Breaking the Rules: The Fosters and Madame Bovary

The Fosters

I had no intention of watching The Fosters.  I am not big on television to begin with, but when I was forced to see repeated ads for this show at the bottom of my iPhone screen for a week before the premiere, my contempt meter went through the roof.  So the last thing I expected was that I would be looking forward to the series’ fourth episode that airs this evening.

What happened is that one day my wife informed me that she had recorded a new show that she thought we both would enjoy.  It’s about a lesbian couple who take in a variety of foster children, she explained.

My wife knows me very well.  As I have long been an advocate of foster care and adoption, she was right to think that this show would be right up my alley.

Coincidentally, when The Fosters began airing at the beginning of this month, I happened to be reading Gustave Flaubert’s masterpiece, Madame Bovary.  Now, one would logically think that a TV drama about a modern family would have nothing in common with a classic 19th century French tale about the boredom, desire, disappointment and betrayal of a middle class wife.  But looking a bit below the surface, significant parallels emerge.

Among the themes of The Fosters are the consequences for violating the rules of society and the conflict between our true inner selves and the outward image we present to the world.  The character of Callie (played by Maia Mitchell) was introduced in the first episode of the show while she was in juvenile detention, a result of a rampage in which she vandalized her foster father’s car.  Callie’s initial reputation in Stef and Lena’s home is colored by that incident, her stint in juvie, the fact that she was beaten up there and has the bruises to show for it, and her in-your-face “what’s it to ya” attitude.  It is quickly revealed, however, that all of the above were the results of her attempts to protect her little brother.  It soon becomes apparent that her “tough girl” veneer is more of a survival mechanism than anything else.  The outer layers begin to peel away when her love of music, closely associated with memories of her mother, enables her to make a connection with Brandon (but not before she almost gets him killed trying to help her rescue her brother).  Still, Callie seems reluctant to drop her guard too far; after all, this is just another foster home and she doesn’t want to be hurt yet again.

Like Callie, Emma Bovary presents herself to the world as one thing when she is really quite another.  Emma attempts to play the role of the respectable middle class wife of a country doctor, while in reality she is bored to tears and wracked with inner passions that lead her to infidelity not once, but twice.  In the end, neither of her two lovers, Rodolphe and Léon, can save her from herself.

Both Callie and Mme. Bovary are forced to break the rules and risk the opprobrium of society in order to be true to themselves.  The moral of both stories is that standing one’s ground comes with consequences.  Callie’s attempt to protect her brother lands her in juvie; Emma’s deceptions (regarding finances and her tawdry affairs) lead her to suicide.

Brandon (played by David Lambert) and Mariana (played by Cierra Ramirez) also put up a brave front while they are fighting their inner demons.  Brandon, a talented pianist, is heading for college and is initially presented with a rather straitlaced image.  (To some extent anyway; the show contains numerous references to he and Madisen being sexually active.)  However, the arrival of Callie turns his world upside down.  He begins to shuck off his outer layer and explore his inner self as he absconds without permission to help Callie, then tells off his moms when his father asks Brandon to come live with him.  Stef and Lena are shocked by this uncharacteristic behavior; they didn’t think he had it in him.  Despite being disappointed by Brandon’s mischief, it is easy to see that they have just a tiny bit of pride in him (as they do for Callie) for standing up for what he believes in, consequences be damned.

Mariana’s exterior persona is that of the happy teen and good student with many friends and a good life.  Inside, however, she is tortured by her lack of a relationship with her birth mother.  Her attempts to regain that relationship lead her down the path of stealing, selling drugs and lying.  Mariana’s story turns out to be a bit of a morality play as her birth mother ends up betraying her and she narrowly escapes trouble with the law during a school locker search for drugs.

Like the characters in The Fosters, Flaubert presents Emma Bovary as consumed by the ghosts of the past and indeterminate longings for what might have been.  As a child, she is unhappy with the nuns at her convent, then she is unhappy taking care of her widowed father at Les Bertaux, then she is unhappy in her marriage to Charles.  She wants more excitement in her life, and chases after it in novels, in opera, in conspicuous consumption and in illicit love affairs.  She repeatedly deceives her devoted husband in order to engage in her trysts, but ends up being betrayed by her lovers.  She is more than willing to break the rules to chase her dreams, but ultimately she is unable to run away from herself.  She is left ruined financially, her public reputation in tatters, her heart empty.

One would hope that it is not too late for Stef and Lena’s kids to avoid such a fate.  Emma is so repulsed by the bourgeois lifestyle and the shell of her marriage that she incapable of turning to her husband, who has cared for her all along, as a last bastion of hope, refuge and forgiveness.  The teens in The Fosters, however, are just starting their young lives and still have time to turn them around.  They are not yet as jaded as Emma Bovary, and still susceptible to the love and guidance that their moms have to offer.

I find it interesting that the elements of a good story have changed very little from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first.  Conflicts between our public persona and our inner desires, and conflicts between temptation to break the rules and the extent of our willingness to accept the social consequences will always be a part of the human drama.

And just as Flaubert himself broke the rules when he shocked his public with a tale of adultery, ABC Family created quite a stir in conservative circles by spinning a tale of a motley crew of foster kids headed by a lesbian couple.

Perhaps authors can create a compelling story only when they themselves are willing to sample a taste of what their characters are experiencing.



Tripping Merrily Down Memory Lane: Ah, Summertime!

Rhode Island

Today is the first day of summer, so here is a beachy, bitchy story to the set the mood.  Now what’d I do with my striped umbrella and my Igloo cooler?

I visited with my sister for the first time in two years in Los Angeles last weekend.  The pics of her cats I expected, along with the chatter about her houses (she has one in Idaho and one here in Cali) and the whiny stories about how she is so mistreated at work.

What I didn’t expect was that she would start tripping merrily down Memory Lane.  And what really surprised me is that she focused on relatively pleasant memories.  More common, particularly in the presence of my parents, would be bitter accusations, allegations and general spewing of assorted venom.

You may think I’m exaggerating, but you don’t know my sister.  Her complaints about her childhood could fill volumes.  How she was forced to wear my hand-me-down T-shirts with holes in them, how she was embarrassed because my parents only bought store brand and generic canned goods, how my father allowed my mother to perpetrate all manner of unspeakable horrors while he looked on and did nothing.  And then there’s the famous Chinese jump rope story.

