• Soylent: If It Tasted Better, Heck Yes I’d Drink It

    Date: 2015.06.18 | Category: Consumerism, Food, Health | Comments: 0

    You can have your flying cars and your robot maids; the thing that fascinated me most about the old cartoon show “The Jetsons” was the way they ate their meals. Food pills! Just consume one small capsule, and your nutritional needs have been met (and they seemed to taste good, too… I’m not sure how that worked).

    Unfortunately, food pills are “just not possible,” according to an article on BBC.com. The writer quotes a doctor at Columbia University, who said way back in 1936: “Human beings are never going to eat pills for meals… pills can never be made to contain sufficient caloric volume.”

    Photo of Soylent from Wikipedia

    Photo of Soylent from Wikipedia

    And yet, people still dare to dream! If “The Jetsons” were around today, they might drink Soylent, a meal replacement beverage made with protein powder that was developed by a software engineer. “Soylent is supposed to be like an ultimate staple meal,” creator Rob Rhinehart explained. “When you think about food, a lot of people immediately jump to the best aspects, which are great—eating for recreation, eating with people. This is an important part of life, and food is intimately tied with culture and tradition.”

    However, sometimes you just want some quick nourishment, and what tends to be easily available is downright awful. My neighbor’s trash can is always overflowing with fast food wrappers. He’s fairly overweight. Does he actually enjoy the Carl’s Jr. burgers or Chicken McNuggets he consumes in his car on his way to or from work? If there’s a tasty, nutritionally balanced and cheap alternative, why not have a Big Gulp cup full of Soylent?

    Of course, the idea of consuming a beige beverage in place of real food has some folks up in arms. Tess Vigeland, one of my favorite radio personalities (who has a book coming out this fall), recently wrote in her newsletter: “I work to live, I don’t live to work. And I don’t understand why, even if you lovelovelovelovelove your job, you would accept the kind of conditions that lead to the deprivation of one of life’s simpler pleasures: actual food. It’s bizarre and no corporation should abide it, much less reward it. (And you’ll notice that this article doesn’t even question what this product says about our society.)”

    Yes, I’m sure that some Soylent consumers are so busy coding that they don’t want to take time to stop and eat. The New York Timesrecent article about meal replacements included the line, “The time wasted by eating is, in Silicon Valley parlance, a ‘pain point’ even for the highest echelon of techie.” But what about those of us who aren’t necessarily chained to our computers 18 hours a day, but just don’t want to bother trying to figure out what to eat? There has been a lot of “stunt journalism” where writers live on Soylent for a week and document their efforts, but I suspect that a lot of people who are intrigued by it would only want to consume it once a day or a few times a week.

    Lee Hutchinson wrote a very thoughtful piece on Soylent, and I heartily endorse this sentiment: “I work from home. Unless I’m out interviewing someone, my lunches are almost exclusively quick solo affairs. For what it’s worth, I like eating lunch alone—I’m introverted, and spending time in silence and contemplation, whether it’s with an artisanal báhn mì sandwich from Nobi or with a mug of Soylent, is all equally refreshing.” For one thing, I love a good báhn mì; for another, I also eat lunch alone every day, sitting at my kitchen island, reading the East Bay Express or the San Francisco Chronicle Datebook section. I eat a lot of Trader Joe’s premade salads, mostly Greens & Seeds or this crazy concoction. I realize I could probably save money by making my own salads, but I enjoy the convenience. If I could replace the salads a few times a week with a filling, nutritious drink, I’d be game.

    Of course, part of the reason I eat the TJ’s salads is that they taste pretty good. (They’re also fairly healthy; I try not to use all the dressing, in an effort to cut down on calories.) And that’s the main reason I haven’t tried Soylent: most reviewers complain that it tastes chalky, or like watered-down pancake batter. (In a priceless critique, the New York Times‘ restaurant reviewer compared it to “the milk left in the bottom of a bowl of cut-rate cereal, the liquid thickened with sweepings from the floor of a health food store.”) The reason meal replacements like Ensure or SlimFast are palatable is because, unlike Soylent, they’re loaded with sugar; Hutchinson points out that “drinking enough Ensure to reach 2000 calories would result in a person consuming a truly ludicrous 120 grams of sugar.” (That’s as much sugar as you’d find in 4 1/2 regular-size Snickers bars.)

    My hope is that the success of Soylent has led other people to work on meal substitutes that might be equally healthy and also taste yummy. For those of us who have trouble coming up with a nutritionally-balanced meal of whole foods three times a day, because planning, shopping and cooking is a bother and eating restaurant or take-out food is expensive and unhealthy, it would be a big help. Soylent wouldn’t be replacing brunch with your friends or even a simple, hearty family dinner; it would be a substitution for that quickie McDonald’s burger you grab on the run or the fat- and sodium-laden frozen entrées that many people rely on. Now someone just needs to figure out a way to make it at least a little more delicious.

