Saturday, February 28, 2009

Kitchen diplomacy

I've been reading Honeymoon in Tehran and marveling at the conditions in Iran from an Iranian expatriate's point of view. The Iranian is a U.S. citizen and has been since her parents came to America on vacation just before the Shah was deposed and ended up settling in California. Azadeh Moaveni is a journalist working for Time and has been a correspondent to Iran since 1999. She lived for two years in Iran because she fell in love and married an Iranian whose family owned a textile manufacturing firm and her fiancé was working in the family business and going to university. The book covers the year or so before the marriage and two years after the marriage before she and her husband emigrated to Britain.

While an inside view of Iranian politics and society is interesting, and at times quite informative, it is the food that gave me an idea for a new kind of diplomacy. Cowboy diplomacy didn't work and shuttle diplomacy was eventually a failure, but kitchen diplomacy might be just the thing to break down the walls between religious and political ideologies and make it possible for people to find common ground.

When we understand a region's foods and methods of cooking, we can begin to understand the forces that create and maintain a society. Trace the origin of a food through any country and you will find more similarities than differences and begin to get an appreciation of the ingenuity and creativity that define a people regardless of their origins. Food can also help to trace the origin of race and show the economic health or disease of a country and its people. Trace the origin of any food brought overland or over the sea from distant lands and you will find its relationship to the knowledge, clothing, religion and government of any civilization, its rise, growth and eventually decline.

People show a different face when discussing their favorite dishes and the comfort food of their childhood. It's a softer, nostalgic face that shines with memory and delight. The politics of food are simple. Understand that and the key to any country's heart is yours for the taking.

I propose that instead of negotiations in conference rooms and hotels and the offices of officials, negotiations be carried on in kitchens where world leaders can cook and share their favorite foods. It would, of course, require an open mind to stomach some national dishes, but an open mind is a good thing in negotiations. I've also found that people are less violent and less likely to be violent when their stomachs are full. Wars are conducted on short rations or empty stomachs, which make combatants much more ferocious and blood thirsty. Anyone who has been on a diet can tell you that. Deprive people of their favorite foods and ration what little food is available and nastiness always ensues.

Preparing food in a kitchen full of knifes, fire and heavy pots and pans will also foster a sense of trust. It's difficult to prepare food if you hide all the heavy and sharp equipment and inevitably violence will follow.

Kitchen diplomacy is a sort of stone soup, as described in Grimm's Fairy Tales. Start with a big pot of water heating over a fire and add one stone. It's not very nutritious. If everyone adds a little of what they have to the pot, soon everyone will be feasting on a delectable stew that will leave them fully sated and unwilling (and unable if they're full enough) to fight. Add a bit of wine and the soporific and calming effects of a good meal and everyone becomes more tractable and willing to negotiate. Besides, it's just plain rude and bad manners to shed blood at the dinner table. Even Hannibal Lecter knew that.

What's a few roasted termites or a dish of cold monkey brains between allies when the fate of the world hangs in the balance, especially when we're in no danger of running out of monkey brains any time soon?

That is all. Disperse.

The world is burning

There are a few movies that I enjoying watching again and again. One of the more recent movies is The Dark Knight, the sequel to Batman Begins. Of all the actors to play Batman, Christian Bale is by far the best and the closest to my idea of Batman, and I have had a love affair with the Dark Knight for many decades, starting when I read the comics. Don't get me wrong. I loved Superman, too, but Batman appealed to something dark and forbidden in me that I couldn't name or understand at that young age.

Batman is dark and dangerous, caught in the eternal dance between his own light and shadow selves and the movies starring Christian Bale capture that without camp or high gloss. Before Christian Bale's Batman, I found Tim Burton's Batman Returns to have just the right essence of darkness and light and Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman was superb, as was Danny Devito's Penguin.

What sets The Dark Knight and Batman Begins apart from the rest aren't the villains, although they have been as riveting and on target as Christian Bale's performance, or Inspector (now Chief) Gordon played to perfection by that chameleon actor, Gary Oldman, but Michael Caine who creates a new persona for the ultra British butler, Alfred, by giving him a Cockney accent and a fascinating and varied background. Heath Ledger's performance is as enduring as the movie itself, all the more so because Heath is now dead and his portray of the Joker is a high water mark unlikely to be matched or exceeded in this or any future time.

