Food Keeps Me Alive

Dobosch Torte

I read on Google that lemons are the world’s healthiest food. Imagine that! Go suck on a lemon if you’re hungry. Mexican food can be dreadful or delicious, as most expats here know. And all foods are a constant source of pleasure and controversy.

I grew up in a foodie family devoted to German, American and Continental cookery. Our guru was Grandma Elsie who ran the food fest with skill and laughter. I said the following about her in my memoir. When we ate weekly at her house,

the food was invariably superb. I would describe it as Continental-American-Jewish. Feather-light matzoh ball soup was a favorite. Latkes, extra-thin and crisp, were called German potato pancakes. A rare specialty of the house was Dobosch Torte, a rich sponge cake with twenty-one very thin layers interspersed with frosting of Maillard’s chocolate (ordered special from New York). This left everyone groaning. Elsie ran the show with humor and love. “Eat up,” she would say, “there’s another one (turkey, roast, etc.) out in the kitchen.”

Elsie’s pickles were famous and inimitable. She made them in big crock pots and passed the recipe on to my mother and sister who unfortunately could never quite duplicate her results. Food and its preparation is often the source of some mystery.

When you’re retired and looking for things to engage yourself, cooking is a welcome creative activity that gets your mind off everything else. In fact, cooking is therapy. A good friend brought me some nutless pesto that she had made. (I have a serious allergy to nuts.) I put some in a spaghetti sauce I was making, and it was a revelation.

At the supermarket the plastic-wrapped hamburger meat looked awful—pulpy and full of fat. I found some beef chunks and ground my own, so much better. The other night some folks came over for white chicken chili—beans, broth, chicken, corn, lime, onion, poblanos and spices. It was the first time I had made it, and fortunately it evoked compliments.

Over the last year or so I lost some weight, mostly because I was cooking better and eating better. The joy of cooking is more than the name of a famous old cookbook. It’s the essence of gastronomy.

Ivysemitism, continued

Trump and Roy Cohn, 1983

I was twenty-five, fresh out of graduate school at the University of Chicago and had just finished a Master’s degree. I had my doubts whether I’d be up for the grind of getting a Ph.D. and decided to take a year and test out whether teaching English could finally be my profession. At twenty-five you really don’t know what you’re doing.

I got accepted into what is now called the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, formerly a teachers college in the remote middle of Wisconsin, and God it was cold there. Back then in 1959 the college was evolving into a more liberal arts institution and later became part of the UW system.

Anyhow, I joined the junior faculty and taught English to what were mostly rural and unsophisticated white kids. I was nervous and unsure in my first classes and had no idea how to communicate to these unspoiled, smiling children from another planet.

The McCarthy era had just passed but was still fouling the political air, certainly in my liberal circle. I’ve written before about how the Army-McCarthy hearings brought about my political exit from a Republican family that to some degree tolerated him.

Anyhow, in one of my first classroom recitals I called out the Senator as some kind of sick despot. The kids just sat there, but one guy, we can call him Jay, got up and announced that the class was no place for politicking and that basically I should keep my political opinions to myself.

I was taken aback and, after later talk with faculty friends, realized that maybe Jay was right. Political controversy was not welcome in that environment, and the Senator of course was from Wisconsin.

I saw some reference to him in the recent blaring discussions over the Ivy presidents and the GOP’s general anger over their waffling responses. Big Donor Bill Ackman has made much noise about firing the presidents and holding all those students protesting Israel to account. Larry Summers, a former Harvard president, agreed with him but said “asking for lists of names is the stuff of Joe McCarthy.”

We haven’t yet realized the depth of the Senator’s vicious pursuit of communists, but an attempt to bring down those hated liberal universities might be in the offing. One must remember that counselor Roy Cohn was the source of Joe McCarthy’s atrocities, just as he later became consigliere to Donald Trump. There is no honor among thieves.

Ivysemitism

Antisemitism is a powerful drug, but the three presidents saw their duty as defending the open market on thought. They upheld, though very badly, the core notion of academic freedom, which is free speech. But when free speech becomes hate speech with the threat of violence, what then?

