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Thank heavens for COVID-19! For it has brought to the fore awareness of the way our government and institutions feel free to oppress us. I am speaking, of course, of being forced to wear masks. The anti-mask rallies and mask-protesting speakers at local government meetings have opened our eyes to the way masks are a symbol of the yoke of government regulation.

There is one group in particular that has been systematically oppressed by mask wearing for literally generations. I speak, of course, of doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals. These brave individuals, of singular importance to our nation, have gone unnoticed for decades as they are choked to death by mask-wearing requirements. It's not just the masks either. Agencies at all levels of government require our front-line healthcare providers to not only bear the brunt of facial coverings, but also to scrub their hands till they are virtually bleeding, and to even wear gloves. In fact, in many cases, they are compelled to not only scrub their skin, but to then wear gloves over their now pristine hands - a clear message to this cultural minority that society considers them to be unclean, and no amount of bathing can wash away their filth. It is obvious to anyone who dares to look that these gloves crush fingers, and impede doctors from the very actions we call on them to perform. There is no doubt that this wasteful activity was put in place solely to keep these workers in their place. Shockingly, medical schools, nursing programs, and others have been complicit in maintaining the notion that these rules are somehow necessary, and not blatant repression of the freedoms and creativity of doctors and nurses.

So, thank you staunch protesters. Thank you outspoken advocates. And thank you COVID-19, for bringing common sense back to the covering of our bodies and the systemic oppression of the medical community who were heretofore disenfranchised and unable to resist these soul crushing, demeaning, regulations.

The refusal to socially isolate is so small minded. Bad things happen in this world, and then you have to deal with it. Guess what? You had a heart attack. Deal with it. You cant just decide that you didn't have a heart attack. Running up flights of stairs is going to be harder than it used to be, for a while, or for the rest of your life. A loved one died. That can be terribly painful. But there it is. They died. Do what you need to do to preserve their memory and salve your hurt, but, they are dead now. Your car got stolen. I'm sorry to hear that. Depending on your circumstances that can be anywhere from annoying to devastating. But no matter the impact on your life, you cant pretend that it didn't happen. You can sit in a chair in your driveway making "brummm brummm" sounds, but until you get a new car, you ain't going anywhere.

There's a pandemic going on. You cant go to work, or school, or the gym, or the playground. Wow. That sucks. Its gone on for months and months. That's gotta be really hard to take. Social isolation is depressing, boring, and getting really old. I know. Tell me about it! But guess what? There's a pandemic going on. Try as you might, you cant just pretend that it is over. You cant just return to life as usual. That sucks. Deal with it.

Stay Safe! Practice Parking Social Distancing!

“I’ll make you a bet,” he said. “I’ll bet you that if we come back here in 20 years we’ll find the world indistinguishable from today. The loser buys dinner.” 

“Wait, Dad.” I said. “What’s the bet? If I’m right the world is laid to waste and I win. If I lose, I have to buy dinner. I’m not sure I like that bet.”

“OK, I tell you what.” My father arched an eyebrow. “We’ll come back to this restaurant on March 21, 2000, and flip a coin. The loser pays.”

At 18 years of age, twenty years seemed like more than forever. If it amused my dad to make a bet for twenty years in the future, it was fine with me.

We had arrived at that dinner table during my senior year in high school. It seems that my parents had become increasingly concerned with what they considered to be my overwhelming case of adolescent angst. Apparently, I had become insolent, lazy, and sloppy. As far as I could tell, I had become a typical teenager. They were convinced that something had to be done to snap me out of this rut. So, in March of 1980 my father let me skip a week of school and took me with him on a business trip to London.

Our final night in London he had taken me to dinner at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, one of London’s fine old restaurants. As our plates of prime rib with Yorkshire pudding worked their way down to rinds of fat and crumbs, our conversation had turned to the future. From my arrogant, nihilistic, “child-of-the-bomb” point of view I opined that either the flower-children of the ‘60s would assume power in the government, resulting in a world of peace, love, and free drugs for all, or we would destroy ourselves, leaving the planet in a state of ruin. Furthermore, my money was on the latter. My conservative father, perhaps goaded on by my extreme position, asserted with Ivy-League certitude that in the year 2000, the world would be virtually indistinguishable from the place we knew and loved in 1980.

