Slips of Perception

It is a well-known fact that two people can witness the same event and come away with vastly different impressions.  When they meet, they will point at each other and exclaim “That’s not how it happened!”  For a prime example of this, just get my sisters and me in a room together, discussing any given childhood experience.  You wouldn’t believe that we could possibly be describing the same thing.

Some of this phenomenon can be accounted for by lapses in memory, but most of it is the result of differences in perspective.  Culture, prior experience and personality all play into a person’s perceptions.

Among the most famous examples of this is the “young lady or old lady” optical illusion.  As a child, I remember being fascinated by this.

optical illusion

My naughty father reinforced this point by drawing a light bulb and claiming that it was actually a picture of a fat lady bent over with her butt crack (the filament) showing.  I wish I could reproduce this here, but I have exactly zero drawing talent.  Stick figures are as far as I go.

Differences in perception are exacerbated by failures in communication.  In my generation, this was inculcated in us in school by means of such games as “telephone,” wherein one person whispers a phrase in another’s ear and the recipient passes it on to the next person, the next, and so on.  By the time the message reaches the opposite end of the room, it is ludicrously mangled beyond recognition.

While attending a training class this week, I found myself thinking about the skewing and skewering of the facts by miscommunication and variations in perception.  I had to laugh at myself when I realized how ludicrously wrong I had received and interpreted the intended message.

The training class was divided into groups to do an exercise.  One member of my group wrote the days of the week on slips of paper and had everyone draw one to determine the day on which each of us would serve as leader.  This is a photo of the slip that I pulled:

M slip

At first, I was piqued to have drawn Monday, meaning I would have to lead first.

You can imagine how confused I was when the instructor began leading the group.  That’s when I realized that I had been looking at the slip upside down!  Duh! My day is Wednesday!

W slip

I was pleased to learn that I had a few days to prepare.  But I was truly gobsmacked when I learned that a different class member would be leading on Wednesday.  I had to stop the speaker and ask for an explanation.  That’s when I was informed that my day to lead was actually Thursday!!  Imagine my embarrassment when I learned that Monday was an instructor-led day and that the other four days of the week had been numbered.  I had drawn Day 3, which would be Thursday.

3 slip

I wish I were making this up, but sometimes I have to be reminded that truth is stranger than fiction.

Never assume that your point of view is superior to that of another.  While differences in perception are often chalked up to matters of opinion, it is also quite possible to be completely and flatly wrong.

Lesson learned.

I Gotta, Um, Er, You Know, GO!

My coworkers and I had a grand old time and a lot of laughs at our recent holiday luncheon.  The highlight of the afternoon was the annual gift exchange.  The emcee would pull a name out of a hat and call the lucky person up front to select a wrapped gift from a very full table.  Alternatively, if you coveted a gift previously selected by someone else, you could “steal” the gift away.  The gifts of alcohol were extremely popular, so it was a good thing that there was a rule that a gift could be stolen only twice.

To add to the hilarity, the emcee started out by informing us that anyone who decided to steal had to either sing a holiday song or tell a joke.  If this was supposed to deter the predilection for stealing bottles of vodka, gin, whiskey and champagne, it wasn’t very successful.  It was a great rule, however, as the terrible singing and even worse jokes resulted in roars of laughter.

My favorite joke of the day, which the teller admitted she borrowed from her young son, referred to the streets of downtown Sacramento that are named with the letters of the alphabet.

Q: Why is it so hard living on O Street?  A:  Because you have to go a block to P.

What is funny about this joke, of course, is the double entendre reference to urination.  You can’t really go wrong with a joke on this subject.  Peeing is always funny, and comedians have been milking the topic for generations.

Before HBO and cable programming generally, you couldn’t make reference to “peeing” in the media without being accused of vulgarity.  Even today, over-the-air radio and TV stations have to watch it, as the FCC has been known to impose some pretty steep fines for gratuitous mention of bodily functions.  This pressure ultimately sent “shock jocks” such as Howard Stern, who appears to delight in “juvenile” humor about urination and defecation, scurrying to satellite radio.

In this day and age, references to the elimination of human waste are judged to be exceedingly mild, at least in the grand scheme of things.  This makes sense in a world in which many give not a second thought to the use of the most demeaning racist and sexist slurs.  It’s all relative.

For example, in the various places I’ve worked, I can’t recall ever seeing someone raise an eyebrow at an offhand description of an impending rest room break as “I gotta go potty” or “going to pee.”  I admit to stifling a giggle when I see the text abbreviation ggp (“gotta go pee”).  I have been lurking around online long enough to remember when this was a way of informing the mates in your chat room why you were going to be afk (away from keyboard).  At any rate, I now know that you can tell a joke that refers to peeing in front of fifty of your coworkers and no noses will be wrinkled.  And you can guarantee that I will be the first to laugh.

