Uncle Guacamole’s Fantasy Lunch Counter

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

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

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

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

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

UNCLE GUACAMOLE’S FANTASY LUNCH COUNTER

where everything we serve is vegan and gluten-free

 

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

soy cream cheese and olive

soy cream cheese and tomato

PBJ (grape jam, strawberry preserves or orange marmalade)

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

Tweedledee (melted vegan provolone)

Tweedledum (melted vegan gouda)

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

Lebanese (hummus, tomato, cucumber)

 

Salad Bowl

protein bowl (tofu, garbanzos, tomatoes, cucumbers)

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

raisins, sunflower nuts, served with balsamic vinegar)

fresh fruit salad with coconut milk yogurt

 

Spuds, Inc.

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

 

Hot Stuff

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

vegan “beef” (Tofurky brand) over rice

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

sautéed tofu, mushrooms, onions over rice

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

eggplant parmigiana (prepared with vegan soy cheese)

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

fried potato and tofu tacos (corn tortillas)

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

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

 

Sides

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

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

white rice

French fries

chips and salsa

guacamole

beans and vegan cheese

 

Dessert

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

Sugar Plum Bakery whoopie pies

 

Beverages

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

 

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

 

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Yizkor

Yizkor

A few days ago, one of my favorite bloggers, Rachel Mankowitz, posted a poignant piece about the Mourner’s Kaddish.  In the Jewish faith, this is a hymn of praise to God recited in synagogue by the recently bereaved.

I particularly enjoyed Rachel’s post in light of the fact that I have recently been thinking about Yizkor, the Memorial Service for the Departed that we Jews read at certain times of year in honor of lost loved ones.  The word yizkor is generally translated as “remembrance,” derived as it is from the Hebrew verb yizakher, “to remember.”

Unlike the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Yizkor prayer directly addresses our relationship with family members who have passed on.  My Hebrew is not very good, but the English translation mentions the fond memories of times we have shared together and the influence that our loved ones have had on our lives.  Specifically, the prayer refers to the ways in which the sterling qualities of those whom we have lost have inspired us to reach for the ideals for which they stood.

As a child, I was always told to step out of the sanctuary when the Yizkor prayer was being read.  It is a very sad prayer indeed, and I can certainly understand why some of us choose to insulate children from death, particularly references to the idea of the eventual deaths of their moms and dads.  Later, as an adult, I learned that many congregations subscribe to a tradition of having all those with two living parents step out during the Yizkor prayer.  Not just children, mind you, but adults as well.  Even old curmudgeons like myself who still have both father and mother.

On the other hand, I have listened to some rabbis pooh-pooh this tradition, encouraging congregants of all ages to participate in the Yizkor prayer.  Even the young among us have some distant relative or friend who has died, right?  And then, of course, we can always remember the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

A few weeks ago, we celebrated the holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and our holiest day of the year.  It is a very solemn occasion on which we completely abstain from eating and drinking (even water) for more than 24 hours.  In addition to listing our sins, asking God for forgiveness and vowing to do better in the coming year, we think about the poor, the lost and lonely in our communities from whom we have turned away despite their desperate need of our help.  One effect of fasting is seeing what it feels like to be hungry, at least for one day.

Traditionally, we spend the entire day in the synagogue praying on Yom Kippur.  Around the middle of the service, after the Torah reading, we take a break to say the Yizkor prayer.  We not only think of family and friends who played important roles in our lives in years gone by, but we also acknowledge that we ourselves are headed the same way, sooner or later to fade into history.  The idea is that we shouldn’t think so highly of ourselves when we all end up moldering in the grave.

My father, who is either an agnostic or an atheist (depending on whom you ask), despises organized religion and despairs when he is reluctantly dragged to synagogue by my mother on Yom Kippur and other holidays.  This year, my mother reported, he was delighted that she agreed to stay home because they both had bad colds and they didn’t want to end up sicker.  In past years, my father would spend a short time in the sanctuary (perennially dressed in shorts, much to my mother’s dismay), then head outside to sit in a folding chair between the front door and the kids’ playground.  Before long, he’d be fast asleep.  One year, when I was down in the Central Valley visiting with my parents for the holidays, the rabbi came out and asked my father why he had left the service during the Yizkor prayer.  “Surely both your parents are not still alive!” he said incredulously.  Dad explained that it is true that his father is no longer with us, but that he was well loved and respected by all who knew him, lived a long life, and would not appreciate people saying prayers for him.  My father spoke the truth.  My grandfather harbored an even greater aversion to organized religion than my father does.  In fact, Grandpa used to make fun of me any time I donned a yarmulke or said a blessing over the food.  He felt it was all a bunch of hocus-pocus.

