It’s NOT simple

 

Worst offense against human consciousness: bad oversimplification. Great art simplifies small and/or large ideas elegantly; crystallizes with beauty of form and content. Communication in all forms can strive for elegance, and often-necessary simplification. Otherwise anyone- even experts in any field- are just babbling schizophrenics to those who attempt to listen. It leaves the listeners only the construction of their own minds (with respect to post-structuralists, communication does/can happen), and encourages ignorance.

Advertising has elevated the business of lying to sell a product or service to an egregious degree, such that we watch ads now during events such as the super bowl for the ads themselves, not to find out about a product.  High entertainment indeed.   It is communication without content, only form.  Marketers do not want people to know content such as what is in a product, or the hidden costs of a service, because that might dissuade a potential sucker- er, customer.  Obfuscation, the intentional bad oversimplification, the appearance of truth within a lie- is what is expected now days to sell anything.  It is the opposite of enlightenment, of learning, of being informed.

This reality of accepting, even expecting bad oversimplification has transmogrified with the cult of celebrity, of instant tech celebrity, and of superficial, fleeting appearances over any other form of being.  While what I am considering is not new, the critiques began long ago I admit- it is the lack of outrage and even boredom with cynicism that does seem to be new.  Some have said they observe a sticking the head in the sand, hands over ears and eyes approach to the overwhelming presence of what I am calling the wash of bad oversimplification (bad in moral, as well as aesthetic meanings), but I find it much more a perverse boredom that does not want to be aware, and while some may ignore the cracks in the veneers of culture, allowing oneself- yes, choosing- to chase the next over stimulating lie in order to feel engaged, it is a drug of such power few ever dreamed of.  Many of those peddling bad oversimplification in all arenas of human activity tend to ignore it.  Mediocrity?  No real communication or exchange?  Grades as a reflection of how well one can cheat, and jobs having no meritocracy but for your age, looks and temporary utility?  The very idea of elegant simplification- of terse, beautiful and informative communication seems not only an unfair expectation, but something for which we have fewer and fewer models and hence any cultural memory for it is evaporating. 

Art that sells because it is obtuse, and the maker has disappeared up his or her own arse hole usually with a mind numbing string of unrelated words or written inanity (substituting verbosity for content) compounds a general expectation that the experts know more than anyone else ever will, and what is not understandable is therefore good and important.  Or as the evangelical christians have marketed so well: in the face of feeling overwhelmed accept your own stupidity and the authority of others- you’ll just never know, and to inquire is blasphemous.  Oh, and you must enjoy the bad oversimplifications given to you.  Ironically, this message can be masked in the sale of simplicity!  Think of the yoga-vegan stereotype of goodness and simplicity, that encourages a degree of happiness and tranquility by ignoring as much as one can, and simply purchasing the right product, eating a particular food, and “not over thinking”.  Bad oversimplifications all.  

It may seem paradoxical yet consistent that only after considering the complexity of an idea, act, or object one might arrive at good simplicity and elegant understanding.  I can’t recall the exact quote, but Twain is noted for saying when asked to give a speech, that it took him about an hour to write a three page speech, half a day for a two page, a day for a page, and a week for a paragraph.  Good simplicity is an art to be appreciated in all forms; a scientific abstract, a research design, an essay, a novel, a film, architecture, design, a policy, a curriculum, an assessment or evaluation design, and any other activity one can imagine, especially speeches.  Or as Bob Stake has put it: simplicity is often a marker of quality (certainly of clarity); and even on the best day, quality is damned difficult to define.

 

Note: Tackling this concept requires a display of my own bumbling over-simplification, I admit- I never said I was efficient at simplifying, just frustrated at being able to identify the problem.  And yes yes- “bad over simplification” is redundant in a sense- but there can be oversimplification that is simply a structural mistake, and does not fall into the moral and aesthetic category of “bad”.  Not  therefore good, but benign perhaps.

As a friend recently said, watching Fight Club is a good way into thinking about the problem, and with humor.


Taboo

Those lacy panties look great- displayed on the dresser that is.  The matching bra in the lace that does not scratch looks good too but it makes strange patterns under teeshirts. So the set gets stowed away for a special occasion.

The go-to underwear is the cotton with a little spandex in it.  It fits through multiple washings, and leaves little VPL due to the way they can finish the edges now.  Women harass men about their underwear- yes; it is part of a bigger taboo subject.  Most married women even BUY their husbands underwear, noticing when it looks worn and getting the new stuff for them.  Men usually don’t notice- as long as it fits, and looks like the old underwear they really don’t care.  It’s a purely functional thing.

The secret is that women are very much the same way. I didn’t give a lot of thought to my underwear until a good friend in college pointed out that I had alternatives to what I wore.  Still, over the years function trumped appearance but for the few sets of “special” underwear that only came out on limited occasions.  As I thumb through my current drawer, I wonder about when I make the choice to pitch a handful of raggedy, worn, stained (yes, you know what I mean), and out of shape underwear and replace them.  They don’t really cost that much, so waiting until the drawer throws itself open in protest seems extreme.  They come in packages or if you want to go upscale, on little hangers in department stores.  Or, as I found out recently, in bins when department stores ship them off to second tier resellers.  I picked through for my size and bought several pairs (why do they call them pairs anyway?  You don’t buy matching sets of panties.  They are underpants.  Again with the plural- pants.  They should be called underpant).  Costing under a buck a pair for some nicely made cotton/spandex, I was pleased (while they are all new and never tried on, going through a bin still feels a little ghetto).

