My Sister and I Hail From Different Planets

About a week ago, my wife and I had dinner with my sister.  It was the first time I’d seen Sis since my father’s 82nd birthday three months ago.  She has had no luck securing a hospital job in the Bay Area where she resides, so she’s settled, at least temporarily, for the life of a traveling sonographer.  After having served in states from Ohio to New Mexico, she now finds herself in the Stockton area for a few months.  She heads home to San José every other Friday, staying in town on the alternate weekends when she has just one day off (Sunday).  Accordingly, I may be seeing her quite a few times before she moves on to her next assignment.

I only hope I survive the experience.

This is rather difficult to explain, so I’ll just say that my sister and I have little to nothing in common.  For example:

Sis:  Divorced
Me:  Married

Sis:  Two children
Me:  Childless

Sis:  Moves from job to job
Me:  Steady job

Sis:  Had bariatric surgery
Me:  Would rather be fat

Sis:  Has money.  Owns two homes.  Complains that she’s broke.
Me:  Has student loans.  Can barely afford rent.  Poor and happy.

Sis:  Loves skiing in Colorado.
Me:  Loves sitting on the couch watching skiing on TV.

Sis:  Thinks California is “paradise.”
Me:  Wishes he were back in New York.

Sis:  Classic rock
Me:  Country music

Sis:  Science geek
Me:  Literature freak

Sis:  Loves Facebook.
Me:  Hates Facebook and won’t have anything to do with it.

I suppose what we do have in common (from the past) is having shared a warped childhood and (from the present) is managing to upset each other every time we meet.

On this particular occasion, my wife and I were aghast when Sis showed us photos of the woman her boyfriend recently left her for and proceeded to describe what he used to moan while they were having sex.  Later, my mother let me know that Sis complained that the pasta joint we took her to had no protein other than pork, so she had to eat two hard-boiled eggs before meeting us.  I may have to remind Sis that chicken is protein.  But, hey, I’m just a vegan, so what do I know.

I don’t drink, but I’m starting to feel like the guy in that Craig Morgan song.  Any recommendations, bartender?

 

 

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Just Google It: An Essay on Self-Reliance

As I’ve mentioned before in this space, among my favorite words in the French language is la débrouillardisme and its adjective form, débroubillard(e).  While I do not believe that there is any English word that exactly captures the nuances of the term, the closest translation that I’ve encountered is “resourcefulness.”  The word also has a certain patina of what, back in my college days, was termed “gettin’ over on the man” and what (even earlier, as a kid) adults called “pulling a fast one.”  The implication is one of knowing how to get things done, particularly in terms of which back channels must be traversed and whose palms must be greased.  But the French word also contains an element of the concept of “cleverness,” somewhere between knowing how to spin straw into gold and knowing how to trick people into doing what you want.  It’s no wonder that “il/elle est très débrouillard(e)” is among the highest of compliments that a French person can bestow.

I also think of the term as bearing elements of “self-reliance,” as in “he can take care of himself.”  That presents a fine line between the admirable trait (in terms of the Protestant work ethic, anyway) of not needing to depend on anyone else and the (arguably) more questionable trait of “being a sharpie” who obtains advantages for him/herself at the expense of others.

I thought about this concept today because of Google, and because of the U.S. presidential debates that I’ve been watching on TV recently.

Painted with the broadest of brush strokes, I’ve heard it expressed that the Republicans are the party of laissez-faire economics and rugged individualism.  The Horatio Alger “rags to riches” myth (and its closely associated phrase “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”), with its implication that “any kid can grow up to be president, just look at old Abe Lincoln who was born in a log cabin,” is alive and well in America.  The GOP has a reputation as being “the party of business” that rewards the rich with tax breaks that aid them in retaining their wealth.  The party also has a reputation of favoring a reduced role of government, with the underlying philosophy that most of us have deep wells of fortitude upon which one can draw to reach the nirvana that is self-reliance.  Don’t mess around with the economy and things will find their own level as people make decisions based on self-interest.  Coddling Americans with government largesse encourages sloth and leads to every type of weakness, from the personal to the national.

