Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Now, finally, I know where my beef was born!

My little corner of the world is all abuzz this week, excited about the opening of yet another grocery store. Whole Foods Market is bringing its all-natural vibe, eco-friendly philosophy and stunningly high prices to our neighborhood and we’re all darned excited.

In fact, the lovely Miss Wendy and I got an inside peek on Monday. We joined with a couple dozen other folks and took a tour of the market – all shiny and new – as workers were putting the finishing touches on the place. That’s right, you heard me correctly, we toured the new market; even paid a few bucks for the opportunity. Hey, I was bored with nothing else to do!

I don’t think Disney need worry. Once you’ve glanced at a row of veggies or aisle filled with canned beans, and listened to the marketing patter of corporate toads, there’s little reason to take the tour a second time.

If you buy the company line, Whole Foods is only marginally interested in making a profit. What corporate honchos really want is to create a business that provides healthy grub that is harvested in an eco-friendly fashion – local produce, organic and tasty; free-range fowl, and beef that is so fresh you can almost hear it moo!

Such was the piffle eagerly offered up by all the clerks who shared a bit about the market and how the company’s philosophy, philanthropic efforts and customer care are changing the world. Overstated? “We can trace back every bit of beef we sell to the farm where it was raised and slaughtered,” one meat manager told us. I imagine if asked, he could also provide the names and family trees for the critters recently diced and sliced into hamburger and steaks, now resting comfortably in the market’s meat locker.

Okay, I’ll clamp down on the snark for a moment and readily agree that Whole Foods sells some interesting and tasty goods – I particularly like its selection of fish, aged cheeses and artisan breads. They also feature some creative and innovative ideas that cater to individual tastes and quirks.

Want a six-pack of beer, but different brands; your own special mix of peanut butter; a full meal, cooked and ready to serve? Whole Foods can make all this happen and, well, lots of other stuff. Now I’m starting to sound like I’ve swallowed the Kool-Aid too. Enough!

The grand opening is today and I imagine hundreds of my neighbors will make their way to the store. Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see what the foodie business in this area will look like down the road. Right now, within a two-mile radius of the new Whole Foods, there's a Traders Joe’s, Fresh Market, two Publix super markets and two Krogers. I say, let the games begin and bon appétit!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Another reason to hold onto your library card

Having absolutely nothing better to do, I stopped by Borders in my little corner of the world over the weekend. As you no doubt know by now, the company is on life support and has only a few weeks to live.

The place was filled with bargain shoppers, all scrambling about looking for deals. The problem is that the vast majority of stock in the store was selling for higher prices than a week earlier when news of the company’s demise was first announced.

Apparently, when companies belly up and liquidators take control, the initial plan is to strip away any previous discounts, market everything at its list price and offer small deductions to anyone foolish enough to bite. As the deadline nears for closing the doors one final time, additional discounts are offered – that’s when it’s time to strike!

Last week, a day or so before all the dismal details became public, the lovely Miss Wendy and I stopped by Borders to feed my addiction for anything written by Daniel Silva. His latest spy thriller, Portrait of a Spy, became available on Wednesday. The list price is $26.99 – a huge sum for any book; but I was jonesing for a fun, fast read and, well, Miss Wendy had a gift card!

Borders was offering a whopping 30 percent discount – 40 percent if you were a member of its super-duper exclusive I-Love-Borders book club. After taxes, the book ended up costing $20 and change. If I had waited to purchase it over the weekend, now that HUGE discounts were being offered, the thriller would have actually cost me a few bucks more. Go figure!

BTW, Portrait of a Spy can be purchased online at Amazon for $14.05. Tack on another $10 for something else and shipping is free; and that pretty much sums up why the retail book industry is in free fall!

But I digress. I did mention that the store was packed with bargain hunters, right? They stayed busy grabbing up the few items – magazines, greeting cards, calendars, pens and other tchotchkes – that were deeply discounted.

I’ll probably return in a few weeks, if for no other reason than to say bye-bye. Guess it’s time that I start thinking seriously about purchasing some sort of e-reader. Meanwhile, glad I still have a library card.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Jerusalem sparkles at heart of new documentary

It’s Friday, time for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts. So let’s go to the movies.

Israel is often viewed through a fractured lens, a public relations mess of conflict, religion, politics and gloom. Add to this dark stew the misinformed belief that the Jewish homeland is a desert wasteland, fit only for scorpions, camels and the heartiest of Bedouin tribesmen, and you have the makings of a cosmic nightmare.

It seems each time a bit of light reveals the delights of this ancient land that dark forces conspire to hide the truths of the place. Trepidation often hangs heavily on the horizon, tossing a bleak shadow across the beauty of the country and its people.

