Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Why I Hate Houseplants

  1. They drop leaves on the floor.
  2. They don’t tell you they are hungry.
  3. Their names never really suit them, so I find them really hard to remember.
  4. They die.
  5. Dirt in a pot indoors is good for a cat to dig in.
  6. Dirt in a pot indoors is good for a cat to pee in.
  7. Dirt in a pot indoors is good for a cat to poop in.
  8. You are supposed to keep them alive.
  9. They never pay for dinner.
  10. Sometimes they get horrible little tiny insect infestations.
  11. They cast dreadful shadows.
  12. They fall off the shelves.
  13. Their methods of reproduction are very confusing.
  14. Most of them are poisonous.
  15. Any time anything interesting happens, they attribute the cause to a magical invisible being that lives in the dirt.
  16. They have all these needs (light, water) where you can’t give them too little or too much.
  17. Most of them look delicious to cats.
  18. They don’t know any funny jokes.
  19. They don’t help with housework, and they never answer the phone.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Letter to a CEO #1

Today I wrote a letter I have been meaning to write for a while. 


Tim Cook, CEO
1 Infinite Loop
Cupertino, CA 95014

29 January, 2012

Dear Mr. Cook:
No doubt you had a worse day than I did last Friday. The New York Times piece about working conditions in the Chinese factories Apple uses was damning, to say the least.  My 8th grader’s missing Spanish assignment pales in comparison.
I am an Apple customer. Between my husband and three children and me, we have an iPad, two iPad 2s, six iPhones, three MacBook Airs, an Apple TV and a 27” iMac.
Since your background is in operations, you may not yet be known as an innovator. You have a unique leadership opportunity to set the example for your entire industry to build devices without polluting and to employ workers humanely, by insisting on safe working conditions.  The energy your company spends to defend itself against critics of these practices could be invested in vigorously pursuing what you know is just. Your legacy could be leading the way for your entire industry to build better, cleaner machines which do not just reflect your design specifications, but your values.  Be the innovator who raises the bar for sourcing ethics.
I do not exaggerate to say that as loyal customers we would gladly pay more for products made by workers who do not require suicide nets to keep them from flinging themselves from the windows. Better still, bring the manufacturing of Apple products back to the United States, as President Obama asked in his State of the Union address last week.
Sincerely yours,
Maggie Russell Berkes
P.O. Box XXX
North Salem, NY 10560

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Last Monday

At lunch in the city I saw someone across the room who was a pretty good friend of mine in college. I was trapped on the wrong side of a large table, so getting up and saying hello would have been a huge distraction: drawing a lot of attention to me and isolating my kid (who was sitting next to me). I had nearly summoned the energy to do it anyway, when she was joined by a male friend that I did not recognize, and I gave up.  While I ate, she glanced over at me at least once, but either she did not see me or she did not want to see me. It is also possible that she saw me but did not remember me, even though my kid looks like a 14-year-old version of his father, who she also knew.
It is not a wholly new situation; we have all been in it before. You wait for the chatty neighbor to get in his car and drive away so you won’t have to say hello. You ignore the fact that Leon Redbone is struggling to be re-booked at a USAirways counter because you know that celebrities deserve to suffer the humiliations of airline travel undisturbed. You pretend you don’t see your grandpa in Steak 'n Shake because you go there to smoke and it’s your super-secret hideout.
Meanwhile, my husband, sometimes known as the Bacon Provider, got an email at work that day. Now he is a bit of a Medium Cheese in the world, having been on the creation end of a number of gadgety electrical things like the Xbox and tablets, and recently enjoyed a bit of extra media attention owing to his quitting work.
Well, the Medium Cheese got one of those creepy do-you-remember-me-? emails on his work account. Apparently, a woman who went to elementary school with him one year remembered his name and wondered, something like 35 years later, whatever happened to that guy?  The Medium Cheese’s family moved frequently when he was a kid, and his quiet, studious nature had left an impression. “I'm sure you don't remember me, but I've never forgotten you…. I often wondered how you turned out. Imagine my surprise at when I Googled you. I'm so relieved you didn't turn into a serial killer.”  
Apparently there just aren’t that many serial killers around anymore. When they are revealed, there is the usual set of interviews with the neighbors, who always say the vicious murderer was “kind of quiet.” Who doesn’t fit this description? David Lee Roth? 
The Medium Cheese is mostly unperturbed by the creepy email, and I think it bothers me more. This is a guy who will not kill spiders and who once stopped his Mercedes on the 520 bridge to rescue a baby duck.  But then again,  they say Hitler was an animal lover

Friday, January 27, 2012

Absolutely True and Completely Unexpected Message #4

This appeared in my inbox yesterday. How unlikely for Mark Zuckerberg to have a Hotmail account! What an opportunity! Yeesh.

