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Cambridge Tapped Out

September 20th, 2012 · No Comments

The morning’s email reminds me that things are humming along, same as it ever was, in my old home town. Nothing like moving away (not to mention moving to what is likely the closest spiritually antipodal venue to Cambridge: Philadelphia; going from tight-ass village to cloacal flood plain) to get some needed perspective. Like being unknowingly constipated (you can take that literally or metaphorically, but I really only mean it in the latter mode) until suddenly things let loose, once and for all, and everything becomes clear.

My old friend, Henrietta Davis, sent me a message. She’s not really my friend. I’ve only set my baby blues on her once in person in real time, at a gathering of the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce years ago when I was serving as house gadfly on the Board of Directors. You can’t really comment properly or accurately about the domestic life of bears, by the way, unless you’re willing to climb into their den with them, come what may, and snuggle up. I did it for 15 years, and don’t regret a moment. Otherwise, I was merely her constituent. Currently she’s Mayor of what’s known with sardonic affection as “Our Fair City.”

In Cambridge though (that’s a phrase I should put on one of those software speed-type apps so I can tap in two characters and the rest will be spelled out), politicians all act like they’re everyone’s asshole buddy. At least some of the time half of that is correct. That attitude pervades any form of communication, but not least the verbal and especially the written. It’s like everyone knows we are the smartest, most liberal, closest to flawless thinkers and doers on the goddam planet, but we don’t let that go to our heads. We’re also just plain folks around here. I suspect there are also more specialists in self-inflicted lesions of the soft palate and tongue. I know I have my fair share and likely to have more before this essay is done.

I liked reminding her (I’m still talking about Henrietta) that I was a constituent, and a cantankerous one at that. I’d write to her, gleefully (withholding the glee, of course, otherwise what’s the fun?) pointing out the latest gaffe she’d committed, usually in an argument for the position she’d taken based on easily refuted, but spurious if not totally inaccurate, if not wholly factitious information. She’d write back sometimes, but rarely. It’s always nice to be ignored by a politician, but what the hell? However, I usually was writing in response to something she sent me, and she was in office; otherwise I wouldn’t bother—why waste precious time corresponding with a candidate on the make, I mean on the run… oh you know what I mean.

Whatever I said, or what I did or didn’t do, I knew she’d be back every two years to cozily and familiarly ask for my vote, and that the flow of stuff in my mailboxes (the real one and the virtual one) would not cease. When she responded, she was never contrite, never apologetic. I was entitled to my opinion after all. Otherwise it was as if a fly had just daubed a bit of some kind of fly shit on the edge of her plate and she would daintily take the edge of her napkin at the corner, wipe it off, and keep on eating.

I wouldn’t say she is uncaring. Indeed, well-meaning is at the core of her being it’s quite clear. And she has served the City and the citizenry in a dedicated and largely effective way for quite a long time. I’ll take a Google break here to see exactly how long (though I won’t go to her website, which I assume she has: a Cambridge City Councillor without a website? I can remember when they couldn’t spell email with alphabet blocks, but that was the old days…).

Needless to say, all the facts are spelled out on her website. First of all, she’s been on the City Council 16 years (can’t argue with that; I was on the Chamber of Commerce board almost as long before they realized I’d served more than the statutory limit twice over). So OK, my point is well taken: she’s a dedicated elected official. I also see she graduated from URochester, back when Rochester was a force to be reckoned with in the humanities. Now I imagine, like everywhere else you do your reckoning with at least a smart phone or you don’t reckon at all. That degree in her background, and her jobs as a journalist, for the Time-Life corporation (that bastion of progressivism and the wisdom of Henry and Clare Booth Luce… uh wait a minute, did I use their names and “progressivism” in the same clause? silly me) makes one item in her email to me that much more delicious.

Here’s a screenshot of the piece in question (notice that she adverts to the “Mayor’s office” while cagily (you want to call it humbly, that’s your business; it’s coy, you have to admit, and full of that savor savoir so characteristic of Cambridge: I know that you know that I know that she knows that I know that SHE’s the mayor!). There’s also that lovable first name familiarity. It’s not Madame Le Maire. Stuff and nonsense. It’s just your old pal, Henrietta:

Screen Shot 2012 09 20 at 10 28 54 AM

I hope you love that ‘”…You Take Your’s”‘ in capitalized bold face in the second paragraph as much as I do. This from the Mayor (BA, English Literature, 1967) of Cambridge, home of Harvard University (universally listed as No.1 among the world’s institutions of higher learning) and MIT (whose disdain for unverifiable categorization compels me to leave it at that).

This, to me, is typical Henrietta. She takes one foot out of her mouth, only to delicately place the other one in. There’s that letterhead (yet the street address at the bottom is, presumably, her private residence in Cambridgeport, about a half mile from City Hall; sub-text: I’m your mayor and even though I don’t get a plugged nickel for this largely ceremonial title I am always your mayor, on my bike, on foot, in my living room…) and the tag line, “America’s Most Walkable City,” which aside from the shock that they didn’t make it a global or cosmological claim (or at least, “The Milky Way’s Most Walkable City”) also merely punctuates this small perpetual problem in Cambridge, of many decades standing. There’s not enough on-street parking, for the residents or for the thousands of out-of-town commuters who converge on Our Fair City day and night. Which is undoubtedly why the geniuses at City Hall (everyone who resides or works in Cambridge, OFC, is an honorary if not a bona fide genius, and they needn’t work for Apple, though I think everyone uses a Macintosh computer) decided to have an annual Park(ing) Day in Cambridge, so they can take up one of those precious parking spots for the better part of a business day to draw attention away from the fact by doing something silly with it.

Then there’s the raison d’être for this year’s fête that occupies 120 square feet of pavement: a celebration to the potability and deliciousness of Cambridge water. No excuse but itself. My mind raced when I read this. Is there a problem with dehydration in Cambridge? Are septuagenarians dropping on the sidewalk during their daily 4-mile runs (Cantabrigians are not only brilliant, but hardy, well into their 90s; didn’t you know that?)? Is Somerville being touted for how crystalline and breathtaking its tap water is in its revivifying and palatal superiority (there’s an ancient and inexplicable rivalry, especially since Cambridge has been pricing itself out of the housing market for any but Future Forbes Billionaires and Entrepreneurs, between the two cities; Harvard graduate students can afford only Somerville for sleeping and to keep their cats, but they never frequent any but Cambridge coffee houses, with good Internet connectivity, which explains why the funkiest coffee houses in Cambridge are all generally within a city block of the border; tellingly Starbucks is right smack in Harvard Square, in two locations… Howard Schwartz, perpetual billionaire parvenu).

More likely Henrietta thought it would just be cool to celebrate the most quotidian of necessities as provided by the City. They’ve had fabulous tap water for their entire history (spending a bazillion dollars on processing plants, as they do in the schools per pupil; their track record on the efficacy of how these otherwise unmanageable budgets are spent is far better with water than with the performance of Cambridge public school students, so Park(ing) Day is about tap water, not arithmetic), but we’ll just do this now, in the midst of economic turmoil and a divisive Presidential election campaign because, damn it, we’re Cambridge and we can.

Nothing says living in a bubble better than what issues from Henrietta Davis. But she spent the formative years of her adulthood writing for “Time,” “Life” and “Money” magazines. Enough said.

No one living in Cambridge is unaware of being in a bubble. Every morning you arise and say to yourself, “Thank God I’m waking up again here in the bubble.” What’s the bubble? How about one of the most lopsided votes, within the town’s incorporated limits, in favor of President Obama in the 2008 election? Oh, not as if anyone in Cambridge wouldn’t think of not voting. But you can die in peace on the sidewalk as you WALK to the polls, in case you’re 97 and you suddenly have a major cardiac catastrophe.

I’ll just end with these two personal notes.

Since I’ve moved to the Philadelphia area (my house is six houses from the city line), I’ve had more unsolicited calls from competitive water companies (rivals to the de facto public utility that owns the pipes; you can switch, but it’s the same water and the same pipes) offering me not only better rates, but a free annual water safety check in the confines of my household, because, well, the water is safe, yes, but only up to the test points they use to produce the figures that get published to reassure the public they are not slowly being transformed into oxides of heavy metals.

