Salad Bar

salad bar

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with salad bars.  I loved them and everyone else hated them.

Growing up in the suburbs of New York City during the 1970s, salad bars were few and far between.  Even fast food was virtually unknown.  Well, we had a takeout place called Chicken Delight.  (Anyone remember their catchy little TV jingle, “Don’t cook tonight, call Chicken Delight?”) I remember what a big deal it was when a McDonald’s opened on Route 59 around 1969 or so.  There were a few little local hamburger stands, but most people just ate at home.  All of the families I knew had two parents who ate dinner with their kids every night, even if both parents worked.  It was another time, for sure.

When we did go out to eat, it was usually for ethnic food.  That meant either pizza or Chinese or one of the kosher delis.  I had never even heard of Mexican food.

There were exceptions, of course.  For the travelers, there was Howard Johnson’s over by the Thruway.  Or you could get a meal in one of the department stores, such as W.T. Grant in Nanuet (all you can eat fish, every Friday night!) or Stern’s across the New Jersey border in Paramus.  And yes, I do remember the leaping flames from the grill (and the heavenly odors wafting through the doorway) of Wolfie’s, near the entrance to Bergen Mall.

All these diverse eateries had one thing in common:  No salad bar.

The first salad bar experience that I can remember occurred whilst visiting my grandparents in South Florida.  Starting when I was about thirteen years old or so, we’d make the 1,300 mile trek in the station wagon at the start of every Christmas vacation, and occasionally at other times of the year as well (Easter break or summer vacation).  The first place we always wanted to head for dinner was Red Lobster, which had not yet come to Rockland County.  (Giant baked potatoes rolled in salt!  An exotic thing called hush puppies, with both tartar sauce and cocktail sauce!)  A night or two later, I’d be begging to go to Black Angus for dinner.  The only one in my family who would eat steak in a restaurant was my father; my mother and the kids only ate meat from the kosher butcher or the kosher deli.  But that was okay.  For me, it wasn’t about the steak anyway.

It was about the salad bar.

My grandfather would start to gripe about how it wasn’t healthy to let me near a salad bar.  Sure it was, I countered.  I may be a grossly overweight teenager, but hey, it’s salad!  Nice crispy, low calorie greens and tomatoes!  Oh yeah, my sarcastic grandpa would come back at me.  Loaded with bleu cheese dressing and cheese and croutons and God knows what other calorie laden treats.  Didn’t I know that salad bars were nothing but a big scam to make us think we were eating healthy when, in fact, everyone went back for seconds and thirds and ended up consuming more calories than would be appropriate for a pachyderm?  I had to look that word up in the dictionary.  The definition came as no surprise.  Still, an appeal to my father, whom I knew would talk to his father, usually did the trick.

On Black Angus night, of course, I would gorge myself in the exact fashion of which my grandfather had warned.  But, oh my gosh, that salad bar was amazing!  They used to advertise how many feet of fresh fruit and veggies they had.  I mean, this salad bar actually had melons and (gasp) canned peaches!

Well, back home in Rockland County, there was one place that had a salad bar, usually only on Friday and Saturday nights:  The Plaza Diner, across the street from the brand new Nanuet Mall on the corner of Route 59 and North Middletown Road.  Sure, there were a few other diners around (although not yet the explosion of diners that hit the scene in the 1980s), all of which were great for pancakes and eggs on Saturday morning or a slice of cheesecake after a movie.  But on the weekends, the Plaza Diner rolled out a salad bar cart onto a corner of the restaurant floor, and I thought it was nothing short of stupendous.  I would approach this holy altar with joy in my heart and a lick of the lips.  I might stick a leaf of lettuce or a cherry tomato on my plate for window dressing, but this was definitely not about the greens.  I would load up with pickled herring in cream sauce, noodle kugel (the good kind, made with fruit cocktail) and cold rigatoni with tuna and mayonnaise.  The best thing, of course, was that this zillion calorie debauchery was in addition to the entrée, potato, vegetables and bread that would be served.  For several years, my favorite meal was broiled bluefish (at least until I discovered spanakopita).  As far as I was concerned, however, it was fine to box up the main part of the meal to eat cold the next day (this was prior to the age of the microwave).  Just let me at that salad bar, mister!

During my college days, the family dining scene changed significantly back in my hometown with the opening of a chain steakhouse known as Ponderosa.  I believe the name, the knotty pine décor, the wagon wheels and campfire implements littering the walls and the Wanted posters were intended to represent images of the Old West.  The place was cheap, and it quickly became a go-to dinner establishment on the many evenings when my hard-working mother was too exhausted to cook (my father did not cook under any circumstances).  Dad would order a hamburger or, occasionally, a steak, while the rest of us chowed down on a limpid, greasy, breaded fish filet and a tiny baked potato.  No matter, though; Ponderosa had a salad bar!  Okay, it wasn’t a glorious salad bar like the one the Plaza Diner rolled out on Saturday nights, but it fit right in with the increasingly vegetarian sensibilities I was nurturing at college.  Come on, this salad bar had sprouts!  My fellow hippies back at the food co-op would be proud.

Decades later, I still love salad bars, although they are now even more vilified than they were back then.  My wife, who prefers to sit down and be served, refers to buffets of any kind as “used food.”  I must admit that I can understand why.  Despite the presence of plastic “sneeze guards,” the unappetizing manner in which the food has obviously been rooted through, plus the inevitability of some rotten kid sticking his boogers in the thousand island dressing, doesn’t exactly inspire images of freshness and health.  And when you combine this with the news stories about people getting deathly ill from such evil bacteria as E. coli . . .

None of this, of course, dilutes my enthusiasm for salad bars in the least.  Locally, there is Lumberjack’s, which features a compact little salad bar tucked in the corner.  While one could say it is “nothing special,” I appreciate the pepperoncini, the raisins and the sunflower nuts, particularly since the salad bar is about the only thing other than a naked baked potato that a vegan can eat in that establishment.  When the family is in the mood for pizza, I am in good shape as well.  Both Round Table and Mountain Mike’s have perfectly decent salad bars at lunchtime.  Most of the time, everything from the broccoli to the radishes to the red leaf lettuce is fresh, and I can go back to munch on pineapple and grapes for dessert.

