Archive for the ‘Consumerism’ Category
A few years ago, a book called 14,000 Things to Be Happy About was published, and it became a huge best-seller. Naturally, as a cynic, I thought this sounded ridiculous. (I like this Amazon.com customer review: “Should be 14,000 random things to put in a book. I am happy I could use this book to start a fire.”) I’m disappointed that somebody came up with the idea to write a spoof called 11,002 Things to Be Miserable About, because I should totally have thought of that! Judging from some of the items on the authors’ web site (“According to experts, canned tomatoes contain potentially dangerous levels of Bisphenol-A, a chemical that has been linked to reproductive problems, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity”; “More than two-thirds of elderly people will need assistance to cope with the tasks of daily life at some point”), it looks like the book could bear the alternate title, 11,002 Things to Worry About.
But we’re not here to talk about misery! We’re here to talk about hope for the future! I went to the Amazon page for 14,000 Things and clicked on the “Search Inside/Surprise Me” link, and came up with pages featuring the following entries:
- Harvest chowder (But what if you hate chowder? Plus, this looks like vomit.)
- Baby-sitting (Then I must be one of the happiest person alive, since I babysit my faux-nephew every week)
- Remembering your sunglasses (I had to share this one with Joe because he is constantly losing pairs of sunglasses)
- Bean lovers (Does this mean that beans, the legumes, bring happiness? Or that people who love beans should fill you with joy?)
- Men who explain their behavior, “I’m just a wild ‘n crazy guy” (That would make me think they are ripping off old Steve Martin comedy routines)
- Little Women, the 1994 film version (Because seeing Winona Ryder portray Jo March is far superior to reading Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel)
Anyway, I decided to see if I could come up with 50 reasons to go on living in the space of half an hour. Please note that I am not going to mention “family and friends,” because that should go without saying. Also, this is my list. Any one of these things may make you want to throw yourself under a bus; I don’t know.
- Eurovision is tomorrow
- There are still four August Wilson plays I haven’t seen yet
- My tomato plants are already so huge that I figure they must bear fruit sometime this summer
- I want to find out what happens to Toronto’s (allegedly) crack-smoking mayor
- There’s a new flavor of Mangria
- I just found out that there’s already a sequel out to the book I’m currently reading and enjoying (The Professionals by Owen Laukkanen)
- John Oliver starts hosting “The Daily Show” on June 10, and while I adore Jon Stewart, that should be an interesting change of pace
- The bakery down the street sells macarons
- Sue Grafton still has four more letters of the alphabet to cover
- I still need to buy and use some of those cool round Global Forever Stamps
- The ABBA museum opened in Stockholm
- One of my faux-nephew’s other faux-aunts is coming to visit in August, meaning she can babysit and Joe & I can go out for a quiet dinner with our friends
- “Parks & Recreation” got renewed
- Nathan Rabin’s new book will be published next month
- The Tony Awards are coming up shortly
- I still haven’t tried all the different Thai curries at Bluefin
- Josh Kornbluth’s new play
- Aspiring to not always be in fourth place (out of four) in the Fitbit rankings (though this may require one of my friends breaking an ankle or something)
- Sutter Brown
- Hoping to visit Australia & New Zealand someday
- Waiting to celebrate gay marriage legalization and the end of DOMA
- Upcoming reservations at Honor Mansion and Bravas Bar de Tapas
- My friend Janet from Ohio has promised to visit this summer
- Our third-row tickets to Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” (Berkeley Rep) starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart
OK, time is up, and that’s only 25… so I’ll have to reset the clock and come up with the rest later on.
I didn’t mean to leave such a depressing blog post up front for so long; however, I am a slow writer, and I don’t often have time to fit blogging into my busy schedule. This weekend looks to be another hectic one. We’ll be attending a fancy fundraising event for one of our favorite arts organizations. It’s one of the very few occasions where I really have to try to glam it up a bit. This year, I decided maybe it was time for me to get a new pair of heels.
Because I walk about five miles every day, I own a lot of comfy shoes. After years of searching, I finally discovered the Holy Grail of walking shoes: Easy Spirit Reinvent, which are incredibly lightweight, soft, comfortable, and reasonably priced (they’re listed at $79, but if you sign up for Easy Spirit’s mailing list, you can save quite a bit during their periodic sales). Plus, they don’t look too bad, as long as you avoid the more garish neon colors (I own them in black and the unfortunately discontinued dark red). A good 90% of the time, when I leave the house, I am wearing my Reinvents. I purchase them from EasySpirit.com, so I don’t spend much time hanging out in shoe stores.