Can you put conditions on advocating for antisemitism? Maureen Dowd expressed it this way: “Not since Bill Clinton was asked about having sex with Monica Lewinsky and replied, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” has there been such parsing.”

I spent a lot of years in academia, teaching at NYU, City College and the University of Wisconsin. There were things about it that I loved, but not the sense of moral superiority which infected some of the faculty and administration. I finally found academia to be constricting because it was often smug and self-satisfied. Yes, there were other reasons that I left, but I found more freedom outside the ivy-covered walls.

Now we have the spectacle of Ted Cruz and Elise Stefanik accusing the Harvard president of “intentionally fostering an environment that allows rampant and dangerous antisemitism.” We should not be surprised that she and her colleagues are just continuing their regular attack on liberal institutions. The GOP is very good at confounding issues that have no necessary connection—such as linking aid to Ukraine with the border mess.

But of course she was right to go after the three Ivy presidents. I guess they were advised by their lawyers to give legalistic answers, waffling over what should have been an obvious  and strong response. The schools ought to be teaching the real and complex history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, not defending an abstract standard.

Academia is sometimes guilty of parsing the simple truth.

The Clown Prince of Money

What’s with that bomber jacket? Everything about this man (well, almost everything) is appalling. The most recent example is the now-infamous interview with Andrew Ross Sorkin.

Since the internet is now full of foul language, who can be shocked? What’s shocking is the childish way Elon thinks. When his advertisers fled from “X” he responded like they were bullying him (shades of his youth), blackmailing him. Sounds to me like a schoolyard incident with a schoolyard response.

Jonathan Chait called him out on this:

In general, blackmail is a crime where the criminal demands payment from the victim. It does not involve the criminal refusing to give money to the victim for a service they don’t want. . . . Specifically, declining to spend advertising money on a platform because the owner not only permits crazy and offensive comments to proliferate on it but also personally contributes his own crazy and offensive comments to the site, is not only not blackmail, it’s not even in the same universe as blackmail.

We put up with Elon’s conspiracies and Asperger-ish behavior for two reasons. One, he’s the world’s richest man, reason enough for some to ratify his charisma; and two, the U.S. government has sold out to him with its total dependence on contracts with his firms Space-X and Starlink. So we are all now in bed with a madman.

Tesla Cybertruck

The truck’s many flaws are recounted here, and they may be sufficient to kill it. But the competition isn’t really from Ford or GM or Ram. Its aim is to attract the people who bought Hummers, the truck of poseurs and polluters. Will there be enough of these to buy something that looks like it was “assembled in a dude’s basement”? Others think it looks “very sexy.”

Elon, as we know, is a risk-taker. And maybe the Intelligencer had it right: “Making expensive niche products for people with too much money tends to be a really great business, and Musk has made himself the richest person in the world by being exceptionally good at that.”

Well, the problem is that he’s got to find new buyers in a market that’s declining. EV trucks are getting more expensive and fewer people seem to want them. We hope this trend will change, but the costly and flamboyant Cybertruck isn’t likely to do it.

“History is not the past. It is the present.”

Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory

So said James Baldwin in that fine mashup movie (2017) I Am Not Your Negro. It’s the most penetrating thought I know about how time works in the human mind. We never consider that everything we experience in this life is immediately relegated to the past. What we think of as the future is merely a projection of what we know. And the present is a kind of phantasm that, we think, gives us creative power over the ravaging effects of time.

So, as Einstein observed, our concept of time is essentially a fiction. Of course we need that fiction to survive and to manipulate the reality we create for ourselves. Part of that fictional reality is the notion that time always moves forward, that one facet of human life is the spurious notion of progress. In an earlier post I talked about this and referenced Carlo Rovelli’s wonderful book, The Order of Time.

But none of us are physicists like Einstein or Rovelli. We rely on some notion of an instantaneous present to exert control on human events. In Gaza, Israel’s reaction to Oct. 7 appeared to take no account of how it had created over time an intolerable situation for the Palestinians. When a country (or a movement) feels its survival threatened, statecraft and history go out the window. One sees this happening globally now.