Dear Friend, 

My name is Mark Zuckerberg, Chief Executive Officer of Facebook. We have recently partnered up with Apple regarding a one-time test project today, we are finding people who can test the upcoming Apple iPad3 and keep it for free. Apple mackintosh want to make their product perfect before going public. We select users from our system database randomly and you have matched with our latest drawing. 

We are operating this project for one-day only. All you need to do is CLICK HERE to check out our web site made for this project and fill out the short survey to obtain your chance of test an iPad3 and keep it for free. Simply make sure you enter your email so we can locate our records to guarantee that we have reserved one for you. That's it! 

If you have any question or concerns, feel free to e-mail me back. However, you need to claim 1st to ensure one will be set-aside for you before the deadline ends. We do understand that you may not receive this e-mail until after the deadline, but, we suggest you check out the web site to see if we still have yours on hold, which we often-times do because others may haven't claimed theirs in time. 

Mark Zuckerberg 
CEO, Facebook

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What I am reading now #1

How do we see, in a jumbled scene of thousands of books stretching from one edge to the other of our peripheral vision, the name of a college professor on the binding? Do we store a cache of known names in our minds, just in case we might see them again? Are we each a bit like Sherlock Holmes, in our ability to grab tiny clues? Why, then, do we lose our keys when we put them on the kitchen table? How come I can’t find the new jar of mustard in the fridge? Was I actually looking for this professor’s name because I am always looking for his name on the bindings of books?
The human mind is better at searching for things that it recognizes than software is. I was prowling around the Strand Bookstore the other day, and a book was there in front of me on a shelf and the author was one of my college professors.  I have run into his books in bookstores before, and I do not kid you to say it has been the bargain bin at Barnes & Noble on two occasions, and I always sneer at them.  My specific memories of him were of drinking tea at his house because he had invited a famous (and terrifying) author to come talk to us lowly undergrads and of getting a B+ on every paper I ever wrote in his classes.  I guess I could tell you about his head and his hair and his nose and his glasses (oblong; thick, brown tonsure; prominent; round tortoiseshell), and I can hear his quiet tenor voice intoning about Yeats in a way that made me never want to hear about Yeats again.  I stopped working and started playing in his classes, taking scary risks on papers (writing an essay at my typewriter in the hour or so before it was due). I never “got” him, if you know what I mean by that. I don’t think he “got” me, either.
Turning around I was facing a table of influential non-fiction books and found a stack of paperback copies of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. It was colorful and inexpensive, and I picked it up and turned it over. I only buy a fraction of the books I pick up in bookstores; I couldn’t say what fraction. What needs to be on the back to get me to take it home? In this case, a Picador edition, rave reviews from Studs Terkel and the New York Times were enough. There’s a day-glo school bus on the cover, with “Further” as its destination.
I was a little kid in the 1960s, and my only memory of the world outside of my little life before about 1976 is of my brother recording with his cassette tape recorder President Nixon resigning on TV. I do remember some of the big 6th grade kids being very scary when I was in kindergarten, but I was afraid of everything then.  The hippies had long, long hair and crazy, crazy clothes and they were almost as menacing as crows or old people.  I love addressing things that scared me as a child.
I have plowed through reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test like I’ve got a quiz on it tomorrow. I have re-read passages, read passages aloud, sought people out to share it with.  Tom Wolfe tried to capture not just the people and the actions, but the sound of it, the rap of it, and the aesthetic (if you could call it that) of the Merry Pranksters. I think Wolfe delivered more than a sketch, but the full experience of what it was to be “on the bus.”
And you must know, dear Reader, that the bus was called “Furthur.” Beyond societal norms, beyond good spelling, beyond normal perception, that's where they were going. The cover illustration is wrong. The spelling was corrected by an artist or editor who didn’t get it.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What I Dreamed Last Night #1