  • More Education Is Not the Answer

    Date: 2015.06.14 | Category: Consumerism, News | Comments: 3

    One of my prized kitchen possessions is a Hamilton Beach hand mixer that I got sometime back in the 1990s. I only use it a few times a year–it’s handy for mixing cake batter or whipping cream, not so much for heavy-duty tasks like creaming butter and sugar–but it’s a useful tool and has held up well. On the body of the mixer is a faded, peeling sticker that’s somehow survived all of these years; it says “Buy American–Made in U.S.A.”

    Today, Hamilton Beach is owned by a company called NACCO Industries, and all of its products are “made by contract manufacturers in China,” according to the Wall Street Journal. The company “has no plans to bring that production back to the U.S. Alfred M. Rankin Jr., Nacco’s chief executive officer, says it wouldn’t make economic sense to open new plants in the U.S. for such products.”

    I’m not sure where in the U.S. my mixer was made; Hamilton Beach was founded in Racine, WI, but I was unable to find information online indicating where its factories had been located before the manufacturing was outsourced overseas. Of course, Hamilton Beach is just one tiny example in a veritable flood of outsourcing in the post-NAFTA age. You can now buy a mixer that’s the modern-day equivalent to my old one on Amazon for under $20. How much would it cost if it had been made in the U.S.A. by union workers earning $15 an hour plus benefits? A lot more, I’m guessing.

    The price of breakfast cereal keeps going up, but Kellogg’s Special K is now made in Mexico. I grew up near Battle Creek when it was still a company town–“Cereal City.” Nowadays the company is desperately trying to get concessions from its U.S. workers and moving production to countries like Malaysia and Thailand as well as Mexico. It has stated that it may soon close one of its four remaining U.S. plants.

    There’s no denying that a lot of well paid manufacturing jobs have left the U.S. in the past 25 years. A lot of people who at one point may have taken a factory job are now working retail; according to studies, the average age of a retail worker is 37 years old. They’re not high school kids working mall jobs for “fun money” after school and on weekends. These are adults trying to make a living.

    According to most of our politicians, on both the left and the right, the answer to the jobs problem in our country is education. “Getting the best possible education has never been more important than it is right now,” said Barack Obama in his 2012 State of the Union address. “And that’s because in today’s world, a good job requires a good education.” Jeb Bush’s Right to Rise PAC emphasizes the importance of  giving “all children a better future by transforming our education system through choice, high standards and accountability.”

    Unfortunately, I know too many fellow Gen X’ers who are highly educated and underemployed, and if you think having a STEM degree is the route to upward mobility and permanent employment, this New York Times article about Disney should chill you to the bone. Disney laid off 250 tech workers, and “many of their jobs were transferred to immigrants on temporary visas for highly skilled technical workers, who were brought in by an outsourcing firm based in India. Over the next three months, some Disney employees were required to train their replacements to do the jobs they had lost.” If you didn’t stick around and do the training, guess what? No severance payment for you! One of the laid-off workers, a man in his 40s, had just received an “outstanding” performance review; his supervisor noted “that he was looking forward to another highly productive year of having the employee on the team.”

    Hiring immigrants onH-1B visas can save companies between “25 percent to 49 percent,” according to the Times story. And it’s not just the Magic Kingdom; “Last year, Southern California Edison began 540 technology layoffs while hiring two Indian outsourcing firms for much of the work. Three Americans who had lost jobs told Senate lawmakers that many of those being laid off had to teach immigrants to perform their functions.”

    In the globalized world, in an era when the most highly-valued companies often employ only a handful of people (the Eastman Kodak Company had 165,000 employees at its peak, while popular mobile app Instagram had 15 employees when Facebook acquired it for $1.2 billion), I don’t think there is an answer, except to accept the fact that there’s going to be a permanent underclass of people in this country who are just scraping by with little hope of economic mobility. No politicians are talking about this, for obvious reasons; it’s not what people want to hear. Even the much-talked-about “freelance economy” may not help; won’t Uber and Lyft prefer to switch over to driverless cars when it becomes feasible rather than dealing with human drivers with all of their flaws and demands?

    One person who has dared to speak about the underclass is economist Tyler Cowen. “There’s nothing we can do, says Mr. Cowen, to avert a future in which 10% to 15% of Americans enjoy fantastically wealthy and interesting lives while the rest slog along without hope of a better life, tranquilized by free Internet and canned beans,” writes William Galston in the Wall Street Journal. “More American cities would become the equivalent of El Paso plus Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez—thriving metropolitan areas with ‘shantytowns’ attached… In zones set aside for cheap living, we would build some ‘makeshift structures… similar to the better dwellings you might find in a Rio de Janeiro favela.'”

    “Is this a country you would want to live in? I know I wouldn’t,” says Galston. Perhaps not, but Cowen’s vision seems frighteningly plausible to me.

  • Curiouser and curiouser

    Date: 2015.06.08 | Category: Theater | Comments: 0

    I just saw a staged reading of “The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence” by Madeleine George. The play was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama; the committee called it “a cleverly constructed play that uses several historical moments–from the 1800s to the 2010s–to meditate on the technological advancements that bring people together and tear them apart.” There are several Watsons in the play (all portrayed by the same actor), from Alexander Graham Bell’s assistant to the computer most famous for its stint on “Jeopardy!” to a computer technician-turned-(very inept) spy. Oh, and Sherlock Holmes’ Dr. Watson is in there too.