Since the party is tomorrow, however, I hit the brick & mortar shoe shops. First, I visited a cute little boutique in Berkeley. There were three sales attendants, standing around gabbing at the back of the store. No one greeted me or offered to help. They were probably judging me by my shoes (Ecco, Vibration II, silver). I flipped over a pair of snakeskin pumps to see the price tag. $190. Eh, too expensive for shoes I will only wear a couple times a year, at most.
Then I figured I might as well visit the self-service discount shoe barn in Emeryville. It is the antithesis of a cute boutique. There are hundreds of shoes on display; you find the pair you like, then check the stack of shoeboxes underneath and hope that they have them in your size. I skipped the comfy flats and went straight to the high heeled dress shoes.
What I saw there was truly horrifying. What has happened to shoes? These… things didn’t look like shoes. They resembled bizarre modern sculptures, or something you might imagine would be used in an S&M torture chamber. And there were rows and rows of them! Good God, are people buying them? Are they wearing them? If so, how?
I remembered seeing pop star Lady Gaga wear this extreme footwear, but I had no idea it had trickled down to the masses. (The ones in the photo had been marked down to $19.99.) People, Lady Gaga may be a fashion icon, but no one should emulate her style in shoes. For one thing, not even she can walk around in these so-called “heel-less platforms” without tumbling down. And the singer’s career is now on hiatus due to chronic pain, which some are speculating may have been at least partially caused by her shoes. (Gaga, may I suggest you pick up a pair of Easy Spirit Reinvents while you’re recuperating?)
The shoes do not have heels. I guess you’re supposed to put your weight on the front of your foot. They’re so high that it must feel like you’re walking around on tiptoe. In the interest of science, I decided to try on a pair. You can see them at left. It did indeed feel like the back of my feet were sort of floating in space. I walked about three feet in them, and almost twisted my ankle. Plus, they are super ugly. I remember hearing that when Oprah was still filming her daily talk show that she would wear sneakers until the moment she sat down in her chair. At that point, an assistant would whisk away the athletic shoes and O would don a pair of Louboutins. Heck, if I only had to sit, and if I had mad Oprah money, I’d wear Louboutins too. These are SO pretty! You could display them on a shelf when you weren’t wearing them! The Gaga-esque shoes, on the other hand, look like something you might use to tenderize steaks (perhaps they come in handy when you’re assembling a meat dress).
Anyway, after an exhaustive search, I finally found a pump with a reasonable heel. I walked up and down the aisle a bit without tottering over. They were actually pretty comfortable… something I could imagine myself wearing, maybe not for a long walk, but to a restaurant or party. I noticed the name on the box… Easy Spirit. My old friends.
It’s easy to laugh at these bizarre shoes, but to be honest, I find them pretty disturbing. Women are literally being crippled in the name of beauty. Some women are even undergoing surgery so they can better fit into pointy-toed stilettos. Obviously it’s a free country and anybody can choose to wear whatever they like, but it seems that a lot of women are making the choice to be really, really uncomfortable (in the now) and risk serious damage (down the road) in the name of fashion. I agree with this Jezebel.com poster, who contributed a comment on an article titled “Wearing Heels Does Not Make You A Bad Feminist”: “The fact is as women we ARE pressured to dress and look a certain way, even the most intimate aspect of our appearance is judged and regulated by a culture that says ‘beautiful women wear heels, are white, have hairless bodies, etc etc etc,’ so it’s never that simple and it’s certainly worthwhile to keep challenging the emerging status quo. Indeed there is a certain privilege that comes with being the kind of woman who pulls off a pencil skirt and high heels, it can be difficult to get taken seriously when you’re a woman who wants nothing to do with the heels, make-up etc that we associate with being ‘dressed for work.’”
There is one big advantage to heels, though (and this goes for men as well as women–if you think men can’t wear heels, well, check out the drag queens on parade in Broadway’s smash “Kinky Boots”): height. When I put on those horrible studded shoes, I was suddenly close to six feet tall. I imagined myself at a show at Bottom of the Hill or the Great American Music Hall, clubs where I usually wind up stuck behind some super-tall dude and have to settle for catching an occasional glimpse of the band’s lead singer over his shoulder. In those shoes, I could tower over almost everyone else. Then again, I wouldn’t be surprised if standing on actual stilts would be more comfortable.
Following up on my last post, Nordstrom apologized via Twitter, stating that “We really do appreciate your honesty & apologize for your disappointment. We’d like to pass your feedback to the store.” I never heard from the store, but at least I have expressed my outrage via social media, as a good 21st-century citizen.