Many moons ago, I spent a couple of years working for a tiny community newspaper in New York.  It was a “family newspaper,” both in the sense that the publication was owned by a family and in the more traditional sense of that phrase, meaning that it was unfailingly “G-rated.”  The idea was that all members of the family, including young kids and Grandma, should be able to read the paper cover to cover without encountering any word or phrase that might be deemed offensive.

I remember how, in my college days, where I was one of the editors of the student newspaper back in the 1970s, we made a big point of thumbing our noses at this standard by taking advantage of the opportunity to print the most flagrant vulgarities in 72-point headline type on the front page.  Protesters (and we protested everything back then) were quite fond of including some very colorful language in their chants, cheers and taunts.  Quoting those was a convenient excuse to cuss in a big black headline.

At the staid, conservative weekly newspaper where I was employed in the composing room, however, our problem was not quoting protesters but how to, um, accurately describe the actions for which some of the local loony toonies routinely found themselves arrested.  Should we print “public exposure” when really what we meant was “public urination?”  I can just see some kid reading the paper when it hit local driveways every Thursday.

“Mom, what’s ‘exposure’ mean?”

“That depends on the context, dear.  Usually it has to do with developing photos, like how much light hits the film.  But it can also mean freezing to death, like when someone dies of exposure.”

Our family newspaper found itself in a pickle when a trucker got arrested for pulling off the road into a subdivision so he could pee in a bottle.  Some kids noticed what the hapless guy was doing.  Indecent exposure?  Or just a garden variety case of ggp?  The guy wasn’t exactly a flasher, but who knows what was in that pea brain of his?  Either way, the paper couldn’t get around mentioning that unmentionable, urination.  Ha-ha!  The joke was on the publishers.  “Serves them right for being such prudes” was my first thought as I gleefully typeset the article.

I very much like the approach that my brother-in-law’s mom always took in regard to this subject.  As an elementary school teacher for years, she was no stranger to kids who casually dropped references to peeing into conversations to see what kind of reaction they would get.  She would always interrupt the kid mid-sentence, interjecting “We all do it!”  Never failed to steal their thunder.

One could argue that, even today, we continue to experience some discomfort at public references to elimination of bodily waste, which may explain the use of such infantilized terms as “peeing” and “pooping.”  Admittedly, the liquid version seems to be a bit more acceptable than the solid one.  Few would be surprised at a fellow employee referring to a “pee break,” but one who was brazen enough to say “I gotta take a dump” would likely be considered vulgar.

Whatever you do, however, be sure to keep the bathroom references off the radio and network TV.  ‘Cuz the FCC’s gonna get you if you don’t watch out!

Devotees of the First Amendment need not apply.  After all, freedom of speech must take a back seat to protecting the delicate ears of our eight and ten year old children.

(Cue laugh track)

 

Ready for Christmas 2015

I am looking forward to just three days of work this week followed by a four-day holiday weekend.  Our shopping is done, and yesterday we finished the wrapping.

Wrapped Gifts

Our staging area in the corner of the kitchen with some of the gifts for the nieces and nephews.

Meanwhile, at work, we are eating ourselves into a coma, courtesy of an annual event officially known as A Taste of the Holidays but which most of us refer to by its nickname, Waddle Week.  On Friday alone, I stuffed myself with fried potatoes, chips and salsa, popcorn, and fresh blackberries and raspberries.  For me at least, the pièce de résistance was the vegan cupcakes prepared by one of my coworkers.  Thank you so much, May!

All this followed our holiday luncheon on Thursday.  Although I checked in advance and knew there would not be any vegan food, I brought my own and had a grand old time eating, chatting and participating in a gift exchange with my cohorts.

While last year’s Christmas was fairly subdued at work, this year we held a holiday decorating contest that turned the entire floor into a raucous, delightful amalgam of holiday-related themes.  I present just a few for your holiday enjoyment.

International Gingerbread Lane

1

3

4

Holiday Movie Marathon

7

8

9

Candyland

10

O Christmas Tree – Our secretary’s handiwork and winner of the door contest.  Go, Linda!

Karen's Door

My cubicle wall.  Clearly, I lack the artistic abilities of my coworkers!

Peace

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!  Thanks for reading and for another wonderful year on A Map of California.

 

Broke but Out of Debt

Yesterday, my wife asked me if I was depressed because we have so little money.  Yes, I am, I told her.

As Tevye the milkman pointed out in Fiddler on the Roof, it’s no crime to be poor.  I do believe that it’s possible to be both poor and happy, particularly if you appreciate the things you do have and value your family and friends.

The real thing that’s depressing me is the Infinite Loop of Poverty.  I feel like a modern day Sisyphus, pushing the rock up the mountain only to have it roll back down so that we have to do it all over again.