“All right, Dad,” I said, “you’re on. March 21, 2000.”

Over the years, from time to time my father would remind me of our appointment. Of course, I was busy growing up, going to college, getting jobs and building a career. The year 2000 was still infinitely far away. I didn’t think much of it.

In January 2000 I was arranging a round-the-world trip as part of my new career as a travel writer. The planning was not going well. I decided that to get a handle on things I needed to map it out on a calendar. I went to my computer, launched my schedule program, and had it spit out monthly calendars through June. There it was, smack dab in the middle of my trek through the Australian outback: “March 21: Dinner with Dad in London.” I couldn’t recall when I had put it into my computer - it must have been years prior. Frantically I picked up the phone and punched the digits for my father’s office. “Uh, hi Dad. Do you remember that bet we made to meet in London?”

“Sure do. March 21st, wouldn’t miss it for the world,” came his reply.


I met my father on the morning of the 19th at the Oxford & Cambridge Club of London, a place chosen not because of its unique charms but for nostalgia: it was where we had stayed in 1980. Desperately I searched for signs of change to feed my argument that the world was indeed different, but few institutions change more slowly than the O & C Club. The deskman still looked down his nose at me for wearing jeans and sneakers; the lobby still had a tomblike silence in which every whisper echoed; the elevator still ran at geriatric speed. The only distinct difference was that on our prior visit my father and I had shared a double. This time I was able to afford my own private room to avoid his snoring.

We had arrived in London two days early for a little father/son re-acquaintance time. He had flown in from Boston, I from Prague, he from the 19th century, I from the 21st. I was both excited and nervous; three days as an adult with my father – a man I barely knew. Because of his workaholic bent we had spent very little time together as I was growing up. My deepest insights into his personality seemed to come from examining myself. When I was furiously impatient waiting for a table at a restaurant, I would recognize my father in myself, nodding silently at the new understanding. When girlfriends complained that my face was an impenetrable mask of stony silence while I felt cheerful and connected, I realized that maybe my dad was not the cold gargoyle I imagined as a child. At times I have said or done things that have given me the strange sensation that he is inside me, looking out through my eyes. How many of my personality traits were his? How many of my beliefs about him were wrong?

That first day we went for a bit of culture at the Tate Gallery. We compared our tastes in art and I was shocked to find that mine had become quite stodgy - preferring Flemish and Dutch masters - while my father regaled me with praise for impressionism. Go figure. Following the museum with a leisurely stroll through London, we managed to carefully avoid any talk of how the world may have changed, favoring instead light conversation about the family, the town, and issues of the day. With two days until our dinner, we had to pace ourselves.

That night’s dinner was my opportunity to push us outside the stream of our former visit. If there’s anything that had changed in London in the past 20 years, it was the quality of the food. I had chosen a restaurant called Quaglino's, a stylish, see-and-be-seen place full of handsome people of all ages with a very chic attached bar. We both agreed that the food was excellent – certainly the match of restaurants in any metropolitan center of gastronomy. Further father-son bonding occurred as we realized that we were each ogling the same buxom woman at a nearby table. I had ceded my father the seat with the better view, which he seemed to fully appreciate.

The next day my father took me on my first trip into the English countryside. We took the train out of London to visit a friend of his in Kent, where we spent a pleasant afternoon. Riding back to London, regarding this man snoozing in the seat next to me, I couldn’t help recalling how difficult our relationship had been when I was growing up. Long days at the office left him short tempered and craving only peace and quiet. Time with children was not big on his calendar. I was a grownup before I began to understand. I have never known how to deal with kids. I’m sure he was the same way with me. The day I comprehended this it was like a curtain being pulled aside, affording me a new insight into my youth. Although it was illuminating, this recognition had provided little comfort. Now that we were both adults, a meeting of the minds was finally possible.

