Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Power's Out--life's down

The northwest is blanketed by snow, with several inches falling last night.  Eager to avoid the mess that occurred a couple years ago when, out of environmental extremism, Seattle refused to salt its steep downtown streets, paralyzing the city, snowplowing, sanding and salting commenced immediately.  Our daughter, fearing difficulty getting to work in her teeny car, was set to sleep over at our house, which is much closer than hers to her job.

Needless to say, for a mom still afflicted with the dreaded Empty Nest Syndrome since our son went off to study abroad this September, I was thrilled to have an evening of girlie movies, Bananagrams and face time chat, rather than merely the online kind. 

With the wind whipping outside, my daughter commented as we sorted our Bananagrams tiles, that she was glad we still had electricity.  That's when the lights went off.  My next words: "Thanks, sweetie."

Thanksgiving gains a new item for gratitude when you realize just how dependent we are on electricity. And on a whole lot more.

I got out some candles, and the hand-crank emergency lantern.  My husband relished this opportunity to use his wind-up flashlight.  He brought in an armful of firewood since our furnace could no longer shield us from the 26-degree weather outside.  I was just thinking that this could be a fun adventure, when my daughter's boyfriend called.

He was at his parents' home, a few blocks away from us. "What? You've lost power? We've still got ours; why don't you come over here?" he suggested. His parents, too, were recent empty-nesters, and had plenty of spare bedrooms.

My husband would have none of it.  Give up his own bed? Abandon our home to darkness and snow?  Not under his macho watch.  I was welcome to join our daughter if I liked, but not him, Uh-unh.

The steep driveway at the parents' house precluded Boyfriend's driving to pick up our daughter, so my hunky husband insisted he walk her through the darkness to meet him.  "Stay home," he commanded me. "I don't want you out in this."

What if on his solo return, he slipped, fell and crushed his cell phone, and was left to be frostbitten in the snow?  After the usual male-female debate, the three of us set out in the hazy moonlight through a forest, our boots crunching the virgin snow.  Only meager flashlights lit our footsteps. The eerie stillness was punctuated by gusts whirring through firs.  The cold was invigorating, the snow brightening deep-laden boughs.  I sniffled with the chill; my husband's tree branch walking stick struck the earthen path in rhythmic accompaniment.

Poetic experience, 2010.  Daugher's cell phone nearly out of battery; need to guard the remaining charge in the others. Writing in progress lost to suddenly-dead computer. Cordless phones don't work unless plugged in.  How to arise on time tomorrow, when it's too dark to read a wristwatch, and the clock radio's blank?

Food's colder on the counter than in the fridge. Don't open the freezer, lest everything spoil.  Candle wax drips on floor and counter; can't read by its flickering light.  Sitting in near-dark in a down coat, gloves and high boots, watching breath form steam.

The phone company recording says power should be restored at 3 am.  Nothing to do but go to sleep.

On this Thanksgiving eve, I marvel at how spoiled we are.  It has not been that long since every nighttime brought the end to most productive activities.  It was as different as night and day; now both meld into 24-hour florescent-lit supermarkets where your choice of cereals spans four rows of products, thirty feet long.  Where we are reachable at all times, by phone, text, Skype, IM, and if we choose, our location anywhere on earth can be pinpointed and broadcast, moving here-to-there.

We can find out the value and sales history of any property instantly, and see its street view. We can watch any television program at any time, while in bed, at a coffee house, even while riding a bus.  We can take pictures and video and post them for the world to see, and replay, and distort, and put auto-tune to, each person with potential for fame gone viral.

What has this done?  Unfortunately, it's made us impatient and selfish.  If the internet's down, we get indignant.  If we have to wait in line, we fume and call a manager.

We no longer take responsibility for what befalls us.  Every accident is someone else's fault, and that someone will be sued and have to pay.  Every child deserves a hot lunch and dinner, not as a parent's duty but as an entitlement that taxpayers must provide.

All this causes stress and worry and makes us angry.  Anger is the opposite of happiness.  The antidote to anger is gratitude.

A Wall Street Journal article today explains how saying thank you and counting your blessings is associated with higher achievement, more energy, and greater well-being.  It mentions that researchers believe that half of what determines one's temperament, which translates generally into being a glass-is-half-full person or the glass-is-half-empty sort, is genetic.  The rest comes from learning and experience.  So even if your temperament bends toward the negative, you can practice, i.e. force yourself, to observe and state the positive, and to credit others for their roles in your successes.