This year, I spent Rosh Hashannah (Jewish New Year) with my parents, but was unable to travel to be with them for Yom Kippur due to having to work the day before and the day after.  Attending synagogue in a suburb of Sacramento, I left the sanctuary during the Yizkor prayer in accordance with the tradition in which I grew up.

Even without the Yizkor prayer, I couldn’t help thinking about family.  My grandmother died when Mom was still in her twenties.  Dad, however, had his father until the age of 62 and his mother (who died following a fall at the age of 97) until he was 73.  As fortunate as he was, and as lucky as I am to still have both parents, I can’t help recognizing the fact that I am rapidly approaching those ages myself.  And as the strains of the Yizkor wafted out of the open door of the sanctuary, I found myself thinking of how many more Yom Kippurs are left before I, too, will stand and face the holy ark with my little paperbound copy of the Book of Remembrance and tears streaming down my face.

Want to Be a Kid Again? Now You Can!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wonder if I should buy stock in Crayola.

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

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

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

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

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

Hametz for Sale

Matzos

I have sold my hametz.

This is a first for me, which makes me laugh because, at my age, you don’t get a lot of firsts anymore.

For those unfamiliar with hametz, it is bread and other leavened products that Jewish law prohibits one from eating or even owning during the eight-day festival of Passover, now less than two weeks away.  For believers, this is a serious matter, as the Book of Exodus tells us that eating hametz during Passover will cause one to be cut off from the Jewish community.  While many in the modern world may scoff, this actually makes sense to me, as there is something unifying in knowing that fellow Jews all around this planet are going hametz-free.  It makes me feel a part of something greater, something really big, and this makes me feel good.  It fosters a sense of “belonging.”  Either you’re a part of it or you’re not.

The laws, customs and traditions surrounding hametz are quite involved.  I’m sure that it would take years of study to understand them fully, particularly as they apply to the complexities of our American culture.

Some things are clear.  For example, bread (bagels, tortillas and all that), most baked goods (cakes, pies, cookies, etc.), pasta and most cereal are hametz and forbidden during Passover.  Nearly anything that contains wheat or other grains is off limits because a tiny amount of water could begin the leavening process.

If that weren’t enough, Ashkenazic Jews (most American Jews) have a tradition of not eating kitniyot during Passover.  This custom is so strong and long-lived that it approaches the force of religious law.  What is kitniyot?  Essentially, it is rice, corn, beans, peas, peanuts and all their derivatives.  This is why Passover is hell on vegans.

Go to your cupboard and pick up the first can of food you see.  If you check the ingredients, chances are that corn syrup or another corn product is in there somewhere.  This is the reason that nearly anything that comes in a can or a box is, if not outright hametz, then likely at least kitniyot.

So what do observant Jews eat during Passover?  Fresh vegetables and fruit, some dairy products, meat, fish, eggs.  And lots of matzo, the crisp, unleavened Passover flatbread that is something like a very dry, very plain, giant tasteless cracker.

Well before Passover, we are supposed to start getting rid of all hametz in our possession.  I think of it as a form of spring cleaning.  Check out all your kitchen cabinets, shelves and drawers for all those misguided purchases from six months ago that you’re never going to eat.  If they’re still good, give them to the poor or to another person who will appreciate them.  If they’re expired, in the trash they go.

Then there is the matter of crumbs.  As anyone who has ever deep cleaned a house knows, they get into everything over the course of a year.  Most of us have a tendency to migrate food out of the kitchen:  We eat in the living room in front of the TV, we bring snacks into the family room and even into our bedrooms.  Chances are, bits of crumbs are to be found nearly everywhere.  After we’ve thoroughly vacuumed, swept and mopped, there is a lovely tradition that, right before Passover, we light a candle and walk around the house with it.  We use the candle to illuminate every corner where crumbs may be hiding.  We carry with us a feather and a wooden spoon for sweeping up even the tiniest bits of hametz crumbs, which we then throw away.

It has been decades now since I went about the house with the spoon, feather and candle.  I remember doing this as a child, although without the candle, as my parents rightly failed to trust that their klutzy son wouldn’t accidentally burn down their home.

