Monday, February 28, 2011

Younger – Better? More Valued? Says Who?

Would have made a better Oscar host if you ask me. The legendary Betty White, who played Rose on one of my favorite American sitcoms, The Golden Girls.

The reviews are in for James Franco and Anne Hathaway as Oscar hosts, and they have been less than stellar. While I don't root for anyone's failure, I think a lot of people (myself included) who are tired of our society viewing younger as better, more desirable, more valued, are filled with a bit of "I told you so" today. Youth felt a little vapid, lacking in substance and confidence, which it often is.

Why are we such a youth obsessed culture? I don't envy youth, do you? Yes, there are things I would have done differently (studied for a semester in Paris, been wiser with some spending habits, and such). But to live through my teens and twenties again? No thank you.

When reading this New York Times article about "The Kiddie Couturiers" (child labor it isn't because it's voluntary? I don't understand), I thought how odd that younger people are in such a hurry to grow up, and so many adults waste precious time and money to turn back the clock (mostly on their faces).

In the latest Sex and the City film (I with a sinking head in shame admit to watching a library copy) Kim Catrall's Samantha focused most of the film on her neurotic obsession with anti-aging remedies (mostly surrounding maintaining her libido). I found it not only un-funny, but pathetic and offensive since she is a breast cancer survivor on the show (yes, I realize it is "entertainment" but we are a celebrity-obsessed, impressionable culture). Maybe I've known too many people who struggle with cancer, but their biggest concern at the end of it isn't remaining wrinkle-free or jumping from one fling to the next. As a friend who is a scientist said to me, she associates anti-aging with cancer cells and such. When you stop aging, you die.

Reflect on these words in "P.S. I Love You" expressed by Harry Connick Jr.'s character, "We're so arrogant, aren't we? We're so afraid to age. We do everything we can to prevent it. But we don't realize what a privilege it is to grow old."

Isn't that right. What a privilege it is every year we blow out our candles, each
to me symbolizing more light that has been brought into our world.

As for me, I'd rather spend an evening with Rose, Blanche, Dorothy, and Sophia eating cheesecake around the kitchen table any day over Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha shopping for Manolo Blaniks (product placement, ladies!) Rose can tell me a story of her tightly-knit farming community (which sounds almost mythical in our factory farming, immigrant labor word). Blanche could talk of her beauty, but they'd let her have it (like when Rose asked quizzically, "What were you doing shopping in ladies petites?). History-loving Dorothy (my favorite) could give some witty comebacks, such as when she told overly competitive Rose drawing a defense plan for her junior football league that Eisenhower used less chalk planning D-Day! I wonder how many youth even know of D-Day? Sophia could tell a story of the old country, "Picture it, Sicily, 1945..." or of old New York, which I would have loved to have known before gadgets made us numb to our daily surroundings.

Carrie would be as self-obsessed about her relationship as ever, Miranda and Charlotte would be be grumbling as they did in the movie about how they cannot comprehend how people raise children without help, meaning nannies. I recall the commentary in the Nanny Diaries how immigrants come here for the American dream and their own children grow up without mothers while they raise the children of the wealthiest New Yorkers. Picture this, New York City, 2011: Nannies, it is said, are being sent to do the volunteer work at a Brooklyn food co-op, The New York Times reported. And Samantha, she'll be off soon to the dermatologist's office, even though she should be grateful not to visit her oncologist's office.

Age versus youth, was the competition ever really that serious? The older, and wiser, know the answer.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Cutting the Cord

After many long, loyal years together and much soul-searching, I've finally decided to end my long-term relationship - with my cable company. With a cable service, period.

I tried to make a clean break a year ago, but was lured back in with a year-long promotion rate, but with that ending, so did any desire to pay $700-plus a year. With my hard-earned (and limited) income, I'd rather give to companies that are more in tune with my values, like public radio. Cablevision doesn't come close.

It's not you, it's me.

Okay, honestly, it's mostly you. Television, in my opinion, is at the lowest standard I can remember ever seeing it, and yes, I mean all of those reality television shows. The Kardashians, really America? I don't think women fought through the rights movement to plunk themselves on the couch night after night to take pleasure at the dysfunction or vapidness of others, which seems to be the latest national pastime. People need all these high end television screens for that? These social climbing swindlers simply want to exploit their fame for profit.

