Ghosts of Scrabble Tournaments Past

In the middle of my fourth day of competing in the North American Scrabble Championship in Reno, I found myself with both blank tiles on my rack at the same time.  Now, everyone loves to draw a blank, because it can stand in for any letter of the alphabet of one’s choosing and vastly increases the likelihood of coming up with a “bingo” (playing all seven tiles on your rack in one go) and scoring an extra 50 points.  In fact, I like to say that those of us who share my predicament of having turned around one day and discovered that we are now “seniors” would never again have to worry about forgetting what we were about to say if we would all just play Scrabble.  It’s the one place in this world where drawing a blank is a good thing.

Drawing both blanks at one time, however, is another story entirely.  Sure, having two wild cards makes it even more likely that you’ll be able to play a bingo.  However, there are only two blanks in the entire game, two wonderful opportunities for an easy bingo that suddenly get cut down to just one opportunity when you have both blanks together.  Not only that, but trying to find a high-scoring word in your rack when you have to mentally fill in two tiles is a lot more difficult than it is with just one blank.  If you’ve never experienced this, you’ll just have to trust me.  You desperately try to think and you shuffle, shuffle, shuffle your tiles around on your rack while your clock ticks down second by second, running out your game time.  Sometimes you just have to give up and play a couple of normal tiles, holding onto the blanks in the hope of drawing better letters to go with them.  Of course, this means that on the next turn, you get to blow your mind all over again.  At least, you think, your opponent has been deprived of the blanks and their high-scoring opportunities.

On this particular occasion, I realized that, thanks to the blanks, I could play the word aubades.  As my heart leapt for joy, I suddenly remembered how I came to know such an unusual word.  It wasn’t from studying word lists, unfortunately.  This is a word that fellow word freak Bob Smith taught me one afternoon about seven or eight years ago at a Scrabble tournament just down the road in Sparks, Nevada.  As was his wont, Bob became fixated on a subject and would go on and on about it, reciting a miniature dissertation.  On that particular day, I just nodded and smiled as he regaled me about this four-vowel word that referred to a song of praise sung to one’s lover at dawn.  (Actually, I believe he said “sung to your lover’s elbow” or some such nonsense.)  It seemed so preposterous at the time that, of course, the word has stuck in my mind ever since.

Alas, Bob has since passed on to that big Scrabble board in the sky, but on that Tuesday in Reno, I silently said “here’s to you, Bob” as I prepared to plunk down my tiles and collect my extra 50 points.  However, I stopped myself just in time to realize that I could score more points if I instead played the far more plebeian word buddies, with the B placed on the triple letter score.  Thanks just the same, Bob.

My fellow Scrabbleheads who schlep around the country to tournaments several times each year are something of a big, extended, dysfunctional family.  Most of us have no contact whatever with each other at any other time — not by email, not by text message, nothing.  Yet when we see each other at the next tournament, it’s always “Boooobbbb!  Good to see ya!”  And we pick up right where we left off, filling each other in on the latest with our jobs, families and health.  It’s just so weird.  And I love it.

It’s not as if we don’t try.  It’s just that, like some kind of online RPG, we just don’t translate to the real world.  I’m talking about you, Ron from Idaho.  I’m still waiting for you to start that Words With Friends game with me.  I’m talking about you, Jennifer from Texas.  I’m still waiting to hear about whether you’re going to send me that Julia Glass novel.  I’m talking about you, Keith from San Diego.  We’re supposed to catch a game online, remember?

Like any family, we celebrate our joys and mourn our sorrows.  There are those who finally retire and can devote more time to Scrabble study and tournament travel.  There are those whose kids follow in their footsteps, like Stefan and his young daughter.  But there are also those who suddenly disappear from among our ranks.  My buddy, Lewis, for instance, with whom I’ve travelled to tournaments in Portland and Phoenix and Reno and San Jose, studying words handwritten on homemade flash cards all the way.  After his divorce, he decided he’d had enough of Scrabble and took up running marathons instead.  Then there’s Paul, who I’m happy to say is still playing after all these years, but whose son and daughter have disappeared from the Scrabble scene.  His daughter, he told me, got married and moved on to other priorities in life.  His son, who was one of the top players in the nation, somehow became disenchanted with the game and simply quit, much to Paul’s dismay.  Perhaps some of these will rejoin us a few years down the road.

Then there are those who are lost to us forever, although fond memories of words played and conversations shared across the board go on and on.  At the North American Scrabble Championship, one of the projection loop screens in the lobby featured the names and photos of fellow Scrabble players whom we have lost in the past year.  Although I did not know any of them personally, there are others who helped to shape my Scrabble playing style and now are no longer with us.

Bob, who taught me aubade, was quite a character, much to the frustration of many of his fellow players.  Obese like myself, he ran headlong into a slew of health problems in his later years.  But I won’t soon forget how, at one tournament in the middle of the summer, he brought a ginormous jar of stuffed olives with him into the playing room.  He must have bought the thing in Costco or some such place.  He had the top off the jar, which only was about a quarter full at that point, and the many flies who managed to get into the room were having a field day.  Bob liked to talk, and the fact that fifty or so other games were going on in the room at the time didn’t seem to deter him one bit.  People were hunched over their boards, trying to concentrate, and ol’ Bob’s voice carried a long way.  Finally, I’d hear someone yell “Bob!!  Be quiet!!”  How embarrassing.  Then there was the time at a January tournament in Reno (still talked about due to the snowstorm that kicked up during the next to last game of the tournament — we barely made it down the mountain on Interstate 80), when I returned from our lunch break to find that Bob would be my next opponent.  Just one problem:  Bob was fast asleep on the floor of the playing room.  Amazingly, the returning competitors simply stepped over him like this was the most normal thing in the world!  Uh, director?  Director!!  Should I start this guy’s clock or maybe, uh, call an ambulance or something?

Good old Bob.

The last time I saw the man, he was in a wheelchair, and I was more than a little shocked when he suddenly discovered he had to use the rest room right now, leapt up and literally ran out of the playing room.

