Expires Soon!

Don’t Be a Sucker for Sales!

Don’t Be a Sucker for Sales!

I used to follow all the sales, and I would be mobilized into action by hearing that the low price would “expire soon” As a result, I bought a lot of junk I didn’t need. And instead of saving money, I ran up my credit cards thinking I was getting a terrific bargain. Now I get this cynical smirk on my face when being offered a low price. Remember: You will be paying an even lower price if your spending is zero.

Unfortunately, with the economy being the way it is today, it would help if more people were spendthrifts—but not if, by so doing, they got into serious debt.

For me, the biggest temptation was—and still is—books. On Sunday, Martine and I took a walk on the campus of Loyola-Marymount University in Westchester. Because I’ve seen as much of the campus as I want to, I usually accompany Martine for only the first half of the walk and spend the rest of the time in the nice new Hammond Library.

While there, I took a look at a relatively new book by Karl Schlögel entitled Moscow, 1937. It was a fascinating picture of the Soviet capital during Stalin’s purges. I was so enthralled that I read the first chapter in its entirety (about Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita) and scanned the rest of the book page by page. The illustrations and maps were amazing.

Needless to say, I was sold. That evening, I found a cheap new copy on eBay and purchased it. As you can see, I can present myself as a bit of a cheapskate; but I still have, hidden not so deep within myself, a raging spendthrift.


Giving the Mafia Free Access to Your Credit

Don’t Gamble With Your Credit!

Don’t Gamble With Your Credit!

Since I have begun this blog on WordPress, I have picked up some 1,100 Spam comments. At first, they were mostly from Lista de Email or Lista de Emails from Brazil. Now an altogether more unruly crowd has moved in: “Free” Casinos.

These are mostly people who want to have free access to your credit cards and transfer your credit to their own offshore bank accounts. That’s why I check several times a day for Spam and assiduously delete it permanently, less you think I am in cahoots with these goniffs, which I am not.

I do not accept a comment unless it:

  • Responds in some way to the web posting to which it is attached (generic praise just doesn’t cut it) and
  • It does not have a number of links sending you all over the Internet.

So if someone finds a way of escaping my vigilance, know that I do not endorse any commenter’s website unless it pertains to the discussion in my blog postings.


Accounting Nightmares

Some Things Just Won’t Reconcile

Some Things Just Won’t Reconcile

Even though my first memories are of childhood nightmares, my dreaming has, over the last few decades, been remarkably free of anything scary. Those first nightmares, however, were real wowsers: In response to toilet training, I would be stuck in the bathroom with the walls closing in on me with the sound of a steam engine. Or there were the times I was being chased around our home on East 120th Street by a lion.

Since I started working in accounting, I have had a different type of dream—particularly when I am facing some problem of whose resolution I am uncertain. Right now, I am trying to analyze the sales of government securities that just don’t seem to reconcile. First of all, there are Fannie Mae investments with a monthly Return of Principal, which I am not sure is being accurately registered in the brokerage statements. And then there was the mistaken sale of three securities that had already been sold earlier that month in the same statement. What was even stranger was that, when the sale was canceled, in each case it was assessed at a different value than the value at the time of “re-sale.”.

When I have trouble dropping off to sleep, I occasionally revisit these technical problems; and the numbers swirl around and around in my head. Sometimes, in my half-sleep, I come up with brilliant solutions. Almost always, I gain some insight, even though I lose some sleep in the process.

If you were to ask me, I think I would prefer the extra sleep.


Nothing But Short-Term Solutions

Eric Cantor and John Boehner

Eric Cantor and John Boehner

It now looks as if the House GOP leadership will allow the debt ceiling to be raised—but only temporarily. In the meantime, they will hope that the Democrats will undergo some type of old-religion conversion, allowing them to see the light and cut back on spending. And the spending they want to cut back on are for the most part social programs that benefit people.

Is there any plan to cut back on military spending? Well, no! Between guns and butter, it’s butter that’s going to have to go. In the meantime, we will be facing the same discussion in a few months’ time, with hundreds of hours of the legislators’ time being wasted because no Republican is interested in yielding a millimeter on their [anti-]social agenda.

I have a suggestion. Perhaps this is the right time to cut down on our spending on Congress. Cut their stipend by 80%, rent out the Capitol Building for weddings and funerals, and make Congress meet in a hangar at Dulles Airport—a hangar that is neither heated nor air-conditioned. My prediction is that Congress would move faster, and there would even be a modicum of cooperation, especially inasmuch as the Democrats would be in the same boat.


“A Spark from the Original Soul”

Martin Buber

Martin Buber

Question: We are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves. How do I do this if my neighbor has wronged me?

Answer: You must understand these words rightly. Love your neighbor as something which you yourself are. For all souls are one. Each is a spark from the original soul, and this soul is inherent in all souls, just as your soul is inherent in all the members of your body. It may come to pass that your hand will make a mistake and strike you. But would you take a stick and chastise your hand because it lacked understanding, and so increase your pain? It is the same if your neighbor, who is of one soul with you, wrongs you because of his lack of understanding. If you punish him, you only hurt yourself.