Plan A for getting rid of hametz has always been to try to stop buying any and to eat up what you have on hand before Passover.  Around the time of the holiday of Purim, in March, observant Jews start thinking about this.  How can I use those cans of beans that have been sitting around since December?  Hmm, stew it is.

But what do you do with what’s left over?  As Passover approaches, there’s always some hametz remaining that you forgot about or didn’t manage to eat.  You still have half a sack of flour, some boxes of cookies, vinegar, cornstarch, pretzels and a sleeve of saltine crackers.  Then there’s that jar of olives and some soy sauce sitting in the back of your refrigerator.  You go to Plan B:  Give it away, throw it away or sell it.

Sell the odds and ends left over in your kitchen cabinets?  You read that right.  You can sign a document that gives a rabbi permission to sell your remaining hametz to a non-Jew.  This is a legal contract that specifies that the buyer agrees to sell the hametz back to you immediately upon the close of the festival of Passover.  This is a wonderful device, as it allows one to be “clean” of hametz for the duration of the holiday and still have those food items back for use after Passover.  While some view this as nothing short of fraud and artifice, the true beauty of it lies in the fact that even one who makes every effort to get rid of all hametz and needs nothing back after the holiday will unknowingly possess some impermissible crumbs somewhere.  Selling the hametz relieves the observant of worry that they are holding onto something that they shouldn’t be.

Modern technology has proved to be a help in the quest to get rid of one’s hametz.  It is now easy to sell your hametz online.  Sites such as www.chabad.org allow you to key in information regarding the possible location of hametz (your home and place of employment) and to give a rabbi permission to sell it for you (and guarantee its return to you at the end of Passover).  Some sites even send you a receipt with a confirmation number.  Generally, the service is free, with a donation to the organization in an amount of one’s choice encouraged.

I wish the internet had been around when I was a child.  Back then, you had to sell your hametz the old-fashioned way, by signing a card that contained a brief contractual statement.  Of course, a child, lacking legal responsibility, cannot do this.  My parents, unfortunately, thought the whole thing was a load of hooey.  As they sent me to an Orthodox religious school, this distressed me.

When my mother was growing up, any hametz that was to be saved until after Passover was placed into a single cabinet that was tied shut with a string or rope so that it was not accidentally accessed during Passover.  My father grew up in a non-religious household where none of this was an issue.

When I was a child, however, as Passover approached I would attempt to begin discarding cans and boxes of hametz that I knew we wouldn’t use before the holiday.  I remember tossing cans of corn syrup laden Hershey’s chocolate syrup in the trash, only to have them later picked out by my parents, who sternly rebuked me for wasting food that they had paid for.  I knew the cause was hopeless.  The best I could do was to be very careful so that I did not accidentally eat any hametz during Passover.  As long as I was living in my parents’ home, there was no way I could get rid of or sell items that were not Kosher for Passover.

We couldn’t go out to eat during Passover, so my mother had to cook every day.  Although I didn’t appreciate it then, this was surely a strain on her, as she worked a demanding job.  While she cooked Kosher for Passover food (my father, who did not keep kosher, would sneak out to McDonald’s for a hamburger when he couldn’t take it anymore), I had to be careful about my snacks and what I packed for my lunch to take to school.  No peanut butter and jelly this week.  Hard boiled eggs and matzo it is.  Throw an apple or a banana in that brown bag,

The problem was that I was a slob.  My bedroom was always a horrible mess, with detritus flung about wide and deep.  Once I approached my teenage years, the time of searching for crumbs with a feather and a wooden spoon had long passed.

One time, my parents left a brown paper bag full of peanuts amidst the piles on my bedroom floor so that I would find some hametz to get rid of when I performed my search.  By the time I was ten or eleven, however, I didn’t bother with such things anymore.  The bag sat there, unnoticed, for days.

To my horror, I finally came across it when Passover was nearly over.

Purim, After a Fashion

hamentaschen

This week, we will be celebrating Purim, the Jewish Feast of Lots.  Over the years, I have discovered that most people outside of the Jewish community have never heard of it.

The name of the holiday is from the Hebrew word pur, which refers to the casting of lots.  The story goes that this is what Persia’s wicked prime minister Haman did to determine the day on which all the Jews in the kingdom would be killed.  Our people were saved thanks to the bravery of Persia’s new queen and her uncle, Mordecai, events that are enshrined in the biblical Book of Esther.

