kids, having fun with the cats and dogs, making trips to local play venues and spending imaginative time with the huge number of toys to which she has access.

We have taken on some of the child care duties to allow my niece to go to work without worry.  She lives about 45 minutes from here, so the procedure involves a complicated relay of pick-ups and drop-offs that my wife and her sister have worked out with Little One’s mom.  I have stopped trying to keep track.  What I do know is that Little One stays over with us one or two nights each week.  Although the suitcase that she brings with her clothes usually contains a few toys, it helps to have the toy shop ready to go.

Never for a minute did I stop to ask the toys how they feel about this arrangement.  So I suppose it should come as no surprise that one of her toys decided to take matters into its own hands and speak its mind.  Pixar’s animation studios are about two hours down the road in Emeryville, but they have nothing on us here in Sacramento.

It started in the middle of night.  If a toy wanted to pick a time of day most calculated to capture our attention, this would be it.  While we may be fast asleep, you can be sure that we’re going to sit up and take notice when anything noisy develops anywhere in our tiny house.  Here at home, anyplace you are at the moment is no more than a few feet from any other place.  So it’s not as if a toy’s cri de coeur would stand a chance of being overlooked.

My best guess is that the toys took a vote.  Word is that they eschew any Electoral College type system of representation in favor of a New England town meeting style of direct democracy.  In this election cycle, the nominee was my grandniece’s Minnie Mouse telephone.  In better times, pressing the numeric buttons would result in the playing of recorded messages about visiting Minnie’s clothing emporium.  Turn them into good American consumers while they’re young, right?

Now, it’s not as if we’ve engaged in blatant abuse of the toys, at least not on a level that would warrant retaliation.  Benign neglect, maybe.  Perhaps the Minnie Mouse phone was attempting to serve as the voice of the other toys that were tired of being cast aside in favor of mere images on electronic devices.

At any rate, this is how the deal went down.  My wife and I were fast asleep when my dreams were invaded by a weird mantra that was chanted over and over again.  As I struggled to consciousness, I wondered if there was some type of emergency in the neighborhood that necessitated loud speaker warnings to evacuate immediately.  It sounded just about that ominous and urgent.  “What was that?” I asked my wife, who murmured “I dunno” and immediately returned to dreamland.

What on earth was I hearing?

“Stricky-ah! Stricky-ah! Stricky-ah!  Restricky-ah! Stricky-ah!”

Generally, I sleep so soundly that I wouldn’t wake up if a bomb went off.  But it seemed as if I had finally met my match.  This time, the sheer weirdness of this interruption to my somnolence was enough to keep me awake.  It sounded as if I had walked into an area that was off-limits and had tripped an alarm that was attempting to shout “Restricted!  Restricted!”

I climbed out of bed and headed to the bathroom, quickly realizing that the noise emanated not from outside, but from the toy pile.  The disembodied voice sounded like something out of a bad sci-fi movie.  I touched the Minnie Mouse phone and noticed that it was wet.  Immediately, the phone returned to its normal self as I heard the cheerful, chirpy voice to which I had become accustomed.  “Hello!  This is Minny Mouse!”

Now the toys were just playing mind games with me.  Was I still dreaming?  Was this all a product of my imagination?  And why was the phone wet?  Oh no, I thought, I hope the batteries aren’t leaking acid all over everything.

Padding back from the bathroom, I climbed back into bed and went back to sleep.  Less than five minutes later, it started up again.

“Stricky-ah!  Stricky-ah!  Restricky-ah!  Stricky stricky stricky stricky stricky stricky-ah!  Restricky-ah!”

As I am a lazy so-and-so, I really did not want to mess with it.  So I tossed and turned, went back to sleep and woke up again multiple times, only to find that the revenge of the toys had not let up.

“Restricky-ah!  Restricky-ah! Stri-stri-stri-stri-stricky stricky stricky stricky restricky-ahhh!”

In the morning, my wife filled me in.  Apparently, Little One had taken the Minnie Mouse phone outside to play and had gotten dirt inside it.  Then she took it in the bathtub with her to wash it.  That explained why I felt water when I touched it.  My wife said we would just have to throw it away.  And that was more than fine with me.

We had a lovely Saturday, complete with going out to lunch and attending a birthday barbecue for another three year old member of our extended family.  Little One was present and I had the opportunity to engage in one of my favorite pastimes, taking lots of iPhone pictures.  We capped off the day by watching the Olympics.

Saturday night, I was dead asleep when I bolted awake.  What was that noise?  “Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding!”  It sounded as if one of our electronic devices was attempting to send a fax or maybe connect to an old-fashioned dial-up modem.  Oh, good, it stopped.

A few minutes later:  “Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding!”  Not again!  It seemed that the nefarious Minnie Mouse phone was not about to give up without a fight.

In the morning, my wife removed Minnie’s batteries.  Later, she took it out to the trash.

Thus endeth the tale of the great 2016 revolt of the toy pile.  And tonight, I get some sleep.

 

 

Protecting the Protectors

While I am rarely at a loss for words, I don’t know what to say about the recent rash of murders of police.  How can I adequately express my anger, frustration and fear?  I think of economist (and New York Times contributor) Thomas Friedman, who more than a decade ago warned of the dire necessity of enacting reasonable gun control laws to combat our insane epidemic of firearm murders.  As protesters chanted back in the sixties and seventies, “the world is watching.”