For our final day, what better way to gain perspective on the way things had changed than a visit to the British Museum - full of antiquities that even my father must declare “old.” Along the way I pulled us into a coin shop. This evening would be the big dinner. I felt sure no ordinary quarter would do for our bet. I asked the dealer for a coin from 1980, one with heft, weight, and significance. They had the perfect thing: a one-pound coin commemorating the birthday of the Queen Mother. Full of pomp and history, the coin showed a bust of the Queen Mother surrounded by bows, arrows, and stylized lions.

That night we took a taxi to Simpson's-in-the-Strand. My father had alerted them to the historic nature of our dinner, a fact that was not lost on this august edifice. On our arrival the maitre d’ welcomed us, shook our hands, and presented us with complimentary glasses of champagne as we were seated. The restaurant hadn’t changed a bit. Our booth in the back corner was dark oak padded with leather. The dark paneled walls, cream colored ceiling, and subdued lighting only added to the elegance of the place. Though the restaurant was full, I hardly noticed – my concentration was absorbed by our conversation. From our exclusive corner we ordered a meal from our past: prime rib with Yorkshire pudding, steamed vegetables, and a bottle of wine.

Suddenly it was all very real, and in our own private way it was important. Like opening a time capsule buried in the town square of our family, we were here to inspect the passage of the years. In my case it spanned more than half of my life – from lost, confused adolescence to the independence of adulthood. For my father it had covered the no less significant transition from middle to old age. Though we discussed the changes in the world, it was the changes in ourselves that were noteworthy. He asked me why I had never married, and why he had no grandchildren. I asked him what it was like to be closer to the end of life than the beginning.

In a rare display of emotion, he tried to convince me to move back to the city of my youth. He said that my mother missed me and wanted me closer to home, but the crack in his voice told me that the request was his own. I tried to convince him to take more time off from work, to enjoy his life and relax. He reminded me that it was work he enjoyed; without it he couldn’t relax.

As beef and bread transitioned to crème caramel, we tossed the Queen Mother commemorative coin. When we had made the bet long before, paying for dinner would have wiped me out. Such a coin toss would have been met with clenched teeth and raw nerves. But now, as the coin landed heads up, it really didn’t matter. My Dad lost the toss and would pick up the bill, as he had twenty years before. The food, and who paid for it, was not the point.

“So, Dad, we’ll meet here again in twenty years?”

“Hah! I should live so long,” he replied.

“Oh, I think you’ve got a good twenty years left in you.” This time I was the optimist.

“All right,” he said, “you’re on. March 21, 2020.”


Postscript: It turns out that my father was right twice. First he was right that in the year 2000, the world was remarkably similar to that of 1980. Second, he was right that we wouldn't have dinner at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand in 2020, as he passed away in 2018. Sitting here in "shelter-in-place" lock down during the Covid-19 crisis, I have to wonder, will I go to Simpson's-in-the-Strand in 2040? Will I be alive? Will there be a Simpson's-in-the-Strand in 2040? Will international travel be possible? Will prime rib be a foodstuff that people eat? And if I can go, who will I take with me, and who will pay? Perhaps I will live long enough to find out.

[Postscript: I appear to have been very wrong. Mea culpa.]

I was just in the shower pondering Covid-19 and mortality. What if some of the worst predictions came to pass? I was getting pretty depressed as I contemplated it. But then I got pragmatic and started to wonder about the effect on the total death rate in the USA this year. In 2018 there were 3.2 million deaths in America. What if Covid-19 doesn’t actually increase that number?

Covid-19 is most fatal among people who are immune compromised or otherwise infirm. This is terrible. But, how many of those people were likely to die this year of other causes? How many were going to succumb to the flu, pneumonia, the common cold, or their underlying health issues? Covid-19, will, sadly, accelerate the death rate of those individuals. I do not mean to make light of the sadness this will bring to their loved ones. This will be cold comfort to the families of those whose lives are cut short, but, perhaps these Covid-19 deaths won’t be additive to the total death count in 2020.

Furthermore, given the emphasis on hand-washing and social distancing, how many people won't get the flu this year, regardless of their overall health? Given the number of people not travelling for business or pleasure, and the number of people telecommuting, how many automobile accidents will be avoided?