Today, Purim is celebrated by reading the Book of Esther in synagogue, with all those in attendance banging on noisemakers and tooting horns every time the evil Haman is mentioned, in an attempt to blot out his name.  Often, kids dress up in costumes interpreting one of the characters in the story.  In some places, a Purim schpiel or play is put on, often filled with satirical songs using modern pop tunes with lyrics changed to refer to the story of Esther and Mordecai.

My favorite thing about Purim has always been hamenthaschen, the little jam-filled pastries that we traditionally eat.  The word hamentacshen is Yiddish for “Haman’s hat.”  It is said that Haman wore a three-cornered hat, mimicked by the triangle shaped pastry dough.  The most traditional filling is preserves made of poppy seeds, known as mohn.  It’s a rather strange taste, and much more popular are jam fillings of apricot, raspberry, prune, apples or cherries.  Back in New York, our local bakery used to make two kinds of hamentaschen dough.  One was soft and flaky, like a Danish or croissant, while the other (my favorite) was a hard cookie dough.  Alas, this year I shall enjoy hamantaschen in the same manner as I did last year — in memory only.  There are plenty of recipes for vegan hamantaschen around (like this one or this one), but if you don’t bake and there aren’t any available to buy because you live in rural northern California, you’re plum (or prune) out of luck.

Heck, there’s not even a synagogue close enough for me to go hear the Megillah being read.  But come Wednesday evening, you can be sure that I will be reading the Book of Esther aloud at home.  I’m not sure what I’ll use for a noisemaker when I come to Haman’s name and I may have to substitute Speculoos from Trader Joe’s for hamantaschen, but at least I will be able to mark the occasion in some fashion and fondly recall childhood days of gawking at the enormous mounds of Purim pastries in the display case of Pakula’s Bakery.

First Things First

first

Happy new year, friends!  In honor of the first of the year, a post about firsts.

It seems to be an immutable law of nature:  Before you can do anything, you will first have to do something else.

Most of us internalize this law as children and apply it throughout our lives.  It might start as something like this:  “Not until your homework is done and you’ve finished your chores!”  Or perhaps “No dessert until you’ve eaten all your broccoli!”

As kids, it was really hard to get to the fun stuff.  Even when we finally garnered that coveted green light called “permission,” there were always preliminaries to be addressed first.  I once read a memoir that described how anytime the author wished to try his hand at a woodworking project, his father would hand him a can of bent nails to straighten out first.  Talk about taking the wind out of your sails! Another memoir described how, while growing up, the author wanted to try her hand at painting.  However, she always lost interest by the time she spread a drop cloth on the garage floor, donned a smock and reconstituted a pallet full of dried-up paints.

It’s not much different as an adult.  If you wake up all excited to tackle a project at work, first you have to shower, then get dressed, then eat breakfast and pack your lunch, then first get in your car and drive to work.  Meanwhile, you’ve been cursing the traffic, trying to remember what you were supposed to do for your kid’s school project, composing a grocery list in your head and texting your mother.  By the time you arrive at work, you’ve forgotten what you were so excited about two hours ago.  Which may be for the best, considering that your boss has now asked you to do something completely different.

In the evening, you think about preparing a delicious dinner, and how wonderful the house will smell while your masterpiece is cooking in the oven.  However, you realize that first you have to marinate the meat, and that takes a while, but it gives you time to chop the onions.  Your eyes start tearing just thinking about that when you remember that first you have to stop at the store to buy veggies and French bread.  That means that first you have to stop at the ATM and get some cash.  If you’re going to drive into town, however, first you have to stop for gas.

You decide that you’re much too tired for all that, so you just go home and eat a bowl of cereal.  You did check to see whether the kids drank all the milk again, right?  Right?

I was in elementary school when I first began to understand the rule that before you do anything you will have to do something else, usually something far less appealing.  One day, I overheard some adults mention the word “calculus” in their conversation.  I asked my father what that was, and he patiently explained that it’s an advanced form of mathematics and that I could study it in college if I felt so inclined.

“But first you have to go to high school,” he added.  “But first you have to go to junior high.”

Suspended, and Standing on Its Head

When we were kids, my parents would occasionally take us to play in a park that had a jungle gym.  My sisters, two and four years younger than myself, would love nothing better than to mount the monkey bars, traversing from one end to the other, hand over hand, swinging like orangutans all the way.  Fat and lazy, I had no interest in any activity remotely athletic, and would look about for somewhere to sit and watch.  My father would record the action on black and white film or with a Super 8 movie camera, occasionally swiveling around to zoom in on me, sitting at a picnic table and staring off into space.