It occurs to me this experience has changed how I feel about throwing any out now.  The tangibility of buying single pairs for under a buck apiece makes me realize there is no reason to hang on to the crummy old ones.  All these years and I waited to buy a new package, because- what?  I didn’t think I needed six new pairs at once?  I don’t know.  Because I was waiting for a sale?

This momentary revelation about a product we usually do not discuss, not really, seems a bit odd.  The Vicky’s Secret thing is for college girls and spank bank material for college boys.  The rest of us of either gender just get some at the local Wal-Tar-K and wear them with little thought (but avert our eyes if someone else is replenishing their stock at the same time).  The historical evolution of the habit is an interesting topic, but likely to garner red faces at a dinner party.  Going without them has consequences, no matter how much “going commando” sounds like a brave thing to do.  And honestly, in spite of the viral distribution of the Brit-Linds-Poptart-of-the-moment photos getting out of limos and flashing their naughty bits, who really goes without?

Write an ode to the ignored virtues of the cotton panty?  Perhaps.  Or maybe I’ll just replace them more often, and enjoy the fit and feel of a new pair.  Advertisers would do well to have a commercial that just encourages us to do this, without all the dancing around the topic or trying to make it sexy.   Bras have complexity, the fit is difficult to describe.  Panties?  When did Oprah ever have entire episodes about them with fitters to show us how they ought to cling?  I won’t go into the male jockey-brief-boxer scene.  While also taboo and often ignored, these essential items inspire humor more than anything else.

So thank you to whom ever got with the program and designed my current crop.  I can’t go a day without them and hopefully won’t be met with embarrassed scorn if husband happens to see mine in the wash.  I see London, I see France, but who cares if you see my underpants!  Panties!  Tighty whities!  Unmentionables!  Lingerie!  Jock strap!  G string!  Bloomers!  Boxers!  (I’ll do my best to make sure you don’t, and I really, really don’t want to see yours either).   Comfort to the way of the wearer, my friend.  Comfort and privacy to you.

Spheres of Influence

While aimlessly perusing the messy discount-discount get-rid-of-it-or-we-will aisle at a local store, my four year old and I came across six-inch Star Trek figures.  They had the Doctor (always a classic) , Mr. Sulu (smarty pants with surprise martial arts), and Mr. Checkov (the tech geek), good role models.  He asked politely if they could be his treat for being so good- adding, “One can be for my brother, and one for daddy too!”.  I had to laugh.  They had been marked down to two dollars each.  

Time out I thought.  I don’t want my kids to be random consumers, getting treats for no reason.  We have special days every once and a while when we do something fun, or get a treat (eating out, etc).  But what made this day special?  Husband recalls his mother making cakes for strange (Australia’s nationalization day) or made up days (national camping day).  My wonderful Aunt used to make baked Alaska for no particular reason than to make a day special.  Couldn’t we have a special treat day this day?  If it is spaced out by weeks from another?  January and February are good for that, weeks of cold with little celebration in them.  I dithered within myself.

The thing that got me was how well designed the toys were.  They were basically Barbies for boys.  Finely articulated, with accessories and expressive faces.  I have been greatly annoyed at the lack of male play figures in boy toys.  Ken is a joke, and GI Joe has come to resemble Rambo.  Not my idea of fun.  Even my eldest has remarked on the row upon row of neon pink isles in the Wal-Tar-K’s, stuffed with every variety of dolls imaginable; in contrast to the rag tag shelves for boys.  Finding these figures filled a niche.  I caved.

The great thing is they are still playing with these figures, long after we got them.  Like girls with their Barbies (except no hair to cut), the boys carry out scenarios with the figures.  These scenarios don’t always require guns, beating each other up, or other violence like we have come to expect from boys.  Science fiction can be good that way- lots of monsters, menacing entities, good and bad robots, and problem solving that does not necessarily involve killing something (they have become big fans of the most recent Dr. Who episodes as well, the main character of which refuses to carry a weapon- thank you Netflix).

Husband and I have been fans of the Sci-Fi genre as long as we can remember (not without discretion though).  We appreciate the late night humor of mid-century B films, the abysmal script dialogue of George Lucas, as well as the startling special effects of Avatar.  We also read the genre, and there are many well-written and prescient works from the last fifty years.  When it comes down to it, we enjoy the imaginative possibilities of science fiction to illuminate the condition of the human species, while often putting them in settings that are utterly surreal. 

I would much rather my boys explore the endless planets of Sci-Fi in their imaginations, play out their anxieties and issues using the tools of this genre than some pink hued and shopping bag dominated version of Mean Girls.   On the other hand, maybe that is just one of the worlds they choose to fly by, recognizing that they could stop and chat, but just don’t have time to do so.  Thereby making room for the Barbies (or Barberellas) in their reality, when the Barbies can’t seem to make room for them.

Play on little guys, and let me fly the space ship sometimes too, ok?

That old feudal feelin’

A Washington Post journalist writes this week that his time at Davos (the world economic conference) surprised him.  He found a form of “populist” rage simmering in the most powerful and monied people of the world, and it was spurring many extreme conversations about what should be done to fix world financial systems (one such suggestion was global labor laws).

Yet the anger he observed is significantly different from the populist rage and anxiety of the powerless (which means most of us).  We are angry because everyday basic transactions of life have been and continue to be violated, while we are expected to conform to “rules” and at the same time be suckers- at the loss of home, health, family, and life in many cases.  Some predict a French revolution style acting out- but the very wealthy know better.  They are angry because enough nouveau riche (newly rich), many of whom are in banking, designed systems to get rich quick, without thought for consequences, and made the very rich feel threatened, robbed and worst of all- duped.  My father told me once not to taunt a big dog, you’ll get bitten.  That newly rich man with ties to Madoff found floating in his pool?  Get bitten indeed.  The worst thing a very powerful (which is synonymous with wealth in our world; money being necessary, but not the whole definition of what constitutes a powerful individual) person feels is to be duped, taken advantage of, treated like a fool.  It is the highest form of insult, and retribution is always swift.