Question: But if I see a man who is wicked before God, how can I love him?

Answer: Don’t you know that the primordial soul came out of the essence of God, and that every human soul is a part of God? And will you have no mercy on man, when you see that one of his holy sparks has been lost in a maze and is almost stifled?—Martin Buber, Ten Rungs: Hasidic Sayings


Last Scene from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Film Stalker

Last Scene from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Film Stalker

The following is adapted from my review of Geoff Dyer’s Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room as posted to Goodreads.Com.

What we have here is a triptych: three linked works of art, one loosely based on the other. First there was Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (1972), perhaps the most memorable of the Russian brothers’ science fiction novels. Then came Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker (1979), ostensibly based on it and, in fact, employing the Strugatsky brothers as screenwriters. Now there is Geoff Dyer’s long essay entitled Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room. This last is in a genre by itself, an extended commentary retelling the story of the film with lengthy footnoted riffs about how the film has impacted Dyer’s life and imagination.

All three works are masterpieces in their own right. I have now read both books as well as seen the film, and I yearn to reacquaint myself with all three of them.

Is there something perhaps a little perverse about writing a ruminative essay about something that comes from something else. Have we somehow put ourselves too many removes from the original work by the Strugatsky brothers? Or does it matter, inasmuch as both Stalker and Zona are totally absorbing, as was Roadside Picnic.

Perhaps I should draw back a little and give you some idea of the world of the composite work of art I think of as “The Roadside Stalker Zone.” We are some time in the future, in a grimy post-industrial wasteland in a small country near an area once visited by extraterrestrials who just happened, for whatever reason, to leave strange inexplicable things behind—including a room in a deserted building which, if you enter it, grants all your innermost desires. (Never mind that the only known person to have visited it, a man code-named Porcupine, hanged himself shortly thereafter.)

These zones formerly visited by the extraterrestrials (who have all moved on without getting their visas stamped) have been sealed off by the authorities. But there is an active group of individuals called stalkers who, in contravention of the law, take people to visit the zones and perhaps bring some things back—things which are marvelous and inexplicable. The children of these stalkers are themselves strange, like Monkey, the film’s Stalker’s daughter (shown above), who has the power of telekinesis, which we do not learn until the very end of the film.

Stalker takes two individuals, referred to in the film only as Professor and Writer, into the zone. Their journey is a journey of self-discovery. Do they enter the room? I do not wish to spoil the story for you, so I urge you to consume the entire triptych, in order of publication or release, to come to the same realization that I have arrived at: That Geoff Dyer is a phenomenal writer whose work I am going to enjoy reading in the months and years to come.

The Man Who Walked Through Time


Colin Fletcher (1922-2007)

Today I got into a conversation with my co-workers on the subject of footwear. It’s not something I talk about very much, so I surprised myself how much I was influenced by the thinking of one man some thirty years ago. The man was Colin Fletcher, an indefatigable hiker who wrote several books about his long walks, most notably:

  • The Thousand Mile Summer (1964) about a walk from Southern California by the Mexican border all the way to the Oregon border—along the ridge line of the Sierras.
  • The Man Who Walked Through Time (1968) about his hike along the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.
  • The Complete Walker (several editions) in which he talks about the gear you need (and what you don’t need) to walk long distances.
  • The Man from the Cave (1981), about his researches tracking down a man who lived in a cave in the Desert Southwest and left many of his belongings behind.

From Fletcher, I learned to wear only socks that have wool content, the more the better. And I learned to buy only those shoes whose soles and heels would wear like iron—which is why I am partial to Rockport walking shoes and various well designed hiking boots and shoes.

For many years, shoe salesman lied to me about my size. At best, I wear a size 9-1/2 shoe (American) EEE, though I can wear a 10 EE. Most shoe stores, however, stock only D-width shoes. Rather than lose the sale, they will sell me a size 10-1/2 D or even an 11 D, which leaves about two inches of storage space between my toes and the leading edge of the shoe or boot. Needless to say, I avoid shoe stores like the plague. It’s L.L. Bean or OnlineShoes.Com for me.

Being reminded of Colin Fletcher, whom I had forgotten for so long, I remember the happy hours I spent reading his books and paying close attention to his advice. Much of his hiking advice is now a bit dated because of the recent influx of new materials that have revolutionized the gear situation for camping and hiking, but the basic information was solid; and Colin tested it all himself the hard way.

If you can find any of Fletcher’s books, you may well find yourself falling under the man’s spell. I particularly recommend the first, second, and fourth books I listed above. The Complete Walker needs to be substantially revised, though I have no plans to get rid of my fourth edition copy.