This incident occurred back at Summit Park when she was in Mrs. McCandless’s fourth grade class.  My sister, who was incredibly shy, gained some serious traction in the Great Age 9 Popularity Contest after my parents bought her a Chinese jump rope.  Suddenly, there were plenty of girls who desired her company on the playground.  That is, until said fancy schmantzy jump rope absconded from its home sinside her desk, courtesy of light-fingered parties unknown.

Well, clearly it was not her fault that the coveted plaything was stolen, right?  And so, to this day, Sis sings her plaintive done- me-wrong song, featuring daggered lyrics that place the blame for the return of her social status to that of nonentity squarely on the shoulders of our heartless parents who adamantly refused to lay out more cash to replace the Golden Object.

I think you get the picture.  So I did not expect the conversation to turn to fond memories of our college days.  Sis began explaining that the impetus for her change of major from physics to biology was her inability to understand the Krebs cycle and the unwillingness of her instructor to provide the slightest bit of encouragement.  “It’s really very straightforward.  If you can’t understand it, I don’t know what to tell you.”  And here I thought all these years that she had changed majors due to the sudden death of her faculty advisor.  “Not at all,” she corrected me.  “She was not my mentor.  In fact, she was an alcoholic who showed up to class late and drunk.  They found her dead in her bed.  Now I understand why, when I visited her during office hours, she was always fumbling around for things that she never could quite find.”

After that, we were on a roll.  We began reminiscing about Our Famous, Fantabulous, Freakin’ Amazing Summer at the Beach.  My mother had taken a new job in Rhode Island, and when we went on summer break from college, we were out of our minds with joy at finding that we now lived at Misquamicut Beach.  Two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean.  Close enough to catch a snootful of salt air anytime someone opened the screen door.  Close enough to crack open the windows at night and have the sound of the breakers lull us to sleep.  Close enough to smell the greasy funnel cakes and French fries.  Teenage paradise, baby!

Both my sister and I got jobs right away.  I worked downtown, away from the beach, in the production room of the local daily newspaper.  I was the only male proofreader on the premises.  I also filled in from time to time as typesetter on ancient keyboarding equipment that would  garner sniggers in the twenty-first century.  There was no screen; you had to learn to “read” the holes in the tape you were punching.  But I was a fast typist and, man, could I fly on that infernal contraption!  When I was banging out copy at 120 words per minute, the clatter and clamor of that thing could wake the dead.  I love, love, loved it!

Meanwhile, my sister worked at a beachside snack stand and public shower, spending all day standing over the Fryolator, filling orders for hamburgers, fish fillet sandwiches, fried clams and onion rings.  She came home every day covered in grease spatter, smelling like French fries and grinning from ear to ear.  Last weekend, however, she shared with us a story that I did not know about.  One day, two guys walked into Sis’ little booth and paid for a shower.  Instead of disappearing around the corner, however, they hung around urging my sister to “go into the back room” with them (there was no back room) and generally making lewd suggestions.  When it became clear that these two Neanderthals were not going to take no for an answer, my sister picked up the phone and called the proprietor, the huge Greek guy who also owned the big restaurant next door (the one that had the dining room with a panoramic ocean view that looked for all the world like the waves were going to come crashing right through the picture window).  He came right over, opened the register, returned the creeps’ money and told them to get lost.  “But we have sandy crotches!” they protested.  “I don’t care if you have sandy crotches!  Get the *** out of here!” he yelled.

You gotta love an employer who protects his employees from predatory beach cretins.

We both envied our younger sister, who was still in high school and hence had the good fortune of living at the beach all year long.  Well, sort of good fortune.  Sure, she had lots of friends, a cute boyfriend and unlimited opportunities for partying on the sand.  But she was also the new girl in town.  And she was Jewish.

Little Sister lives in Texas these days and was not present for our LA shindig.  But Big Sister regaled us with forgotten stories about how all was not roses and cherries for Little Sis down by the ocean.  None of the students at Little Sis’ high school had ever seen anyone so exotic as a Jew.  All they knew about Jews was that they didn’t celebrate Christmas, didn’t eat ham and had killed Christ.  Her boyfriend had to take a lot of flak as well.  Some miscreant scrawled “Scott and Jew” on my sister’s locker.

It was all coming back to me as my sister rolled back the years, describing how one of Li’l Sis’ classmates, out of genuine curiosity about Jews, asked her to please part her hair so she could see her horns.

My sister made references to the various beach houses in which we lived, my mother moving us from one to another whenever the landlord raised the rent.  As she described each house, I would punctuate bites of my bagel, cream cheese and lox by yelling out the address.

“There was the big one where you had to sleep on the couch in the living room…”

“59 Shore Road!”

“…and there was the one with the Pachinko machine…”

“81 Montauk Avenue!”

“…and the tiny little one where we didn’t have a phone…”

“5 Third Street!”

It was probably a good thing she stopped short of mentioning the following summer, as then we’d have been talking about 56 Winnapaug Road and the strawberry farm up in Hope Valley and summer school at URI in Kingston and driving lessons in the station wagon and trips to Town Beach and Bee Bee’s Dairy and Awful Awfuls at Newport Creamery and Bess Eaton Donuts and Vocatura’s Pizza . . .

Have a wonderful, sandy, dandy and safe summer, everyone!


What to Eat and When: The Biggest Loser Challenge – Week 2

Biggest Loser

After our delightful family brunch on Sunday in Los Angeles, I knew I was not going to have any fun at all when I stepped on the scale on Monday morning.  I consider myself lucky that I only gained 3/5 of a pound.  It was worth it.  If you ever have a chance to visit Mort’s Deli/Bea’s Bakery on Clark Street in Tarzana, you’ll know what I mean.  I’ll tell you one thing, you can’t get a Dr. Brown’s diet cherry soda or an egg cream out here in the middle of the desert.

Since my return from LA, I’ve been trying to improve my eating habits toward the goal of coming up with better numbers on the scale.  In the first week of my company’s Biggest Loser Challenge, employees lost 555 pounds; my own location didn’t contribute much to it.  In fact, only one of our five team members lost any weight at all.

