Posts Tagged ‘Wine’

Father Christmas

Wednesday, December 25th, 2013

cardthang

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2013)

“It is a wise father that knows his own child.” William Shakespeare

My father was extremely neurotic. A psychiatrist by profession, one of his more pronounced neuroses was the inability to complete anything, which made psychiatry the perfect profession for him. Our house and yard were minefields of my father’s unfinished projects, some of which became entangled with other unfinished projects, so that large areas of the domestic terrain were rendered useless except as depositories for the stuff of projects he would never complete.

When I was twelve, my father gave me the task of clearing away a great mass of blackberry brambles that was smothering our one and only apricot tree and made accessing the delectable fruit impossible. After many hours of hacking and cutting and carrying loads of brambles to the burn pile, I discovered that my father had pruned the apricot tree some years before, left the pruned branches lying around the tree, and in a subsequent year positioned a wooden ladder amidst the pruned branches in order to prune the tree again, left the newly pruned branches atop the older pruned branches, and then left the ladder surrounded by those multiple layers of pruned branches. Blackberry bushes then sprouted in the fertile soil and employed the framework of dead branches and wooden ladder as armature for their rampant growth.

When I was sixteen, my father and I attended an auction of government property, ostensibly to find a cheap filing cabinet for my mother, but really because my father loved hunting for old junky things to bring home. Among the items to be auctioned were several three-wheeled postal vans, their engines on the verge of dysfunction, their aging bodies pockmarked and rusty.

“I will buy one,” declared my father, “paint it a pleasing color, and use it to go to and from my office. Think of the money I’ll save on gas.”

My father did, indeed, make the highest bid on one of those vans, drove the cute little thing home, and parked it about ten feet to the left of my beloved basketball hoop and backboard, thereby rendering the court no good for basketball games until my pals and I pushed the little van some twenty feet from the hoop. And there that wreckage sat and rotted for thirty years until, as a gift to my mother, I had the heap hauled away.

“An overflow of good converts to bad.” William Shakespeare

Another of my father’s manias was book buying, and his favorite bookstore was Kepler’s in Menlo Park, both a fantastic bookstore and a groovy Bohemian hangout. I remember many an evening when my mother called Kepler’s, as other women might call the pub, to inquire if her husband was there. “He is?” my mother would say, exasperated. “Would you please tell him to come home? Immediately. He was supposed to be home two hours ago.”

Thus our house was not only a museum of myriad unfinished projects, but we lived in an ever growing topography of stacks of books—the dozens of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves jammed with thousands of books—and piles of magazines and newspapers and junk mail, all of which my father was adamant my mother not throw away because, “I’m going through them this weekend,” which never happened once in fifty years.

“It’s true, Christmas can feel like a lot of work, particularly for mothers. But when you look back on all the Christmases in your life, you’ll find you’ve created family traditions and lasting memories. Those memories, good and bad, are really what help to keep a family together over the long haul.” Caroline Kennedy

When Marcia and I got married, I explained to her that Christmas was highly problematic for me due to the emotional scars I carried from my parents’ various neuroses coming to a boil, so to speak, in and around the holiday season. Never mind that my mother was Jewish, but had been raised to hide any connection to Judaism (which was one of the reasons she married my non-Jewish father.) Never mind that my father always put off buying a Christmas tree until the day before Christmas and then would get staggering drunk before he put the lights on the tree, after which he couldn’t remember where he’d put the really tall ladder he needed to get the ornament box down from the half-finished platform he had affixed to the rafters of our high-ceilinged house with twine and duct tape in lieu of the screws he would use when he got around to finishing the platform, which he never did.

No, what made Christmas such an unhappy time was the terrible tension resulting from my father having bought hundreds of books and things we didn’t want, and all those books and things had to be wrapped by our unhappy parents and put under the tree so we would have lots of presents to open on Christmas morning—the quantity of gifts being very important to my father, who always waited until Christmas Eve to start wrapping things, and as he wrapped he drank and my mother would lament, “You’ve had enough already,” and we would hang our stockings and go to bed and…joy to the world.