Once again, however, I have been tempted with ill-gotten gains, this time at Petco, which is where I shop for Bibi’s incredibly expensive dog food. (I’m disappointed that Merrick’s French Country Café flavor hasn’t made it to my local Petco yet–I’d love to serve her that while my parents are in Paris next month. “Peut-être ta grand-mère et ton grand-père sont aussi manger de canard, les pommes de terre, les carottes et les petits pois!”) This afternoon, I stopped by to stock up, and my total was $31.56. Because I hate getting a bunch of pennies in change, I gave the cashier $40.01 in cash–two twenties and one cent. She had already entered $40.00 into the cash register, however. She gave me a deer-in-headlights look. It was obvious she had no idea what to do next. At that point, I should probably have asked for the penny back and accepted 44 cents in change.
“Just give me back 45 cents instead of 44,” I helpfully suggested. She started grabbing random coins and bills from the drawer and was about to hand me a 20, a 10, a one, and a couple of quarters. “No, no, that’s too much,” I said. “I gave you $40.01 on a total of $31.56. Give me eight dollars and 45 cents.”
I should add at this point that I am horrible at math. The first time in my life I ever got a C was in high school algebra, and I was just grateful to have passed the class. However, I have managed to get by; despite the fact that I am married to a math genius, I manage the family finances. Sure, I do it with the help of computer programs and calculators, but I am OK at basic arithmetic; I can calculate tips in my head and figure out bill-splitting in restaurants. And I knew, without having to think too much about it, that the cashier owed me $8.45.
She, however, apologized and pulled out a calculator. She entered 40.01, the amount I had given her, and subtracted 31.56, the cost of my purchase, including tax. Voila: $8.45. She handed me a five, three ones, a quarter, and two dimes. I left the store with my change and purchase, thinking, “From now on, I’m just using my debit card at that store.”
A few days ago, my mom asked me if I’d heard about the Kansas City panhandler who received a valuable diamond ring in his donation cup. The woman who mistakenly gave the ring to homeless Billy Ray Harris was so impressed by his honesty–he held onto the ring, figuring it must have been donated to him in error, until the owner returned for it, instead of immediately pawning it for a few quick bucks–that she and her husband set up an online fundraising campaign to raise money for the panhandler. So far, they’ve raised over $175,000, which ”will be given directly to Billy Ray” at the end of the 90-day fundraiser.
Somehow, this story had escaped me until my mom told me about it, but I have to admit that my first thought was, perhaps a bit uncharitably, “Is it really a good idea to give $175,000 to a homeless dude?” Giving someone a vast infusion of cash often leads to misery, as many studies of lottery winners have proven. I’m sure the couple had no idea their little fundraiser would wind up raking in a six-figure sum, but in retrospect, maybe it would have been better to raise the money for, say, the Kansas City Rescue Mission instead. Of course, that wouldn’t have generated the publicity that “Honest panhandler gets rich!” did.
The story of Billy Ray Harris also struck a bit of a chord with me because of the experience I’d just had with Nordstrom. I’ve been a pretty loyal Macy’s shopper for many years, but lately, I’ve been trying to make my purchases elsewhere because of the Trump factor. If you’ve been in Macy’s men’s department lately, it can be difficult to find accessories that aren’t Trump’s cheap made-in-China crap. And I don’t just hate Trump because of the whole birther thing–seriously, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of reasons to hate Donald Trump. For instance: did you know he stacks his pizza slices and eats them with a fork?
So I went to the Nordstrom in downtown San Francisco for the first time in ages to buy a small purse. I’m not someone who is a big connoisseur of designer labels, as anyone who’s ever observed my fashion sense can attest, but it just so happens that there was a Kate Spade bag that was exactly what I had been searching for. I took it to the counter. The woman at the register was on the phone–she seemed to be chatting with a customer about various handbag options–and after a few moments, she rang up my purchase on one of those little portable devices they have now at certain stores (they’ve been using them at the Apple store for years now). She asked me if I wanted her to email my receipt. Since I’ve gotten lots of emailed receipts from Apple and other retailers, I said sure, and gave her my address. She showed me the device to make sure she’d entered my email address correctly. I checked it and confirmed that it was indeed accurate. San Francisco retailers are no longer allowed to give out free shopping bags, so I put the item in a plastic bag I’d brought from home, and left the store.
Later that evening, I realized that I hadn’t received the emailed receipt. Usually they come pretty quickly, so of course I started second-guessing myself, wondering if there had been an error in the email address after all. The next day, though, I got a “Thank you for being a Nordstrom shopper!” email, so I knew that wasn’t the case. Everything was fine, right? Well, not quite. A week later, I logged into my credit card company’s web site to reconcile my statement and pay my bill. The charge for the purse was nowhere to be found.
It had been an entire week! Something had to be wrong. I suppose some people would go, “Whoo, free designer bag!” and that would be the end of it. However, like Billy Ray Harris, my conscience would not allow me to do such a thing. I looked up the phone number for Nordstrom customer service and called.