 Those who were at Davos now talk about “fixing” the series of problems that have brought us to our current global economic insecurity, and in ways that circumvent a revolution (because those are bad for business) and consolidate their power even more, so that such recent financial events do not happen again.   I am not a fan of “runaway” capitalism.  Quite the opposite.  But it fills me with feelings of foreboding to know that the super powerful are trying to find ways to change things, and not in ways that mimic socialism, communism, or capitalism.   The discussions at hand are filled with the knowledge that to maintain any economic stability, the vast majority of people must feel safe, or at least not threatened.  Thus did the discussion of global labor laws arise.  The uber-powerful already consider themselves the care takers of the rest of us, if for nothing more than the fact that to do so stabilizes their own positions. But how much care?  How much cost-benefit analysis must be done?  There will be complex formulas, there will be intricate arguments.  But what these proposed changes at the very highest levels will mean seems to be a new feudalism.

 Let’s consider this for a moment, shall we?  There have been many societies in history that had explicit class levels (Thank you William the Conqueror, and India for examples).   Consider the warrior/military class; think the new global Blackwaters, er, newly named Xe, that have taken over global military function.  All else, at the national level, is a form of employment that takes the lower class (as defined by education, intellect, money, family, and regions) and gives them a job- makes them a National Guard so to speak- that does domestic work.   Think of recent events around the earthquakes in Haiti.  It is a textbook example of one of the poorest places in the world (and hence not of high financial stakes, such as Iraq, that require explicit military “intervention” to “secure”: control for the profit of specific people).  The fast, very public response to the events was amazing.  How many photos, tweets, essays, videos, and general information moment to moment got circulated?  With no invested entities to curtail it (as was in the recent Iranian elections), the information flowed and then did resources.  Will this become a global pilot model of support to shape the future from?  This model allows us all to feel involved, puts resources in poor places, and happens globally, not just locally.  Interest dies in increments of time out from event, as information overload leads us to believe things are being taken care of.  What a machine!

 Will the new skilled/crafts class be our doctors?  Our lawyers?  Engineers?  What will the business class be, and how much will they be allowed to do?  Will there be a rise of the sanctioned social services class (teachers?  nurses? city planners?  garbage people?  mail persons?) generally labeled as government workers?  Will there be untouchables (with the complete privatization of prisons, will they become workhouses to be “productive” and contribute to the overall system?  Will there be degrees of this class on a global scale?  Will execution of the very worst be a global standard?)?  What will the new global legal courts look like?  Will the aristocracy maintain the highest levels of judges and law?  What will the religious/priestly class look like?  What will their sanctioned roles of control be?

 Most of all, are we kidding ourselves if this is not implicitly, if not explicitly, already the case?   Those at Davos will do what they will do, hash out compromises among themselves, and agree upon ways to squelch any reaction in ways that will not be overtly violent (China is learning the backlash of that approach).  They will find ways to garner our support, throw us bones.  We will be more organized, we will possibly even feel “more” free.  We may not fear global war anymore.  We may not fear for our children’s lives.  I do not know what the specifics will look like, I can only imagine possibilities.  But I wonder, will George Orwell’s books quietly disappear?  Will all the IPads and Kindles just not carry them, and then our collective memory of these books and what they posit simply evaporate into history?

 Post Davos, post 2010, what does the future look like?  I don’t know.  I may be in the intellectual class now, but we are only allowed access to certain information and means of expression.  I am ignored by those who would rather happily munch toxins and watch quasi-violent entertainment, and am segregated by those who would rather have their ideas promoted, not mine. In sum, my class has some cultural capital, but we are wage slaves none the less.  Perfectly contained in other words.  Now if I could only get my hands on some Soma, I’d be fine.  But I’m sure the CEO’s of Glaxo are working on that.

Stuck in the middle with you

It has been said that describing the American experience as being at the mercy of anything is to give in, to invite patriarchy.  To believe that forces larger than the collective of the citizenry control our fates for good or ill encourage hopelessness, and metaphors of parents (which conservatives and religious leaders seem to like overly well).  This may be generous- because feeling powerless and recognizing forces larger than oneself are also a form of realism, grim as it can be.  Also, it seems these are the first steps to action, to reacting, and to resisting.  Not just in the ways of adolescents, but in ways that are methodical, well thought out, and effective as resistance.

It seems in our current moment most of us are caught between descriptions and forces of extremes in politics, economics, and other facets of life.  We have become again faceless masses others like to speculate about, and use for their purposes.  Even, it seems, with a new populist media/technology of tweets, Face and Space ramblings, and blogs- have we become still more invisible?  It sounds like a paradox, but it is not.  Listen to several different objects at once, and it all becomes white noise.  When a stronger signal breaks through, it is all we can hear.  That a limited amount of people control stronger signals is simply fact.  That we can become seduced by the plethora of information, disappear down rabbit holes of specificity that appeal to any current emotion and interest is the new soma.  George Orwell had the date and substance wrong, but in general I think he was right.

The film The Matrix comes to mind, a metaphor for waking up from our collective pervasive delusions.  Is revolution truly fomenting as some of late have claimed?  Or are we the stepchildren of warring parents, ostensibly being protected and shut into rooms, not seen, not heard?  The uber rich dine with religious extremists; if an apocalypse is coming they simply hole up, drink up, and toast to the end.  What becomes of anyone else is not their concern, and justifiable by pointing blame out to those they refuse to see.