“And oftentimes excusing of a fault doth make the fault the worse by the excuse.” William Shakespeare

When I was nine, my siblings and I gathered in the living room on Christmas morning, our parents having stayed up until the wee hours wrapping presents and stuffing our stockings with tangerines and candy and decks of cards (not again!) to keep us busy until they finally crawled out of bed some hours later to have their coffee and oversee the opening of the gifts. We noted the hundreds of presents under the precariously tilting tree, and my little brother gave voice to our collective fear, “I think it’s mostly books.”

That was the year my father gave me a seven-hundred-page (small print) biography of Thomas Jefferson and a book entitled How To Make Home Movies. Coincidentally, Santa gave my mother a home movie camera, which she promptly handed to my father, and my sister Wendy got a film editing and splicing contraption, my father expressing surprise and delight that Santa had given us these things that he, my father, had always wanted and would be happy to share with us. Yes! For a person who could never finish anything, a movie camera in those pre-digital days was the perfect thing for making huge messes and never completing anything. You go, Dad!

But the camera and associated film stuff was just the beginning of that year’s surprises. I received an electric soldering iron my father was quick to point out would be just the thing for assembling the Heathkit stereo tuner kit Santa brought my four-year-old brother, as well as the unassembled stereo speakers Santa brought my sister Kathy that would go perfectly with the Heathkit stereo tuner—none of which would ever be fully assembled but would reside partially assembled for many years under piles of useless junk on a large table in the room that eventually became my mother’s office after the defunct Heathkit project was finally added to the horror show known as our garage.

 “I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me.” Charles Darwin

As an adult, I returned to the old homestead every Christmas to visit my parents, and I frequently found the presents I’d given my father the previous year gathering dust on the floor not far from where he opened them. And it finally dawned on me that the best gifts for my father were bottles of wine he would drink that very day, though I needn’t buy good wine because my father, who was the world’s authority on everything, loved to remind me that “it has been scientifically proven there is absolutely no difference between cheap and expensive wine, except the price.”

Until he died at eighty-four, our father continued to give us books for Christmas that he thought we ought to want, and as he became less energetic, he took to buying all his children the same books from palettes of bestsellers at Costco. Three years in a row he gave me the same massive and impenetrable tome about Shakespeare by a famous Harvard professor, and each year he would ask me as I unwrapped the gnarly opus, “Have you heard of this book? Supposed to be fantastic.”

Then I would return to wherever I was living, and when sufficiently recovered from my Christmas ordeal, I would take the books my father had given me to a good used bookstore, get cash for them, and go to a café for coffee and cheesecake, both of which I really wanted. I would sip my coffee and savor the tangy cake and raise my cup in honor of my father, the great lover of books.

$1.50

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

1.50

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2013)

“Once, during prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water.” W.C. Fields

This just in: Ben Affleck, the movie star, is going to try to survive for five days spending only one dollar and fifty cents per day on food. He is lending his celebrity to the Live Below the Line Campaign to bring attention to the plight of millions of people in America and hundreds of millions of people around the world who try to survive on a dollar-fifty or less for food every day of their lives. Several celebrities I’ve never heard of (I’m old and don’t watch television) are joining Affleck along with twenty thousand other Americans voluntarily partaking of the five-day ordeal. The organizers of the event recommend that anyone wishing to attempt this amazing feat spend their entire budget of $7.50 at the start of the five days by purchasing “pasta, lentils, rice, bread, vegetables, potatoes and oats.”

Clearly, these folks don’t shop where we shop. Pasta? Forget it. Largely empty calories and too expensive. Bread? Are you kidding? At nearly six dollars for a decent loaf? Vegetables? Maybe a few carrots won’t bust the budget. Potatoes? Perhaps a russet or two. Oats? No way. Much ado about nothing. Rice? Brown rice. Yes. A big yes. Lentils? Sure, but be prepared for profound farting, and in lieu of lentils, how about pinto beans with that same fart disclaimer.