The woman who answered was polite, but somewhat befuddled by my call. First, she asked for my credit card number so she could check if it was in the system. (I only have one credit card, so I obviously knew which one I had used for the purchase.) It was not. Then she announced that she had never come across this problem before, and would have to “pow-wow with [her] supervisor” to figure out what to do. I gave her my phone number and she said she’d call back.
About half an hour later, someone from the downtown San Francisco store called me. She sounded more annoyed than befuddled, and said something like, “I understand you left our store without paying for a handbag.” Um, hello, I’m trying to do the right thing here! I immediately start stammering that I had seen the transaction on the sales associate’s screen, and it was not my intention to not pay for the item. My guess is that the people at Nordstrom were a bit freaked out–after all, if this had happened once, it could have happened on other occasions, and not everyone is as honest as I am (or they don’t check their credit card statements as carefully as I do–if Nordstrom’s handbag department had been but one stop on an all-day shop-a-rama, would I have noticed the omission? Perhaps not). However, I kind of thought someone would thank me for my honesty. Instead, the person on the phone simply took down my credit card info. She asked if I wanted my receipt emailed or snail-mailed. I said emailed, figuring it would have to work this time. And it did, though it took six or seven hours for the receipt to turn up in my inbox. The transaction also appeared on my credit card company’s web site next time I logged in.
A day or two after this wacky little misunderstanding, I went to Safeway to do some grocery shopping, and when I came home, I noticed on the receipt that somehow I’d only been charged for two containers of orange juice, instead of the three I’d purchased. (Juice happened to be on sale, but it wasn’t a buy-three-get-one-free deal.) I’m sorry, but you know what? I decided to just keep the extra juice. I didn’t want to get back in the car, drive across town to the store, and try to explain what had happened to a bewildered customer service person. It was $2.50. I spend loads of money at Safeway every week. I decided not to stress about it. Call me a scofflaw, but my conscience feels clear.
The Internet has been abuzz with news about Hostess Brands’ bankruptcy. Twinkies are no more! Opportunists are trying to sell them on Craigslist for far more than the old retail price of around 50 cents a Twinkie; one seller in San Jose is peddling a box of 10 for $20, and he’s not willing to haggle (“Price is Firm”). Of course, there are already plenty of companies reportedly hoping to snap up Hostess’ assets, including Flowers Foods, maker of Tastykakes, which most East Coasters prefer to Twinkies anyway. “Tastykakes are to Hostess products as prime rib is to the McDonald’s McRib,” wrote one Yelp reviewer. “Seriously, have a Tastykake, and then try to eat a Twinkie or a Ding Dong again without being sorely disappointed.”
The last time I ate a Twinkie was when I was 11 or 12. I suspect if I bit into one today, which I have no intention of ever doing even if a box of the cakes was delivered to my doorstep this evening, it would be akin to Proust’s madeleine. But I don’t need to actually eat a Twinkie to remember that last time. It’s been a vivid memory for years and years.
On Wednesday evenings, I had to attend confirmation classes at my church. The schedule went like this: first, we would eat dinner in the church basement. Dinner was provided by moms according to a rota. Most moms back then were stay-at-home and actually cooked casseroles and things (my mom made chicken pot pie), but occasionally a working mom would pick up Pizza Hut, which was especially exciting. Following dinner, we had choir practice, and after that, Bible study. It took four years to get through all of the classes and in that time, we read the entire Bible, Old and New Testaments. Students had to use Bic four-color pens to make notes, draw symbols and underline things in the Book. Jesus’ words, for instance, were supposed to be highlighted in red.
I hated everything about these evenings. The kids at my table would inevitably wind up discussing some TV show I hadn’t seen (I started watching “Happy Days” because it aired on Tuesday nights and was always a hot topic of conversation); I disliked choir to the point where I would occasionally suffer from panic attacks during rehearsal (though I didn’t realize until years later that that was what they were); all of that business with the four-color pen seemed like mindless busywork; and worst of all, in that pre-DVR era, I had to miss my beloved “Little House on the Prairie,” which was on at 8 PM on Wednesdays. Why couldn’t it have aired on Tuesdays instead of “Happy Days”?
It never occurred to me that not attending these classes was an option. I dutifully made it through all four years and was confirmed. Then it was my brother’s turn to start. After a couple of weeks, he just said he was never going back, and that was that. I was furious, but mainly because I would never have thought of simply refusing to go. That’s the sort of outside-the-box thinking that has made my brother the very successful person he is today.