We do not seem to feel a basic strength that would help make positive change- our very collective humanity.  Kinship with people different than we are by nationality, class, or any other category seems antithetical to the current paths of anger, mistrust, defensiveness, and blame that are popular.  Workers who fought for unions at the height of the most egregious corporate abuses knew that kinship was key.  Humanism is a force for good, not to be vilified.  Without it, we fracture and fall.  The signers of the Declaration of Independence knew this.  The figure known as Jesus Christ knew this.  Mohammed knew this.  Buddha knew this.  Mother Theresa knew this.  Artists, musicians, poets and philosophers have known this.  Scientists know this.

When will those of us in the middle recognize it, stop talking about it, and actually act collectively on this knowledge for a greater good?  I think expecting elected leaders, business moguls, and celebrities to do it is not only passing the buck, but will only frustrate.

What this means can be manifested in multiple ways.  Maybe they will not all be strictly compatible, maybe we’ll see a cobbled together set of actions that overlap, a messy vision in action that is dramatically different than what we have now.  Driven by collective humanity that is not drugged, not locked away, and willing to broker a different reality.

Hope must spring eternal.

The pleasure of beautiful things

Advice for the retail world:  make it an experience again.  Not the “rarified air” experience, like so many haute couture lines that opened retail shops in the recent past, designed by those who seem to think shopping should be like going to an art gallery, with the same high prices, cold air, and tomb like ambience lacking in any human presence (to their surprise, they lack the requisite robotic and emaciated shoppers as well).  No more the grab and go of malls either, or should I say teenager theme parks complete with heavy browed security to prevent those ever looming petty thefts and feared eruptions of violence.  These bastions of cheap consumerism, garish color and sound, and the worst edibles known to man, anchoring neighborhoods surrounded by big box stores, acres of asphalt, and exchange-name restaurants proffering the same fare trucked in every week are dying. The experience is run run run, acquire without thought, and keep going.  It is exhausting, boring, discomforting to observe and perversely, makes me both sad and glad to see it all go.  Change is difficult.  Atrophy limb by limb, week by week, while weeds peek up through the sea of black, and the workers left in stores that remain walk to the only source of sunlight, the front doors, and peer out. 

If retail is to have any presence in the future, re-examining what obtaining goods is about might be useful.  I do not intend to raise dairy cows, so I must procure dairy goods from suppliers (dairy farmers themselves, and I am lucky to be able to go to the farmers market or visit a local dairy if I choose) or the “middle men”, the grocers.  I can go to the Wal-Tar-K’s and pick up toothpaste, a tarp, and milk at the same time or I can go half a mile to a neighborhood grocery store; small, with a surprisingly wide variety of goods, cheerful and funny employees, and quirky promotions.  The experience of the latter is infinitely better, and the overall grocery bills the same. 

For other things, objects I do not buy on a regular basis, I had been retreating to the internet.  Shoes, clothes, and toys in the sizes, materials, and styles I wanted were available, even if the experience was the same as reading a catalog.  Then wide spread information theft arose, and already this year we have had our credit card company send us new cards because, they announced to us, our information had been “compromised” (read: stolen) by a retail merchant.  I am going back to cash, which helps me stay on a budget, and clearing out all my internet information.

I wonder about the pleasure of beautiful things.  Not only obtaining them, but observing them, seeing them, feeling them, and being surrounded by them in a retail space.  I suggested to our local Apple store manager that she put in a coffee station, as they already have the big circular bar to service patrons and Apple stores offer instructional chits that patrons can use at their leisure– go in and learn when you choose.  She replied that the mess would be horrifying.   She is a nasty old woman who is rude and condescending, and chalks up her lack of business to people not using her brand of machines.  She is a delusional idiot, like so many business managers at all levels.

If this contracting economy is teaching us anything, it is that the days of buying for buying sake is over.  Encouraging it any further is stupid, and the self-sufficiency and recycling of products (gardens, second hand stores, people learning to fix things) that is rising up is a good thing that may help us reformulate what it means to “have” anything at all.

Service, the idea that knowledgeable people with a good attitude can help you when you buy something, needs to come back.  Loyalty from consumers because a store backs up the things it sells (without hassle), because objects are easy to find, in stock, help is always ready, and provides the intangible social and informational resources buyers need (as we regularly experience at our local hardware store) all this should be valued again; not sheer loyalty for “brand” because it is marketed as chic, or used to be dependable, those superficial reasons of buzz, not truth. 

Spaces for social interaction need to be considered.  Think of department stores of mid-century, when there were comfortable places for people to rest, literally rest, have a coffee, or chat.  Also offering “public facilities” that had anterooms with mirrors and chairs (let’s add baby changing areas in ante-rooms of BOTH sexes too, with truly safe tables and disposal methods), a gateway between the intimate and the public.   Think spaces for truly examining items, not simply crammed together racks of confusion that dwarf individuals with claustrophobic environments.  Spaces organized with consideration for the process of appreciation and the ability of patrons to freely move, even two at a time are needed.  The old calculation of “items per square feet or inch” is useless to everyone but bean counters.

Think about spaces where light and sound could be calming, without feeling like generic elevator music; imagine spaces that encouraged patrons to be patrons, not just consumers.  Imagine learning to save and spend money on things you need, and to learn how to appreciate the things you want.  How to look, how to see- as John Berger has said.

