Adventures in Breadmaking, Part 1

Approximate Reading Time: 2 minutes

With the long distance assistance of my bread-making friend turned temporary sensei (which included about 20g of his precious “goo” (sourdough starter), sent by mail) I’ve embarked on a bread making phase. This is after a hiatus of I’d guess about 40 years, the last time I tried baking my own, long before the days of the surge in sourdough seriousness (they’ve been serious about it in other cultures – pun neither intentional or un- – for centuries, at least, I mean in the commercial sphere). Back then, as a “youth” I used commercial yeast, and, as I recall, I mainly made loaves in rectangular pan. I also tried Julia Child’s recipe for authentic baguettes; but that was a tremendous pain, and probably accounts for the long fallow period of my personal bread baking.

The results of the first attempt, last night, were, to my mind equivocal. I’m sure I made dozens of mistakes, some half-knowingly, almost willfully stupidly. What can I say? It doesn’t seem worth getting seriously uptight about. But this too shall pass, and probably sooner than the existential threat that beleaguers us all (and wouldn’t it be pretty to think it will take longer?).

It doesn’t sit as high and pretty and boule-like as I’d like, at least part of the reason being the foolhardy/half-ignorant decision to use whole wheat flour, Red Fife, which I ordered and had delivered from a small mill in the south at some expense. The bag clearly said bread flour, but that was addressing certain fundamental characteristics of almost sacramental significance to serious breadmakers. God bless them.

Otherwise it was fairly painless, some aspects even fun. And the results, even if not entirely photogenic, frankly to this ancient palate, taste mighty good.

I can already understand how each batch, especially the first, is instructive, and maybe by the 24th batch, I’ll be happy with the results such that they’d satisfy even someone far more finicky than I am trying not to allow myself to be.

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Just Another Covid-19 Day

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

For far too much of my life so far, in far too many ways and moments, dealing with feelings has been no more and no less than an either/or proposition. Too often I have to decide consciously whether to let something pass by as simply as my teeming consciousness will allow, or do I allow myself to embroider intellectually along the same lines as some unbalanced intrusion of active thought about something, real or imagined, has propelled me. And even with this particular perfectly understandable state of mind expressed as I have, I do wonder, “am I kidding myself? do I have any control really over what I’m thinking and how? Is this where I concentrate on my breath and only the exhalations and inhalations until what I can only describe metaphorically as a “storm” passes—I’ll illustrate how these things work with this interpolation of an interruption of my interruption of my own thoughts: more specifically, speaking of storms, I’ve just learned of a cytokine storm, thanks to the deluge of information that’s surging unstoppably from every digital portal and orifice on the internet with regard to all facts Covidian, and I pay attention to such things, at least at this level of specificity because through no fault of my own, save the fault of voluntary longevity (understand I don’t mean I actively will myself to keep living, though it’s not far from that I suppose, or I could be persuaded, I mean simply that I am not voluntarily ending it – and come on, you know what “it” is – and therefore keep going until factors wholly beyond my control given the prevailing conditions that might and inevitably will obtain at the time determine otherwise—like a “cytokine storm,” which is not so much preventable, but with a few ounces of luck avoidable given an otherwise healthy prevailing set of conditions regardless of age, though, and here’s the point, someone my age is more susceptible to such a storm, which nature means to protect the organism in younger specimens, but if it runs away with itself, the prevention can be the instrument of danger, or the by now terribly worn trope of a “perfect storm,” which if it has anything of conceptual ideality about it, it’s not perfection the conditions embody so much as unmitigated chaos.

And the particular either/or I’ve had to deal with now for what is going on five years is what will inevitably come to be called in an institutional way (instead of the merely contingent media-driven facile rhetorical convenience it is, because we’re living it in what NASA taught us nearly 50 years ago to call “real time”) the Age of Trump, is the either/or of paying any attention whatsoever to what the news channels, in whatever medium, but for me, mainly digital media and mainly in the form of readable text on a screen, has determined should vie for my attention, trying to capture it for long enough to draw me in for engagement longer than can be measured in seconds or fractions of them.

I’m simply talking about the channels I have chosen to focus my attention on a regular basis. It’s a small number. So the phenomenon universally is compounded to some nearly incalculable number of occurrences of what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about, even merely on the web sites of the mainstream press, and being the cultural manifestation of my generation that I am, I have to face it, like it or not, this means The New York Times, The New Yorker, and to a lesser extent, The Washington Post and The Guardian (daily cancelling each other out, circling one another as they do, around a center to which one stands fixedly well to the left, and the other waveringly, but discernibly, on the right), are the daily doses of trying yet new angles—and usually failing to be new, but the attempts never cease—on the vagaries and failings of the personality known possibly to more of the first world than any other personality made manifest as a living person at any time in the past 50 years at this point.

There is a perpetual contest to dig up yet new ways to tally the shortcomings and failings of the behavior and character of Donald John Trump. It stopped being interesting four years ago. It stopped long since being anything but raw fuel, inherently pernicious for being spent in the production of the heat it produces—whatever the nominal benefit that heat was intended to provide; though it never does anything now but make things infernally hot—kind of like an endless supply of wood pellets for the furnace in the basement of our souls, for preserving a constant state of anxiety. Constancy being the quality, the only quality necessary, to define such a state as existential.