I did like the church’s friendly minister, Pastor Samuelson, who sat with a different table of students each week. One week, he wound up sitting next to me. I enjoyed that, because it meant I could talk to an adult, which I found preferable to trying to make conversation with my peers. Anyway, while the dinners changed every week, depending on whose mom was cooking, one thing stayed the same: we always had Twinkies for dessert. I think a member of the church owned a Hostess distributorship and donated Twinkies by the crateful. It was always Twinkies, never any of the other Hostess brands, like Ding Dongs or Ho Hos. I grew very tired of Twinkies, but being a kid, it never would have occurred to me to just not eat one. I mean, it was dessert! Who turns down dessert?
When we received our weekly snack cake, I asked Pastor Samuelson why we had to have Twinkies every week. The minister — who always seemed incredibly old and wise to me, despite the fact that he was only in his mid-50s at the time — replied that those Twinkies were a gift from God, and he made it very clear to me that only a spoiled, ungrateful child would complain about them. I shut up and ate my Twinkie, probably disappointing God even further by wondering during class what Laura Ingalls was up to instead of drawing the proper symbols in my study Bible.
Ever since, I have associated Twinkies with my insubordination and God’s wrath. Is it any wonder that I grew up to be an agnostic food snob?
A few months ago, a good friend of ours, who is in his 50s, started getting tattooed. It literally took him years to come up with the perfect match of artwork and artist, and the results are stunning. Everybody who sees them, either on Facebook or (especially) in person, is blown away by how vibrant, intricate and beautiful they are.
I don’t have any tattoos, though I considered getting a small one of a paper plane to commemorate a play Joe & I helped sponsor at Shotgun a couple years ago. (Paper planes factored into the play itself, and on the poster art.) Theater is so transient, whereas tattoos are forever. In the end, I decided I was satisfied with our cast-signed poster.
Several cast members of “The Lord of the Rings” got identical tattoos in order to commemorate their roles in Peter Jackson’s epic film trilogy. I thought that was a really beautiful gesture, a way of continuing their community long after their mutual adventure had ended. Of course, starring in one of the most successful film franchises of all time is the sort of glamorous thing that you wouldn’t mind having a lifelong reminder of. It never occurred to me to, say, suggest to my fellow committee members that we each get a tattoo of our Mining for Murder logo after we had completed our work on this year’s Left Coast Crime convention.
I have had nightmares where my dream-self has realized that I have a huge tattoo somewhere on my body and I can never get rid of it. I’m always relieved to wake up with skin unblemished by ink. I wonder how many people who actually get tattoos are burdened by regret? Especially considering that so many people do it while they’re young. A friend (who has a single tattoo in an easily-covered-up spot on her body) related a story about being on vacation and spotting a guy who appeared to have a tattoo of the Veruca Salt logo (the 90s band, not the “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” character) on his arm. She asked him about it, and he admitted rather sheepishly that, yeah, he’d had it done years ago. When I was a teenager, tattoos were largely the domain of bikers, prisoners and sailors; if they’d been as commonplace as they are today, I fear that I might now be stuck with a lifelong reminder of my onetime passion for the Woodentops or Tori Amos. These types of tattoos are like the opposite of my friend’s years-in-the-making, well-thought-out ones. Ink in haste, repent at leisure.
I was talking to a makeup artist who works at a large cosmetics store in San Francisco, and he mentioned that the number one request he gets is for makeup that can cover up tattoos. One of his clients had a design of musical notes tattooed on her neck, and even though she’d had laser treatment to try to remove them, the shadows were still visible. It seems obvious that if you want to express yourself through body art, it might be a good idea to at least have the option of throwing a long-sleeved shirt on once in a while to render them unseen. Unless your dream job is coffee shop barista, bike messenger or NBA player, having your neck tattooed sounds like a terrible idea. Tattoos may be almost de rigueur these days (40% of U.S. adults between 26-40 have at least one), but highly visible body art is still not acceptable in a lot of workplaces.
Galleries of stupid tattoos can be found all over the Web — this page of people’s skin art of sitcom actor and thoroughly repellent human being Charlie Sheen is but one horrifying example — but perhaps no single tattoo has ever captured the imagination of the Internet as thoroughly as the one belonging to Eric Hartsburg, who got the Romney/Ryan logo tattooed on his face. Yes, on his face. He reportedly received $15,000 from “an anonymous Romney fan” in exchange for being marked forever with the logo of a losing campaign. He also has his own name prominently tattooed on his neck; presumably he paid for that one himself. According to ESPN.com, “the space on his forehead is still available via private auction.” You know what would be super hilarious? If some wealthy Obama supporter paid Hartsburg another $15K to get the president’s logo tattooed there. He could single-handedly illustrate our country’s divided political system!