I’m reading Naomi Klein’s recent book Doppelganger, which I recommend if you like good intellectual theorizing about why the world is so fucked up. She offers a way to reckon with not only the historical crimes of neoliberalism but a sense of how we are all looking in the warped mirror of doubleness.

Part of what she’s telling us is that we’ve lost our sense of history. If history is indeed what makes up our present, it’s no mystery why the world is floundering. Nations and people have forgotten who they are and how they got there.

Another rather more highfalutin piece by Thomas Mallon explores the ramifications of nostalgia and the social-political pain inflicted on those who believe in it, “a mental quicksand” at least for some. He also talks about the vagaries of memory and the permanence of the past in our lives as we age.

What we are always most nostalgic for is, in fact, the future, the one we imagined only to see it turn into the past. . . . But then comes the growing realization that short-term memory has nothing like the staying power of the long-term variety. Mentally, the seven ages of man speed up their full-circling, until the past’s sovereignty over the present is complete. The further along one gets, the more one understands that the past is indeed another country, and that, moreover, it is home. Long-term memory’s domination of short may be a hardwired consolation that nature and biology have mercifully installed in us.

Let me attest to the power of long-term memory as we age. Oldsters typically are bugged by short-term memory loss—forgetting your keys, blanking on a name, etc. But amazingly we remember the lyrics of old pop songs when we were kids, names of World War II battles, the food we ate at a long-past dinner, and so on. Long-term memory becomes an integral part of one’s present—a typical and surprising result of getting old. Our “present” has expanded.

Down the Rabbit Hole in Gaza

I guess I’m one of those Jews who doesn’t support Israel in its mad recriminative effort to uproot Hamas at all costs. Yet the terrorists may have provoked their own eventual demise. So thinks Netanyahu and his government. Or maybe, as others have said, they are just creating more terrorists.

These butchers brutally murdered some 1,200 Israelis on October 7, and one month later over 10,000 Palestinians in Gaza had been killed. One does not expect proportionality in warfare but Israel’s violent response has cost it dearly with a preponderance of people around the world. The conflict has pushed many down the rabbit hole of partisan madness.

I grew up in a 1950s environment of strong anti-Zionist feeling, when the establishment of the new nation and its purpose were hotly debated. I could never understand why some Jews were so against establishing a homeland, given the horrors of the war just ended.

In the many years since, the messy history of Israel’s relations with Palestine has rendered Israel dominant at every turn, and there have been countless rabbit holes in that adventure. The Guardian just published a strong piece on how the West (mainly the G7 countries—Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, the European Union, and the United States) “represents a long history of racial and imperial arrogance.”

When the Israeli defence minister declared on 9 October a “complete siege” in which “no electricity, no food, no water, no fuel” would be allowed into blockaded Gaza, and called its 2.3 million inhabitants “human animals”, there was not a single protest from an official in a western capital.

Leftists everywhere are now protesting en masse, and so is much of the rest of the world, some calling Israel an apartheid state. To them, President Biden, staunch defender of Israel, has fallen down his own rabbit hole.

I think we’re all victims of very partial media reportage about this war. Just contrast what you see on CNN and Al Jazeera. I watch a lot of CNN but often mute or turn off much of its constant, repetitious coverage of Gaza and the endless interviews with survivors and the hostage families. Some would say these people are being exploited. Others just love the CNN coverage. Al Jazeera is less biased but still avoids any such interviews, and the Israeli stance is hardly mentioned. Arab media is for the Arabs.

A former CNN’er, Arwa Damon says:

Space needs to be made for Jewish and Israeli voices on such [Arab-funded] outlets. Not all Israelis support their government’s policies, the illegal settlements, or the oppression or occupation of Palestine. And not all Jews across the world support Zionism or what Israel has done.

The pictures and the accounts of the war on most American media are repetitive and sometimes just played for their histrionics. Such images are appalling but that approach seems to work, as most Americans are sympathetic, believing the Israeli response to Hamas is in some degree justified. While a large, growing contingent—and not just those on the left—judges quite differently. The world faces another huge moral challenge.