Rather than having such a defective human being become the nucleus of my inescapable inner sensation of dread, I avoid such “news” whenever I can. Further, I simply do not read anything labeled as “opinion” (and we are way past any jocular reference to the Dude’s mantra, as a way of lightening any notion that what one person, usually someone I’ve never heard of before and will likely never hear about, or want to, again says as “just your opinion, man”—which is to differentiate the non-entities from the media’s featured players who long since proved, and retired the evidence long since as irrefutable of the fact, of their idiocy or stupidity or thickness or dullness or opacity of mind by whatever trope you prefer: I mean of course the likes of David Brooks and his entire cadre… to these folks I stopped paying any attention whatsoever about two years ago, and the sight of their names in running text of any authorship, by way of allusion or reference, is a marker of text I should avoid, with a bookmark against the author of that text to watch for warily in the future, because why would I want to read what someone who has wasted their precious time being simply alive engaged in the reading of a syllable from the endless Brooksian stream of syllables, as in, to paraphrase Capote, “those aren’t thoughts at all, those are phonemes?”

But now, as would be predictable, it continues, even as we are in the midst of only just beginning to become sensible of the impact the prophylactic and preventative measures being imposed clearly with more of a sense of contingency—that is, as doable, rather than as a measure of their known efficacy, and hence compelling and necessary even to a moron—than of exigency (a status that China seems, we hope, to have begun to pass out of, and that Italy, woefully and tragically is fully immersed in) to mitigate not so much the present, but the future, the immediate future for sure, but the ongoing future as well, if we may permit ourselves even to speak of what will follow after some indeterminate date in the next few months as an assured “ongoing future” for everyone who comes out at the other end with a life that has not been extinguished. I mean literally, but in many other senses as well—there is a growing torrent of articles that are enumerating, analyzing, and dissecting all the ways, what are quickly becoming a practically uncountable number of ways, in which the Donald has fucked up, or demonstrated an incapacity for doing anything other than fucking up, or how his life is a summation, only discernible (fantastically “only”) at this point of consummation, here on the precipice of a humanitarian disaster of previously rarely, if ever, rivaled proportions.

How in god’s name (or God’s name, if you like; or anyone’s name; or how by any contrivance or invocation you like) is it going to make things better sooner and less catastrophic by even talking about what he does or doesn’t do about the Covid-19 threat as unsuitable?

Though in my opinion, which is not worth much, I’ll admit, in the larger scheme of things, beyond the locus of, say, the property I own in the world, which is maybe, in sum, about ⅓ of an acre, which symbolically is probably even less than the locus of the scheme of David Brooks’s opinion’s worth (if only by the scale of the income that dumb son of a bitch takes in for a living), we long since passed the point where what anyone has to say about the Donald is worth lingering for more than the time it takes to turn the page (figuratively on a digital device, or literally). Any attention he receives at this point is too much, and prolongs the agony of his monstrous impact on the lives of all the other humans on the planet. Surely talking about how his stupidity, cupidity, narcissism, or any of his myriad inadequacies are only making the possibility of improvement of the present global threat more difficult, because it’s a distraction that’s not beneficial, and in fact, compounds the agony, which by now we all know is inevitable pretty much for all of us, one way or another.

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Sanitation in Real Life

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

I went out to shop for groceries. Our county has been declared the epicenter of Covid-19 contagion for all of Pennsylvania. Hence only stores that serve the public with vital household necessities are permitted to remain open: groceries, pharmacies, etc. Even the state liquor stores in Montgomery County must close their doors (online ordering for shipping to one’s home is still possible) indefinitely by Monday, midnight.

Anyway, on my foray this morning, I visited an outlet for a chain (Trader Joe’s; we are regular consumers of a very short list of their generally excellent frozen products, and they are managing to keep themselves stocked, now that the initial tsunami of hoarders cleared out their shelves in virtually every TJ’s for a period of three days), and stocked up on what was unavailable my last visit. I also then visited two specialty purveyors: the gourmet cheesemongers Di Bruno Brothers, and Stoltzfus Family Farms, a Lancaster County-based business whose image and brand deploys memes that leverage an Amish heritage to be inferred, and which offers bakery goods, produce, beef, pork, and poultry. Most of the sales staff behind the bakery and produce counters are women, mainly young women, always dressed in frocks, aprons and bonnets transmitting the brand values. The butcher counters are mainly staffed by men in white coats and aprons.

What struck me (and with entirely containable levels of alarm at the signs of notable laxity in what I know from nine years now of patronizing both establishments—a laxity that is notable mainly as a baseline norm, and clearly not visibly altered in practice, even in a time when almost all other vendors are closed in the marketplace their counters are installed—and these two retailers probably dominate, I’m guessing, about 45-50% of the available retailing space) was how business was as usual.

Of course in the larger scheme of things, it’s probably good to adhere as much as sense permits to the usual ways of conducting oneself in transactions with others, including how vendors and retailers do business with us, the consumers.

However, there is the heightened awareness demanded by the conditions of a national state of emergency, of a general, if largely passively imposed, regime of the practice of social distancing, and of the repeated instructions about the most fundamental aspects of the disease we are trying to control: how it spreads, and sensible, doable, personal hygienic practice to ensure prophylaxis that will minimize the risk of infection of society at large.