Growing up I had an annual shopping trip with my grandmother.  She always made sure to teach me, to remark upon the quality of the items we saw.  Were the seams finished?  Was a blouse cut to a fit?  Were the sheets multi-thread?  Were the towels sized well?  Were the shoes leather, and sewn correctly?  With the raise of an eyebrow, she would dismiss much of what she saw.  A child of the depression, she knew it was not worth it to buy shoddy goods.  Even if it meant you only bought a pair of shoes rarely, you bought good shoes that fit, and clothes that would last, as well as appearing beautiful.

Of course, I had to live through my own young adulthood.  I squandered cash on stylish, but foolish items.  I learned.  I also learned that a terrific, barely used black wool swing coat that fit as if it were made for me, although made thirty years ago (and I checked the thread- it was well made and had not deteriorated) was one of the best things I ever bought, for five dollars.  A vicuna over-coat here, a vintage skirt there.  Quality fell out of favor as resale became a mark of shame.  No more.  There is great pleasure in beautiful things, in quality, and the experience of learning about them.  Retail, take note. 

This all points to a more local point of view.  Locally or regionally made and produced items, lower shipping costs, higher dependability, less production and consumption for a cycle of “throw away”, and responsibility to the deeply interconnected nature of commerce is necessary.  To have buyers, those buyers must be employed.  To have service, workers must make fair wages with life sustaining benefits of time and insurance.  The cries that objects will be too expensive if we do this are lies. There are trade offs in where expenses go, and, as we are learning the hard way, no manager or administrator (read: CEO.  They are only titled managers at best, nothing more) is worth the outrageous salaries they are often paid.  There are plenty of bright, energetic, dedicated people of all ages willing to work hard for fair wages who can run companies.

Also, encouraging farmers to grow such things as industrial hemp (no THC), and other fibers, and milling them regionally actually SAVES money.  The whole fast buck lie is falling down, and only those who want to steal the last pennies off the corpse are the ones screaming that any other model of capitalism is socialism or “worse”.  It is a complete lack of imagination, a lack of responsibility, and a lack of honesty that drives them; all this, and fear.  I have compassion for the fear, we are all afraid of change, the unknown.  I have no tolerance for the hatred, the thefts, and the willful ignorance that slows down progressive change for the better.  The hateful rants of the fearful greedy is a position not only immoral, it is ugly.  If beauty is truth, and truth beauty, then maybe we all ought to do a lot more thinking, and talking, about what truth is right now.  The pleasure of beautiful things will only come when we know that they are truly beautiful, worthy, and have the time to consider them wisely.

Downsize me-I

Many of us are downsizing.  Many of us never sized up; some for ethical and moral reasons, some for purely financial, some for both combined.  There are entire magazines now devoted to the “movement” of simplicity (as absurd and contradictory as that seems to me).  Eating out as it is called, is one of the first things to be cut from most budgets.  It certainly was from ours, and it happened a long time ago.  Less because we thought it was consuming a hole in our budget and more because we found ourselves just saying, “what the heck was that?” after most meals. 

Case in point:  the boys got to have McDonalds with their great-grandma yesterday, and I ordered a happy meal too (small portions).  It was as I remembered, awful.  Tasteless, oddly dry, and smacked afterward of a floating sense of ick.  The film Supersize Me got mass produced US culture right, but only touched upon the taste issues. That yuck sensation is the same one we get whenever we eat at chains, and why we developed the rule that we would not eat out unless it was a. food we could not cook ourselves (or at least not as well)  and b. that was actually good (ok, this conflates two rules).  After spending several years reading about food industries, as well as high culinary experiences (Anthony Bourdain is a great read for information and laughs) we found our rule was not only practical, but healthy as well.

Accordingly, there are but a few places in town we “eat out” (The second rule is only once every two weeks do we eat out).  Of three Thai restaurants in town, only one is any good.  The food is prepared with fresh ingredients, and the nuances of flavor are not watered down or changed for anyone.  The owners are a wonderful couple and their extended family helps out.  The matriarch has been trained in a variety of skills, and never fails to make beautiful carrot butterflies for the boys and flip to PBS kids on her flat screen when we walk in.  It is always a pleasure to eat at the café Thai Flavor.

There is an equally kind and competent couple who run the Saigon Café, our go to for Vietnamese food.  We can’t go without the boys watching the koi, or without me being amazed by all the framed expert textiles.  Never a bad experience there.

The co-op Little Grill is a funky place that offers live music in the evenings and lots of terrific young people who try to do a little good every week (Mondays all day are soup kitchen day- anyone eats for free no questions asked, and much of the food is locally grown and organic).  Breakfast here is always packed, and on weekends anyone not familiar with needing to arrive early will find themselves with a long wait.  The ambience is decaying 1930’s micro building that has been lovingly patched up with a variety of fun items and colors.  The food is generally pretty good, and while we are not vegetarian or vegan I am told the multiple items for those folks are very good (I try them, and eh- it’s ok).  The juice is always fresh squeezed, and the giant tub of Mr. Potatoes and parts are on a shelf with the monkey-headed Godzilla, available for kids.  A giant Gonzo rides an antique bike near the ceiling, and a paint-by-numbers Martin Luther King hangs next to ancient velvet Bob Dylan.  A small mirror ball hangs a distance from a beautiful antique wooden plumb, and local artists have work that rotate according to the vicissitudes of the co-op members.

With so many Spanish speaking immigrants in this area, you might imagine we have a few decent such restaurants.  Wrong.  Everything claiming to be Mexican or some such are absolutely awful, and several routinely riddled with health inspection notices.  I asked one of son’s preschool parents (She is Honduran, her husband is Mexican) if there was anywhere she recommended and she laughed.  She gets her tamales from an old woman who makes them out of her home for people who know about her, and her aunt makes her flour tortillas the old school way and offers them from home as well.  She promised to hook me up when she places her next orders.  Given my previous post, my dime bag of Garam Masala rant now has a parallel with my procuring of good “Mexican” food.