    I found the play, which got mixed reviews when it played in New York, to be compelling and ambitious in the manner of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” (and since I’m a huge Stoppard fan, that’s really high praise). This speech, near the end of the play, is the sort of brilliant, thoughtful monologue that I can only describe as Stoppardesque. Bell’s assistant Thomas Watson is being interviewed at the Bell Labs Recording Studio in 1931 by a young woman, Eliza, who also moves through space and time in the play (the main Eliza is an 21st-century computer scientist). She asks him about his “dependence” on Bell, who had died a decade earlier. “It must have been so excruciating for you to connect with him and then– I mean now that he’s gone, you’re nothing without him. You’ll never be yourself again, always Watson to his Bell.”

    He replies:

    When one is small, Miss Merrick, when one is coming up, one learns about the extraordinary people, people who have made their mark on history and done something noteworthy for mankind, and naturally one assumes that one will become such a person, since those are the only kinds of people one reads about. One thinks, surely I’ll be the next Copernicus, or the next Abraham Lincoln, or the next George Bernard Shaw. It doesn’t occur to one to question this. Then as one grows older one comes to see that the interesting people, the ones who have made their mark on history, are in fact surrounded by a halo of shadowy figures, other less extraordinary people whose role it has been to help the extraordinary person make his mark. Assistants, transcriptionists, secretaries. Wives. And though occasionally one of these shadowy figures will find him or herself, long after death, plucked from obscurity and biographized by some eager young scholar with a soft spot for underdogs, by and large their names have all been lost, their stories rusted away in the rain, not having been sheltered by the awning of history like the stories of the extraordinary people. And as one gets older one comes to realize that there are a great many–great many–people in the world, far too many for all of them to go down as extraordinary, and anyway one sees that not everyone is extraordinary, one comes to understand that one is oneself in fact not all that terribly thrilling or unusual, but that one does have the capacity, the particular set of traits and skills, it would require to help a thrilling person make his mark. And though naturally this realization may engender a certain bitterness (swallows), if one is at all clever or mature one makes the best of this lot. Surely, one accepts if one is at all mature or clever, one is, in fact, lucky.

    Eliza: Lucky?

    Watson: Yes. It is always a stroke of luck to connect with another, even briefly. Even if the outcome is difficult.

    Eliza: But I don’t–. I don’t know if I can bear it. It’s such a (she gestures: fist to her heart), you know?

    Watson nods.

    Connection isn’t elegant, or precise, or rational. But it’s our fate to be bound up with one another, isn’t it. We are all born insufficient, and must look to others to supplement our strength. That is no weakness, it is the first condition of human life.

    George is an extraordinary playwright, and very likely “a thrilling person.” I hope her play gets a full production here soon.

  • R.I.P. John Douglas

    Date: 2015.05.15 | Category: Journalism, Personal | Comments: 0

    San Francisco public radio station KALW just ran a segment by Roman Mars–host of the popular podcast, 99% Invisible–about Social Security numbers, their use, and misuse. I’m sure it was just a coincidence that the piece ran this afternoon, but I saw it as a sign. John Douglas died today, and to him, those nine digits were a very big deal.

    Douglas was a columnist and movie critic for the Grand Rapids Press. This tribute by the Press‘ current film reviewer, John Serba, mentions Douglas’ obsession with the SSN. “Memories flooded back with the news of his passing,” wrote Serba. “I was deeply saddened. But I perked up knowing he likely died without ever, ever giving out his Social Security number.”

    Douglas was a big believer in personal privacy, back in those innocent pre-9/11 times before all Americans had to come to terms with the fact that the NSA might be listening in on our phone calls or monitoring our e-mail. Serba didn’t mention Douglas’ other perennial hobbyhorse, “The Little Drummer Boy.” Each year, he would mention in his column where he was when he first heard his most-hated carol–usually, it was far too early in the season; Grand Rapids was crazy for Christmas. I was thinking of John Douglas when I gleefully mentioned to Joe after the holidays had passed that 2014 was perhaps the first year when I hadn’t suffered through the song a single time.

    I attended a magnet high school in Grand Rapids that, at the time, required every student to do some kind of internship. We attended class four days a week, and then we had a day to go off and do something interesting. I’m sure that didn’t last long; who today would give teenagers that much freedom? I somehow managed to snag an internship at Douglas’ company, Grand Rapids Productions, which was housed in a tiny office in the McKay Tower, then the tallest building in the city (18 floors!). He made industrial films and commercials, though I don’t think I ever went along on a shoot. In fact, I have little memory of what I actually did there. Probably filing or typing. But mainly, I had an education into the worldview of John Douglas. I was a dopey teenage girl, yet he always treated me with the utmost respect; he never talked down to me. I was very into movies at the time, and since he was a film critic, that was a frequent topic of discussion. My favorite was “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Douglas felt I should see more Westerns, like “Shane” and “High Noon.” I wasn’t interested in Westerns, and besides, back then, in the pre-Netflix/DVD era, it wasn’t so easy to catch a classic film. You’d have to keep an eye on the TV listings, or if you really got lucky, maybe a repertory house like the Bijou Theatre would play it. It’s a little embarrassing to admit that I still haven’t seen either of those movies. I did make a point of starting to seek out more obscure fare than “Raiders,” though.

