Saturday, November 29, 2008

Home cooking and love

Like other forms of human affection, cooking delivers its truest and most enduring gifts when it is savored in intimacy — prepared not by a chef but by a cook and with love.
--Marcella Hazan, New York Times, "No Chefs in My Kitchen"

Once upon a time, restaurants lured customers with promises of "home-cooked" meals, food just like Mother used to make. But nowadays we Americans spend nearly half of our food dollars in restaurants, and home cooks now want to imitate professional chefs.
  • "No need to leave home, make reservations, and go out," says "You can make recipes that taste just like the restaurant without ever having to leave home."
  • Buy lots of (expensive) equipment and you can cook "Just Like in a Restaurant Kitchen," suggests Sara Levine in the Washingtonian.
  • Google "restaurant taste" + frozen and you'll find a plethora of prepared foods to make your meals (to quote my father-in-law) "just like downtown only not so crowded."
Apparently it's not just the high-end restaurants that home cooks are dying to emulate. In Top Secret Restaurant Recipes: Creating Kitchen Clones from America's Favorite Restaurant Chains Todd Wilbur tells you how to copy food from IHOP, Olive Garden, Pizza Hut, Dennys ...

O, that way madness lies; let me shun that;
No more of that.
--King Lear

Marcella Hazan to the rescue! Restaurant food, she writes, is entertainment. Home cooking is something else:
I am my family’s cook. It is the food prepared and shared at home that, for more than 50 years, has provided a solid center for our lives. In the context of the values that cement human relations, the clamor of restaurants and the facelessness of takeout are no match for what the well-laid family table has to offer. A restaurant will never strengthen familial bonds.
Enjoy your turkey leftovers at home, with someone you love.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A very material Christmas

At least 100,000 nonprofits nationwide will be forced to close their doors in the next two years as a result of the financial crisis, according to Paul Light, professor of public service at New York University.
The dire prediction was made Wednesday at a forum on the impact of the crisis on nonprofits and social service delivery in New York City.

--crain's new york business, 19 November 2008

One December years ago while dispiritedly shopping for Christmas presents, I suddenly realized what Marshall Fields's Musak was playing:

"If I were a rich man (ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum) ..."

I suppose they were trying to set the mood.

Well, the mood this year is indigo, or darker, and decisions must be made. Should Christians celebrate the Nativity with schadenfreude, rejoicing that, after decades of manic spending, Americans may this year reject materialism in favor of the season's true meaning? Or should patriotic Americans (who are still employed) gather their credit cards and spend as much as they possibly can in a last-ditch attempt to rescue the economy?

There's a way to resolve this dilemma, but few there be that find it.

First, let's get one thing straight: the true meaning of Christmas is not about spirit. It has little to do with the vague goodwill that carolers and eggnog are supposed to produce, and even less to do with mystical piety or disembodied spirituality. Christmas--the incarnation ("becoming flesh"--meat, as in chili con carne)--is about a God who loves the material world so much that he becomes part of it.

In the Hebrew scriptures, this God is described as favoring lovemaking, babies, feasts, and comical animals well before the Christian scriptures add that he was born in a barn, became a healer, and earned a reputation for his taste in food and wine. The true meaning of Christmas is about God's love for the material world--so no guilt trips about buying presents and having a great dinner, okay?

Then should we try to rescue retailers by grabbing our credit cards and charging out on another out-of-control Christmas spending spree ($460 billion in 2007)? Here's an alternate idea, one that simultaneously honors the material side of Christmas and helps the economy:

Go out and buy to your heart's content, but give a percentage of what you spend to someone who really needs it.

The economy doesn't care what you do with that thing you bought. You can give it to a coworker who will thank you politely and then put it on a shelf in the basement. You can give it to a teenager who will return it for something much cooler. You can give it to a child who will be confused about its origin because it's one of approximately 98 gifts she got this year. Or you can give it to someone who is out of work or homeless or hungry or cold.

Alternately, you can give the value of the gift--a percentage of your Christmas budget--to an agency that knows who needs help and is equipped to provide it.

How high should the percentage be? To put the $460 billion spent on Christmas last year in perspective, look at the revenues of several major relief organizations:
Total of these five charities, $6.7 billion. That's less than 1.5% of what we spent on Christmas presents last year.