Maybe it wasn’t last night (it was this morning), but I dreamed the relentlessly ringing alarm of the phone of my husband, the Relentless Troubleshooter, was actually a notification from his truck tires that the warrantee was almost used up.  Whether the warrantee of those truck tires is used up is not something I know, you understand, and does not appear on the Official-List-of-Things-I-Am-Responsible-For. 
I want to tell you, though, about the dream I had about my friend, F___. Mind you, her name is not really F___, but for the purposes of this telling it will have to do.
Two nights ago I dreamed about my friend F___. She was back living with The Badgers, and The Badger Daughter was her roommateThe Badger Daughter roommate was a nurse for a Jug Band. She wore one of those dusky blue, old fashioned nurses' uniforms to work, complete with a tiny starched white hat pinned to the top of her hair. One night the Jug Band was opening for David Bowie, and my friend F___ was invited along. 

Now in this dream, it was not 1960s David Bowie, nor was it 1970s David Bowie, nor was it 1980s David Bowie. It was more like 2030s David Bowie: very old, very frail, and very wrinkled and spotty. Yet he retained his switched
-on zeal. My friend F___ and David Bowie struck up a conversation backstage, and it turned out that they shared a love of polka music, card games, and puns. They could not resist each other, and spent the night together. The startling revelation that my friend was pregnant with David Bowie's baby woke me up.

Let’s get this straight: a magical entity did not put the baby there, David Bowie and my friend F___ did it together. Babies are created by a biological process which requires no intervention by magical entities. You might have learned about it in health class in 5th grade.  I know this to be true, even in a wacky dream world where a Jug Band has a nurse.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Vacations and Imaginary Places

How often does a person need a vacation?  Certainly vacations are a first-world luxury, and even within the developed world, standards for appropriate amounts of time off vary from the American two weeks to countries like France and Finland where they have 10 national holidays and 30 mandatory days of vacation.  Even within the U.S. there is wide variability about holidays granted by employers; my husband, the Bacon Provider, earned his keep at Microsoft for almost 18 years, never once getting to enjoy Martin Luther King Day because it’s business as usual at Microsoft on Martin Luther King Day.  By my accounting, he worked 18 days that the federal government set aside to honor a civil rights leader and encourage shopping after Christmas.  This is almost four weeks of vacation.
For our spring vacation last year, we planned a trip to Japan and Hawaii. The Bacon Provider has been to Japan on business a number of times, and has been talking about taking me there for years. We were also taking our two kids still in the house these days, boys aged 17 and 13. I have been looking forward to going to Japan for a long time. We bought tickets in advance to visit the Ghibli Museum on April 14th. You have to buy these tickets in advance, but it is not possible to purchase tickets from the U.S. online. Instead, you must make reservations over the phone. It is a complex transaction, where the purchaser is required to give the full name and birthdate of each ticket-holder.  This memorable phone conversation took up the better part of a morning, to a local Japanese tourism office in Seattle.
Obviously, rolling blackouts and food shortages and radioactive fallout from catastrophic failure at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima Daiichi meant that we did not go to Japan for this vacation. I have waited a long time to go to Japan, and I will have to wait some more. 
When I was a little kid and still believed in the possibility that the world was a very magical place, I used to imagine that nothing happened outside of what I could currently see and experience. If people went out of view, they stopped existing. Sometimes this was kind of a cool idea, because it meant that I did not need to worry about missing interesting things. Other times, this was a very scary idea, especially when my parents took me to stay at my grandparent’s house while they went out of town. I do remember wondering if places that I had never been actually existed, or if they would be conjured up just before I arrived.
One of the many side effects of being a parent is sometimes phrases get stuck in your head  from books and movies and books-on-tape enjoyed by your children when they were young.  My oldest (now an adult) loved Thomas the Tank Engine, and I can hear in my head, “A change is as good as a rest!” whenever I think about vacation planning.  I don’t think we travel to rest up.  I think we do it to get out of our ruts.
People closest to me know that this moving-to-New-York-thing has been a bit of a long, bad vacation.  A number of things have not worked out how we expected, and I find myself living in a spooky and lonely rural/suburban town for which there are no freeway exit signs, as if living here means getting away from it all, whether or not you want to get away from it all. I do not have all of my clothes or books or sewing supplies.  In early July I took a road trip, across the U.S., which ended with moving in to a furnished apartment. From there we moved to a furnished house. In the summer there were days when I had so much trouble getting going that I would sometimes get back in bed, fully clothed, at mid-day. The pets thought it made perfect sense. It was more of a function of needing a place to sit in a small apartment than a sign of suffering, but I did do it more than once.  These days I have too much to do.
That I am ready for a vacation means that this is where I live: amongst the long drives to everywhere, the deer, and the spooky water which goes to the faucets in Manhattan.   Right now, I am planning a trip to Barcelona in a few weeks. Only my youngest son will be able to come along, but the Bacon Provider has reason to go there for work and it sounds pretty interesting to me. I have never been to Spain.  Those magical people better get to work building Barcelona before I get there. 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Joy of Cooking, Other Cookbooks, and Doing Without