Here's a weird one: given that schools are closed, how many mass shootings won’t occur this year? How many children won’t get measles? How many anti-vaxxers might decide to vaccinate their children after all, protecting them from various maladies?

The effects might not show up in just one year, but, given the decrease in car travel, air travel, cruises (very big polluters), and manufacturing output, air pollution is guaranteed to decrease. How many lives might be saved, or lengthened, by that effect (to say nothing of people breathing through masks.)

Certainly Covid-19 is a world-wide catastrophe that is touching virtually everyone’s lives. I don’t mean to diminish the physical, mental, and economic suffering it is inflicting and will continue to cause. However, while I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna about this, is it possible that mortality might decrease due to the response to Covid-19?
Photo by Julián Gentilezza on Unsplash

A friend on Facebook posted a link to this article from BBC News, Super Tuesday: Why didn't more young people vote? He commented “It’s pretty much just wall-to-wall excellent points here. One of those times where you need an outside perspective.”

Sorry, I’m afraid I disagree. I (an old white guy) have no sympathy for any of these points. This article may correctly point out why youth aren’t voting, but I am still not sympathetic with youth voters who don’t vote. If young people can find the location of the hidden rave, they can find out where their polling place is. Or their friend can, or their aunt or uncle can, or their school secretary can. If I offered most "kids" $100 to find their polling place, they'd f'ing well find it! I registered to vote when I was 18 and have voted in every single election since. One of those times I had moved and had trouble figuring out which was my polling place, but I FIGURED IT OUT. Geesh.

Moreover, for youth voters, or any voters who can’t take time from their schedules to get to the polls, vote absentee (yes, I know, this still doesn’t solve the problem for low-income voters who don’t have fixed addresses, etc., but still, it enables a hell of a lot of voters who use this excuse to not vote.) As for "Lina Tate, 20, registered for an absentee ballot in mid-February - but did not receive her ballot until 6 March", you know what, Lina? This election process has been going on for months (feels like forever.) If you really cared, maybe you would have applied for an absentee ballot before mid-February? Is it the states' fault, or some nefarious plot, that your ballot didn’t reach you in time? "Benjamin Clardy, 21, is currently studying in Italy" and had absentee voting problems. OK. That sucks. But forgive me if I don’t believe that students studying overseas have a measurable impact on lack of youth voter turnout (and are doubtless offset by any number of older voters, living, working, or traveling abroad.)

"Quite a lot of young people feel disillusioned" - yup. And you know what, you should get out and vote to change the system. No sympathy from me whatsoever. Oh no, my car broke down. Guess I'll just walk for the rest of my life. Greta Thunberg sailed a boat across the Atlantic to raise awareness of the threat of Climate change. Youth in countries around the world are literally dying while fighting their governments. You can f'ing pull it together and vote, you little shits.

"A lot of high school students get less information about politics". Yeah, it’s a pity that high school students aren’t allowed to watch TV or use the internet. Oh, candidates don’t come to your high school, they only go to colleges. What a shame that high school students aren’t allowed to set foot on the grounds of a local college campus to attend such an event. None of the candidates came to my house to curry my vote, so screw it, I ain't voting. (Not)  And here's a suggestion, while you're sitting there getting that tattoo, maybe you can study the voter's pamphlet sent to you by your city/county/state. You were able to decide what image you want inked on your body for the rest of your life, you can figure out who would best represent you in the government for the next few years.

"Bernie Sanders failed to mobilize them - but experts say the other political campaigns played a part too." Boo hoo. The candidates that excited me most dropped out at various points along the way (up till the very end.) Yet somehow, I managed to vote anyway. The ice cream parlor ran out of Rocky Road, bummer, guess you'll have to have Mocha chocolate chip instead.

"Finally - things could still be very different in November" they f'ing well better be! I'm probably not going to live long enough to be too terribly put out by the shit that is coming down. You kids will either fix things or live with the results.

And you know what? If you care so little about voting, then I'd really rather you didn't vote. Leave it to those of us that care about the outcome. Or, at the very least, when a pollster asks you who you are voting for, tell them you're not planning on voting.

OK. Done ranting. Unfortunately, I don’t feel any better.