Imagine what would happen to the economy--and to human happiness--if we donated a full 10% of our Christmas spending ($46 billion! the equivalent of eight Red Crosses!) to people in need. Perhaps some to a national organization that responds to emergencies, some to a local organization where we might volunteer time as well as money. (The next post, "What to get the Neffs for Christmas," tells how to find the agency of your dreams.)

The thing is, most of us could do this so easily. Even during a recession. And without giving up presents or carols or a good Christmas dinner.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

What to get the Neffs for Christmas

Long lines, empty shelves and Thanksgiving chickens are just a few symptoms of the economic downturn's effect on food banks and community pantries across the country. People are turning to charitable organizations for their Thanksgiving meal this year in record numbers, while donations have dropped significantly and funding has been slashed. Charity organizers across the country say the lagging economy has forced individual donors to keep money to themselves, while businesses that usually donate are struggling to stay afloat.
(CNN, 25 November 2008)

Memo to anybody who is wondering what to get Mr Neff or me for Christmas this year: We love you and are grateful that you are thinking about us, but we already have so many books that our house is beginning to sink, so many calories that our pajamas are getting tight, and so many attractive objects stored in our basement that the furnace maintenance guy no longer knows where to squat and set his toolbox.

We think this would be a fine year to help those struggling charitable organizations.

But since we don't want to wake up in the middle of the night worrying if you still love us, could you just send us an email (or a comment on this blog post) wishing us a happy Christmas and telling us you love us so much that you contributed to [fill in the blank]? That would make us feel warm and useful.

If you're wondering who would best use your donation, check out Charity Navigator. There you can browse for charities by category, location, size, and rating. You can see if your favorite charity earned the coveted four stars--and if not, why not. You can find out what percentage of moneys raised actually goes to charitable projects, and what percentage goes to administration and fund-raising. You can see how much the CEO earns, and what percentage of total revenue that salary represents.

You can browse for articles, such as "Top 10 Best Practices for Savvy Donors" and "Tips for Giving in Times of Crisis." Once you've found a charity you want to support, Charity Navigator even offers the option of donating online.

In this time of financial feelings ranging from uncertainty to despair, we prefer donating to organizations that
  • have a 4-star rating, indicating that they use their funds as advertised and have a sound financial base
  • specialize in human services, including food distribution, housing, and help for children
  • channel over 95% of donated funds to their intended use (a far higher percentage than is required for the 4-star rating, but we want the most bang for our buck)
  • serve either nationally or in the Chicago area, where we live
Catholic Charities USA makes the grade, as do Feeding America and the Northern Illinois Food Bank. The American Red Cross is close. So that's our Christmas wish list (but feel free to surprise us). And please, let us know about your wish list in return.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Tiggy and Muffin brainstorm about the First Dog

Mrs Tiggy-Winkle ("Tiggy," on the right) and Miss Wagamuffin ("Muffin," on the left) have some advice for the Obama girls. It is based on about eight years' experience of being dogs. Here is what they have to say:

Dogs are wonderful! Every family should have one! A dog is a girl's best friend! May we sit on your lap? Can we go for a walk? Will you give me a treat? Why are you just sitting there when you could be throwing a toy for me to chase?

But seriously, girls--all puppies are adorable. If a hundred puppies gathered in your backyard, you could easily fall in love with all of them. Choosing the right one for years of happiness, though, takes a little thought. Here are some things we hope you'll think about.

1. We dogs usually depend on the mom. We think she's our mom, too, and we like to follow her around and ask her for things. (Lap? Walk? Treat? Toy?) Be sure to choose a dog your mom wants to spend plenty of time with.

2. We plan to live 14, 16, even 18 years. When you adopt a dog, you are making a long-lasting commitment. Your puppy will probably still be in your family when you leave to go to college, when you get your first job, when you get married. This is another reason to choose a dog that your mom is crazy about. You want that dog to be there when you come home to visit!

3. We know you are thinking carefully, because you realize you need a low-allergy dog. We found a list of low-allergy dogs here. We like the list, because between the two of us we represent four of the ten breeds mentioned: yorkie and schnauzer (Tiggy), poodle and shih-tzu (Muffin). The other low-allergy breeds are maltese, portuguese water dog, soft-coated wheaten terrier, lhasa apso, irish water spaniel, and kerry blue terrier.