Second, in Cambridge, my Representative in Congress was a stalwart named Michael Capuano who, like many Cambridge Congressional district representatives, is virtually assured an office for life if he wants it… He’ll be elected whether I’m there or not. My vote, though important to me, wasn’t worth anything at all. Here in Lower Merion Township my representative is a Republican tool. Unlike Mike Capuano, he’s not outspoken about anything, cleaves to the party line, and is relatively safe, unless some critical mass of independent minded voters wells up, more quickly than the smug Republican apparatus here can rise out of its torpor and come up with some outrageous breach of civil liberties (like the current effort to get a Voter ID law passed throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania) to stem the tide and keep ciphers like Representative Gerlach of the Pennsylvania 7th Congressional District out of the House, where he can throw in his obstructionist vote (when he feels like it; this clown is apparently smug enough to believe he needn’t show up to vote with any regularity… hmmm sounds like what every Cambridge resident must resist from within… and he has one of the lousiest attendance records in the state). Here, I stand a fair chance of having my puny little vote count for something. At the least I can look at passersby and know that I will be canceling the vote of one of them.

In Cambridge, I’ve got to keep my head up to make sure I’m not struck by a car looking for a parking spot, or a bicyclist hurrying to City Hall for a free refreshing glass of Cambridge Tap with a bright yellow slice of organic lemon floating in it.

→ No CommentsTags: 02138 and environs · Invidious comparisons · local · Not News · Politics · reminiscence

Goodbye Facebook Goodbye

April 22nd, 2012 · No Comments

I made a big move recently. Actually it was a series of moves, some large, some small, all adding up in the end to one mammoth relocation. I lived in the Boston area, more or less, for 48 years, and at one location, a condo, in Cambridge for over 26 years (the longest continuous single home of my life). As of the middle of February, officially, as it was the day that ownership changed hands on my new home, I am now a resident of Pennsylvania, just outside of the city of Philadelphia. I have not been entirely covert about this change of venue, and what I already and more and more rapidly think of as home. Rather, I have alluded to it.

It’s become my habit of late, and I can time it fairly accurately, to be far less forthcoming about the specific detailed circumstances of my life than had been my wont. One of my two blogs in particular, but both of them in general, used to be peppered with personal details in the essays I posted regularly. I fully expected that it was mainly people who knew me personally who paid the most attention to these outpourings, and so I had little to hide. I was completely discrete about certain things. For one, the short list of things that most people do not care to air in public. Domestic strife, financial status, sexual proclivities and activities. I’m not prudish or paranoid, but there was never a reason to seek “material” for my serious writing within the particulars of my private life. For six long years and then for the years thereafter, I also was fairly mum about the health of my late wife, and the progress of her ailments and their treatment. For one, despite the profound impact on my life, and experienced in that circumscribed context by no one but me, it seemed these matters were the substance of her life, and her business. Discretion is not the better part of valor. It’s the better part of dignity, usually someone else’s first, and always your own after that.

The change in accounting for those parts of my life that I made the stuff of my poor attempts at literary output came more or less with the initiation, a choice I made, into participation in Facebook. I became a subscriber (there is no other word for it; I’m not really a member of anything… there certainly is no affinity involved, though, I suspect, a lot of shared addictive tendencies; and it is a service, ostensibly free, but truly a commercial agreement: they give any subscriber access to this wonderful assortment of ways of a simulacrum of connection with other humans, known and truly unknown to oneself, and the subscriber gives up, within certain ultimately circumscribed limits, any claim to privacy about those parts of one’s life, however few in number if you are vigilant and well-versed in the “rules,” that Facebook and its corporate owners feel are necessary to pursue the business and financial objectives of the company). And after I became a subscriber, I became increasingly aware, to the point of a hypertrophied attentiveness every time I “logged in,” of the extent to which I was exposing parts of myself that I had never given much heed to protect in the past.

Previously I enjoyed, or perhaps suffered the delusion of having, control over what I said to the world at large in such a public place as an electronic communications network that is truly global and ubiquitous. With a subscription to a service like Facebook (at bottom, any of these so-called social networks are essentially the same, especially if they are described as free—take a moment and think about it: if it’s truly free in every respect, why must you sign, that is, click on a box that says “I agree,” a statement of terms and conditions that governs the relationship you enter into with the entity granting you these services, gratis?) comes the need to be conscious (and I have long been a practitioner of behavior as I make my way in the world, that it has become fashionable to engage in and to call it, specifically, “mindful”) every moment, and with every word and image transmitted and, not to mention, received, that there is a gateway into that which the “owner” might otherwise feel, in a pre-Facebook, pre-MySpace, pre-Web, pre-Internet world, is best kept to oneself, within the confines of one’s own figurative property boundaries.

What I have found, in the five years since becoming a Facebook subscriber, is I have become increasingly uneasy about this sharing of what are to me intimate parts of my life. They do concern me, after all, and often only me, but quite frequently other people also, and I don’t have blanket permission from anyone to reveal that which any other individual might not want shared with anyone else. There is no law, not even a natural law as far as that goes, in terms of how I believe these things to be in life as we know it, that compels me to reveal anything (except I suppose under pain of torture or the insidious ways of being treated with truth-baring drug treatments) to another living soul. Too often on Facebook it is ignorance (specifically not only of the terms & conditions I mentioned, but of the rules and protocols—intentionally labyrinthine and complex, and virtually impenetrable in terms of clear sense, and highly capricious—that govern what appears where on Facebook and beyond that concerns you, or anyone you mention, personally, whether you willed its appearance or someone else did) or inadvertency that is the occasion for having items of fact appear for virtually anyone to see. True or not is of no consequence whatsoever, because on the Web, everything is true and it is the kind of truth that never dies, even if it is, in substance and meaning, wholly and utterly false. Worse, because it is in the way of these things on the Internet, that there is always the potential that any single datum, any fact, any image will be seen, eventually, by everyone.

What I knew to be true already, having maintained two blogs for years, well before “joining” Facebook, was that it was best to invent what every writer worth his or her salt learns (sometimes knows instinctively, and hence has the easiest learning curve of all). That is, it’s best to cultivate not only a voice, in the rhetorical, stylistic, and narrative senses of the word, but at least one persona, not oneself, however tantalizingly close it appears to be oneself (even appears to be to oneself) when one has one’s words appear in public. Hence the practice persisted into my use of the Facebook, and the trouble began almost immediately.

As we all know, whether we care to admit it, there are friends and there are “friends.” And, pace Professor Robin Dunbar, there is a significant difference. Those whom I count among true friends, who I knew before Facebook and I will continue to know for the rest of my life, inclusive of certain of those relationships formed since whatever exact date it was I subscribed to Facebook (I am sure they could tell me that date; I refuse to look it up… some things are just not important even to someone as neurotically punctilious about so-called facts as I) also, of course, know me. And I don’t mean merely in terms of my end of some reciprocal relationship of emotional engagement. I mean, they know when I am kidding (usually), or certainly that I do “kid.” They know me to be, by turns, ironic, sarcastic, sardonic, deflationary (in the sense of busting other people’s balloons), challenging (especially to the denial mechanisms of others), and they learned—or knew instinctively—when and how to take me seriously. No one is perfect, least of all me, and so, even with my nearest and dearest friends, it’s necessary still, sometimes after decades, to stop and apologize (always that first, if I can) and explain that “it’s only me.” There’s a price to be paid for attempts at maintaining a certain kind of dead pan. Sometimes, it’s just dead, at least to anyone else besides myself.

However on Facebook, inevitably, hardly anyone can really know me or anyone else, except celebrities, that is, people who professionally must present themselves to the world with only a public persona—sometimes a quite outrageous one, or outrageous were it an “ordinary” person who comported themselves so in public. As President Nixon would have said about my earliest efforts on Facebook and well into some “middle period” out of the past five years, “mistakes were made.” I still make them occasionally. I just don’t care to be that vigilant. I just don’t care to assume anything—given all the effort I have made to keep my profile and privacy settings to the bare minimum to exclude virtually anyone but the “Dunbar number” of friends I maintain on Facebook from seeing what I have to say—that is, assume anything, save that there is a better than statistical chance that people who do know me will realize that whatever I say is not to be taken personally.

