"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Youth Springs Eternal–For A While Anyway

A longtime arts reporter for a local Washington, DC television station recently retired.  “There is something weird about a 70-year old man reviewing Teletubbies”, he said.  His time had come.  He knew when to hang ‘em up and move aside for the younger generation.  Not everyone feels like him.  The tales of octogenarians toppling over into their coffee in The Emeritus Room are legion.  “He wanted to die in his traces”, said a younger colleague of a former executive who came into the office every day until a janitor found him dead in the toilet, his pants around his ankles.

One of the advantages of getting older is that figuring things out is a lot simpler than it was decades ago. We seniors have seen the predation of ISIS before, the shilly-shallying of thoughtful but weak leaders, anti-Semitism, doomsday Chicken Littles, bad marriages, straying husbands, frustrated wives, torture, bad jokes, and twisted sex.  Its not that the particular expression of these familiar scenarios are boring– Shakespeare loved to write about the most wicked examples of greed, ambition, and venality – but that somehow human nature always and inevitably shows its hand in every shuffle of the cards.
Old age brings its creaks, groans, and cataracts; but anyone who sees the light fading at the end of the tunnel can comfortable flip through the Sunday Times in minutes and turn to more serious reading.  It feels more productive to ponder the long and agonizing dying of Ivan Ilyich and his aha! moment as death finally approaches; or Andrei Bolkonsky’s near death epiphany on the field of Austerlitz; or Levin’s wondering at the cruel irony of fifty years of intelligence, insight, wit, passion, and creativity followed by an eternity in the cold, wet clay of the graveyard.

The corporate ex-Vice Presidents who dodder into the office every day and write memos on marketing and accounting that no one reads are at least trying their level best to validate what seem to be – in view of the dark eternity that faces them –  long lives of little meaning and even less joy.
Those who try to turn the clock back, go to noisy downtown bars frequented by glittery young things half their age, hang out with the young minions at the office, suit up in Italian-logoed Lycra for 60-milers at the back of the peloton; and ski the double-blacks at Aspen even though brittle bones rattle, are the ones who will die clueless. “What?”, they say as they hurtle to certain death over the precipice their bad eyes didn’t see.   “This wasn’t supposed to happen”. 

I have a lot more sympathy for the alte kocker who worries that his life has been meaningless, tallying numbers and measuring performance for years; who wonders what it all means, but continues defiantly adding things up until the end.
Writing in the New York Times Michele Willens reflects on Baby Boomer aging.  While there are many older people who search out the company of those many years younger, many more dread the experience:
“I see so many who are trying to adjust their lives to this new phase, which for some reason none of us really pictured ourselves going through”, says Anna Fels, a psychiatrist in New York. .
Why didn’t we? We knew that eventually more people around us would be younger rather than older. But it still rankles. The image of a room filled with younger people is the perfect symbol.
“It’s an important marker for this generation because it reminds them that they are now the ones closest to obsolescence, the ones the world can do without.”

The young man in an old man’s body is caught in a bind.  If he goes to youthful places, he is reminded of his irrelevance, sees at a glance that his best days are behind him, and has no more interest for the 30-somethings than a pile of old wood.   If he avoids them and chooses ballrooms, white linen-and-silver, and quiet inns by the Rappahannock, he is even more terrified.  The hard-of-hearing, creaky, white-haired guests look just like him, and it is a scary sight.

Others, like the writer’s friend Robin, feels quite differently.
She at 67 frequents SoulCycle, eats at noisy restaurants and avoids Wednesday matinees. “I am not trying to deny aging,” she insists, “but my husband and I choose not to be surrounded by it.” Instead of making her feel insecure, being the oldest in the room keeps her feeling vital.
In other words, her creaky bones and white hair are campaign ribbons. She is still standing after long years in the trenches.
However, she might also be like a close friend of mine who worked at a firm whose employees, not surprisingly, were many decades his junior.  He was near retirement so these ambitious youngsters posed no threat to his career.  More than anything, he told me, he loved being in an office full of youthful energy, beauty, and idealism.  “It’s like being with my grandchildren”, he said.
I still go to the gym every day – aerobics, core, abs, lats, and quads – but wonder why I am doing it.  Whatever is going to kill me has already begun its insidious assault.  My good heart, lungs, and arteries don’t need any more toning and tuning.  Vanity, I conclude.  Men never give up skirt-chasing no matter how old.  The ultimate irony – a cruel joke actually – is that men have powerful sexual urges until they can’t remember what sex is; and even then, in the dim, foggy evening of Alzheimer’s, something in us twinges when a beautiful woman walks by.
The author has a good attitude, apparently happy with or at least resigned to her advancing age.
I — as of this moment a fit 65 — do my lifting and stretching at the 92nd Street Y, where they still lament that Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis broke up. This is one of the last places I am considered a kid. My 90-year-old aunt accuses me of showing up at her assisted living facility so often because I am far and away the youngest person on the premises.
Now there’s a thought.  When the likelihood of a chance encounter with a 30-something fades, head for the old folks’ home and feel good about being 70.
I have the least sympathy for those older Americans who feel it is their patriotic duty to serve the Republic, no matter what their age.
In her memoir, Hillary Rodham Clinton writes about being the toughest in the rooms where war and peace were discussed. Still, she is already seeing that her health, fatigue-factor, and even becoming a grandmother may yet speak unspoken volumes. It won’t be much fun being the oldest in the race.
It is time for Hilary to step aside for someone a lot younger.  We older citizens know that political wisdom and years of experience ain’t worth a hill of beans.  No matter how many world leaders Hilary or anyone her age has met; no matter how many conflicts mediated, wars avoided or begun, treaties signed or abrogated, insight has been buried under decades of history.  At the very least, young people can look with a fresh outlook unsullied by reality.  Yes, a lot can be said for the outrageous, ‘impossible’ solution; and will not be Hilary who will provide it.