The Huffington Post has a gallery of political tattoos, showing that people have gotten inked in honor of Sarah Palin, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and more (I note that the Al Gore tat is actually a tribute to “South Park”‘s “ManBearPig” episode, though I’m sure that somebody somewhere must have an un-ironic Gore tattoo). But at least none of that ink is on people’s faces. Hartsburg may insist now that he has “no regrets,” but it wouldn’t surprise me if by the time the 2016 Iowa caucuses roll around, he had returned to the tattoo parlor to have the Romney logo turned into an American flag or something else that’s a bit more generically patriotic and a whole lot less ridiculous.
I spent about a decade running a small record label (which may come out of hibernation soon, but that’s a story for another day). Perhaps because we found ourselves working primarily with artists who were either indifferent or had an outright aversion to any sort of self-promotion, and the fact that I wasn’t terribly good at that stuff myself, we were never particularly successful or prestigious. And yet, we would still get approached from time to time by artists who were interested in releasing music on our label. Eventually, I developed a standard response: “You’d be better off releasing it yourself — and if you need money, just do a Kickstarter.com campaign.”
Kickstarter.com, for the uninitiated, is a site which lets you “crowdsource” money for your art project. Basically, you pick an amount — anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars — and then you try to find enough people to “kick in” a few bucks to help you reach your goal. If you exceed your goal amount, that’s great — Bay Area musician Nataly Dawn (if her face looks familiar, you probably recognize her from the Hyundai commercials that were ubiquitous last Christmas) wanted $20,000 to complete her album, and she’s more than quadrupled that with six days left to go. However, if you don’t reach your chosen amount by the end of the pledge period, you get bupkes. The people who signed up to donate never have their credit cards charged. Your project is dead… unless you start from scratch with a new, presumably less ambitious campaign, or come up with another way to fund it.
I’ve contributed to a handful of Kickstarter projects, and so far I have a 100% success rate — they’ve all been funded, though some have been touch and go until the last few hours. So far, my favorite is American Ruins, in which Chicago artist Matt Bergstrom photographed images of abandoned buildings and had them made into View-Master reels. A few months after the project was funded, I received a handsome box in the mail containing a viewer and three reels. (I’m a View-Master buff, and I also enjoy images of urban decay — a perfect match!) I’ve also contributed toward four albums and a couple films.
However, now I am afraid that my perfect record is at risk. As soon as the project was announced in mid-July, I became a backer of Laughter Against the Machine, a documentary which will follow three Bay Area comedians as they tour the U.S., bringing their special blend of humor to folks in Phoenix, New Orleans, Madison, and a few other stops. The stated goal of the tour and film is to “move Americans past the grievances that divide them, to the problems we face collectively.” Oh yeah, and to make people laugh. Ambitious, but I would expect nothing less from W. Kamau Bell, whose long-running one-man show, “The W. Kamau Bell Curve,” promised to “end racism in about an hour”; he frequently offers discounts to patrons who bring a friend of a different race with them to the venue. Bell will be joined by fellow comics Nato Green and Janine Brito.
Green told Salon.com that the trio wants to explore “Big Ideas” and tackle controversial issues, though they aren’t always able to anticipate which topics will make their audiences squirm — “Jokes about vegans, Tyler Perry or the Gipsy Kings end up being way more volatile than jokes about race, slavery or the Holocaust.” (Wait a second — they’re joking about vegans? Now they’ve really gone too far!) These three comics could make a comfortable living performing in Bay Area clubs, pandering to lefties by telling jokes about Michelle Bachmann and Fox News, but unlike a lot of local stand-ups, they don’t want to go for easy laughs. They want to stretch their boundaries by getting out of the clubs, talking to Muslims in Dearborn or folks patrolling the border in Arizona. Filmmakers Mike Paunovich and Evan Donn will be trailing them with cameras, and hope to turn the footage into what will no doubt be an insightful, thought-provoking, hilarious documentary.
But while the tour is already booked, LATM is still $8,000 short of its $20,000 goal. The deadline is Sept. 9. If they haven’t reached the magic number by then, they’ll get nothing.
I think this is a worthwhile project, and if you’re interested in comedy, documentaries, bridging the red/blue divide, or jokes about Tyler Perry, you should consider becoming a backer, too. (A mere $10 will get your name in the film’s credits!) For some reason, 987 people have “liked” the project on Facebook, but only 244 folks have put their money where their mouth is. Maybe the other 743 are waiting ’til the last minute, but in the meantime, the comics are getting very nervous.
Perhaps if the project is fully funded, the film will be released in time for the 2012 election season. By then, we will all definitely need a good laugh.
One of the hardest things about being a vegetarian is that you can feel like you’re missing out on classic foods. Like fried chicken. Everybody loves it, even highfalutin’ food critics.
