Monday, October 3, 2016

On Waffling

About once a month I delve into the selection of Belgian Waffle cookers on Amazon. Did you know that Belgian waffles are a yeast bread? They rise. That intimidates me a bit because usually I'm in a hurry to break the fast in the morning, but there are simple solutions: for example, the Hobbit solution of First and Second Breakfasts. I have a light breakfast before undertaking an involved cooking project. Lately I like a cup of fruit cocktail dumped atop cottage cheese. I also like breakfast better than any other meal (though I love food so much that dinner is a close second). At any rate, fixing a fancy breakfast of waffles and accompaniments to rival the complexities of any dinner strongly appeals to my epicurean aesthetics.

I'm also daunted by the price of a decent Belgian waffle cooker. I'm looking at the better part of a hundred dollars. I also hesitate to acquire new possessions. The day will come when my mother isn't here to be taken care of anymore. If I inherit half the house, then that will give me a small fixed income. And Social Security kicks in next year (I'm taking it as soon as I can get it). Income is not merely a license to travel, but a way of making the income last because I go to countries where the cost of living is less than in the US. If I teach English in China, then I could save my fixed income while earning my living in Asia. If I travel, I will pack lightly, and I hesitate to compound my possessions with new acquisitions. I have a fantasy of boarding a plane with a toothbrush and my phone.

I hope to travel before (or until) I'm decrepit, so I  have to decide whether to sell my possessions or pay to store them (storage very quickly adds up to more than the stored items are worth). A third option is to acquire some sort of structure that I would live in and store my possessions in that house while I'm traveling. I would come back home to them later. It will be a complicated decision to make, and it's too soon to make it.

So you see, a can of worms lies underneath my waffles. But, yes, real waffles would be infinitely better than the frozen waffles I'm eating now. Frozen waffles are so ersatz, but they are better than the unthinkable life without waffles.

In Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead, a subplot about Christina Applegate's do-nothing stoner brother Kenny (Keith Coogan), tells how he slowly takes an interest in Belgian waffles and redeems himself. It's such a good point: one relatively simple thing like waffles can make a career. I'm sure that inspired a lot of lost kids out there. It inspired me, and I had a career when I saw the movie the first time. Anyway, that left a soft spot in my heart for Belgian waffles.
So every month I spend a few hours browsing Amazon for waffle machines while my mind waffles over an unforeseeable future and the question of whether to buy some kitchen gear that would sanctify certain mornings.
Photo: Belgian waffles cooked in a Krampouz cast-iron waffle iron, in a Montreal restaurant during the gastronomy competition of the Montreal Highlights Festival. Photo by Rivalinb2. Licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 3.0

Friday, September 30, 2016

Amanda Knox comes to Netflix

Amanda Knox leaves the prison in Perugia inside a car with Corrado Maria Daclon, secretary general of the Italy-USA Foundation, 3 October 2011. Photo by Scott335. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

A few days ago I put out a poll question on Twitter:
The question immediately brought swooping down upon me a dozen people armed with "facts proving Knox's guilt." I told them that experts more knowledgeable than they had not been able to prevent the Italian Supreme Court's ultimate settlement of the case, and they said, Look at this chart. I told them that the case was settled and all the charts in the world were a moot point, and they said, See how this proves she was in the room. I asked them what motivated them, and they said, Why was Sollecito's DNA on Kercher's bra clasp? They do not listen but monomaniacally recite their litany of overwhelming pseudo-science based on extremely sloppy police work herded into the service of a sensationalistic prosecuting attorney with a taste for Russ Meyer films, tawdry slasher movies, and political ambition a la Italiana.

I told them that the minute there's the slightest whiff of blood they show up like a mob of zombies with charts. The walking dead, or, really, more like the dance troupe from Michael Jackson's Thriller, all in well-choreographed lock-step. I call them "guilters," but they're probably better called trolls and haters. If their shark-like olfactory nerves for blood are somehow aware of blogs, they'll probably show up here as well, especially if I promote this aspect of today's blog on Twitter. And by the way, I wouldn't pay much attention to the survey results: I got only three votes, and two of them likely came from the guilters who were tweeting at me for several hours afterwards.

We're in a season now of (supposedly) true crime dramas. CBS just reviewed the The Case of: Jon Benet Ramsey in a two-part special. FX's The People vs OJ Simpson stood just behind Game of Thrones in the 2016 Emmy awards. Netflix's documentary on the Amanda Knox case premieres tonight (30 September).

Thursday, September 29, 2016

How to take something apart, perhaps even fix it, then put it back together again.

