Monday, November 30, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

I know it's past, but I want to alert you to a Thanksgiving experience that has had me contorting with laughter for days
My three favorites are among the winner and the honorable mentions.
There is something beyond hilarious at family dysfunction around Holidays, when everybody is trying so hard not to rip each other to pieces.
People can't wait til Christmas so they can share whatever horror happened then.
God love em. For some reason, this restores my faith in humanity. I don't know why.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Republican Legacy

Well, y'all red states people should be proud of yourselves, now that thanks to the economic and social policies you champion with your tea parties and love for Sarah Palin, we have actually become a welfare state, and I wish I meant Norway.
With food stamp use at record highs and climbing every month, a program once scorned as a failed welfare scheme now helps feed one in eight Americans and one in four children.
Maybe you can all write a thank you note to W. at his lovely ranch in Crawford, TX.
The richest, most powerful country on Earth: Food Stamps and no universal health coverage for no one, way to go!

Swiss Miss

Today I read on the news that voters in Switzerland overwhelmingly approve of a ban on building minarets in mosques. The right wing party that supports the ban claims it is a step to avoid the islamization of Switzerland. They claim minarets are not religious, but political symbols. By the way, the call to prayer is banned in this country. Switzerland, of course, prides itself, besides its watches, chocolates and shady banking, on its strong democracy, so these developments present an interesting conundrum. Understandable reactions are of shock at the intolerance. I find it hard to buy the notion that a minaret is a political tool, particularly if you can't use it to broadcast the call to prayer to begin with. In a way, it's like banning churches from having bell towers. Absurd.
What the ban seems to be saying is, you and your religion are not totally welcome here. And in this here democracy, you are going to toe the line. If you don't like it, go to Iran.
This, I believe, is a corollary from the utter terror Western democracies feel about radical Islam. This equally understandable fear would have never taken hold if Islamic fundamentalists had not decided to go on their murderous rampages against the West. Nobody would think to bother with minarets.
What does not assuage Western fears is that moderate Islam seems ineffectual against the crazies. Moderation is by nature timid; obviously it will have much less impact than a beheading. And I am convinced that even moderate Muslims are deeply afraid of the radicals in their religion. They don't seem to be coming out in droves to condemn them or reject them, and this silence, this lack of moderate leadership (understandable in a religion that also has different warring factions) makes everyone deeply nervous.
Elsewhere in this blog I have opined that if you are a Jew, a Muslim or a member of the Church of Elvis, and you live in a secular democracy, you have to follow the law of the land. Deeply intolerant people take advantage of tolerant political systems, and then the tolerant become intolerant towards the intolerant, which is now the case in places like Britain, France and now Switzerland. 
Unfortunately, this polarization, this lack of a middle ground, seems to inflame religious passions, which doesn't help. I wish it would spur the moderate majority of Muslims both in the West and elsewhere to reject the psychopaths and to profess their faith in peace with the rest of us, infidels.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Food Issues

As I consume the Food Issue of The New Yorker, I burp out opinions.

On being a Michelin Inspector:
Something doesn't jell.
1. Why do these people always have to eat alone? If they had a dining partner, they could sample more things and they would not look totally suspicious, for what pathetic individual goes to an extravagant three star restaurant to eat three courses with wine on their own? This does not make sense to me. If I worked in the restaurant and saw a lonely diner doing this I might think they were a Michelin inspector, or a tourist from Michigan (I'll grant you that).
2. If M., the inspector in the story, has dinner with the guy who handles Michelin guides in the US, she's blown her cover, and even though perhaps she may not ever go there again, they should not have done that. Also, if the restaurant knows the Michelin guide guy, it will make sure to give these people the most amazing meal of their lives. Regular humans may not get the same treatment, which is why sometimes one goes to highly touted restaurants and one can't fathom why, since the service is snotty and the food, meh.
3. Which leads me to this final point on the subject of Jean Georges. I've had dinner there. The food was very good. Some of it perfect, some ongepatchket. Not everything worked. Still, I don't remember a single dish we ate and we were 4 people. Not one. I've had meals at other fancy places like Gotham or even A Voce that have been much more memorable.
The service at Jean Georges was good at the beginning (although I don't understand why staff at such places confuses discretion with icy, long faces) and then we were forgotten. I would not have given this restaurant three Michelin stars. Two maybe.
But who asked me, right?

On spit cakes:
I do not appreciate being told that there used to be marvelous German cafés in New York where you could stuff yourself with cake and now they are no more. I haven't decided if this breaks my heart or makes me immeasurably angry.
It upsets me to no end that people don't go to a café to eat cake anymore. I don't either, but I like to have the option. In Mexico City, there are European style cafés with excellent cakes and cookies which also serve tortilla soup or huevos rancheros if you so desire, and they rock.
One of the few things that New York lacks in terms of food is such European style cafés, like they're a dime a dozen in Paris (and disappearing fast), and where you can have a prix fixe lunch or just inhale a Chocolat Liegeois any time of day, or have a cup of coffee and sit there for eighteen hours. I resent this. (Café Select on Lafayette tries to be like this, but not enough cakes). Also, now I want a spit cake.