One of the most memorable lines of the movie is not from the Joker or Batman, but from Alfred when he tells Batman about a bandit he was hired to find and kill in Burma. The bandit had been stealing jewel shipments earmarked for bribes to local village chiefs and no one could find out what the bandit was doing with them until a young boy was seen playing with a huge ruby. The bandit had been throwing away the jewels and not selling them on the open or underground markets. He considered the thefts good fun. He wasn't interested in profit or wealth but in chaos.

When Bruce Wayne asked Alfred why the bandit stole the jewels, Alfred told him that "...some men just want to see the world burn."

"Alfred, how did you catch the bandit?"

"We burned down the forest."

Those lines have haunted me and they remain in my memory as the most prophetic. Nothing else comes close to describing the world in which we live with terrorists on every side and even within our own borders. They can't be reasoned with or bought and the only way they can be stopped is to burn down the forest. I wonder how long it will take before the powers that be realize that.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Waking thoughts

There are times when a book or characters or something I'm writing wakes me in the middle of the night and refuses to let me get back to sleep again. This morning was one of those times, only this time it was a philosophical question that troubled my sleep and set my brain in edge.

Do we choose to be miserable?

I think we do. That doesn't mean I think we should all be Pollyannas and forget that sometimes life is hard, but that we chose to be miserable when there are other options.

Yes, pain hurts and it colors everything in black and bloody red until the only thoughts that get through the morass of pain is getting hold of drugs to make it better. There are other options. You can choose biofeedback or focusing on something else to get through the pain or just pop a few pills. But it is a choice whether or not to let the pain rule your life.

Yes, the world is full of starving and oppressed and tyrannized people, and some of them live in the same town and state and country. Why is it people are more willing to help someone in another country than in their own back yard? Seeing the suffering is more difficult than reading it in a paper and knowing it is happening somewhere else in the world, but in the end, what can we do about it? Governments choose to throw money at it and open the doors to immigrants so they can come here and suffer without thinking how the money could have been used to educate people so they can help themselves. But we choose to allow whatever they do and those people choose to continue suffering. They could rise up and stop the people causing the suffering. They could choose to beg, borrow or steal food and seed and grow their own food. They could choose to leave. They choose.

It seems a harsh way of looking at things, but how is it any different than the way things were done when we didn't have immediate access to videos and films and pictures of the conditions in other countries? How is it any different than walking past a homeless mother and children on the street and choosing not to see them? Why does the idea of a foreigner suffering makes us feel more guilty or more compassionate than the people who share our city streets, highways and byways?

It's a choice. Everything is about choice.

I choose to help those in my path, but I am not going to work hard to spend it all on people in another country or even people in my own town and give everything I've worked for away. I earned it. I've had my trials and tribulations, but I always found a way to survive and to get what I needed. I'm willing to give anyone a hand up, but I'm not willing to give a hand out. If I work for what I have and then give everything away, what have I done but perpetuate the cycle? I haven't helped anyone, least of all myself. I haven't done anyone a service and I have beggared myself in the process. Only an idiot would give away everything they worked for to someone who can work and earn their own way.

I used to carry business cards for a day labor service. Every time someone came up to me and asked for money for coffee or food I gave them a card and told them they could earn enough for food and a place to stay. Most people tore up the cards and cursed me. Some of them waited until I drove or walked away to do so.

Everyone has options, some good and some bad, but there is no degradation unless a person chooses to feel degraded. There is no degradation in working for a temp or day labor service, and there is the satisfaction of knowing, at least when working for day labor, that you will be paid at the end of the day. It's not as lucrative as begging on the streets and expecting the world to take care of you, but it is honest. It is a choice.

A long time ago, someone told me that I chose to be unhappy or sad or angry. I told him he didn't know what he was talking about. I didn't choose to hurt myself or treat myself like dirt. But I did. Anyone can hurt me -- if I let them. Anyone can treat me like dirt -- but that doesn't make me dirt. Anyone can steal from me, but that doesn't make me poor. Anyone can lie to me, but I don't have to believe them. I have a choice. I choose to make the best of my situation and be happy that I can go on one more minute, one more hour, one more day, one more week, one more breath.