Eating for $1.50 a day would be a much more meaningful exercise if the well-fed Affleck tried to live on that amount per day for five weeks or five months, but I salute him for helping illuminate the plight of so many of our fellow earthlings. I mentioned to Marcia that Ben was going to be making this incredible sacrifice for five whole days, and she, too, reasoned that rice and beans were the way to go if Ben wants sufficient sustenance for so little money. In surmising how we would try to survive on such a small food allowance, Marcia and I are limited in our thinking by our adherence to buying organic produce, so our $1.50 purchases almost nothing. Yesterday, for instance, I bought three navel oranges, six big leaves of kale, and a little bag of millet flour, and my bill was eight bucks. So…

“There is no sincerer love than the love of food.” George Bernard Shaw

When I lived in Berkeley, I worked for a wonderful woman named Helen Gustafson who was, among many other things, the tea buyer at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ famous eatery. I was Helen’s part-time editor and secretary for several years until her death in 2003, her obituary in the New York Times proclaiming Helen to be the tea pioneer most responsible for fine green and black tea being served in the many good restaurants in America now serving such tea.

Helen had carte blanche at Chez Panisse and took me to lunch and supper there on numerous occasions. I would never have taken myself to Chez Panisse because a simple meal in that groovy joint cost as much as I spent on two-weeks-worth of groceries, and if my meal included a glass of wine and dessert, make that three-weeks-worth. Because everything was free to us at Chez Panisse, Helen ordered lavishly and encouraged me to do so, too, but I couldn’t. Knowing that the diminutive ultra-delicious goat cheese salad cost as much as a belly-busting three-course meal at nearby Vegi Food (Chinese) made it impossible for me to order much at all, so Helen would order several appetizers, two or three salads and two or more entrees, and then delight in watching me eat my fill.

The wine I drank at Chez Panisse, the only white wine I have ever liked, cost twenty-seven dollars a glass and induced in me a state of well being akin to swimming in a high Sierra lake after a long hot hike. I am allergic to alcohol, more than a sip of wine usually makes me ill, but my allergy did not manifest when I drank that particular French wine, the name of which I intentionally chose not to remember.

I liked to walk home after dining with Helen at Chez Panisse, the downhill jaunt to the house I rented in the Berkeley flats enhanced by my mild hallucinatory state courtesy of that particular French wine and the delectable comestibles combusting so agreeably in my organically bloated tummy. Helen always insisted I take home the sizeable amount of food (and several handmade chocolate truffles) we had not consumed in the course of our feasting, and it became my habit to invite my neighbors over to partake of the Chez Panisse leftovers that they, too, would never buy for themselves.

Thus there was secondary feasting on the fabulous fare, minus the magic wine, with much oohing and ahing and marveling at the culinary delights usually reserved for the wealthy. One of my neighbors, a great amateur chef who volunteered to cook several meals a month at a homeless shelter, savored each little bite he took of the Chez Panisse ambrosia, attempting to discern the spices and secret ingredients that went into making such delicacies.

“So long as you have food in your mouth, you have solved all questions for the time being.” Franz Kafka

In 1970, in Mexico and Guatemala, almost every day for six months, my traveling companions and I encountered people who did not have enough food. When it was safe and feasible to do so, we shared our food with these people and gave them a little money, but on a number of occasions we found ourselves in villages where everyone was desperately hungry, and the fact that we had a little food and the villagers had no food made it necessary for us to skedaddle pronto.

One day we arrived in a remote village in Mexico adjacent to some Zapotec ruins we hoped to explore, and were greeted by a group of men who were so hungry their growling bellies sounded like a chorus of bullfrogs. Their leader demanded we pay him a large sum if we wanted to see the ruins. “We are starving,” he said to me, murder in his eyes. “The government promised to send food, but no food has come. We thought your van was the government truck.” I apologized, gave him the equivalent of ten dollars, and we sped away before the angry men could surround the van and keep us from leaving.

I was forever changed by those six months among so many desperately hungry people. Today I know several people who spend their winters in Mexico and Central America, enjoying the warmth and inexpensive food and lodging, but I would not feel right doing that because I know too well that my government’s agricultural and economic and political policies are largely responsible for the massive suffering in those countries. I am also no longer comfortable with culinary extravagance, which always reminds me of the hungry little boys who followed me everywhere in Mexico and Guatemala, starving children hoping I would buy them some bread.