I'm staging a television intervention and I'm looking at you, fellow Americans. I understand "guilty pleasure" - but is pleasure defined by Botox-riddled housewives so we can feel better about ourselves? Thinking about the time people spend watching them leaves me feeling worse.

Family sitcoms and programs - remember those, the ones parents could watch with their children without either being embarrassed by a line? My sister and I loved watching reruns of Little House on the Prairie and The Brady Bunch. Later, The Wonder Years was a cherished show. One of our beloved shows we always want to see - I Love Lucy. What are some of your favorites, and are you as disappointed as I am?

As I get older, I realize how truly fast time goes and how precious it is, and don't want to waste it on mindless television. Wynton Marsalis is so right - what a rich cultural heritage we have and I feel a better person having seen James Cagney and Ruby Keeler tap dance in Footlight Parade (from a library copy). My new favorite movie star: Dick Powell. I've also been reading far more often (the latest, Laura Hillenbrand's World War II epic, "Unbroken," which I believe should be taught in American schools).

One hiccup: reception is a major issue. All I ask is for the basic channels: CBS, ABC, NBC and Thirteen, and I'm struggling to get them. As my boyfriend likes to say, much like bottled water, they've sold the public on what they once got for free. But I'm not paying for a service - I can watch 60 Minutes or the nightly news online.

Cablevision - you and I are through.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Today is Presidents' Day

Dear readers,

I am writing to you again in letter format, since a letter would have been more appropriate for the times I'm speaking of. Anyway, my blog is outdated already it seems, according to the New York Times, as people, particularly the younger set, are moving more toward Facebook and Twitter for instant, brief communications. Being the old-fashioned type who won't confine my thoughts to 140 characters or less, I'm writing a letter from my desk in the great state of New Jersey (which is nothing like it is portrayed on television).

As the world focuses on sweeping, fast-moving people's revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere, I'm thinking of our own bloodied American revolution for Independence, which was just a wink of an eye ago. Looking at the snow falling, I'm reflecting on the snow and harsh conditions of the winter in 1777 and 1778 at Valley Forge that faced George Washington and his troops.

"If there was ever one person who was absolutely indispensable to the American Revolution and American independence, it was George Washington," said historian David Walker Howe. Washington showed the world an army of farmers could take on the mighty British.

The Bergen County Historical Society held its annual county ball for George Washington (whose birthday is February 22nd), filled with dancing (the re-enacters were dressed for the occasion) and crullers and cider for guests in the tavern.

Do you know how to dance? I know some more modern couples dances, and the great exercise, joy and social aspect of dancing. In school years, exercise is so often just about competitive team athletics like baseball, football and basketball. But not all exercise needs to be about competition, and I think some form of dancing should be taught in schools (given our lack of emphasis on the arts, yes, I realize I'm dreaming).

In an age of mass production (which has yielded overflowing landfills), consider the craftsmanship of everything in earlier life - from candles to shoes to quilts, some simpler and others showy, like this one, made in 1875 in Hackensack, New Jersey, and was displayed at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition.

In the Dutch out kitchen, potato leek soup was simmering on the kettle.
Reflect on your life now and what it would have been like in Washington's time. Think your dinner routine is complicated? Most of us don't have to harvest our own food, and we definitely don't have to kill our own animals - we leave that work to underpaid labor who have come here for their piece of the American dream. I recall a quote at Ellis Island I once read from an immigrant who said they believed the streets of America were paved with gold, then realized they were not paved at all, then the reality that they had to pave them.

Let us not forget Abraham Lincoln, who made an appearance at a prior Bergen County Historical Society event. His birthday was February 12. With an upcoming film in April, The Conspirator, and Daniel Day-Lewis set to play Lincoln in the Steven Spielberg-directed film adapted from Doris Kearns Goodwin' book Team of Rivals, Hollywood is smitten with Lincoln, and I'm grateful for that.

It seems almost every holiday, the true meaning is being lost on most Americans, who think little about veterans on Veterans' Day or the war dead on Memorial Day. It doesn't help retailers try and persuade us it is just another sale occasion (I stick by a motto I once heard, "It's not a bargain if you don't need it"). I also think Americans are becoming more overworked, and in our technological age, boundaries are becoming erased between home and work life. No leaving the briefcase at the office - your gadget is always with you, and to finish your work, more are expected to be on them as employers try to get more out of fewer workers and capitalize on employees' fears over job security. Any day off - understandably - is cherished.