There have been two results. One is what I have already alluded to in this essay. I have become more circumspect, more private, in a way that has spilled over into my personal life, dealing with people generally, so that in one-on-one encounters with old friends there has been increasingly larger and larger ground to cover in terms of filling them in on what has occurred in my life since my last encounter. Two is that I have had to forge a zig-zag path through the intricacies of Facebook postings and status updates. I mainly say things that are, taxonomically speaking, of the nature of publicly declared opinion, that is, mainly political, and usually preaching to the choir, as I make virtually none of these expostulations public beyond the circle of my “friends” who tend to be, mainly, like-minded. And of course, I have become, uncharacteristically, wary of saying what I know is deeply contrary or provocative to the like-minded.

I always write or post something with the hope, but no expectation whatsoever, of a response. The whole reason for being on a gated social network like Facebook, for me anyway, is to communicate, interactively (to use a word I hate—exchanges are always interactive, it seems to me; it means that there is some other category or several of them of social exchange and engagement that is not truly interactive, but something else, probably something like having two properly programmed computers “communicating” with each other, using words in some known language, as well as icons, images, and other signs and symbols [click on the upturned thumb icon if you “like” this idea]). It rarely happens, that is, the live communication between humans, one of whom is me.

I’ve come to speak less on the phone to people I was used to communicating with regularly in real time, each of us hearing the sound of the other’s voice. I have virtually ceased having what had been an incredibly rich, active, and dense correspondence with a variety of correspondents, mainly on email, but also, mirabile dictu, using pen and ink on real paper, made from rag or wood pulp.

I was reminded of all this, this former life, for life it was, a soubriquet I cannot assign to Facebook relations. They are something, but they are not life for me. They may be for every one of the other 147 individuals of which my Facebook Friends list now consists. But they are not for me. I was reminded of all this mainly because I am unpacking the literally tons of belongings that had to be hauled from New England to very near the city line of Philadelphia. Among the artifacts and objects thereby revealed—sometimes, it truly seems like a dig and I have unearthed some treasure, an archaeological find from the ancient history of the civilization I know as myself—was an ancient laptop, a Power Book G3, last used a decade ago, and first put into active service in 1998.

I looked at the email client I used then and perused some of the individual messages. As it was me writing, those I sent were of unusual length, in words, even for the circle of people with whom I corresponded back then. I was a member of at least two listservs, those hoary precursors to the phenomenon that has evolved into the present form of Facebook, except then the list usually consisted of about 100 people on the forums I attended. Most of them never wrote a word, preferring to “lurk,” that is, to read and be entertained by the more effusive of us. I formed friendships, real ones, thereby, some of which I retain and cherish to this day, and, as had always been my propensity throughout my life, thereby enlarged the circle of people I could count on to be engaging in a meaningful and substantive way, even if our relations never evolved beyond intellectual kinship. As for close friends, even those who, back in those days, lived nearby (the closest of them moved away long before it ever would have occurred to me to re-locate myself, and perhaps that is another causal factor in the chain of reasons or the nexus of conditions that have left me where you find me here, trying to account for what you have found), we wrote regularly, sometimes daily, exchanging links and quips and jokes and personal anecdotes, plans for meetings, assignations, mutual attendance of cultural or social events. Even as we wended our daily way through our obligations, writing and staying in touch even from our work desks.

I miss all that, not because Facebook has become the über-forum for such activity and for such a life, but despite Facebook. Facebook only reminds me, more and more poignantly, nay, painfully, of what I miss. I know friendship. Friendship is a friend of mine. And Facebook, you are not friendship.

Facebook is no substitute for me for what I describe for a broad matrix of reasons, none of them noteworthy enough to single out and not all of them important enough to analyze. I leave that to the sociologists and behavioral economists who at least can make a living, even if they eventually never make sense, of it. Chief among the reasons however is, in my mindfulness, I can never forget that whatever I say or post (if it’s an image or a link or a video file) it’s not to just this person, or that short list of friends or forum-mates, but it’s also and always to all of Facebook. I mean the corporate entity, which is always there, lurking, in the true sense of the word, listening without hearing, and archiving every syllable and every pixel, no longer mine alone, but the property of some giant entity. Call it a swarm or hive or call it the Borg, it’s not me.

Therefore, I am leaving. It’s a nominal and provisional leave-taking. Among the mistakes I have made in my life, from the tiny to the shattering, perhaps this is another one, and I will regret it, and so, for now, though the temptation is strong to cancel my account utterly and allegedly have all the bits and facts obliterated (Facebook has long since admitted that somehow—they can work any kind of programming wonder, but some things just can’t be explained, darn it!—certain images and other code objects have persisted in their system), I will deactivate the account. This means you will no longer find me on Facebook should you be looking or should somehow take notice, if only as a passing thought.

My real friends, whatever the number, know how to find me, both by phone and by email, and they can find me where I live, if they don’t already have the address and need only care to ask.

As for me, I will make what attempt I can, mustering the energy I can to do so, an expense of effort that came so effortlessly and unconsciously in the past I so recently just re-discovered in short form, to get back in touch with people using what I guess are now considered antique means. That is, I will be writing blog entries again. I will be re-designing one, if not both, of my Websites, and posting more regularly to that or those. And I will try, at least to be more regularly in contact, by phone and email and, dare I say it?, the U.S. Post with people whose contact I miss more than I have cared to say, perhaps because I had been reduced to saying such things, or anything, on Facebook. And I didn’t care to say anything so personal or intimate in such a place. So goodbye Facebook, for now and perhaps for good.

→ No CommentsTags: Personal · personal · Uncategorized

I stand expanded upon…

September 30th, 2011 · No Comments

I used to like to say, to friends (who were always far more indulgent of the, OK, sometimes obnoxious personae, as my friend Ezra Pound would call them, that I would adopt from to time), “God I hate to be right.”

Well, the following doesn’t make me right, but it does substantiate (and give permission to believe… yeah, yeah, to me, OK?) part of what I said in my post yesterday about the more things are Papelbon, the more they remain Buckner. At least in Red Sox Nation [he said, shuddering, using a phrase that always makes his internal organs shrivel: think about it, if it's a nation, how much would things be worse in the U.N. if they requested statehood recognition; trust me, that's next, a lot of people who can't pronounce the letter "r" and whose chief claim to mastery of skilled maneuvers is driving in bumper-to-bumper traffic while flipping the bird with one hand].

Here’s a link to an article, I believe it’s on-line only, as the latest print issue of “The Atlantic” has already appeared this month, and the Red Sox just ate and swallowed all of their young, their middle-aged, and their elderly, only two days ago. They’ve been delaminating for a month now, so this guy had that whole time to research and work the whole story up, so, like obituaries of terminally ill or extremely elderly celebrities, this just needed some final details and it was good to go on-line.

I even like the name of the article, “The Red Sox Weren’t Cursed, They Were Just Terrible.” Succinct. To the point. Mildly Vicious. Here’s the link: http://bit.ly/n8Kcfo. And it’s far more analytical and informed than I could ever be. I turned my back on my baseball bona fides back when I was about ten or eleven, back when I had my own copy of the Baseball Encyclopedia (probably the first edition: I’m that old; I know at least that Norm Yeazer, my baseball coach and counselor at summer camp, and formerly of the Detroit Tigers organization, and who actually appeared at “the show” for 18 official times at bat—this is from memory, so I could be blowing the details—and so was memorialized in this big fat delicious tome that I used to peruse like it was Proust or, well, the Bible). I knew whatever there was worth knowing about the New York Yankees, whose temple, the original Yankee Stadium, was just a bus ride and a subway ride away in my native Bronx.

And I knew a great deal more about baseball, the greatest intricacy of which at the time, the so-called infield fly rule, I would explain to female adults to their perfect understanding, and I was nine.

I don’t recall ever, ever, ever that the Red Sox were a threat, or even ever to be paid attention to. Losers then, losers forever. I worried about the Athletics (they had been in Philadelphia; though I’m not nearly so old as to remember that) of Kansas City, and now, of course, and long since, of Oakland—after the great western diaspora of the largely Eastern and Mid-Western hegemony of the real major league teams, 16 in all, eight in each league.