4. We like your idea of getting a cross-breed (we are cross-breeds, and we are just about perfect!). Cross-breeds are often healthier than purebred dogs. If you get a purebred dog, though, you'll be OK if you get it from a very careful, responsible breeder. The Humane Society has recommendations on how to find a responsible breeder.

5. We hear you are favoring goldendoodles. They are lovely dogs with good dispositions. But watch out--you may be allergic to the golden half. Portuguese water dogs and soft-coated wheaten terriers look a bit like goldendoodles, but might be better for your allergies. Or you might want a cross-breed that includes two low-allergen dogs.

6. Are you sure you want a big dog? We have to ask this, because we are little dogs--and as we have explained, we are wonderful. People with allergies often need to bathe their dogs once or twice a week. Our mom puts us in the kitchen sink and uses a sprayer to rinse us. Bathing us doesn't take long at all, even though she carefully cleans up the sink with bleach and disinfectant afterwards (she wanted us to tell you this, in case you ever come to our house for dinner). If we weighed 50 pounds, our baths would be a much bigger production.

7. Also, big dogs need a lot of outdoor exercise. We love our walks, and when the outside temperature is above 40 degrees, our mom walks us a couple of miles a day. But when it's raining or terribly windy or cold--you're from Chicago, you know what we mean--we stay inside and run up and down the stairs for exercise. We can do this because we weigh 10 and 13 pounds. Are you willing to take your dog for long walks or playtimes outside in all weathers? And have you noticed that people who take big dogs for walks have to carry really big plastic bags?

8. Have you thought about how you are going to train your puppy? He or she will need to go to doggy school or to work out with a personal trainer. Some people think medium-sized or big dogs are easier to train than we littler ones. Hey, it sure is necessary to train those big guys--you don't want a 90-pound doofus that jumps on visitors, especially if the visitors are heads of state! But we little dogs need training too. We love to work for treats.

9. Be sure to get a dog who likes to do what you like to do. I (Muffin) am a lap dog. It is my calling in life. If there's a lap, I sit on it. If there's a face, I kiss it. I like to play now and then, but most of the time I'd rather just sit on you and adore you. On the other hand, I (Tiggy) am a terrier. I can't help myself--if I see something unusual, I bark. If I see something little and furry, I chase it. If I see an overstuffed chair, I dig a hole in it. This is what I do. My mom loves me anyway because I'm cheerful, good-hearted, playful, and sweet. We (both of us) want you girls to find a dog that likes to do what you want to do. And what your mom can tolerate (see points 1 and 2). And it would be good if the dog didn't bite reporters...

10. People are talking about whether you should get a puppy or an older dog. We came to our happy home when we were past puppyhood. I (Tiggy) had lived with someone who said he had "too many dogs." Silly man, he didn't have me spayed. What did he expect would happen? When I was about to give birth, he took me to the pound. I might have died there, but a rescue group found me and gave me and my puppies a temporary home for a couple of months. Then I moved to my present home. I (Muffin) got lost. I lived on the streets of Chicago until somebody found me and took me to the pound. Then I was moved to another pound. A rescue group found me there, and from there I was moved to my present home. We (both of us) think that it's wonderful when people rescue older dogs and give them a chance at happiness. On the other hand, if a responsible, caring family like yours had taken us when we were puppies, we would never have had those scary experiences. So it's OK if you get a rescued dog, and it's OK if you get a puppy from a responsible breeder. The important thing is to give your dog a permanent, loving home.

We are eager to see pictures of your new dog. Or dogs. Two girls, two dogs--makes sense to us. Talk to your mom!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

To my grandchildren--yes we can!

To my Texas grandchildren, Katie, Susan, and Christopher--

Tuesday night I watched the election returns with a group of friends including an 11-year-old boy. He was well informed and articulate, and I enjoyed hearing his perceptive comments as the results poured in. At ten o'clock, when Mr Obama's electoral tally passed the necessary 270, I wished you were in the room too. I would have enjoyed spending that historic moment with you.

I couldn't help thinking back to the presidential election of 1960, when I was a 12-year-old eighth-grader.