Then there’s Gigi, who was such a wonderful Scrabble player, much higher rated than myself.  One year, we hosted a little Scrabble tournament in Fresno when I lived there (thank you, Lewis) and Gigi drove all the way down from Reno with two friends to play.  After the tournament, many of us hung around for additional games, but Gigi was tired and my wife drove her downtown to her hotel.  The next time I saw her was at the big Labor Day tournament in Portland, Oregon, where she summarily wiped the floor with me.  Again I had both blanks at the same time — I played ptomaine and she still beat me by, oh, a hundred points or so.

We lost poor Gigi the year before last when she traveled to Mexico to play in a tournament hosted by John, another of our Scrabble pals (he now lives year-round in Cabo, lucky duck!).  It was her birthday, and some of her friends had flown down to celebrate with her.  As she was crossing a busy street on foot to join her friends, a speeding car came along.

We will never forget you, Gigi.

Then there’s Al, another character whom many of us referred to as “Doc.”  Of French-Canadian origin (I would try not to laugh when he referred to the Z as the “zed”), he spent part of the year in Reno and part in southern California.  He was a retired ophthalmologist and had an opinion on just about everything.  At one tournament, I became quite peeved with the guy when he came right out and said that my obesity is clearly a sign of mental problems (and then went on and on about it).  Another time, he got my goat by challenging my belief in God and insisting that only a ninny would truck in such claptrap.  On both occasions, I kept quiet even though I so much wanted to say “mind your own business, you old fart!”  Then he beat me to pieces over the board.  The guy was good, what can I say?

Doc and his wife met their demise while driving near their home in Orange County about five or six years ago.  I don’t know the details, but I hear a drunk driver T-boned them.

Scrabble tournaments are happy occasions, reunions even, but we always take time to remember the ghosts of tournaments past who will remain in our memories for as long as we are able to shake the tile bag, hit the clock and mark our score sheets.

Oldies But Goodies

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RENO, NEVADA

I haven’t played against Margaret yet, and I want to.

Not Maggie, not Margie, not Peggy.  Margaret.

Goodness, Margaret is such an old lady name.  It reminds me of the secretary in the main office of the high school where my father taught driver education for 30 years, or Dennis the Menace’s girlfriend.  Or Horowitz-Margareten, the brand name on the bright blue label of the huge boxes of matzos that my parents and grandparents purchased at Passover time in the days of my childhood in New York City.

She instantly recognized me and came over to say hi while she was looking for her assigned table on the first day of the North American Scrabble Championship here in Reno.

“We’ve played together before,” she announced.  “I don’t remember where, but it was a long time ago.”

We stared at each other for about three seconds.

“Phoenix!” we shouted at approximately the same time.  When my sisters and I were kids, such an occasion would have called for both of us to yell “Jinx!”

I would hazard a guess that Margaret is in her early eighties.  She lives in Los Angeles and travels the west coast Scrabble tournament circuit, just as I attempt to do whenever finances allow.  Las Vegas, Reno, Silicon Valley, Portland.

Phoenix.

I have competed in the big February tournament in Arizona on two occasions.  The first time, I drove down from Fresno with a friend (my wife had to work) and was sick with bronchitis the whole time I was there.  A couple of years later, we found ourselves living in the desert just a couple of hours away from Phoenix and I was able to go with my wife.  It’s always an excellent tournament, heavily attended by snowbirds from Canada and the northern states, seeking an excuse to escape the winter weather and enjoy a week or so in the sun.

So it must have been about seven years ago when last I played across the board from Margaret.  I’m amazed that she remembers me, but then again, we Scrabble nerds need to have skills in that area in order to memorize all those lists of words.

I ran into Margaret again this morning as I was lugging my rolling Scrabble bag through the casino, my lunch bag attached by a strap.  I’m just glad that thing has a solid handle by which I can pull it behind me, because it weighs more than 20 pounds, thanks to my heavy wooden Scrabble board.

I was headed across the street to the playing venue and I had nearly made it out the doors of the casino when she greeted me.  At least 20 minutes remained until the director would make the announcements that precede each day of tournament play.  Margaret had plenty of time.  She sat down at a nickel slot machine and began playing.  I wished her luck and headed out into the early morning sunshine.

The reason that I have yet to be paired with Margaret during this tournament likely has something to do with the fact that it is well-attended:  We have more competitors in my division that there are games.  In other words, there are some people in each division whom you will not get to play against.  Margaret is seeded 33rd and I am seeded sixth, so that may be a factor as well.

Instead, I have been paired against a lot of young whippersnappers who play with me in the bottom division only by dint of the fact that this is their first or second tournament and they haven’t established much of a formal rating yet.  This is the next generation, the up and coming Division 1 players of the next few years.  Meanwhile, I get to suffer against their superior Scrabble prowess and their young, agile Scrabble memories.  In my last game today, I was completely blown out of the water by a young man who had just graduated from middle school.  He told me he is 13 years old, lives in Connecticut and is here in Reno with his entire family “because I wouldn’t have been able to get here otherwise.”

Eek.

Okay, so I’m old.  I think we moldy oldies need to stick together.  We need to have our own division and let the youngsters duke it out among themselves.  We don’t stand a shadow of a chance against them.

And there are a lot of us.  I have played tournament games against opponents more than 90 years of age, some of whom have beaten me soundly.  I have sat across the board from seniors using magnifying glasses and special lamps due to visual impairments, who get extra time on the clock due to arthritis that is so bad that they can barely pick up the tiles, who show up in wheelchairs and connected to oxygen tanks.  Scrabble is a game we can play at any age, continuing to show off our word knowledge and mental skills long after our bodies have betrayed us.

This morning I was paired against John, whom I met at the very first Scrabble tournament I ever attended, in Silicon Valley’s Los Gatos.  It was a short one-afternoon event, and John was directing.  It was held at a ratty pizza joint, and I had no idea where I was supposed to sit or what I supposed to do.  I still had to learn the tournament etiquette.  But John was unfazed and showed me much kindness, gently explaining about the pairings, ratings and assorted tournament paraphernalia.  I reminded him of this today, making it a point to let him know that his kindness had much to do with the fact that I was not scared away and have been playing in Scrabble tournaments ever since.  He told me that he remembers that day.