I choose.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Global warming debunked

My connection to the Internet went down at 3 p.m. yesterday. I went to bed early with Atlas Shrugged after spending a couple of hours on a Honeymoon in Tehran by Azadeh Moaveni. I recently read a review of Moaveni's previous investigative memoir, Lipstick Jihad, which seemed more about promoting herself than about real journalistic fervor and reporting. I'll reserve my judgment on this until I've finished and am ready to write my review. Nothing like a trip to Iran to make things more interesting.

I do find it interesting that in reading Atlas Shrugged I have come to the part where the scientific community, in this case a scientific institution funded and its policy dictated by the government, is in violation of scientific principles. Science is supposed to be politically neutral and yet it is being used as a political tool to drive the last remaining functioning engines of growth and change and prosperity out of business to fuel a socialist agenda. And then this morning I received an email about a stunning piece of environmental science news that Japanese scientists have broken with the IPCC and publicly stated that "...recent climate change is driven by natural cycles, not human industrial activity, as political activists argue.

Choosing the link to the UK newspaper, The Guardian, is deliberate since many people will claim that it is a conservative agenda. I had many links to choose from but I doubt anyone will take the time to search them out and this news will likely be conspicuously absent from liberal news sources or soft pedaled.

In essence, the recent global warming "crisis" is due not to man made greenhouse gases but to the recovery of the earth from the mini ice age that spanned from 1400 to 1800, reaching its height in the 17th century, which was a direct result of a Maunder Minimum, a period of minimal, or near nonexistence, sunspot activity on the sun, something that we are about to experience once again. Sunspot activity has been diminishing since the end of 2008 and it shows no signs of cranking up with the new cycle.

What this all boils down to is that scientists with a political agenda, or co-opted by politicians and liberals, have lied. They knew their data was spotty and that they had not included all the factors that go into the warming and cooling cycles of the Earth, but they opted for half-baked ideas with no valid scientific proof and began scaring the world with their doom and gloom predictions. The three Japanese scientists who came forward and said it has all been a lie and that temperatures have been falling since 2000 instead of rising as current climate models indicate have just highlighted and underlined what Ayn Rand said in Atlas Shrugged. Science should be apolitical and not subject to political agendas. Scientists who use data for a political agenda or stand aside and allow their work to be used to further political ends are looters.

Say what you will about Ayn Rand and her objectivist theories, but she was right and the future she eerily predicted is happening before our very eyes. Increasing welfare states. Bailouts. Science being corrupted by politicians. Failing economy. Crumbling infrastructure. Taxing the engines of industry and a healthy economy out of existence. If the liberal left agenda is allowed to continue, we are going to see Atlas shrug in person and the results are going to be ugly and lasting. It's time to stand up and be counted, protest and throw the liberal Left's tea in the harbor or we will soon find our freedoms disappearing one by one and we, like the frog sitting in a pot of water on the stove, won't realize the heat has been rising all along.

That is all. Disperse.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Further adventures in plumbing

You really don't know how much you take something for granted until you lose it as I lost the toilet nearly a week ago. The ordeal is over. I have flush. It did not, however, happen easily or quickly.

After using the usual equipment, the team of plumbers finally decided to bring in the big guns, a pressure hose that blows clogs out with a combination of air and water pressure, and it worked. I don't know where the problem came out, just that it came out and the loud chugging and groaning and sound of mechanical muscle ended abruptly. All this happened after the plumbers once again pulled up my toilet and tried their massive snakes through the hole in the floor to no avail.

One of the younger plumbers came into my office and told me they found the problem and sketched in the details. There were roots growing in the line, but I at last had a working toilet. I went to see this marvelous miracle and tried the handle for myself while the grinning crew of grimy plumbers watched. I pushed the handle down and the water went bawhoosh and out with its usual dispatch, leaving the toilet bowl clean and free of debris. I had flush and life is good again.