We all feel most keenly the obligation to do so for our own personal protection, and most of us, I am sure, are mindful enough of the need to bear in mind our constituency as a whole as a community that owes to one another, as individual members, simple, most importantly easy, mindful practices.

Yet.

I noticed an absence in all the service areas of both retailers, and they occupy significant amounts of space for counters and displays, which show their wares for display and inspection, and to allow consumers either to make their own choices to be brought to a point of sale, or to allow consumers to interact with sales staff to retrieve the desired portions of desired products. I noticed no dispensers of any sanitizing products in any form: dispensers of sanitizing fluids or foams, dispensers of sanitizing wipes, etc.

Stoltzfus makes some tantalizing baked goods, pastries in particular, and among my favorites, fruit and berry pies, which they sell as whole pies or (to our advantage as a small household) half pies. Today they offered blackberry half-pies, and overcoming my mild misgivings (the pies are already packaged in clear polystyrene containers), I asked over the counter for the young woman who offered her assistance for one half-pie. She retrieved it, put it on the counter, offered me a bag, and recited the price.

I already had a shopping bag, half-full, which I had intended for any purchases on this foray, so I declined the bagging, and then, remembering their sales procedure, retrieved (with some chagrin) my wallet, and extracted a charge card, which I handed to her. She handed it back, and I declined the proferred receipt and went on my way.

One of my tasks thenceforward for my return journey home, was to remember everything that I had touched that also had been touched by others in my presence, and which I had to presume had been touched by yet others, an incalculable number of people, before being placed within my personal reach.

Fact is, I had come equipped with a pair of disposable clinical gloves in my pocket, for any, what I’ll call far more radical, contingencies, but I hadn’t donned them. There was nothing much such protection would do to avert the risk of spread by the touch of ungloved others.

For my other transactions this morning (at two other points of sale), I was able to rely on my usual and preferred mode of payment, Apple Pay, via my iPhone, which eliminates at least one, and possibly, usually at a minimum of other potentialities, three other people touching my personal belongings. I had retrieved the goods I purchased. I bagged them. They were touched only by sales staff only to be scanned for pricing—the possibly irreducible minimal risk we all face by submitting to the need to re-stock our household foodstuffs.



But Stoltzfus. Stoltzfus.

When I got home, I extracted the pie container, our treat and reward for later, to compensate for the continuing enforced sequestration. I wiped it down, on all surfaces with a Clorox brand bleach based disinfectant wipe.

I removed my wallet, and all the cards I touched and all the cards they touched, and wiped them down, and wiped down the wallet.

Is this infallible? Of course not. Is it safer than trusting to the vagaries of normal retail practice (images of all the signs in all the public restrooms in all conveniences and points of purchase you have ever utilized, saying, at a bare minimum: Employees must wash their hands before returning to work should be running in a stream through your consciousness; it does mine… often). You bet it’s safer. Though it, at the very least, annoys me to know I must do such things to compensate for what should be the far more conscientious practice of everyone who serves the public.

The fact is, people, most people, have no true conception of what the words “microscopic,” “aerosolized,” “disinfected,” “droplet-borne,” among others mean in terms of understanding the scrupulous practice we are all capable of, but in the main, in “real life” eschew as unnecessary, unreasonable, and tedious.

I’ll end by saying, the only things I would add to the short list of social distancing dos and don’ts are:

• Avoid all physical contact with others, directly or indirectly.
• Handle your own credit cards and allow no one else to touch them.
• Use a hand sanitizer, or, better, wash your hands, after pressing keys or in any other way touching public means of performing monetary transaction.
• If you’re particularly nervous, simply that scrupulous, wipe down all retail grocery packaging before restocking your pantry shelves after a shopping trip.

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Corona Fever

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

“Social distancing? Hey! No big deal. I never really liked you anyway.”

shows the empty paper goods aisle

From the rear of the store, to the front, Bath Tissue and Facial Tissue (and, note, Paper Towel as well). Appropriately, Aisle 13. Friday the 13th, March 2020, 10 am. Giant Supermarket, Wynnewood PA

It’s mid-morning. About 10:30am. The store, a suburban Whole Foods Market, opens at 8. I exit the store with my two reusable shopping bags, festooned with WFM logos and nowhere near full with my short haul of singular items, a few apples, a couple of fresh pastry items, a partial loaf of sourdough bread baked in huge bâtards and then cut into quarters, bagged and weighed and sold by the pound. A chocolate bar. Those sorts of things. No staples.

I dodge and weave through other shoppers’ carts. In front of me, as I get near the produce section at the front doors, a woman stands next to her heavily burdened shopping cart, filled to the brim with a variety of groceries. On top of these, held gingerly in place with her left hand, a stack of five paste-board packages—the standard package for a pound of sliced, cured and smoked pork belly. Bacon to most of us. Five pounds seems a lot, but is not inconsistent with the mounds of other foodstuffs in her carriage. I don’t linger even a moment to see what other comestibles are featured in this matron’s haul.

I think immediately and fleetingly of the usual coroner’s expression I’ve heard repeated so often on my favorite streaming British detective series—a “well-nourished female in apparent good health, of about middle age.” The store in fact is full of such subjects, all very much alive of course, regardless of my morbid speculations and associations. I think even more fleetingly of why she, and her cohort, and the dads, and the nanas, and the myriad children I would otherwise have expected on a friday morning, a warm one in an early spring of persistent and no longer unusual mildness, not to be clinging to sleeves and shopping carts, and pulling items off shelves. I would have thought they’d be in classrooms doing what school children do these days.