As for salad dressing, I have noticed that most salad bars now have at least one low-fat or vinaigrette choice, along with cruets of oil and vinegar for snooty purists such as yours truly.  Some even have lemon slices available.

Here in central California, I must say that, when it comes to salad bars, the chain steakhouse Sizzler is in a league all its own.  Not only are the greens crisp every time (and we are frequent visitors), but I am treated to such delights as pickled artichoke hearts, garbanzo beans, green peas and quinoa-jicama-mango salad.  One end of the salad bar is devoted to fruit:  Fresh pineapple, honeydew, watermelon, strawberries.  Then there is the accompanying “hot bar,” most of which I ignore.  However, I always mosey on down to the taco station for the vegetarian pinto beans and the fresh guacamole.  And, unlike many other Sizzler locations, our local shop will gladly serve you a baked potato with your salad bar at no extra charge.

So it came as a bit of a surprise to me when I recently learned some shocking facts about Sizzler.  With the decreasing demand for salad bars, it is something of a miracle that Sizzler is still around.  The chain had to file for bankruptcy in 1996 and ended up closing about 80% of its stores.  Only two Sizzlers remain on the entire east coast of the United States, one on Long Island and the other in Florida.  The remaining Sizzlers are all in California, the Pacific Northwest and Puerto Rico.  The Washington Post story linked above states that the idea behind Sizzler was one of “choice,” the ability to be all things to all people.  Like Alice’s Restaurant, you could get anything you want at Sizzler.

Sizzler salad bar

Sizzler salad bar

Well, not quite.  The beloved diners of my youth in New York and New Jersey, with their booklike comprehensive menus, really did serve just about anything you could want.  Sizzler, which operates on a considerably more limited scale, was simply trying to be both a steakhouse and a “fresh healthy food” place.  The problem is that, in the nineties, beef lovers began gravitating to places like Outback Steakhouse, Tahoe Joe’s, Red Robin and, at the higher end, Ruth’s Chris.  As for fresh, healthy food (I use the term extremely loosely), places like Chipotle and Togo’s appeared to be the up-and-comers.  Sure, Sizzler had an Italian bar with spaghetti and meatballs and macaroni and cheese, but everyone seemed to want to eat lasagna and ravioli at places like Olive Garden and The Old Spaghetti Factory.  You want variety in your chain restaurant?  There’s BJ’s Brewery, Ruby Tuesday, Mimi’s Café and (dare I say it?) even Denny’s.  The salad bar had become the ugly duckling, the red-haired stepchild.  No one wanted a salad bar anymore.

With this in mind, take a moment to watch the 1991 Sizzler video in the article linked above.  It is a real groaner, to say the least.  The whole, schlocky thing, from the dated outfits to the pasted-on smiles to the little girl taking batting practice to the couple kissing at the end is more than a little embarrassing.  Were the nineties really like that?  Or is this just some Madison Avenue fantasy that fooled no one, only further fueling Sizzler’s downward spiral?  When the video started being passed around online, I’m glad that Sizzler was confident enough to make fun of itself by posting it on Twitter under the headline “Let’s Sizzler like it’s 1991!”

My first visit to a Sizzler was in Modesto, California in the 1990s.  The place was just plain awful and we never returned.  In 2005, we moved to Fresno and agreed to try Sizzler again on the advice of my parents.  This time, it was actually good.  For a while, we took to eating lunch there after sleeping late on Sundays.  The place would be packed with the after-church crowd, and we’d engage in much merriment at the expense of the outrageous church outfits that many of our fellow diners were caught wearing.  Purple suits, bowler hats, bright orange shirts with bolo ties, dresses that looked like a rainbow threw up on them.  This location served a brunch buffet in the morning (scrambled eggs, sausage, pancakes, the usual fare) before they switched over to the regular salad bar and “hot bar.”  For a while, I loved the place for the pans of vegetable lasagna they would routinely set out.  Soon, though, I tired of Sizzler and would beg my wife that we go eat elsewhere.

Eventually, I took a job out in the Sonoran Desert on the California/Arizona border.  Sizzler was one of the few restaurants other than fast food joints or Mexican places that the little town had to offer.  I reluctantly agreed to have dinner there when we went for my job interview and was pleasantly surprised.  For some reason, this place served both rice and potato (or vegetable) with every meal.  The salad bar included a feta cheese laden Greek salad that would always be my first stop.  And instead of a soft-serve bar, the server brought a dish of vanilla goop (back east, we used to call this “frozen custard”) to the table.  You could then take it to the dessert bar and dress it up with chocolate chips, syrup, strawberry sauce and Oreo pieces.  Once we moved to town, Sizzler became one of our regular dinner haunts.  On a typical night, you might see a dozen people you knew sitting at the tables and booths.  Sometimes, you could barely get in the place, thanks to the buses full of foreign tourists that regularly made dinner stops at Sizzler in both directions on the Los Angeles to Phoenix run.  We’d listen to a Babel of languages and made fun of the retirees and vacationers taking photos of each other on the way to Disneyland and the Grand Canyon.

As often as we ate at Sizzler, I refused to go near the place when we visited my wife’s family in northern California.  I had tried it once and was so disgusted with the disarray of the salad bar and the general uncleanness of the place that I vowed to never return.  Several years later, however, my wife’s family assured me that things had changed and urged me to give it another shot.  That location was now under new management, and I found the transformation nothing short of amazing.  It had become one of the “good Sizzlers” (like its sister stores in Banning and Turlock), with fresh greens and broccoli, mushrooms, plenty of fresh fruit, a taco bar and hot pasta.  And the place was clean.  Once I got to know some of the managers, it became clear that their commitment to the customers made all the difference.

Now that we live here, we find our way to Sizzler at least a couple of times per month.  In our year and a half in the area, nothing has changed.  As a vegan, I am pleased that I can have confidence that I will find plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit on each and every visit.  Even better, my wife can get her steak.

In the 21st century, salad bars remain relatively unpopular, and few restaurants in this area offer them.  I’m just glad that there are still a few places around, like Sizzler, where salad bar lovers like myself can indulge in their guilty pleasures.