Four hours from the coast might as well be four days.  The seafood around here stinks (literally), and locally offered trout are incubated in ponds down stream from where the owners’ cows see fit to crap whenever they wish.  In essence, no thanks.

A terrific Korean couple owns Café Jako, and the husband of the two is a fun sushi chef, who is very good to kids.  The food passes the worth-it test, and satisfies our jones for sushi, tempura, and miso.

A new Indian restaurant opened up, and it passed the “worth-it” test.  The Blue Nile owners (Ethiopian food) renovated a building downtown and while not all the complexities of the regional foods are represented, it is fresh and it is good.  The ambience is hip, and in the evenings it becomes a club.  Husband argues for a nice bar downtown, Clementine’s, but I respond that while offering food, it is not where we would take the kids and “eat out”.

There are several other locally owned places.  Most of these are popular, or at least consistently patronized, but the food truly stinks.  They do not pass the “worth it” test.

We do not live in a metropolitan wonder where we could explore the culinary offerings for years, but what we have will suffice.  At least until we cut out eating out altogether, that next step in downsizing.  Prepping for this, we are experimenting with a large garden.  That’s what that big box of compost we have been making for a year is intended to feed.  We’ll see what we learn from this first year of serious gardening training and how it affects our diets.  Oh, that’s another “movement” I hear, Practical Yards or some other title.  If you can do it, good on ya.  As Garrison Keillor so eloquently pointed out, there is nothing better than fresh homegrown tomatoes and corn.  Producing it will downsize your waist, and consuming it will downsize financial leak I am told.  We’ll see.  I know my ninety-four year old grandmother took gardens for granted, necessities of life.  I hope we can tap into that Midwestern gene memory and learn. 

My memories of my great-grandmother’s city garden, which she tended into her late eighties, are some of my best.  The center was a long grape arbor, cool and dark to walk under.  Each narrow row shot off from this center.  The back row was entirely high sunflowers, providing a mask for the fence.  In the front were gnarled but fecund fruit trees, one on each side.  The bees buzzed purposefully, and the sun seemed to warm everything it touched.  The garden was her entire, long backyard.  It was meticulously tended, and beautiful.  When she died, I crept into her stone basement and lining all the cool wall shelves were ball jars of green beans and bacon, tomatoes, and all assortments of vegetables and fruits she had canned.  Husband, when his grandmother died, was allowed to take something from what she left behind.  He took her old ball jars.  They have traveled far and wide, and now maybe they will live again.

A blog I read recently ranted about all the crap we can and will do without (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/keith-blanchard/attention-k-mart-shoppers_b_168273.html).  I’ll add that it is not only tangible crap, but experiential crap as well.  I’ll trade access to all that crap for the old ball jars, and knowledge about how to make our garden work.  It has been said that downsizing may ultimately be the best thing that happened to many of us.  I do not idealize the necessity of downsizing; there are too many folks of all ages (and I lose sleep over how to make sure it is not us) who will be without heat, homes, food, jobs, and the real necessities of life while the rich wave their hands and say it’s good for us all.

But for now, I am hopeful we are getting a bead on one facet of our lives, the food.  How to maintain quality and health and variety on a limited budget.  Grocery store offerings are not getting cheaper, or more healthy, and the collection of cookbooks we have needs more stains. 

More later on how this all plays out.

 

Needs and wants

There seems to be a lot of discussion right now about what defines need and want. Both are categories of desire.  Need is most clearly defined by the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy: food, shelter, safety. Included above this is some vestige of social connection, a form of intimacy akin to love- that thing without which babies die (see the studies regarding this from mid-twentieth century), old folks slip into afflictions and die, and the rest of us suffer depression and a variety of illnesses.  Abraham Maslow (1943) developed a pyramid of levels to represent a complete individual that has been revised from time to time, but the basic ideas have stayed the same.  There is a line on the pyramid, below it are needs and above it are what we might call wants.  Above the line categories include respect, achievement, creativity, self-determination.  Our founding folks might have seen these as the basis of the “pursuit of happiness”.  So are they really wants- or another form of needs?  I suppose it depends on whom you talk to. 

Many wealthy people in this country think cutting back on their monthly liquor orders constitutes privation.  They will also tell anyone who listens that everyone else, those making below 50k a year especially, ought to just suck it up and cut back.  They shake fingers and cluck, some massaging their conscience with a few dollars thrown at a charity (for which, as Blago of Chicago made clear, they expect a return in money, big parties, and other benefits).  No health insurance?  Too bad you are not “talented” enough to find a good job with benefits.  Need extra tutoring for your kids?  Daycare?  Too bad.  You should not have had children you can’t afford.  The list goes on and on. They strut around at cocktail hour, palms open, telling their friends “what do they expect?  Of course our companies/banks/businesses need the bailout.  We are the ones who keep this country going.”  The unquestioned assumption that big salaries, and big compensation packages are also necessary, needful things; this fun-house mirror of self regard and privilege is horrifying.  Finding out recently that a high percentage of the businesses getting bailout money operate core off-shore tax havens and that much of that money is being funneled away to these havens is also scary.  It all points out that the modus operandi for too long has been nothing more than greed driven to the extreme, and instead of being the foundation for a healthy, complex economy– undermined it entirely.  Like over-mined ground in West Virginia, the ground is collapsing and everything that rested on top is caving in and becoming toxic.  The fires that burn below in the mines of Pennsylvania will burn for thousands of years (http://www.offroaders.com/album/centralia/centralia.htm).  Let’s hope this metaphor for our financial system is a little less long term. 