And I realize the teeming aisles of this prosperous suburb, Wynnewood, Pennsylvania (media home value just north of half a million dollars), are as full as the township’s school building corridors must be empty. But not because of spring break; that was originally scheduled for a month from now. I’ve learned in the interim, schools were closed on Tuesday, three days ago, because two students and a school staff member may have been exposed to the area’s first reported case of the virus – a Children’s Hospital cardiologist serving in a satellite clinic in nearby King of Prussia. He has been in the ICU at UPenn Hospital downtown since the discovery he was positive.

The schools were to have been cleaned and sanitized and reopened, but, as in neighboring Cheltenham School Disrict, they remain closed for the week.

Here at the Whole Foods, which bursts with boisterous life, and has increasingly depleted shelves of stocks, there are nine register lanes. Eight are open. All are full. I’m guessing after the fact there are about six or seven carts in each lane. I am guessing about every two out of three carts is full to the top of the cart. These are mainly full-size grocery carts, rather than the smaller, two-tier carts, which are in every event in much shorter supply anyway.

The people in line are civilians. By this, I mean, they are not part of the usual and sizable brigade of Amazon Prime shoppers, who use the same carts and fill them to the same brims – usually every day of the week as increasing numbers of consumers exploit the generous Amazon policy of free same day delivery of groceries in orders in excess of $25 placed by their premium customers (called “Prime” as is the membership program which entitles them to such, and other similar, amenities).

I am by now used to the brigades of Prime shoppers who normally manage quietly to stay out of the way of legitimate consumers fending for their own urban foraging needs. But even as much as they clog their specially designated deployment area, the deployment zone keeps growing as the shopping service beneficiaries mushroom in number. It now encroaches on a section of the store that originally served as an area for customers to dine on the prepared foods for which the chain is justly famous. Where there had been a dozen tables seating six at a time, there are now three that serve to seat maybe two or three disparate customers who try to keep their mutual distance, and consume their pizza slices or fresh salads as quickly as they can before moving on.

But for now, as in those rare historical moments that adverse weather reports predicted as imminent, and usually in mid-winter and delineated in terms of massive snow accumulations and blizzard-like conditions, the platoons of professional grocery stock pullers are far outnumbered by the expeditionary force of an army of householders preparing for the siege of an invisible enemy that demands adherence to that defensive term of art in the peculiar stiff bureaucratic rhetoric of public security enforcers, first heard as a recommended tactic for those under siege by only too palpable wielders of only too real armament. These shoppers are provisioning for sheltering in place.

And what is most unnerving is that there is no definitive sense of when the siege will end. But, while the prospects for toilet tissue are equally unclear, it’s a good bet some of us will always have bacon.

I did have a chance to do a very informal survey of what is disappearing from the shelves.

I knew a week ago, when I went to look in supermarkets, drugstores, big box, whatever, the usual suspects, there was no hand sanitizer in any size to be had. At the Whole Foods, the price leader brands of pasta – Whole Foods own, and the Italian brand De Cecco – stocked with the greatest variety of shapes and sizes and the least deviation from the vanilla of pasta grains #1 semolina are being depleted. Today, they are pretty much gone, and the much higher priced premium imports, the kinds with convolute names and made with convoluted antique bronze dies and allowed to air dry, have also (amazingly to me) begun to disappear.

Cheaper mass-market brands of canned tomato products were already well-gone and the more recent hebdomadal toll sees a decimated reserve of the authenticated, certificated San Marzano stocks. Somehow consistently, I do note that the olive oil shelves are as depleted as I’ve ever seen them, and Whole Foods being who they are tend to stock only the EVOO varieties of oils, whatever the points of origin (or bottling: information which must be sought scrupulously on the label, and usually in virtually no-point size type, next to the names of the countries of origin of the olives which may have been pressed in Italy, but are about as Italian by derivation as my great uncle Sol of Ukraine).

At the Giant Supermarket, just across Wynnewood Rd, and slightly south of the WFM, in a strip mall with other somewhat more downscale retailers, including a Bed Bath and Beyond and an Old Navy, there are no more paper products to be had. To wipe one’s bum, or any other body part, or the kitchen counter.

I don’t check the pasta shelves at Giant, kind of knowing what to expect, but I do note that virtually every kind of packaged rice product is in extremely limited supply, as are most of the processed tomato sauces in jars and cans. I don’t check the raw goods shelves.

I am so astonished by the vast expanse of shelf space in the paper goods aisle, I have to take a rare photo. I’ve not seen shelves so empty in a consumer store of such magnitude since I was given privileged access to the first Staples store in the world, prior to its opening, prior to its stocking, some 35 years ago.

It bespeaks emptiness. I mean in the sense of the hollow lack of accord that somehow, whatever the calamity, hummed in the interpersonal spaces and voids and promised, even if only in an inchoate way, assurance of a return sooner than later to some kind of normalcy. Now, I am not so sure.