You may think that's being dishonest with your feelings. No, it's a strategy, a purposeful means you choose to employ to replace negativity with optimism, blame with gratitude.  It takes self control: "gratitude is actually a demanding, complex emotion that requires 'self-reflection, the ability to admit that one is dependent upon the help of others, and the humility to realize one's own limitations,'" says UC Davis psych profesor Robert Emmonds in the WSJ story.

But it's not just a personal battle.  I do believe our culture pushes us toward arrogance, narcissism, instant gratification and materialism, as opposed to the abstracts of kindness and appreciation.  With an iPhone in your hand, you control the world; you're powerful.

That is, until the electricity goes out.  Without your charger, without battery, without light or heat, you realize your true size and true dependence. Not just on the electric company, but on the Power who determines your continued existence, and the people who make it worthwhile.

I was so thankful at 3 am, awakened by lights blazing in the house, clock numbers by my bed flashing, and the furnace whooshing on.

The thermometer outside reads 16 degrees at the moment, but I don't take for granted being warm. It's the perfect time to remember we're all vulnerable, interconnected, and small, with so many wonders and miracles to enjoy. And for which to give thanks.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Thanksgiving Turkeys--imbued with spirituality?

Presidential pardon, 2009
I was just sitting down with a freshly-brewed espresso and the newspaper, reminding myself to pick up the 15-lb. kosher turkey I'd ordered, when an article about slaughtering your own Thanksgiving bird nearly made me gag.

Not because it included a blood-tinged description, or the headline, "The Main Course Had an Unhappy Face."  Not because it described a chic trend to "know your food," which seems at times like a ploy aimed at bolstering niche farms whose products are pitched to the elite.  Not because it proclaimed that the $7/lb. Bourbon Red produced succulent results with only salt and pepper as condiments.

What grabbed me was that the writer, the New York Times' "city critic" Ariel Kaminer, chose to patronize Madani Halal in Queens, held up for "the slaughterhouse's commitment to minimizing animals' discomfort."  He noted that it "follows Islamic dietary strictures," and was not at all perturbed that, at the moment he and owner Imran Uddin jointly slit Red's throat, the butcher declared, "'Bismillah Allahu Akbar,' Arabic for 'In the name of Allah the great.'"

Ariel Kaminer enjoyed his Allah-blessed, $7/lb. free-range, self-slaughtered turkey with salt and pepper satisfied that the animal experienced a humane death.  Meanwhile, he neglected to mention that the Muslim ritual came about 1300 years after Jewish law required similar swift single-cut slaughter--first establishing reverence in the taking of life, minimizing pain, and draining of blood (out of a respect for the life-force that once coursed the animal's veins), among many, many other restrictions, tough enough that many practicing Muslims will eat kosher meat.

Contrary to popular belief, kosher doesn't mean "blessed by a rabbi," nor must a slaughterer be a rabbi, though he must receive rigorous instruction and be an observant Jew.  At the beginning of a butcher's shift, he says a blessing acknowledging God's commandments on how to do it. This contrasts with a halal slaughterer's declaring on each individual animal that its killing is in the name of Allah.

Kaminer's reaction to causing his bird's demise?  "I found it upsetting and, on some very basic level, gross."  For a description of a young woman's very different experience watching the kosher slaughter of a calf (caution: graphic photos!), check out this blog post.  Our home is vegetarian; Thanksgiving is the only time during the year I cook meat in the house.  Sometimes in the summer my hubby's male bar-b-que gene gets the better of him and he insists on grilling hamburgers on an outdoor hibachi, though he wouldn't eat them. 

The question remains: is there a spiritual impact to eating meat?

Jewish tradition teaches that before Noah and the flood, humans didn't consume any; it was only afterward, in a transition to a world where God was more removed, that we dominated other species in this way.  But lest we take this superiority for granted, God instituted rules about what to eat, and how to kill to remind Jews to respect other creatures and realize that taking, and consuming life changes us.

Meat is considered a delicacy, not only because it's expensive but because of its very life force.  In Temple times, there were lots of different types of sacrifices, including wheat and barley and turtle doves as well as oxen and sheep and goats.  That these were elevated and butchered in a strict, sanctified way (before they then fed people) served to infuse spirituality not only into one's dinner, but in the daily tasks of raising the animals or otherwise earning the money to purchase them.

Celebrations, including Shabbat, become festive because meat is served.  Yes, I said "because," as eating flesh killed under God's rules emphasizes humans' abilities to make choices and control our environments.  Another article I was reading today asserted, and I agree, that freedom is what creates happiness.  Humans, as omnivores, have choices about what we consume in a way animals, driven by instinct, do not.  We gain a recognition of that every time we ingest meat. Or choose not to.