But I also think knowledge and wisdom are just not really valued by our culture. A lot of lip service is paid about education, but a lot of it is meaningless. Possessions are bragging points, or how a child did on their latest basketball game, but I'm more impressed by: What book did you just read? Is a news story provoking thought or outraging you? What art form - film, music, dramatic, and such - is making your soul smile? Are you reflecting on Presidents' Day?


Friday, February 18, 2011

On Our Plates, A Side of History

For a belated St. Valentine's Day celebration, my sweetheart and I went to The Kitchen in Englewood, New Jersey, which features American cuisine with a wink at the 1930s. From their site:

"The 1930's was a special era for America in terms of entertaining and dining out...With the repeal of Prohibition, cocktail parties with passed canapés grew in popularity even with the middle class. Americans had not legally been able to import alcoholic beverages for over ten years. Bourbon, an American spirit, became very popular among Americans and the Mint Julep became the signature drink of the Kentucky Derby, spreading through the nation as well. America was developing an identity for food and beverage."

Their dining room is tiny but cozy. American artwork adorns the walls, including this poster encouraging, "See America Visit the National Parks".

Did you know it was the Great Northern Railway who adopted the "See America First" slogan in 1906 to promote their resort facilities in northern Montana? Learn more.

It's bring your own wine here, and we brought some sparking wine and Crème de cassis for our own festive cocktails. Five complimentary appetizers are passed: mushroom puff pastries, spinach pastries, cheese puffs, eggplant with goat cheese and a sweet potato bite.

The vegetarian plate, $20, with quinoa, sauteed winter greens and king mushrooms. Two shared sides came for the table with the two entrees: tonight it was creamed spinach and carrots with Rösti potatoes, the potatoes a Swiss German dish (fitting, since my parents are both originally from Switzerland). Consider the dishes that immigrants brought, and food that developed on its own.

To share, a grown-up versions of a campfire classic, s'mores, $8. Graham cracker crust, chocolate ganache and homemade toasted marshmallows.

Short for "some mores," s'mores appeared first in the 1927 book Tramping and Trailing with the Girl Scouts, according to The Food

Forget the latest in celebrity gossip, I find perusing food menus of days gone by far more fascinating. For food and history lovers alike, visit The Food Timeline's American food through the decades. Find everything from a 1939 New York Times article on "the herculean task of feeding 50,000,000 people....the number of visitors expected at the New York World's Fare of 1939;" what was served at Mother Goose children's parties in the 1950s, to what John F. Kennedy favored for lunch.

Sticking with the 1930s, consider a family dinner menu from Aunt Sammy's Radio Recipes Revised, Bureau of Home Economics, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1931:

"Dinner menus for February"
Scalloped oysters, five-minute cabbage, pickled beets, jellied fruit; Lima beans in tomato sauce with crisp bacon, mashed rutabaga turnip, lettuce with tart dressing, fruit, chocolate drop cookies, roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, scalloped parsnips, turnip greens, pickled cherries, Washington pie.

Or in the later 1930s, the timely "Washington's Birthday Luncheon" (this was before Americans paid homage to our first President by going to the mall to buy sheets).

"Halves of oranges, with Maraschino cherries in center, chicken a la Maryland, with drum sticks, southern sweet potatoes, Virginia corn bread, cherry salad, Boston brown bread, chocolate log cake (cocoa roll), nuts, raisins, coffee, Washington punch."

Exploring our history extends to so many facets, not just our leaders or famous battles won and lost. History is everywhere, including on our plates, and it is worth devouring.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Before Hallmark, Love through the Ages

On this St. Valentine's Day, a tale from American novelist Keith Donohue's haunting Angels of Destruction, as told by Norah, who may or may not be an angel.

"The past is no more certain than the future. Little is known about the real Valentine, only this. There may have been two. Both were martyrs who died for what they believed. Both lived and died long ago. The first Valentine was a priest in the Roman times when the emperor outlawed marriages for young soldiers. This was done so that they would be more devoted to fighting than their sweethearts. But Valentine felt sorry for those men and married them in secret. When the emperor found out, he had Valentine killed! Off with his head, chop. Sometimes love means sacrifice."

