Archive | December, 2014

First Review For My Kindle Stories

30 Dec

I got four stars! Thanks to the reviewer “Jim” whoever you are!

The Cheese Does Not Stand Alone

30 Dec

I’ve been doing some serious thinking about cheese:

A few years ago, my local Safeway got upcycled. It had previously been a very ordinary Safeway, but then some fancy competition moved into the neighborhood: Whole Foods, Andronico’s, Lunardi’s.

My Safeway fought back. It expanded, remodeled, and brought in fancy cheeses, smelly sausages, and artisanal bottles of olive oil. The plan worked: our humble local Safeway survived and even helped to kill off Andronico’s–though not Lunardi’s or Whole Foods.

I think it was the cheese that did in Andronico’s, myself. Cheese is clearly a high mark-up grocery product, plus you don’t have to worry about spoilage; it’s already spoiled. So, no wonder that my Safeway sells a lot of it. I don’t understand their methods of displaying their cheesy products, but apparently it works.

First off, you can buy cheese in the Safeway Deli. There’s a cheese and meat counter where you can have various large blocks of popular cheeses custom-sliced and wrapped up in neat white rolls of paper.

So far, so good.

Right next to the cheese and meat counter, there’s a small rack where you can buy the exact same cheese and meat that is displayed at the cheese and meat counter, for the exact same price, already sliced, sorted and packaged in plastic.

What’s the point of standing in line, waiting for a deli clerk to notice you, and then having it custom cut, then? You just waste time, and you don’t save a bit of money at all. I figure there are a lot of expat New Yorkers in my town who just want to wait in line and have deli things cut up and wrapped in paper for them, as a kind of exercise in ancient folkloric pride.

You certainly wouldn’t find native-born Californians waiting for deli fixings when the exact same thing is sold in a convenient plastic package only a few feet away. We love things that are wrapped in plastic.

But that’s not the end of the cheese experience at my Safeway, by any means.

There is also a large refrigerated case in the middle of the floor, between the Deli section and the Bakery, which is where they stack all of the super-fancy imported European cheeses: Lemon Stilton from England, Dubliner Cheddar, real Dutch Gouda, and, of course, a whole line of extremely aristocratic French cheeses replete with added exoticisms: mushrooms, truffles, wine, pate. (The French cheeses are set off from the piles of other cheeses in a very superior sort of way, as if they were being protected from contamination by the mere English and Dutch cheeses.)

Last time I checked, the Lemon Stilton was $22 a pound, and the French stuff was carefully stacked so you couldn’t see the price on the label until you picked it up to see what all the fancy mottled and swirled additions were about.

But wait, there’s more!

Way over on the other side of the store, sits the Ordinary Cheese Refrigerated Case. This features double-tiered rows of your humble Kraft Singles, Philadelphia Cream Cheese, Lucerne Cheddar, Tillamook—basically the whole spectrum of the Cheese Proletariat. (The Ordinary Cheese lives right next door to the Ordinary Cold Cuts, of course—the ones that aren’t pedigreed enough to rate display in either the Deli section or the Butcher Meat section.)

So far we’re up to four different and distinct sections in the same store where you can buy cheese. But that’s not the end. One type of cheese—fresh Parmesan, grated or not—is apparently so in demand that you can buy it in all of the above-named cheesy sections, as well as in the take-and-bake pizza refrigerated case and the fresh pasta refrigerated case.

I count six places where you can buy fresh Parmesan cheese in a single store. Plus you can buy the tried-and-true dried stuff, encased in the familiar shiny, foil-wrapped cylinders, in the dry pasta aisle.

That makes seven places where you can buy Parmesan cheese.

Let’s face it, someone really doesn’t want you to escape from the place without cheese, especially the Parmesan variety. The managers and clerks probably have SWOT meetings—complete with Venn diagrams and Pareto charts—on days when no Parmesan is sold from their premises.

The ascent of my humble local supermarket into a cheese paradise has led me to ponder the place of cheese in Western culture, especially the Northern/Central European branch of it.

The way I see it, cheese was cheap and easily preserved protein. The vast masses of European peasants ate cheese and bread, bread and cheese, day in and day out, century in and century out. The nobility tried to limit the consumption of meat by their inferiors, but they clearly forgot about cheese. With cheese about, there was no way for kings, dukes and earls to keep protein out of the hands and stomachs of the common folk.

And so, thanks to cheese, the common folk eventually grew big, strong and smart enough to get rid of the nobility once and for all—except for in England, of course, where they are kept about for the same reason some people keep Hummel figurines in glass cases.

Cheese was very likely responsible for the collapse of serfdom, the French Revolution, the victory of the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War, the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, and the birth of modern, liberal democracy.

That’s quite a list for something you can buy in a shiny, foil-wrapped mailing tube for $3.49.