On Poutine:
Calvin Trillin, a hilarious food writer. Just this description of Poutine had me in stitches: "surprisingly inoffensive". I was in Montreal and didn't dare taste the stuff. It just looks gross.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Mr. Good News

Seymour Hersh is the human equivalent of that movie 2012, only he's really, really scary.
Whenever I want to burst into cold sweats, I read him.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ahora Resulta: Chocolate Milk

Ahora resulta is a wonderful phrase in Spanish that means, "now it turns out", usually applied with dripping irony. Well, ahora resulta that, according to science, chocolate milk, which I love but have been avoiding like the plague for years in order not to gain pounds, is very, very good for you.
Move over, red wine. Make room for chocolate milk. A new study suggests that regular consumption of skim milk with flavonoid-rich cocoa may reduce inflammation, potentially slowing or preventing development of atherosclerosis. Researchers noted, however, that the effect was not as pronounced as that seen with red wine.
Scientists in Barcelona, Spain...
Aha! The key to this magnificent discovery is the Barcelonity (Barcelonaness, Barcelonism, Barcelonicity?) of the scientists in question. No doubt fueled by their love of local chocolate miracle drink CacaoLat, they had to come up with better reasons to drink it. 
I bet the people at Hershey's and Quik are already pasting this info on their labels as we speak. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Bring back the Draft

I read Obama's speech at Fort Hood yesterday. Lovely, as usual, but he is starting to get on my nerves. As I've said before, this terrible tragedy is an opportunity for us to discuss why we are waging two wars and for how long we expect to do so with a volunteer army. As many have pointed out, the only people who are sacrificing anything are American soldiers. No one else is asked to share the burden and no one else seems to care as long as they can continue shopping and owing money in peace.
The reason why our anti-war movement is pathetic and ineffectual is because we don't have compulsory military service. As long as our precious American youth is  unharmed, who cares? Who cares about those who risk their lives, who for the most part are not children of privilege? The Army in many cases is their way out of poverty or into education and opportunity. So don't give me the bullshit that we are all created equal. If that was the case, all Americans of fighting age would be required to join the military.
The burden on the Army is enormous. I wonder how many people are signing up. Maybe after this incident there will be a spike of emboldened rednecks, but I'm sure it is not enough to support our increasingly costly misadventures abroad.  Our spineless, cowardly Congress prefers to keep abusing American soldiers rather than bring back the draft, surely to be an incredibly unpopular measure. Maybe they are counting on the economic crisis and all those foreclosed and unemployed people to look for Army jobs.
Bring back the draft and I can assure you that there would be ipso facto riots and demonstrations a la Vietnam war, and a surge of popular opinion against our wars.
But as long as we can fall back on the underclass, look the other way and pretend that as long as it's not happening to us, it's not happening, these wars are going to last forever.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Who are Jew?

Interesting article about a case in Britain of a Jewish parochial school who denied admission to a Jewish kid, the son of a Jewish father and a converted mother, because the school did not accept the mother's conversion. This conversion was done in a progressive synagogue as opposed to an Orthodox one. Someone decided this was not kosher. This is wrong.
This woman went through a conversion in order to marry her Jewish husband. This conversion happened in a legitimate synagogue, albeit not an Orthodox one. The conversion should be accepted by the school. End of story.
The refusal to accept this woman's legitimate conversion has nothing to do with religion or faith and everything to do with politics and the power trip that the Orthodox wield around the world. They get away with it because nobody is willing to stop them. Secular Jews think, wrongly, that the Orthodox are needed to preserve Judaism. The only way to preserve Judaism is to be in touch with your roots and your culture, not to expect others to do it for you. There is no reason, religious, legal, moral, historical, or otherwise for the Orthodox to have the sole right to determine who is a Jew and who isn't. Theirs is an interpretation of law and custom among many others equally valid.
Now, this family took the school to civil court on the grounds of discrimination. WELL DONE. However, this has opened a very interesting can of worms with enormous ramifications for Jewish life in the diaspora. The court has ruled that the school discriminated the boy on the basis of ethnicity, which is illegal in Britain. The case affects other religions as well, but since Judaism is the only religion that claims matrilineal descent as proof of Judaism, the implications for Jews are enormous. The British court neglected to take into account, or willfully ignored, (which would be very troubling) this Jewish religious exceptionalism and ruled that defining religion on the base of ethnicity is discriminatory.
Well, this is what Judaism does, and it has always been a problem in our relationship with non-Jews. People ask me, so are Jews a religion or are we a race? If Jewish law says that a Jew is a person born of a Jewish woman, then we are a race. This is why Judaism is not a proselytizing religion. We are not actively looking for converts. We can only expand demographically by having children inside the faith. "Be fruitful and multiply", says God in the Bible (this is why the Orthodox practice no birth control and have oodles of children). However, if someone, for reasons of love or conviction wants to join the tribe, they may do so, after converting. Someone must have noticed early that it would be impossible to restrict our involvement with the rest of humanity so drastically and decided to allow for conversion.
Gentiles don't understand a religion that is also an ethnic group or race. They believe it is discriminatory and racist. It's problematic but it's what makes Jews, Jews; unless we all decide to change the law and agree that a Jew is simply someone who wants to profess our faith, regardless of their ethnic origin. This would change what we've been for over 5000 years and could technically render me (a fervent atheist) not a Jew, and every single hardcore evangelical Christian, a Jew (this by the way, is the spurious premise of Jews for Jesus).
Orthodox Jews, of course, sympathize with the school, saying that observance is no test of Jewishness, and that all that matters is whether one’s mother is Jewish. So little does observance matter, in fact, that “having a ham sandwich on the afternoon of Yom Kippur doesn’t make you less Jewish,” Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, chairman of the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue, said recently.