"The Second Valentine was just a man who had been falsely imprisoned. He fell in love with the jailer's daughter and had to smuggle love letters in secret. He signed them, From 'Your Valentine.' These two stories are legends, and not much is known about Saint Valentine."

"The day of February fourteenth is related to love and fertility rites of the pagans. The pagans were people believe in more than one god or sometimes not at all. This is love and fertility rite is the time of the marriage of Zeus and Hera....It was also the feast of Lupercalia, when the boys of Rome ran the streets, striking women with a leather strap. This custom was continued by the Christians. In the Middle Ages, during the coldest part of long winters it became a day when men and women sent each other notes of their true love. These were the first valentines."

"It is a day to look forward to the end of winter and death and to celebrate a new beginning. The Middle Ages poet Chaucer said, "for this was on Saint Valentine's Day, when every bird chooses his mate.""

Learn more about Keith Donohue.

Isn't little Norah right, the past is no more certain than the future, but it is worth exploring so we don't just easily brush this day off as "Oh, that's just another Hallmark holiday." We can overlook the commercial aspect, which is ingrained into almost every aspect of American modern life.

Celebrate romantic love and the art of romance, which seems to be another dying American tradition. Courtship, does that word even exist in our modern age? Eating lunch Sunday at a restaurant, so many sweethearts were not engaged in conversation or looking into each other's eyes - they were looking at their gadgets. It kind of seemed to say, "Sorry, you can't hold my attention for a full meal. Let me check my e-mail!" Dick Powell may only have had eyes for Ruby Keeler in Dames and declared it in song, but eyes seem to stray toward an electronic in the company of others, romantic or mutual.

Look at your bird today, or consider this even if you don't have anyone in your nest: Give thanks that you have the right to choose your mate, which was not always the choice. Although not everyone yet can have their love recognized in the eyes of the law.

Today, give thanks for love.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

An Old Fashioned Life

Recently, I told my heart's desire I was toying with the idea of tap dance classes while sharing lemon meringue pie, $2.95, and coffee, $1.40, at the River Edge Diner in New Jersey. Yes, I'm getting a little carried away watching those Busby Berkeley films from the library. His reply, "Isn't that a little old fashioned?" You could say that a lot about my life. Take a look...

I love classic diners, and since I live in New Jersey, I'm lucky enough to have plenty of them. Note the vintage cocktails on the placemat. The lemon meringue pie - invented by Philadelphian Elizabeth Coane Goodfellow, a pastry chef, businesswoman, and cooking school founder, in 1806, according to HistoryCooks.

While reading about record demand for the new Verizon iPhone, I found my "new" record player far more exciting, a hand-me down from my parents. Actually, this used to be mine. Isn't it funny how things we no longer wanted return into our lives?

My life: completely functioning and thriving without the need for "apps" (contrary to what those salespeople try to convince you of otherwise with their monthly plans).

Everything old is new again: men's hats are coming back in style, according to the New York Times, which notes there are just 10 independent major manufactures of hats operating in the United States, compared to 180 in 1940.

Some of my vintage hats, $6 each, from C.A.T.S. Resale Shop, in Westwood, New Jersey.

Reproductions of vintage clothing are rising in popularity as well, The Times reported, in part thanks to Mad Men's success. Perhaps because the economic times have been so dreary, we're looking to add a dose of glamour into our lives. I also think we've gotten a bit too casual in our daily dress, as I regularly spot people wearing pajama style pants in public.

I was admiring this 1920s vanity stand ($225) at an antique shop in Westwood, New Jersey. There's something so elegant about having a beautiful hairbrush and comb set, perfume and nice lipstick.

When Steve and I went to see True Grit at a local moviehouse in Teaneck, New Jersey (with budget friendly prices: $5.75 weekends, a dollar less weekdays), I love they had this organist "warming up" the crowd on a Saturday night. It reminded me of being in a scene in the Jim Carrey film "The Majestic" when going out for a night at the movies was a big social event.

Other old fashioned things I like: watching the 6:30 nightly news, reading a newspaper, barbershops (if I were a man, I'd patronize them), bow ties (love them on a man), Coca-Cola in bottles, black and white films and photography, vintage gloves, older phones, and five and dime stores (overheard at one recently, one little boy declaring to another he's always wanted a cow bell).

Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough, who has penned books on John Adams, Harry S. Truman, the Jonestown Flood and 1776, said from a little garden shed he's dubbed "World Headquarters" he still writes all his books on a typewriter he bought secondhand in 1965 in New York. I love that! I typed my college papers while studying political science on one. Who says you have to progress with the rest of the world (and what defines "progress"?) In our always upgrading to the 'next best thing' world, I take comfort in many things nostalgic and old fashioned.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Cause for Cheer, Midwinter is Here

I bring tidings of hope for winter-weary souls: the midwinter is here. Now, it's a solid march toward spring. Shall we celebrate with the Bergen County Historical Society? Two midwinter feasts, Brigit's Day and Candlemas come halfway "between the winter solstice and spring equinox, when snowdrops, the first flower of spring, make their appearance, signaling nature's awakening from winter's sleep," the group tells us.

From my parents' home last winter, spring spoke via snowdrops whispering she will soon be here. Let Mother Nature have her temper tantrums (although the way we treat her, an outburst is understandable). Winter's days are numbered.

More from our teachers at BCHS:

"Candlemas is named for the blessing of candles, used to protect homes from lightning, evil spirits, and for procession through farm field and orchard. As evidenced by Groundhog's Day, weather prognostication was commonly practiced in anticipation of spring sowing. Hence, the saying, "If Candlemas Day is bright and clear, there'll be two winters in the year.""

In the Dutch out kitchen, Joyce is making beeswax candles (the pot where she dipped from is on the ground below). Tallow (from animal fat) candles were far more common, as beeswax would have been used among other things as a sealant for preserve jars of food.

Consider the labor and art form of candles, now mostly mass produced of petroleum-based paraffin. With such a process, you can understand why "farmers hours" were kept - up with the light, to bed with the dark.

Mary displaying a Betty lamp

Pancakes which resembled the golden disc of the sun were typical fare on Candlemas. I feasted on their close cousin - the crepe filled with apples, $3 - and a hot cider, $1, in their Black Horse Tavern.

From BCHS,

"In ancient Ireland, Brigit "the provider of all sustenance and agricultural bounty....was associated in folklore with the cow and its nourishing milk. Her feast coming when the winter larder was nearly empty and milk scarce, womenfolk "gathered a drop" of milk for churning on Brigit's Eve.

On Brigit's Eve, each family boiled and drained potatoes, with every member, young and old, taking a turn with the masher. The pot was placed in the middle of the kitchen floor on a sheath of straw. The mashed potatoes were served with a large lump of butter nesting in the center, with men eating from a large dish and women from the pot."

As a nation of immigrants, reflect on the traditions you've brought from foreign lands through your familial line.

Consider you are a settler, and your supplies are beginning to dwindle as you look toward the next planting season with a hopeful heart. So detached from our nation's food supply, we think little in modern times of the weather's toll on farmers - and too often think solely about how the weather impacts immediate, short-term matters, like mood.

Also ponder this disgraceful information: "A quarter to half of all food produced in the United States goes uneaten — left in fields, spoiled in transport, thrown out at the grocery store, scraped into the garbage or forgotten until it spoils." (Read "From Farm to Fridge to Garbage Can" from The New York Times.)

These two midwinter feasts did bring merriment and sense of tradition, but they were also essentially about the basic human need that transcends time and boundaries to harvest food for survival come spring. Today we are so wasteful - a great disrespect to the farmer (or more often migrant worker), animal (who suffers so terribly under our factory farming system) and to the Earth whose soil bore its fruit.

A sight of beauty, a harvest in the snow, soon to feed hungry souls.

One modern convenience is overlooked by most. I am grateful not to meet winter's harshness when nature calls.

Snow blankets even that which will restore fire and light.

Gaze into the simple beauty of the Betty lamp beside the eighteenth century window. How many of our possessions will last centuries?

Do you enjoy learning about history through travel, lectures, documentaries, films, books and group events?

The great historian David McCullough reflected,

"History is not about dates and quotes and obscure provisos. History is about life, about change, about consequences, cause and effect. It's about the mystery of human nature, the mystery of time. And it isn't just about politics, the military and social issues, which is almost always the way it's taught. It's about music, and poetry, and drama, and science and medicine and money and love."

For all those reasons and more, we shall look over our shoulder often at the past and embrace history. To understand who we were, and who we want to become.