I mention all this to capture the importance of a new documentary about Jerusalem, an IMAX film that has the potential to push aside the clouds – if only for a moment. The movie, produced by Arcane/Cosmic Picture Film, is scheduled for release in 2013.

I stumbled across the opening minutes of the production recently. It’s a euphonic blend of music, narration and splendid aerial shots focusing on the beauty of the land and its rich and ancient mysteries. You can find it right HERE! Take a few minutes; you won’t be disappointed!

I’ve been lucky enough to visit much that is featured – the ancient port cities of Jaffa and Caesarea; the lush and fertile Jordan Valley and spiritually rich area of the Galilee; Masada and the Dead Sea. These iconic locations serve only as preamble, picturesque settings all leading in the same direction.

Jerusalem, the City of David, springs to life in the heart of Israel, a magnet for pilgrims and tourists, the faithful and doubters. Its sun-bleached buildings, cobblestone streets and serpentine alleys are filled with spiritual energy and ancient secrets.

The film, even on the smallish screen of my computer, offers up a colorful and epic portrait. All the noise and chatter from ill-informed and misguided protesters, weak-kneed politicians and venomous religious leaders is quieted. For a moment, Jerusalem stands and speaks for itself. It’s a glorious site.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The irksome problem of growing receipts!

The world was a much simpler place back in the dark ages when I worked as a sales clerk at my father’s Pawn Shop. If I managed to sell a shotgun or knife, piece of luggage or accordion, I’d ring up the purchase on an ancient cash register, bag the merchandise and hand it over to the customer.

I have some hazy recollection that occasionally I might scribble a receipt on a lined pad that included what had been bought and the cost. At some point in the mid-60s, I think my father made a leap into the, ah, 20th Century and purchased a newer register. The new-fangled device would spit out a small piece of white paper following each transaction that included the name of the store, date and price.

The receipt didn’t include what had been purchased, how much the customer handed over in payment or the amount of change returned. In fact, one of the very first lessons I had to master was the ability to figure out in my noggin the give and take of cash, then correctly count back the change to the customer.

To this day I generally know how much money I should be receiving after a purchase well before the hi-tech register runs through a series of calculations, then flashes or prints out the magic number for the sales clerk handling the transaction. As often as not, especially if the clerk is under 40, they’ll simply ball up the cash and hand it over without first checking that they’ve grabbed the right amount.

There’s also this trick that apparently all clerks now must learn that involves scrunching up the money and receipt together, sort of a final offering to the gods of commerce. It makes for an awkward transfer, especially when the receipts today are often a foot long – and that’s no exaggeration and the real point of this posting.

After zipping into Sears earlier this week and buying a pair of pants on sale – Lands End, $40 reduced to $7.50 – I checked out and was handed my purchase, a stack of change and a receipt that was 17 inches long. In recent years, retailers have been hunting for creative ways to market themselves – display advertising, TV spots, the web and ginormous receipts! Go figure.

I generally ignore the ad campaign that comes with the stuff I buy, but took the time recently to scan the receipt from Sears. About two inches focused on the actual transaction, the rest detailed upcoming sales, a website I could check out to learn more about Sears – right, that’s gonna happen when hell freezes over – details about an online survey I could take – again, not gonna happen – and yet additional info about an upcoming promotional campaign.

My first reaction was to toss the receipt as I left the store. But then I grew paranoid that somewhere buried among the details about websites, promotional gimmicks and sales were all those important names and numbers that define my life – social security and credit card numbers, date of birth, home address and my favorite flavor of ice cream!

So the receipt is now buried with several hundred others in my things-to-be-shredded box. In a world moving at warp speed and filled with scamsters, you can’t be too careful. BTW, just in case you’re wondering, it’s strawberry!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Oatmeal: Now it tastes as good as it looks

For years I’ve had a love / hate relationship with oatmeal. That’s right, we’re talking gruel – lumpy and bland, the oh-so retro breakfast of champions.

Mostly I start yearning for the glop when the Land of Cotton turns chilly. On dark mornings when a drizzly mist hangs heavily over the world and the temperature calls out for a sweater, the thought of having something warm in my belly seems oddly appealing.

The problem is that I’ve never been able to master the art of making Oatmeal. I know, preparing the stuff isn’t exactly rocket science. It only involves two ingredients and a bit of heat. Alas, my efforts invariably end up having the consistency of mortar and the taste of something you might find on the bottom of your shoe.

One of the problems, I think, is I’ve been doing all my culinary experimentation with instant oatmeal. Just rip open the packet, add water and bring it all to a simmer for a moment. Voila, concrete! Once or twice I purchased the real stuff, 24 ounces of oaty goodness in one of those ubiquitous round containers. No matter. The packaging was splendid but the finished product remained thickish and bland.