All of this was triggered when we decided to purchase a car last week.  Not even a new car, mind you.  A low mileage used vehicle is all we could manage without going deeply into debt.  Which is the point, I suppose:  We may not have any money, but at least we’ve managed to stay debt-free.

This wasn’t always the case.  When my wife and I got married 17 years ago, we had a lot of debt between us.  With two (small) incomes, we worked assiduously to overcome this problem.  It took a lot of years, but all the credit card debt and most of the student loans were paid off.  I am proud of this, particularly since I suffered two year-long stints of unemployment in the interim and my wife worked part-time for a few years and not at all for another four years.

And so I say to those of you who think you are stuck in debt forever that there is hope.  It requires dedication, however, including paying down debts first thing out of every paycheck regardless of what you’d really like to spend the money on.  Whatever that may be, it’s probably not as important as watching that big number that you owe get lower and lower.

I am fortunate that my wife is so good with money.  I don’t do well with numbers and would rather have someone else think about what has to be paid and when.  I suppose this goes back to my childhood, as my parents did not believe in giving “allowances” or in encouraging budgeting and planning.  If they thought we needed something, they’d buy it.  Otherwise, they’d rather that we didn’t have any of their hard-earned money so that we couldn’t waste it on frivolity.

In my young adulthood, the result of this was not pretty.  If my father visited me at college and handed be a twenty, likely as not it would be gone the same day.  When I began working, I still lived at home and treated money cavalierly; gosh, I’d get another paycheck the next week, so what was the big deal?  I spent it as quickly as I earned it.

All my life, the place where this came back to bite me was cars.  Transportation was my bête noire, my Kryptonite, my undoing.  I’d use my tax refund to pay my auto insurance.  I’d fill up my tank every time I was paid.  But the moment something went wrong with the car and I needed a couple thousand dollars to make things right, I was in deep trouble.  My father generously purchased a series of high-mileage clunkers for me, none of which lasted very long.  When I saved for a new car, my father generously put up some of the cash, or it never would have happened.

Then my parents began giving me their old car each time they purchased a new one.  They took very good care of their vehicles, so I knew I’d be in good shape for a few years.  One of those cars was wrecked when an old lady ran into me on the way home from work one night.  Another was wrecked by my young niece when we lent it out to her.  Another had to be sold when it’s engine was about to go, and yet another was a trade-in on the old Cash for Clunkers program.

After owning two cars free and clear for a couple of years, we decided to buy a new vehicle even though we had to finance it.  We made some very large monthly payments and eventually paid it off.  Now, however, it has well over 150,000 miles on it and little things started going wrong with it.  We finally decided to give it to our niece (not the one who wrecked our former vehicle, leaving us with just one car between us ever since), who was desperately in need of vehicle, and to pay cash for a used car for ourselves.

The only problem is that avoiding the interest payments associated with financing meant spending just about all our savings.  Hence, my feelings of depression.  I must have a car in order to get to work every day.  Once there, I work and work to save enough so that we can spend it all to buy another car so that I continue to get to work to make more money to buy another car.  It seems to be an endless cycle, which might not be a big deal to a 25 year old, but takes on quite a different meaning to one who is rapidly approaching retirement age.  The only way out of this loop is to earn significantly more money or to up the ante on savings.  Yes, I do think that saving money faster than you use up your car is the only real answer.

Still, I am grateful that I have once more managed to escape the millstone of monthly car payments with which so many others are saddled.  As Dave Ramsey points out on his radio show, taking the scissors to that albatross around one’s neck is a significant step toward financial independence.

Just don’t ask me for money.  I don’t have any.

 

Retirement? No, Thank You

A couple of weeks ago at work we had a very nice retirement party for one of my coworkers who had been with our agency for 25 years.  She told us how much she was looking forward to spending more time with her grandchildren.  Most of all, however, she was excited about not having to work.

So many people can’t wait to retire, and I wish them well.  But I have a hard time imagining freely choosing not to go to work anymore.  Having experienced two year-long spates of unemployment, I am not particularly enamored of staying home.  Perhaps this is because I had no income and stood in line for handouts from food banks, some of which was so rotten that we had to throw our gifts away.  Perhaps I’d have a different point of view if I were receiving regular pension checks.  Perhaps I’d see things in another light if I had a reasonable chance of retiring without being utterly destitute.

My sister was a housewife and mother for a couple of decades before she walked out on her husband when her kids were teenagers and suddenly found herself thrust into the world of work.  She was unprepared for any type of career and ended up spending most of her divorce settlement on going back to school.  Like me, she knows that she can never retire.  She says she’s fine with it, however.  “I had 20 years of retirement when I was young,” she tells me.

I don’t know that retirement is a good thing at all.  On one hand, my parents have been retired for nearly 25 years and seem to like it just fine.  On the other hand, I often see articles like this one by one of my favorite bloggers, Michael Lai, that asks the question whether early retirement is equated with early death.  I suppose the jury is still out on that one, as the studies seem to yield conflicting findings.