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Living in Modern America

19 Dec

From Harrison Bergeron, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr:

Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. (1)

They teach this in our schools nowadays  — but no one seems to have actually gotten the message.

Tale of the Genji

19 Dec

Fascinating post from BookRiot on an artist who laboriously illustrated each scene in the world’s oldest known novel, The Tale of the Genji, while incorporating a traditional Japanese style of painting:

The process of creating each scene in the The Tale of Genji was time-consuming and laborious. Agameishi usually took up to two weeks to paint each illustration, using her calligraphy brush, which added touching sensitivity to every line. There was an important link between calligraphy and her visual work.

“My style not only contains the calligraphic rendering of ancient Japanese (Waka) short poems, the entire picture is set in the way calligraphers endeavor to put written characters to life–and harmony–on paper… In my paintings, calligraphy characters combine like persons and the person characters appear like calligraphy.”

When Did Our Fruit Get Cute?

16 Dec

Just some recent ramblings of a suburban American Mom:

I noticed it a few years ago. My daughter asked me to buy “Cuties” at the grocery store. I corrected her: “That’s just a weird brand name. Those are tangerines. You need to call them tangerines.”

“No, they are Cuties,” she replied, with the maddening certainty of a bossy, nine-year-old girl.

A neighbor of mine has two large and very productive tangerine trees, visible from the street. “Cutie trees!” she said, soon after this conversation, while we were walking about the neighborhood.

I sighed.

The Battle of the Cuties appears to have been won, and I wasn’t on the winning side. In fact, I even started calling tangerines Cuties as well.

The next time I went grocery shopping, I looked carefully at the cardboard label on the red, plastic mesh bag that encased the Cuties. I discovered that the Cutie purveyors had basically decided to erase a commonly accepted English word and create a whole new word in its stead. I felt vaguely uncomfortable.

“They can’t just do that, can they?” I thought. “They can’t just change an established word for a fruit species just to make it sound more ‘fun’?”

Apparently, “they” could do just that, because then I started noticing that other fruits were getting the Cuties treatment, too.

Mandarin oranges, the close cousins of the tangerine, have become “Halos.” Red cherry tomatoes have become “Cherubs”; the yellow ones have been renamed “Glorys.” All nomenclature that is more reminiscent of the snack food aisle than of the produce section. I’m pretty sure that’s the intention of the whole campaign.

I’ve also noticed that the cute fruit trend has migrated to the dried fruit aisle. For example, the redoubtable Sunsweet Growers company, one of the largest purveyors of prunes in the world, has renamed their stolid, gerontologically appealing product “Plum Amazins.” (As in “Plum Amazing,” get it?)

To be fair, though, Sunsweet still uses the word “prune” on their packaging, albeit in miniscule typeface under the much-larger font of the Plum Amazin brand name.

We’re not really a prune-friendly family; I don’t think my daughter has ever eaten one in her life.  So, I don’t have to worry about what she ends up calling the plum trees in our neighborhood. I do wonder, however, if there are other kids walking around and pointing at plum trees exclaiming: “Plum Amazin tree!”

I can’t really blame the folks at Sunsweet for wanting to play down their association with prunes; they have been the butt of constipation jokes for decades. But that’s not the case with “tangerine.” I remember when a shade called “Tangerine” was the new black (in the late Sixties.) Of course, it’s also the name of a pretty popular standard pop song, recorded by Ol’ Blue Eyes himself.

So why was the word “tangerine” cuted up? I guess we Americans are so immature that we need to be enticed into eating our fresh fruits by making them sound as much as possible like Cheetos, Fritos, Bagel Bits, and Triskets.

Surely the purveyors of vegetables have been taking notes? It’s already happened to that quasi-vegetable—the tomato—so now it’s only a matter of time before we are subjected to cute veggies as well as cute fruits.

I can see it now: broccoli florets will become “Puffies;” their close cousin, cauliflower florets, will be renamed “White Puffies.” Radishes will become “Two-Tones”; carrots will be rechristened “Crunchies” and spinach leaves will get a new lease on life as “Leafies.”  And so on.

Let’s face it—we’re a nation of five-year-olds. Now everyone, sit down, and eat your Puffies.

Snow Time

14 Dec

Not exactly Christmassy, but relevant for those who live in four-season climates. Here is an excerpt from a story in my book Foleytown, which is about the first time I encountered snow. It’s called The Religion of California: 

“I’ve decided that we’re going to the mountains,” my father grumbled, one early Saturday morning in late winter. “So, today, we’re all taking a car trip to see the snow.”

“Finally I will get to see and feel what snow is really like,” I told myself, gleeful beyond description. “Finally!”

We all packed into the car, my four sisters and my brother Bobby and I and my mother, and then my father drove us northward, up into the Sierra Nevada foothills, until we saw pine and fir forests and then, later, little patches of white on the ground. As we drove into higher elevations, we saw it frosting the tops of various large rocks and pine branches, and then, eventually we saw it everywhere.