But here’s the thing about fried chicken: the reason the Colonel’s recipe includes eleven herbs and spices (does MSG count as a spice?) is because the meat itself is pretty bland. Chicken and tofu have more in common than you might think. A plain piece of tofu or broiled chicken is not terribly tasty, but surround it with a savory sauce or seasoned coating and it is suddenly elevated to gourmet status.
The most famous fried chicken sandwich in town, Bakesale Betty’s, now has a vegetarian counterpart. In true Betty’s fashion, they have not advertised the sandwich — we’re talking, after all, about an eatery that has never posted a sign, and the written menu consists of a haphazardly scrawled list of two or three of the items on offer. As with their half-assed web site, the eatery’s vibe is that no one there could be bothered to put up a proper menu or sign, and why should they? There’s always a line out the door.
I found out about the tofu sandwich through an article in the East Bay Express, and was eager to try it. The tofu was specially developed for Betty by the Hodo Soy Beanery. “We basically have developed a way to add flavors inside the tofu, as opposed to just the outside,” said Hodo founder Minh Tsai.
The tofu is savory and delicious, but I found it just too hard. I guess it does mimic the texture of chicken, but I would have preferred a slightly softer tofu… more like the southern fried tofu at Souley Vegan. Also, I noticed that the guys making the “real” fried chicken sandwiches were adding gobs of cole slaw, whereas my tofu sandwich got a rather miserly portion. The slaw was incredibly delicious, with little bits of jalapeno spicing it up. A thinner or softer piece of tofu plus more slaw would make this a perfect sandwich. Though I do have to note that because buttermilk is used in the coating, it is not vegan.
A few miles away, in North Berkeley, all-vegan eatery Nature’s Express is dishing out its own spin on a meaty classic: the reuben. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a real reuben sandwich, but it seemed like the sort of deli favorite that I occasionally regret not being able to experience, so I couldn’t resist ordering it, though honestly, almost everything on the menu looked good. Joe helpfully informed me that a reuben is made with corned beef. Nature’s Express makes its sandwich with tempeh, a fermented soy product. It is served on rye bread with kraut, pickles, Thousand Island dressing and Daiya cheese.
Now, granted, I can’t compare it to the real deal, but I will say that the vegan reuben was insanely yummy. It was a bit messy, since it was dripping with dressing, but I savored every bite. I’m not always crazy about the texture of tempeh, but here, it was sliced thin, just hearty enough to stand up to the pickles and kraut. If Nature’s Express ever opens a branch closer to my house — sadly, I lived in that ‘hood before they came along; there used to be a Jamba Juice in that location — I will be a regular customer.
Joe had a Chik-un burger on focaccia. The classic burger comes with lettuce, onions, ketchup, mayo and pickles, but he prefers a no-frills burger and just got it with ketchup. It wasn’t the best fake chicken I ever had — Urban Vegan in Chicago, where I was fortunate enough to eat a couple of weeks ago, beat it hands-down in that regard — but I think the sandwich would have been improved with all the fixings. Next time I go, if I can stop myself from ordering another reuben, I’ll probably try the spicy black bean or almond sunflower burger.
Nature’s Express also has vegan soft-serve ice cream (!) and a nice assortment of baked goods. Unfortunately, the North Solano area has gone downhill since I lived nearby; there were tons of empty storefronts, and the venerable Oaks movie theater has closed down, too. Here’s hoping that enough vegans find their way over to the area to keep them in business.
Winner in this showdown: the reuben. If it wasn’t so late at night, I’d be half-tempted to hop in the car right now and go get one.
Update: Shortly after I wrote this, Groupon killed their ad campaign.
Because my post on writing for Groupon has proven to be so durable — it’s in the top 10 Google results if you search for “Groupon voice” or “Groupon writing jobs” — I feel obliged to keep up with the company’s comings and goings. When their Super Bowl ad aired last weekend, I first assumed it was a PSA about Tibet, and once it became clear that it was a Groupon ad, I was pretty shocked at how tasteless it was. I mean, the guy licking Dorito dust off other people’s fingers was disgusting, but this ad was so offensive that it seemed a wonder someone had given it the green light (and paid three million bucks to do so). I was even more stunned to learn that Christopher Guest, the auteur behind genuinely hilarious films like “Waiting for Guffman” and “A Mighty Wind,” had directed it, though apparently he was just a gun for hire: the ads were conceived by the agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, famous for its “edgy” campaigns like the ones in which Domino’s admits its pizza sucks, and Burger King customers throw tantrums when they’re told the Whopper has been discontinued.
Conan O’Brien’s show has aired several hilariously on-target parody ads, invoking the Hindenburg disaster (“Oh, the frugality!”) and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill (“Destroy the gulf between you and low prices!”). As for Groupon, it’s not backing down: “We took this approach knowing that, if anything, they would bring more funding and support to the highlighted causes,” according to CEO Andrew Mason on the company’s official blog. There are a couple of problems with that: one, a joke’s not funny if you have to explain it, and two, the ads gave no indication that there was a charitable component involved.