The switch (a Sinton E81372) that went bad. The inside was frozen so the pull-chain would not be pulled.
I want to tell you that I fixed a switch for the lighting suspended beneath my ceiling fan. I'm telling you this not so much because I'm proud of my accomplishment (though I am) and want to brag, but because I think most of us share a fear of cracking open even simple machines to see what might be wrong with them.

Yet the wonderful secret about simple machines is that they are built to be cracked open. They're built with interchangeable parts. These days it's rare that parts are as fine as single pieces. When I open a machine I see sealed components like the Sinton E81372 in the above picture. Search for that on Amazon and sure enough there it is, waiting for the contingency that your switch has worn out or that some insensate Philistine has been pulling your chain so hard that it broke.

I'm a lighting freak. It's very hard for me to live somewhere that can't be flooded with daylight on sunny days, and the architectural mandate that rooms should have windows on two orthogonal walls is more important than the Ten Commandments.

And a rule I made up—something from days in the theater—is that every space should have its work lights. Standard operating conditions call for each room to have spot lighting appropriate for its purposes. My room has a reading lamp with a 60-watt fluorescent bulb by the bed, but this is anachronistic lip service to an era when reading devices didn't come with their own illumination. My desk has a TaoTronics LED Desk Lamp, a lovely device that allows me to adjust the hue from a yellowish nostalgic of incandescent days all the way into an intense Sirius-like subtle hint of blue. The brightness has a ten-point sliding scale. I can specify my favorite hue and brightness, which will serve as the default each time I turn the light on. A built-in timer will turn the light off thirty minutes after I touch it. There's also a pleasant night light. The light is mounted at the end of an arm with four different axes of bending and turning. And the USB plug on the side is smart enough to charge my phone at that accelerated rate. This divine light, after 276 reviews on Amazon has a 4.9 star rating. One curmudgeonly troll gave it a three-star rating.

But when I sweep and clean, move things around, or search for a lost washer on the floor, up come the working lights. I am a fan of that opening scene in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man in which the narrator lives underground steals thousands of kilowatt hours from Con Edison to make a huge array of lights shine. It's a metaphor for the invisibility of the black man in America, but I'm drawn to light like moths because my mother always kept a funereally dark house. Now that I'm taking care of that house as she becomes incapable of doing so, I have illuminated my private surroundings even as I've left her in the dark she seems to prefer (indeed there are mysteriously dark circumstances around how my light switch came to break in the first place). Now that I've fixed the light, two LED bulbs, each equivalent in produced lumens to a 100 watt incandescent bulb, flood my humble 160 ft² with light whenever I pull the string.

When I first took up residence in this room, there was a single sixty-watt incandescent bulb in one of the sockets, and the other socket was empty. I lived with that for a while, but a few weeks ago I ordered three LED bulbs. One of them went into the kitchen, which, in my way of thinking has only two lighting modes: the dim light so midnight snackers can find their way to the kitchen, and Las Vegas brilliant for cooking. The LED lighting in the new stove hood combined with the new overhead light leave the room a little lopsided, but much better than it was. The other two bulbs screwed into my fan.

I was still basking in this sense of lighting accomplishment when the pull chain froze, and it was probably the ensuing frustration that impelled me to Crash Cart mode of taking the thing apart myself. I resolved that if I were careful in taking the thing apart, I would at least be able to put it back together, and I might even be able to fix it. The housing that held the switch inside and two light sockets on the outside was mounted below the fan itself. A bracket connected to the fan above held the light housing in place, and two wires, connected to wires from the fan unit by twist-on wire connectors, fed the lighting its electricity. Though I was eager to play with the housing, I did not want to play with electricity, so I turned the wall switch off.

The first thing I learned about was twist-on wire connectors (also known as wire nuts, wire connectors, cone connectors, or thimble connectors) courtesy of Wikipedia. Before I learned the correct terms, I was just calling them "twisty caps," which sounds like candy. Wire nuts are the Hotel California of electric parts: you can screw them on anytime you like, but they ain't never coming off. So once I unscrewed the housing from the fan, it was hanging loosely by its wires, which I cut as close to the wire nut as I could since I knew that later I would have to strip the wire and make a new connection.

So I put the housing on my desk and took it apart. There was nothing in the housing preventing the chain from being pulled. Only the switch itself was frozen. Taking it out of the housing let me find its part number proudly emblazoned on its side. Like I said, I have never done this before, so I proceeded with caution, attention, and consultation of Wikipedia. I had no tools for electrical work, so the order I typed into Amazon included not only the Sinton E81372 but a pair of wire strippers and a big assortment of wire nuts. Though I put all that in the same shopping cart, the items came from diverse sources, and each made its separate way to my house. I lived without the overhead light for a week before all the parts arrived.