They asked if I wanted to see what was stuck in the line and it turned out to be a rather large root ball, about 16-18 inches long. What compounded the problem is that the only way to get at it was -- I told them so -- through the vent on the roof. The line from the toilet, a solitary line not hooked into the rest of the plumbing, leaves the house under the deck and converges with the main line from the house about 20-30 feet beyond the house under the parking lot. To get to the line the plumbers would have needed a backhoe to dig down and excavate it. To fix the big hole would take a paver to lay more asphalt over the gaping wound once it was covered up again after the new plumbing was installed. Right now, there is still a gaping hole and several evergreen hedges drying out as they lie on their sides with their delicate and tenacious roots bare to the elements lying amidst piles of dirt and paving stones and bricks.

I don't know what the landlord has planned, but the lines should be cleared out about every 1-2 years because roots will get in the lines and will grow and create another clog. A new clean-out for the toilet line should be installed, but I have no idea what's going to happen at this point. I can only hope for the best, but I am much more optimistic than I was over the weekend since some normality has been restored inside the cottage.

One good thing about having the hedges torn out is that when the planter is refilled, I can plant rose bushes and flowers and maybe even some vegetables, herbs and tubers. I have options. Somehow the idea of the rain-washed and sun warmed scent of flowers and herbs and the prospect of fresh vegetables and provender makes me feel excited and anxious for spring. So many possibilities lay ahead.

In the meantime, I need to go enjoy the bawhoosh that comes with a fully functional toilet, a sound I doubt I will take for granted any time soon.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Resistance is futile

There are some movies I resist seeing on principle, that principle being that everyone is talking about it and tells me I should see it. It's what my grandfather called me being mule-headed, and he was right. I get that way on occasion, digging in my heels and refusing to do what is expected. When I finally do follow the herd to see what is so fascinating about the movie, I'm usually glad, as I was when I recently watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

The movie sounded like the usual fare of stereotypical immigrant jokes and a child appalled and embarrassed by her immigrant parents as they clung to old traditions and out-dated ideas, and I wasn't disappointed. There was the obligatory elder member of the family who had never been assimilated into American culture, clinging to her prejudices and language like a tick on a dog. The father of the clan was man of the house and his wife adept at thwarting his most antiquated plans for his children. American Romeo meets Greek Juliet and the Americans and Greeks try to find some common ground while failing to understand the others' cultural differences, like one very Greek aunt who invites American Romeo, who is a vegetarian, to dinner and saying, "It's okay. I fix lamb". Second City alumna do the usual ethnic jokes and caricatures and the main character, Toula, the Greek Juliet yearning to be more American, provides comic and wry narrative.

Toula, who looks like a 50-year-old spinster, undergoes the Ginger Grant makeover, changing her from frumpy woman old before her time into young and attractive date bait with the application of makeup, hair rollers and new clothes. It's amazing what waxing, plucking and contact lenses can accomplish.

The jokes are obvious and often funny. Greek Granny spying on the neighbors and spitting on the Turkeys is irritating at times and Greek dad's death hold cling on tradition, although it does not come close to Tevya's Jewish angst over seeing his daughters falling away from the tried and true rutted path, did make me laugh a few times. I do think the whole arranged marriage with the horrific and stereotypical bachelors for dinner was completely unfunny and done to death once again, but there were moments when the movie transcended genre and triteness.

We laugh at immigrants coming to America to find a balance between the ingrained traditions of their homeland and embracing the laissez faire attitude and new traditions of their new country, but I was especially touched by Greek dad's gift to Toula and her American Romeo (played by John Corbett who is great eye candy). Even though American Romeo came from a well-heeled family from the country club set, it was the generous gift of a house for the newlyweds from Greek Ma and Pa that left the most profound impact in this uneven and sometimes funny movie. It was an old world gesture and the embodiment of the American dream.

One thing is certain. I will never look at Windex in the same way again.

Adventures in plumbing

Yesterday was scheduled and planned. There was the usual morning house cleaning, vacuuming and dish washing, dying the roots of my Pepe le Pew do and taking a shower so I'd smell nice when my favorite Luddite came to visit at one. A plumber from Roto-Rooter was coming between 8 and 10 a.m. and he would probably get here early to unclog the stopped up toilet that resisted plunging, bleach and drain cleaner, but he'd come and go and I'd still get finished before company arrived.

That's how it was supposed to go.