    I hadn’t seen Douglas in many years, but we had a brief email correspondence in 2012. He caught me up on what he was doing: “Well, I retired,” he wrote. “And I have to say that I love it. I should have done it when I was 18. I have so many projects that I am afraid that I won’t live long enough to complete them. This doesn’t mean I’m in poor health, it’s just that so much to do and so little time. I was running a classic film series at Loeks [a mini-chain of movie theaters in Western Michigan] for about 4 years but they gave me the boot last Friday.”

    It sounds like Douglas managed over 70 years of good health, and the thoroughly delightful slide show at the top of Serba’s piece shows some of his more outrageous accomplishments in recent years, like playing Mother Ginger in “The Nutcracker,” conducting a senior-citizen orchestra, and dressing up as The Grinch–“something that played to his writing voice perfectly,” noted Serba. He may have been a mean one when he was writing about a movie he didn’t like, but in real life, he was a helluva nice guy.

  • My Baltimore / Police Story

    Date: 2015.04.30 | Category: News, Personal | Comments: 3

    I was sure I must have told this anecdote before, but I searched my blog’s archives and didn’t find it. So here goes…

    I used to live in Baltimore, not very far from the CVS that was famously looted a few days ago. During my years in the city, I lived in a variety of neighborhoods. For the most part, they were super white. It’s kind of weird looking back on it, because where I live now is fairly integrated–my current neighborhood is pretty demographically diverse in terms of age, income and ethnicity. But Baltimore is deeply segregated by race. Most of my time there was spent in the “0-20% Black” segment of this map.

    The last place I lived before moving to California was a historic neighborhood called Bolton Hill. I loved it there. It was an easy walk to downtown and I lived in a beautiful apartment in a stately century-old building. Shortly after I moved in, I needed to buy some stamps, so I figured I’d find the nearest post office. Turns out there was one less than a mile away. It was a lovely Saturday afternoon so I decided to walk over (then, as now, I was an avid pedestrian). I remember that I was wearing a rock band T-shirt and shorts.

    The street the post office was on reminded me of Greenmount Avenue, a few blocks away from my alma mater, Johns Hopkins. There were discount stores and little restaurants and so forth. I do recall noticing that the books of stamps sold at this particular post office had only 10 per booklet instead of 20, as had been the case in my old neighborhood. I always thought stamps came in books of 20, so that seemed strange to me. But I guess this was a poor neighborhood, and the people who lived here could only afford to buy 10 stamps at a time.

    I purchased the stamps, and as I was walking out the door, an officer in a police car waved me over. I gather he had seen me walk in and had been waiting at the curb for me to emerge. He asked where I lived, and I told him Park Street in Bolton Hill. He ordered me to hop in and said he’d take me home. On the drive, he told me to never, ever visit that neighborhood again. It was too dangerous for a white girl like me!

    I honestly hadn’t felt the least bit threatened–there were plenty of people out and about, shopping and enjoying the summer sun–but I definitely didn’t want to be picked up by the police again, so that was my first and only visit to that neighborhood. And now here comes the super dramatic “rest of the story.” The post office was located right on the edge of Sandtown-Winchester… which is where Freddie Gray lived. Less than a mile from my posh Bolton Hill building in “Baltimore’s most elegant neighborhood.”

    By the way, I used to think my tale was somewhat unique, but a few years ago, I read a travel story about the Edgar Allen Poe house in the whimsically named “Poppleton” neighborhood of Baltimore. The (white, male) writer mentioned that as he was walking down the street en route to the Poe House, a police car cruised up and asked what he was doing. When he mentioned his destination, the officer insisted on giving him a ride. Presumably he was allowed to find his own way back.

    (Here’s an article from the Baltimore Sun in which the writer posits that the police assumes that white people walking in a Black neighborhood must be there to buy drugs. I suspect the officer I dealt with realized that wasn’t the case with me–I was clearly there to buy stamps.)

  • The Angry Vegetarian: A Rant

    Date: 2015.04.23 | Category: Food, Local | Comments: 2

    One of the great joys of going on a West Coast road trip is In-N-Out Burger. Now, you may ask yourself why I, a longtime vegetarian, would want to stop at a fast food hamburger chain. Well, it turns out that In-N-Out Burger has a “secret” menu (I put “secret” in quotation marks because it’s literally available on the company’s own web site), and one of its unadvertised specials is the “grilled cheese”: “two slices of melted American cheese, hand-leafed lettuce, tomato, spread, with or without onions on a freshly baked bun.” That sounds prosaic, but it’s actually delicious. They’re generous with the crunchy lettuce, the bun always tastes fresh, and the spread, a version of Thousand Island dressing, is addictive. Add an order of hand-cut French fries, and you have the perfect quick vegetarian meal to enjoy after many hours of driving. Another bonus: the restaurants are uniformly staffed by the world’s politest teenagers.