It is said that a lack of intellectual stimulation can cause brain function to atrophy.  With that in mind, one might say that thriving in retirement is a function of keeping busy with things other than work.  As Michael mentions, many of us have our entire identities tied up with our work, leaving us floating in space once that tether is cut.  This may be one reason that those who have devoted much of their lives to family responsibilities and maintain strong family bonds have an easier time of it in retirement than those who have little in the way of social connection.

At one point during my most recent period of unemployment, I began wondering whether I should just consider myself retired and leave it at that.  We’d be poor, but we’d scrape together enough to subsist somehow.  After all, who wants to hire a fiftysomething with outdated technical skills who hasn’t worked in a year?  It seemed that accepting myself as retired might make me feel less of a loser than I did when I applied for hundreds of job openings and got nowhere fast.

Now that I’m working again, I’m actually glad that I’ll never be able to retire.  If I could, I might be tempted to do so, and I know that it would not be a good thing for me at all.

Yes, I enjoy going to work every day.  It’s not always a bed of roses, but it does give me a sense of purpose.  As I admitted at a recent staff meeting, I am grateful for having a job that allows me to make a positive difference in the lives of others.  Would I be able to achieve the same thing doing volunteer work in retirement?  Perhaps.  But it is a special feeling to know that not only am I a member of a profession that allows me to help others, but that I’m good enough at it to be well-paid for the privilege.

About a year ago, I had a philosophical disagreement with one of my coworkers about retirement.  He insisted that retirement is ideal, because it allows you to pursue personal interests rather than having work sucking up all your time.  I suppose this is true if one’s personal interests are diametrically opposed to what one does for a living.  I once had an employee on my team who was a cage fighter and another who raised geckos.  I must admit that such pursuits are a long way from working in the legal world.  However, a very different picture emerges when one’s vocation and avocation are more closely related.  I have plenty of hobbies that I pursue in the evenings and on weekends.  I build my vacations around them.  And as much as I enjoy them, I don’t think I’d want to work at them “full time.”  It’s good to have some degree of balance in life, and I am fairly sure I wouldn’t have that if I were not steadily employed.

I don’t know whether it’s true that one can expect to die within a few years of retiring, but I’d really rather not find out personally.  Instead, I’d prefer to continue experiencing the joy of working.  And, yes, I do include the endless meetings, the time pressure and deadlines, the bosses and the coworkers, the paperwork and the politics.  This lends a richness to my life that no amount of devotion to my hobbies ever could.  I just hope that I’m able to remain healthy enough to keep getting up in the morning, putting on a tie and doing it again and again.

I guess you could say I’m just an old cowboy who’ll die in the saddle with a smile on his face.

 

The Refrigerator Rules

refrigerator rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Purple Tree

purple tree

I drove into town to get the oil changed in our car today, and on the way home to the parsonage, I saw a family of six walking along the side of the road, every one of them decked out in red and white Santa hats.  Every last one of them, including the baby in the stroller.

Wow, so it’s really Christmas, huh?

As a New York boy, it never seems as if it’s really Christmas here in northern California.  The mild weather fools me every time.  With all the falling leaves, it feels more like October.

Sac fall color

I took this photo of downtown Sacramento’s fall color from halfway up the office tower in which I am currently employed.

All in all, this was quite a week.  We started out on Sunday with brunch at one of our favorite Mexican restaurants.  They have veggie fajitas right on the menu . . .

fajitas

. . .which I proceeded to make into tacos, thanks to the vegetarian black beans.

veggie tacos

This may not seem like such a big deal, but believe me, it is.  It’s delightful for once not to have to ask the server to have the cook make up something special, and no butter (no, not even margarine), and by the way, what type of oil do you cook with?  Congratulations, you have instantly become a problem customer.  Just don’t admit to being a vegan, whatever you do.  Better pretend to have severe food allergies.  Or tell them that you’re an Orthodox Jew and have to follow the kosher rules.  Hope they don’t ask you where your “Yamaha” is.  (Out in the parking lot, doofus.  It’s the one with the twin cams and the Star of David).

Monday was pay day, also a big deal when you only get paid once a month.  Pay bills, pay tithes, buy groceries, figure out the budget for the month.  If you really want that vegan coconut milk “ice cream” that costs four and a half dollars for a thimbleful, now’s the time to speak up.  Next week, there won’t be any money for it.  (Don’t cry, there’s always next month.)