And in these sanitary times when few have any connection to the squawking fowl they stuff with bread cubes and roast at 325 degrees for 20 minutes per pound, it's easy to lose the awareness that the creature taken for our celebration was granted life just as we were, from the same ultimate source we came from.  In that sense, I understand the desire to watch an animal change from standing, independent entity to drumstick, breast and wings.

But I'd rather not think about it.  Historically, our American forefathers probably did consume some turkey with other fowl.  The connection of feasting with closeness to God was evident from the start, when "less than twenty-four hours after Congress approved the First Amendment, they clearly indicated the way they understood its language by passing the following resolution: [calling for] '...a day of public thansgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many signal favors of Almighty God...'" This is from Michael Medved's The 10 Big Lies About America (p. 83), which blasts the misnomer that "The founders intended a secular, not Christian nation."

Which brings us back to the Thanksgiving turkey.  Just as the colonists and founders did, we partake of God's bounty because it's a way of making that creation part of us, a way of internalizing the wonders of the world to appreciate it.  It may seem ironic that we savor the glories of life by killing and eating it, but at the same time, we see that humans are outside the food chain, above the green beans and the giblets, but can only strive to understand how close we are and can be, to God.

And that's why when I read about Ariel Kaminer's nonchalant acceptance of the dedication of his act to Allah, I cringed.  There is a definite relationship between the physical and the spiritual, between what you consume via your mouth and what goes with it into your soul.  I think that's what popularized the phrase "you are what you eat" for hippies, and why, in Massachusetts in 1621, the means of thanking God naturally centered around a meal.  Perhaps if he were Muslim, I'd better understand Kaminer's choosing to eat a halal turkey dinner, but in any case, we should all remember--even those chowing down on Tofurky--that gratitude to our Creator is the focus Thursday with every bite we eat.

By the way, apparently the first official Presidential pardon of a turkey was by George H.W. Bush in 1989.  (Makes you wonder the bird's crime.) And, while recalling fowl moments, few can forget Sarah Palin's 2008 gubernatorial turkey pardon and blithe TV interview while in the background a flannel-clad poultry worker waited for her, but finally gave up and stuffed a writhing turkey into the cut-its-head-off funnel, as Sarah cheerfully chirped, "I'm always in charge of preparing the turkey, so I'm where I need to be today, to take care of that!"

Happy Thanksgiving; may your family be together to enjoy--and appreciate--all the blessings of the season.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Surfing, Kelly Slater and Respect for the Sea

While looking for some newspaper to capture cooking splats, I grabbed today's New York Times sports section, something I was surely not going to read. Until I opened it to the back page and was captivated by a story about the undisputed surfing champion of all time, Kelly Slater.

Ten-time surfing world champ Kelly Slater
The piece described Slater's snagging his 10th world championship at the Rip Curl Pro Search, in Porta del Sol, Puerto Rico--and the somber mood cast upon the victory by the death, just four days earlier, of three-time-champ Andy Irons, 32.  Irons was found in a Dallas hotel room, there on a layover on his way home to his wife, expecting their baby in December, after falling too ill, ostensibly from Dengue fever, to make it to the Puerto Rico event.  Pill bottles were found near his body, leading officers to suspect a drug overdose, though cause of death won't be announced for weeks.

As one who has actually stood up while riding a surfboard maybe three times (other attempts left me too terrified and insecure), I have a profound respect for surfers, and have observed from afar the community they have forged.  Kelly Slater, like many kama'aina (Hawaii locals) who innately take to the waves in toddlerhood, mastered the surf so smoothly, he seems an organic part of it.

And yet, surfing doesn't command the respect given most sports, and despite Slater's record career, in which he won his first championship at age 20 in 1992, and his tenth now at age 38, fans have had to band together to urge recognition in a Sports Illustrated cover.  Slater's typically Hawaiian attitude is akin to a shrug, but his Puerto Rico prize of a 3% share of the Quicksilver surfwear company, said to be worth about $22 million, would make up for an awful lot.

The "Duke statue" on Waikiki
Why hasn't the surfing star received international acclaim?  The sport seems stuck to the romantic image of Duke Paoa Kahanamoku (August 24, 1890-January 22, 1968), who popularized surfing, was an Olympic swimming multi-medalist and sheriff of Honolulu for 29 years.  Tourists to Waikiki linger at the beachside restaurant honoring him, and pose next to the bronze statue that is usually festooned with leis. Surfing reminds people of their vacations, of impossibly clear, warm aqua water, and not real life.  Few Americans can watch surfing matches, other than on YouTube, where it seems unreal, like a travelogue.