You won the pennant by virtue of winning more games than any other team in the league. None of this wild-card and playoff bullshit. The season was 154 games. There was maybe a two or three day lay-off between the end of the season and the beginning of the World Series, so it started in September, and the crowds, who got to see World Series games in daylight, could sit in the stands in shirtsleeves and dresses. And games were broadcast over the PA systems in our public school classrooms—we had moved to Providence, much to my chagrin in many dimensions, in August of 1956. But even the principal of the John Howland School, where I sat in the third or fourth seat of the first row nearest the doors of Miss Toole’s sixth grade class, understood the importance of the game being pitched by a certain Mr. Donald Larsen to a certain Mr. Larry “Yogi” Berra on Monday, October 8, 1956. Hence he turned the latter innings being reported on the radio onto the school-wide PA system and we listened rapt, as Larsen pitched what is still the greatest achievement in major league baseball history, and still the only perfect game (27 batters come up to bat, none get on base, each is put out in turn) in World Series history.

Admitting the severe affinity (never mind sympathy—the Red Sox don’t even deserve pity, though they are, generally, pathetic) deficit I suffer, not only from not having been born in the greater Boston Metropolitan area, but growing up, until my tenth birthday in The Bronx, home of the Yankees (we knew them as “the Bronx Bombers;” I mean, it was still only, say ten, 15 years since the end of World War II), and then growing up further in that schizophrenic little berg, Providence, closer to Boston, but close enough to New York to cause, at worst, ambivalence about either team, and many cases of divided loyalties among packs of friends. Often, as we do when adults eschewing the conversational subject of religious belief, we would simply avoid somehow tipping our hand or our baseball cap so as to indicate a preference.

But everyone, and I mean everyone, was thrilled with that perfect game. Especially since it was won against those “Bums” (get it? “Bums” vs. “Bombers”… which way would you go?) from Brooklyn, who were far more talented year to year and far more a menace (along with, briefly, and improbably, the Cleveland Indians) than the Red Sox ever were, or, if you ask me, ever should be.

But don’t ask me. Ask Andrew Cohen, Chief Legal Analyst and Legal Editor of CBS News, who wrote this piece for “The Atlantic.” You gonna’ argue with a lawyer?

→ No CommentsTags: 02138 and environs · News · Personal · reminiscence

Plus ça Papelbon… plus c’est la même Buckner

September 29th, 2011 · No Comments

No regrets here, as the news reaches me finally, mid-afternoon (because I’m now in another market—one with a team that clinched its division, has killer pitching, and an even better record than the Yankees… the pitcher business should tell you all, all by itself), and the NYTimes, which is my print news source (paper, the web, iPad, and the occasional Kindle view, depending on my mood, and whether I feel like spending another buck on my choice of gadget of the day) didn’t file its story on the Red Sox down-to-the-wire debacle until 4 in the morning. So it wasn’t in the newsprint paper they plop outside my door, usually about an hour late.

To me: Red Sox lose in clutch… no big deal, seems like a return to form. I was in Boston for over 48 years and for longer than that this heartbreaking team of losers (sorry, no other word for it… Ted Williams to the contrary, in effect, they couldn’t win with god on their side). And imbecilic as is sports mania in that town that passes for a city in general, the explanation that seemed to satisfy most of the inhabitants was that it was a curse that accrued because a greedy owner cashed in his meal ticket for a big profit. Where have we heard this before?

And still, we have crowds gathering in the Manhattan financial district, generally being rowdy and ineffectual, because they can’t even articulate their cause, something ineffable and inchoate about Wall Street, as if the villain were capitalism, and not simple greed, which has a legacy several millennia old. A curse makes more sense. The wicked witch of the East has cursed the downtrodden, especially in Boston, where the Red Sox blew another sure lead going into the Fall (on September 1st they were even in first place, ahead of the Yankees)… Where have we heard this before?

And of course, Bostonians, rabid boosters that they are, with the emphasis on rabid, will with their usual good grace boo their heroes for not coming through. They do it to every team in the city, no matter the previous record of achievement, no matter former triumphs, no matter illustrious and glorious history.

Ingrates. Like those crowds in Wall Street, who didn’t give a shit what evil, monstrous cupidity the Masters of the Universe cooked up, got sanctioned by Congress, and mandated by Ivy League PhD economists, as long as they had two cars and a truck (that’s what we all call the SUV; fair enough, it’s a truck, with 18 cup holders and flat screen monitors on the backs of the bucket seats) in the driveway, a flat screen in every room but the bathroom, and the mortgage got paid somehow (and no one asked why it was so easy to get that mortgage, when they knew, and the bank knew, and the bank examiners knew the borrowers couldn’t hold up their end of a loan on a tool shed in a hamlet in North Dakota).

I don’t think there’ll be demonstrations in Boston City Hall Plaza (and if so, they will have a PA system, or nobody will hear Mumbles Menino cautioning everybody to calm down and go home), not because the Red Sox blew another one, at the eleventh hour, the last day, the last game, the last inning.

Let’s hope we’re not in the same place, figuratively, with the economy (though we could be; who could tell? who would?… I’m going to hear about this one, and what a simple-minded ignorant twit I am for not understanding some basics of economics; only the economics I’m being tutored in will differ depending on whether my detractor is standing to my left or to my right). But we’ll find out, though not all at once. At least I won’t learn right away, because the NYTimes, being the cautious observers they are, and the over-edited, under-opinionated nelly of a news source that it is, won’t file the story until the towers of lower Manhattan are belching smoke from the fires the rabble have started in the lobbies by burning old stock options.

In case anyone is missing my misanthropic dispassionate point, what we have here is a case of, how do they say it in Boston, holding a cocked thumb and index finger in a digital “L” against their foreheads? “Losahs!”

Only thing is we’re all losahs. And we watch it all wash away, the losses, the good with the bad, the bath water and the baby, and even though it’s happening in slow motion, we don’t even try to do anything about it, except whine, and mill around urban financial districts, scouting them out for likely Hooverville locations, possibly, and blame the faceless, nameless 400 who we’re told have all the money. And indeed, until we put our heads in gear, and decide to act, as the system (which has been chugging away for far longer than the history of the American League) allows, and engage ourselves, we will be helpless. As helpless as Jonathan P. out there on the mound, trying to keep those freakin’ no good Orioles from scoring those two runs.

→ No CommentsTags: 02138 and environs · Invidious comparisons · local · national · News · Politics

02138 is moving

July 12th, 2011 · No Comments

Well, actually, I am moving, not the zip code, the area it represents, or this blog (or website). It’s a change of base of operations, home for lack of a better word. Though I can’t think of any better word than home. And so, in a figurative way, this virtual “02138,” the one always in my head, because I have discovered that indeed 02138 is a state of mind more than a place, will be moving with me, the (still) possessor of that head.

02138, the geographic location, has been home in some sense for over 25 years, 26 this November, by which time I expect the world will have to reach me by mail, real mail, snail mail, involving paper and ink—the good stuff—at a different zip code. It hardly matters to me at this point, though I’ll admit there are things I’ll miss, for a while at least. We get used to what we do, where we go and who we see.

One reason for the move, among the many and not to mention the many good ones, is that among the people I see or can count on seeing in person and in the flesh too many have moved on. Some, of course, have passed on, as the saying goes, and they are not reachable at any zip code known to me. But many more, thank goodness a great many more, are still among us in the world at large, actively engaged in what McEwan calls this “brief privilege of consciousness,” have simply moved. Most of them did so, in terms of the brief spans of time in which I seem to be aware of its passage, long since. Some of my dearest friends have scattered far in this great country known as the United States. This one to that state, that one to another, and so forth. Some do remain in Cambridge, largely in the same as I (for now) confines of the eponymous zip code of this blog. Now, we, by dint of this impending move of mine, will be visitors and guests. At least nominally. Friends are, to me, never guests in my house.

And, of course, I have other “homes.” And if the idea sits ill with you of having more than one home, as I do not mean the word as a synonym for abode or dwelling, then all I am saying is that I have at least one other house, a secondary residence for legal and fiscal purposes, in the south of France (I say all this as much, if not more, for the French authorities; does anyone imagine they are reading this obscure little blog in another country? Now that would be paranoia…). But in my mind, where homes and friends are certified and always dwell, quite near to me, if only in the abstract, Provence is as much home as Harvard Square. Sometimes more so for the longing it inspires, even when I am smack in the middle of it, surveying the landscape in all directions from my roof.