I should stress here that since I was going forward carefully, it was very important to store all the little parts so they didn't get lost. Altoid boxes come in handy for projects like this. The Altoid boxes went into a large plastic box with room also for the switch housing and the large globe, which I ran through the dishwasher so that it's now the cleanest light globe in the house.

With wire nuts, Altoid boxes, wire stripper, and ignorance tempered by determination, I set about installing the frozen switch's replacement.
Replacing the switch and putting the lid back on the housing was the easy part. The tricky part was reattaching the housing to the fan itself because the operation was effectively upside-down: I had to screw up into the fan, which meant dropping the screws several times before I got everything lined up and the screws started in their respective holes.
The fan awaiting the light housing. The black and white wires first had to be stripped and attached to their sister wires with wire nuts.
Once the housing was reattached I was able to test the lights and see that they worked. I was thrilled to have bright light again. Figuring out how to reattach the globe and its fixtures and to bring the pull chains for light and fan through the appropriate holes was a bit of a jigsaw puzzle. The first attempt was too crooked, so I tried another, which still didn't seem as even as it should be, but there were no other possibilities. I guess that I'm asking too much to expect it to go back just as it was.
The finished project.
Again I stress that I'm proud that I managed to do this, but that isn't why I wrote this blog. Nor did I write this blog to instruct someone on how to replace a switch. I wrote this blog to tell you not to be afraid, but to go ahead mindfully because machines like this are designed to be taken apart and repaired by the replacement of their parts. Of course some things are sealed up and not meant to be taken apart—for some reason food processors and blenders come to mind, but also laptop computers with their thin layers so tightly sandwiched together. But a ceiling fan or a desktop computer or those hinges hanging on by the last threads of ancient wood screws—those and many other things are waiting for your attention. Here are ten useful points from what I learned:

  1. Don't be afraid. Be positive, enjoy your exploration, and take pride in your accomplishment.
  2. Google for information, definitions, and how-to information. Both Wikipedia and YouTube abound with instructional information on maintenance and repair.
  3. On the Web, most manufacturers publish owner's manuals, schematic diagrams, exploded parts diagrams, and all kinds of guidance for the dissection and resurrection of their machinery. Use it.
  4. Most machines are built to be taken apart and put together again.
  5. Machines comprise replaceable parts, which greatly simplifies the task before you.
  6. Go slowly and pay attention.
  7. Take notes if necessary, so you can reassemble after your repair (or if you abort the mission because you can't repair it).
  8. Store parts carefully because you're going to have to put them back together again.
  9. Take time out to order and receive replacement parts and tools.
  10. Order tools if necessary—the right tool can make the difference between success and failure.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Spiritual Tourism

Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (left) and Ram Dass, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 19 February 2008. Photo by Joan Halifax. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Ever the spiritual tourist—I'm not a religious person, but I am intrigued as a fiction writer by the myriad modalities of human behavior, particularly when people get religious, so I have infiltrated close to twenty different religious organizations to see how they work, feel how it feels to "practice" with them. Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, with variations on these—I've been with them all. I would like to spend a year chanting with the Hare Krishna—and eating their lacto-vegetarian diet, which is very healthy and very ecologically sound—but the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), the primary force for Krishna awareness in the US, doesn't have the presence North America. In Austin, they once had a strong presence around the university area, where they competed for souls with academia, which led to some parents kidnapping and deprogramming their children. Now they're in a suburban house in far north Austin. That house might support an interesting visit, but what I really want is a farm where I can eat and chant with these guys.

ISKCON has undergone a sea change in their tactics. They have backed off from the aggressive proselytizing in airports, on the street, and even door to door. Instead, they are writing about and promoting their healthy approach to food as their leading practice. Their Web site says:
Sometimes referred to as the “kitchen religion,” ISKCON, or the Hare Krishna Movement, believes the art of cooking is a sacred experience. The preparation and eating of food should be based on principles of compassion, non-violence and balanced living. Thus, Krishna devotees advocate a lacto-vegetarian diet, strictly avoiding meat, fish and eggs.
Kitchen religion indeed—sweetness in the ears of foodies. In the 1970s, had ISKCON led with this idea instead of their anti-materialism, I might have shaved the long precious hair from my head and been dancing and chanting in the streets instead of ping-ponging back and forth between Mexico and university. Maybe I give away that I'm a foodie, but I find a practice that sanctifies not only the eating but the cooking quite exciting. 