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is to be a member of a huge aging cohort in a culture which not only values but celebrates youth.  It hasn’t yet got to Granny-dumping and Ovens for the Elderly; but we are a drag, sucking billions in Medicare, Social Security, and public welfare.  We slow up subway farecard gates, ride on the left side of escalators, weave on sidewalks, drive 50 on a 70 mph freeway.  We repeat stories, get things wrong, live in the past, and pay with pennies. 
As I mentioned above, the good thing about getting old is knowing everything.  The bad thing is having to move out of the way.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

RECIPES–Italian Sausage And Peppers

This is a classic Italian recipe,simple to make, and absolutely delicious. It is a favorite in Italian American kitchens and at street fairs.  I looked forward to the San Gennaro festival on Mott Street in New York especially because of the sausage and peppers served on Italian bread.

The key is to buy Italian-style frying peppers.  Red or green bell peppers have a very different taste and do not combine well with the sweet sausage.

There is a variety of Italian sausage available in most supermarkets, and they differ widely.  I have no particular recommendation and most are good. You can buy either sweet or hot sausage, but I would recommend the sweet for this dish.

Italian Sausage and Peppers

* 10 frying peppers, cut into 2” strips

* 1 pack sweet Italian sausages (usually 5 links per package)

* 1 Tbsp. olive oil

* 1 Tbsp. garlic flakes

* Freshly ground pepper and salt to taste

- Fry the sausages in an iron skillet (Tupperware will do) until browned.

- Remove from the skillet and set aside.  Do not discard the sausage fat, for it will be used to fry the peppers,

- Place the sliced peppers on a baking sheet, drizzle the olive oil, sprinkle the garlic flakes and add 5-8 grindings of black pepper and a pinch of salt.

- Mix well and grill for about 20 minutes, turning at least once to be sure all the peppers get done and lightly browned.  They are done when uniformly cooked (slightly soft) and browned.

- Cut the sausages into 2” pieces, combine with the fried peppers, heat, and serve.

Labor Day, The End of Labor, And Enterprise Day

I grew up in a town with distinct class lines.  There were the WASP captains of industry, the grandchildren of the great industrialists of the 19th century who made the city into The Hardware Capital of the World.  They were tended by the professional middle class, diverse in ethnic origin, and ambitious.  These doctors, dentists, and lawyers were in turn served by the painters, electricians, and plumbers who had few aspirations except solid American ones – Kinder, Küche, Kirche and a week at the shore.  Finally there were the factory workers who  turned out tools, ball bearings, and locks; and their wives who cleaned house for the West End.

The workers of New Brighton were Polish immigrants – nine-to-five, no benefits, galley slave working conditions, Saturday afternoon picnics in the park, and kielbasa and church on Sundays.  They were the shadowy forms that we saw on our way to Jimmy’s to ogle girly magazines or to play baseball on the green.  Other than that they did not exist.   They were as far from the Club, the Vineyard, Cape Cod, or even Misquamicut as Jupiter is from Neptune.

The history of New Brighton is a history of the Carpenters, Moores, Streeters, and Franklins who brought flinty New England parsimony, enterprise, ambition, and practicality to the Connecticut River Valley and built the industries that provided the arms and materiel that ensured a Union victory in the Civil War.  Before that these visionary settlers forged flintlocks and bayonets to supply Washington’s Revolutionary armies.

For two hundred years these adventurers, entrepreneurs, and capitalists provided the intelligence, wealth, and enterprise to build New Brighton, Connecticut, and the Union. The Frederick Law Olmsted park, a public space that was designed to preserve local flora, provide light and air for factory workers, and created a recreational space and a Walden-like oasis in the midst of a dynamic industrial city, exists thanks to their wealth and civic engagement. 