However, I’m beginning to go a bit far afield, having taken myself and you for a moment 3500 miles from 02138 to a rooftop in the la France profonde. To return to earth, and to the imminent move, it will be sometime in the weeks to come—a broad categorization that plural, as it may, in fact, amount to a couple of months at least.

You’ll still be able to find me here in virtual space, though I admit I have been scarce in these precincts (not to mention others where I’ve hung other, slightly different, hats in the past, here on the greater Internet). I am hoping with some settlement in my life, in several dimensions, I will have the freedom and the inspiration, and the motivation to fire up those engines of creation and make more regular contributions to ever-expanding sea of words.

I merely thought it appropriate that those who still follow me, or hope to, by these means, and in this particular place, should anticipate a change of great significance to me, and I would hope cause nary a ripple in their quotidian, without it being a complete surprise. It will, when it happens be a kind of surprise to me. I hardly think of uprooting oneself in this way, much as I look forward to it and expect a great salutary benefit, as quotidian.

As they say, “stay tuned.”

→ No CommentsTags: News · Personal · personal · reminiscence

Reasons given to Organizing for America for unsubscribing to their newsletter

March 22nd, 2010 · No Comments

I need only preface what I said to the folks at “Organizing for America” [which is, as it says at the bottom of their emails, “a project of the Democratic National Committee”] with this. I very much supported Barack Obama for the candidacy, and then, as candidate, for the Presidency. I even sent him money. Repeatedly. Something I had never done for a politician, and may never do again (though see below, re: Barney Frank).

Somehow (yeah right!), as Mr. Obama is a member of the Democratic Party, my name got added to the list which is shared by all DNC offices and affiliates. So I am inundated. This is not acceptable.

I get three emails regularly from the likes of Barack Obama, David Plouffe, and others, not to mention Nancy Pelosi and other “luminaries” (those are what the Brits call, inverted commas… what we call “scare quotes” and so, yes, I mean that ironically).

Does all of this make the country work any better? Does it make the Democrats, which is what they still call themselves, act any less like Democrats? Or, worse, the Republicans (which is what they still call themselves), any less like Republicans?

I have always said, except for the rare exception, and none comes to mind off-hand, save possibly for Barney Frank (and I just gave his campaign money, which I sniffed at and there seemed to be no tie to the DNC… and he’s not my Congressman, but represents the district next door, and he is probably the smartest guy in the House, and he is targeted by the Republicans and the Tea Party crowd—that bunch of wing-nuts) that all politicians suck. Even Thomas Jefferson did, when it came down to the down and dirty of trying to get elected.

Anyway, here’s what I said to the Organizing for America bunch about
I was unsubscribing under that particular email address:

“I am subscribed under several email addresses. I am trying to consolidate them. You FILL my email inbox with junk… More than any other source. Also, I am not crazy about being on the DNC mailing lists… I am registered as unaffiliated. I am left-wing. But that doesn’t make me a Democratic Party member. Not by any means. I think both parties leave a lot to be desired, mainly because they are made up of politicians acting like politicians, instead of like legislators and statesmen and judges. Not to mention acting like leaders. Which, at the moment, no one is doing, except possibly, in fits and starts, President Obama.”

→ No CommentsTags: local · national · Politics

Who cut the cheese?

September 8th, 2009 · No Comments

I’ll be brief. Well, OK, for me, it’s brief.

With my second visit in three days, I detect a high smell in the air, figuratively speaking, that I have gotten used to, I admit, over the years. It gets to be unnoticeable, as, I’m told, it can be with smog over LA. Il Formaggio Kitchen, the redoubtable cheese shop extraordinaire that happens to be based here in Cambridge (still at the original location, though, in keeping with their surging success over a great many years they now have a location in deep downtown Manhattan, to be added to the outpost they added to what is now a roster of stores located in the South End. These are all redoubts (speaking of being a formidable adversary—as in the food or foodie wars) of the invincibly deep pockets of the carriage trade who reside, or at least shop, in West Cambridge, the South End, and the Lower East Side (ensconced in the Essex Street Market).

What the stink is, of course, is the deep smell of lots of bucks. Money, in short, which you must have in long supply if you are regularly to shop in these establishments. I’ll have to look into it, but it almost appears as if each store, in having its own identity (with logos, or “marques,” drawn in the same faux primitif simple line) is declaring something of a separate sensibility. Perhaps the name has been licensed or franchised, or perhaps the estimable Ihrsan Gurdal, founder of the original West Cambridge store, and now a “knight” of some sort, of whatever French order bestows such honors, and absolutely with a reputation that exceeds the boundaries of the enclave of classically conservative Cantabrigian big money in which it is situated, has partial ownership. And if it is complete ownership, I am sure there is some plausible reason, beyond whim (or utter ignorance) that inspired a different “look” for each of the satellite locations.

I’ve never visited either the South End Boston or Lower East Side NYC stores, but I assure myself with some confidence that the prices are comfortably at parity with the Cambridge outlet. And the stink I keep referring to derives from the ever-increasing, no-end-in-sight, inflationary trend in prices that the rare products (and not so rare, but merely significant as a set of signifieds (as the linguists mean the word, as a noun) for the usual crowd of Mercedes/Audi/BMW/Volvo drivers who consume them) sustain in these bastions of plenty in the midst of universal want.

In short, the store was always too damn expensive, and it gets even more so, for no apparent reason. Though I’ll reserve wholesale (so to speak) condemnation until I have occasion to speak with representatives of the establishment. I’d like them to explain how it is that a six-pack of Badoit, the sparkling water of choice by a wide margin in France (distinguished from the much more famous Perrier by the pinpoint size of the bubbles of the former, as compared to the latter—every Frenchman knows that Perrier is a late afternoon hot summer’s day refreshment, or a mixer for a cocktail, in short a thirst quencher, with some rough equivalency to having a “Coke” here; indeed Source Perrier (owned by the conglomerate Nestlé, which finds ways of making money even in the gas infused into their mineral water products) has introduced a sparkling water (l’eau pétillante) to compete with Badoit, its prime differentiation being the tiny bubbles that emulate Danon’s flagship bottled water, as common in France as we believe Perrier to be. And just to round out this little digression before I make my point about money and egregious excess in the gentle rolling back streets of patrician Cambridge, I will note that Badoit, not to be outdone, or beaten out of any market, has introduced its own line of sparkling water, same name, just much bigger bubbles, like Perrier’s in size: no doubt important to penetrate that all-important, if practically non-existent these days, American tourist market, which only knows from Perrier.

In all events, let me sum up my point this way. A six-pack of Badoit, in liter bottles—plastic incidentally, as the glass versions seem to be distributed only to the trade, to go on offer in restaurants and bistros—costs approximately 4.50 euros at a French supermarket (actually it costs exactly that; I just checked on-line), which at the current insulting and injurious rate of exchange is $6.51, or a little less than a dollar-ten a bottle (about the price of San Pellegrino, in a liter bottle, at the Whole Foods Market… not exactly your price leader here in the US).

Well, Il Formaggio, driven by the esoteric preferences of their clientele, has sold Badoit in one-liter six-packs for years. It used to amuse me (for reasons no longer clear to me—in the interim my head has gotten either clearer or foggier) that at the time a liter of Badoit was selling for about 70 or 75 cents in a French supermarket, it was 18 bucks the six-pack at Il Formaggio.

Times being what they are, and inflation being the phenomenon it is, the price, I just took note, has risen to $25.50 currently, or about, well, about the price in US dollars of four six packs of the refreshing beverage in France.

So one of my questions of the denizens of Il Formaggio is how they justify a 300% markup for what is a common beverage in France, the quintessential market for bottled water, as it always had been (most of the brands, the many many brands, sold in France are centuries old; now it’s by preference, no doubt to some degree in the past it was for reasons of health and hygiene that ordinary citizens found a bottled water they could call their own and stick to it, through every meal). Bottled water is still not a universal phenomenon in the U.S., but a habit of the upper decile (I’m guessing) of the entirety of economic strata in the U.S., that is, the regular consumption of bottled water, and specifically mineral water (not the de-ionized, reverse osmosed municipal tap water that gets bottled by Coke and Pepsi, and lines the shelves at the Safeway next to the Coke and Sierra Light).