Send in the Clowns, One More Time

It’s not comforting to know that these two goons are still at large. Or that politics has lost some of the comic overtones I spoke about a year and a half ago in this rerun. I’ve come to miss the days of bread and circuses because now it’s become a carnival of madness.

The circus was actually under a big tent when I was a kid. It featured wild animals jumping through fiery hoops, high-wire acrobats a hundred feet or more in the air, and of course the clown car. I loved watching a dozen or so people emerge from a small red coupe, and the crowd roared in delight.

You know where this is going, right? In the Select Committee hearings [and now with threats of jail time] the Trump lackeys are bailing out, repudiating for the world the Big Lie they all formerly endorsed, emerging en masse from Trump’s red coupe. How they all could manage to fit in that car, with such doubts about their boss’s sanity, is the mystery. Yet finally it is no mystery that they are trying to save their skins.

Like so much of what passes for politics now, I find this full of comic overtones—like something Kafka could have written. Our late-night comedians have big problems getting laughs from Trumpian politics. So many clowns have jumped out of the car that the gag just isn’t funny anymore. “But there is also a sense, as the president talks openly about defying the results of the election, that satire has not accomplished what its champions believed it could. Even the professionals seem disillusioned.”

Satire works best as a dark form of irony that makes its object look ridiculous. The audience must be in on the joke, or the attempt falls flat. One can cite Jonathan Swift, as I did regarding guns, and most people either don’t know who Swift was or they find the comparison bogus. Such are the perils of irony. If you mock Trump with humor you’re up against some sixty percent of Republicans who soberly continue to believe the Big Lie.

But I still like the metaphor of the circus. For those who pay any attention to it, politics has become entertainment for the masses. The media could not survive without it. The poet Juvenal said this in Roman times: “Give them bread and circuses and they will never revolt.” Are the Select Committee hearings merely a distraction or a diversion for most people? They aren’t “blood sport” for most people, as in ancient Rome, though they might lead to that.

Folks like Rudy Giuliani can also be expected to provide comic relief, as when the old drunk urged Trump to contest the results on election night. Or the wonderful press conference he hosted at the Four Seasons Landscaping Service. John Eastman, chief clown to the president, kept pushing for a plan to kick the election back to the states, even while he acknowledged its illegality.

For many, the very gravity of the hearings indicates that real dangers are lurking. So do the words of the witnesses. Yet a strong sense of artificiality often pervades. We hope the acrobats don’t slip and fall, even as we expect that they might. That tension is part of the circus appeal. Here we hope the clowns will go to jail though we know they may not.

The Bowels

You might call this the inside story. It’s not my purpose here to break the centuries-old taboo about the subject of poop. Rather, the idea is to justify its importance since everybody does it. And many of us enjoy talking about it—despite others like my mother who found it disgusting.

I heard a lot of toilet humor growing up, much of it generated by my father. He once brought home a record album called “The Farting Contest,” which featured remarkable noises and bawdy British humor. For that moment, at least, shit brought us together.

A college friend, John, told how when he was young he set fire to the toilet seat while lighting toilet paper to disguise the smell of what he called “stinkies.” His father was not pleased. Kids, we know, are into poop from an early age. In high school, Ed remembered his sister’s son coming down to a breakfast of pork sausages: “Look, mommy, grunt-grunt for breakfast.” Such stories remain blithely commonplace. My friend Phil once described an aristocratic fat woman devouring hors d’oeuvres at a cocktail party: “She was eating like she had seven rectums.” And so it goes.

Scatology in literature goes back to medieval times (see Pantagruel and Rabelais, for instance) and, before that, Aristophanes. In modern high-brow literature it became increasingly taboo, though not for present-day comedians. Serious writers have seemed to avoid it, though Nathaniel West wrote a crazy satire in The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931) in which the hero journeys through the intestines of the Trojan horse.