Reducing my intake is an obvious tack, but a more difficult decision is what to eat and even when to eat it.  Growing up, I learned about the famous Food Pyramid.  The bread, cereal, rice and pasta group was at the bottom with 6 to 11 (!) servings per day, then the vegetables and fruits, then the proteins, and finally, “fats and sweets” at the apex (“use sparingly”).

But these days, the word is that carbohydrates are bad, that they raise your blood sugar and cause you to gain weight.  The pendulum has swung.  Six to eleven servings of carbs per day is decidedly out of style.  Diets such as Scarsdale and Pritikin have become popular, featuring lots of protein and banishing those nasty carbs.

It has been interesting seeing how some of my fellow bloggers weigh in (ooo, bad pun) on this issue.  Alex Freeman stands with the go-go protein coterie and urges high intensity exercise.  Steven Waddell, on the other hand, says eat carbs at every meal, think happy thoughts and love yourself unconditionally.  He also says “when in doubt, eat more fat.”  I think I like this guy.  Anyone who is a fan of butter is definitely on my side.

Some of my favorite advice comes from Michael Pollan, whose formula for health is:  “Eat food.  Mostly plants.  Not too much.”  Balm for my near-vegetarian heart, particularly since he is all gung-ho on omega-3 fats and has no objection at all to my enjoyment of fish protein.

Planning seems to be the pivotal factor in making smarter food choices.  If I think “I’m hungry” and grab the first appealing thing I come across in the refrigerator, the cupboard, or (heaven help us) the snack cabinet at work, I will end up stuffing my face with items that Pollan would not consider “food” and that will undoubtedly cause me to gain weight.  But if I have a sandwich, a salad and some fruit ready to go, chances are I will stick with the program.

As if it weren’t hard enough to figure out what to eat, even when to eat is at issue these days.  Some say to eat protein before you exercise; others cite a “protein window” that closes a short time after exercise.  But for sedentary fat cats like myself, I recently read that when you eat does not really make much of a difference.  The “don’t eat at night” rule, I read, is mostly a misguided myth.

That is, until last week, when I read that, in fact, the timing of one’s meals does make a big difference in how satisfied we feel, how efficiently our metabolism runs and ultimately, whether we gain or lose weight.  This school of thought posits that we need fuel to get our bodies going in the morning.  Some say this means protein for breakfast, others say this means eat carbs early in the day.  Breakfast is not really my thing, but I stopped dead in my tracks when I read that the old bugbear about avoiding night eating is actually true.  There are those who recommend that we don’t eat within three hours of going to bed.

Well, this is even more of a problem for me than the breakfast issue.  For me, following this rule can only mean one thing:  Don’t eat dinner at all.  Although I have a proclivity for staying up late, recently I have begun to change my ways by going to bed much earlier and getting enough sleep.  During the week, by the time I get home from work I’m not even awake for another three hours.

So I’ve tried something new.  I talked with my wife and asked that, whatever she wants to prepare for my dinner, she should simply pack up in a plastic container and it will be my breakfast and lunch for the following day.  Yesterday, I had eggplant parmagiana for breakfast and fruit for lunch.  Today, I had a sandwich for breakfast and baked garlic Portobello mushrooms for lunch.  No dinner for me.

“Don’t you get hungry at night?” one of my coworkers asked me.  Sometimes, I responded.  But I am slowly learning that feeling hungry tends to be a temporary thing that goes away after a while.  If I’m really that hungry, I eat a piece of fruit.

I am also reading that weight loss can be improved when one evens out the metabolism by eating tiny bits throughout the day.  So I crunch on celery while I’m working at my desk and I usually break for an apple or some strawberries in the afternoon.  I drink two liters of club soda, mineral water or decaffeinated tea during the day.

Is any of this going to make one bit of difference to my weight loss efforts?  I haven’t a clue at this point.  Perhaps I am fooling myself and it is all for naught.  Only the scale will tell.

I will say this, however.  We celebrated one of my coworkers’ birthdays today with banana splits.  I wanted to participate in the festivities and I did not want to feel deprived.  It is said that confession is good for the soul, so here goes:  I skipped the banana and served myself one spoonful of ice cream with a drizzle of chocolate syrup, a tiny dollop of whipped cream and three maraschino cherries.

Not exactly diet foot, but I didn’t do too badly, don’t you think?


My Brother’s Keeper

shake hands

The little house across the street from us stands empty and forlorn.

Being so recently vacated, the red and white For Rent sign has not yet been staked into the lawn.  The window blinds need to be replaced and the roof shingles need some attention, but other than that, it’s a cute bit of a home complete with standard issue lawn and driveway.

Until last week, the occupants were a young couple with two children.  The boy looked to be a rambunctious two year old and the girl a first or second grader.  I often saw her with her backpack, heading off to school in the morning about the time I’d leave for work.  I’d see him tearing breakneck down the sidewalk on his trike or spinning and tumbling on the lawn.

The kids’ parents were poor.  I only stopped to talk to the man once; he told me they used to live here in town, then moved away.  Things didn’t work out, so now they were back to give it another shot in our hot, remote desert outpost.

He bussed tables at a chain restaurant at the other end of town.  She was a cashier at a local store.  I mentioned that I never saw a car in their driveway.  He told me that they didn’t have one at the moment.  They used to have a car, he related, but it broke down and his brother, who was supposed to fix it, sold it instead.

There was usually a shopping cart around, sometimes two, often overturned in the driveway or on the lawn.  We would see the woman pushing it down the street, sometimes with a kid in it.  She had to walk half a mile to work; he walked more than a mile each way.

They played music at high volume, usually rap.  If one of the kids left the front door open, the thumping bass would blare into the street, loud enough to be felt in our bedroom.

The couple fought a lot.  They would scream obscenities at each other, sometimes over the music, then start yelling the same ugly words at their little boy and girl.

I don’t remember the names of the man and the woman, although he told me once.  I’m not particularly good with names.  Or maybe I wasn’t paying attention.  Or maybe I just didn’t care.

Last weekend, a U-Haul van appeared across the street, its garish orange blaring out little known facts about a Canadian province, blocking our view of the little house.  Two men were carrying out belongings and loading the truck.  Then the vehicle left and the house stood empty.

On Friday, my wife had walked across the street with half a box of fruit-flavored ice pops for the kids.  The kids and the mom both thanked her profusely.  The kids were hanging around on the front porch while the woman talked with the interviewers who had come by to complete their investigation.