I mention all this now because I think I’ve figured out how to creatively pull together oats, water and heat into a creamy and tasty concoction that manages to both fill the tummy and warm the spirit. I stumbled onto the secret while cruising along the Inside Passage of Alaska earlier this summer.

While working my way through the breakfast buffet – eggs, potatoes and corned beef hash; bacon, sausage and cold cuts; sautéed mushrooms, baked beans, blueberry compote and whipped cream; lox, bagels, capers and cream cheese; fried rice and stir fried veggies, grilled tomatoes and zucchini; pancakes, waffles and crepes; assorted cheeses, yogurt, breads, muffins and pastries – I stumbled onto something special.

Buried amongst all the cholesterol, grease and carbs was a serving table filled will hot cereals – grits, cream of wheat and oatmeal. There was also a container nearby filled with simmering milk and a row of toppings – raisins, brown sugar and cinnamon, dried figs, prunes, dates and apricots.

The oatmeal was just this side of soupy; creamy, smooth and tasty. I found adding just an ounce or two of milk, some raisins, brown sugar and cinnamon created a luscious and sweet mixture that was warm and yummy. But could I duplicate this magic back home?

I wasn’t taking any chances. I tracked down the chef who was responsible for preparing breakfast each morning on the ship and asked his advice. He spoke little English, I spoke even less Spanish. With a bit of help from a waiter who spoke a little of both, I figured out the chef cooked up about 50 pounds of oatmeal each morning in huge vats filled with gallons of water.

Realizing it was going to be tough to downsize the chef’s recipe for hundreds and shaking my head in confusion, a nearby busboy from Jersey came to my rescue. His sage advice? If the stuff is too thick, he said, add more water; if it’s too thin, add more oats! Ah, right!

And that’s pretty much what I’ve done. I also made the strategic decision to actually buy a decent product – McCann’s “Steel Cut” Irish Oatmeal. I also finally realized that oatmeal really is gruel – sort of plain and tasteless. Just like the busboy suggested, adding a little liquid at the right moment is the secret to creating a smooth and pleasant base. Then add toppings to taste. Sweet!

I’ve been making oatmeal several times a week for the last month or so. I’m delighted to report that I’ve mastered the art of preparing tasty gruel.

Now, if I could only figure out a way to skip over the rest of summer and leap directly into fall – a pleasant drizzly morning; cool, damp and dark. Guess I’ll just crank up the AC instead and go stand under a cold shower for a few minutes before preparing breakfast.

Up next: Boiling the perfect weiner!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Religion 101: How best to feed our inner wolf

It’s Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts. Today we go cosmic and explore all things good and bad.

Religion is about lots of things – beliefs, rituals, myths and legends; creation of community and civilized behavior; life, death and all that other stuff that fills our days and provides meaning and focus to our lives.

At some point, the concept of good and bad becomes the point of organized belief systems. The human condition – our wants, needs and desires – is often ignored, pushed aside in the name of religion. At the other end of the spectrum, such human stuff is embraced and codified into religious law and doctrine.

In Judaism, it’s believed that within each of us is the capacity to be both good and bad. The image that often comes to mind is a cliché – devil on one shoulder tempting us to follow our baser instincts, always in conflict with the angel on our other shoulder holding us back.

These two inclinations – Yetzer HaRah (bad) and Yetzer HaTov (good) – define us as humans and are inextricably linked to the concept of “free will”. After all, in most situations there’s always a choice and, given that we’re not puppets, it’s up to each of us to decide what door we’ll walk through each day.

A small example. Late at night, unable to sleep and staring at the ceiling, we hear our Yetzer HaRah calling out to us, reminding us that there’s a luscious piece of chocolate cake in the fridge whispering our name. Our Yetzer HaTov reminds us that we’re on a diet, that we’ve lost five pounds and been good for a month. The little devil on our other shoulder suggests one tiny slip will do little harm. And so it goes.

Judaism, btw, doesn’t suggest giving in to our wants and desires is demonic or evil. At worse, hopping out of bed and finishing off a slice of the forbidden – and tantalizing – cake is simply misusing one of the things we need to survive. Thus the need for food, when handled poorly, becomes gluttony. Now replace food with money, love or any of the other desires that fill our lives and you stumble into what Christians define as the Seven Deadly Sins – wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony. That’s a blog posting for another day!

Meanwhile, I’ve scampered down this road today because of something I read recently. I was reminded yet again how much all the world’s belief systems are alike. For eons, mystics have borrowed one another’s stories and legends, tweaking them lightly and changing cultural reference points – different roads, same destination. But I digress.