    I will soon be tempted by an In-N-Out Burger in my very own town. Granted, there’s one just a couple miles away in Oakland, but it’s kind of out of the way. This one, I pass by several times a week. The architecture is surprisingly elegant for a fast-food chain establishment–it looks sort of like a California mission, if the missions had featured giant yellow arrows instead of crosses. It looks like it’s almost finished, so it’ll be opening soon. I plan to avoid it for at least the first couple weeks, assuming that it’ll be crazy busy for quite a while. Eventually, the novelty will wear off, but I suspect it’ll stay fairly busy; In-N-Outs usually require a wait, even at odd times of day or night. The food is made fresh to order, and that takes time.

    Yesterday, I drove past another establishment under construction, a couple miles away from the In-N-Out: Smashburger is coming to town. I’m not familiar with them, but according to their web site, “our mission is to put burgers back into people‘s lives. We want to change the way people think about burgers and the way they feel when they have a burger. We want Smashburger to be an every occasion burger restaurant that people can call their own.”

    They want to “put burgers back into people’s lives”? Oh, I don’t think you needed to come to my town to do that, my friends. Because here’s what already exists within a few-block radius of the soon-to-open Smashburger: Baron’s Eats, Alameda Grill, Scolari’s, Five Guys, Burgermeister, and The Red Onion. On the other side of town, near the soon-to-open In-N-Out: Habit Burger and Nation’s Giant Hamburgers. Plus, of course, there are multiple locations of McDonald’s, Jack in the Box, Burger King and Carl’s Junior in town.

    How many vegetarian restaurants are there in town? Zero. The only one, Central Vegetarian, closed a year or so ago. Of course, there are several restaurants (mostly Asian, as was Central Vegetarian) such as Burma Superstar and Bluefin that offer numerous vegetarian options.

    I get it. The people have spoken, and they’re saying “Give us hamburgers!” Joe has tried them all and I’m sure he’ll patronize Smashburger at some point. (His favorite: Habit Burger, a stone’s throw away from the In-N-Out.) Some of the burger joints offer veggie burgers with an actual patty instead of the cheese-and-garnish option you get at In-N-Out; to be honest, most of them are obvious afterthoughts, ranging from OK to terrible, and they’re almost always cooked on the same surface they cook the meat burgers on. I tend not to care, but for a lot of vegetarians that would be a deal-breaker.

    How is it that in 2015, most of the public, even here in the Bay Area, seems to believe it’s not a meal if it doesn’t have meat? I am a regular reader of Michael Bauer’s restaurant reviews in the San Francisco Chronicle, and if anything, local eateries seem to be getting more meat-centric; the most famous vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco, Greens, has been around since the 70s, while new ones are crazy for pork belly and bacon. A lot of buzz-worthy new dining establishments, like the super-trendy Lazy Bear, are off limits because they offer chef’s tasting menus where you don’t get a choice of dishes–everyone eats from the same menu, and that menu inevitably includes meat. A recent Sunday review in the Chron had the enticing headline “Al’s Place puts vegetables front and center,” but “fatty hog jowl,” hanger steak and duck breast are all on the menu. I suspect the proprietor and/or his investors realized that opening a true vegetarian restaurant would not be financially feasible.

    So yes, I’m disappointed that young chefs don’t want to open vegetarian restaurants, and that most people probably wouldn’t patronize them if they existed. There always seems to be room for another restaurant like Cockscomb: “Just about every item on the menu has meat, whether it’s pig ears cut like spaghetti and tossed with a spicy tomato sauce, or a Little Gem salad dressed in Green Goddess and garnished with pork cracklings,” writes Bauer, in a review illustrated by a photo of a “wood oven-roasted pig’s head… with the added effect of gold leaf melted on the tip of the snout.” The head comes with a dipping sauce made out of pig’s brain and mayonnaise. I would imagine that even the most determined carnivore might look at that and say, “Take it down a notch, bro”–my guess is that this place is popular with the 20-something tech dudes who are taking over the city. The gold leaf adds the perfect Instagram-ready, Masters of the Universe touch.

    But here’s the thing–our local burger-splosion may be the last hurrah of hamburgers as everyday foodstuff instead of as an occasional treat. As anyone who’s been following the news about our drought here in California has read by now, 80% of the water used in the state goes toward agriculture. This New York Times article lays it out in very stark terms: “Beef turns out to have an overall water footprint of roughly four million gallons per ton produced. By contrast, the water footprint for vegetables [is] 85,000 gallons per ton; and for starchy roots it’s about 102,200 gallons per ton.” The thirstiest plant in California is alfalfa, which “sucks up more water than any other crop in the state. And it has one primary destination: cattle.” Oh, and simply slaughtering an cow “demands 132 gallons of water per animal carcass, contributing even more to livestock’s expanding water footprint.”

    The conclusion: “Changing one’s diet to replace 50 percent of animal products with edible plants like legumes, nuts and tubers results in a 30 percent reduction in an individual’s food-related water footprint. Going vegetarian, a better option in many respects, reduces that water footprint by almost 60 percent.”