So I was already harboring negative feelings toward the company when I read this article about a local sandwich shop that claims Groupon drove them out of business. The owner agreed to issue a Groupon, despite the fact that he’d “never heard of Groupon before” and was “not a big Internet guy.” Nine hundred people took advantage of the deal; satisfying all of those bargain-hunters eventually led him into negative cash flow territory.
As one of the people who bought and redeemed a Groupon at the eatery, I feel partly responsible for the business’s demise. I’ve also purchased Groupons for other local restaurants, including one owned by a woman who shared a similar story and opined “Hopefully this doesn’t sink me” in the article’s comments section. (I haven’t used it yet — now I’m wondering if I should.)
Now, you could argue that these merchants should know what they’re getting into before they agree to anything a “very persuasive” salesperson asks them to do (I’m picturing a Harold Hill-like slickster). But the failure rate for new businesses is high, and I would imagine that proprietors are drawn in by the idea that they will be exposed to lots of new customers who will initially be attracted to the discount but keep returning and paying full price. It’s brave of this restaurateur to share his story, and I hope other local businesses take heed before succumbing to the lure of Groupon.
Personally, I think that from now on I will only buy a Groupon if it’s for a business I’ve never patronized before. If I already know I like a shop or restaurant, I’ll pay full price. I don’t want to hunt for deals at the expense of local businesspeople, who are the heart and soul of any community.
A couple of years ago, there seemed to be a foodie trend in which restaurants were serving cuts of meat that went way beyond the usual prime rib or pork chop. All of a sudden, bone marrow was turning up on tons of local menus, and a hot eatery called Incanto got a lot of buzz for serving unconventional animal parts like lamb spleen and rooster crest. Oh, and don’t forget TV shows like “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” and the various Anthony Bourdain programs.
You know who feels left out when Zimmern is snacking on chicken testicle soup and restaurantgoers are clamoring to attend “nose to tail” dinners? The vegetarians, that’s who. We’ve had it with grilled portobello mushrooms and pasta primavera! Bring on the extreme vegeterian cuisine!
I was eager to try Berkeley’s Gather because it had received write-ups far and wide for its adventurous dishes — mostly vegetarian, but I could point to the online menu and show Joe that they also had hamburgers! (Their ground beef is sourced from Prather Ranch, which has been certified for its “low stress cattle handling.”) Since it was my special evening, I let him order the burger but picked the starter, the vegan charcuterie plate. Charcuterie is, by definition, cured and preserved meat, so the idea of a vegan one was unusual, to say the least. Everyone around us was ordering it, though, so the word is out that it’s delicious. Even Joe was digging in, scooping up slices of pear carpaccio with smoked persimmon celery root salsa and watermelon radish â€œsteakâ€ with leek â€œbutter.â€ The charcuterie name is a bit of a gimmick; unlike a Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant we dined at a couple of weeks ago, where the menu was full of faux chicken and beef dishes, nothing on Gather’s plate tries to mimic the taste of meat. The parsnip lardo did look a bit like fatback, but the texture was crisp.
Joe raved about the enormous, cheddar-topped burger and the heaping helping of yummy fries. I opted for one of the specials, a pizza topped with leek cream, wild mushrooms, and stinging nettles, mainly because I love mushrooms and thought stinging nettles seemed like kind of a weird, and thus intriguing, thing to put on a pizza. (Important note: cooking nettles removes their stinging chemicals.) The leek cream was deliciously rich and there were lots of big chunks of mushroom; as for the nettles, they tasted sort of like a cross between parsley and spinach. Having read about the difficulty of making them edible, I am happy to leave the nettle-cooking to professionals instead of trying it myself.
I was pretty full at this point, and even had some leftover pizza to take home, but I had to check out the dessert menu anyway. Too stuffed for the pinot noir chocolate mousse, I asked what the daily house-made ice cream flavor was. Parsnip and pine nut. My immediate reaction was, “I have to try that!” while Joe’s was, “Who would try that?” Even he had to admit, though, that the ice cream was amazingly good. I could definitely taste the pine nuts, but it didn’t really taste… parsnip-y. More like pear and lemon. I love the fact that Gather is willing to put something like that on the menu. It seems very only-in-Berkeley. I mean, if you want a scoop of vanilla, there’s a Ben & Jerry’s down the block.
Because the cooking at Gather is so seasonal and local, I am looking forward to a return visit in the spring or summer so I can see what the cuisine is like then. But if you stop by the restaurant this winter, take a chance and order the parsnip ice cream — you won’t be sorry.
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