The Soup Diaries: Making Substitutions

Hearty Vegetable Soup

Hearty Vegetable Soup

It has been colder in Los Angeles the last few days than during any time in the previous twenty-three years. It has been a struggle for our farmers (particularly in the strawberry fields of Ventura County)  to save their crops from the ravages of frost. Whenever the weather gets cold, the thought of soup is never far from my mind, so I got on Google and went to work looking for a good vegetable soup recipe. Here is the one I found.

The above link contains the full recipe. What I thought would be interesting would be to present just the list of ingredients, annotated by how I diverged using substitutions, additions, and omissions:

  • 8 medium carrots, sliced –  I only had two large carrots
  • 2 large onions, chopped – Instead, I chopped up the white ends of two leeks
  • 4 celery ribs, chopped – I only had three small celery ribs.
  • 1 large green pepper, seeded and chopped – I used one and a half
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 can (28 ounces) diced tomatoes, undrained – I used a 28 ounce can of crushed tomatoes instead, which I prefer
  • 2 cups V8 juice – I just don’t think V8 juice tastes that good, so I skipped this altogether
  • 2 cups chopped cabbage
  • 2 cups frozen cut green beans
  • 2 cups frozen peas
  • 1 cup frozen corn
  • 1 can (15 ounces) garbanzo beans or chickpeas, rinsed and drained – Why drain it? I just dumped the can into the mix
  • 2 teaspoons chicken bouillon granules – I had some extra chicken stock, so I used about two or three cups of it
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons dried parsley flakes
  • 1 teaspoon salt – I deliberately omitted this
  • 1 teaspoon dried marjoram
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • My addition: A half cup of my favorite Middle Eastern soup mix, made up of small particles of barley, lentils, split peas, alphabet noodles, and a few other things
  • My addition: Hungarian paprika, because it’s always good

The result is absolutely delicious, even though I didn’t add the Swiss chard (run through the blender with some of the soup liquid) which I usually do when I cook soup. There just wasn’t enough room in the stock pot.

Even then, I had enough to give a small pot of the soup to my 80-year-old neighbor to help see him through the cold snap.

“Life Uglified”

Paris in the Spring

Paris in the Spring

What will Paris be like tomorrow? The thought was in my mind as, strolling beside the Seine in the mist, I contemplated the glory of the buds that covered the trees with a delicate veil. Paris possesses a beauty that alarms me at times because I feel it is fragile, under threat. Mainly from our town planners. Which young architect is at last going to give us the city of the future, a fine city capable of appealing to the generations to come as we have been enchanted by the Paris that has been fashioned slowly by the centuries? Is it too much to dream of a visionary who will be the poet of space and no longer one of those organisers of a life uglified, to paraphrase Baudelaire, one of those bearers of wasted space who erect modern apartment buildings as graceless cubes, full of the sound and fury of the neighbours’ television sets and plumbing facilities….—Julian Green, Paris


Gooble Gobble, One of Us!

Scene from Tod Browning’s FREAKS (1932)

Banquet Scene from Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932)

I’m going to talk about some tricky concepts here, and I’m not altogether confident that I can explain them to everybody’s satisfaction. I read an interesting review by Thomas Nagel entitled “The Taste for Being Moral” in the December 6, 2012, issue of The New York Review of Books. In passing, it takes up the difference between Liberals and Conservatives in a way I found to be interesting.

According to Nagel, American Conservatives tend to follow the norms of their own group, especially in the light of categories that the author refers to as Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to extend their aegis to all fellow men. According to Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion:

It would be nice to believe that we humans were designed to love everyone unconditionally. Nice, but rather unlikely from an evolutionary perspective. Parochial love—love within groups—amplified by similarity, a sense of shared fate, and the suppression of free riders, may be the most we can accomplish.

The “free riders” referred to can be Hispanic immigrants, African-Americans on welfare, single mothers, gays, people on Social Security and Medicare (according to Paul Ryan), and environmentalists. Even though the Catholic catechism tells us we were all made in the image of God, not all Catholics, let alone Evangelicals,. take this to heart.

The title of this blog comes from Tod Browning’s classic film Freaks (1932). It is part of a sung toast at a banquet attended by circus freaks and normal people sympathetic to them: “Gooble, Gobble! Gooble, Gobble! One of us! One of us!” We tend to place a higher value on the groups to which we belong than to outsiders or the general public as a whole—irrespective of what Christian teaching tell us to do.

Conservatives tend to view people outside their group as either “free riders” or as some unspecified threat to the values they hold dear. Think of the gun fanatics facing some unspecified threat to their God-given right to own assault weapons and enough ammo to blast all their enemies into the next world.

I, on the other hand, believe with Immanuel Kant that “the only thing that is good in itself and without qualification is good will—a will that obeys universal laws of morality…. It is in virtue of their capacity for morality—as both the authors and subjects of the moral law—that humans are ends in themselves and must always be treated as such.”

Of course, one has only to read my blog posts to note that I, too, am a member of a group, one that views American Conservatives with alarm and loathing. In my heart of hearts, which is in there somewhere, I would like to effect some sort of reconciliation with them. That will, however, be a long process. I’m only human, after all!