Surfing is also a solitary sport, where an individual isn't playing on a team, and where the foe isn't other human beings.  Surfers don't represent a city or municipality, but, more often, market a product.

The sport's not like figure skating, where the setting remains still, and the athlete can hone a skill in solitary concentration.  Surfers contend with an unpredictable (and poorly viewable) "field," waves that can be treacherous or straightforward, powerful or meek, and the goal is not just form but conquering and yet adapting to circumstances that can shift instantly.  Beyond that, there's innovation and technique, a type of dance and originality that requires unity of surfer, surfboard and water--but not spectator.  Plus, there's a selfish side, a thrill, a sense of purpose and well-being that the sport provides its adherent, that can't be communicated to an audience on the shore.

Take a look at this illuminating video featuring the late Andy Irons explaining why he surfed. You'll see a confused though endearing person who seems to make surfing his great escape from reality. Eerily, the first background song opens with the lyric, "killed myself when I was young..."

I'm looking forward to a Hawaiian vacation in a few weeks, when the surf is at its peak on the North Shore of Oahu. There's something fierce about the crashing waves, rising up like some foaming dragon to ensnarl its prey.  The risk makes watching tense, but also provides a thrill, a roller-coaster-like breath-snatching fear that only resolves when the head of the downed rider emerges from the swirling froth.

In a sense, surfing is a reminder of our insignificance, our lack of control in the face of nature's dominance.  We as humans hope to tame and manipulate our environment, but unlike other sports, surfing is a constant reminder of God's power as superior to our own.

It's that aspect that makes surfing alien to mainline sports, and appropriately personal for those who live with the sea.  Surfers rely on nature for the basis of their sport, and mortality and awe might be concepts too heavy for sports fans when they're out for a nice afternoon's fun.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Canada, Oh, Canada!

Last weekend my husband was the scholar-in-residence for a Jewish Sabbath event in Vancouver, BC, hosted by a large synagogue.  We left Seattle about 6 am in the rainy darkness (sunup was about 8 am).  The only exciting part of our trek to the north was a freeway mishap in which we were snagged by a large, random piece of metal lying in our lane that drilled onto our front bumper, caught in its own hole, and dragged alongside us, etching the side doors, until we could exit the freeway and extricate it (thousands of dollars' bodywork).  The good news is that there was no line at the border crossing; with our passports and a couple of perfunctory questions, we were off.

The couple who invited us were congenial and intelligent, and as soon as we arrived, the husband presented us each with a red Remembrance Day poppy pin, worn the week before November 11, a national holiday honoring the country's war dead and military sacrifices.

Poppy in lapel, I went with the wife on a little tour of Granville Island, while my husband worked.  Toting her 6-month-old in a pouch, we explored the market stalls and quaint shops, and she told me about her life in Canada.  She was born in Vancouver, met her husband while at McGill University, completed law school and a year's practicum--and suffered plenty of frustrations and challenges living in a half-socialistic state.

Later, after services, I was seated next to a different young couple for the traditional Sabbath dinner.  The husband represented the third generation in his family's local business, though his wife had grown up in San Diego.  An upbeat and appealing pair, but they, too lapsed into a litany of difficulties with the system.

And the next day, we were delighted to be invited for lunch to the home of the congregation's assistant rabbi, with the head rabbi and his wife and many friends also in attendance.  On our walk from synagogue to our meal, as the food was assembled, and during our repast, we engaged in wide-ranging discussion--that somehow always returned to the vagaries of the Canadian experience.

We heard variants of these three complaints:  1) The health care system is tough to navigate, insensitive to individual needs, and even dangerous, given long waits for surgeries and selectivity about who's entitled to care.  2) Taxes are astronomical, with taxes on top of taxes, leaving people little left with which to enjoy life.  3) Compared with the United States, Canada offers less variety of all sorts of goods, and an insouciance about customer service that drives our new friends to make frequent trips to the US to shop.

Here are some of their stories.  One woman's brother, 21 years old, has a digestive problem causing constant discomfort and daily vomiting.  It took him three months to get an appointment with a doctor, another three for a specialist, and now he's waiting six more months for his needed surgery.  Another person I spoke with told me that while private, directly paid health care was recently approved, not everyone can afford such care on top of the taxes for basic services--the case for the 21-year-old brother, who suffers constantly. I found an interesting article describing a current court case where a for-profit hospital is claiming the Canadian law forbidding private docs from charging more than they'd charge the national health care system is unconstitutional, impinging on patients' rights to freedom of care.

