Friday, March 24, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: The Taste Of Tomatoes

Food: 1:5
“Happy is the man…”
Photo Credit: ©Perry J. Greenbaum

I love tomatoes; even as a child I loved eating tomatoes, not only in salads but alone (with some salt) as a fruit. I often enjoyed a toasted tomato and onion sandwich with a bit of mayo and sometimes with a slice or two of cucumber. Nothing like a sweet juicy tomato on a hot summer day. Suffice to say, I am a big fan of tomatoes.

One of my fondest eating memories dates to the early 1980s, of eating fresh tomatoes (with a bit of salt) right off the vine, just as they became ripe, on a hot day in August; there was little to compare this to in terms of gustatory experience. The man who grew the tomatoes was much older than me, in his late seventies, and offered them to me as one would offer a prize possession. They were delicious, but I did not think much of it at the time.

After all, I had always expected tomatoes to taste like this. There was no reason then to expect otherwise. But I noticed recently, this being in the last decade or so, that there is something wrong with the taste of tomatoes as they have become larger and less sweet. They don’t taste right. They don’t taste like tomatoes.

Basket of Tomatoes: The larger the tomato, the blander the taste. Tomatoes lose their taste if kept in the fridge. It is better to keep them at room temperature. 
Photo Credit & Source: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

First I thought it was a matter of finding organic tomatoes, or non-GMO tomatoes or expensive fancy-type tomatoes or growing your own, which I did one year in a pot on our balcony. But, while these were an improvement in taste, they did not duplicate my memory of earlier years. I had all but given up, thinking that my memory was false, that I had just aged and my taste buds had aged along with my memory.

My family and friends chimed in that I must accept that my taste buds were not telling the truth. But then I came across this article (“The Quest to Return Tomatoes to Their Full-Flavored Glory;” January 26, 2017) by Brian Handwerk:
Today’s fruit simply doesn't pack the flavor of the old-fashioned tomato, finds a new genome study published today in the journal Science. “Genomic technologies, like the ones the authors used in this research, really enable us to study what happened to the tomato in a very effective way,” says Esther van der Knaap, a plant geneticist at the University of Georgia who was not involved in the new study. “What did we leave behind, and what are we carrying through?”
I now know that it was not me that changed, but the tomato. Thank you Mr. Handwerk for your article. I have been vindicated. Now I am waiting for the return of tasty and sweet tomatoes. I am waiting to repeat that experience from more than 35 years ago.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

First Day of Spring (2017)

The Seasons

Park ViewThis is taken from my sixth floor balcony at around 1:30 p.m. Spring arrived here officially in Toronto at 6:29 a.m. yesterday, Monday March 20th. Such marks the season of warm promise, when temperatures move upward from single digits. (February 2017 was the warmest on record, but March 2017 for the most part has seen below normal temperatures.) Yet, it might be warming up. The temperature when this photo was taken was 5°C (or 41°F); the forecast daytime high was 7°C (or 45°F). If the past is any indication, it does not really warm up here to spring-jacket weather—to at least 15°C (or 60°F)—until early April, basically coinciding with the beginning of the professional baseball season. Time to get my baseball gear ready.
Photo Credit & Source: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

Spring Flowers (2017): No flowers are evident outside, so it seemed like a good idea to buy some cut flowers and bring them indoors. Is there ever a time when one can say too much beauty exists in the world? 
Photo Credit & Source: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

Ducks in the Water: On Sunday, the day before the official arrival of Spring, we took a walk to the park near where we reside. There were a number of ducks—we counted nine in total—taking advantage of the thaw; it was a sunny 6°C (43°F). On Saturday, when we took a walk to the same spot, we witnessed two ducks on top of a thin sheet of ice, and there was more snow on the ground. It was much colder, with temperatures hovering around the freezing mark, and snowing slightly—not a pleasant day at all. One day can, indeed, make a difference, and not only for the ducks of Toronto.
Photo Credit & Source: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

Monday, March 20, 2017

Wanda Landowska: Mozart Sonata No. 13 (1956)

Via: Youtube

Wanda Landowska [born in Warsaw, Poland; 1879–1959] performs Mozart Sonata No. 13 in B flat major (K 333), which scholars say Mozart completed in the Austrian city of Linz at the end of 1783. Landowska, of course, is well-known for playing the harpsichord, her beloved French-made Pleyel (she called it “my very dear companion and friend, my love, my baby”), yet she does a marvelous job on the more modern instrument, the piano. You can hear her enjoyment and pleasure coming through; you can hear the sound of beauty.

Landowska was in her late seventies when she recorded this piece at her home in Lakeville, CT. The 2 LP box set was released by RCA Victor in 1956, to mark the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s birth (he was born on January 27th). This sonata is on Side B of the first album. This piece reminds me of spring, and thus it is dedicated to its timely return today.