    It seems futile to take tiny steps like not flushing the toilet every time you pee or turning off the shower while you lather up if you’re consuming hamburgers several times a week. Right now, most of the burgers in town are relatively cheap; even if you also order fries and a drink, chances are you’ll still get change back from a $10 bill. But as the drought worsens, it seems inevitable that the cost of meat will rise. McDonald’s will probably rely on low-quality, cheap imported beef, but I can’t see the fancier places (many of which advertise grass-fed, all-natural beef) going that route. Maybe someday, one (I’d settle for one!) of our dozen-plus burger joints will eventually be replaced by an eatery that truly does put vegetables and legumes “front and center.”

  • R.I.Prius

    Date: 2015.04.06 | Category: Consumerism | Comments: 1

    According to an IHS Automotive study, the average age of a car on the road in America today is 11.4 years old. A few weeks ago, I would have been one of the drivers pushing that statistic up; our Toyota Prius was purchased in July 2002. I wrote about it here back in November, and what I feared eventually came to pass: the Prius eventually required too many pricey repairs and it was time to give it up. Joe and I decided to donate it to our local animal shelter, which has a deal with an organization that tows it away, sells it at auction, and splits the profits so the charity gets 70% of the take. (We haven’t found out yet how much the car sold for, but considering that the Kelley Blue Book value was south of $3000, I can’t imagine it’ll be a big donation; still, every bit helps, right?)

    The guy from the car company came to pick it up at 6:45 AM (I’m not a morning person, but the time was non-negotiable; “I’m coming down from Stockton!”). The plates had been removed, and I’d emptied the car of all of our old maps and canvas grocery bags and expired car wash coupons. (I also found a tiny notebook in which I’d recorded the price of gas back in the summer of ’02: $1.45 a gallon!) I couldn’t bear to watch him put the car on the tow truck and drive it off; late last year, we drove a rental car right behind an AAA truck towing the Prius to our mechanic in Berkeley, and I found it almost heartrendingly poignant. It looked so vulnerable up there somehow. The car had been part of my life for so long; it was super cool and cutting edge back in 2002, but it hadn’t been high tech or trendy for over a decade. Still, we had put over 98,000 miles on the car (so bummed we didn’t make it to 100K!) and it felt sad to let it go.

    Our mechanic persuaded me not to buy another hybrid, simply because we don’t drive enough to make it worth the extra cost. The 2015 Corolla we wound up buying does get very good mileage; we had no trouble driving it from the Bay Area up to Ashland, OR (350 miles) last month without stopping to fill the 13-gallon tank. We like the hands-free cell phone feature (just push a button on the steering wheel to answer a call!) and the fact that we can stream podcasts or music directly from our phones with Bluetooth (on the Prius, we had to hook our phones up to a clunky cassette adapter).

    Other than that, though, it’s a pretty boring car. It’s what you buy when you want something reliable and relatively inexpensive to get you from point A to point B. I thought that maybe at this point in my life, I’d be driving something cool, but why bother when the vast majority of our trips are to Trader Joe’s, the farmer’s market, the dog park, or my book group? Despite our recent trip to Oregon, I doubt there are tons of exciting road trips in our future; the Prius only left the state once, back in 2006, for a swing through Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada.

    So far, we haven’t added any personal touches–the Prius had fun personalized plates and a Boston Terrier sticker–and it’s possible that I will never feel as attached to it as I was to the old car. Which is probably for the best. Madison Avenue has persuaded us to spend more than necessary on “cool” vehicles (there was that horrendous Super Bowl commercial with the faux focus group in which a bunch of women said they’d rather have sex with, uh, meet a guy who drives a truck than one who owns, God forbid, a compact), but for many city dwellers, a car represents just one part of our transportation mix. Joe and I both have Clipper (transit) cards, and we deliberately chose to live in a neighborhood where many destinations are accessible on foot. Car-sharing and bike-sharing programs are growing in popularity in dense urban areas. And maybe–just maybe–when it’s time to replace the Corolla, Google will finally have perfected those self-driving cars.

  • The Two Bibis

    Date: 2015.03.19 | Category: News, Pets | Comments: 0

    bibi-nyt2

    A couple of years ago, I was chatting with an acquaintance when my dog came up in the conversation. I will note, because I believe it’s relevant, that this person is Jewish. When I mentioned her name, his eyes widened and he reacted with shock and even some outrage. How could I name my dog after the Prime Minister of Israel?! He didn’t think it was an insult to Netanyahu–he genuinely disliked the guy and thought that it was highly inappropriate that I had chosen to pay “tribute” to him with the name. (I assured him that had not been my intention.)

    As it happens, I don’t think I was aware of Benjamin Netanyahu’s nickname when I named Bibi several years ago. We adopted her from Wonder Dog Rescue and she was an owner-surrender named Bugsy. I hated the name but figured she might be used to it and that it might be best to choose something similar-sounding. I thought of the Swedish actress Bibi Andersson, who appeared in numerous Bergman films, including “The Seventh Seal.” The dog seemed to respond to the name, so she was Bugsy no more.

    bibisitterIt has been odd, over the past few days, to see “Bibi” crop up so frequently in headlines. There have been numerous Bibi-related puns; the New York Post went with the groanworthy “Bibi King,” while in the run-up to the election, at least one publication opted for “To Bibi or Not To Bibi?” Even Netanyahu himself got in on the punning in this bizarre ad where he arrives at a young couple’s door, telling them he’s there to care for their kids: “You ordered a babysitter? You got a Bibi-sitter!”