The Democratic Party philosophy appears to embody a decidedly different world view that includes awareness of society’s troubles, from poverty to mental illness to drugs (what I like to term “the three Hs”:  homelessness, Haldol and heroin).  My fellow Democrats like to be proactive rather than reactive.  Rather than closing the barn door after the horse has escaped, we believe in spending money on things like education, social justice and prevention rather than prisons, hospitals and cemeteries.  We believe that those who “can” have a duty to society to give their all.  But we also know that there will always be those who “cannot” and must be supported rather than left to be trampled on by the herd, to suffer and to die in desperation.  “There will always be poor people in the land.  Therefore I command you to be openhanded.”  Deut. 15:11  We may admire self-reliance, but it is wrong to disrespect those who, for whatever reason, lack that ability.  It takes all kinds to make a well-rounded society, and everyone has something to contribute.  We all agree on the need to care for the children, but too many of us fail to see that there are those among us who will always be children and must be taken care of regardless of their chronological age.

The stresses of modern American life put the lie to the ideal of self-reliance and expose the Horatio Alger myth for what it is.  I think of Donald Trump, whom I believe is rightly admired for his many successes, but who may not have been able to achieve them had he not been preceded by his millionaire real estate developer father, Fred.  While Trump may see himself as a modern-day Lincoln (I suspect that The Donald is a legend in his own mind), he was definitely not born in a one-room log cabin in Kentucky.  Nor was he raised in a rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn, as Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders was.

I find a supreme irony in the fact that both Trump and Sanders are native New Yorkers, the former from Queens and the latter from Brooklyn.  One was born with a silver spoon in his mouth while the other was born to impoverished immigrants who sought a better life in America.  I suppose it’s no wonder that Sanders seems to have an appreciation for the suffering and hope of those who risk everything to escape death in places like Syria, while Trump wants to build a wall on the Mexican border and keep Muslims out of the country.  I think it’s clear that we have two different world views going on here, each propounded by a man who achieved success through his own vision of “resourcefulness” and “self-reliance,” la débrouillardisme.

This is where I have to mention Google.  It seems that hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear someone say “Why don’t you Google it?”  After hearing this phrase roll off the tongue of coworkers, my wife and my teenage niece, the profoundness of its ubiquity struck me when I heard it from my octogenarian father not too long ago.  The essence is that if you don’t know, it’s no big deal.  You can just Google it.

Over the centuries, the United States has progressed from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy and, finally, to an information economy.  Despite the importance of information, however, no one much cares what we have stored up in our brains anymore.  Why commit anything to memory when you can just Google it?

Among the arguments in favor of search engines is that they are capable of storing exponentially more information than any person could ever hope to know.  I imagine that today’s grade school students must find it insufferable to have to memorize anything (from multiplication facts to state capitals to spelling words) when you can just Google it.

Is this what has come of self-reliance?  Have we truly moved on from Nike’s age of “just do it” to the age of “just Google it?”  One could argue that we no longer rely on the self, but instead rely on computer databases (and hope to God that they are accurate).  Speaking of accuracy, I suppose there is no comparison.  The human mind is subject to the vagaries of recollection and the ravages of time, but zeroes and ones (like diamonds) are forever.

There are those who argue that the knowledge economy transcends the memorization of yesterday.  Computers spew and vomit out data nonstop; the value-added individual is he or she who can interpret what it all means.  How important is it really that a presidential candidate at a debate botches the name of a world leader, a quotation or a statistic?  We all know that CNN, Fox News and the New York Times will be fact checking every statement.  So there really isn’t any need for a dog to bark at the lies and misstatements of the candidates, as so colorfully recounted by Hillary Clinton recently.  We have the news media to do the barking for us.  And think of all the money we save on vet bills!

In his famous essay, “Self Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested that we are obligated to decide things for ourselves rather than rely on the views and opinions of others.  He praises nonconformity, at least in the sense it shouldn’t matter what anyone else thinks.  After all, who’s to say that we’re not right and everyone else is wrong?

I suppose Emerson’s ideals could be said to have influenced the self-reliant types who head off into the Alaskan wilderness to live the life of a resourceful hermit.  And yet, the French ideal of la débrouillardisme is not about separating ourselves from our fellow man, but learning to succeed in spite of him.  It’s all about being Dickens’ Artful Dodger, knowing how to turn the tricks of the trade to your advantage, how to smooth talk others into giving you what you want, how to execute what Trump refers to as “the art of the deal.”

While it’s fine to admire the clever among us, and to refine our methods of dreaming and scheming, it would be well to remember that we are not dealing with a level playing field here.  Many of us are disadvantaged right out of the gate, including African-Americans and recent immigrants, who face every variety of subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination, and including those with mental and physical disabilities, and including those who were raised in abject poverty that weighs one down with a gravitational force that precludes pulling one’s self up by even the strongest of bootstraps.