Personally, as some of you know, I’ve been afflicted with Irritable Bowel Syndrome for many years. OK, I’ll invoke the taboo here so as not to go into details. But I will say that the situation has made me very aware of how our gastro organs work and don’t work. We still don’t understand much of this.

Sex and porn are now all over the internet despite the efforts of right-wing Christians and others to stop them. Scatology, I predict, will be the next meme because poop is part of our under-culture and, like all “bad” things, it cannot be suppressed. The whole idea of breaking taboos is part of what created the internet. Trump’s gold toilet could well become the new symbol of our age.

“Political power grows out of
the barrel of a gun.”

Thus spoke Mao Zedong back in 1927, and I heard this aphorism used a lot by radicals in the 1960s. The phrase was also in Mao’s “Little Red Book,” a sort of bible for revolutionaries. We know how all that worked out.

The obsession with guns in America is long and deep, and you’ll be happy to know I won’t go into it here. We do know that the GOP is in the throes of it and has been for years. Their defense of guns takes many forms, but mostly they want to talk about the mental health of those who perpetrate mass shootings.

After the horrific Lewiston shootings, the newly-minted House Speaker, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La), told Sean Hannity the following:

Saying that it was “not the time” to talk about gun control, he told Hannity, “The problem is the human heart. It’s not guns, it’s not the weapons. At the end of the day, we have to protect the right of the citizens to protect themselves, and that’s the Second Amendment, and that’s why our party stands so strongly for that.”

This man, after all, is an authority on the human heart since he’s a devout Christian and has shown a total avoidance of rationality about guns. In the past he “has blamed abortion and the teaching of evolution on mass shootings.” Governor DeSantis also announced that red flag laws wouldn’t have worked in Lewiston. Just use involuntary commitments to get the killers off the street. And yet the law has worked in Florida and likely would have worked in Lewiston.

Let these imbecile GOPers look to their own mental health. As far as guns are concerned, the inmates are running the asylum. Sometime someone may take up arms against these fanatical deniers. Maybe Mao was right.

Fitness at This Age

Here is my elliptical trainer, a great exercise machine bought several years ago with the best of intentions. It now serves mainly as a clothes horse, though I do get on it and work out occasionally. Somewhat occasionally.

When a friend moved away from here two years ago he gave his little-used rowing machine to another friend on whose back porch it now sits gathering dust. We elders are prone to fight exercise as much as some others enjoy it. We know regular exercise does us a world of good, so why is it such a battle to engage with it?

I’ll speak for myself. It’s because our brain turns off all our good motivations to work out and do it regularly. We manufacture other, more pressing things to do. Or we promise ourselves to get on the old ellipto today and something always comes up. Or we just find it boring. Or we get turned off because we get winded easily or have a cramp.

Usually, it’s just plain avoidance, and we older people are pretty good at that. The older you get, the more one gives in to whims and capriciousness. At least I do. We dismiss the joys of having a fit, well-toned body. For a while before I moved here I was a pretty regular gym rat, had a good bod for someone my age, and enjoyed a better mental attitude. I miss that and still do nothing about it.

I played sports and swam competitively in high school and college, then quit because it took so much time away from drinking and partying. I miss the good health and good feelings it brought, and when I get in a pool now I get winded quickly. I’ve had a few medical problems and use them as an excuse to be sedentary. All this is mental evasion.

There is so much foofaraw about how important it is for oldsters to just keep walking. Well, Oaxaca’s sidewalks are like tank traps, and I’m not so steady on my feet these days. So it’s easy to promise yourself you’ll do a session on the ellipto instead. Consequently, I’ve gotten pretty skinny and make regular vows to put on some muscle.

When you get sufficiently fed up with the sedentary life, you may finally get serious about exercise. As I’ve suggested, it’s also a matter of vanity. I don’t want to end up looking like a bag of bones. On the other hand, being with people who take physical culture so intensely is a real turn-off. Look what it did to Jim Jordan, whose devotion to dominance and aggression through wrestling made him the prick that he is, an “unyielding combatant, whether grappling on the mat or in the halls of Congress.”