That's me, in a nutshell. I agree with that. This is why it is perfectly possible to be a Jew and an atheist at the same time. It's not about faith but about genealogy, history, and culture.
Jewish orthodoxy is not the only legitimate game in town anymore. There are different congregations which have adapted Jewish beliefs and traditions to modern life. They are no less legitimate than orthodoxy. Secular Jews, who are always way too tolerant of the tyrannical designs of the Orthodox, should reject their strongarming tactics.
I remember when the Ethiopian Jews arrived in Israel, and the Orthodox were demanding conversions of them. The gall. I know people who went to school with me and live fully committed Jewish lives, and have Jewish kids of their own, that would not be accepted as Jews by the Orthodox simply because their mothers converted in non-orthodox synagogues. This is unacceptable.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Fort Hood

I was saddened to hear of the events at Fort Hood, a place I visited a few years ago while filming a commercial in Spanish for the US Army, and which I have fond memories of, believe it or not.  But immediately after learning the name of the psychiatrist who sprayed bullets into a medical center in the base I knew it was going to get ugly, because the guy has an Arabic name. The New York Times has not made much of his Muslim connection yet, except for a link to a CNN video that shows him wearing Arab garb at a convenience store, but Yahoo News is already out with theories about his involvement in Islamic extremism and the word terrorism is being bandied about and apparently someone at Fox News has called for investigating all the Muslims in this country. This should come as no surprise. Within this country's great tolerance for diversity also lies barely repressed racism, which becomes paranoid in times of crisis. We don't have all the facts about the killer now, but what is more troubling is whether we will ever be able to construct a measured factual picture of this man and his motives without the media (CNN, Fox News) distorting them to create panic and ratings.
Still, this tragic incident provides an opportunity for Americans to open their eyes to the two foreign wars that are killing and maiming civilians and American soldiers, far from these shores without nary a peep from society at large and no sign of improvement; on the contrary, with deterioration all around.
It is a fitting metaphor of how insufficient, to say the least, is the Army's handling of the consequences of these wars that one of their own psychiatrists is the killer. That he is a Muslim American with deep conflicts about being deployed is only a reminder that we are a diverse society. Americans have many origins and we are mostly lucky that we have many allegiances to our diverse roots. But unfortunately for some people (you know who you are, Red States), this is a perfect pretext for xenophobia.
This serves as a reminder that we are carrying on two wars, pretending they are happening too far away to notice, yet in a very small world. The chickens come home to roost in our own backyard, and instead of using this as a pretext to terrorize American Arabs, this should be an opportunity to ponder the usefulness of our military involvement where we are not welcome and where we don't seem to be making any progress.
In other words, let's get the hell out of Dodge.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Woe Vegan.

Now that we know how ghastly animals are treated before they become a Big Mac or a chicken nugget, we can decide to make some choices about whether we are going to eat that meat or we are going to buy meat from animals that have been treated more humanely.
I don't eat a lot of meat. I do eat ham, and it turns out the poor pigs really have it very bad. So now I need to look for humane ham. I don't eat chicken, and I don't eat junk food. I buy eggs that have no antibiotics and are cage free.
What I can't abide is people like precious Jonathan Safran Foer taking the holier than thou attitude and deciding that eating meat is immoral. Animals survive by killing and eating other animals. That doesn't mean that we have to do exactly the same. We can make rational choices that animals can't. However, there is something that really rubs me the wrong way about people who feel morally superior to those of us who enjoy good food and eating well.  You want to be a vegetarian, or a vegan? By all means, choke yourself on tofu and tempeh to your heart's content, but don't be expecting me to do the same.