I have no problem with giving up meat. I've been more conscientious lately about not eating it at home, but if you invited me for dinner and served me brisket, I'd eat it without complaint. I've been exploring alternative protein sources, and feel better because of it. I would miss eggs somewhat. But I can't imagine going forever without fish. For the duration of a sojourn on a farm with the Krishna people, chanting, cooking, eating, and writing (always writing), I could manage. But as soon as I get back to town, I'm making a bee-line to Quality Seafood for two dozen oysters and some luscious whole fish eyeing me on my plate. So, Capital Metro says I can get out to their house in an hour and a half, so I might go talk to them, check it out. I'll get back to you on this.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

US out of North America

American Police. © The Economist.

Meanwhile the conversion of the police into the military occupation of North America by the corporate dictatorship continues. Americans generally are immersed in the schizophrenia of the occupation—"America is the greatest country in the world"—so they mistakenly believe that paper tigers like wrist slaps and presidential outcries will matter. But rampant murder of citizens has always been a result of military occupation, and to think that investigations and demonstrations will make a difference is as na├»ve as thinking a Band-Aid will ease the Holocaust. The reality is something totally different: if you want to stop the police from murdering people, you first have to wake Americans enough to know that the murder won't stop until the US is demilitarized. Getting the US out of North America might make for a good beginning.

Last Friday I mentioned how the innately untrained mind lacks compassion. That began a series of blog posts that link the hatred of WoW players for noobs; that leaves people vulnerable to cults of personality; that leaves people blind to the obliteration of their own natural culture and its replacement by corporate culture.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The 13-Year-Old Perfect Master

Prem Rawat (then age 8) in traditional mourning clothes, speaking after the death of his father in July 1966. Licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0.

In the 1970s there was a young guru called The 13-Year-Old Perfect Master. He was also known, as if it were the name behind the title, as Maharaj Ji, but that too was a title. His real name is Prem Rawat. He had inherited the following of the Divine Light Mission (DLM) from his father in India when he was six years old. He proved to be quite capable of making spiritually inspiring talks, and when he was 13, he dropped out of school and announced he was taking the show to America. I visited the Denver branch of the DLM in 1977, after the Master had moved his elaborate estate to Malibu.

I don't remember what they called the big room where everybody gathered. Its walls and ceiling gave it a church-like feeling—might originally have been a church—but there were no pews, no furniture of any kind. Everyone sat on the plush wall-to-wall carpet. A big screen that rolled down from the ceiling, and there an excited collective gasp ran through the room, rather like what I hear when, during Dorothy's last minutes in Oz, the Good Witch Glenda shows up to help her with her having missed the balloon. The Master's image appeared on the screen and spoke to us. When he finished speaking, his followers, sitting cross-legged on the plush carpet, did a long deep bow. It feels good to put myself aside for a moment and yield to something else. But I never believed, as his followers did, that the Master was God on Earth, that he had been seen in two places at the same time, and that followers should give all their wealth to the Master. That's how he came to have the house with its spacious garage filled with cars in Malibu. A long-time cynic about materialism, I've long believed that acquisitiveness destroys the credibility of spiritual professions.

Richard Alpert was Professor at Harvard University, and he worked with Timothy Leary and others on research projects concerning effects of LSD. Alpert's psychedelic experiences led him into a spiritual quest that took him to India, where he met Guru Neem Karoli Baba. Alpert's experience was one of those meetings with remarkable men, and Karoli became Alpert's teacher. He called his guru Maharaj Ji, not to be confused with the 13-year-old Perfect Master. The guru gave him the name Ram Dass, was also called Maharaj Ji. There's a wonderful YouTube video of Richard Alpert's account of his meeting with Maharaj Ji, and here I have no doubt of the authenticity.

One thing that the Master's enterprise left behind in Denver was a natural grocery store long before such stores became popular. These religious organizations from India could be corrupt to the core—many of them were—but if nothing else, they taught their followers a better way to eat. The experience left me with a sense of, Ah, now I know what a cult of personality is, and I have recognized them at a glimpse ever since. I see cults around politicians like Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, whose business is to spin their cults into power bases. I see cults of personality around televangelists like Kenneth Copeland and Joel Osteen. I see cults of personality around industry leaders like Steve Jobs, which Apple exploits by making all their accessories proprietary so that cultists pay two or three times as much for the equivalent part in the Android world.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Donovan in Austin, 24 September 2016.

Donovan, Washington, 2007. Photo by Urbankayaker. Released to the public domain.
Donovan Leitch, the folk-rock singer and a leader in the British psychedelic rock of the 1960s and '70s, usually known only by his first name, played at the Paramount Theater in Austin on Saturday (24 September 2016) to a warm and receptive crowd.  (The actor Donovan Leitch is the singer's son.)