The Recipes of my 15 grandmothers: Unique Recipes and Stories From the Times of the Crypto-Jews During the Spanish Inquisition, is the third volume in Genie Milgrom’s “My 15 Grandmothers” series, a project to which she has clearly dedicated a great deal of heart and time. In this volume she invites the reader to learn about her discovery of a trove of recipes written by her “15 grandmothers” – a chain of her female ancestors stretching back to the age of the Spanish Inquisition. From these she has created a cookbook for the modern American kosher kitchen, modifying the recipes as necessary to make them conform to the dietary laws of Kashrut, and work with the products, weights, and measures in use today.

Unfortunately, the very things that make it useful for the Jewish home cook, leave it lacking for the reader that wants to learn about the foods of the crypto-Jews of any generation. As a culinary historian, the exciting title of this book left me disappointed in the reading.

Milgrom’s introduction delights us with her discovery of a collection of recipes found after her mother’s death. We learn that her mother had denied their existence, yet, apparently, during her lifetime she was hiding them, just as Jews hid their religion through the centuries. Sadly though, Milgrom does not share the original recipes with us – only her recreations. How wonderful it would be to see reproductions of the pages in her ancestors’ handwriting! Milgrom also doesn’t give us an indication of when these manuscripts may have been produced. From her notes we can tell that some of the pages she possesses are no older than the mid-nineteenth century. She tells us of recipes calling for corn starch and providing metric measurements. Each of these are mid-19th C. inventions. She further tantalizes the reader in a note that some of the original recipes would call for things like ‘…a small goblet of water, or “an egg full of oil.”’ I want to read those originals! At the least I would like to know how much oil she calculated filling an egg, and what her thinking was in that conversion. Was it a whole egg’s worth, or did her grandmother’s grandmother mean filling half of an eggshell? Milgrom leaves me to guess.

Another unfulfilled promise of the book’s title is of stories from the times of the crypto-Jews living in Spain in the 15th to 19th centuries. The stories in the book largely center around Milgrom’s direct family, her own experiences with her family’s culture, and her work researching and recreating the recipes provided. Perhaps her earlier books about the 15 Grandmothers provide more of the stories bringing to life the experience of being a Jew hiding her identity from the Inquisition?

To my eye, the recipes in the book appear to be a tasty collection of Spanish and Latino dishes that can be cooked by kosher chefs. She writes, “I have only included in this book those recipes that meet the kosher guidelines and that have also been modified and tested with the meats and products available to us today”. To me this says that she has painted only half the picture. What recipes did her grandmothers cook that that could not be converted for today’s kosher kitchen? To the historian, this is every bit as interesting as those that could be, and knowing about them would shine even more light on the way that hiding religion affected their culture.

It could not be more clear that Genie Milgrom wasn’t writing this cookbook for me. I, for one, would have been much happier if she had made that clear in the title. If she had named it, “My 15 Grandmothers: Spanish and Latino Recipes for the Modern Kosher Kitchen”, I would have no complaints at all. Depending on the reader, this book will either delight or disappoint.

A couple weeks ago I was at a festival here in Oakland. I went to a food truck for lunch. As I was waiting for my order, a mother with her young son (maybe 2 or 3 years old) came up to the truck. The mother asked the boy if he wanted French fries. He asked, "Do they have ketchup?" His mother replied, "Yes, they have ketchup", whereupon the boy crouched down and leaped into the air yelling, "YAY! KETCHUP!"

Oh for a time when the mere existence of ketchup caused such glee.

I know that you have reasons why you deny the reality of climate change. You know that I disagree with your rationales. Fine.

However, you must admit that strange things are going on weather-wise in almost every corner of the world from which we get news. Just ask some old folks. As them if they remember weather like this. We don’t need to reach far into the past, nor tease apart the evidence to find some small hints of change. Remember the record-breaking heat across Europe last summer? How about two years of unprecedented fires in California, and many years of fires in the western US before that. You'll probably recall large swaths of middle-America covered with water, making it difficult or impossible for farmers to grow their crops. This winter bizarre weather is coming and going across the east and south-east of the USA. None of us are ever going to go to Greenland, the Arctic, nor the Antarctic, but those who do tell us that the ice is melting.