John F. Kennedy
I was passionately interested in that presidential campaign. The contenders were John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, and Richard M. Nixon, a lapsed Quaker. Many Protestants were terrified. Norman Vincent Peale, an extremely prominent author and minister, had written that if a Catholic became president, American culture and freedom of speech would be at risk. I believed the fearmongers, and when I awoke the day after the election to learn that Kennedy had won (it took a long time to count all those paper ballots), I was scared.

I don't know how you feel about the election of 2008. I know how Texas voted, so I am guessing that you know people who aren't too happy about the results. Some are even afraid. Here are some wise and calming words from Michael Gerson, speechwriter to President George W. Bush for several years, about why all of us can be proud to call Barack Obama "Mr President":
This presidency in particular should be a source of pride even for those who do not share its priorities. An African American will take the oath of office blocks from where slaves were once housed in pens and sold for profit. He will sleep in a house built in part by slave labor, near the room where Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation with firm hand. He will host dinners where Teddy Roosevelt in 1901 entertained the first African American to be a formal dinner guest in the White House; command a military that was not officially integrated until 1948. Every event, every act, will complete a cycle of history. It will be the most dramatic possible demonstration that the promise of America -- so long deferred -- is not a lie.

New energy
The election of 2008 was historic, and its importance goes far beyond Mr Obama's race. Something is happening in America that I haven't seen since the 1960s. Record numbers of young people are getting involved in public life. Once again, people are thinking we can make a difference in race relations, poverty, world peace, health ("Yes we can!"). There's a kind of positive energy going around that may even reach out and embrace people who didn't originally want Mr Obama to win. People's opinions may change between now and the inauguration.

During the two months between John F. Kennedy's election and his inauguration in 1960, my opinion changed. For one thing, I really liked his wife, Jacqueline, who was only 31 years old and breathtakingly beautiful. For another, I began to believe that the U.S. Constitution was safe with Mr Kennedy even though he was Catholic, and I was inspired by what he was saying about peace, poverty, human rights, and racial equality. And then I especially liked what he said toward the end of his inaugural address:
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.
Selfish decades
Forty-eight years passed between the elections of Mr Kennedy and Mr Obama. We Boomer kids grew up and went to college and went to work and had families. We lost our idealism. Some of us got cynical. After the Vietnam War and the Nixon years, we concluded that government couldn't be trusted. After various scandals in businesses and churches, we didn't want to trust those institutions either.

Some of us decided it was more important to ask what our country, or our business, or our church, or our own God-given talents could do for us, never mind the other guy. The 1970s became known as the "me decade," as "the belief that hard work, self-denial and moral rectitude were their own rewards gave way to a notion ... that the self and the realization of its full potential were all-important pursuits" (Time, August 3, 1981).

It only got worse in the 80s, sometimes called the "greed decade." Americans spent lots of money and paid less taxes, and the national debt tripled. During the 1990s and beyond, people continued to buy more and more stuff, going deeply into debt when they ran out of money. They tore down perfectly good houses and built McMansions. Even average houses more than doubled in size, though families got smaller.

Many people practically stopped saving money. The national savings rate fell from around 10% in the 1960s to 2 or 3%--and in 2005 it even went negative, meaning that people had more debts than savings. Sacrifice, deferred gratification, budgeting--these words nearly dropped out of the national vocabulary. Even after the attack on the World Trade Center in 1991, our president did not ask us to sacrifice. To the contrary, he advised us to go to Disney World.

We forgot

We seemed to have forgotten the inspiring words of President Kennedy's inaugural address. He told us that liberty requires sacrifice:
We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
He warned us that our task would be enormous:
[We are called to] struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.
He said that we had to take care of the poor as well as the rich:
If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.
He predicted that significant change would require many years of hard work:
All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.
And he challenged us to get involved in the struggle, to work to create the kind of world we want to live in:
With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.
We listened, nodded, and then went about our own self-absorbed business.

Another chance

The theme of Mr Obama's inauguration will be "A New Birth of Freedom," words taken from President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Lincoln did not see freedom as a gift, but rather as "a great task." President-elect Obama agrees with Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy: these are difficult times, and a lot of hard work lies ahead of us.