Sizzler

Our local Sizzler, Sutter County, California

Impostor

I am reading a beautifully written essay on the difficulties of relating childhood memories in English when you grew up speaking another language.  Some things just don’t translate.  In fact, one could argue that events experienced in one language can no more be translated into another than apple can be translated into banana.  Barney the Dinosaur notwithstanding, if you grew up speaking, breathing, existing in purple, how is one to render the experience into green?  The phrase “lost in translation” doesn’t tell the half of it.

In the very first paragraph of the essay, I ran across the Spanish word maldito.  Instinctively, I know that this is translated into English as “damned.”  I do not know how I know this.  Somewhere between growing up in New York and twenty years in California, I inhaled it through my pores.

I do not speak Spanish.  This fact hit me hard recently when, sitting at a table full of strangers, I heard a nearby woman speak a few words en español and I responded in kind.  “Do you speak Spanish, or just understand it?” she asked me in English.  Busted!  I am an impostor, and this was her way of telling me that she knew it.

Having some knowledge of Latin roots has helped me “figure out” the meanings of many English words without having to look them up, just as Mrs. Morse promised back in tenth grade.  But recognizing bits of Latin has helped me to understand words in the Romance languages as well, first in my high school and college study of French and later, in my study of Spanish on the streets, in the supermarkets and in the break rooms of my workplaces in central California.

I remember that maldito hails from the same Latin roots as the English word “malediction,” which refers to a curse.  I’ve never heard anyone actually use this word in conversation, but I have a vague recollection of once having come across it in the works of an obscure writer named William Shakespeare.  Reaching back in my memory banks to high school days, the year after I sat in Mrs. Morse’s classroom, I sang Mozart’s Requiem with the John Jay Senior High School chorus and, what do you know, the Latin word maledictis cropped up.  It seems that, in every century, a lot of people were into curses.

Actually, the word maldito sounds to me as if it should mean “misspoken,” as in saying one thing when really meaning another.  Returning to memoir mode, as a kid I believed that this applied to most things said by adults.  To my mind, this made them “damned” liars.

Breaking maldito into its two component parts leaves us with mal (bad, evil, wrong, sick, etc.) and dito (from the Latin dictum, or “speech, spoken, told,” I assume).  As in high school, I largely rely on my memory because I am too lazy to look it up.  So if a malediction is a curse, and mal + dito = bad speech, it makes sense that “damned” is still considered a “curse word” (or “bad speak”) in some circles.  (Or so I think.  I am old enough to have been around when a kid could get in serious trouble for saying “damn.”  Something tells me that “damn,” along with “hell,” may have been laughed out of the curse word pantheon years ago.)

The Spanish language has long been a bit of an enigma for me.  One day a basic knowledge of español is my best friend, while the next I find myself flummoxed and fumbling for the correct Spanish word, much to the amusement of the person with whom I am hoping to communicate.

Back when we lived in Modesto, I loved to pull up to the self-service pumps of a convenience store, walk inside, throw a twenty on the counter and yell ¡Veinte, número uno! over my shoulder as I turned around and walked out, knowing that the correct gas pump would be turned on.  It made me feel like some kind of big shot.

Impostor, that’s me.  But I love the ability to live as a stranger in my own land.

If two women are holding a spirited Spanish conversation in the supermarket aisle, most of what they are saying will likely go right over my head.  As I maneuver my shopping cart around them, however, I will catch that one of them is cussing out her cheatin’ good-for-nothing ex-boyfriend.  As I’ve mentioned before in this space, some things you can understand in any language.

Although I happen to enjoy the mellifluous sound of Spanish, I am well aware that not everyone shares my enthusiasm therefor.  It is a hot button issue here in California, where the Mexican border is just down the road a piece.  Many object to the plethora of signs in Spanish and to the way our state and federal governments feel compelled to translate everything into that language.

My father, for example, refers to Spanish as “babble” and will gladly tell you how he feels about people who speak languages other than English in public.  “You like this country?” he starts off.  “You want to stay here?  Learn the [insert invective here] language!”  I’d be a little more specific, but Dad’s colorful language is a notch or two stronger than maldito and I consider this a (more or less) family blog.

It seems obvious to me that just because two people converse in a foreign language doesn’t mean that they don’t speak fluent English as well.  Bilingualism is alive and well in California.  And I know of no law that states that you have a right to understand conversations that don’t involve you just because they happen to be conducted in public.  Our Constitution’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech is not limited to the English language.

There are those who point out that when Americans travel to other nations, they are expected to speak the native tongue, not English.  I call this the “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” theory.  I poked around online to see how much validity this theory actually has.  The answer I found is “not much.”  A recent article in the Washington Post points out that English is widely spoken in 101 countries, is one of the official languages in 35 countries and is the most widely studied foreign language.  This final statistic may not seem like such a big deal until you realize that approximately 1.5 billion people worldwide are currently studying English.  Then I saw this map of the second most spoken languages in countries around the world.  I found it interesting that English is the second most spoken language in Japan (good for my nephew when he visits his girlfriend who is currently teaching there) and in Russia (presumably a lucky thing for Edward Snowden).

I am a fan of diversity because homogeneity is, quite frankly, rather boring.  It would be a dull world indeed if we were all exactly the same.  I find it fun to learn about the cultures and traditions of others and delight when they take an interest in my own.  And if I know that you speak another language in addition to English, I will make an effort to learn at least a few words of it.  And I will try to remember that there is no such thing as an exact translation.

So, yes, I may be an impostor, and I may butcher your native tongue unmercifully, but if I catch you saying something funny in Spanish in Wal-Mart, don’t be surprised if I chuckle as I walk by.

Help! My Parents are Stuck in 1995!

iPhone

We made another weekend run down to the Central Valley because my mother needed me to help her with some paperwork related to her stockholdings.  Buying and selling stocks has been a hobby of hers since back in her working days.  My parents have now been retired for twenty years, leaving Mom with plenty of time to pursue her fascination with Wall Street.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, my parents didn’t own a computer and didn’t subscribe to a newspaper (unless you include running out for bagels on Sunday morning and hauling home a doorstop-sized New York Times).  My mother listened to the stock reports on the radio and, every so often, would have my father drive her to the public library, where she’d pore over the latest Wall Street Journal.