That was the last tournament that John directed.  I remember that he told me he was retiring to Florida that very week.  That was at least eight years ago, and John has been living in a small town in the Tampa Bay area ever since.  His elderly mother was already there, and he shared with me today that he had 22 months with her before she passed away.  He had been laid off from work and decided it would be better to retire to a cheaper area than to be a poor, unemployed job hunter in the mean Silicon Valley job market.  Technology companies routinely recruit at colleges for new, young blood.  The tech industry has no use for oldies like us.

Meanwhile, it turns out that John hates Florida.  Not only does he find the heat and humidity oppressive, but he misses the intellectual stimulation of Silicon Valley and he can’t find any worthy Scrabble opponents around.  To my surprise, he tells me that the stereotypes about Florida retirees only being interested in shuffleboard and endless games of cards is accurate.

I’m guessing that John is not quite 70 years old, but he says that the seniors living in his area only want to pay three- and four-handed Scrabble, don’t really keep score, and prefer to spend more time chatting than playing.  It’s all about the socializing, and it doesn’t really matter whether very many words actually make it off the rack and onto the board.  As a very competitive player, this frustrates John to no end.  He finished me off handily this morning.

I’ll say it again:  We oldies have to form our own league or something.  It’s too bad that we live all over this wide country of ours, in Los Angeles and Florida, in Sacramento and Texas and New York.  Perhaps we can start a club online, like the email tournament in which I have been participating for more than a decade.  I doubt that it’ll ever happen, but it’s a pleasant thought.  I may have a chance of someday improving to John’s level, but I know I’ll never be able to get anywhere near what these young folks are doing.  Surely there has to be a unique place for us in the world of competitive Scrabble.

Margaret finished playing her slot machine and ambled across Virginia Street and the wide plaza to the Reno Ballroom, where our tournament is taking place.  She waved as she walked by.

Tournament Update:  After a great morning in which I had three big wins, I had a disappointing afternoon in which I won a game by 2 points (in a recount, no less), lost the next one by 3 points due to a truly stupid mistake, and then got squashed like a bug by a young’un.  My best play of the tournament is pictured above.  After laying down GRIEVE one spot from the triple line (hoping my opponent didn’t have a D, R or S), I drew both the Q and the U simultaneously and was shocked to find that I could play QUAILED for 122 points!  As if that weren’t enough, my opponent wasn’t familiar with the word and challenged the play, giving me an extra turn.  I followed this up with another bingo, STHENIA, a word I know only from my study of bingo stem lists. If only every game could be like this one!

Scrabble Dreams

The dreams have started.

I always know when a big Scrabble tournament is coming up because the words, the tiles, the thrill and frustration of competition seep into my waking thoughts and invade my dreams.

On Friday, I head to Reno to compete in the North American Scrabble Championship.  In the Scrabble world, it’s the annual blowout shindig, the place where the big girls and boys come out to play.  It’s my first rodeo, and I am by no means certain of being able to hang on for eight seconds.  I just pray that my face doesn’t get stomped on by the bull.

For five straight days, 295 of us will fight tooth and nail to hold onto our positions and maybe even move up a few spots.  If the lesser tournaments I have attended are any indication, the competition will be intense.  There will be blood, sweat and tears.  There will be curses muttered under the breath and hearts a-pounding when just the right tiles leap out of the letter bag for that elusive triple-triple.  I will kick myself for making stupid mistakes.  I will lose games I should have won.  I will win games I should have lost.  And a couple of dozen times, I will grit my teeth and say “good game” to my smiling opponent when I really want to punch a hole in the wall and tear my freakin’ hair out.  Just like on the old ABC Wide World of Sports shows we watched on Saturday afternoons as kids, there will be the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

The field is broken into four divisions, based on one’s rating, determined by performance in past tournaments.  I will be playing in the bottom division, which means that I’m really not very good.  However, I am all the way at the top of my division, seeded fifth out of a field of 45.  This means that I have nowhere to go but down.  Everyone will want a piece of me to pull up their own ratings, dragging me down into the pit in the process.  True, I could have opted to “play up” (compete in the next higher division), where I’d be at the very bottom and would have nowhere to go but up.  Passing up that opportunity, however, gives me the opportunity to maybe stay at the top of my own division and earn some prize money.  Or not.  A couple of mistakes, a few losses to lower rated players, and I could easily drop like a rock from fifth to 25th position, or even worse.  It happens all the time.  It’s a gamble, perhaps fitting for an event being held in downtown Reno.

Not that it’s about money.  On the contrary, it’s about proving just how good you are.  The real prize money is in Division 1, where the top players in the world compete for many thousands of dollars.  Down here in the cheap seats, however, the only real money involved is the hundreds of dollars we had to lay out for transportation, food, entry fees, equipment and accommodations at the host hotel for at least five nights.  I know perfectly well I’ll never see any of that money back.  Tournament Scrabble is an expensive hobby.  Case in point:  I haven’t even left home yet and just spent over $400 for a new board and timer.  These were far from impulse purchases; they were necessary to compete in the tournament.  My old timer finally died on me, and no amount of cleaning and fresh batteries would encourage it to come back to life.  As for my old beat-up board, it is rectangular — fine for playing in a local club, but a definite no-no for officially sanctioned tournaments.  One must have a round board that swivels so that the opponents can easily turn it around to face them when it’s their turn to play.  Many players spend heaps of money to have customized boards made for them.  I settled for ordering a standard model from an online purveyor.  You want a case to protect your board from being banged up in transit?  That’s extra.  You want wheels on that case so you can pull it behind you while lugging it through hotel lobbies instead of lifting 20 pounds of dead weight?  That’s extra, too.

Fortunately, I have collected enough racks and sets of tiles over the years that I didn’t have to lay out any money there.  I should mention that each competitor must bring a full set of equipment; failure to have everything needed at hand at the start of the game may result in a forfeit.  And, of course, one must have one’s own supply of score sheets.  I was low, which meant a trip to the copy shop and, you guessed it, more money down the drain.