A new mom told me of the rule that each obstetric patient must bring her own birth companion--because hospitals don't have the staff to watch over women in labor.

View from Granville Island
Taxes upon taxes.  The "Harmonized Sales Tax" went into effect July 1, shifting around sales taxes a bit, but resulting in a pretty-much-the-same 12% tax on Canadian goods.  Touted as a money-saver since certain low income earners can apply to get some of it refunded, and because it simplifies the taxes that previously kicked in at each step of manufacture (and pushed up the cost of goods), it's got a big thumbs up from the government.  But if you go to its website, you'll see a daunting list of what wage-earners must pay--consumer taxes (that Harmonized Sales Tax, Provincial Sales Tax, Hotel Room Tax, Tobacco Tax, Motor Fuel Tax / Carbon Tax, Tobacco Tax), Income taxes, (Personal Income Tax, Insurance Premium Tax, Logging Tax), Property Tax, and Natural Resources Tax (Forest Revenue, Mineral Tax, and Mineral Land Tax).

I saw the effect of taxing each stage of production when I ran into a market to grab some snacks for my toiling hubby.  A little pack of trail mix was $7.  A small box of Kashi crackers was $5.  Two large apples were $4. By the way, the exchange rate is now about 1:1.

Meanwhile, salaries in Canada are not too far from US wages. One of the big grouses I heard is that nearly every type of job is unionized, which means business is stuck paying what unions demand.  (In 2007, a third of all workers were unionized; government workers comprise the largest union in the country).  The new mother I spoke to said the shortage of obstetric nurses was due to the high wages they command, forcing hospitals to minimize staff. 

Housing, according to our host, who kindly drove us through the neighborhoods where he lives and grew up, seems at least as expensive as in our Seattle area.  The average price for a Vancouver residence as of September, 2010 is $679,000.  I consider that steep.

The final complaint, that retail shopping is limited and not that pleasant, links to the unions and governmental entitlement mentality, my dinner companion explained.  "Sales staff don't want to help you; they don't smile, or offer to get you anything," she noted, "because they think everything's taken care of by somebody else; they don't have to make an effort."  So she treks south to shop, her Nexus border pass smoothing her crossings.

She did recount the recent tale of her sister, who frequently visits from Seattle using her own Nexus membership.  The sister had made a Vancouver Costco run, bringing groceries back home to her sis as a favor.  However, she'd inadvertently stuck a pack of toilet tissue in her trunk with her things--it's strictly forbidden to buy anything Canadian and take it across to the US without paying duty on it.  She flashed her Nexus to cross the border, and somehow the patrol found the undeclared toilet paper.  She was detained two hours, while the officers decided whether or not to charge her--ultimately, her sister said, "they let her go with a slap on the wrist, and a stern warning that should she try to pass contraband, she would be jailed!"

Several of our lunch-mates said they make regular visits to Seattle to shop, especially for kosher food, of which there's far less in Canada.  I overheard them discussing the merits of one kosher-specializing Seattle market over another.  Most travel south for supplies at least monthly.  One lady said she prefers shopping in the US because Canadian stores are shabbier--even when they're the same chain.  "For instance, there's a world of difference shopping in WalMart in Canada versus WalMart in the US," she insisted.  "In Canada there's a lot less selection, and the store's dirty and dingy."  She too notices a difference in the way salesclerks treat customers.  A native of Vancouver, she scowled that if it weren't for her family, "I don't think I'd stay."

The reason I write about this is that I was completely surprised to hear so much spontaneous complaining about the Canadian system. The Economist this year ranks Vancouver as the most livable city on the entire globe, while Forbes lists it as the fourth-best city in the world.  The beautiful setting and quaint-plus-new combo gives it an urban rush with a charming British twist.  Certainly the people I met there were top-notch--affable, interested, opinionated, yes, but warm-as-toast.  And sincere. Quite sincere.

A two-day adventure, but after listening to our new friends describe their worlds, I was certainly glad to come home. ...Even though we idled for 45 minutes in line at the border at 10 pm on a Saturday night to do it.  When finally at the front of the slowly snaking queue of cars, two questions, show our passports...and we're on good old American soil, back in what even our new northern friends agree is the greatest nation on God's green earth.