Nowadays, Mom turns on the TV at 5:00 pm every weekday (unless my parents are out to dinner at Red Lobster) to watch the stock reports on one of the five over-the-air stations that can be pulled in out on the rangeland.  My parents live in the country, don’t receive cable, and once tried to install a dish antenna on the roof of their house but quickly removed and returned it when they couldn’t get it to work properly.  They still don’t subscribe to a newspaper, but they do own a PC.  Dial-up connection, of course.  Remember those?  Ooooooweeeeeeaaaaahhhhshhhhhhhhhhhh… You’ve got mail!

Yep, my parents are stuck in 1995.

About half the time that I call my parents, I am unable to get through because Dad is online, looking at pictures of old cars and checking out the for sale ads (his own Model A Ford sits in the garage).  When I see him, he rails about the scourge of internet abbreviations and about how people don’t know how to spell anymore.  Meanwhile, Mom is listening to conservative talk radio in the kitchen.  When I see her, she bemoans the atrocious grammar of the broadcast personalities and those participating in the call-in shows alike.

My father, who is 81 years old and had never used a computer until he was retired for several years, knows how to Google search terms, send and receive email, contact me via IM (exceedingly rare) and place bids on eBay.  Each afternoon (after his daily TV dose of theater and opera goes off the air at 1:00), he logs onto AOL and checks my mother’s stocks.  Back east on Wall Street, the market has just closed for the day.  He scribbles the prices and progress of each of her stockholdings (XYZ 128.16 +1/8) on a sheet of paper, after which he hunts down my mother (likely tending her roses out front or watering a fruit tree out back) and provides her with the results.  Mom then transposes this information into neat columns in her stock notebook.  I am impressed with the detail (“See?  This is the PE ratio.  I am watching this one reeeeaaaalllly closely.”), which looks for all the world like a Stone Age version of an Excel spreadsheet.  I am tempted to make a bad Fred Flintstone joke here, but you know, poor Mom.

My mother assures me that she knows how to look up her stocks online without any assistance, thank you, but that she lets my father do it because he’s online anyway and, goodness knows, he sure doesn’t do anything else around here.  She then proceeds to gripe about how he goes to bed early, sleeps until 10 every day, and then takes two hours to get ready and have his cereal with blueberries, which he finishes just in time for his theater and opera show.  Meanwhile, she tells me, she herself couldn’t possibly sleep past 7:30 or 8, at which time she gets up and does all the work around the house with no help at all from peacefully snoring Dad.  I did not exactly ingratiate myself to her when I offered that I plan to do exactly the same when I retire and that I, too, do nothing around the house.  My wife enthusiastically vouched for the veracity of my assertion.  Like father, like son, hey?

My mother has an armload of college degrees and has always been a smart cookie.  Her investments are about as conservative as her politics, but she does make money.  Not a lot, mind you, but the quarterly dividend checks roll in and when the stock goes up just the right amount, she’ll make a stop at her discount brokerage house on the way to Food Maxx and place an order to sell that sucker.  Capital gains tax?  Just a part of the game, son, just a part of the game.

“What’s your strategy?” they ask Mom at the brokerage, marveling at her many small victories.  “I have no strategy!” she snaps back.  The trick, she assures me, is patience.  Like a cat, you stay real quiet and wait for just the right moment and then… Pounce!

Let’s just say that I am seriously impressed with Mom.  What I find particularly amazing about my mother’s investments is that most people spend money on their hobbies, but she makes money from hers.  Whether you’re into golf or sewing or travel or collecting things (or, in my own case, attending Scrabble tournaments), it’s always a money pit.  It would be wonderful if one day I, too, manage to find a formula for doing something I enjoy and have the checks roll into my mailbox every three months or so.

Nah, ain’t happening.  I’d rather sleep until ten like Dad.

Dial-up modem notwithstanding, my parents do have cell phones.  They each have their little TracPhone, which Dad likes to hang on his belt when he goes out, while Mom keeps hers tucked in her purse.  My sisters and I find those two cell numbers mighty convenient for times when Dad is online again and we just have to tell Mom something right now.  All three of us know that if the house phone is busy, you call Dad’s cell, which may be plugged in to charge somewhere, so if there’s no answer you proceed to calling Mom’s cell.  My father even knows how to navigate his little black and white screen to key in his contacts.  It took my parents years to advance to this stage, so I suppose I should be grateful that they’re not still stuck on a plain black wall phone and no “answering machine.”  Really, Mom, you know it’s called voicemail, right?  My wife reminds me that rolling one’s eyes is impolite, mister.

Of course, my parents still don’t text.  Even their funky TracPhones have that capability, but my parents are just not interested.  Texting leaves Mom cold.  If she can’t see my face, at least she wants to hear my voice.  I guess I should be flattered, but oy, Mom, it’s a pain in my tokhes when I need to tell you one little thing and can’t without getting on the phone with you for an hour.  I don’t always have an hour, Mom.  What?  You don’t have an hour for your old mother?  Not when I’m at work, Mom!  Not when I’m at the supermarket, Mom!  Not when I’m barreling down the 99 and I know I’m about to hit that dead spot between Nicolaus and Natomas.  The upshot is that you lose out on a lot of stuff that might bring a smile to your face and make your day.  To date, my arguments have been unsuccessful.

Mom and Dad have now become accustomed to the way it is when my wife and I are visiting.  Most of the time, we have our iPhones out.  It’s not like we’re texting all the time or anything, but we keep one eye on email and my wife is aware when someone posts a comment on her Facebook status.

My phone buzzes.  “What was that?” Mom asks.  I have a new follower on my blog, I tell her.  Ohhh, she says sweetly, do you still do that?  Barely, I tell her.  These days, I only have time to post on Sundays.  But do you still have a lot of followers?  I don’t feel like explaining that followers don’t just go away; you have to be really boring for them to take the time to go into their WordPress Dashboards and unfollow you.  It’s okay, Mom, I wish I could say.  I’m so glad that you don’t really understand about this stuff and that you don’t read my blog because I write about you quite a lot and some of the things that have come out of my fingers would make the hair stand up on your graying head.