“The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found.” Calvin Trillin

My housemate for two of my eleven years in Berkeley was a cook at a popular restaurant. She was unquestionably the finest cook I have ever had the pleasure of cleaning up after. Though she gave me no formal training, I learned many things about cooking from watching her perform in our kitchen. She was an extremely private person and we spoke very little in the two years we lived together, though we shared hundreds of exquisite meals she prepared, mostly late morning breakfasts and late evening suppers. She concocted her dishes using whatever she found in the larder, some of which she bought, some of which she got from the restaurant where she worked, but most of which I purchased. And though she rarely told me what to buy, I knew that if I kept our cupboards and refrigerator stocked with promising ingredients, especially fresh vegetables, she couldn’t help but produce the most delectable meals.

She was a bold improviser and an absolute wizard with spices. She had four frying pans—seven, eight, ten, and twelve inches in diameter—and often employed all four in the making of a dish or dishes to go with the brown rice I cooked. She said I made good rice, and because I considered her a culinary master, her assessment of my rice made me feel talented and worthwhile.

One evening I came into the kitchen and saw that in her smallest pan she was browning almond slivers, in her other small pan she was sautéing diced onions and garlic in sesame oil, in her medium-sized pan she was simmering cauliflower in a red wine sauce, and in the large pan she was fast-frying a great mass of spinach leaves in olive oil and water, all this to be combined with eggs and other ingredients to create a stupendous frittata-like thing. And I remember thinking as I watched her cook: she never hurries and she is entirely free of doubt and fear.

“A rich man is nothing but a poor man with money.” W.C. Fields

I hope Ben Affleck is positively transformed by his experience of eating for five days on $1.50 a day. If I could speak to Ben before he begins his five-day experience of Spartan eating, I would say, “Simmer a few cloves of chopped garlic in olive oil and pour that over your brown rice. Don’t forget cumin and ginger and turmeric to make your rice and beans more interesting. And while you’re counting the hours before you go back to dropping two hundred bucks on dinner for two, watch the movies Big Night and Mostly Martha. With luck and skill and inspiration, maybe one day you’ll make a great food movie that is more than a food movie and uses food to open our minds and hearts to the fantastic powers of compassion and creativity.”

Poor People

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” Anne Frank

On my way out to water the garden, the living room radio tuned to our local public radio station, I hope I didn’t hear what I think I just heard, especially since I recently renewed our membership to that radio station. But when I come in from the garden, Marcia confirms that some nincompoop guest on said station did, indeed, say, “You shouldn’t give money to the homeless people in Fort Bragg because they’ll just use it to buy drugs.”

If I had a hundred dollars for every person I’ve heard say that about homeless people, I’d be rich. And if I had a hundred dollars for every person I’ve convinced to think otherwise, I could buy each and every homeless person in Fort Bragg a delicious organic apple. I choose to call the guest of that listener-sponsored radio show a nincompoop because the word describes him precisely. A nincompoop is a simpleton, a shallow thinker, someone who speaks without knowledge. And this nincompoop’s statement is not only false, but also cruel, and his cruel lie makes me so angry I absolutely must refute him.

Henceforth I will address you directly, my dear nincompoop. Here are some ironclad facts for you to consider.

1. Many poor and homeless people are not drug addicts.

2. Many people with homes are drug addicts.

3. The only difference between homeless people and people with homes is that homeless people do not have homes, and people with homes have homes.

4. The only difference between poor people and rich people is that rich people have lots of money and poor people have very little money.

Here are some questions for you, my dear misinformed nincompoop. I will supply the answers since you are not here. And though I don’t know you, I am certain these are the correct answers.

1. Have you ever been homeless? No.

2. Do you know any homeless people? I don’t mean, do you know of any homeless people, I mean do you actually know any homeless people well enough to sit around with them and shoot the breeze or take drugs with them or eat food with them? As their pal? No.

3. Where do you get off saying homeless people only buy drugs with the money we give them? You get off saying that because some radio talk show host needs his head examined for inviting you on his show.

4. Have you ever been extremely hungry, as in starving, and not had any money to buy food? No.

5. Have you ever purchased wine or marijuana or prescription drugs? Yes, you have. Thousands and thousands of dollars worth.

6. Do you think buying wine and pot and prescription drugs is qualitatively different than buying illegal drugs? Yes, you do, but you’re wrong.