And I thought golfers spent a lot of money on their little obsession.  I only wish there a way I could take a deduction from my income taxes for this stuff.

There are many theories about what makes a good Scrabble player.  Some say you must have superior verbal skills, while others insist it’s all about mathematics.  Some say you must have “board vision,” while others believe the key is in balancing your rack between vowels and consonants.  Some say you must have memorized word lists, while others insist it’s mostly luck.

All of them are right.

I do not possess a photographic memory, nor do I have the time or energy to spend hours each day studying endless columns and pages of words.  My practice consists mostly of playing a lot of word games.  For more than a decade, I have participated in an ongoing Scrabble tournament with opponents from around the world, conducted entirely over email.  I play Scrabble online in realtime on a site called ISC (www.isc.ro).  I play endless games of Words with Friends on my phone when I should be doing other things.

And, yes, I’ve even dabbled some in memorizing some of the “must know” lists of “bingo stems,” those six-letter combinations that, with the addition of one additional letter, will create a rack-clearing “bingo” that rewards me with a 50-point bonus.  There are hundreds of such word lists, and I claim familiarity with only a few.  There are mnemonics, funky little phrases to jog one’s memory as to which letters go with which bingo stems.  Phrases like “Old MVP jogs with a crutch” to remember the bingos that can be made out of the tiles in SENIOR or “Prez got caught having Monica” to remind you of what you can do with TOILES.

I’m not a fanatic, and believe me, there are many who are.  Hard-driving competitors who own shoe boxes full of annotated index cards, dog-eared word books scribbled in pencil three ways to Sunday, special computer programs that feature Scrabble puzzles and warn you when you’re falling behind in your studying.

Does any of this really help you win?  Sometimes it does.  Other times, not so much.  Most of us are not mental giants like Nigel Richards, who recently won the French Scrabble championship without speaking a word of French — by spending nine weeks memorizing the French Scrabble dictionary.  We try to get a good night’s sleep, eat a decent breakfast and hope that the ol’ grey matter is firing on all cylinders.  As for me, I silently pray a lot when I’m seated at the board.  I pray that God will jog my memory to recall the right mnemonic for the right word list for the tiles that happen to be on the board and on my rack at that very moment.  I expect that I will miss a lot of the obscure words that I never had time to study.  And yet, I hope that I don’t blunder by missing the opportunity to play a high-scoring word that I’ve been over many times.  In Scrabble, as in life, sometimes you can’t recognize the gem that is staring you right in the face.

For amateurs such as myself, much of the battle lies in fighting the tyranny of the timer.  Each player starts with 25 minutes on the clock. Go over your time and you pay the penalty of 10 points for every minute or portion thereof.  This means that memorizing a few word lists doesn’t do you a lot of good unless you can instantaneously recall them.  If you don’t have a list down cold as ice, it probably won’t help you in the clutch.

I have been a Scrabble poseur for enough years now, have spent enough time faking it, that there are a few word lists I could probably recite in my sleep.  This may have something to do with the dreams.

Like last night, for instance.  In my dream, my clocking was running down and I was behind in the score.  I had almost no time left and I was sweating out my final rack, my chance to “bingo out” and win or, conversely, to choke and lose.  I knew there was a seven-letter word in my rack somewhere.  I could positively feel it in my guts.  But, try as I may, I could not come up with it.

And then I woke up, drenched in sweat, heart pounding.

It wasn’t even a particularly creative dream, as that very situation has, at one time or another, happened to most of us who travel from state to state like nomads and lay out our hard-earned money to play this silly game.

And sometimes, the right word comes to you just in the nick of time and, just like that, you go from zero to hero faster than you can say “82 and out.”

Or not.

Later, of course, you will look up your rack online and find out that there were at least three viable bingos in your rack, any one of which would have won you the game, but you, lacking the grace under pressure so touted by Hemingway, couldn’t come up with a single one.

And you’ll wonder why a loser like you bothers to play this game at all.

And then you’ll go home, and like an addict hooked on horse, you’ll try to stay away but you’ll need another fix, and when you start shaking with the DTs, you’ll slide that credit card out of your wallet and dial up the hotel for reservations for the next tournament on the circuit.  And as the weeks wind down to the big day, you’ll find yourself stealing glances at word lists on your phone when you should be working and wracking your brain because you can’t remember the anagram for TOILETS.

(It’s LITOTES.)

Greece is the Word

Greek flag

Had I the slightest bit of artistic talent, I would have headed up this post with a cartoon that looked something like this:  Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and German leader Angela Merkel would be sitting across a table from each other.  Tsipras would have an enormous goblet of Greek olives before him, which he would be slowly sharing with Merkel.  The caption would read “Two for you, one for me!”  In the next pane, Merkel would take the single olive off of Tspiras’ plate and move it to her own.

If you’ve been following the shenanigans in Greece over the past few weeks, you probably understand to what I refer.  If not, I’ll make it incredibly simple by stating that Greece is billions of euro in debt to Europe and that it has approximately zero chance of ever paying it back.

The complicated part is the politics.  Greece is broke and missed an important payment deadline at the end of June.  Should the nation’s creditors put up with this and risk setting a precedent that their loans need not be repaid?  Or should Europe refuse to extend yet another bailout to Greece, causing the nation to leave the Eurozone, quit the euro and return to its former currency, the drachma?  Perhaps that would send a message to other profligate European nations… but perhaps it would be the wrong message.  Perhaps European nations with struggling economies (think Italy, Spain, Portugal) will figure that defaulting on their obligations wouldn’t be so bad; after all, they can just go back to the lira, the peseta, the escudo.  And there, of course, goes the whole European Union.  A Greek exit from the euro, which the media has of late been referring to as a “Grexit” (eye roll here), could potentially pave the way for the whole idea of a united Europe to come tumbling down like a house of cards.  Perhaps the real lesson for Europe here is that their union is built upon the sand, not upon a rock as they would have the world believe.