Monday was also the first day back at work from our four-day break (Thanksgiving is the one and only time of year that we have one).  Down came my paper turkey from the dollar store and up went my purple Christmas tree, of similar pedigree (see photo above).  Matching purple bows were pinned up both inside and outside my tiny cubicle domain. Fa la la la la…

Although it rained for most of the trip down to and back from the Central Valley for my father’s 81st birthday last weekend, my coworkers report that there was barely a sprinkle here.  Tuesday, however, the heavens opened up over Sacramento.  The entire area instantly turned into a big soggy mess.  “The crops really need it,” I would hear a dozen times a day.  “Finally, a break in the drought.”

moon

As I left work on Tuesday evening, the nearly full moon attempted to show itself through the mass of clouds that had been watering the fields and roadways all day.

By Wednesday, immense puddles had formed all over the area.  We had a brunch at work for an employee returning from maternity leave.  I was able to help myself to orange juice and fresh fruit, and I brought in bagels for everyone to enjoy (along with some hummus as my personal substitute schmear for the cream cheese).

I wanted pasta and hot soup for dinner, so I asked my wife to bring Pastor Mom along when she picked me up from work.  We had a wonderful dinner (“Yes, the cook says we can make the sauce without cheese.  Yes, you can have olive oil instead of butter with the bread.”) and made our way northward toward home without incident, despite the continuing rain.

Thursday morning, many of my coworkers reported that they had a heck of a time getting home.  One person who works on my floor talked about having seen four cars literally floating down the freeway.  Welcome to California.  Dry or wet, it’s always a disaster.

At noontime on Thursday, it was still pouring down rain, but in the early afternoon the clouds parted a bit and the sun struggled to come out.  One by one, we all began to wander over to the picture window on our floor to gawk.  We were treated to this:

double rainbow

The photo does not begin to do this double rainbow justice.  It was a huge arc that gave the appearance of wrapping all of Sacramento in a giant embrace.  This was among the largest rainbows that I had ever seen, and I couldn’t help thinking that this was what Noah saw when God promised never again to destroy the world by flood.  Brighter times ahead.  Yes!

Thursday evening, we all took my sister-in-law out for her birthday.  We had a wonderful time (veggie tacos, hooray!), my niece and nephews showed up, and my two year old grandniece was in high spirits.  She wouldn’t stay in her high chair very much, so we passed her from hand to hand and only had to run after her once when she made her way down the steps and headed toward the restaurant exit.  When it was time to leave, our dear little one, entirely unprompted, offered each of her hands to my wife and myself.  Hold my hand and walk with me, auntie and uncle.  I will cherish this photo forever, my friends.

Hayden Donna Aron

Thursday night, I went to bed a happy boy.  And so, life being what it is, things proceeded directly from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Friday.  Finally, the end of the week had arrived, so let’s go out with a bang, now shall we?  I won’t get into the details of the Friday follies that transpired at work (I am shaking my head just thinking about some of it) other than to describe the celebration we had in honor of the birthday of one of my coworkers.

On Thursday, some people were out, and those who were at work couldn’t decide whether we should have a brunch for my coworker or take her out to lunch.  The last I had heard, it was decided that it was too last minute to do anything.  And then on Friday, as noon approached, I was informed that we would be bringing in Vietnamese pho for lunch to celebrate my coworker’s special day.  Did I want beef or chicken?

Nooooo, not again!  I happened to be working away in my cubicle at the time, crunching on fresh radishes (hot ones!) dipped in hummus.  “I don’t eat meat at all,” I explained.  “I’m a vegan.  See? This is what I eat.  Carrots, radishes, hummus.”

“Oh, I was a vegetarian for six months once,” came the reply.  “Maybe just the noodle soup without the meat?”

Sometimes you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Also, we had a meeting at which my boss (who is among the best supervisors I have ever had and whom I appreciate dearly) announced that he has found another job and is leaving.

I think I’ll go with crying.

And, uh, merry Christmas.

A Slip of the Lip

Well, I finally did it.  At work, I confessed to being a vegan.  No time better than the day before Thanksgiving for that, right?

I hadn’t planned on it.  Like so many impromptu disasters, it “just happened.”  I guess I was in a holiday mood when I mosied up to the workstation of one of our secretaries and began a conversation about something totally unrelated to food and diet.  We actually discussed a few different things before she asked me whether I will be cooking the turkey this Thanksgiving.

In retrospect, I should have just laughed and said “Oh, no, I don’t cook.”  I could even have pulled out one of my fabled stories about being able to cook anything, badly, in the microwave.  But no, I had to open my big mouth and say “Oh, I don’t eat meat.”

“You’re a vegetarian?” she asked me, incredulous.  In this day and age, I should think that admitting to be a vegetarian would be somewhat less than shocking and perhaps even just plain boring.

“Even worse than that,” I added.  “I’m a vegan.”

“A vegan?” she responded, “What’s that?

I explained that I don’t eat meat, dairy or any animal products.

“You don’t?!  What do you eat?  Grass?”