Tuesday night I thought of John F. Kennedy as Barack Obama spoke to 240,000 supporters in Chicago's Grant Park and the nation on TV. Mr Obama, like Mr Kennedy, told us that liberty requires sacrifice:
It can't happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice.
He warned us that our task will be enormous:
You understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead. For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime -- two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.
He said that we have to take care of the poor as well as the rich:
Let us remember that, if this financial crisis taught us anything, it's that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers.
He predicted that significant change will require many years of hard work:
The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term. But, America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there.
And he challenged us to get involved in the struggle, to work to create the kind of world we want to live in:
Let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other. . . . And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can.
Yes we can!
The people in Grant Park shouted back, "Yes we can!"

The big question is, Will we?

We Boomers who were excited adolescents in 1960 had the same opportunity you kids have today. We too had an enormous task, and we too had the choice to sacrifice, to struggle, and to work hard and persistently to make the world a better place.

Some of us did just that. Too many of us, alas, chose to be selfish instead. In spite of President Kennedy's challenge, too many of us kept on asking what our country could do for us, not what we could do for our country.

I hope you and your friends get excited about our energetic new president-elect. But whatever your political persuasion, I hope you'll ask--now and all through your lives--what you personally can do for your country, your family, your community, your church, and your world.

I'm ashamed of what my generation has given yours to work with, but most of us aren't dead yet. Maybe we still have time to clean up our act. Maybe we can now turn into wise elders. Your generation, though, has an opportunity to set us a shining example.

If all of us together--Boomers, and your parents' generation, and you who will be running the country in 2040--commit to sacrifice and struggle on behalf of others, then Abraham Lincoln's words will be fulfilled. Then Barack Obama's inaugural theme will come true. Then, and only then,
this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and ... government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.
Yes we can!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Pro-lifers--hope or experience?

Two months ago I wrote A plea to pro-life voters, followed by The speech I wish Mr Obama would make. Today, the day before the election, I write again to pro-life voters. Not to those who truly believe that Republicans know how to manage the economy and conduct world affairs, but to those who agree with Mr Obama on nearly everything except abortion. I urge you --when you vote, consider the record. What's important isn't what a candidate says about abortion, but what actually happens under his watch.

What has happened over the last 28 years--20 years of Republican presidents running on pro-life platforms, 8 years of a Democratic president vowing to keep abortion "safe, legal, and rare"?

Short answer: the Democrats did better.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, the abortion rate decreased under the Bush administration, as it has under every administration since the mid-80s. The greatest decrease in abortion rates did not happen during a Republican administration, however, but during the 90s when Mr Clinton was president. No one knows exactly why--less sex? better contraception? better sex education? aging Boomers no longer fertile? less shame about unwed motherhood? less poverty?

Unwed motherhood is certainly on the rise. In 2006, 38.5% of live births were to unmarried women, says the Centers for Disease Control, noting that "this represents a 20 percent increase from 2002, when the recent upswing in nonmarital births began." But unwed motherhood does not necessarily go up when abortion goes down. Since 1980, abortion rates have decreased and single-motherhood rates have increased during all Republican administrations. By contrast, during the Clinton years abortion rates decreased significantly while single-motherhood rates held steady. Check it out here.

Abortion aside, what about other threats to human life? Under President Bush's leadership, over 4,000 of our military personnel have died; up to 100,000 have been wounded; and nearly 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died. War too is a pro-life issue.

During the primaries, when support for Mr Obama started to gain on that for Mrs Clinton, The Economist headlined an article "The Triumph of Hope over Experience?" During the presidential campaign, journalists and bloggers have applied Dr Samuel Johnson's phrase to voters who favor Mr Obama, 47, over Mr McCain, 72. I think they have it exactly backward--especially for pro-life voters. A vote for McCain is a hope that he will reverse the experience of his pro-life predecessors.

Dr Johnson was talking about a man who, having endured an unhappy marriage, immediately remarried (Life, vol. 2, 1770). A lot of us are unhappy about rising abortion rates, rising rates of single parenthood, rising numbers of war dead. If we go ahead in spite of our experience and elect another Republican--one who expressed support for Roe v. Wade before he changed his mind in order to appeal to the Religious Right, one whose knee-jerk response to any question is to use military power--we will get what we deserve. More of the same.

Consider this definition attributed to Albert Einstein: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Please vote sanely.