Twenty years ago when being an adult, having a house and a kid, and homemaking activities still had plenty of novelty and appeal, I developed an enthusiasm for cooking (even under constrained conditions) and for cookbooks.  I asked for and received my own copy of The Joy of Cooking when I was still in college.  I owned a muffin tin.  I clipped recipes from the newspaper and kept them in a folder. I figured out how to cook asparagus in an electric hot pot.   
Last spring, as it became evident that a plan was afoot that might lead to our household’s displacement I began an experiment involving the most recent edition of The Joy of Cooking.  Simply put, I stopped looking in other cookbooks, and stuck to this one.  While this edition does not include the skinning of rabbits and preparing bear meat, it sufficed.
The contents of my kitchen were boxed up in the beginning of July, and in anticipation of this, I got rid of many things I imagined I would not need anymore. I jettisoned a number of cookbooks on the logic that I had not used them and was doing fine without them. It has been my experience in other, similar situations when I am taken with the zeal of getting rid of things, I get a bit ahead of myself, throwing out too much.  But it is done, and there is no getting it all back.
The house we are living in is stock with books—books of so much variety that I will have to save it for another day.  There are a couple of cookbooks, though: a fragile, antique Joy of Cooking, How to Grill, Miami Spice,  Great British Cooking. I opened one and had some success, and I will get to that in a minute. I am still waiting for the Truly Useful Cooking App, which can scan the contents of your pantry and tell you what you have the ingredients to make. I think we will be waiting a long time for it.
I am regularly frustrated by recipes found online.  When I look for pad thai, I want to be able to choose from maybe three versions, and not 1,710,000.  It helps to start with something like MarthaStewart.com, but Martha has access to ingredients I never seem to be able to find. I have noticed that hand-written recipes from friends end up being the things I make the most, and even though I do not have the recipes for “Salad Ann Makes” or “Sheila’s Chinese Chicken Salad,” I have made both in this house, guessing at quantities.
Thursday night’s dinner was notably successful.  I made a Greek Lentil Soup with Lemon which I modified from a recipe in one of the books in the house. “Modified” means I omitted ingredients because I didn’t have them.
Greek Lentil Soup with Lemon
Cook a 1 lb. bag of lentils in 2 ½ quarts of water or chicken stock for 30 minutes, according to the package. When done, add another quart of hot stock, along with 1 chopped jalapeno (seeds and stem removed), 2 t whole coriander seeds, 1 t cumin, 1 t each of oregano, basil and thyme, and 2 bay leaves.  Add 3 medium-sized potatoes, cut in small chunks. Chop and add a bag of fresh spinach. Also add about 2 cups of diced butternut squash.  Lower to simmer and cover.
Chop an onion and a small bunch of celery, leaves included and sauté in olive oil until soft. Add about three cloves of chopped garlic and sauté another minute or so. Add to soup. 
Soup requires a lot of stirring and occasionally adding more hot stock.  Just before serving, add about 1/3 c of freshly squeezed lemon juice.
With soup, I served a Greek salad with tomatoes, cucumber, feta, green pepper and a bit of onion, tossed in olive oil and lemon juice.  I also served a lot of warmed pita bread and homemade hummus.  I had forgotten how easy it is to make hummus, and made some in the blender out of a large can of drained garbanzos, 1/3 c tahini, ¼ c lemon juice, 1 t salt, 2 cloves of garlic, and 1 T olive oil.