Oh, great, here we go again.  I’ve ridden in this rodeo many times before, and it’s never pretty.  As I often do, I responded to this idiocy with some self-deprecating humor.  “Just take a look at me and you can tell that I find plenty to eat.”

I am kicking myself now for not being sufficiently quick-witted to have asked whether she’s ever seen a skinny cow.

After that came other Thanksgiving related questions, including whether I eat mashed potatoes or marshmallows.  I explained about the dairy in mashed potatoes (skipping the part about how great they are prepared with almond milk).

“What’s in marshmallows?” she asked.  “I just bought some little ones to put in my hot chocolate.”

I told her that marshmallows are mostly sugar, held together with gelatin.  That’s when I threw every bit of caution to the winds and explained that gelatin is most commonly made from horses’ hooves.

The poor woman frowned.  “I’m eating horses’ hooves?”  She seemed saddened.  “You mean Jello is made of horses’ hooves, too?”  I assured her that it is possible to purchase gelatin desserts and even marshmallows that are made from vegetable sources, effectively eliminating the giddyap factor.  “They’re usually kind of expensive and I’m not really interested, so I just don’t bother,” I added.

“What about cakes, cookies, candy and chips?”  I could see she was getting alarmed now.  I looked around to see whether anyone else was listening.  I didn’t see anyone in our immediate vicinity, but I’d bet a nickel that ears were perked in numerous nearby cubicles.  “Plain chips are often meat- and dairy-free,” I told the bewildered secretary.  “I don’t eat cakes and cookies.  Fortunately for me, there is some very good non-dairy dark chocolate out there.”

“You don’t eat cakes and cookies!” she cried.  The woman could barely believe what she was hearing, particularly since I am, well, obese.  “I guess you can’t have one of these then,” she remarked, bringing out a little Baggie containing two chocolate macadamia nut cookies.  “This is all I have today because I forgot my lunch at home.  Left my eggs right on the kitchen table.”

“Are those cookies made with butter?” I asked.

“No,” she told me, “but you can’t have flour, right?”

I assured her that I do eat flour.  “Is there an egg in that?” I asked.

“Oh, yes, it does have eggs,” she admitted.

I nearly blurted out something about refined sugars and the dangers of diabetes, but I managed to stop myself just in time.

The poor woman was shaking her head.  Fortunately, we were each put out of our respective miseries at this point by the receipt of a phone call over her wireless headset.  I took the opportunity to make my escape.

I now have four consecutive days off work for the Thanksgiving holiday.  Hopefully, that will be enough time for my department secretary (and all the unseen eavesdroppers) to forget that this little conversation ever happened.

Yeah, right.

Monday should be interesting.

Happy Thanksgiving to all my faithful readers.  I am extremely thankful that you keep coming back to read the drivel that I regularly dispense in this space.  May you enjoy a lovely holiday filled with family, food, love and laughs.

Recommended:  Don’t Fear the Vegan at Your Thanksgiving Table

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Ferguson, America Stands with You

Last night, I sat in the living room with my wife, my mother-in-law and my nephew.  Secure in the bosom of my family, we turned on the television and watched the reaction of Ferguson, Missouri following a grand jury’s refusal to indict the police officer responsible for the death of Mike Brown.  We watched President Obama’s brief remarks, after which my wife commented that our commander in chief didn’t seem very pleased with the events of the day.

She was clearly correct.  Not only was the president fearful of the violence likely to erupt in the wake of the grand jury decision, but one could read in his face disappointment over the outcome.

I believe that President Obama got a lot of things right last night.  He was right to appeal for calm in a volatile situation.  He was right to suggest that peaceful protest, not violence, is a reasonable response to public dissatisfaction.  And he was right to state that America was built upon the foundation of the rule of law.  Like so many things, the rule of law is a lot more appealing when it yields the results we’d like to see than when it does not.  But the rule of law is part of who we are, and it belongs to us, for better or for worse.  In tough times, we need to embrace the rule of law, not cast it aside in a fit of pique.

The grand jury agreed with Officer Darren Wilson’s assertions that his actions were in compliance with his training and with the law.  If his claims are factual, then we have our work cut for us:  We need to change police training and we need to change the law.  Those are two things that cannot be accomplished by means of violence.  They can only be accomplished by exercising our constitutional right to petition the government for redress of grievances.

The pink elephant in the room is, of course, race.  And as the president pointed out, this is a factor that cannot be ignored.  There are those who aver that Brown would not have been killed had he been white instead of black.  No one can say with certainty whether this is the case, but it is undeniable that the argument resonates with many.

Obama was correct in pointing out that the racial tensions of today were born of the racial discrimination of our recent past.  The president mentioned that he has personal experience with this, and I don’t doubt him a bit.  Every person with black skin in this country has encountered discrimination.