It’s not as if the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and other creditors don’t have any compassion.  They offered to lend Greece more money in exchange for “austerity.”  Now, it’s not as if Greece hasn’t already been up to its eyeballs in austerity.  To even get this far, it had to cut pensions, raise taxes and lay off government employees.  This, of course, created a lot of problems, not the least of which is that the people are sick of it.  More than a quarter of working age Greeks are already unemployed.  With the country’s stagnant economy, that has little likelihood of changing anytime soon.  As for elderly citizens on fixed incomes, let’s make it even more difficult for them to survive, by golly!  That’s right — acceding to Europe’s demands would involve slashing pensions by another 40%.

Of course, Rome… er, Greece, wasn’t built in a day.  Sure, taxes have been raised, but reports are that they’re not collected particularly vigorously.  And the government is by far the largest employer in the nation.  As is common in Europe, employees receive six weeks of paid vacation annually.  And then you can retire — at age 38, with a full pension.  Must be nice, eh?  And it’s not like you need to move to Florida or Palm Springs or Costa Rica to enjoy your retirement.  That’s because you already live at the sun-kissed intersection of the Mediterranean and the blue Aegean.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some want Greece to pay dearly for its perceived economic profligacy.  Drive those spendthrifts to their knees and make them pay dearly for their sins!  Germany is seen as being the standard bearer for this camp, with Merkel being backed by Eurogroup head Jeroen Dijsselbloem.

But it’s not as if Greece was about to give up without a fight.  For a while, it seemed that Greece could hold all of Europe hostage with the threat of causing its precious union to come apart at the seams.  You want to hold it together?  Bail us out!  Again.  (And again, and again.)  Europe wasn’t about to put up with this.  So Greece had to prove that its threat was real.  Tsipras and his finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, asked the Greek parliament to put the matter to a vote of the people.  Should we cave in to austerity measures that are worse than what we have already experienced?  Or should we tell Europe to go to hell?  You know, do the Grexit thing and merrily go it alone?  Tsipras argued the latter and his parliament agreed.  The vote was slated for last Sunday.

It almost didn’t happen.  There were issues of constitutionality and procedural irregularities such as the fact that the people are supposed to be provided at least two weeks of notice prior to a vote, not the one week they received.  But the Greek Supreme Court gave the green light and voting booths were hastily assembled from Athens to Thessaloniki to the isle of Rhodos.  Tspiras went on national TV and radio and urged the people to reject austerity.  Proud Greeks, stand up to Europe!

Photos of the Greek people demonstrating against European oppression appeared around the world.  In the streets and the squares, in front of government buildings and on the islands, large OXI (“No!”) signs seemed to appear everywhere.  There was a significant “yes” faction, too, of course, those who believed that Greece should stick with the euro for better or for worse.

The vote was thought to be a dead heat.  My wife and I were out of town at a Scrabble tournament in Reno, and I followed the action on my iPhone with bated breath.  Rumor was that a “yes” vote would constitute a vote of no confidence in the ruling liberal Syriza party and would leave Tspiras with little choice but to resign.

But Tspiras did not resign.  In fact, he won.  The people agreed with him, with about 61% voting OXI.  Instead, Varoufakis, his finance minister, resigned the next day.  I had to laugh when The Washington Post reported that he lived up to his “bad boy” image when he followed his announcement by walking out of the ministry building and riding off into the sunset on his motorcycle, his wife on the back.

But all that was Sunday and Monday, ancient Greek history.  In the intervening four days, a lot has changed, notably the mood of the nation.  Having your banks shuttered for two weeks, with a daily limit on ATM withdrawals of 60 euros per day, could do it.  (It is estimated that if the banks were to reopen, the ensuing run on deposits combined with virtually nonexistent cash reserves would cause the banks to be out of money in less than an hour.)  Shortages at the supermarkets and empty gas tanks could do it.  Fear of a deep economic depression has a way of engendering another type of depression entirely.  Somewhere around Tuesday, the defiance of the Greeks seemed to wilt along with the abandoned OXI signs.

After asking his people to vote “no” to austerity, Tsipras went right ahead and renewed negotiations with Europe for another bailout in exchange for more austerity measures.  He was quoted as equating his country’s predicament as a choice between “your money or your life.”  He’d have to choose the former, he said.  Clearly, someone forgot to tell him that you’re supposed to give up your life; you need your money for old age.

The Eurogroup is expected to make a decision on the fate of Greece today.  Despite the tenacity of some hard liners, the end result is preordained.  Greece will be bailed out yet again and its people, particularly tens of thousands of poor pensioners, will suffer even more.  The whole charade of the vote, proud defiance and cries of “Oxi!” will have been for naught.  Greece has turned into a joke, and a not very funny one at that.

Greece is not the only one caving in on this, however.  Germany, which has expressed a preference for providing humanitarian aid to ease the suffering of the Greeks rather than offering another fruitless bailout, is on the losing end, too.  In fact, all of Europe loses, as they flush ever more money down the toilet.  It’s a classic no-win situation.  There are only losers.  And I will bet a nickel that, before long, Greece will be right back where it is now, only even more in debt and more beaten down by endless austerity.  Meanwhile, you can support impoverished Greece by purchasing its exports:  Ouzo, olive oil, feta cheese, delicious kalamatas, Greek yogurt.  Oops, maybe not that last one.  Aren’t Oikos and Chabani made right here in the States?

I hope that, one of these days, some creative writer turns the current Greek debacle into a play.  It might be a tragedy or a drama, both forms that the Greeks themselves invented.  On second thought, it should be a musical.  Songs could include “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” performed in front of the Acropolis by Yanis Varoufakis and his biker gang; “Eurozone Dropout,” performed by Angela Merkel; “Look at Me, I’m Alex T,” performed by Tsipras and the Syriza Seven; perhaps finishing up with a resounding rendition of “We’ll Always Be Together” by Jeroen Dijsselbloem and the Moneymen.

Greece is the word, baby.  (Shoo-bop, shoo-bop.)

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

A question posted online recently captured my attention in a big way.  It went something like this:  “If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?”

I was surprised when my guts began churning and a flood of emotions washed over me.  So many memories.  So many “what ifs.”  So many “if onlys.”