And the little sign, tucked in the crevice of the long unbroken expanse of tier on tier of emptiness of this most basic, dare I say fundamental, of symbolic necessities in our modern sense of inhabiting a coherent and resilient society, offers no reassurance of any kind in the platitudinous eviscerated insincerity of corporate speak.

Corporate apology note for running out of TP

Corporate sorry from Giant, for running out of toilet paper, facial tissues, in fact anything absorbent made of paper. The sign, you should note, is tucked between the “Sensitive Wet Wipes” and the “Gentle Clean Wet Wipes” shelf talkers.

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Cacophony

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

Toyota dealer waiting room

Sitting in the local Toyota dealership waiting room for the service area. I am here with about a dozen other customers waiting for their vehicles to be evaluated for service, a cost to be estimated, and then for the work to be done.

Like most customer-minded modern businesses, the waiting room has an array of amenities, including vending machines for packaged goodies (mainly candy bars and pastries), several urns of coffee in vacuum pump reservoirs in a choice of flavors, including decaf and hot water for tea.

There is another vending machine for cold beverages, including bottled water, the ubiquitous Dasani, which is, I believe, a brand of Coca-Cola and its bottlers.

There are three large-screen monitors, two above my head which I have to crane my neck to view. One of these features a live Instagram feed of marketing and promotional material related to the dealership itself. The other screen, silenced seems mainly to be showing a succession of commercials from a variety of advertisers, including Mayor Mike Bloomberg, a variety of law firms of local provenance, etc. It does seem, now that I watch for about 30 seconds, to be tuned to the local major affiliate for ABC. At this hour of the morning (it’s just about to turn 9:30) the show is “Live Kelly and Ryan,” which features the eponymous perpetually mirthful hosts speaking to a round robin of guests who are there to tout whatever it is they are touting, and to bathe in the prompted glorification from the studio audience, consisting of hooting, cheers, laughter, much clapping and general expressions of guiltless, non-judgmental approbation.

The screen, about four feet above my head and located about eight feet on center from my field of vision, repeats the content of the screen on the opposite wall across the waiting room, above the alcoved coffee station. There is a mate across the way as well to the screen with the live “house” feed of marketing information.

The screen near me is muted. The screen behind me provides the main sound track for the entirety of the waiting room, which has a capacity, I would approximate, of about four times as many individuals as now occupy the space. In addition to the endless stream of mirth and enthusiasm that issues from the programming stream of Kelly and Ryan’s production, including all commercial messages (all, in some way, hopeful and upbeat, even when advertising the services of advocates for personal justice when a malign social milieu has, unjustified and fearfully, targeted the consumer’s well-being for the usual mayhem laden reasons: suits of various kinds, including divorce, malpractice, fraud, etc.).

However, in addition to this foundational layer of sound, there are additional ceaseless audible tracks from various sources located on vectors that are no doubt random and accidental, but which serve to present a current of perpetual counterpoint one to another, and challenging the listener, to exercise a significant effort of mindful aural focus. It’s the only way to distinguish one stream of audible content from another.

The effect is not unlike, say, a rough mix of the intended soundtrack of a more artfully crafted (and intended) work of cinematic presentation…very reminiscent, in fact, of a Robert Altman movie, any of the iconic ones, like MASH, Nashville, or a film from his oeuvre sometimes criticized for its extremity of sound effects, McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

The difference being, of course, that, successfully or not, Altman sought to encourage the willing viewer not only to focus, but sharpen their observational and analytical skills on the strength of more than mere visual cues and image manipulation, as one would expect from an art form like the cinema, and learn something about the cumulative and aggregate impact of a nexus of discrete and individualized coded aural content occurring stochastically in a suburban Toyota dealer showroom. Here in the specific waiting room of the Ardmore Toyota dealer’s service facility, the effect is to create, as stated, a cacophony.

The only aural signals that register and capture the attention of the listener, providing a focus, are those arising randomly from the throats of the platoon of service representatives who are monitoring the progress of all jobs being shepherded and tended to in the system. Every so often a name is announced, usually the surname of the customer, and a head twitches or jerks, or perhaps less spasmodically reorients and signals attentiveness, turning like a dish antenna in the direction of the interjection.

A hushed conference ensues, and the service representative returns to his or her station with the consent of the owner to proceed. This is usually the only hushed or modulated verbal exchange that occurs in the course of the morning.

Usually other conversations are conducted at not merely audible levels to a narrow locus of accidental listeners in the vicinity of the communicant – and almost needless to say representing one end of a multi-sided exchange by means of the ubiquitous smart phone. Every customer seems to have one. Every customer seems to have recourse to its use one way or another during the course of their vigil attendant to the mending or possibly merely the preventative maintenance of their vehicle. Most engagements by phone seem to have nothing at all to do with the immediate mission at hand. The calls have nothing to do with the vehicle.

Rather, and this is immediately evident, as no conversation—none—is conducted discretely at the murmurous level called for by etiquette and even only a token amount of self-regard. Rather all and sundry in the waiting room are privy to any and all business that occurs ex tempore.

Those scattered about the room not engaged in a magazine, not staring blankly at a television screen, not volubly holding up their end of an inevitably and quite evidently wholly banal confabulation, one of doubtless millions being conducted at any daylight moment throughout the entire great nation of ours, and all through the miracle of a slab of silicon and other much rarer minerals, are using their phones as a personal amplification systems, conveying the soundtrack of what may be a visual display of live action or other animated programming, or perhaps merely providing musical accompaniment as a kind of anodyne relief from the montony of waiting for the mechanic to get done.