The father was nowhere to be found.  Our next door neighbors informed us that he had been arrested following allegations that he had molested the little girl.  He was in jail.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t been paying attention; looks like none of us did.  I was shocked and saddened to hear what had happened to this couple’s daughter.  And yet, I pray for this man.  I can’t remember his name, but God knows it very well.

I pray that the mother and her children will be able to pick up their pieces once again, bound together by a love that exceeds all adversity.  Wherever they’ve gone, I hope they have a better life than they did when they lived across the street from us and we rarely said so much as hello.

Whatever.  Nothing we could have said or done would have prevented the tragedy that occurred, right?  We couldn’t have possibly have made so much as a dent in their enormous problems.  Right?  It was better that we didn’t get involved.  A caring word from us couldn’t have made the slightest difference.  Uh, um, er, right?  Right?


I recall the time my wife was away for a week.  Arriving home after work, I thought about taking the family across the street out for tacos so I could get to know them better and save the woman from the need to cook, for one night anyway.  But they weren’t outside and I felt uncomfortable about walking up to their house, ringing the bell and impertinently injecting myself into their lives.  They might think I was offering them charity and be insulted.  So I never did go over there.

“Don’t be a stranger,” I told the man on the single occasion that we stood in the street, between our respective rental houses, chatting.  “I won’t,” he replied.  But he never crossed the street and rang our doorbell either.  So strangers we remained.

The LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”  And he said “I do not know.  Am I my brother’s keeper?”  Genesis 4:9


Dieting, Family and a Quick Trip to La La Land

traffic jelly


Those who call Los Angeles home seem to take the insane freeway traffic in stride.  For those who live elsewhere, however, driving here can be a disconcerting and frustrating experience.

I feel sorry for the poor woman stuck in the #4 lane of a five-lane stretch of the 101.  I don’t know whether her car was experiencing mechanicsl problems or whether she just ran out of gas, but she was helplessly waving both arms, signaling drivers to go around her on both sides.  The net effect of this woman’s very bad day was that traffic was backed up for miles.  We sat on the freeway, stopped, then inched forward in little jerks and starts for nearly an hour.  Grateful that Donna was driving, I took out a novel and began reading aloud for a bit of distraction.

Advice to my 16 year old niece who just earned her driver’s license last week:  Stay off the L.A. freeways for a while.

Fortunately, my niece lives far away in northern California and we live out in the desert.  It takes five minutes to drive anywhere in my little burg.  I can’t get over how it takes an hour and a quarter to get just a few miles down the road here in La La Land.

Freeways aside, the urban sprawl feels, well, unnatural.  The way houses and shops are crowded together and piled atop one another in a jumbled heap, a visual cacophony punctuated by a million signs in a Babel of languages – Spanish, Korean, Arabic, Mandarin, English – reminds me of certain photos I have seen of Hong Kong and Tokyo. More to my personal experience, I am reminded of Queens Boulevard in New York City, only multiplied by a factor of six.

It is probably best for me to stay out of Los Angeles as much as possible, not only because I enjoy the slower pace of life in the desert, but also because there are just too many great restaurants here. Despite the gym rats and muscle men who strut their stuff down at the beach, this place is an eater’s paradise.

Let’s just say that I do not look forward to my weigh-in tomorrow. At all. Although I have stayed away from the traveling temptations of junk food, we did stop for a decent lunch on the road and then there was the matter of our family dinner last night.

It’s not like I didn’t make an effort. I picked at the starchy appetizer, ate less than a quarter of my giant baked potato and drank plenty of water. We found a grocery store and brought fresh fruit and club soda back to the hotel room for late night munching.

Our time with my family was rather predictable. My sister, who I hadn’t seen in two years, showed me photos of her cats and griped about her jerk of a boss and an even jerkier coworker who enjoys showing off his knowledge of the plural forms of the scientific names of male and female reproductive organs. My nephew complained to the staff about there not being enough sauce on his pizza, then proceeded to spend the rest of the evening engaged in a deep discussion of Japanese grammar and syntax with his sister, ignoring everyone else at table. My mother was annoyed with me for not having visited recently enough to see her new dishwasher and kitchen faucets. And so it goes.

Next up is Sunday brunch at a bakery/deli that has the best rye bread this side of the Bronx and my favorite sugar-free cookies in all of California.

Face it, I’m gonna be fat forever.

The Biggest Loser – Week 1

Biggest Loser

Last week was the start of my company’s eleven-week Biggest Loser challenge.  Five of us from my location formed a team with the decidedly uninspired name of Waist Watchers.  I realized how dull our team is when I saw a spreadsheet listing some of the other team names.  My favorite is Oh Well, Pass the Gravy!

After one week, we had our weigh-in on Monday.  Waist Watchers ended up in 19th place out of thirty teams.  Not very impressive, to be sure, but we could have done worse.  As for myself, I was not able to weigh in until Wednesday, as I was away in Marysville for my niece’s high school graduation on Monday.

Well, you know what traveling can do to one’s waistline.  There is the constant temptation of junk food and fast food on the interstate.  Compound this with celebratory cake and ice cream, the superb cooking of my mother-in-law and sister-in-law, and an excellent restaurant meal on the drive home.

Well, ha ha ha and poo on all of that!  I ate salad, coffee and a very, very sour pickle on the trip up.  I ate only one delightful home-cooked meal and I managed to summon sufficient will power to skip the cake and ice cream.  As for the excellent meal on the way home, I went easy on the bread and ate mostly salad and vegetable-laden minestrone soup.

So what was the result?  I lost ten pounds!  That put me far in the lead of anyone else on my team.  It was the least I could do, considering that I weigh over one hundred pounds more than any of my teammates.  The team and individual winners of this challenge are determined by percentage of body weight lost, not number of pounds lost.  This is fair in that it creates a more level playing field, although it means that I have my work cut out for me.

The one award in this contest that I am 100% guaranteed not to win is the one for longevity and perseverance, won by the participant who maintains the greatest of his or her weight loss for an entire year.  I will be quite content just to get through these eleven weeks.  Keeping it off for a year would require lifestyle changes that (let’s face it) I am just not willing to make.

Many years ago, long before the Lord brought me and my wonderful wife together, I dated a woman who wanted me to go on the Medi-Fast program and had the nerve to ask me “How can you be so fat if you’re a vegetarian?”  I am proud enough of my comeback that I have never forgotten it:  “Have you ever seen a skinny cow?”