I go online and am greeted by commenters from many nations shaking their heads about the violence that is coming to define the United States.  If you’re not murdered by a family member or in a home invasion or carjacking or mugging, you may be the victim of a drive-by shooting or you may be shot dead just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  My wife likes to watch “The First 48,” a homicide investigation television show, in the background while she is working.  I try to drown out the sound with music over headphones, but the images of death and devastation on the screen are difficult to ignore.  It’s a stark reminder of what I’d like to wish away because it’s just too horrible and heartbreaking to bear.  John Williams’ soaring orchestrations only go so far.  Eventually, one must return to reality.

I hold little hope that either of the major presidential candidates will achieve improvements in this area.  Clinton is, despite her rhetoric, mired in the status quo.  She will get nowhere fast with the Republicans in Congress, particularly considering the apparent effectiveness of the Tea Party and other right wingers.  As for Trump, well, he brags about having a concealed carry permit.  Money is the only thing he loves more than the Second Amendment.  So, looks like we’re plumb out of luck.

Wow, this is sure turning out to be a depressing post.

To return to my subject of the murder of police, at face value it seems like a blatant disregard for authority, laced with a liberal dose of anger and blind lashing out.  Clearly, such conduct cannot be tolerated in a nation of laws.  The question, however, is how to prevent this disaster from occurring time and time again.

Some focus on swift and severe punishment, both to ensure that the offenders are unable to repeat their violent acts and to assuage justifiable public outrage.  Donning my sociologist’s hat for a moment, I happen to believe that attacking law enforcement is a symptom of Émile Durkheim’s anomie, a moral vacuum that perverts the social contract and may even encourage anarchy.  I have to assume that murderers take no regard of the effect their actions will have on the families (their own and those of their victims), never mind on the rest of us.  I still haven’t gotten over the murder of two of our local sheriff’s deputies by a married couple back in October, 2014.  Time is supposed to heal all wounds.  Life goes on, right?  (Not for their families, I am sure.)  But then it happens again and again and again.  Let’s rip open that wound, shall we?

Back in law school, decades ago, my fellow criminal law students would frequently have the “bad or mad” debate.  My view is on the “mad” side.  Not “mad” as in “angry” (although that is certainly in play these days as well), but in the British sense of “mad” as “crazy.”  I believe that those who do not care about the effects of their actions on others, and on society as a whole, are suffering from some form of mental illness.  Case in point:  The cop killer in Dallas was taken out by police after they got nowhere in negotiating his surrender.  Police say the murderer was laughing and singing.  You can’t tell me this guy wasn’t crazy.

Nevertheless, more than a few of my contacts in the legal profession believe that I myself am “mad” to think this way.  I am told that those who have the ability to abide by the law, but choose not to do so, are willful, disobedient “bad” children who need to be taken out behind the woodshed (or incarcerated for life because no one took them out behind the woodshed when they were young).

I find it interesting that, nowadays, this debate seems to have subsided.  That’s because it doesn’t really matter anymore.  In the case of the murder of police (as well as for multiple murders of civilians), it has largely become a nonissue because the offenders generally kill themselves or are killed by police at the scene.  The issue now is how to protect those who are sworn to protect us.

There is an argument that the most dangerous person is he who believes he has nothing to lose.  Those who do not value their own lives cannot reasonably be expected to value the lives of others.  Unfortunately, our officers of the law often become targets because, in the demented minds of criminals, they serve as a reminder of their own shortcomings and stand as a symbol of every disappointment they have ever suffered and, indeed, of everything that is wrong with their lives.  They may well be willing to go out in a blaze of “glory.”  Too often, their only concern is how many they can take out with them.

Some say that we have now reached the lowest common denominator, that now that police are constantly in danger, there will be an increased appreciation of the fear that the rest of us have experienced for so long.  I cannot believe that it has come to this.  In my line own line of work, we are always fretting over who will train the trainers.  Well, who will protect the protectors?

It is my hope that the devastating events of the past few months will fuel a robust return of the gun control debate and will spur Congress to enact some sane laws on the subject.  The recent Democrat-led sit-in demonstration by members of Congress (“no bill, no break”), minimized by many as an ill-advised publicity stunt, is a step in the right direction.  While more symbolic than anything else, it shows that at least some in Congress are as frustrated as the rest of us and believe it’s high time that we found a way to stop the madness.

Yes, blue lives do matter.  We need a diplomat to engineer a cease fire right here in our own country.  We need an expert in détente, a brilliant negotiator to encourage all parties to put away their guns.  The public must stop killing police and police must stop killing members of the public.  As the clergy will be quick to point out, the only answer is love.  If we cannot love one another, then I fear that all is lost.

News stories tell me that there has been an uptick in firearm purchases recently.  I fear for the utter breakdown of society that could develop in a world in which everyone feels the need to carry a gun for protection and the final arbiter of any slight, however minor, will be who is quicker on the draw.

Please, Congress.  I don’t want to reside in the OK Corral.  And I know you don’t, either.