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The Difference Being

Approximate Reading Time: 2 minutes

If you feel like the current conditions of political life in our country are pretty much a matter of the greater number of us being in thrall to a much smaller number, whose will to do bad acts seems to grow perceptibly, you’re not alone. Sometimes it feels like the situation of our physical selves being in thrall (and certainly at threat of finding ourselves in such a condition) to microbes (or even smaller… viruses are very much smaller than bacteria, for example) about which little seems to be able to be done.

But there’s a significant difference, however compelling the analogy and however helpless and bereft you may feel. Like the body’s own immune system, of which, let’s face it, we remain substantially unaware as well, we have it in ourselves to take action against even a sea of troubles.

We can vote at the very absolute least.

Remarkably little of the electorate feel the power of their right to vote. Despair unhinges us. Disgust, frustration, anger, ennui, whatever the erosive demotivators we suffer, there seems less and less hope left in this most fundamental of American rights. But it remains the key to collective empowerment. In part this is what we mean when we speak of democracy, and we mean it with the connotations of good, and ethical, and right. Individually, we have, each of us, our one small bit of command, of entitlement. This is what substantiates our agency as citizens. The power of the ballot.

Enough votes at once will effect change. We’ve seen it in the lifetime of the current generation. Changes in administration. Changes in the majorities of Congress. Changes in laws, including at the highest, the constitutional level.

Inherently our system still works, even as we plod on, seemingly limping and bleeding from what has come to seem not merely a chronic, but a continuous assault on our fundamental humanitarian principles, uncertain of not if, but when, our sense of belief will give out completely and we submit, if not surrender, utterly. All it takes is a vote. And as the actions of key leaders among those who hold power over our behavior as a people and a nation seem to portend that we will crash on in defiance of other of the world’s sovereignties, in defiance of nature itself—utterly despite the collective will, at the deepest level, of the greater percentage of our entirety as a nation—the power of that vote we still have seems to have less and less reason to enact it effectively. But repeatedly, we have proven as an electorate, that this is not so.

We still have, remarkably, another chance. In the most primitive of assessments, it’s down to basics. Almost a Manichean choice of a duality facing us. Possibly as simple as right and wrong.

Gratefully, the choice is even simpler, because there is only one wrong choice. And many right ones, with nuances and more blatant differences for sure, but any one is right in this electoral challenge. Just don’t give up. Just don’t vote wrong. Just vote.

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My Ethnicity

Approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes

The family: mine that is, on one side. If this doesn’t say “Russia” to you, before it says anything else, you are invited to a serious discussion at our mutual convenience.

My Ethnicity

It’s taken all this time (and, as trigger, after reading a Louis Menand book review cum essay about Franz Boas and his followers) to understand that in saying I am an ethnic Jew, it means not that my ethnicity is Jewish. My first pass at understanding this in broad terms is that religion has not much at all to do with ethnography or ethnology (Jews, in short or in long, are not the same the world over).

Rather I am of a certain ethnic group, probably with some specificity, the first generation of Eastern European immigrants from the Pale of Settlement in the last wave of migration from that region to the United States that was admitted more or less without negotiable impediment.

My parents both were from Ukraine/Belarus, dating from a time that these distinctions were not made geopolitically. These nations, as they are recognized now, were all part of Russia. And being right on the border, or as near, with Poland, there is some dispute as to the exact way in which such derivation should be characterized precisely. Saying the “Pale of Settlement” covers a lot of inexactitude.

In any event, they both came from families that lived in small towns, definitely not shtetls (though my father did a good job of describing life during his boyhood in remarkably similar ways to the descriptions embedded in classic shtetl literature – Sholem Aleichem, and the like). And so, though there was some resonance, life was not exactly Anetevka and there were no fiddlers perched precariously on thatched roofs. There were resonances for sure, but my father and his entire family were used to many what I would call bourgeois amenities.

He spoke with equal fervor of the “emporium” (I’m sure he used that word at least once) owned by my grandmother’s relatives. It was a capacious store with many departments and sold a wide variety of goods, from the pickles in barrels and caviar (packed in similar fashion, though displayed and dispensed and sold in ways he never specified) to all manner of household goods, clothing, and the like.

My father told me of forebears (though from how many generations back he did not say) who were “magistrates,” a term he meant to be understood as interchangeable with judge—which in many jurisdictions, including current ones, is not an unfair definition. The reason this came up at all, aside from a current of motifs in his stories about his childhood that were evidentiary of the somehow higher or greater status accorded to holders of our family name, was to make a reasonable case for the etymological roots of that last name. He said one theory (apparently held by the clan’s wise men; though he never singled out these individuals as to identity) was that, the Hebrew word for law being “din”… as in “beth din” (house of the law) and these being Jewish judges, the intimation was that the laws used by them to adjudicate matters before them were talmudic derived from Torah, and there you have it. Though the intermediary steps of how these magistrates came to acquire the family name Dinin, as if they themselves embodied these laws, was also never spelled out.