Conventional wisdom has it that the first few pounds lost are mostly “water weight.”  While I have always believed this premise, I now have to wonder about its accuracy.  Even when not dieting, I always keep myself well hydrated.  Only now I face a double challenge:  I also decided to get off that evil chemical, aspartame.  Although I drank regular, sugary soda until my mid-thirties, when I was diagnosed with diabetes, since then I have been a heavy consumer of the diet stuff.

Why am I getting off aspartame now?  Like so many other aspects of life, this was a matter of several things converging at once.  My wife independently suggested this move the very week that one of my coworkers informed me that aspartame was initially invented as a rat poison.  I do think it has contributed to my headaches and other nasty symptoms.  So now, each day at work, I consume a two liter bottle of mineral water or club soda.  Today, my wife prepared a delightful treat for me, iced herbal tea sweetened with a little apple juice.

One would think the amount of liquid I consume would counterbalance any “water weight” that I lose.  Yet I am told that those who drink more lose more weight than those who do not.  Apparently, the body retains water (which is quite heavy) when not much of it is incoming.  Conversely, when one drinks aplenty as I do, the body says “there’s more than enough in here” and dumps out the excess.

For some reason, drinking plain water, even when ice cold, seems to give me a stomach ache.  However, when I drink carbonated water, I do not have this problem.  Furthermore, the carbonation seems to help fill me up with air rather than with calories.  I have a feeling club soda, seltzer and carbonated mineral water are going to be my best friends.

I have a confession to make:  On Friday of last week, when my coworkers were eating donuts, I snuck around the corner and weighed myself.  Yes, I know the weigh-in is not until Monday, but my curiosity as to how I was doing got the better of me.  I was disappointed to find that I had actually gained weight.  This turned out to be the kick in the pants that I needed.  I knew I had to be meticulous about what I ate for the next few days, even though a road trip was in the offing.  As you may imagine, I was quite surprised when I was down ten pounds at the weigh-in!

Well, I did the same thing again today.  And wouldn’t you know it, I gained weight again.  Well, this is going to be a fun weekend!

So what are some of my weight loss challenges?

  • The potato chips, candy bars and cookies for sale in the break room at work.  I have tried to counteract this by bringing in a tray of apples.
  • Breakfast.  Everyone says that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and that dieters particularly need to get a protein fix in the morning.  Well, I don’t have time for breakfast before work and I don’t enjoy eating it in any event.  Okay, I do have a thing for egg muffin sandwiches and greasy hash browns from the drive-through.  But I have sworn those off for obvious reasons.  I still think breakfast is a waste and I can’t be bothered with it.  If I have to restrict calories, I’d rather consume the few that I can have later in the day when I can enjoy them.
  • Bread.  No explanation needed.
  • Night snacking.  The “nothing after dinner” rule is a killer for me.  I snack on celery during the day, eat plenty of veggies at dinner and just want to taste something sweet later on.  Luckily for me, strawberries are in season here in California.
  • Bread.
  • Travel and family events.  I can only eat so many side salads with no dressing from Burger King before I never want to see another lettuce leaf again.  We have a couple of meals out planned for this weekend while we’re in Los Angeles for my nephew’s college graduation.  There is just too much temptation, and there is no way that I am going to eat ahead of time.  Besides, when you’re in a motel, as we find ourselves quite often, your choices are limited.
  • Did I mention bread?


A Possibility


Occasionally, I run across a blog that is the product of immense talent, composed by a writer and artist who succeeds at turning the mundane into the beautiful.  When this happens, I want to share so everyone can enjoy.  Such a blog is Violet’s Veg*n e-Comics.

As a more-or-less vegetarian, I have long admired the vegan lifestyle.  Being a vegan is such a powerful statement about our commitment to our fellow creatures.  Although I doubt I will ever have a strong enough will to make that leap, I wholeheartedly support those who refrain from eating not only dead animals, but the products of their bodies, such as milk and eggs.

Most days, I think that vegans will always be a tiny minority in North America and will never be able to change the world.  But then, I will be explaining why I don’t eat meat to someone, and they will respond with something like:

  • “It’s just a hamburger, there’s nothing wrong with it.” (the “I can’t be bothered to think for myself” approach)
  • “As long as it doesn’t look like a dead animal, it doesn’t bother me.”  (the “stick your head in the sand” approach)
  • “Most of these animals would never even have been born if they weren’t being raised for sale.”  (the “begging the question” or “circuitous logic” approach)
  • “If we’re not supposed to eat animals, how come they’re made of meat?”  (so are you, idiot)

That’s when I realize that mere words will never convince anyone of the evils of eating meat (or anything else, for that matter).  I think of the diatribes and acrimonious videos put out by PETA, and I realize that bonking the public over the head is not going to change anyone’s mind.  The raucousness merely turns people off.

No, the only way to begin changing attitudes is to lead by example.  Sure, some will say we’re crazy and others will call us tree-hugging hippies, but there will always be those who will open their minds just enough to view allowing all God’s creatures the same right to live that we expect for ourselves for what it is:  A possibility.

Story TimeMe, sharing “Where Are You Going, Deidra?” with my 8 month old niece last weekend.  “Shhhh!”

A Resurgence of Oldies

45 records


Three days after stopping at this tiny Kern County crossroads on our way north, we find ourselves overnighting in the same motel on our way south.  It’s all about convenience; this place is about halfway.

It would be hard to do much driving on the interstate highway system without experiencing a ubiquitous piece of Americana:  The truck stop.  Large or small, they’re all pretty much the same.  There are the showers, the convenience store, the video games and the restaurant.

Characteristic of the truck stop restaurant is uniformly bad food, good coffee and questionable taste in piped-in music.  In regard to the latter, it seems that every truck stop we visit is playing an endless loop of recorded “oldies.”  So whether we stop at Wheeler Ridge on the Grapevine, Coachella in the desert, Santa Nella in Merced County or here in Buttonwillow, we can guarantee that we will be regaled by the hits of the 1950s and 1960s.