While I’m at it, and I’m just picking on Il Formaggio at the moment, regarding two products of extreme familiarity to me, a part-time resident of France, and concerning products I use regularly and without any particular sense of imminent danger as a result to the overall condition of the household exchequer, I noticed that a liter can of the excellent, but not superior by any means, olive oil of the Alziari family, an oil they press from various olives, but in this case, the famous olives of their native Nice (where their own retail shop is located) costs north of 43 bucks, almost 44, at Il Formaggio.

I do buy the Alziari product in France. I prefer French olive oil (to the more prevalent and better-known Italian, not to mention the Spanish, Greek, and several other quite fine oils), and it’s hard to come by in any place, but France (and I can only suppose this is because the French do like to keep certain things to themselves—and if I remember the pertinent facts clearly from Mort Rosenblum’s prize-winning book, Olives, they export only about 2-3 per cent of their annual output). In Nice, the Alziari liter of AOC Niçoise extra virgin olive oil, costs either 13 or 14 euros, depending on the time of year. That would be, just a tad (or a quarter, that is, two-bits, if you like to speak the language of coinage) over 20 bucks. That’s not 300% markup, it’s true, but it’s still more than twice the price (inexplicable in a way since a metal can weighs more than a plastic bottle, and olive oil, ounce for ounce, certainly weighs more than fizzy water) [ed. note, added later: just so I don't get any more comments, the foregoing is, of course nonsense, on two points, at least, and deliberately so: an ounce is an ounce, so by weight an ounce of oil weighs exactly the same thing as anything else weighing an ounce; water, however, is denser than oil—oil floats on water for god's sake—so any given volume weighs more than the same volume of oil, anyway, about 25% more, but this still doesn't excuse the markup on Badoit at everybody's favorite cheese shop in West Cambridge—I do these things on purpose, to see if you're listening... most of you aren't, or, more likely, you don't give a crap, which is probably smart].

There’s more to be said, given that any number of goat cheese specialties sit proudly at the entrance to the cheese department, waiting for you to take a round or a cylinder or a what have you home with you, already growing spots of greenish mold—not characteristic in France, even of the aged cheeses; it means these particular specimens have been, shall I say, away from home for a very long time—and each at a price from two to three to four times as much as it will cost you in the weekly market, week after week, time without end, in even the most humble of market towns near goat farms (and they raise goats all over the place).

Yes, there’s a smell emanating from West Cambridge, and it isn’t goats. But more later, after I look into it.

→ No CommentsTags: 02138 and environs · Food · Invidious comparisons · Local Food · The French &...

Starbucks still misses the boat for this landlubber

August 16th, 2009 · No Comments

Somewhere along the line, sailors, probably it was British sailors first time around, were called “tars.” This is among other things that sailors have been called in their lives at sea and their reputations in ports from Massalia (which is what the Phoenicians called what we know as Marseille) to Guadeloupe preceded them.

The reference, of course, is to that black, gummy substance distilled (yes) from the roots and wood of the pine tree (leave it at that; I’m not Linnaeus and this is no botany lesson) and used to seal the wooden ships that plied the seas and other waterways from time immemorial to the age of metal vessels. Even the little boat of rushes that protected the biblical baby Moses was famously lined with pitch (not quite the same thing as tar, but same principle—I’m not sure the Egyptians knew about tar, and frankly I don’t care).

Let me warn you now that if you check one of those ultra-reliable research sources, as I do, like Wikipedia, you’ll be told all kinds of sea stories (my mother would have called them “bubbe meissen,” but no matter, same difference*) about how the jolly British sailor came to be called by what it alleges is the benign, if not amiable, designation. The full epithet is “Jack Tar.” Because, no doubt, the British add “Jack” to every hail, or common expression alluding to another fellow—as in, “I’m All Right Jack,” the name of a British movie about the labor movement, a comedy no less, that was released in the 50s in the U.S. (and starred such stellar character actors as Peter Sellers, Terry-Thomas, and Margaret Rutherford). It was spectacularly funny, even to the 13 year-old I was at the time. How much deeper would have been my enjoyment had I known that the full common expression, from which the title derived, as I know it now, is “I’m all right Jack, fuck you.” As in, I’ve got mine, you can take care of yourself…

Let’s just say, whatever the connection of that resinous by-product to its uses at sea, the linguistic echoes speak volumes to the intent of its use. Tar, in short, is an objective correlative, a damn good one, if you ask me, in any story concerned with self-preservation.

Tar still has its place, I am sure, in more and more specialized applications, in this age of more and more generalized and amorphous interests in general life, which humans seem to want to pursue with the migratory zeal of lemmings. I notice there is still a tar-like substance (derived, no doubt, not from the distillation of what emerges from a pine tar kiln, but from the distillation of our jolly friend, petroleum, and commonly called, in its most common form, “coal tar.”) I used to chew bits, tiny bits, that we kids would find in the streets of the Bronx after a road repair or, more usually, a roof repair of the graveled flat roofs of the housing projects in which I grew up. I remember the tang of its aroma, and the spicy satisfying bitterness for the few moments we could stand to keep it in our mouths before its purely noxious qualities came to the fore. Possibly this was a precursor for my later career as wine taster (strictly amateur), not to mention coffee. I can’t say, but I do know in retrospect that the ritualistic steps, practiced intuitively were not far different. One difference was the absence of a spit bucket.

It’s the mention of spit that reminds me of my subject here, though it reminds me as well of some common expressions that should be kept active, if in the background of one’s mind, while contemplating this subject, as in “so angry I could spit,” or that great maternal euphemism for vomit, especially in reference to babies, “spit up,” or the curses from any one of no doubt dozens, but for sure the handful of latin, countries any one of which begins in the form, “I spit on…[to be completed as appropriate: your shoes, your new Audi G7, your future grave site, etc.].” My subject is a recent, rare visit to Starbucks.

My memory of Starbucks dates to the days when, in the ascendant as the corporation fulfilled the strategies of a prescient Howard Schultz who bought the original company from its founders in 1987 and proceeded to do what they refused to do: sell brewed drinks, including espresso, in addition to the beans which were the hallmark of the generation of what only seem to be sui generis establishments, all started in Seattle: coffee bean, and coffee bean only, roasters and purveyors. The founders, who started out buying their beans from Peet’s (whose founder, in turn, had been their mentor and inspiration: one of the founders of Starbucks still works for that chain, long since outdistanced by, and pale in comparison to its prodigal child), had the odd notion that coffee was a drink to be prepared and enjoyed best at home.

It was Schultz, at whose feet (shod in whatever shoes he prefers I would gladly spit upon at any opportunity, so great is my contempt, which started instantaneously when I learned at the very same time—he bought out the Starbucks founders in 1987 and immediately started out on his global conquests, at which he has succeeded only too well—about the existence of the shop(s), the tenuous connection of the brand with, and, for any deep lover of American literature, the innately moronic and, for some of us, profane, desecration of the name of one of literature’s noblest characters, the indomitable first mate of the ill-fated Pequod, the whaling ship in which most of the action takes place in that classic novel everyone claims to have read in its entirety, Moby Dick, and which has about as much to do with coffee, as Longfellow’s epic poem “Evangeline” has to do with pork belly futures in the Chicago commodities markets, and I hadn’t even tasted the vile, foul-smelling substance they dispensed as yet) can be laid all of whatever it is you hold dear, or revile, about Starbucks, its stores, its ethos, its products, etc.

It is allegedly Schultz who insisted on the signature “dark roast” (in scare quotes, because, lordy, it is scary that they still call the end result coffee beans; I don’t know what the generic term for the byproduct of total destructive incineration is, or I’d use it) and the attendant flavors (if, again, we can stretch the language, pliant, if not elastic as it may be, and thereby one of the great languages, in all its linguistic potentiality, for creating poetry—but we are talking Starbucks “coffee” here, and any such talk is the antithesis of poetry, as the fluid spoken of is the antithesis of its designation; a new vocabulary must be invented to have proper terminology with which to refer to their products, “swill” having long since been bankrupted by the imagination of the demented lot at Starbucks headquarters who concoct everything revolutionary they have introduced to the world in the name of the plant Coffea L., whose seeds (no, they’re not really beans) have for so long provided so much pleasure until the Schultz came along, and he had all he could do to have them provide what is clearly the more compelling objective, money, because what he seems to have done best is to find ways of brutalizing and abusing this ancient plant, revered for centuries by men (and if we are to believe it, the gods) as a divine natural gift, with fire to produce concoctions and decoctions that until recently seemed to have the magical property mainly of parting fools from their money while simultaneously dulling their sensory organs, and especially their palates, into complete insensibility).