While those of us who “can” pursue our self-reliant ways, we must never forget to proffer the assistance needed by those who “might” with the aid of additional resources, and we must never forget to provide for those who “cannot” under any circumstances.

So I say to all the presidential candidates of both parties:  Know this for certain, that the day will come when you will require an answer that neither Google nor Siri can provide.  For as King David taught us centuries ago, in time even the mighty shall fall.  And it is then that those of former greatness shall gain personal knowledge of what it is like for those of us who live without help and without hope.

 

The Protein Question

The Vegan Files

One of my coworkers, the most friendly, helpful guy you could hope to know (and a computer whiz, to boot), recently mentioned that he is on insulin but is still having difficulty keeping his Type 2 diabetes under control.  I was a bit surprised, as he is tall, exercises (not only goes to the gym but also has a job that keeps him running around our building like a banshee all day) and is not morbidly obese like me.  I related that I’ve had reasonable success at controlling my blood sugar since I went vegan a little more than two years ago.

He seemed busy, but I spent a minute or two explaining about the vegan diet before he had to run off to put out the next fire at work.  Funny thing is that there is no one “vegan diet.”  Every vegan eats differently.  The baseline that most of us have common is that we do not eat animal products.  This includes a ban on meat, fish and seafood, dairy products (milk, cheese, etc.), eggs or honey.

As most Type 2 diabetics know, the finest foods in life are starches.  I knew that even in my carnivore days.  When you have to watch your carbs, it is easy to dream about bread, potatoes, bread, pasta, bread, cereal, bread, bagels, croissants and tortillas.  Did I mention bread?

Most of these beloved starches are vegan (although you always have to watch the ingredients on the labels of commercially prepared products).  But those of us who are both vegan and diabetic are faced with a double challenge.  It is easy for vegans who eat on the run to overdo it on the starches, a disaster if you’re a Type 2 diabetic.

So I’m not surprised that among the most common questions that I’m asked about my vegan diet is how I get my protein.  “You don’t even eat eggs?” my coworker asked me.  I know where he’s coming from.  As I’ve been blessed with naturally low cholesterol, I used to eat a lot of eggs.  If I had a boiled egg (or two) for a snack, at least I didn’t have to add it to the carbohydrate tally for the day on my diabetic diet.  A single egg gives you 6 grams of protein, so egg lovers who go vegan will likely need to search for a replacement source of protein.

Then again, maybe not.

Don’t ask me how much protein you should consume each day.  I have no idea.  For one thing, it’s an individualized thing in that it supposedly depends on your body weight and how much you exercise.  For another, there appears to be little consensus among the medical community regarding how much protein we need.  Lots of folks out there wag their fingers at meat-loving Americans, warning that we’re getting too much protein and that this can cause us to gain unhealthy amounts of weight and even result in kidney disease.  Then there are others who believe that we don’t get enough protein and would, in fact, do better to indulge in more as a replacement for a lot of the refined sugars and starches that Americans are so enamored with.  All in all, however, I believe we’re probably better off dumping the excess carbs and replacing them with vegetables (both the green and orange varieties).

Starch does have its place, however, even for vegan Type 2s.  It’s a matter of achieving balance, which I grant is not the easiest thing when you spend your life running hither and yon.  I am definitely not a good role model in the area of balance, as I seem to have developed a potato fetish on a scale that would be funny if it weren’t so sad.  As far as I’m concerned, a day without potatoes is like a day without sunshine.  If I don’t have my baked potato, I get positively grumpy.  But you know what?  A baked potato (if it’s not a giant one) tends to have about 90 to 110 calories.  You could do worse.  And starches do fill you up, which can leave you less hungry for the junk food that is forever calling my name.

So I let my coworker know that, while carnivores may have concerns about eating too much protein, vegans (particularly diabetics) have to be concerned about eating too much starch.  Making a point to eat protein at one meal each day is quite sufficient for many of us.  I ticked off a list of some common vegan protein sources:

  • tofu
  • seitan
  • beans and legumes (including hummus)
  • nuts
  • soy milk
  • commercially prepared vegan products

In this last category I include items such as vegan burger patties (Boca burgers, for example) and veggie dogs, vegan “lunch meat” (my favorites are Yves “bologna” and Tofurky’s “oven roasted turkey”) and vegan frozen items (my favorites are Gardein’s “fish,“ “chicken” and “meatballs” and Amy’s bean burritos).  These convenience foods are probably not as healthful as whole foods such as beans and legumes, but they taste great and I never have to worry about a quick protein source to throw in my bag.  A few minutes in the microwave at work and lunch is served!