It is well known that there has long been an imbalance of power between blacks and whites in America.  For the most part, blacks have poorer childhood educational opportunities than white children do, graduate from college in far small numbers than their white agemates, have fewer job opportunities and are paid less than whites, have less access to health care and die earlier than whites.  I don’t think it is unreasonable to state that blacks have drawn the short end of the stick in this country.

Another type of imbalance of power exists between the citizenry and law enforcement.  Most of us do not carry weapons with us, but the police do.  The service weapon of a police officer is supposed to be a tool of law enforcement.  The officer’s gun is a symbol of power, a reminder of what he or she can do to us if we break the law.  Beyond that, however, it doesn’t take a brilliant scholar to know that when weapons are present, sooner or later they will be used.  The police have guns so that they can use them in certain circumstances, not just as window dressing for the cool blue uniform.  The prevailing argument is that the police receive extensive training and have it drilled into them that their weapons are to be used only as a last resort for protection of themselves or others.

Other than God, no one but Officer Wilson himself knows what was really going through his mind in the split second that he made the fateful decision to discharge his weapon.  But the already significant imbalance of power between police and public is doubled and redoubled when a white officer serving in a largely white police force has to make an immediate life or death decision regarding a black citizen of a largely black city.

Whites have been afraid of blacks for a long time.  When I was a kid growing up in the New York metropolitan area during the sixties, there was barely concealed panic about the riots in Newark as well as lots of whispers and knowing glances about which areas of town and which streets to stay away from after dark.  We shuddered at the Black Power graffiti and its raised fist logo.

Fear.  It’s a deadly thing, a destructive force of massive power.  More powerful that a policeman’s gun.  FDR knew whereof he spoke when he said that there is nothing to fear but fear itself.  Anytime there is an imbalance of power between two groups, the more powerful is going to use any means at its disposal to remain in power, while fearing the weaker group and what it might do should the balance of power shift.  So whites wield epithets at blacks while blacks yield epithets at whites, while each group fears the other and perpetuates unfounded generalizations that resound down the generations.  Stereotypes persist, even though political correctness has forced them behind thinly veiled cover.

In light of the above, the tragedy in Ferguson was inevitable, as was the decision of a grand jury composed of nine whites and three blacks.  What is not inevitable, however, is the senseless violence that continues to tear apart Ferguson and other cities.  We need to convert the cry of “burn this [epithet] down” to a cry of “vote, hold office, take back your community.”  Regardless of the depth of the tragedy in Ferguson, meaningful change will not occur unless we create it.  We have to be that change.

I went to work this morning, as I do every weekday, enjoying the opportunity of our commute to catch up with my wife.  We spoke of family goings-on, upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas festivities, money, shopping and work.  Our conversations often roam all over the place, which is but one reason that they are so wonderful.  But neither of us mentioned anything about Mike Brown, the grand jury or Ferguson.

Today was particularly busy at work, and I was caught up in my duties immediately upon arriving.  It wasn’t until I took a break at noon to microwave my container of veggies that I remembered.  And that’s when it hit me:  With the hundreds of people working in my building, and with conversations conducted all around me throughout the morning, never once did I hear mention of Ferguson.  I quickly logged on to CNN to see what was going on, whereupon I learned that the businesses along West Florissant Avenue were in flames.  Store windows were smashed, looting had occurred, shops turned into fireballs faster than the fire department could extinguish the blazes.

I sought out the company of one of my coworkers and broached the topic of Ferguson and the grand jury decision not to indict Wilson.  I asked her whether she had seen the president’s remarks on TV last night.  She admitted that she hadn’t.  She tries not to watch the news, she told me, as it only makes her upset and angry.  My coworker, who is a devout Christian, pointed out that horrors like the situation in Ferguson are prophesized in the Book of Revelation.

“But it doesn’t have to be this way!” I cried out.  She agreed, reminding me that Revelation paints a picture of what will happen to all of us when society loses its mind, slips over the edge and willfully refuses to subject itself to God’s discipline.  It may not have to be this way, but it will continue to be this way, she pointed out, as long as we persist in our folly, persist in engaging in discrimination, in embracing stereotypes, in accepting imbalances of power.

I must admit that I can see how easily disaster can be chained upon disaster.  A black teen is killed by a white cop, a grand jury refuses to dispense justice, a city’s anger and its streets both burn.

Nevertheless, I refuse to give up.  Revelation notwithstanding, I stand firm in my belief that it doesn’t have to be this way.  The Bible teaches us that the Lord’s anger burns but for a little while, that His rebuke does not last forever, and that He eagerly awaits the day of our return to His ways so that we can once again enjoy the blessings of prosperity bestowed upon the compassionate and the just.

We can divest ourselves of the fear, we can take back our communities, we can update our laws, we can stand together and be the change we want to see rather than waiting for someone else to do it.

Because no one else is going to do it.