At home, we had a standard issue suburban swing set in the back yard.  My favorite part was the glider, because the bench was wide and I didn’t have to perch as one must on the swings or teeter-totter.  Big plus:  It was nearly impossible to fall off the glider.

My sisters, by contrast, preferred flying as high as possible on the swings, preferably in a standing position, or grabbing the top bar to perform all manner of one-handed and two-handed flips and gyrations.  When not on the swing set, gymnastics was their thing.  They could do cartwheels and somersaults and walk on their hands, but our mother wouldn’t allow them to do the split, claiming it would damage their insides and give them trouble when it came time to have babies.

When my grandparents came to visit, Grandpa and I would sit on the back deck or descend the stairs into the yard, watching my sisters’ acrobatic antics all the while.  “Can you do that?” he’d ask me sarcastically upon observing some gravity-defying flip.  I’d glare at him with hatred.  If only I’d had enough guts to ask whether he could imitate my sisters.

Among my sisters’ most amazing feats, at least in my opinion, was the headstand.  They’d often ask me to hold their legs so that they could get into the proper position without tipping over.  Then I’d step back and they’d be able to hold the pose for longer than I thought humanly possible.

I was reminded of this recently while playing with my little grandniece, holding her legs up so she could stand on her head on the soft couch.  I guess I’ve always found something appealing about flipping upside down, standing on one’s head to view the world from a different perspective.

One thing I’d like to invert and stand on its head is the Suspended Coffee movement that has gained some press in recent years.  The idea is to help the poor by performing a particular random act of kindness, namely paying for an extra coffee so that someone who cannot afford one can later come into the coffee shop and get a drink for free.  It’s supposed to be a feel-good kind of thing, not unlike paying for the order of the car behind you at the Starbucks drive-through.  Even though this costs businesses nothing (the “free” coffee being given out has already been paid for), most coffee shops won’t have anything to do with suspended coffees.  Certainly the big chains, such as Starbucks Coffee and Peet’s Coffee and Tea refuse to get involved.  I’ve read that coffee shops complain that it is takes too much time and effort to keep track of how many coffees have been paid for in advance.  Even in the shops where suspended coffees are available, I can’t help wondering whether a homeless person dying for a cuppa joe must settle for plain black, or whether he can actually glom onto a caramel macchiato.

Today I looked up the nearest location at which I might purchase a suspended coffee for someone in need.  The place is 116 miles away.  Despite the fact that some businesses around the world have latched on to the suspended coffee movement, the fact is that in most places it simply is not available.

Considering that the coffee is paid for first and poured later, the reticence of coffee shops irks me more than a little.  After all, we’re not asking them to donate anything.  Not that asking them to donate to the poor would be out of line, when one realizes the obscene profits that the coffee chains earn each year.

I say let’s stand the suspended coffee movement on its head, much as my sisters loved to do as kids.  Let the coffee be given out to those in need, and let a mark be made on a chalkboard or in a ledger for those who wish to contribute to pay for it later.  After all, there are a few establishments where those with little money can have a snack or a meal and pay what they are able.  Panera Bread has done this successfully in some locations, giving the lie to the notion that huge corporations must necessarily value profit over community.  Those who can afford to pay more than the cost of their meal do so, which offsets the cost of the food of customers who can pay little or nothing.  Some economists insist that this model cannot work in the long run, while others shy away from the pay-what-you-can idea as “socialism.”

Slogans for the pay-what-you-can movement include “take what you need, leave your fair share” and “so all may eat.”  The idea that food should be a right, not a privilege, is an old one.  That this is viable within a profit-making businesses, courtesy of generous customers, is what is new.

And yet food service businesses balk and scoff.  Why give out a free coffee and hope that someone else will pay for it at an unspecified later time when such time may never arrive?  This attitude indicates a lack of faith in our fellow man.

National chains (and small local establishments, too) justify their actions by claiming that they engage in charitable giving annually and that it’s their choice to stay away from the pay-what-you-can “gimmick.”

But what do you expect?  When coffee shops refuse to join the suspended coffee movement in which products are paid for in advance, I suppose it’s unreasonable to expect them to stand on their heads and give out food that may or may not be paid for by others.

The bottom line is that it’s just so much easier to simply say “no” to those in need.