7. Have you ever heard of Angela Davis? Yes, the political activist scholar with the famous Afro. She has written convincingly, with pages and pages of unassailable data to back up her claims, that poor and homeless people buy illegal drugs because they don’t have health insurance or enough money to afford prescription anti-depressants, painkillers, mood elevators, and all the other legal drugs bought by people with health insurance and enough money to buy such drugs. Poor and homeless people buy speed and dope and uppers and downers and fortified wine to self-medicate just as you and I and hundreds of millions of people with homes and money do.

“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” Edmund Burke

When I lived in Berkeley not very long ago, once a week I would take BART to San Francisco where hundreds of poor and homeless people gather at the mouths of the underground to solicit donations. I would emerge into the sunlight and see these multitudes of poor and homeless people, and I wanted to give each and every one of them money because they all quite obviously needed money. But paying my rent and buying food left me very little money to spare. I couldn’t afford health insurance, I didn’t own a car, my clothes were hand-me-downs from friends, and I went out for a meal about never. Indeed, the primary thing distinguishing me from those poor and homeless people begging at the corner of Powell and Market was that I had a bit more money than they and a few more options for earning what I earned.

Just how does one decide which poor person to endow with a buck or two out of the hundreds and thousands and millions of poor people who need money? And by the way, dear nincompoop, even poor homeless drug addicts spend some of the money you don’t give them on food, so they will have the strength to take those horrible drugs that you take, too, only you don’t call them drugs because you are misguided.

Having been homeless for some years in my twenties, and having lived for many years on the verge of being homeless again, and having depended on the kindness of friends to get me through my most difficult times, I knew that anything I gave to these mendicants would be greatly appreciated. Even a dime or a nickel. I did not know if the money I gave would be used for drugs or food or shelter; but I did know that how the money was spent was none of my business. My business was to be compassionate, and so when I felt I could spare a few dollars, I gave them to whoever got to me first.

After a few months of running the gauntlet of these poor and homeless people who had been so abused and abandoned by our fascistic corporate oligarchy trickle down cruel and unusually punishing society, I hit upon the idea of taking a big fistful of change with me whenever I went to the city, and dispensing coins until they were gone. In this way I fulfilled my role as an executor of the final drips of trickle down economics.

One day, having dispensed a few dollars in quarters and dimes, and as my thoughts turned to earning enough money to pay my usurious rent, I was hailed by a young man I had given baksheesh to on a previous trip to the city. He smiled at me and was about to speak, when I interrupted with, “I don’t have any money for you today.”

“Wasn’t asking for money,” he said, shaking his head. “Just saying hello. You helped me out two three times before. Just saying hello.”

“Well,” I said, flushed with shame as I fumbled for my wallet, “I think I might have a dollar or…”

“You don’t have to give me money, man. I was just saying hello because, like…I know you.”

So I didn’t take out my wallet. But I did meet his gaze. And we looked at each other for a short infinity, and I saw that he was I.

And that is the heart of what I want to say to you, dear nincompoop. I am you, and you are me, and we are all together. And your nimcompooposity is mine, and mine is yours. And those poor homeless people, the ones you are so certain will spend the money you don’t give them on drugs, they are you, too. And by not giving to them, you are not giving to yourself. That may be a difficult concept to grasp, but it is absolutely how the universe operates.

The Golden Rule didn’t get to be the Golden Rule by accident. “Do unto other as you would have them do unto you” underpins every religious philosophy that ever lasted more than a week. The Golden Rule might also be called karma. Our actions create our reality. Yes. You are the owner of your own karma. Your actions create your happiness and unhappiness. And another helpful Buddhist idea is that duality and separateness are bogus illusions (as opposed to useful illusions) and as long as we see those poor and homeless people as separate from us, we will remain separated from ourselves.

“Act as if what you do makes a difference.  It does.”  William James

Here is what I propose you do, my friend, my mirror. Go to the bank and take out a thousand dollars in twenty-dollar bills, and do not rest until you have given those twenties to fifty people you think are homeless. And as you give that money to those people, ask them to tell you a little about themselves. I promise you will discover that they are you and you are they, and we are all together.

Now go home and take a luxurious bath and simmer in your own newly spiced juices. Get the living room nice and toasty. Pour yourself a glass of wine or some other refreshing beverage, and make yourself comfortable, because what happens next will blow your mind into brilliance.

(This essay was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2010)

Restoration and Redemption

Friday, September 4th, 2009

Before

During

After

With Under the Table Books