My father’s eyes dart back and forth between my wife’s purple phone and my orange one.  And he sighs.  Maybe we’ll have to come into the 21st century eventually, he offers.  “I really, really wish you would!” I reply.  It’s not that expensive anymore, I tell him.  The prices have come way down from when Apple first came out with this.  Dad is very good about keeping his TracPhone charged, but should I tell him about wifi and 4G?  He is impressed when Mom asks me for the address and phone number of one of my cousin’s ex-wives and it takes me about 30 seconds to locate the information on my phone.  “It’s really quite useful,” I say of my iPhone.  I want to tell Mom that she can tap an icon and see the latest prices of her stocks, but I bite my lip and refrain.

If my parents are to take the plunge off the deep end, I know it will have to be Dad first.  I wonder whether we should just get it over with and buy them a pair of iPhones with protective covers in some cutesy his ‘n hers colors.  Wouldn’t it be great if I could text Dad “good morning” every day?

I know, Dad, not before 10 a.m.

How to Know When You’re a “Real” Writer

I never cease to be amazed by the well-intentioned misinformation about writers and writing that I read online.  Occasionally, I am amused, but far more often, I just want to scream. What frustrates me most is knowing that some readers are going to believe this crap.  I suppose the bottom line is that one cannot know what it’s like to be a writer until one has experienced it for one’s self.  And, like everything else in life, everyone experiences writing differently.

The following are among the common clichés about writing that tick me off royally:

A “real” writer writes because he or she cannot not write. Don’t be a writer unless you have to. If you can do anything else, do that instead.  This view makes writing seem like a disease, and a painful one at that — a fate worse than death that any sane individual will assiduously avoid.  Anyone who would actually choose to be a writer is seriously loco en la cabeza.  This view is dismissive of those of us who write for the sheer joy of it, not out of some obsessive-compulsive tendency that, if unchecked, may yield to drooling madness.  It makes us seem as if we are all on Xanax.  Geez!  Oh, and by the way, we writers generally do lots of other things in addition to writing.  Heroic things like raising children and running things (companies, soup kitchens, marathons, away).  Which brings us to…

A “real” writer writes as a full-time job. However, writing part-time can be a lovely hobby.  Grrrr!  Hobby, my ass.  A lot of us get up early in the morning to write before work and then burn the midnight oil to write again before we get a few hours of sleep.  Rinse and repeat.  We don’t do this out of compulsion, we do so because we derive pleasure of seeing our black words on a white page and because we believe it’s important work.  Oh, I see, it’s still a lovely hobby because we don’t get paid for it, right?  Which brings us to…

A “real” writer gets paid for his or her work and makes a living at it. So, literary merit is judged solely in terms of dollars, pounds and euros?  A writer is one who writes.  Period.  A 15 year old girl who scribbles poems in the margins of her algebra homework notebook is just as much a writer as Stephen King.  If you think I’m full of it, read this.  It is well known that some of the greatest artists in history toiled in obscurity for years, reaping negligible financial benefits from their work within their lifetimes.  Oh, and by the way, neither William Carlos Williams nor Lewis Carroll was a writer because the former was paid to be a doctor and the latter to be a mathematician.  I do understand that you must pigeonhole me into a classification based on what I do to earn a paycheck because your little pea brain will explode otherwise.  I feel sorry for you.

A “real” writer has been published and has his or her work on a shelf in Barnes & Noble or the public library. Ah, looks as if we’re back to the small minds club again.  Folks in this category are kissin’ cousins of those who believe that microbes don’t exist because they can’t be seen with the naked eye.  Fortunately, there’s a thing called the microscope these days.  Look through that lens and, along with the amoebae, you will see things like blogs, self-published books for sale on Amazon and the contents of my hard drive (which I really ought to back up again considering the extent of my recent drivel, er, output).

A “real” writer is a misunderstood, tortured soul who oozes his or her pain and misery onto the page. You have to love this one.  Yes, and we all wear berets and sit in cafés with our notebooks while we smoke unfiltered French cigarettes and sip from goblets of vin rouge.  I’m not saying I haven’t penned a line or two alongside a latte at Starbucks, but my habitual mode of writing is on my laptop perched precariously on a TV tray or scratched hurriedly onto a lined yellow pad during my lunch break at work.  Believe it or not, not all writers pursue the craft as a means of discount psychotherapy.  At times, of course, writing may serendipitously have such a side effect.  Generally, however, our work is a product of creativity, craftsmanship and lots of practice, not tortured verbal bleeding.  Which brings us to…

Writing is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. While I appreciate the lovely rhyme, I believe my fellow writers would agree that the mathematics of this proposition varies wildly among individuals and may be gravely affected by the weather, the fight we had with our kid, the vet bill and what we had for breakfast.  Some days we feel like slaves in the word mines, while on other days, the words flow like water and le mot juste appears unbidden.  Those are the days that we thank God we are writers and know that it’s the most worthwhile endeavor on earth.

To my fellow bloggers: Each of you, every last one, is a writer.  To let anyone tell you otherwise is to diminish yourself unfairly.

Passover Reflections

Well, I made it through Passover.  Eight days of dry matzo.  And, as a vegan, eight days of no protein.  That, of course, is not totally accurate, as some vegetables that I eat regularly even when it’s not Passover (spinach and broccoli, for example) contain some protein.  Nevertheless, I look forward to returning to my chick peas, my tofu, my Boca Burgers and all my other soy stuff.

I ended up attending only one of the two Passover Seders this year, but it’s better than nothing, which is what I’ve been stuck with on a few recent occasions.  “You can always read the Hagaddah by yourself,” my mother offered last week, before proceeding to complain about how pitiful would be the little Seder that she would have with just my father present.  “You’re supposed to have other people there,” she told me.  I bit my lip as I was thinking “You really should invite someone, then.”  Two of her children live four hours away and the other lives in Texas.  It’s not that easy for us to get away.  I begged off this year by citing the fact that I just changed job assignments a few days earlier and couldn’t very well tell my new boss “Thanks for hiring me.  May I have a day off?”  I didn’t mention anything about fervently desiring to preserve my sanity in light of the outrageous shenanigans that transpired during our most recent visit.