The Platters.  Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.  Dion. The Chiffons.  From doo-wop to The Beatles and The Beach Boys.  At one truck stop we will hear The Shirelles performing “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”; at the next truck stop two hours down the road, they will be doing “Soldier Boy.”  In the rest room, it will be Rosie and the Originals on “Angel Baby”; at the coffee station, The Silhouettes will be kip-kip-kipping and boom-boom-booming their way through “Get a Job.”

Could it be that the aging baby boomer crowd, of which I am most assuredly a member, has taken up a nostalgic fondness for the kitschy pop music of days gone by?  I hadn’t heard of such a movement, so I initially wrote off this phenomenon to cheap canned music track loops, the truck stop equivalent of the strained mush we call “elevator music.”

So, hanging out with my niece and nephews (ages 16 to 21), I was shocked to find them singing along to the same crap I was hearing at the truck stops along the interstate!

Here I was thinking that those of my generation were harking back to the halcyon days of our youths, when my 16 year old niece walks into the room belting out the lyrics to “Runaround Sue.”  When the three of them started putting You Tube music videos up on their big screen TV, I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry at “Mr. Lonely.”  And when they put on Bobby Vinton singing “My Melody of Love,” you could have knocked me over with a feather.  I recommended The Duprees’ cover of “You Belong to Me,” which they dutifully brought up on the screen.  What I didn’t tell them is that, long after their lead singer had died, I used to follow the rest of the crew around to their gigs all over New Jersey.  I’m not sure I’m quite ready to confess all the sins of my misspent youth to them.

Could it be that the younger generation is discovering the music that we once “made out” to?  My niece started singing “Put Your Head on My Shoulder,” and my eyes turned misty.  She’d discovered Paul Anka!

i’d better not tell her about “Diana.”  Because then I might have to fess up about a certain girl who, despite my best efforts, I never could seem to get, and a certain 45 rpm record that I would play over and over. . .

I won’t tell if you won’t, okay?


National Donut Day



So we end our day in Buttonwillow, a tiny crossroads off the interstate highway, about halfway between our home in the desert and our family in northern California. Six hours of driving down, six more hours to go in the morning.

This lengthy trip follows a full day of working. Not just any workday, mind you. National Donut Day.

You may think I am kidding, but I assure you I am not. I know this because Dunkin’ Donuts sent me an email reminding me.

Last night, I thought briefly about bringing in donuts to work for my staff.  To honor the day properly, you understand.  Ultimately, however, I decided against it. Along with four of my staff, I am participating in the company’s Biggest Loser weight loss challenge.  Now, is it just me, or would you agree that donuts do not quite fit in with this theme?

My hope was that no one at work would know that it was National Donut Day.

Well, fat chance of that! (Ooo, bad pun.). They knew alright.  And then they started whining about how they wanted donuts.  I reminded them about our weight loss challenge, but they remained undeterred.

Capitulating (caving in, like the sucker that I am), I headed to our little local donut shop.  I certainly wasn’t about to drive hours to Dunkin’ Donuts in Phoenix.

Arriving at the donut shop, I quickly learned that EVERYONE knew about National Donut Day.  Everyone except the owners, that is.  They had made no preparations and the place was just about cleaned out.

My conversation with one of the owners went something like this:

“I need a dozen.  Do you have any Boston creme?”

“No, sorry, all out.”

“Do you have any chocolate cake donuts?”

“Sorry, all out.”

“How about blueberry?”

“All out.”

“You don’t have much, do you?”

“A lot of people came in this morning. They bought two, three dozen donuts.  We didn’t know it’s National Donut Day.”

“Don’t you go on the Internet?”

(sheepish grin)  “Our son just told us.”

Well, isn’t that just ducky!  Now what am I supposed to tell my sugar-craving staff?  I looked around and decided to make the best of it.  What was left were maple bars, coconut donuts and plain glazed donuts.

The owners agreed to fill some of the maple bars for me, two with creme and three with jelly.  Then I added some of the coconut and glazed donuts to the box.

Feeling pretty pleased with the results under the circumstances, I asked to be rung up.  The total for 9 donuts?  Thirteen dollars!

I blanched.  I only had ten dollars in my wallet!  Sighing, I took out my credit card.

“Cash only!” yelled the owner, pointing to the sign I had overlooked.

The glazed and coconut donuts came out of the box. For ten dollars, I could get the filled maple bars, with some pieces of broken donuts thrown in as a measure of good will.

So there would only be five donuts (plus some broken pieces) for eight people.  Well, the maple bars were pretty big; maybe they would share.  Sorry, guys.

Well, share they did and it all worked out perfectly.  And I am happy to report that I did not touch a single donut. After all, I recently found out what donuts are fried in commercially.  You don’t want to know.

Thanks, Smart ‘n Final.  A little bit of knowledge goes a long way.  And maybe, thanks to you, I might actually lose some weight.

2013 Silicon Valley Scrabble Tournament

Scrabble board


At the risk of boring you to tears or putting you to sleep (no snoring, please), here is a description of how it went for me at the annual Silicon Valley Showdown Scrabble Tournament in the Bay Area over Memorial Day weekend.


Round 1:  Started out with a big loss to Marcia Wade, 334-395.  My opponent started out with LOANED, setting me up for a 69 pt bingo with STOGIES before she bingoed right back with DEVIATED 78 pt.  My first play was the only bingo I was able to get off all game, while Marcia laid down the very clever TINKLIER for 63 pt.  I drew the Q (but was only able to play ROQUE 30 pt), while my opponent drew the Z, X, J, K and both blanks.  Starting the tournament with a spread of -61 served as a quick reminder that this is Campbell, where the competition is all higher rated than I am and where I am forever in the hole.

Round 2:  Felt a little better with a small win against Lynn Gunn, 374-355.  I had only one bingo all game (LIONIZED 70 pt), but my opponent had none.  I should have done better, considering I drew the bag with the Q, J, K, X and Z.  I was just grateful for the win.

Round 3:  Big loss to Joan Mocine, 283-373, a 90-point spread.  I did not have a single bingo all game (accounting for my low score), while Joan did a great job with CORNERS 68 pt and TOWERED 89 pt.  I should have known better than to set her up for that last one.  I had played LAC, then extended it to LACTATE leaving the word one square shy of the triple line.  I held a D and planned to take advantage of that triple on my next turn.  Unfortunately for me, Joan had a D as well and was able to bingo with it.  I need to learn to play more defensively.  Hope doesn’t go very far in Scrabble.