The whiteness was almost blinding.

“Snow,” my father grumped. “Kids, kids—here it is, look out the window. We’ve come to the snow!”

“Oh, it’s so beautiful,” I said, excitedly pressing my face against the cold glass of the car window. “Just so, so beautiful.”

My father turned off the main highway into some small hamlet or other, and we found a little clearing with a small parking lot; it was a public park, completely buried in snow. A forlorn-looking merry-go-round and a steel jungle-gym jutted starkly out of the white snow blanket on the ground, some yards in the distance.

My mother had made us all dress in numerous layers of uncomfortable clothing and heavy rubber galoshes. She was sure that someone would come down with pneumonia, or at least a very bad cold, and she had not really approved of our trip to the snow. But she went along, resignedly.

“At least we have penicillin now,” she lectured. “When I was your age, Liz, if you got pneumonia from being out in the snow, you could die, like my poor Cousin Loppy, who passed on when he was only fourteen,” she added gloomily.

My mother was like that; she loved to look on the dark side of nearly everything. And she also had an inexhaustible supply of stories about relatives and in-laws and neighbors who had experienced dire misfortunes back there in Kentucky, usually because they did something or other that she disapproved of.

That would be things like staying out too long in the rain or snow, touching something that was infested with Germs and Disease, or playing with sharp sticks.

“Why did they call him Loppy?” I wondered aloud; I could never get my mother’s Kentucky relatives straight. It didn’t help that many of them seemed to have peculiar, scarcely human nicknames like Loppy, Bippy, Aunt Mag, and Meedge.

“Well, we called him that because he had long ears that drooped down, like a lop-eared rabbit,” my mother said. “I think that’s why he got pneumonia—his ear muffs didn’t cover them, and he got frostbite. Your Great Aunt Mag never recovered from it, poor thing—she later died from choking on a fishbone. That’s why I never let you kids eat any kind of fish, except fish sticks.”

That was another thing my mother disapproved of: eating fish. I started thinking about how often she said the bones were just too dangerous to justify eating it, as Great Aunt Mag could have clearly testified. That is, if the poor woman had lived to tell about it.

Now, for folks who didn’t approve of eating fish, it was rather hard to be a Catholic, because we were supposed to eat it every Friday. Fortunately, by the Sixties, there were frozen fish sticks easily available from the grocery store, even in a small, backwater town like Ulloa City.

Frozen fish sticks had made it possible for Mary Foley to fulfill her Friday religious obligations with an untroubled mind.

“The fish stick factory has machines that sift out all of the bones,” she’d once said, duly impressed. She had actually written a letter to the company to make sure, and they had written back to explain patiently how they de-boned all of their fish before squishing it into fish sticks.

“Thank God for Gorton’s of Gloucester, is all I can say,” my mother added.

Christmas Story Time

13 Dec

In honor of the advancing season, here is an excerpt from my upcoming book of short stories, Foleytown, which I hope to publish in its entirety sometime after the New Year. This excerpt is from a story called “Christmas in Foleytown.”

I usually got the honor of arranging the nativity set on the mantelpiece of our tiny living room. Our plaster dime store figures were cheap, common and, in retrospect, rather ugly, but I cherished them all—the Three Kings, the camel, the Holy Family, the cow and the sheep, the wandering shepherd, the donkey, and the two blonde-haired angels with Shirley Temple curls crowned by gilt-painted halos.

There was, however, one glaringly obvious flaw in our nativity set-up.

“There are not enough camels here,” I noted to my mother one year, while arranging our nativity set in what I hoped was an artful and clever way. “Three Kings and only one camel. How did they make it all the way to Bethlehem with just one camel?”

“Well, camels are big, Lizzie; they can carry a lot of things and people,” my mother answered absently.

I tried to position the figurines of all three kings on top of the camel to verify her claim, but it didn’t really work.  None of our Three Kings could fit astride the beast of burden, because each of them had plaster legs that were molded together into a solid block.

“We need two more camels,” I said, decisively. “Even if the Three Kings’ legs weren’t stuck together like that, I don’t think they could all fit on the back of just one camel.”

“I’ll look into getting two more camels at the dime store next time I go shopping on Plumas Street,” my mother replied, soothingly. But she never did actually get around to it—that year or any other.

Still trying to reason the Three Kings dilemma through, I concluded that one King rode the camel while the other two walked beside it.

“Maybe they took turns riding the camel, to be fair,” I told myself.  “That would be the Christian thing to do.”

I worried about things like that when I was small. I tucked my toys and dolls under scraps of old blankets so they would stay warm at night; I wore clothes I didn’t like because I didn’t want them to feel unwanted; I worried that coffee cups with broken handles would be abandoned to the trash heap. It was a rather unique world view, I realize now.”