As fate would have it, I couldn’t have gone anyway.  The week had been particularly hectic at work with me interviewing applicants and trying to hire some new staff, starting to learn the details of my new job and assisting my replacement as she stepped into my former role.  The day of the first Seder, all hell broke loose, as it does from time to time in a busy office.  My boss was about to go out of town for meetings and needed dozens of things prepped for her.  I ended up working so late that I had to cancel my plans to attend a Seder at a synagogue about 30 miles away.  I settled for attending a Seder the second night, held at the rabbi’s home.

I had never met this rabbi before, nor had I ever attended his synagogue.  It is a Chabad synagogue, which has the advantage of being highly inclusive and welcoming to everyone (whether they can contribute financially or not), but has the disadvantage of being ultra-Orthodox, which is decidedly not my cup of tea.  As it is for many Jews whose incomes don’t allow them to support a synagogue beyond a small donation at the High Holidays, I am usually stuck with Chabad or nothing.  Most of the time, I choose nothing.  I have my prayer books and pray daily at home (or often, on the way to work while my wife zooms downs the freeway).  I wish things were different, but I do understand that someone has to pay the expenses of operating any house of worship (they have mortgages and utilities just like everyone else, and programs to run on top of it).  As our faith prohibits us from handling money on the Sabbath, we can’t just “pass the plate” like churches do.  Still, it is kind of sad that most synagogues in the Conservative movement in which I was raised do distasteful things like ask prospective members to meet with their financial officers or dun them for monthly payments.  Some have an established schedule of how much members are expected to pay based on their incomes.  No.  Just no.  There is something inherently wrong about being asked to pay to pray.  It’s not how God operates.

Passover, however, is a little different.  Other than the autumn High Holidays, Passover is arguably the most important Jewish holiday of the year.  It is deeply steeped in a plethora of traditions, among which is literally opening the door so that all who wish to join us may do so.  Chabad requested a donation of $36 per person, primarily to cover the food, as the Seder includes a full dinner.  I called the rabbi in advance and explained that no extra food should be prepared for us.  My wife is a very picky eater, I explained (traditional Jewish food is not her thing), and as for me, well, I’m a vegan, so there you have it.  I did pay $36, as I felt it was only fair to make some type of contribution.  As it turned out, my wife wasn’t able to attend, as she had to be up early for Easter service the following morning.

I arrived at 9:00 p.m., the scheduled start time of the Seder.  Half an hour later, people were still arriving, and we didn’t get started until 10:00 or so.  The rabbi introduced himself and shook my hand as I entered, after which I simply sat and waited for an hour.  Friends and family chatted amiably among one another, while I, who did not know anyone, sat in a corner and observed it all.  No one bothered to say a word to me.

Later, at the Seder table, two of the people sitting near me asked my name.  Eventually, one asked what I did for a living.  And that was about it.  I wish now that I had said “Actually, I’m a blogger, so smile!  You’re on candid camera!”

The young man seated to my right worked in a local health care facility and had to leave around 1 a.m. to make the start of his shift.  I heard him tell another attendee that he considers the Bay Area his home and rents a room there to which he repairs on his days off.  The young man at my left appeared to be the son of the woman sitting next to him.  He was one of those people who can only be described as of indeterminate age:  He could have been 13 or 25.  He remained silent throughout most of the Seder.  I suspect that he may have had some type of developmental disability.  When asked to read from the Hagaddah, he stammered out about two sentences in English and then refused to read when asked thereafter.

About 20 of us were present, seated around three tables.  We were urged to recite in the language of our choice, and I belted out the paragraph in Hebrew on the two occasions on which I was asked to read.  When it came to the traditional Four Questions, the rabbi wanted them recited in as many languages as we could manage.  Among those assembled, we managed to recite the passage in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Romanian, Russian, Yiddish, English and undoubtedly a few other languages that I don’t recall.  In typical Orthodox fashion, one of the rabbi’s sons (no older than 12 or so) made explanations of several portions of the service in well-rehearsed, fluent Yiddish.  I remember this well from my nightmarish days at an ultra-Orthodox elementary school.

There was one Jewish story told by the rabbi that I had never heard before.  A verse of the Hagaddah states that the Lord gave Mount Seir to Esau as a possession, but his brother Jacob went down to Egypt with his sons.  “Whatever happened to Esau?” asked one of the rabbi’s sons.  “He died there!” replied the rabbi, before explaining exactly how.  Years later, when Jacob died, Esau attended his funeral.  Apparently, Esau, who had a reputation from his youth as a wild, uncivilized man, was carrying on and making trouble.  One of Dan’s sons (grandson of the deceased Jacob) was deaf and didn’t understand what was going on.  All he knew was that Esau was creating a ruckus at a solemn occasion, so the young man unsheathed his sword and summarily lopped off Esau’s head.  As the story goes, the head then rolled into the tomb of Jacob.  Although Esau’s body was buried elsewhere, his head will share his father’s final resting place for eternity.  Interesting, isn’t it?  I didn’t dare ask whether Dan’s deaf son spent the rest of his life in prison for murdering Esau.

Dinner, which occurs about two-thirds of the way through the service, didn’t even begin until after midnight.  Passing up the beef, the chicken, the fish, the soup and the traditional hard-boiled eggs, I still managed to eat fairly well just off the side dishes.  There was a beet and onion salad, a mango and avocado salad, pickled cucumbers and a sweet potato kugel.  And plenty of matzo.  Like many of the Orthodox, this rabbi used schmureh matzos, which adhere to the strictest of religious standards and are very carefully watched from the wheat field through the baking process to ensure that no leavening enters the product.  They are very thin, huge and round, and were extracted from large boxes bearing the name, address and phone number of the bakery in Borough Park, Brooklyn.  They were about half the thickness of the already thin rectangular matzos that I buy, but unfortunately these were pretty well burnt.  As they are flash baked for an extremely short time in pizza-style ovens, I don’t know how they had time to get in that condition.  While I was impressed that they had traveled all the way across the country to reach our table, I did not enjoy eating them.  All I tasted was — charcoal.