Murder, Inc.

Jill Lepore in The New Yorker has a very illuminating article on why the US has the number one murder rate in the industrialized world. We have almost 4 times the murder rate of France and the UK and 6 times that of Germany.
Why is there so much violence in the US?
Apparently, among other things, because we have a weak government. According to some historians, democracy arrived too soon to these shores, at a time when our incipient society was not ready for it. Europe had many centuries to grow into democracy and to refine its social institutions. We didn't, and hence the mistrust of government that has always been a part of the culture here. Hmmm.
Historians and anthropologists claim that the human murder rate has gone down through the ages, as man changed from a culture of honor to a culture of dignity.
This important distinction is worth noting, as this change accounts for civilization. For instance, right now, the Western world, supposedly deeply invested in a culture of dignity (human rights, democracy, etc) is fighting an ideological and physical war against those who still believe in a culture of honor, be it islamofascists or fundamentalists of all stripes and religious persuasions. All fundamentalists are still invested in a culture of honor (revenge, female oppression, generalized primitivism).
Now, the overwhelming majority of murderers are men. The murder rate always goes down after a war, when apparently the appetite for destruction is sated, at least for a while. People are trying to understand the reasons for such a high murder rate in the US, and why murder rates go up or down.
A great chunk of the blame obviously lies in the fact that this is the only country on Earth where some people believe it is a human right to bear arms. Anywhere else, this is sheer absurdity. Other societies have consented to disarm and to agree that only certain institutions for the public safety are allowed to use arms, like the police and the army. But Americans having arms is not the only cause for murder. Some historians claim that it is lack of faith in government which lets loose the murder rate. In which case, this would explain why we are so trigger happy over here. People are deeply cynical and skeptical of government and with good reason. But this is true in Mexico or Argentina for instance, and I doubt these countries have the murder rate we do. article called “Homicide: Explaining America’s Exceptionalism,” which hypothesized that four factors accounted for the centuries-long differences between American and European homicide rates: mobility, federalism, slavery, and tolerance. Mobility breaks social ties; federalism is a weak form of government; slavery not only rationalized a culture of violence among white Southerners (where the murder rate has been disproportionately high, as it has, and remains, in many of the so-called law-and-order states) but also infected American culture; and American judges and juries have historically proved less willing than their European counterparts to convict murderers, tolerating, among other crimes, racial murders and killings by jealous spouses.
To judge from the political debacles we have witnessed since Obama became president, and the disgrace that was the Bush administration it is as clear as day that indeed, even though we may believe in the fantasy that we are the most powerful country on Earth, this is not because we have a strong government. Quite the contrary. We have a weak, corrupt, vulnerable political system that is prey to powerful business interests. Federalism, which is great in many ways, (as in the dynamics of lack of crippling centralization), is very bad on others, like lack of a national consensus on basic rights and laws. The parties are pathetic. Nobody really has any real power. Just look at Congress. So is this why people feel compelled to kill their fellow Americans?
The article also points out that we are the society that incarcerates the most people (most of them black or brown) and the only industrialized nation that still has the death penalty. As in, this kind of punishment does not bring the murder rate down. It pushes it up.
Excellent food for thought.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Eats me up

The NYT has a list of do's and dont's for restaurant staff.
It has prompted more than 1000 comments (some really nasty ones from disgruntled servers).
Do not get me started on restaurants in NY.
Since the crisis, I think the attitude problems have gotten a little better. Now you don't have to feel like some establishments are doing you a favor by you spending money in them. I have never understood how in a city where there is a good restaurant or more on almost every block, restaurants can afford to treat diners with attitude.
My favorite evil thing restaurants here do is:
"3. Never refuse to seat three guests because a fourth has not yet arrived".
This drives me absolutely insane. It is not welcoming.
Other stuff that drives me insane:
• No one to greet you at the door, but you can't take a table by yourself.
• Idiot hostesses or hosts (especially if they are good looking and useless, like at Coffee Shop in Union Square).
• Reserved tables for no one in particular, just for hype (see above).
• A restaurant full of empty tables and an idiot who asks you for a reservation.
• Empty tables and a line of hungry people outside.
• No smiles.
• Asking for the bill three times (Dim Sum Go Go. Great food, lousy service).
• Asking for tap water and never getting it (Yes you, Bar Pitti).
• When waiters cannot hide their frustration/disappointment/contempt if you only order tap water, or if you order from the cheap stuff.
• "Do you need change?" Who am I, Warren Buffett?
• Restaurants with bouncers.
• Bad food.