    I was curious how the PM ended up with the same moniker as Ms. Andersson (whose given name is Berit); the best explanation I could find was in this article from the Associated Press, which notes that Netanyahu was nicknamed by his brothers when he was a boy. “Despite its macho, militaristic image, the world of Israeli politics is filled with tough characters bearing—and even flaunting—their diminutive childhood nicknames,” explains the AP. “Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon is Bogie, former Finance Minister Avraham Shochat is Baiga and another former Cabinet minister, Eliezer Zandberg, is Moody, short for Hamoody, or ‘cutie’… [T]he phenomenon speaks to Israel’s notoriously close-knit, informal nature, where personal boundaries are thin and everyone seems to meddle in everyone else’s business.”

    Netanyahu may embrace the nickname now, but according to this 1996 essay from JWeekly, at first, his official spokesman urged the media not to use it. “Mr. Netanyahu’s staff should lighten up, forget about formality and make good use of his moniker,” suggested writer Jonathan S. Tobin. “After all, it’s not every political leader who can get the press to sing, ‘Yessir, he’s their Bibi!'”

    Whether you’re pro- or anti-Netanyahu, I think we can all agree on one thing: that’s a truly awful pun.

  • Here Comes the Son

    Date: 2015.03.07 | Category: Theater | Comments: 1

    It’s a banner weekend for fans of plays with really long titles. Over at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley, you can check out Just Theater’s “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884–1915,” written by Jackie Sibblies Drury, while across the bay in San Francisco, the Breadbox is staging Arthur Kopit’s “Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad: A Pseudoclassical Tragifarce in a Bastard French Tradition.” Now we just need a local company to take on Arthur Fish’s “Tom Ryan Thinks He’s James Mason Starring in a Movie by Nicholas Ray in Which a Man’s Illness Provides an Escape From the Pain, Pressure and Loneliness of Trying to Be the Ultimate American Father, Only to Drive Him Further Into the More Thrilling Though Possibly Lonelier Roles of Addict and Misunderstood Visionary,” which I believe is the longest play title ever.

    I haven’t seen “Tom Ryan,” but according to the New York Times, it’s a compact 65 minutes. Both “We Are Proud” and “Oh Dad” run approximately an hour and a half each, with no intermission. (The four-letter “Gatz,” on the other hand, is a six-and-a-half-hour marathon.)

    The script of “Oh Dad, Poor Dad” was assigned reading in one of my college composition courses, and I remember thinking that the title was hilarious; the play itself didn’t make as much of an impression on me, but considering that it was first staged in 1962, my curiosity was piqued when I read that the young Breadbox company was planning to revive it. There are so many theaters in the Bay Area that sometimes it seems like the same plays get done over and over again–Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice” seems to pop up every few months, and this summer, three companies in the South Bay will all be putting on “West Side Story”–but I don’t recall “Oh Dad” playing here before. All good reasons to go check it out.

    There is a pre-show warning to audience members not to stick their feet out too far–Joe and I were sitting in the front row, and considering that the extremely energetic, and occasionally acrobatic, cast of eight was literally inches away, I hope that nobody trips and falls before the run ends. “Oh Dad” takes place in a tropical locale, where Madame Rosepettle and her son Jonathan have recently arrived and checked into a posh hotel. Among the possessions they bring along: Jonathan’s collections of stamps and coins, and, yes, the titular corpse. At first, I thought Jonathan was a child being played by a grown-up actor–J.D. Scalzo sprawls on the floor as the audience files in, coloring and reading a booklet about dinosaurs–but no, he’s an adult male, albeit one so stunted by his overprotective mom that he’s more of a disturbed man-child. When a lovely young lady named Rosalie comes calling, bent on seducing Jonathan, it turns into an Oedipal nightmare.

    “Oh Dad” could be lumped in with the theater of the absurd which flourished in the 50s and 60s (critic Martin Esslin coined the term in 1961, shortly before Kopit’s play premiered). Among the surreal touches are Madame Rosepettle’s Venus flytrap and goldfish, both played (wordlessly) by actors. Sam Tillis’ Rosalinda the Fish was right in my line of sight, and let me tell you, he acted the hell out of that part–imagine Jack Nicholson’s character from “The Shining” reincarnated in piscine form and you’ve got the general idea.

    But the play belongs to Mary Jo Price as Madame Rosepettle, who commands the stage with charisma and power. At one point in the show, Rosepettle performs a 20-minute monologue, recounting the story of her marriage to Jonathan’s father, and how the man came to be stuffed (“Wonderful taxidermist I know”), to the lovesick Commodore Roseabove, who goes from wanting desperately to marry her to fearing for his life. This may be ultra-low-budget theater, but Price gives the sort of dynamite performance that is worth a suitcase full of rare Danzig guldens and Turkish piasters. (Incidentally, Jonathan’s coins and stamps are represented by cut-up Trivial Pursuit cards, corks and poker chips; of course, if you can buy a woman playing a Venus flytrap, the props shouldn’t faze you.)