The laborers in the many factories of New Brighton were a dime a dozen and immediately replaceable. Warsaw, Lodz, and Gdansk got the news of corporate expansion and hiring almost before the workers on Arch Street. Managers at Ruff & Billings had to turn away applicants for the most menial work.  Hundreds if not thousands of Kowalskis, Mylnarksis, Granskis, and Pulaskis were lined up outside the doors of every factory in New Brighton.  Thanks to cheap labor, permissive labor laws, and hardworking, America-or-bust immigrants, the factories were always humming.

The town grew and prospered.  There were more and more shops along Broad Street in the Polish section of town. Immigrant labor kept Jimmy’s alive as well as the Burritt Hotel, the New Brighton Diner, and Clean-‘em-Well dry cleaners. The Polish immigrants were happy because they had escaped the hardships and penury of the old world.  The painters, electricians, and plumbers were happy because the local economy was humming; and the captains of industry were delighted to see their bank accounts swell, their children’s trust funds prosper, and a three-home retirement just over the horizon.

The enduring myth of labor in America is that of Walt Whitman.  “I hear America singing”, he wrote.

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,

The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,

The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,

The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,

The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,

The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,

Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

As the industrial age faded and employment was transformed from the factory floor to the downtown office, the office secretary was said to be the most important employee of any office. Without her, work would stop. Interoffice memos would pile up. Communications with clients would amass into a giant backlog. Middle managers would never be able to find critical files. No matter how much creative vision, enterprise, jawboning, and negotiation on the part of senior management, the real work got done down in the trenches.

The Twenty-First Century will be the first without labor. Intelligent machines will replace grunt- and donkey-work.  The often ornery pipe-fitter, steam-press, or lathe operator will be things of the past. 

The labor movement has been neutered and is but a shadow of its muscular, intimidating self of the 1930s. Labor has lost out to capital and will never regain its place and position. How can it? The likes of mobsters like George Meany, Jimmy Hoffa and their Mafia goons are long gone. Without the strong-armed tactics of yesteryear, labor has little power or strength. It has the predictable ‘progressive’ support of academics and New York liberals; but this enthusiastic endorsement is loud but toothless. It has no Metternich, Machiavelli, or Kutnezov.  No FDR, Steve Jobs, or John D. Rockefeller.

While working in Poland after the fall of the Soviet Union, I was surprised to hear of the summary dismissal of Lech Walesa, the Solidarity Gdansk shipyard worker hero.  In many ways the was the man who led the Communist bloc in their revolt against the Communists and who was responsible for coalescing thousands of workers in their revolt against Soviet totalitarianism. 

I soon found out that although the aristocratic Poles poised to take over the reins of government respected Walesa for his courage and pluck, to them he was an ignorant peasant, a worker, a factory drone, and totally unacceptable to lead the country.  Poland like all European countries has a long and storied noble history.  Polish royalty intermarried throughout Europe and the aristocracy was among the continents most polished, sophisticated, and wealthy. To even consider a peasant like Walesa was anathema.

The working class was created by upper class capitalists who understood the fundamental economic relationships underlying liberal economies.  It was capitalists who created the institutions within which labor would provide manpower and brawn and managers were created to organize it.  Capitalists had the intelligence, insight, and entrepreneurial skills which enabled the working man to make a living.

Labor in the second decade of the 21st century has been scattered and loosely affiliated within corporates structures.  Intelligent machines have progressively taken over brawn and foreman-level abilities.  The workplace is an amalgam of low-paid human labor and efficient, low-cost robotics. 

There is no doubt that this decade is a scary one for American labor.  The working man has certainly been marginalized and replaced.  Traditional jobs in industry have been outsourced or automated.  While politicians tout the genius of the American economy and the will of the American worker, they are giving only empty promises.  It is unlikely that poorly-educated citizens residing either in dysfunctional urban inner cities or semi-rural trailer parks can possibly make a go of it in an IT, fast-moving economy.  No amount of technical training or vocational education can possibly compensate for an undisciplined, often aimless upbringing, modest intelligence, and the insupportable weight of bad genes and bad environment.

The labor movement is dead.  Labor is dead; and the challenge facing American leaders is not how to revivify the Teamsters, or the American Federation of Teachers, but how to square the country’s ill-abled with its most-abled.  No one has offered any but the most shopworn and tired answers.

I do not celebrate Labor Day, and would propose Enterprise Day to replace it.  A day to honor the most enterprising, creative, innovative, intelligent, and risk-taking among us.  It will be a day to honor those schools which reward talent, initiative, and high performance; a day to acknowledge those students who have graduated because of their own abilities, ambitions, and high goals.  

Only if America shifts its polarity from disadvantaged to highly-talented; gives up a n agenda of entitlement and public welfare; and adopts one based on forward-thinking enterprise can the country regain the individualistic centrality of its founding days.