My first protest, which consisted of boycott, occurred in 1996, when the revered (and for good reason) Coffee Connection, a chain started by the man whose name is synonymous with great coffee in the Northeast, at least, George Howell, decided, that is, George decided, to besmirch his reputation by selling his company, his stores (more, really, in the way of cafés), his products (a line of several types of coffee beans, which were roasted with exquisite care and sensitivity to the subtle and not-so-subtle differences among the varietals) to Starbucks. I can’t blame him really, as it must have been an astounding amount of money involved, and worth every penny to La Schultz, who in one stroke, not dissimilar to the blitzkrieg strategy employed so effectively by the Wehrmacht, with minimal destruction and maximal effectiveness by way of assimilating whole peoples under a new regime. It was in 1996, that the Coffee Connection locations operated by Starbucks under that name, for a while after the acquisition, changed the identity on all stores, and all but a handful of products. And of course, the announcement (again, just pure classic marketing strategy, which does, effectively, crush any confusion, but with the collateral effect, usually, of also crushing even a thread of whatever it was that distinguished a superior product from the dross now substituted for it by the conquering party in the eternal wars of acquisition) was accompanied with the promise that the “Coffee Connection” name would never be allowed to die or disappear. Here is where a lesser story-teller would insert, with no creativity or originality whatsoever, a tired reference to that hoary and mythical real estate offering concerning a bridge connecting Manhattan with one of the lesser boroughs.

There have been several more personal boycotts since, of ever-greater duration, even as I, in my well-meaning open-mindedness, belied I admit by a totally erroneous appearance of scornful, brusque opprobrium, more often than not interlaced with many words consisting of four letters and sometimes in witty, if not ingenious new combinations (though never attaining the demented kinds of violent yoking of otherwise attractive, if not tantalizing, flavors to produce some vile complex formulation with a four dollar, or higher, price tag only to be found at Starbucks—or in some tepid, uninspired, but, if possible, even sweeter, and certainly cheaper knock-off available at McDonald’s, where it stands no more chance of actually tasting like something intended for human consumption than at the more expensive namesake for all things carbonized to a state of utter mineral decomposition, no taste that is, except for sugar, and not just sugar, but sugar qua sugar, not as mere sweetener and helpmeet to other, more particular and flavorful ingredients—though it is customary at least in the United States to invert the usual formulation, so we always are asking, in effect, to have a little coffee, or tea, or chai, in our super-saturated solution of sugar water) still would occasionally venture in to see if some miracle had occurred. Or if my aging taste buds had atrophied into a state of submission. Or if, well, the possibilities in the long history of mankind and his struggle with good and evil…

I’ll give anybody a chance, except maybe Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler, or Reinhard Heydrich. So, indeed, periodically, I would check in on Starbucks and order, usually, a small coffee (I still refuse to recall the strangely designated sizes of beverages, mandated by Schultz, except that the word “venti” does rattle around in my head, I suspect, because it’s the largest size, and the word sounds like “vent” to my Francophone ear, which reminds me of “wind” and so I guess it will be forever associated, as a kind of gastric mnemonic, with a big fart, which, given the venti-sized coffee-like beverages I have essayed over the years, would in fact be preferable, given the choice of what to ingest; I mean, a small dose of methane, sulfur gas, etc. never killed anybody… I don’t know if anyone should let Schultz know this, or he might be tempted to, well, you know, you never can tell about a man who would offer anything that will sell for just under a five-dollar bill to an innocent public, with a Jones for anything sweet, and a pathological addiction to foods that will give them a chronic, incurable disease for whatever remains of their lives, and I offer as evidence this, the list of ingredients of one Starbucks current beverage offering, lifted intact from their corporate website: “Mint Chocolaty Chip Frappuccino® blended creme with Chocolate Whipped Cream: Classic chocolate and spearmint flavor combined with milk, mocha sauce, Frappuccino® chips, blended with ice, and then topped with chocolate whipped cream and mocha sauce”). I will only add this drink, in “medium” size (see their website for the correct Starbucks terminology, God help your soul) contains 400 calories and 80 grams of carbohydrates. You can also order it, I believe, as a big fart, that is, in “venti” size.

And every time I checked in, I checked right out, and proceeded to pour some perfectly good water, adulterated with the infused residue of the cremated remains of what have formerly been the seeds of what I only hope and pray the USDA, not to mention the FDA, periodically checks to ensure does in fact, start out as Coffea L., since the end result, after processing (I refuse to call it roasting) is, I am sure, indistinguishable from what would have resulted had they chosen to put several tons of kudzu through a blast furnace and grind the output into a rough powdery substance.

For a while there, one of the merchandising master strokes of Mr. Schultz (I’d call him Herr Schultz, but that wouldn’t be fair; he’s Jewish as I understand, though since Bernie Madoff, of course, this qualification hardly constitutes exoneration… yet having already alluded to some famous Nazis of their day, well, even I see the impropriety; that we share a given name doesn’t help either, because it’s only a source of embarrassment for me, since, Oh, I’d say, some time in 1987) brought me into the stores, but ironically never for the coffee. Even with no other choice in view, or within walking or driving distance, I would never need to have coffee that badly. No, I went in for the music CDs. And I bought a few. But after a while, even these infrequent visits became impossible, simply because the very air in a Starbucks is permeated with the smell of flames derived from carbon-based fuels being applied for torturously long periods of time to plant matter, and that, frankly, makes me want to spit up.

Recently, after what I would say has been a hiatus of a few years, at least three, I ventured into a Starbucks. My lovely companion, Jody, who I attest is a true coffee afficionado, but who does not suffer my violent antipathy and is far more compliant, especially in the face of my seemingly (I am sure) sudden and inexplicable stated desire to enter a Starbucks establishment (this one, as if being a Starbucks weren’t ignominious enough, being located in the ignominious confines of an otherwise tragically unremarkable minor Massachusetts city, called Worcester) entered with me. Having just spent, the two of us, some several weeks (as in almost two months) in the paradisiacal rural confines of southern France, where all things flow good and plentiful, and especially the coffee, which they have been drinking for far longer, along with their Italian brethren, the alleged inspiration of Schultzy’s original vision, but I know hype when I see it; at this point, he can afford to buy Italy… personally I don’t think he ever stepped foot in the country, never mind drank even three milliliters of the brewed beverage they call (as do the French, with their penchant for calling a thing what it is), “espresso.”

Further, we, Jody and I, have become enamored of one of the more successful manifestations of the means devised to tap into the love of humans for coffee, the products marketed under the brand name “Nespresso.” But more on this much later, that is, at some other date, other than to say, we now consume mass quantities of such products, brewed, as the good founders of the badly named original Starbucks intended, at home—these are, in essence and in fact, espresso products. Suffice it to say, our taste buds are primed and fully acclimated to the taste of varying degrees of excellence in the homely, but estimable, art of brewing fresh roasted ground Coffea L. into an ambrosial hot liquid, which satisfies many of the senses, but certainly the olfactory and those of taste (not to mention sight: the lovely colors of a perfect crema crowning the limpid, deeply colored, yet translucent umbral shades of such an infusion).

Well, let’s make short of this essentially disquieting episode. I sashayed in. I ordered a double espresso “for here” (what should be a redundancy; except in the outlets of American-based chains of prepared food purveyors, there’s hardly any such thing as a coffee to go in France, and so an order for a café (by which is always understood an espresso, unless you look even vaguely American, in which case you will be asked, by a server straining their meager knowledge of English, if you mean, in fact, a café crême, which is to say, further, what we call in this country a café au lait (though they are not the same), but is, in fact a cappuccino, different drinks mind you (with a particular dialectical variant thrown in there, which actually constitutes a different means of composition—that is, a crême is not the same as an au lait, and the French, in their marvelously precise way, will always correct you, especially in a rural café, where they don’t have a ready supply of scalded milk, but they do have the steamer jet of the espresso machine; and I won’t even get into the differences constituted by a macchiato, the Italian term, of course, for yet a different drink altogether, and as such must be ordered by this term) will always arrive in a proper cup, usually ceramic, though sometimes, rarely, of glass (it’s the Swiss and the Italians who seem to take that extra delight in seeing the drink in its entirety) on a proper saucer.