    A few blocks away, playing in what is perhaps San Francisco’s poshest house, the Geary Theatre, is Anne Washburn’s “Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play.” Because I am at the center of the Venn diagram of “fans of modern theater” and “fans of ‘The Simpsons,'” I knew I had to see it. “Mr. Burns” is a meditation on storytelling and the creation of art, using as its raw material the classic “Simpsons” episode “Cape Feare” (a.k.a. the one where Sideshow Bob is paroled, tries to kill Bart, and steps on a lot of rakes). In a post-apocalyptic world, a ragtag band of survivors spends their evenings around the campfire telling stories–that is to say, recounting “Simpsons” episodes, which were presumably all lost in the unspecified disaster. (It was apparently related to nuclear power, adding another layer of relevance to the “Simpsons” source material; Homer works at a nuclear power plant owned by the richest man in town, Montgomery Burns.) The play is presented in three acts: the first, shortly after the apocalypse, features a half-dozen survivors trying to remember the plot and dialogue of “Cape Feare”; in Act Two, seven years later, they’re a full-fledged acting troupe, going from town to town, as was done in medieval times. As for Act Three… well, I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise; this review does, in case you’re curious.

    “Mr. Burns” has proven to be a divisive show. (One Goldstar member’s review read, in part: “Not recommended unless you live with a psychopath and are desperate to get out of the house.”) I suspect that the “Simpsons” angle can be a hard sell for people who have never seen that show (yes, they exist–there was a post-show talkback and several folks copped to never having watched a single episode). There’s something very postmodern about a play that mashes up “The Simpsons,” “Cape Fear,” “Night of the Hunter,” Britney Spears, Eminem and Gilbert & Sullivan, but I think Washburn had some serious points to make about memory, survival and why certain stories resonate at particular times and with particular audiences. (I’m reminded of film critic Mick LaSalle’s comment: “Every week, our movies play at the destruction of beloved landmarks, to the point where we have to wonder if this is our culture unconsciously rehearsing for something.”) Happily, “Mr. Burns” seems to be finding its niche; far from the mass walk-outs described in some of the early Goldstar critiques, I’d estimate that 98% of the people in our section of the theater returned after intermission. The production moves on to Minneapolis’ Guthrie at the end of the month, and I hope the Minnesotans will enjoy it as much as I did.

  • The Quotable Roger

    Date: 2015.02.20 | Category: Theater | Comments: 0

    I recently searched online for a quote by Roger Ebert, something about how no good movies are depressing, while all bad movies are. I was prompted to do so after seeing the current play at San Francisco Playhouse, “Tree,” written by Julie Hébert. This was a really excellent production, featuring a quartet of fantastic actors, particularly Cathleen Riddley, who portrays a woman suffering from a form of dementia that frequently leaves her crying out in psychic pain; sometimes she’s lucid, but more often, she seems alternately terrified or belligerent. Riddley (whom I last saw playing the Pirate King in “The Pirates of Penzance”) throws herself into the role with an almost frightening intensity. Sometimes I found the play difficult to watch because it was so intense. This isn’t the sort of show you attend because you want a fun escapist night of theater, but it’s rewarding because afterward you feel you’ve experienced something essential and soulful.

    At the end, I witnessed something I can’t remember ever having seen before in a theater. The audience clapped politely, the actors came out and took their bows, left the stage, and the lights came up. The applause died down. This is usually the point where everybody puts on their coats and races toward the exits.

    However, a few seconds went by—10, 20—and then, as if we’d all snapped out of some kind of collective trance, the audience rose to its feet and started applauding again. The clapping grew louder and louder until the actors had no choice but to come back onstage and take more bows. I’ve experienced plenty of curtain calls where there’s been loud and sustained applause, but not with a quiet pause in between. I think that’s because the play left us all feeling a little shellshocked and it took a moment to realize, yes, these are actors, this wasn’t real. But you felt that connection between actors and audience, one that is rare but magical when it does happen.

    Anyway, I found Ebert’s quote, from this 2010 column (though I’m pretty sure he said something similar before then, on the “Siskel & Ebert” TV show): “In thinking about ‘depressing movies,’ many people don’t realize that all bad movies are depressing, and no good movies are.” I’m not sure I agree with it 100%—bad movies (or plays) tend to make me angry, not sad—but it’s the sort of sentiment I would expect from Roger Ebert, and it led me to this page of Ebert quotes on Goodreads, which is very much worth perusing because the man wrote with so much insight and feeling. Here are a few other favorites:

    “An honest bookstore would post the following sign above its ‘self-help’ section: ‘For true self-help, please visit our philosophy, literature, history and science sections, find yourself a good book, read it, and think about it.’”

    “All I require of a religion is that it be tolerant of those who do not agree with it.”

    “A lot of fans are basically fans of fandom itself. It’s all about them. They have mastered the Star Wars or Star Trek universes or whatever, but their objects of veneration are useful mainly as a backdrop to their own devotion. Anyone who would camp out in a tent on the sidewalk for weeks in order to be first in line for a movie is more into camping on the sidewalk than movies.”

    “To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.”

    We must try to contribute joy to the world. A good lesson for us all.