Donovan at the Alamo.
Donovan at the Alamo, 23 September 2016.
Donovan started with several songs that he recorded before he caught my attention. These included "Remember the Alamo," first recorded in 1964 and certainly appropriate for the Texas leg of the tour; "Little Tin soldier," based, Donovan said, on a Hans Christian Andersen Story; and "Guinevere" (not to be confused with the Crosby, Stills & Nash song with the same title).

I recognized "Catch the Wind," which I had actually thought was a Dylan song. Though the melody was influenced by Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom," it's a Donovan song. To further confuse the casual listener, the song was recorded by dozens of other popular recording artists.

The stage was bathed in solid colors, mostly red, during the music, but went to a warm natural glow during the banter between songs. Donovan sat on his elevated platform on the stage and told his stories about songs and how they came to be written and about other Rock personalities who had influenced him or that he had influenced. These stories steadily spun a feeling of intimacy with the audience.

Before intermission Donovan had time for two more songs, "Josie," which I didn't know, and "Jennifer Juniper," which I've always loved for its lilting wordplay, which I suspect might be a Scottish trait because I see something similar in the lighter passages of J.K. Rowling's work; and "There is a Mountain," which is also a great deal of fun:
The lock upon my garden gate's a snail, that's what it is
The lock upon my garden gate's a snail, that's what it is
First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is
First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is
Who can't feel the child-like wonder and charm in these lyrics? If I couldn't, I would at least know something important had been lost in my life.

Then it was time for intermission.

The Paramount, which serves as both a concert venue and movie theater, just celebrated its centenary anniversary last year. Woody Guthrie, an early influence on Donovan, also played the Paramount Stage many years ago. The theater's seats seem to be from Guthrie's time. The theater celebrates many fiftieth anniversaries this year. Donovan's tour celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Sunshine Superman. Monkees, comprising Mickey Dolenz and Peter Tork, are also coming on a fiftieth anniversary Tour. Priscilla Presley is coming to talk about "Elvis & Me."

Fellow Monty Python members John Cleese and Eric Idle are also coming, and while they're not proclaiming an anniversary—the BBC didn't start airing Monty Python's Flying Circus until 5 October 1969, so they're youngsters by current standards of half-century nostalgia—they'll still appeal to those of us who have silver hair if we're lucky enough to have hair at all.

Fifty years ago, on 24 September 1966, the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine" was the number six song in the United States, and Donovan's title song "Sunshine Superman" was number five. (Number one was Cherish by the Association. The Supremes had the number two spot with "You Can't Hurry Love." The Four Tops had number three with "Reach Out I'll Be There." And Question Mark and the Mysterians held number four with their Wurlitzer rocking "96 Tears.")

"In the '60s and '70s we sat on cushions on floors writing songs," Donovan said. And this is why he sat on some elevated flooring to give his show. Donovan told the story about Paul McCartney showing up at his house with the half-finished "Yellow Submarine." Paul asked for some suggestions on the lyrics. Donovan thought about it and suggested
Sky of blue (Sky of blue) and sea of green (Sea of green)
In our yellow (In our yellow) submarine (Submarine, ha, ha)
The PA played Beatles' music like Rubber Soul before the concert and during intermission. A lot of Donovan's stories between songs focused on his part among The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan, and it seems that he is asserting his rightful place in the history of 1960s, mostly British, Rock.

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
"The songs we wrote," Donovan said upon returning to the stage, "like 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,' were paintings." Donovan sang then his "Wear Your Love Like Heaven," and hearing the lyrics is like taking in Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party for the first time:
Color sky, havana lake
Color sky, rose carmethene
Alizarin crimson
Wear your love like heaven (Wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (Wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (Wear your love)
After the song, Donovan added, "In 1966 and 1967 everything burst into color. I wonder why." There was a general muffled laughter. During that period every band released its most psychedelic albums—with the Beatles it was spread across both Sgt Pepper's and Magical Mystery Tour. For the Rolling Stones it was Satanic Majesty's Request. And for The Who, it was Magic Bus.

Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" draws me into the psychedelic feeling, like a contact high shared with a thousand people, and he followed this with "Sunrise Superman" and "Season of the Witch."

Then Donovan told us a story about how, after a certain song became a hit, people keep coming up to Donovan and saying "It doesn't work." They were referring to smoking banana peels. People were desperate to try anything that was legal because oppressive governments were handing out sentences like twenty years for possessing a single marijuana cigarette. It was a funny story and the perfect lead-in for "Mellow Yellow," which ended the second set. Donovan's encore song was his masterpiece, "Atlantis," which roused the audience in one last fevered pitch before the magical evening was over.