Of course, protein choices have to be modified to personal preferences.  For example, I happen to detest seitan (sprouted soy), which, at least to me, tastes like dirt.  I rarely drink soy milk, as I prefer almond milk, which has very little protein (but is wonderful in a cup of hot Earl Grey).  I do, however, enjoy tofu and beans, particularly chick peas (which here in California are popularly known as garbanzos).  Everyone has to come up with the mix that works for them.  It’s particularly tough for those transitioning from a meat-eating lifestyle, because many of these products may be totally foreign to them.

It’s also worthwhile to bear in mind that many foods that you already eat contain protein that you might not be aware of.  A packet of instant oatmeal, for example, which I always think of as a starch, typically contains 3 grams of protein.  If you throw two of those in a bowl with some hot water in the morning, you have the same amount of protein as there is in an egg.

The bottom line is that protein is not at all difficult for vegans to come by, particularly with all the commercial products available on supermarket shelves these days.

I just hope that my coworker decides to give it a try.

 

Doin’ the Circûmflex Dance

One of my favorite cartoons of all time (which I discovered several years ago in Jonathan Fenby’s excellent France on the Brink) depicts a harried teacher before a French grammar class composed of teenage hoodlums.  In an apparent effort to help her students relate to the rather dry lesson, she writes the following conjugation on the blackboard:

nous brûlons une voiture
vous brûlez une voiture
ils brûlent une voiture
ells brûlent une voiture

“We burn a car, you burn a car, they burn a car . . .”

Best of all is the wry caption:  “And don’t forget the circumflex!”

I remembered this today when I read about the new rules and words developed by the Académie Française, the nearly 400 year old body that protects the integrity of the French language and determines how words are spelled in the French dictionary.  Among those changes, to take effect in schoolbooks next academic year, is the removal of the circumflex (the little hat- or roof-shaped accent) from words in which it has heretofore appeared over a U or I.  So brûler in the teacher’s lesson above will become bruler and entraîner (“to practice”) will become entrainer.

Quite a ruckus has been raised on social media by French speakers who are appalled at the mangling of their language and their perceived betrayal by the organization that exists to protect it.  The hashtag #JeSuisCirconflexe (“I am circumflex”) has been trending on Twitter among those expressing their indignation.  This, of course, is a play on “Je Suis Charlie,” the defiant phrase carried on signs and worn on clothing following the murders at the Paris satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo last year.

As you can see, the French get rather touchy about their language.  Granted, the circumflex doesn’t totally change the pronunciation of a word the way the acute accent or cedilla does (changing a short E to a long E and changing a C from the K sound to the S sound, respectively).  Some believe the accent is pretty much useless, a relic of Old French adopted to indicate locations where the letter S had been omitted (for example, bête, the word for “beast” gained its circumflex when it lost its S in the transition to modern French).  And the circumflex will not be completely disappearing; it will still appear where it always has on the vowels A, E and O, as well as on words in which its absence would change the meaning (such as sur, “on top of,” versus sûr, meaning “sure”).  But it is still a matter of pride for the French.

As if the disappearing circumflex weren’t bad enough, the Académie Française also saw fit to change the correct spelling of a few words — oh, about 2,400 in all.  For example, oignon, the word for “onion,” becomes ognon.  And it’s not only the circumflex that will be seen less often.  Fewer hyphens will be around, too.  Compound words like porte-monnaie (change purse) and week-end will lose their hyphens.

I had to laugh when I heard about week-end.  That, of course, is a prime example of “franglais,” the slang Frenchification of English words and phrases that so many of the French detest.  And although there is a perfectly good phrase for “weekend” in French (fin de semaine), the Académie Française has apparently capitulated to the unstoppable waves of popular culture that have been beating against the shores of French linguistics for decades.  Now, the French can not only use the English word “weekend” knowing it is officially sanctioned, but French kids can even spell it just the way it’s spelled in English without getting points marked off their papers.

I have to wonder about grand-mère, the French word for “grandmother.”  Back in the Stone Age, when I was in school, it was spelled grand’mère, with, of all things, an apostrophe.  By the time I arrived in college, the apostrophe had been replaced by a hyphen.  Could it be that the French will now be able to address their grannies without the need of punctuation?

Something tells me the grandmothers of French aren’t going to like this one bit.  But they can look on the bright side.  At least they won’t be losing a circumflex.