Looking for a little light reading earlier this week, I picked up Power Play, a thriller by Joseph Finder. The book’s protagonist, Jake Landry, once upon a time got himself into some hot water. He finds himself standing before a judge who, before sentencing him, offers up this little story. I paraphrase:

There’s an old Cherokee legend about a young man who keeps getting into trouble because of his aggressive tendencies. The man meets with his grandfather and explains to him that sometimes he feels such anger he can’t control his emotions.

His grandfather, a tribal elder and a wise warrior, says he understands, that in fact he used to be the same way. He explains that inside each person are two wolves; one is good and kind and peaceful, the other is evil and mean and angry. He adds that the two wolves are always fighting with one another.

The young man listens, thinks for a moment, then asks, “But Grandfather, which wolf will win?” The old man responds: “The one you feed.”

A footnote: I was impressed and intrigued with the parable and thought Finder did a nice job incorporating the little story into his novel. I then googled “Feed the wolf” and saw that the Native American tale is all over the web. Apparently it’s not just religions and cultures that borrow stories from one another!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

So, Nor, what’s all this talk about a scooter?

The always lovely Miss Wendy and I caught the new Tom Hanks flick, Larry Crowne, a few weeks ago. It was a bit of summer fluff – quietly entertaining and imminently forgettable.

Larry – that would, of course, be the Tom Hanks’ character – after years of grand service as a worker bee with one of those mega-discount stores, is downsized and finds himself struggling to stay afloat. He starts selling off or dumping anything he can do without, including his comfy home in a comfy neighborhood and, eventually, bumps into Julia Roberts in that oh-so cute way that only happens in romantic comedies. I believe it's called "meeting cute".

But I digress. Larry has a ginormous SUV and while pumping it full of fuel spots a dude filling up a sweet little scooter. Larry forks over $75 to fill his gas guzzler; the dude tops off his tank for, ah, $3.75. In the next scene Larry is spotted haggling for a used scooter from his always-holding-a yard-sale neighbor. I think he ends up swapping a flat-screen TV for it.

I've quickly forgotten all the fuzzy and mildly funny stuff that goes on between Tom and Julia in Larry Crowne, but the cute little scooter has lingered in my mind. After all, if Larry is able to save a few bucks by hopping aboard a scooter, shouldn’t I be able to realize the same benefit here in the Land of Cotton?

After some detailed number crunching and cost-benefit analysis, buying a scooter seems a logical thing to do – at least that’s how I think Mr. Spock might view the situation. Unable to reach the Vulcan with the pointy ears, I asked for some feedback from my Facebook friends instead. Big mistake.

The first response, from Bill – my smartass friend, former colleague and occasional traveling companion – was to suggest I check out Dressler’s Funeral Home for additional information. This was followed by a comment from my brother Larry wondering if he was in my will. Okay, I get it. There’s a safety issue to consider.

So here’s the current vote tally. All those in favor of my getting a sweet new ride, fire-engine red with a cute little rearview mirror and lunch box-sized trunk: 0. All those filled with negative energy, suggesting perhaps that I’m out of my friggin’ mind: 1,474. Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Let’s just say that the nays far outweigh the yeas.

Meanwhile, I’m holding out until the vote is tallied in the outlying counties and, ah, Miss Wendy casts her ballot. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Film offers unique look at newspaper industry

The lovely Miss Wendy and I spent the afternoon at the movies over the weekend, watching a documentary that was informative, entertaining and, at least for me, a bit melancholy.

Page One: Inside The New York Times, focuses on the Times’ Media Desk and offers a unique look into the inner workings of big-city Journalism and the challenges newspapers are facing in a digitalized world moving at warp speed.

Much of the narrative is seen through the world-weary eyes of David Carr, a recovering addict who remains gritty around the edges. He’s the mirror image of all you’d expect to find inside the inner sanctum of one of the most prestigious newspapers in the world. But his no nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is attitude – considerable talent and obvious smarts – offers up just the sort of character needed to build a film around.

The documentary does a good job of capturing the yin and yang of daily journalism and the ugly business of figuring out what’s happening around the world; the conference room meetings where office politics are part of the equation and hallway chats between editors and reporters where all the heavy lifting is accomplished.

If you ever worked for a place that buys paper by the ton and ink by the gallon then you’ll appreciate the nitty-gritty details of the film. You’ll also have a unique understanding of the dark clouds of anxiety that hang heavily over the newsroom.