I have potentially valid blood relations with other Russian emigré descendants who settled not only in this country, but even more favorably (given the coincidence of localities from which we can trace our family roots, plus the still relative singularity of the last name) in Israel. These latter, though the choice was voluntary as to the appropriate orthography of the surname, call themselves Dinim, which, in fact, is more consistent with the orthography of Hebrew plural spellings and pronunciation.

With a contemporaneity that extends back at least as far as my paternal grandparents’ births, which occurred in the waning decades of the nineteenth century—which makes it now at least 140 years—the name was spelled Dinin.

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Too Old to Run?

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

Am I the only one who thinks it’s crazy, solely on the basis of their ages, that Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders is viable as a candidate for president? It’s not a matter of ageism on my part. I’m 73, though I don’t “feel” it, as is statutorily required of me (that is, to say I don’t feel it). But I wouldn’t want myself to be nominated to any office, never mind CEO of the US, solely because I am too well aware that statistics are not on my side. And even less so on theirs. They’re older.

Then there’s the matter of how that job “ages” the job-holder. It’s been evident of every occupant of the office since it killed FDR, which is 74 years ago. Not that the effects, whatever they may be, are irreversible.

Jimmy Carter two days ago became the longest-lived former president. George HW Bush, who just died, was also in his 90s. No one asked either of these guys if they wouldn’t have wanted the job in their latter years—not to suggest they didn’t want a longer term in office than either of them got. Bush was 69 when he left office. Ten years younger than Biden would be if he ran and won, and assumed office in 2021. And Bernie is just a wee bit older than Joe, so he’d be closer to 80 standing on that platform in a chilly January inauguration. And Carter was 56 when he lost his bid for a second term.

It could be that Jimmy and Pappy were fortunate being spared the vagaries of the stresses of office in their declining years. There are those whose lives belie what I am implying, like, say, Rupert Murdoch and Warren Buffett (just to keep this argument ecumenical), but they aren’t having to deal with being President.

My sense of all this would be mitigated somewhat if we, like certain tribal peoples, were a society that did not just give lip service to venerating elders, but actually constituted a culture that included a system of governance whereby it was the elders who ran things.  And everyone accepted it. That’s what “culture” means in part.

Never mind a tribal council of sachems and elderly wise men and women, there won’t even be a minyan of ten “seniors” to hustle up for a cabinet session. Not that the current completely rational compensatory demand for greater diversity of electoral representation would stand for it, if there were.

No one running who was that old, and who was rational enough to expect to be elected, would choose a running mate anywhere close to 70. Donald Trump, who’s a year younger than me, chose a feckless non-entity (who mainly reinforced a perceptible bias of opinion of a plurality, at least, of likely voters), but still a guy who was not even quite 60 on election day in 2016.

In the case of either Biden or Sanders, significant weight would have to be given to strategies for running mate selection to respond to one facet of the selection question. What is the likely perception by a significant number of voters that they would be voting, as they rarely have had to in previous elections, for the inevitable occupant of the White House possibly well before the first term is up.

America is generally characterized as the land, if not of opportunity, then surely as the land of boundless optimism. Which is how we elected William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Warren G. Harding, and Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, and ended up with John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Calvin Coolidge, and Harry S. Truman, respectively – though not predictably in any case. The ages of the incumbents when they involuntarily left office were 68, 65, 57, and 53. As for why I speak of optimism, let me just say, Quayle, Cheney, and Pence; while saying nothing of the merits of the men who chose them as running mates who got into office, regardless.

Please note the argument is not to be wary in any case, and that we should merely be careful of what we wish for, because fortune acts with equal severity on young and old alike. The argument is about actuarial tables of mortality – the odds, if you like – and keeping an eye not so much on the age, but the substantive qualifications of the running mate.

This “actuarial” argument is co-extensive of any question of Trump’s fitness for office, and he will still be younger than either Sanders or Biden, and it cannot be ruled out that Trump will not be shy to suggest that unlike him, his opponent is “losing it” not least because of senility; in fact, the counterfactual quality of such an assertion – very much from the heart of the Trump school of rhetoric – almost guarantees that we would hear it. On the purer political grounds of who to run against Trump, the age factor must be considered. A younger candidate for the Democrats will not nullify the proven impact of his strategy of vulgar denunciation by ridicule and derision of any candidate daring to run against him.

Unclear what any analysis of Sanders’s or Biden’s appeal to young voters consists of, and whether it would persist through an actual candidacy. The spirit of the new younger, “millennial” Democratic caucus, and the gathering power of an argument for change, and not just change, but a re-direction for both parties suggests either of them may not sustain the political momentum needed to make it to the nomination. The Democrats are only that much more susceptible to criticism, because of the innately fractured nature of its factionalism, and so they are more visibly and obviously ripe for a contentious struggle for dominance of the party going into the 2020 election cycle. Young Republicans, or young conservatives, are a gathering force as well, and seem overdue to mount a powerful (and possibly eruptive) effort at revolution and revitalization after a corrosive four years of Trumpism.

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Eating the Lobster

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

“You can really have no notion how delightful it will be
When they take us up and throw us, with the lobsters, out to sea!”
—“Lobster Quadrille,” Lewis Carroll

One of the things I’ve learned, almost by necessity, since I am never usually preparing something like lobster for more than two people anyway, or, if I’m making what I call a Paella Royale (with shrimp and clams in the shell and lobster pieces), it’s best to cook with lobsters that are the size called, for some strange reason, “chicken” – which is to say, ideally, about a pound and a quarter or very slightly more – but the absolutely best size for individual lobsters is between one and a half and two pounds (or very very slightly less).