I left before dessert was served and before the second part of the Seder began, as it was well past one o’clock in the morning and I still had a 40-minute drive home.

On the way home, I thought about my parents.  They attended a Seder at a similar Chabad near their hometown on the first night of Passover, but were by themselves for the second night while I was at a Chabad Seder near here.  “Who could my parents have invited?” I wondered.  They don’t have any friends in the area.  Even though they’ve lived in California for 17 years, most of their acquaintances are still back in New York and New Jersey.  My parents have never been social people anyway.  They have always kept to themselves.  Somehow, that seems kind of sad, particularly for octogenarians.

I called my parents this morning, but we didn’t talk long because they were on the way out to attend services for the final day of Passover.  Now, a phone call with my parents, even the rare short one (most go on for more than an hour), is always an adventure.  I think of it a bit like a roller coaster ride.  I never know what is going to come out of my mother’s mouth.  She might say something insulting that will force me to hang up on her.  Or, as she did today, she might tell me an old family story that I’ve heard dozens of times before, repeated because, 50 years later, she’s still angry about what happened.  Or she could relate detailed stories about what’s going on with my sisters.  Or she might get into a bit of Jewish folklore.  She did that today, as well.

This time, she explained the reasons that Jewish parents do not name their children after themselves.  For example, you almost never find Jews with names ending in “Sr.,” “Jr.” or “III.”  The tradition, my mother told me, is that if a child is named after either the mother or the father, either the child or the parent will die.

“Oh, Mom, that’s a superstition,” I replied.

Actually, there is another more practical reason for this, she continued.  In the old days in Europe, large extended families lived together in compounds.  If a daughter had the same name as her mother, terrible things could happen.  Without electricity, they had very dark nights.  If the husband was in bed and called out for the wife, a daughter with the same name might come instead, get in bed with him, and the proceedings from there would be in the nature of incest.  To prevent this from happening, daughters are never named after their mothers.

To place this is in context, you have to remember that there is a long Jewish tradition of mistaken identity regarding the woman who is in bed with you, going back to the Book of Genesis.  Jacob falls in love with the young, beautiful Rachel, but, in a classic switcheroo, unknown to him, Rachel’s older plain-looking sister, Leah, is swapped out on their wedding night.  Jacob only figures this out after the damage has been done.  When it’s really dark, can any man truly be sure whom he’s having sex with?

The whole thing sounds beyond hokey in our current day and age.  Besides, it would seem that boys could be named after their fathers because they (one would hope) wouldn’t be called upon for command sexual performances deep in the night.  But then there’s that thing about either the father or the son dying.

How such ideas persist into modern times is beyond me.  But as I sat through the dozens of rituals that are part of the Passover Seder, I was reminded of the fact that tradition dies hard.

Why I Eat Matzo at Passover

Yehuda matzos

“Passover is a hard holiday,” my mother would always say.

True, Passover involves a lot of food restrictions, no eating out in restaurants, too much work cooking and cleaning and a seemingly endless procession of constipation-inducing matzos.  Nevertheless, Passover is my favorite holiday of the year, although I must admit that this has not always been the case.

As a kid, the days preceding Passover always engendered some small measure of excitement, for the food at the Seder if nothing else.  Not only was the shulkhan arukh, the festive meal, an excuse to stuff my gut, but it always ended with coconut macaroons, sponge or honey cake and some type of candy.  By the second Seder night, we’d be into the coconut covered marshmallows, the Ring-Jells (both the orange and the raspberry ones) and the “fruit slices,” which were pure sugar in hues of yellow, orange and green.  Some kids were giddy at the prospect of sipping from the Seder’s four cups of wine and pretending to be drunk, but for me it was all about the sweets.

The ritual of the Seder itself, fairly boring for most kids, was a big deal to me.  Most of the guys who I knew from school were called upon to ask “the four questions” if they were the youngest in the family; otherwise, the only really fun part was getting to stay up late.  Back then, all the kids I knew lived in two-parent families; Mother cooked and Dad led the Seder in Hebrew, often in his white kittul, offering explanations in Yiddish or English as he went along and doling out stern warnings to fidgety youngsters.  In my family, however, neither of my parents knew Hebrew.  True, you could read from the English side of the page in the Maxwell House Hagaddah, but it wasn’t the same as the mellifluous sound of the Hebrew and Aramaic.  When I was very young and we still lived in New York City, my grandfather, who lived downstairs, climbed up to the fourth floor to lead our Seder.  From the age of six, however, as the yeshiva bokher (religious school student), I was the designated Seder leader.  This meant a lot to me because, let’s face it, when you’re six years old (and eight and ten and twelve), you don’t have a lot of opportunities to be a big shot and tell the adults what to do.

The problem, of course, is that Passover is an eight day long holiday.  The two Seder nights would come and go quickly, leaving me with six more long days of eating matzo and boiled eggs, matzo and tuna, matzo and gefilte fish, matzo and matzo and more matzo.  Matzo is a hard, dry cracker that we eat instead of bread during Passover.  There is no cereal for breakfast, you have to drag matzo to school with you for lunch (and inevitably answer questions about it, particularly after I began attending a huge high school where maybe two other students were Jewish) and you come home to dinner with (what else?) the box of Streit’s or Horowitz-Margareten matzos prominently placed in the center of the table.  All your favorite foods are forbidden.  You can’t have Cheerios or toasted bagels or spaghetti or rice or baked beans or Entenmann’s chocolate donuts or even mustard, for heaven’s sake.  It would get old fast.

Kids would get a kick out of calling Passover “a crumby holiday,” ostensibly referring to matzo, but, you know (nudge, nudge).  By the fourth day, the cry of “I never want to see another matzo again!” would be heard in the land.  We’d be dreaming of macaroni and cheese, PB&Js, noodle pudding, mint chocolate chip ice cream and Oreos.  Any mention of fresh rye bread would leave us writhing in paroxysms of drool.