Newspapers, you’ll recall, aren’t doing all that well these days. Page One opens with the closing of several papers across the country, then details the financial struggles and, inevitably, the cutbacks at the Times – bureaus are closed, sections folded, buyouts offered. Sound familiar?

Meanwhile, Carr and his colleagues go about the business of covering the news. Mixed in with their work – interviews, conferences, writing, editing – are panel discussions and debates about the future of journalism, the ascendancy of the web and the digitalized media. The filmmakers do a good job of exploring their topic, staying focused and, ah, cutting away the fat. Trust me on this, it’s an editing thing!

Ultimately, what plays out is an engrossing look at an industry in flux. At the Times, reporters and editors are still trying to figure out how best to attack the future while holding on to all the important stuff that defines exceptional journalism – accuracy and objectivity, euphonically blended with passion and sweat.

In a world where anyone can call them self a journalist, steal news reports and post lame and vapid opinions, it’s clear that such excellence is needed. Sadly, what’s needed isn’t always what we get.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Recalling Mom and wishing her happy birthday

It was a pleasant day; hot, humid and holiday perfect. My Mom was celebrating her 85th birthday and was excited to be able to share the moment with family and friends.

The day is a fading memory, well below the horizon and sinking; and, yet, it was only three years ago – July 5, 2008. I recall it now; a pleasant remembrance, the calm before the storm.

Allison, Mom’s granddaughter and my niece, managed to pull together a splendid birthday party for her. Mom spent hours in the late afternoon getting all gussied up, taking special care with her hair, teasing it to record-breaking heights.

Once at the party, she stayed busy greeting all those wishing her well, bustling about like a youngster, happy to be surrounded by her friends and expansive family. Storm clouds huddled around the edges of the evening, however, dark places that had yet to be explored.

These shadowy problems showed themselves when Mom stumbled for a moment, introducing cousins to one another, friends to friends. Her mind was playing tricks, losing its way in time. She easily recalled the life that surrounded the young woman in the poster-sized card that Allison had created for the party – a photo of Mom in the 1940s seductively reclining on the hood of a car. Recent memories, unfortunately, were often hazy and filled with static.

We all took a moment to gather for a picture, Mom seated regally at stage center. While most everyone else smiles for the camera, Mom holds tightly to one of her great-grandchildren and offers up an inexplicable stare.

She knew what was resting uneasily around the bend. But on this evening, her birthday, she was as happy and content as I recall ever seeing her. After all, she was home, the matriarch surrounded by her loving family.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Israeli scientists find way to aid the blind

Today is Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts. Today we’ll take the road less traveled and focus on some good news out of the Middle East.

For the moment let’s forget about politics and peace talks, religious fanaticism of all stripes and colors, and apocalyptic prophesies. Instead, let’s focus on all the good that spills out of Israel. The Jewish homeland has been producing and exporting amazing stuff for decades that has, literally, made the entire planet safer, healthier, and better equipped to handle the challenges of the future.

Most recently the scientists at Hebrew University in Jerusalem have come up with a high-tech virtual cane that will dramatically change the lives of millions of people around the world who are blind. The cane, a hand-held device that is simple to operate and carry around, helps people who can’t see estimate the distance and height of various obstacles.

Here’s how it works. The virtual cane emits a focused beam at surrounding objects. Once the beam strikes an obstacle – say a wall, another person or closed door – it causes the device to vibrate. The rate of vibration changes depending on the location of the obstacle. With that information, the person holding the device is able to assess the height and distance of various objects, get a good idea of what the surrounding area looks like and safely navigate their way around any obstacles.

Officials with Yissum Research Development Company Ltd., the technology transfer company of Hebrew University and holders of the patent for the virtual cane, think they’ve created a device that is simple to use, small, accurate and affordable. In early tests, the virtual cane has been hugely successful, enabling blind volunteers to easily navigate through complicated mazes. Additional tests are planned before the virtual cane will be placed on the market.

All of this is very good news, yet another scientific advancement developed by scientists in Israel that promises to dramatically improve the lives of millions of people around the world. This “promising invention can endow visually impaired people with the freedom to freely navigate in their surroundings without … bumping into or touching others,” says Yaacov Michlin, Yissum’s CEO. “It has the potential to significantly enhance their quality of life.”

A footnote: Yissum Research Development Company was founded in 1964 to protect and commercialize Hebrew University's intellectual property. Ranked among the top technology transfer companies in the world, Yissum has registered over 7,000 patents covering 2,023 inventions; has licensed out 530 technologies and has spun-off 72 companies. Products that are based on Hebrew University technologies and were commercialized by Yissum now generate over $2 Billion in annual sales.

BRIGHTER TOMORROW: High-tech virtual cane (photo above) will brighten the world for millions living in darkness.