One of the better Paella Royale dishes I’ve made, this one in 2009. photo © Howard Dinin

I never understood the virtue of getting gigantic, and presumably more and more mature, that is, long-lived specimens, simply because one is going to attempt to feed say six or eight people. For one thing, that’s probably counter-productive to sustainable lobster populations (which, I admit, do seem, realistically, to wax and wane for reasons they keep thinking they understand, but really don’t). I can say that, because it makes sense.

Anyway, if there were more than two eating lobster, I get more than one lobster. For one thing, it’s easier to deal with the claws and tail, etc. of smaller lobsters in every aspect of preparation, cooking, serving, and eating.

But even more important, on the subject of executing one’s dinner before cooking it, it’s much easier to kill a lobster quickly for what one can persuade oneself are humane (i.e., lobsterian) reasons when they are smaller.

I still remember the ordeal of trying to plunge the tip of a very sharp blade of a 10” chef’s knife into the very tough head of a lobster that weighed somewhere north of two-and-a-half pounds. It was an ordeal for me, and I’m sure for the lobster. Especially as I was trying to minimize the discomfort the arthropod was going to experience at the same time I was trying to eliminate any possibility whatsoever of doing some harm, especially inadvertently to myself.

There is the expedient of cutting through the thinner carapace on the bottom of the beast, prior to bisecting the bug, one-half from the other. But as I can relate, it would still have been a bit of an ordeal, as when the size of the lobster increases so does the thickness of every aspect of his shell, even on the bottom.

Something to keep in mind.

I also happen not to have had particularly tender meat from a very much larger specimen, not even in restaurants. That may be due to some kind of confirmation bias. But I’m pretty sure I’ve always had quite tender enough lobster meat from a nice small manageable shellfish.

It’s True: Before Cooking Comes the Killing

And there’s nothing else to call it. It’s not just tradition, certain crustaceans and mollusks (and the lobster as an arthropod with a carapace, along with shrimp, krill, and even barnacles, make up the preponderance of the taxon; it’s not exactly on point, but these are, to my mind, the creatures that exclusively deserve the cognomen “shellfish;” oysters and clams and such are mollusks, and they may live in water, but they aren’t fish, and those aren’t shells) should be alive just prior to preparing them for being eaten, usually through the intervention of being cooked.

I’ll grant, lobsters do have a heart, and it’s a noble, but I think mainly a symbolic injunction to kill a lobster instantly by stabbing it in the heart with dispatch. But the lobster heart is pretty small, and it’s hard to locate from outside the body. Also, not unlike ours, it’s not precisely centered.

Also, lobsters have slightly decentralized nervous systems. So there’s a problem anatomically speaking with the more recent “humane” technique of providing for a conscientious instantaneous execution of the beast by plunging a sharp tool into its head. Their brains are tiny, and though there’s a major nerve in the “head” (the portion just behind the pointed section at the front, between the eyes and antennae, there are two other nerves there that serve auxiliary functions and likely keep it alive and kicking).

The Swiss government feels so strongly about humane killing of lobsters, they have made it a crime to boil them alive. Their prescribed method is electrocution (and naturally there’s a commercial product for restaurants, which costs about $3500, that does the trick), but this is impractical. In lieu of it, they say one should slightly anesthetize the lobster by giving it a dunk in salt water, and then plunging a knife into the head (at the same point I mentioned above, behind the pointed section of the head).

The alternative method, though not sanctioned by the Swiss government, it isn’t forbidden either, and the one that makes most sense is the one that most chefs with an ounce of humanity (shouldn’t that be lobsterity?) in them is to plunge a knife in the mid-section, with the lobster on its back.

The method fully, then, seems to be to plunge the knife in the mid-line and to split the creature in half as quickly and neatly as possible.

Let’s deal with the traditional methodology quickly by the way, even as we consider the philosophy behind thinking about the humane way to do the delicious creatures in. The worst thing you can do to a lobster is boil it alive. Other than that, there doesn’t seem to be a scientist alive at the moment who will say with certainty that a lobster (or a crab for that matter, or a crayfish) feels pain in the way humans understand pain. They have nerves, but nerves don’t exclusively transmit pain, in addition to whatever other signals they transmit.

And though it’s clear that experiments have proven that crabs, for one, will avoid their dark hidey-holes in order to avoid whatever it is they experience when shocked with electricity, it’s clear, for once and for all (for now) that the way to kill a lobster quickly is with a knife and a rapid dissection in half.

One of the reasons Jasper White’s pan roasted lobster recipe became my favorite way of cooking the beast is because it came out right about the time I learned how cruel it is to boil or steam (actually steaming is worse, apparently) a lobster, and cutting it in half alive is necessary to make the recipe. And then there’s the bourbon in his recipe, and a little extra helps assuage any sense of guilt as you anticipate the pleasure eating this awesome dish – actually any dish that includes lobster, because, let’s face it, even right out of the shell just after cooking them very quickly, they’re uniquely delicious.

Digiprove sealCopyright  © 2019 Howard Dinin

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