What would my ideal job be?  Oh, please don’t ask me that.  Ask me anything else, but not that.  It’s just too embarrassing.

It sounds like a warped job interview question, something the production manager or the HR lady sadistically throws at the poor applicant in an attempt to throw him or her off kilter and assess “thinking on your feet” skills.

In fact, I was asked this question during a job interview once, many years ago.  The interviewer added “anything but the job you are applying for, that is.”  Of course.  There would be no point in enduring suck-ups who provide the obvious answer.

As a self-professed “word freak,” I told the interviewer that I have long been fascinated by etymology and would, in my dreams, be the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.  What happened after that was not pretty.  Believing I had said “entomology,” the interviewer thought I was into insects.  As far as the OED, he told me that he had one of those on his desk.  I was sure he was lying, as I knew full well that the OED consists of 20 thick volumes.  (I had not yet heard of the compact edition.)  Then he admitted to me that he’s really like to be a rock star.

Oh.

Need I add that I did not get that job?  I’m probably better off, too.

The loaded question about “your ideal job” has been around just about forever, and I don’t see it going away anytime soon.  When I was in college in the 1980s, pondering what the hell I was going to do after graduation with a degree in English and political science, the popular question (courtesy of the Richard Nelson Bolles book) was “what color is your parachute?”  Today, I suppose, we would say (courtesy of young crooner Kacey Musgraves) “follow your arrow wherever it points.”

Turn the dial on the ol’ Wayback Machine a few years earlier.  Everyone from my grandparents to my aunts and uncles to my parents’ friends and our next-door neighbors posed the same question to me at one time or another:  “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Every kid gets asked that question.  I used to think it was a way of testing the kid’s mettle, to find out how big he or she can dream.  Or maybe it’s just a way of making small talk, an adult’s way to start a conversation with a child when the adult doesn’t really know how to relate to kids and has no idea of what else to say.  It’s the old tried-and-true.  It’s the question that’s expected.  Now that I’m an old guy, and more jaded than I like to admit, I suspect that many adults ask kids this question to get a good laugh at the outrageous response they might receive.

If a shy kid greets this question with silence, the follow-up may well be something like:  “Policeman, fireman or Indian chief?”  (In the upper middle class suburban world in which I was raised, the question would more likely have been:  “Doctor, lawyer or Indian chief?”)

Seriously, what is it with Indian chiefs?  I was born much too late to have heard of Tonto and the Lone Ranger, although I have vague, fuzzy memories of watching old westerns with my grandpa when I was four or five years old.

It seems like a humorous anachronism now.  Today, if you used the phrase “Indian chief,” the image that would come to my mind would be of a CEO in Mumbai.  Not a bad career choice, come to think of it.

Well, what I wanted to be when I grew up was really rather boring.  I wanted to be a librarian.

I was enamored with books and retain vivid memories of an embarrassing incident in which I walked right into the office of the director of the public library and asked him for a job.  I was ten years old.

To the guy’s credit, he quizzed me on the Dewey Decimal System, a test which I summarily failed.

“Being a librarian doesn’t mean you get to read books all day,” my mother patiently tried to explain.  Duh!  Everyone knows that.  Librarians get to push the little cart around and tell people where the periodical room is and shove library cards under that little machine with the bright light that makes a copy with the due date stamped on it.

I started telling people that I wanted to be a teacher like my Dad.  It was safer.  Also, it was less of a sissy answer.  Everyone knew librarians were old ladies with their hair put up in buns.

What I do for a living today is far more boring than being a librarian.  I am a manager in the government service.  Pass the white bread and the vanilla ice cream.

I’ve spent years as a supervisor and manager in both the public and private sectors, during which time I’ve had ample opportunity to reflect upon career paths, recruiting and the interview process.  On several occasions, I found myself in the position of reviewing stacks of job applications and then conducting dozens of interviews.  I learned to take good notes, because after a while it becomes difficult to remember one candidate from another.  Perhaps someone stands out because they tell me a funny joke, once worked as a lion tamer or show up at the interview with really big hair.  But mostly it’s just a chorus line.

These days, I consider myself reformed.  I am rarely involved with hiring anymore, and when I am, I don’t ask candidates what their ideal job would be.

For one thing, it’s too painful.  That is, the ridiculous answers you get are too painful to bear.  And you can’t even laugh!  You have to keep your serious supervisor’s face on, nod and say something profound like “Well, that’s different!”

Mostly, however, you just get boring answers about wanting to work “in the helping professions” (Query:  Is there such a thing as “the hurting professions?”) or wanting to give back to the community or to make a real difference in society.

Sigh.  My eyes grow misty as I recall the many times I’ve spewed out such chewed-over platitudes to prospective employers.  Even when it’s true, it always comes out sounding just a little bit insincere.

Okay, I’ve put it off long enough.  It’s time to fess up.  My ideal job, what I’d really love to do more than anything else I can think of, is to be . . .

A customer loyalty team representative in Zappo’s call center.

Yep, you read that right.  I want to don a headset, surf the Net like a wild man in search of bargains and answers and make customers insanely happy all day/night.

And much as this is the object of my desires, I can unequivocally guarantee that I will never have this job.  More on that in a little while.

Now, why would I want such a job?  I’m glad you asked.  It’s not out of some goggle-eyed fantasy, I assure you.  I worked in a call center for years, so I know the drill.  Most of my coworkers hated it and got out as soon as they could.  I stuck around for nearly nine years.  It’s where I met my wife and it was one of the best times of my life.  I’d do it all again in a minute.

My niece works in a call center and often makes vague references to the difficult customers she is forced to deal with, the time constraints she faces on each call and the constant threat of Quality Assurance listening in with a critical ear.

Bring it on, I say!

Satisfying the customer at the other end of the phone line, even the one who has a beef with the company and decides to cuss me out, brings a smile to my face and joy to my heart.  I am the weirdo who glories in turning the frown upside down.

But why Zappo’s?  Oh my goodness, where do I begin?  Sorry, I’ll try not to gush too profusely.