I got up early, cleaned the kitchen and started the dishwasher, vacuumed the rugs and sorted the laundry before the plumber got here, snaked the toilet and proclaimed he'd have to pull the toilet to the tune of $200. Not going to happen. I suggested the vent on the roof might be stuck and he climbed up onto the roof with his heavy duty electric snake and snaked the vent, pulling up tree roots. He's still going to have to pull the toilet. I called the landlord who told me he had a plumber on contract and to tell Roto-Rooter to go home. The plumber from Roto-Rooter took the news very well and didn't charge me for the work he'd done because he didn't unclog the drain. Now that is a nice guy. I thanked him and contemplated taking a shower just as the new plumber arrived.

He snaked the toilet and called the office who called the landlord who called the plumber and said he was coming over. When the landlord, Mark, got here the plumber told him the toilet had to come up and he quoted the price at $235. Mark signed off on the order, thus saving my meager bank account from rape and pillage, and left. The toilet came out, the snake went down and the toilet refused to flush. The plumber called in the big guns, a bigger electrical snake than the previous plumber lugged up onto the roof, and snaked the toilet. The machine made horrible sounds and so did the plumber. His snake was stuck. He called in reinforcements who arrived moments before my guest, who came over to give me a belated birthday gift, and they and the electric snake made horrible noises, conferred, and finally pulled the snake free (about 30 feet of which had been stuck in the drain somewhere down the line) by taking the screen out of the bathroom window and pulling from there. The head plumber called the landlord who came by again because the problem was bigger than expected and they would have to dig up the parking lot to replace the pipes and put in clean out vents outside so they wouldn't have to drag their heavy equipment through my house in the future.

The second plumber put my toilet back together and cleaned the bathroom so it was difficult to tell anyone had torn it apart. The toilet now has a brand new bright white band of caulking sealing it to the floor but is inoperable. The diggers aren't available until sometime late next week, but a compromise was reached. The landlord will hire two guys with shovels from Labor Ready on Monday and when they have uncovered the pipe, the plumbers will come back and replace them with new clean-out vents. On Monday.

I am now without a toilet. A Porta-A-Potty was suggested, but 2 o'clock on a Saturday is not the time to order one. Everyone was closed or had none available. Mark called and gave me the bad news and suggested I go to the grocery store, which is open 24 hours a day, when I need to go to the bathroom. I go to the bathroom about every hour. I'm saving the gas and the trips for more solid needs.

Through all of this circus of frustration, the Luddite was a rock of calm. He was sensitive, funny and caring throughout the whole ordeal even though he only witnessed the last hour of it (it started at 8:30 a.m.). He was worried that I was too stressed, but I have weathered more difficult storms and made like a bear in the woods when I was out in the wild. When you're hunting or hiking or just out for an autumn walk sometimes there are no other options. My Luddite was upset for me and thought Mark should have made some sort of alternative arrangements, but I was more sanguine about the situation. I usually am.

Once the plumbers were gone and my Luddite was calmer and relaxed, I took a shower and spent the rest of the afternoon feeling more relaxed, calmer and cleaner than earlier in the day. My Luddite helped with that, too, giving me the wonderful gift of his time and laughter. He also replaced two bulbs in the ceiling in the kitchen for me and jumped me just before he left (the car battery -- get your minds above the waistline).

Two more days of inconvenience -- well, 1-1/2 days -- and things will be back to normal. Mark, the landlord, is taking everything in stride, but, as he explained to me when he called about the Porta-A-Potty situation, mine is a relatively minor problem.

The only mystery, besides why the toilet decided to quit working without having to handle more than the usual traffic, is what the plumbers brought up when they snaked the drain: paper towels and feminine hygiene products (tampons). I don't use paper towels. I use linen towels that I wash and reuse because they create less waste and are less expensive. Since I had a hysterectomy about 12 years ago, I have no use for feminine hygiene products. The only thing I can figure is that Ms. Stilettos across the parking lot flushes her paper towels and tampons down the drain and they washed up in my broken drain. I don't want to know how the plumbers knew they were recently flushed, but it's obvious they didn't come from here. Since I do not plan to check Ms. Stilettos' garbage tomorrow morning (if she puts any out) for tampon boxes and paper towel rolls, this too will have to remain the mystery in this adventure in plumbing.