Four or five decades later, I actually relish the food challenges associated with Passover.  As a vegan, those challenges are many times more restrictive than they are for most of my fellow Jews.  The eggs, meat, fish and dairy that are Passover staples are out.  Unfortunately, so are the soy products and beans that constitute the primary sources of protein for many vegans.

And yet . . .

The whole idea behind Passover is reminding ourselves from whence we came.  “Slaves were we to Pharaoh in Egypt” begins the traditional narrative recited at Seders around the world.  “Why is this night different from all other nights?” the liturgy asks.  Tonight is different because we eat only unleavened bread, because we eat bitter herbs, because we dip into fancy hors d’oeuvres and because we lean in comfort on pillows.  The first two differences in that list stand in stark contrast to the last two.  The hard matzo cracker and the horribly burny bitter herbs remind us of the forced labor, the chains and the whippings, the treatment as things rather than as people that we endured at the hands of the Egyptians for 400 years (followed by another forty years of wandering in a dry and barren desert).  Today, however, we enjoy freedom and live in comparative luxury, symbolized by fancy food and relaxing like kings and queens.

“But you weren’t there!” people tell me.  “All that happened centuries ago.  You were never a slave, never had to sacrifice a lamb and paint the blood on your doorpost, never had to run out of Egypt at the last minute with half-baked crackers instead of bread.  God doesn’t care what you eat.  Why do you have to make such a big deal out of Passover?”

And yet . . .

The Book of Exodus teaches us v’higad’tah li’vinkah bayom hahu, “and you shall tell it to your children on that day.”  For centuries, people have been aware that those who refuse to remember history are doomed to repeat it.  Indeed, the very name of the Passover prayer book, the Hagaddah, means (roughly) “the telling.”  L’dor va’dor (from generation to generation), the liturgy recites, you shall regard yourself as having been personally freed from slavery.  For if the Lord had not freed us from slavery, we and our children would still be slaves to this day.  If we don’t know where we’ve been, how can we possibly know where we’re going?

The food restrictions of Passover are minor inconveniences indeed compared to being worked to death in the hot Egyptian sun.  Adhering to the Passover food rules seems a very small act of thanks to God for the miracles performed at the Red Sea and in the burning sands of the desert.

These days, many rabbis point out in their sermons that, although the Jewish people were freed from slavery centuries ago, it behooves us to consider those who continue to suffer in abject poverty right here in our own country as well as under repressive regimes around the world.  Just as when Moses beseeched Pharaoh to let his people go worship in the desert, there are still millions who are not free to openly practice their faiths in the lands they call home.  The lesson here is one of tolerance.  What right have we, as former slaves, to hold grievances against others merely because they have different religious practices than we do, dress differently or speak a different language than we do, have different sexual preferences than we do?  What right have we, as former slaves, to turn our faces away at the homeless person holding out a cup on a city sidewalk or to make rude comments about the woman in front of us in the supermarket checkout line who is paying with an EBT card?

There is no “them.”  There is only “all of us.”

There is no “back then.”  There is only “always.”

And it is with these things in mind that, with a song in his heart, this former slave gladly eats dry matzo for eight days each and every spring.

Want to Be a Kid Again? Now You Can!

It seems that a lot of us are trying to recapture our childhoods lately.

I think I get it.  It’s not just a longing to return to a time of no responsibility, fun and friends.  It’s also about returning to a more innocent time, a time when things weren’t quite as complicated for either kids or adults.

What exactly that means depends largely on one’s generational membership.  The definition of “a simpler time” is bound to be vastly different for millennials than it is for baby boomers.  And when it comes to my octogenarian parents, it seems we are talking about something else altogether.

My mother cites A Christmas Story and The Book Thief as movies that accurately depict the way kids were treated in the 1930s and 1940s.  Elementary school teachers were the schoolmarms of folklore who grabbed you by the collar and yelled in your face and who regularly meted out the punishment of mandating that miscreants write the same sentence over and over again on the blackboard.  I have difficulty understanding why anyone would want to return to such treatment, but I do realize that it is a matter of perspective.

Even as a child of the sixties, my understanding of the age of innocence bears no resemblance to my 18 year old niece’s concept thereof.  Just tonight, on American Idol, Ryan Seacrest announced a return to the days when “the hashtag was just called pound.”

Oy, you’re making me feel old, Ryan.  When I was growing up, before the age of the touch tone telephone keypad, it was called “the number sign.”  And when I was really young, my elementary school compadres and I simply referred to the symbol as “the tic-tac-toe board.”

I suppose it was inevitable that smart entrepreneurs would cash in on the desire to explore our inner child or go back in time to the halcyon days of our youth.  Still, I found it a bit jarring when I read an article in The New York Times today about how coloring books for adults are a hot commodity.  Scottish illustrator Johanna Basford has released “Secret Garden” and “Enchanted Forest,” the first two in a series of adult coloring books.  Her publisher, Laurence King, hasn’t been able to keep them in stock; ample press runs keep getting sold out.

No one would have guessed the popularity of adult coloring books, which may be explained at least partially by the calming influence that they are supposed to exert upon holders of the magic crayon.  Hence, Chiquita Publishing has come out with a series of Zen-themed adult coloring books that promise “easy meditation through coloring.”

I wonder if I should buy stock in Crayola.

Adult coloring books are nothing, though.  Wait til you hear about… adult pre-school!

We refer to the pre-school that my two year old grandniece attends as “day care.”  So I’m glad that I (barely) avoided the gaffe of referring to adult pre-school as “adult day care,” which apparently is something else entirely.

So if you have money to burn, live in New York City and wish to relive the days of finger paint, show and tell, dress-up and nap time on a hard cot, you can be four years old again in Brooklyn, thanks to Preschool Mastermind, the creation of Michelle Joni Lapidos and her teaching assistant, Miss CanCan (Candice Kilpatrick).

It’s too bad that free, universal preschool pretty much runs out its statute of limitations around the age of five.  For those of us who exceed that age by a few decades or more, preschool will run you $333 to $999, and that doesn’t even include the cost of such essentials as arts and crafts supplies, snacks and field trips.

Apparently, indulging in a second childhood isn’t as cheap as it used to be.