So, let’s say, for the sake of argument, that these climactic changes are temporary. Let’s further posit that these changes have nothing whatsoever to do with human activities. Can we at least agree that they are bad? Can we agree that they are harming humans, animals, industries and environments all over the world? You can’t grow crops if your fields are under water. You can’t mine for minerals in Australia if the country is on fire. Tourism revenues in Europe collapse if it is too hot to enjoy going there. You can’t watch the Super Bowl if your house burned down.

So, if you agree with me that there are bad weather events happening, can we also agree that researching these events is a good idea? Can we agree that it will help to find out what is making this happen, how often these events are likely to occur, and when they might stop? Can we agree that it would be a good idea to try and figure out how to do a better job of managing these effects when they occur? Can we agree that even if humans didn't cause climate change, it would help if we can figure out how stop these climate changes that are negatively affecting us?

Just a thought.

In 1947, Churchill said, ‘“democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried.”’ When quoted, people often leave off “that have been tried.” In subsequent years, this has been corrupted and paraphrased into, “capitalism is the worst economic system, except for all the others.”

I wish I knew who it was that first turned Churchill’s statement about government into one about economics. I have heard or read this statement repeatedly through my life, and have always assumed that it was coined by one of the world’s great quotable thinkers – Lincoln, Churchill, Confucius, Edison, Einstein… As a quote, it’s great – it hits all the best qualities of a great quote. It is pithy, humorous, self-effacing (for capitalists), and seems to evoke a deep truth. In addition to assuming it was created by a great thinker, I have always taken it to be true. However, I now believe that it may be one of the most destructive utterances of modern times.

[Side Note: I have tried to find the original source of that quote without success. Thus, it is possible that the capitalism quote predates Churchill’s quote about democracy, and Churchill converted a statement about economics into one about government. However, I doubt that. The democracy quote sounds so Churchillian. Also, every reference to the capitalism quote says that it comes from Churchill’s. Further, it is possible that the capitalism quote is relatively new and that I have not heard it all my life, but rather conflated it with Churchill’s quote.]

Granting to the maxim, “capitalism is the worst economic system, except for all the others”, the weight of a great orator, and easy care-free believability, allows a capitalist like myself the opportunity to ignore the possibility that another economic system, tried or not, might, indeed, be superior.

I believe that all but the staunchest Libertarian or Anarchist will agree that selfishness is part of human nature. I might give generously to the welfare of others, but only after I have secured the wellbeing of myself and my family (or tribe, or race, or nation.) Further, I fully believe that, for whatever reasons, some people are vastly more self-interested than others. Indeed, some people appear to feel that they must diminish the welfare of others in order make themselves greater. Sociopathy exists. It is a given that humans lie, cheat, and steal. We know there are people that will work for their own interests without a care for the cost to others, present or future. We also know that there those who will actively work against the interests of others.

Given these truths, modern capitalists admit that there needs to be some regulation of business to keep things tolerable (even if it might be a façade to simply make us feel like we are doing something noble.) Capitalists tend to believe that there is a dark side to monopoly power; that there are some industries (e.g. water distribution infrastructure) that are “natural monopolies”, and thus can be given into the hands of government or forced to endure greater regulation; and so forth.

The trick, the capitalist would say, is finding the right balance between regulation that constrains the evils that lurk in the hearts of men, and regulations that put an excessive burden on free markets. If capitalism is failing in any way, it is not because it is fundamentally flawed, but rather that we haven’t correctly balanced regulation with laissez faire.

I have basically believed this my whole life, bolstered by that pithy maxim that capitalism is less bad than any other system. But I have changed my mind. Maybe capitalism isn’t the worst except for all the others. Maybe there is a system that is less bad than capitalism. Maybe it is socialism, or (shudder) communism, or maybe it is a system that has not yet been tried.

I don’t know how to change our economic system(s) to create a better, more caring, less harmful social framework. But I do know that we must expel the terrible notion that is embodied in the quotation, “capitalism is the worst economic system, except for all the others.”