My drink, which I ordered (I’m being very careful here: I’m still not sure it was ever, at any time at any stage of its existence, any part of the plant called Coffea L. and I for damn sure am not going to call it “coffee” or café, or even espresso, because the latter would connote that I, however much it may have to be inferred, would accord it the status of that prepared beverage known generally and generically as coffee), arrived in a paper container. A container, a cylinder more or less, of narrow diameter, “all the worse to drink you my dear…,” or perhaps so circumscribed in the mistaken notion that this would concentrate the aromas (a term I also use advisedly, as, in situations where one might opine that “a stink arose,” one would not ordinarily, except in inordinately poetic circumstances, be inspired to say, meaning the same thing, “an aroma arose.)” Further, of course, Starbucks being a corporation founded and based still in the Pacific Northwest, irony does not apply. Ever. One must be careful never to speak ironically in a Starbucks. You not only might, you absolutely will be taken literally, and they are likely to bring you what you ask for.

In this case, I should have been ironic, as they didn’t, though they thought they did, bring me what I asked for.

My first surprise was to see some wisp of a crema floating on the top of what was clearly a liquid in this paper cup (it was shifting around in a manner I associate with liquids of a certain limpidity and viscosity), but this was a cruel, final delusion.

I lifted the cup to my face, and my nose being rather large it was what first encountered, Thank God, what was issuing from the cup. I put the cup down. I caught Jody’s attention. I asked her to smell what was in my cup. “Smell this,” I said (I was in Starbucks, literal mode…). She did. She made a face.

Now my father raised me to be a scientist. That he failed in the main is besides the point. What he left me with were certain habits of mind, and certain methodologies. A scientist forges on, to go boldly, etc. I smelled and would have quit there. But, I was determined to carry this through. Besides I had paid the better part of two dollars for, not a double espresso, such as one would get in France where a double means using one larger cup to hold the volume of two smaller cups of a single—all of equal strength—but for the idiotic American version of a double, that is, a double “shot”, concentrating (as if this were possible with any Starbucks ground coffee product; further concentration seems impossible, in the sense that cold fusion is, at the present time, only theoretically possible… I wonder if the Department of Defense is in touch with Howard Schultz…) a single dose of water forced through the volume of grounds required for two cups of espresso) the noxious brew that sat, with no warnings otherwise posted, innocently in my paper cylinder. I took a tentative sip. I don’t recall if I swallowed it, but I must have, because I have no recollection of a spit bucket, though I instantly realized this is what is missing in every Starbucks around the world—and it’s an item that would sell like hot cakes in their stores, including the on-line store… I’d buy one.

“I can’t drink this,” I said, when Jody asked me where I was going.

I walked up to the counter. I waited until one of the bright young things asked if I needed some help. I told her, instantly catching the attention as well of she who, I guess, represented the on-duty management. “I can’t drink this,” I said. “I don’t want it.”

“I don’t want my money back. I just want a large glass of water so I can get this taste out of my mouth.” “What’s wrong with it?” I was asked.

“It doesn’t taste like coffee.” “Well, it’s espresso. See…” and I cut her off. “I just came back from ten weeks of drinking espresso in Europe. I know what it tastes like. This tastes like tar. It also smells like tar. In fact, coal tar.”

“If you would, just give me the water, and I’m all right.” I didn’t call her Jack.

* Same Difference is, of course, the name of my book. You can order it here. It has nothing to do with Starbucks, though I think I mentioned it once, no doubt invidiously. https://www.bertha.com/same_difference/private_edition.html

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Dinner last night

August 6th, 2009 · No Comments

Chicken and fixings

Chicken and fixings

Jody’s Lemon & Rosemary Chicken with herbs and garlic
Haricots verts with kalamata olives and garlic sautéed in EVOO
Heirloom tomatoes with local mozzarella [Fiore di Nonni]
2006 Jean-Luc Colombo Viognier “La Violette”

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What is strange

August 6th, 2009 · No Comments

[written 2009 July 31 Co-posted on the Per Diem blog]

What is strange about produce shopping in France were all the apples available throughout the summer.

I don’t know where they were coming from, as I didn’t buy anyway.

My cling fruit juices were flowing as is appropriate.

The pears were only barely beginning to appear and will be in very full swing in the autumn.

I’m still trying to get over the shock and depression of shopping for the first time since back in Cambridge, and walking through the local Whole Foods. When we were in Nice, just before we left, I took Jody into Monoprix, actually a low to middle middle class chain across France, known for discount pricing. They only sell midline brands on most things (so, although there’s no equivalent as our department stores, like theirs, are much more comprehensive, so it isn’t a department store, and they also sell OTC products, like CVS, and now have begun installing very ambitious food departments. Anyway, Whole Foods makes Monoprix (where not too many very very serious foodies would not shop; spiritually equivalent to eating at Appleby’s) look like the food halls at Harrod’s in London, or the Galleries Lafayette in Paris.

If anything confirms that the French are serious about food, it’s the food departments at Monoprix, which is otherwise a place to get cheap underwear and your favorite toothpaste at a better price. I should mention that in the Monoprix outlets in Paris, at least, they also sell, in their personal care products departments, brands for items that require going to carriage trade toiletry and pharmaceutical stores, things like Klorane and ROC.

We saw a dozen different kinds of pâté en croûte, and an equal number without croûte. Produce better than the French supermarkets (but worse than daily outdoor market stalls). Cheese department(s) that put any place here to shame, including Il Formaggio right here in Cambridge, with its cheese cave, and pretentious airs and astronomical prices. I say department in the plural because it would appear they have at least three places to buy cheese, I think according to your needs and budget.

Monoprix even has an affordable cheese section, where the cheeses are already apportioned and wrapped in plastic with a weight and price. You can buy a whole Reblochon at the attended counter (or any number of other cheeses from every region of France, never mind just the South), or you could buy a half a small round (250gm, or a scant ounce more than half a pound) for 3,12 euros (about $4.40). Aged crottin (goat cheese) were under 1,50 euro each. I checked at WFM yesterday; a particularly desiccated plate of specimens were seven bucks each. One further rung below this department is the one that is familiar-looking to us: the branded cheeses (think Kraft or a grade or two above) in thermoplastic, vacuum-sealed packaging.

Their wine section, with wines from every region of France represented in depth, and in price (from ~ 2,50 euro to over 30 euro a bottle, for wines, in the latter instance, that would be astronomical here), was at least as big as the largest outlets here that have to sit on the highway here to find a building with the room.

The butcher, charcuterie, bakery, cheese departments are all staffed with knowledgeable people who work scrupulously (I’ve watched them, re: cleanliness, precision, manners, attentiveness, friendliness) to serve you from really overwhelming choices of items.

And everything is way cheaper (and this is a Monoprix on the main shopping street, also lined with fast food outlets, chain stores, cafés, and a shopping mall (with underground garage) that takes up a city block in mid-size coastal city, not particularly wealthy except in the suburbs up in the hills, and which depends entirely on tourism, and the tourists do NOT shop at Monoprix… it’s strictly a venue the locals know about and prefer) than in the U.S.–take your pick of chains, and skip WFM, which is stacking the deck.

The lack of variety in our stores, the dearth of real choices, the degree to which food is processed and packaged, the distance you are from true artisanal products, from the sources of the food, and certainly the profound difference in quality (in terms of appetite appeal, actual taste, and concern with nutritional value) is going to be hard to prevent from being profoundly depressing.

Any assertion that food is expensive there, which I’ve heard from people who should know better, and not of extreme value, compared to the abundance and price here, is total horse manure. The comparison is odious, and the truth lies elsewhere.

And don’t get me wrong. You can buy dry breakfast cereals and sweetened soft drinks over there (of course they use beet and cane sugars to much greater degree than we do, which is hardly at all, though, ominously, high-fructose corn syrup is making inroads), it’s just who would want to?

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