Maslow had it right I think.  In a very pragmatic way, we know if people don’t have basic needs met their lives spin out of control, and even worse, they die.  I don’t think the vast majority of people in this country are confused about the difference between needs and wants, and they don’t need daytime talk show hosts to wag fingers and wax poetic about the uplifting opportunities for self improvement by learning to live with less.   What most people seem to need is parity between those who want to believe they are the caretakers of our systems, and those who have little control over them. Business journalists held hands over their collective mouths until the holidays had passed, and now are starting to blather forth all the bad news they held in.  It’s gonna get a lot worse, and no one is really sure how much worse.  Where have you gone Nancy Reagan; ketchup never was a vegetable and a full belly is a basic need.  We can’t wish or talk away the realities of what is happening.  The time for blame seems to have passed when the government is giving life boats to the very wealthy while yelling into the megaphone to look the other way, these are not life boats, they are some thing else, um, yeah, bailouts that will make everything better.  Just keep your noses to those rapidly sinking grindstones, and we’ll give you a couple hundred bucks at tax time (and take it back in the now $17,000 per wage earner that will be needed in taxes to fund the bailout).  When the ship is going down, those scions of business and culture will be off to their private islands stocked with alcohol and say it was everyone else’s’ fault. The nut-bags plan to hole up in Idaho, and as one blogger put it, “I’ll have the guns to come take your organic gardens, liberals”.  No, we have no time to blame.  

What do I need today?  I need a laugh.  I need to clean my house.  But more importantly, I need to know I can feed my kids, get them adequate medical care, and keep a roof over our heads and clothes on their rapidly growing bodies.  A solid elementary and secondary education is essential as well.  For myself, I’ll skip a meal or two but I can’t live without the laughs. It is way too dark for me, and many others, right now.  We have to find a way to laugh without sticking our heads in the sand as many conservatives would have us do.   We have to find a way to channel our anger productively, and act.  When we suggest a state-wide schools strike involving students, parents and staffers in the local newspaper comments section (in response to the announcement of deep cuts in public schools as the first place to plunder now that the state is broke) it is rapidly removed.  There was no foul language; it was a short, thoughtful, polite comment.  Do we need or want to speak out?  How about both? Perhaps it is doubly necessary, this need to speak, to form consensus, then act– no matter how scary it seems to those in control.  The ship is sinking.  What do you need as it does?  What are you going to do about it?

I read the news today

Alan “buddy” Peshkin told me he did not read the newspapers, nor watch the TV news anymore.  It was at a grad advisee meeting, and I noticed the small clump of cotton on his arm, and tape.  I asked him if he was O.K.  He did not reply.  He died approximately three years later.  The comment had been a piece of advice; advice with knowledge of what he had left and how he wanted to spend it.

I read the news today.  I read the news every day in some form, on the ‘net.  I also get Wired magazine, my dad’s month-old National Geographic, the Economist and the New Yorker.  Our techno-centric culture wonders at all that can and might be, as written about on those pages.  Cancer cured by nano-tech is the latest hot headline.  But what of it?

I read about a young woman, fourteen years old I recall, who had been ritualistically stoned to death in front of an arena of over a thousand people– people who were in all probability all male.  Her crime?  Having been raped.  I have an active visual imagination, and I cannot wipe the scene from my mind.  The calling out of the privileged few who got to stand close, skin hot and sweaty with anticipation, maybe even feeling the rise of hard-ons, as they held stones in their hands.  The ritual reading of crimes perhaps, and the girl buried in the ground so her head sticks out, or hands and legs tied as she lay on the ground (both methods are used in extreme Islamic regions).  Then the throwing of the stones, the target practice lobs, the laughs, the yelling, the rise of sound as the crowd cries for blood.  The thousands of egos, feeling powerless and emasculated in so much of their lives, venting forth in the death of this girl.  And her head eventually exploding, blood everywhere around her, brains, hair, flesh. Nothing left but a ragged stump where her small mouth, fearful eyes, and nose breathing fast used to be.  Where her mind had been wondering what kind of God existed, that let her be raped and then led through the courts, forced to take blame for having a vagina, being young, and who knows what else.  Her bad luck to have been born in a place that not only allows such punishments for no personal failures, but encourages and enforces them.

Some crow about our amazing evolution as beings.  But are we so very far from the Well of Children in ancient Carthage?  That place where thousands of children were thrown, left to die with broken bones, of thirst, or of the head injuries they suffered on the way down.  Two year old and four year old boys in very different parts of the U.S. died recently from a form of torture—water deprivation.  A long, sad, lingering death.  I can see these little boys crying for a drink, and as they were given cups laced with hot pepper and Tabasco, screaming in pain, needing the drink.  I can see them curled up on the floor, no longer able to produce tears, whimpering, just hoping someone would pick them up and hold them, let them drink, love them.  Then they died.  The foster mother of the four year old said she didn’t know it was wrong– even though it took the child seven days to die.  Her companion said he didn’t know either.  The caretakers of the two-year-old thought it an appropriate punishment for wetting the bed– also using cups laced with hot sauce.  Most two year old boys are not toilet trained, nor able to be.  It took him four days to die.

I also read about the millions– yes, you read the number right, the last number I have seen is over six million– millions of women, children, and men in central Africa who have died in the last several years.  Horrific deaths, defenseless, often starving, in what has become a culture of torture across many nations.  Churches burned with entire villages inside, children forced to watch parents raped, tortured, then killed.  Then, children forced to do the same as indentured servants and slaves.