First, Zappo’s operates on a holacratic model, which basically means that it’s about the work, not about the person.  There are no titles; roles overlap and morph with business needs.  Employees get to use their skills in a variety of areas rather than being stuck doing just one thing until they get “a promotion.”  It’s about getting things done, not stroking egos.  The idea is entirely refreshing.  You can read more about holacracy here.

Then there are Zappo’s ten core values.  I will list them here so that you can get some idea of why I’ve gone a little bit gaga over selling shoes and apparel:

  • Deliver WOW through service
  • Embrace and drive change
  • Create fun and a little weirdness
  • Be adventurous, creative and open-minded
  • Pursue growth and learning
  • Build open and honest relationships with communication
  • Build a positive team and family spirit
  • Do more with less
  • Be passionate and determined
  • Be humble

I’m told this is not for everyone, but I find it a bit difficult to imagine why anyone would not want to work for such a company.

Pursue growth and learning:  Yes!  I consider myself a lifelong student, I always want to obtain more schooling, I read omnivorously.

Be adventurous, creative and open-minded:  Yes!  No more being a square peg wedged into a round hole.  Try your latest idea without fear of failure!  Then try something else!

Be passionate and determined.  Be humble.  They’re talking about me!

There are other little things, too.  Zappo’s has a 24-hour call center, and I am an inherent night owl who enjoys working weird hours.  Switching shifts every so often to meet business needs doesn’t faze me.  I find it exciting!

The fact that the staff is always up to fun stuff like parades through the call center and silly games and contests — That’s what adds joy to one’s work life.  It’s what keeps people forever young.  That’s what builds the same kind of loyalty to an employer that the employees wish to instill in their customers.  It’s the WOW, it’s what makes their day.

So why haven’t I packed up and moved to Las Vegas yet?  There are a number of obstacles to doing that, but only one that I simply cannot overcome and will never be able to overcome.

I cannot survive on $11 per hour.

Even on $15 an hour, I simply couldn’t make ends meet.  I only wish Zappo’s had been around when I was fresh out of college, 21 years old and back home with my parents, wondering what on earth to do next.  No rent, no utilities, no food bills, nothing but putting gasoline in my rattletrap old car.  I started working for $5.50 an hour on the night shift, which even then was very little money.  If I could transport myself back to that time, and transport my parents’ home to the Nevada desert, I could happily indulge in the job of my dreams.

Those days are long gone, of course, decades in the past.  All that remains is the edges of a dream, a dream fueled by monthly “Zscoop” email reminders from Meli Gonzalez, social recruiting and engagement specialist at Zappo’s.  Like a junkie, I lap up these e-newsletters as a much desired fix.  And I try not to let it break my heart.  But it’s tough.

I know you don’t read this blog, Meli, but if you’re really out there, give an old guy a break and leave a comment telling me that a Zappo’s job paying a salary on which one can pay the bills just opened up and has my name written all over it.

Back in my day, there were all kinds of pop songs about unrequited love.  And this one is mine.

So good night, sweet Zappo’s. I’ll see you in my z’dreams.

Eliminating Homelessness is Possible

I would like to take a moment to sincerely thank Shannon of Dirt ‘N Kids and Janon for their kind and insightful comments on last week’s post about paths toward ending homelessness and Utah’s successes in this regard.

I can summarize my thoughts on your responses in three general statements:

  • Yes, it’s all about money.
  • It is a mistake to think of human suffering in terms of abstractions.
  • You have to start somewhere.

Yes, it’s all about money.

Some say that the only certainties in life are death and taxes.  I would add “poverty” to that short list.  As a man who unabashedly worships God, I think of the following Bible verse:  “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you:  Open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.”  Deut. 15:11 (JPS)  The dual lessons here are:

  1. There is no such thing as “eliminating homelessness,” despite the appeal of the phrase as a sound bite. Even if it is possible to assure that those who are taken off the streets are provided with homes for the remainder of their lives, there will always be more individuals and families who will fall into homelessness due to the effects of the economy, mental illness and substance abuse.
  2. As homelessness is an ongoing issue, beating it back will require ongoing infusions of money. Even if we were collectively committed to ensuring that everyone has a roof over his or her head, that commitment must continue among those who come after us or we will quickly find ourselves right back where we started.  The Biblical command to “open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land” is an edict for all time.

Shannon, you are right to be concerned about taxes and utilities.  These are part and parcel of the costs of housing and must be covered by the public-private partnership that secured the house, apartment or single occupancy unit in the first place, as was done in Utah.  In terms of taxes, essentially the municipality must be willing to forgo the income that could otherwise have been collected on these units.  The loss of revenue is but a tiny fraction of the public funds that would have been expended on the individuals involved had they remained homeless.

You also ask about rules for sharing with others, medical requirements, hygiene and general cleanliness.  While all of these concerns make perfect sense to me, in the big picture none of them matter.  The philosophy in Utah is that when the keys are handed over, the newly homed individual essentially has free reign.  The home is treated as a gift of unconditional love, no strings attached.  The result of this is that there were a few cases in which the residence was totally destroyed and/or the beneficiary violated the law and ended up in custody.  This is why, in Salt Lake City, some of the homeless who were unlikely to be able to live successfully in an unsupervised environment were sheltered in single occupancy rooms in a location where they can be checked up on daily and where critical mental health and substance abuse prevention services are available on site.  As to the extremely rare cases in which the residence was trashed, I read that the individual was provided needed services and then given yet another home.  While the agape love nature of such actions is delightful to see, those are the situations that make everyone nervous due to the very real potential for negative press and public backlash that could bring the entire endeavor tumbling down like a house of cards.  Each time something like that comes up is a moment of collective breath holding accompanied by hope that the public realizes that, as the Jackson 5 sang back in the days of my youth, “one bad apple don’t spoil the whole wide world.”

Finally, Shannon, you asked about food.  This was handled in a number of different ways, and I regret that your wonderful idea of a community garden was never mentioned in the articles I read (I am definitely a fan of your “lasagna” worm fertilization technique).  Some of the newly homed are receiving job training and job search assistance in an effort to get them back onto their feet financially.  Many others were helped to apply for Food Stamps.  Finally, in some locations, such as the single room occupancy facilities, the local food bank made regular deliveries to the residents.