Round 4:  I shocked myself by winning against Barbara Van Allen, 413-376 despite having a boneheaded play challenged off the board.  This was my first time playing Barbara, who I have known for several years as codirector (with her husband, Larry Rand) of our wonderful tournaments in Phoenix each February.  I was first and started right out with a bingo, VEERING for 80 pt.  Seven turns later, I wracked my brain forever over EIOLTSS in an effort to remember the anagram of TOILES + S.  Of course, I checked later, and there isn’t one!  The best I could come up with was the aforementioned boneheaded play, SISTOLE*, which Barbara promptly sent back to my rack.  She then pulled ahead of me with TALENTS 70 pt.  I lucked out with being able to lay down ROADIES 74 pt near the end of the game for the win.  Barbara is such a gracious and kind opponent, which I very much appreciated.  I hope we have the opportunity to play again.

Round 5:  Donna and I grabbed some lunch (a veggie sandwich for me and Der Wienerschnitzel for her) and ate it back at the hotel room.  I was grateful to come back from lunch even at 2-2.  The feeling was short-lived, however, as I returned to a pair of big time losses.  The first was against Gretchen Cowan, 310-424.  I had not a single bingo and only two plays exceeding 30 pt.  Meanwhile, Gretchen bingoed with TENDERS 66 pt and NASTIER 77 pt.  As you can see, my opponent did a great job.  Even though she had to exchange twice and I challenged off her play of IVIER* (she said she was thinking of IVIED), she drew the bag and coolly stuck with the Q when she played out.  I deserved to lose this one!

Round 6:  I followed up being trounced by Gretchen by being taken to school by Linda Sterling 272-378.  Seriously, it’s embarrassing scoring fewer than 300 points in multiple games at a tournament!  It is obvious that I have a long way to go.  Linda had just one bingo with RESIZED 78 pt, while I had none.  My only decent play was a word I learned recently, FIAR.  My opponent didn’t know it and lost a turn when she challenged.  Did I mention that I hate Us and Vs?

Round 7:  My first big win, 434-291 against Maggie Morley.  She was unable to bingo, while I cleared my rack just once with TAWNIES 65 pt, an easy TISANE seven.  However, my best play of the game was a non-bingo, JIHADS 63 pt (through the I, double on the H and triple word score).  After fighting with vowels and miscellaneous dreck the previous two games, this time I drew the bag.

Round 8:  Last game of the day was against Scott Smith, the lowest rated player in the tournament and one of the few seeded lower than myself.  Scott is a perfect gentleman and I am so pleased to have made his acquaintance.  I expected the game to be an easy win for me and was surprised to find it hard-fought.  (“There are no free games,” another player told me later.)  I won 377-388, but could just have easily have lost.  I bingoed with SINGLET 77 pt and Scott immediately came back with UPLOADED 72 pt.  Other than the bingoes, each of us had three plays exceeding 30 pt.  Nearly at the end, when the difference between our scores was only 14 pt, I played EELIER on the triple for 29 pt.  Scott didn’t know the word and felt he had to challenge it due to the score being so close at the end of the game.  He lost the challenge and I was able to make a dinky out play for the win.


Round 9:  I came into Day 2 even at 4-4, but with a dismal spread of -151.  So I was pleased to win the first game of the day with Zana Anderson, 442-327.  Zana, who has played opposite me on several occasions, was unfortunately stuck with difficult tiles all game and was unable to bingo.  However, she was able to play QI, tripling the Q in both directions for 64 pt.  I was able to lay down two bingoes.  The first was FLEDGING 74 pt, using the blank for the F.  Zana challenged and lost her turn; she told me that she thought the word was FLEDGLING.  I explained that the former is the act of the baby bird being pushed out of the nest by the mother, while the latter describes the baby bird itself.  I also pointed out that I could have played PLEDGING, but knew that this had no chance of drawing a challenge.  My second bingo was my second highest scoring play of the tournament and my first 100+ pt play.  Thanks to the second blank, I got off BRANCHED on the triple for 104 pt.  Two turns later, I challenged off my opponent’s play of YANKEE*, which I explained to her I had recently attempted to play on the Internet unsuccessfully.  The following turn, my opponent, still trying to rid herself of the Y, played YIKE*.  I was pretty sure this word required an S, but not sure enough to challenge off the 40 pt play.  Of course, when I checked later, I found that it is not acceptable.  I need to learn to trust my instincts and to stop questioning myself constantly.

Round 10:  I was paired with Jeannie J. Wilson, against whom I have never won a game.  She trounced me well and truly twice at Campbell last year.  This year was no different, as I lost 305-459.  My opponent started out bingoing with CANDORS 74 pt, following it up five turns later with STEADIER 82 pt.  I had one bingo with PRESSING 64 pt.  Although I had the advantage of drawing the Q and the Z, my opponent drew both blanks.  I knew I would lose this game from the start, but I had hoped that it wouldn’t be by more than 100 points.  When your opponent is good, she’s good!

Round 11:  Next I was paired with Peter Dolgenes, and I prepared to lose again.  Not only does Peter have a reputation as a tough opponent, but he has trounced me before.  This hard fought game turned out to be a squeaker, with me winning by four points, 399-395!  What makes this result really surprising is that I had nary a bingo, while my esteemed opponent laid down RESENTS for 81.  My three top plays all had even-numbered scores, 30 pt, 40 pt and 50 pt.  Peter had two 30+ pt plays besides his bingo.  I did not deserve to win this game.  There, I said it.  You will agree once you hear about the idiocy that I let fly.  I challenged my opponent’s bingo.  I know, I know, who challenges RESENTS?  I told you I was an idiot.  This was a case of what my friend Lewis Martinez calls “unrecognitis.”  Here I was thinking about whether “re-sent” has a gerund form that takes an S.  Duuuhhh!  And just to top it off, my opponent logically requested a recount due to the close score.  It turned out that I had misscored one word and lost two points.  This game was living proof that God takes care of idiots and looney-toonies.

Round 12:  For the last game before lunch, I won against Polly Moyer 391-365.  This was the second consecutive game that I should have lost.  Polly drew the J, the X and the Z; I drew the Q.  We evened up by each drawing one of the blanks and each playing one bingo, DATELINE 68 pt for me, ENTRIES 69 pt for her.  But Polly had two high-scoring non-bingoes, 45 pt and 48 pt, as well as a 30 pt play.  I had two 30+ pt plays and nothing above 40 pt.  Incredibly, it seems that most of my spread was earned from a measly 16 pt play when my opponent exchanged tiles!  Some games make no sense at all.