Have we forgotten Stalin?  Have we forgotten Pol Pot?  Have we forgotten the camps of WWII?  Are our memories so short and our compassion so limited that these events pass into being stories, and then into just disposable news?  I am haunted.  I can’t trust the glories of science, technology; the glossy pages selling hope while the reality of our collective human existence rages on, oblivious to the labs curing cancer in mice.  I am a product of the 20th century.  I am an adult of the 21st.  I have a split reality, I read the news on my computer and wonder what I can do about what I read.  I feel powerless. 

I was brought up to believe in God, I was told Mother Mary cried tears for us all, for our sins.  I think she cries out of sadness, yes, and out of powerlessness.  I am agnostic now, and if there is a God, it is without feeling for us.  We have been left to our lonely planet, our environments, and our evolution.  Hell is other people, as certainly as heaven is. 

I read the news today.  There are things I wish I did not have in my head.  I work very hard to keep them out.  But sometimes, things slip in.  And they are images I will never be able to erase.

Just eat

I am sitting here eating a whole grain (really?  I have got to check the box information) pop-tart and drinking Red Rose tea with a shot of milk.  Gourmet snack of choice, of course.  My children are having 1. a kid box of apple juice, 2. a sippy cup of half juice and half water, and each gets one granola snack bar (bought at the local market in the “date off” bin).    For breakfast we had scrambled eggs with fresh mushrooms and the cheese left over from last night.  Milk and tea included.

Why do I detail this?  Because we got the Dean and Deluca Thanksgiving 2008 catalog yesterday (I am not sure why) and I flipped through it as I had my snack.  The photos and descriptions are entertaining, quite pretty even.  BUT– $45 for 16 caramels of normal, pop in your mouth size?  Nothing special thrown in like gold flakes (for that you go to Neiman Marcus), just cooked sugar and some food coloring.  So you get four of each color.  See?  Special- right?  12 cents worth of ingredients, 20 dollars worth of labor, 3 dollars of packaging, say a percentage of marketing that we’ll account for at 1 dollar, for a 26.12 total.  That’s generous too, especially on labor (let’s hope they cover health insurance).  So 25 of what you pay may seem to be profit (we are not discussing shipping and shipping profit cuts here).  BUT,  D&D are the middlemen.  They do not make the items they sell.

Whom ever buys these things should contact me.  I can put you together a killer gift basket or make you something from scratch for less.

Other items in the catalog? How about a small (2.4 pounds) sweet potato pie for $65?  Or sixteen cut out and simply decorated cookies of small size for $65?  A 13.5 pound hunk of prosciutto (that’s Italian for dry aged ham- which I can get locally, organically, for much less) for $400 (that’s over $28 per pound folks)?  Or how about an assortment of tired dried out, prepackaged appetizers like the ones off the Schwanns truck- 24 spanakopita (philo dough triangled with feta cheese and spinach, $45), 8 crab and lobster cakes the size of a quarter ($84), mashed potato toast (I kid you not), chili cheese tartlets, or seafood thermidor puff pastries in frozen packs of 48 pieces for $45-75?  How about a 7” diameter chocolate cake with a pretty candy cane colored frosting for $160?  Or a “13 desserts plate”, of a handful (small, very small handful) of almonds, dried fruit, nougat, (13 average snacks, about 1 oz. each) and so forth for $58?  Or an 18 pound “heritage” turkey for $160?  Granted, it’s organic and not the overbred white variety, but I got a 14 pound, free range turkey for FREE at my local grocery with the coupons I had collected.  Even last year when we blew the budget to buy an organic, free range heritage bird from a local bird man and had it butchered THAT DAY, it only cost us about $100, and it weighed about 24 pounds.

All I can say is “what the heck?”  Who buys this stuff?  I know D&D is used for corporate gifts, it says so on the back of the catalog.  But still—what?  Like the airplane catalogs that advertise for corporate gift giving?  Do they just tell their secretaries to order something, the grunts pull a catalog, and order it on a P.O.?  When others get it, do they say “send a thanks” and then pass it along to THEIR grunts?  What a cycle.  D&D are not the manufacturers either, they are the middle men.  So all the items are made to ship, a time sensitive problem for food.  Just go to the sources people!  There are plenty of high-quality bakers, wineries, and other high quality food producers who would love to sell you their goods directly.

I guess it is a niche in this capitalistic country, because upon searching the internet there are so many middle-people-corporate-gift companies in existence. 

Call me crazy, but I still go for quality and craftsmanship in items as well as good value.  My husbands art?  The materials are usually extraordinarily expensive (gold, silver, etc.) and he mostly uses recycled materials (including his stones), and even when not so expensive (bronze, nickel, etc) he is a painstaking craftsman who spends hours drawing and making an item.  He always seems to sell his work at a loss, and this is not unusual for most artists.  Even the good ones, unless they are very well known.  It burns us up that many who are just good marketers of their work (and the work is often complete crap both technically/craftsmanship wise as well as design and concept related) make money well above it’s real worth.

In food, knowing how to cook is an asset because nothing, absolutely nothing, is as good as fresh, homemade food.  It seems to be the thing no restaurant can duplicate no matter what the signs say.  Husband is an expert apple pie maker, having honed his skills over the years and cross applying his craftsmanship orientation to the process.  He also selects the freshest, local and good apples, and uses real lard in the crust.  It is the best apple pie I have ever had, anywhere.  I think it is worth, say a 9’ diameter deep dish, about $1000 a pie.

Anyone buying (I’ll even ship same day for an added cost)?