Janon, you incisively point out that “a Housing First program in a large city would require a large line item in the city’s budget directly associated with the program, and it will always be a target for cuts.”  As I mentioned above, the difference between a temporary fix and a permanent solution will be whether those who come after us remain committed to the same goals and are willing to fund them.  Ironically, when times are bad and programs are slashed to accommodate the shrinking public fisc, that is exactly when an increasing number of people are in danger of becoming homeless if homes are not provided.  This is why layers upon layers of protection are needed, not unlike Shannon’s worm composting program.  Housing First must be a joint effort of federal, state and municipal governments, religious organizations (like Loaves and Fishes here in Sacramento) and private philanthropy.  Like an extended family in which various members step in to help in different roles depending on what is required at the moment, each of these parts must be willing to step up when another falters.

It is a mistake to think of human suffering in terms of abstractions.

Last week, I wrote about Henry and a few of the other homeless people with whom we have recently had contact in this area.  They all have stories to tell, although not all of them are willing (or able) to tell those stories.  They all had mothers and fathers once; few were born homeless.  Homelessness, like so many things, exists at the intersection of chance and choice.  Many homeless individuals never really had a chance, having suffered through horrible childhoods and turbulent adolescences that saw them tossed out to the vagaries of the four winds at an early age.  I am fond of noting that mental illness seems inevitable among the homeless, including those who weren’t mentally ill when they first hit the streets.  A few years of being assaulted, arrested, robbed, starved, exposed to the elements and subject to the disdain of nearly everyone would be enough to catapult nearly anyone into abyss of mental illness.

As I pointed out in my post about Henry, rapidly gobbling down any food that comes your way is a common behavioral pattern among the homeless.  If you haven’t eaten in a while, I can’t reasonably expect you to observe Emily Post table manners and to say grace before chowing down.  If you don’t eat it all immediately, it will likely be stolen from you.  And, as if that weren’t enough, competing with you in your panhandling endeavors are those who are no more homeless than I am, but choose to take advantage of the opportunity to engage in a bit of fakery to see whether they can get something for nothing.  For those of us who would help the homeless, we are left with the difficulty of distinguishing between the truly homeless and the charlatans.  If we don’t want to “go there,” we can simply help anyone who asks (within the extent of our resources) without making judgment, or, more commonly, can resort to averting our eyes and helping no one.

The latter option is perennially tempting to government, as the cost of social services staff and programs to determine who is “deserving” of assistance can run nearly as much as providing that assistance does.  And when it comes to local governments, state legislatures and, yes, Congress, deciding whom to help, there are always Tea Party Republicans and naysayers back home in the district to provide ample chastisement about the waste of public funds.  After all, how appealing is it to spend money on an intractable problem?  Tomorrow, there will be more people who need to be helped, even apart from those “just looking for a handout.”

This is why it is imperative that those whom we elect to serve us remember that it is a mistake to think of human suffering in terms of abstractions.  Those of us who care need to write and call our legislators and testify before legislative and Congressional committees to let our representatives know that we are not blind to the suffering that is occurring all around us.  While we are limited as to what we can do as individuals, together we can move mountains.  Ending homelessness is not an election campaign issue or a line item in a budget.  It is forging a path through the rhetoric to put roofs over the heads of our neighbors who freeze, burn and are soaked from sleeping outdoors and show up at hospitals with hypothermia and pneumonia.  These are the people who are routinely abused, assaulted and killed as if they were some kind of trash rather than someone’s son, daughter, mother, father.

The biggest mistake of all is thinking that it can’t happen to you.  There, but for the grace of God, go I.

You have to start somewhere.

The jaded among us say that every public program, every act of generosity done by a church or an individual, is flawed (and likely motivated by some hidden agenda, as well).  Some of the “undeserving” will be the beneficiaries of our largesse along with those who are “truly deserving.”  This line of thinking is rather sad.  Those of us who attempt to walk in the path of God know that every act of kindness is perfect.  As your mother told you when you were little, it truly is the thought that counts.

While we’re on mothers, another thing that they like to say is “little kids have little problems and big kids have big problems.”  As Janon astutely points out, the same is true of municipalities.  It is a lot easier for a state with a relatively small population, such as Utah, to erase homelessness than it is for a more a populous place to do so.  I was recently pleased to read that Medicine Hat, Alberta is the first city in Canada to eliminate homelessness.  Then again, Wikipedia tells me that Medicine Hat has a population of just 61,180.  This is a far cry from such populous places as Los Angeles and California.  (On a side note, one might think that Canada, with its socialist-oriented policies, would not have much homelessness.  Anyone who reads Dennis Cardiff’s blog, Gotta Find a Home, on a regular basis knows that this is anything but true.)

One thing to consider is economies of scale.  First, large scale operations cost considerably less to operate on a per capita basis than smaller operations do.  Second, populous cities and states have larger tax bases than less populous places do.  There are more businesses and more people paying property and income taxes.  Generally, there are more churches and other charitable organizations in the area.  And hopefully, there are more philanthropic minded individuals available to assist than there would be in a more rural or remote area.

In places like California, where there are so many in need, the scope of the problem may seem insurmountable.  Providing housing for all of our homeless may seem an impossible dream.  Fortunately, Housing First is a big dream that is turning into reality.  However, it takes time, it takes resources and it takes commitment.  It can’t be done alone or by just a few, and it can’t be done in a day.  It takes the collective will.

We will never be able to convince all the naysayers that housing the homeless is a just cause, and we will always contend with competing priorities for limited resources.  But that doesn’t give us license to sit on our rears, turn the other way and do nothing.  We have to start somewhere.

As the Talmud teaches us, “whoever saves a life, it is as if he has saved an entire world.”

Salad Bar

salad bar

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was about the salad bar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sizzler salad bar

Sizzler salad bar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sizzler

Our local Sizzler, Sutter County, California

Help! My Parents are Stuck in 1995!

iPhone

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

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

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

Yep, my parents are stuck in 1995.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passover Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.