Round 13:  I went off to lunch rather pleased with myself at 7-5.  I nearly didn’t make it back in time.  Donna went off to a leisurely lunch at Olive Garden while I ate a sandwich in our hotel room and took a nap.  Well, you can guess what happened.  Play resumed at 2:30 and I awoke with a start at exactly 2:30.  I flew out to the lobby, where the director was hanging over the second floor railing calling me.  “We started!”  Indeed, when I reached the playing room, my opponent was waiting patiently while everyone else was already engrossed in their games.  Fortunately for me, he hadn’t yet started my clock.  My opponent was Lewis Singh, who proceeded to get back at me for being late by wiping the floor with me.  In my worst game of the tournament, I lost by 165 points with a score of 273-438.  Lewis bingoed with DENIERS 83 pt and ENDORSE 80 pt, while I foolishly foundered about in vowel hell instead of exchanging.  As you may imagine, this was a game I’d rather forget.

Round 14:  Next I was paired with John Aitken of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.  In a close game, he played one bingo, ODONATE 60 pt and I played none, although I scored 50 pt for PLEX.  I had one low-scoring play after another, then challenged off John’s play of YOMS* toward the end of the game.  This was not the first time I’ve played an opponent who did not know that YOM does not take an S.  I may not know a lot of bingoes yet, but I know my Jewish words!  The game came down to 17 points, with John winning 339-322.

Round 15:  My next opponent was Jim Barker, against whom I have had several good games in the past.  I fondly remember playing SUNBIRD against him on a triple at January Reno several years ago; it was a baldfaced guess on my part and I lucked out when he challenged the word and lost.  Here in Campbell, Jim was the only one of my opponents to go over time.  We each had one bingo, DEPRAVE 67 pt for him and SENDERS 79 pt for me.  We each had two other words over 30 pt.  With an evenly matched game through turn 8, I lucked out in successfully challenging Jim’s attempt at MILI*, and then having him exchange tiles two turns later.  Final score:  380-308.

Round 16:  Last game of the day was against Peggy Grant, whom I had never played before.  I introduced myself and it turned out that she came out to California for our little tournament all the way across the country from South Carolina.  I remarked that her name sounded familiar, then suddenly the light went off.  My opponent was the famous director of the annual GRITS tournament!  On turn 3, Peggy bingoed with the lovely word CUTTINGS 70 pt.  I did a double take when I realized that she had placed the C at A5, right between two triple-word scores, and I had ADEEHRS in my rack.  Holy cow, I can play SEARCHED!  That is, on the triple-triple for 176 pt.  This was my highest scoring play of the tournament, my only triple-triple and just an all- around stupendous stroke of luck.  Peggy was shocked, never thinking that I’d be able to triple-triple off a C, of all things.  She later admitted that she was unable to recover from this play.  Although the triple-triple was very early in the game, neither of us was able to come up with another bingo.  I ended up winning with a score of 460-369.  Even so, my cumulative spread remained a deplorable -179.  But what a way to end the day!

This left me a little bit ahead at 9-7 heading into the final three games on Monday morning.  I was thrilled, realizing that I had moved up quite a few places.  After starting as 21st seed, I estimate that I had risen to about tenth place in my division.  Now, if only I could win those last few games before I went home.  I knew I’d likely be paired against some of the top players in the division, but I felt confident, as I have historically done very well in the last few games on the last day of the tournament.


At the breakfast buffet, I had time for a big bowl of oatmeal with cinnamon and raisins, along with a slice of a delicious egg and cheese concoction that may have been a quiche or a frittata.  Even better, Donna, whom I had left sleeping back in our hotel room, surprised me by joining me midway through my breakfast.  When I finally shuffled upstairs to the playing room, imagine my shock when, perusing the standings posted on the wall in the hallway, I discovered that I was now in fifth place!  This meant that, not only could I be in contention for a money prize, but that I was likely to win an additional performance prize.

Round 17:  I walked into the playing room floating on air — at least until I checked the pairings and saw that I would be playing Joan Mocine again, to whom I had lost by 90 points in Round 3.  I thought things would be different this time, as I was on a roll and have won against Joan in the past.  Let’s just say that I had another think coming.  Joan laid down two bingoes, FAERIES 73 pt and BANDITS 79 pt, to my one (DEEPENS 85 pt).  Playing on a tight board, I made an extensive series of very low scoring plays (12 pt, 9 pt, 8 pt, 8 pt… you get the picture) and we ended up being so closed down that neither of us could play out.  I ended up losing 345-429.

Round 18:  I then found myself in the ignominious position of battling with Paula Catanese, who is rated 300 points higher than myself.  So I was pleased that I was able to keep up with her, even though I ended up losing — by one lousy point!  Grrrrr!  I was able to play two bingoes, ROADIES 64 pt and MANNERLY 61 pt, to Paula’s one.  But that one was SURVIVER for 89 points, played on a triple.  Knowing that the word is spelled with an O, not an E, I challenged.  Unfortunately for me, that spelling is good.  At the end, Paula played LEFTIST 22 pt, but my outplay was a paltry GAIN for 13 pt.  With the score so close, we recounted.  I gained 2 pt in the recount, but Paula gained one, enough for us to avoid a tie.

Round 19:  Having kissed goodbye all hope of winning a money prize, I hoped to win the last game of the tournament so that the entire day would not be a loss.  But when I saw that I was paired with Marcia Wade again, I knew that I was sunk.  She remarked that we played the first game of the tournament and the last one.  I replied that she won our first game and that I was going to let her do so again.  I was a man of my word.  We each had a single bingo, NECROUS 78 pt for me and HORNETS 80 pt for Marcia.  But she also had five 30+ pt plays, while I had just one.  The game ended 340-416, leaving me at 9-10 for the tournament with a spread of -340.

I finished in 15th place, raising my rating from 997 to 1029.  All in all, it was a most enjoyable tournament.  But I really wish I hadn’t choked so badly on the last day of the competition.

Onward to the National Scrabble Championship in Las Vegas, about six weeks hence.