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Revenge of the Carnivores

I find it interesting that some people find vegetarians annoying.  And when it comes to vegans, it’s even worse.  We are pegged as morally superior, self-righteous food snobs who not only harbor deep-seated psychological problems that prevent us from enjoying the finer things in life, but who are also sanctimonious creeps who insist on making our carnivorous brethren feel bad about their dietary choices.

I have noticed that this animosity toward the veggie community has begun to generate something of a backlash among the meat-eaters.  I first got a whiff of this several years ago, when Jessica Simpson appeared for a photo shoot in a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo “real girls eat meat.”  Then Lady Gaga appeared on the MTV Video Music Awards in her now famous meat dress.  While this was likely created for its shock value and was more in the nature of a career-boosting publicity stunt than anything else, I suspect that, at some level, it was a pie in the face of vegetarians.

Nowadays, there are some carnivores out there who appear so intent on advertising their love of meat that they feel compelled to make public displays of it.  For example, I have now twice seen people wearing shirts bearing logos announcing “All God’s creatures have a place in this world:  Right next to the potatoes and gravy.”  Assuming that the wearers of this apparel are also God’s creatures, I have to restrain myself from asking them just when they intend to become an entrée.  I really want to know this so that I can stay as far away as possible from the secret cannibals among us who enjoy partaking of such a feast.  With Halloween coming up, I suppose anything is possible, right?

Then I visited the family restaurant chain Red Robin (where I routinely eat a lettuce-wrapped Boca vegan patty) and saw this displayed on the lobby wall:

Red Robin

I’ve always been told that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, so perhaps there is some logic in the idea that the truest bovine love is manifested among devotees of the hamburger.  I have visions of them marching out into the pasture with knives and forks just to salivate.  (You can find me in the next field over, doing the same thing among the soybeans.)

Then, of course, there are the dimwitted/insensitive remarks that folks innocently or not so innocently make when they learn that you don’t eat meat.  This has led to more than a few postings online about ways to piss off/annoy a vegetarian, some of them from the veggie community (poking fun or venting at the stupid things people say) and others from the carnivore community (ways to get back at your neighborhood holier-than-thou vegan).  You can find a few of these here, here, here and here. (I particularly like the last one for its mention of Red Robin’s insensitivity.)

So what’s a vegan to do?  I thought of buying a PETA T-shirt, but when I Googled that, I found this.  Some days you can’t win for losing.

My current dilemma is how to “come out” as a vegan at work.  I eat at my desk daily, in the privacy of my own cubicle, so I am able to keep my food choices relatively private.  No one really knows what I have in that plastic container I am toting to the microwave in the kitchen area.

The problem is that I work with a partying crowd.  It seems that there is a celebration of something every three or four days, and that it always involves food.  Welcome the new employees.  Welcome a supervisor returning from leave.  Say goodbye to an employee leaving the agency.  Meetings.  Potlucks.  It goes on and on.

It started on my first day at work, when everyone gathered to welcome me.  There were all kinds of cakes and cookies, but also some fruit and orange juice.  “Aren’t you going to eat?” I was asked as I poured myself a cup of juice.  “Juice is good,” I replied.  After a few minutes:  “You’re not eating anything?”  I took a strawberry.

One possible strategy is to just grab something, plead an approaching deadline and rush back to my cubicle.  Not wanting to appear antisocial, however, I have been trying to avoid this.  So this week, it happened again.  There were all kinds of cakes and cookies, along with bagels and cream cheese.  “Aren’t you eating?”  I groaned inwardly, grabbing half a bagel and holding it up to show that yes, I actually do eat.  Anyone giving even a cursory glance to my girth knows that I do.  And regularly.

I know it’s just a matter of time before I am going to have to fess up.  I’ve been trying to think of polite, politically correct ways to do this.  I think I’ll begin with “I have three strikes against me.  I’m diabetic, a Jew who keeps kosher and a vegan.”

Somehow I just know that this is going to blow up in my face.

You know that someone expressing intent curiosity will ask me why I am a vegan.  In the past, my wife has suggested that I say “it’s a personal decision.”  I like that approach very much.  But I also know that my very kind coworkers, whom I truly appreciate, will demand further details.  There will be no end to it.  I will become the resident vegan.

And then what will I do?  Will I explain about the health benefits of veganism?  Will I explain that I don’t believe in visiting death upon our fellow creatures to satisfy my palate and stuff my gut?  Will I explain about the shameful and cruel way that commercially farmed animals are treated?  Will I explain that I harbor a weird personal preference for not eating the flesh of rotting corpses?

Will I then be forever pegged as a morally superior, holier-than-thou, sanctimonious, self-righteous ass?  I really enjoy this job and would like to keep it for a while.  I would prefer to piss off as few people as possible.  But I know the day is coming when the tofu will hit the fan.

As I’ve heard said:  You can’t win, you can’t break even and you can’t get out of the game.