1. Allegro
2. Andante cantabile (8:32)
3. Allegretto grazioso (21:44)

For those interested, there is an interview with Landowska [here], which was broadcast by WQXR New York (part of New York Public Radio). In it she discusses her views of Mozart and the interpretation of his music. There is an earlier interview [here], from 1953, for the NBC-TV program Wisdom, which aired from 1957–1965. In it, she explains her love of the harpsichord, how she worked assiduously to gain its wide public acceptance, and how it differs from the piano, which is better known.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Sufficient Freedom

My-Self: 1:4
“Happy is the man…”

“When the mind’s free,
The body’s delicate. ”
William Shakespeare
King Lear (1608), Act III, scene 4, line 11

When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” 
Ralph Ellison [1913–1994],
Invisible Man (1952)
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

Before December 18, 2012, I had never spent a night in the hospital. I was in excellent health, or so I thought. On that day, I was told that I had a tumor in my colon and it was cancer. In a blink of an eye, at age 55, my view of my health and of myself changed. This change is now permanent. Or so it seems at the moment.

What this tells me now—back then I was too immersed in treatment and recovery to think about the seriousness of this statement—is that change can and often does come about unexpectedly. So much so that one can never prepare for these shocks in life. And this news was a shock, as it is for so many others. My view of myself changed and continued to change in the months of treatment—the so-called new normal.

Even after treatments ended, what I had to face was another unpleasant truth: I was still no longer free to be myself, despite earnest but inadequate efforts on my part to do so, including taking on a regime of exercising and healthy eating, since this person no longer existed; he could not be resuscitated, returned to the land of the living. My diminishing physical abilities and the diminishing possibilities to recover it combined in some unholy alliance to change the way I saw myself.

I was also getting older, and continue to do so, that is, age, which brings with it similar losses of freedom. Things are not the way they once were.

A recognition occurs. I was placed, against my will and desire, in a awkward position of having to rediscover who I was, never a simple or easy task at any stage of life. This knowledge of Self is always bound up with the ideas of Freedom. It’s a personal journey on the tortuous (and at times, torturous) road of epistemology.

Even so, as always, there is a problem; there are speed bumps and other hazards on the road to sufficient knowledge and understanding. How much freedom we have in our lives is not really known, but we tend to not think about it until we lose some of it, or more pointedly, a slice of it in a pie of indeterminate size. Then, we know we have lost something and we also know that we have lost something important, essential to our being. This also helps us gauge, however inaccurate the measurement, how much freedom we once had, or seem to have had.

It is knowledge of some sort, but not the kind that offers any comfort.

It is also true that we always want more freedom than we have (are given?), and tend to bemoan later on the lack of freedom we currently have. In other words, we think that we have squandered what we once had in youth. When we had it in our grasp. But we did not know then what we know now. Isn’t this always the case?

It is our human nature to mourn the loss of something valuable. Different people respond differently to similar circumstances (it’s never exactly the same). Someone once said, I forget who it was, that “freedom begins in the mind,” that if you think that you are free, no matter the physical circumstances you find yourself in, then you are free.

This suggests that freedom can be conjured up in the mind, even if you are locked up in a small cell of a prison. Perhaps this works for some, but I am dubious of such claims, viewing any obstruction of movement as militating against freedom in the widest possible sense. It might work in reverse, as well; that your mind might imprison you, even as your body freely does what it wants or desires. Most people prefer and live by the second option.

The question is, as always, how much freedom is enough? Some people say they know the answer, but I am not one of them. I tend to view this as a question that has too many parameters to arrive at any universal consensus. But whatever it is, it is probably not enough for some humans and too much for others. There is always someone who’s unhappy at the work of politicians to either extend or limit freedoms.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Berlin Philharmonic: Mendelssohn’s Wedding March

Via: Youtube

The Berlin Philharmonic (Berliner Philharmoniker in German), Claudio Abbado [1933–2014] conducting, perform Felix Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” in C major, opus 61, incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play that William Shakespeare completed around 1596. Mendelssohn wrote the music for this comedy in 1842, more than two decades after he wrote the Overture for it. This particular performance was recorded at the Berlin Philharmonie on May 19, 2013. This would be Abbado’s last concert with the orchestra.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Holding On

Mental Health: 1:3
“Happy is the man…”

“Is there no way out of the mind?” 
Sylvia Plath [1932–1963],
The Bell Jar (1963)

Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

I came across this article (“Depression Classic”: February 6, 2017), by Adam Kirsch, in Tablet magazine, which led me to a book excerpt from This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression (2017) by Daphne Merkin, who writes:
I try to think of my experience of depression as “the dark season,” in part as a gesture of hope that it will depart just as it has arrived and in part as an effort at prettifying a condition that is wholly unaesthetic. When it comes, it doesn’t help to remind myself that I’ve been here before, that the place isn’t entirely new, that it’s got a familiar stale smell, a familiar lack of light and excess of enclosure. It doesn’t help to think of the poor or lost or blighted, of people being tortured in Syria, starved in the Sudan, or beaten in Baltimore. What I want to know is how I will ever get out from under, and whether there is really any other kind of season. You see, down here, where life hangs heavy like a suffocating cloak, I can’t remember that I’ve ever felt any other way. I need to be reminded that there are reasons in the world to hold on, even if I have forgotten them; I tell myself if I can just hold on I will remember them, these reasons, they will come back to me.
Well said, Ms. Merkin; and thank you for such expressions of honesty on a subject that remains difficult to discuss publicly with understanding, even today when so much else is discussed openly and glibly. What this writer does is say something important without inviting the need for pity or unsolicited advice. One good turn deserves another, I say. So, here goes; my turn.

I am by nature or by design or by circumstance—I am not sure which applies—an anxious person. I remember my mother as anxious. I have had bouts of depression in my life, although I have never taken any medication for it or have been hospitalized. I have, however, seen a number of psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists in my life, first starting at age 23 after the death of my father (in 1980 from colorectal cancer), a good and decent man who had more than his share of sufferings. Since this time, I have continued to visit with mental-health professions at various stages of my life after suffering losses that deeply affected me.

These mental-health professionals, who had various abilities and reservoirs of empathy, have proved helpful in dealing with my emotions and my fears and in sorting out my thought life. But they have not cured me, which I think will forever prove elusive. It’s an illness that one lives with for the rest of his life. Some can live with “it” better than others. I was sensitive as a child and am sensitive as an adult, probably overly sensitive for a world that views harshness and cruelty as normative. This is the way I see it. I truly wish I could see the world differently. It would ease my burdens and make my life easier.

For the millions of people who suffer from depression, Daphne Merkin’s writing explains much what we, to various degrees and at various times, feel and think. It occurs very much in the mind, those ruminating thoughts that are at times brilliant, but are often self-defeating. There is a large amount of guilt and self-recrimination. They can creep up on you or strike you at any time, on both sunny days and cloudy days, but the former is worse than the latter for me. Toronto has many cloudy days. We, as Merkin says, battle to “just hold on.” Writing helps for me, as does reading others’ confessions of how difficult it often is to live in this crazy and confusing world.

There is no way out of the mind, no way to escape it, for better or worse. The 21st century has not been kind to persons like me. We are “dinosaurs” on our way to extinction. I doubt that we will have a place in the history books. There might be a brief record of our existence. We continue, nevertheless; we hold on.

There is some comfort in an acknowledgement that someone cares, that someone understands and that someone will not abandon his friend because of his difficulties. Sure, it is not easy to be around an anxious or a depressed or a sad person—even a happy curmudgeon. The expression “thick and thin” means a lot for a reason.

As does that rarest of human qualities: loving-kindness.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Reading Now (March 2017): Too Much To Think About

The Moral Writer

Saul Bellow [1915-2005]: There Is Simply Too Much To Think About; Edited by Benjamin Taylor (2015).
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

This book, published in 2015, 10 years after Saul Bellow’s death in 2005 at the age of 89, is a fine collection of Bellow’s nonfiction essays. Many of the pieces speak about change, the pace of change and what it means to an American man of letters like Bellow, who lived their lives fully in the 20th century. It seems as if we have witnessed more changes in the last 15 years than in the 50 years preceding it, including and perhaps most notably the way we communicate and speak to each other.

Despite the change and the noise of life, Bellow hangs on to the belief of universal human nature; consider the following essay, “The Writer as Moralist,” published more than five decades ago, in 1963, on the question of the writer and his moral purpose, which touches on life itself:
If we don’t want to continue, why write books? The wish for death is powerful and silent. It represents actions; it has no need of words. But if we answer yes, we do want it to continue, we are liable to be asked how. In what form shall life be justified. That is the essence of the moral question. (164-65)
I find Bellow’s words true, even as I find them hard to put into practice effectively and continually with conviction, limited as I am by the circumstances in which I live. If it is to be lived “justified,” what does this mean? I know it has to do with the good life. Has its meaning changed in the last fifty years? Is morality relative to both culture and time? to moral intelligence? to financial means? Or are there real universal truths to be found? Internal debate or Hegelian dialectic carries with it the hope of leading to a final confirming truth.

I too “believe” in universal human nature, even as it finds fewer and fewer followers today, trampled to death by the current manners (and memes) of universal confusion wrapped in the cloak of anger. Arrayed against the Man of Universal Ideas are many obstacles, placed one in front of the other. There is no shortage of doubt; there is no shortage of failed plans; there is no shortage of shallow efforts, which is not the same as best effort. There are few victories, and thus few reasons to celebrate.

In the case of this writer, I can offer much in the way of observations and too little in the way of answers, other than to continue on living. I don’t think that we can go back, return to another time and place, despite strong yearnings (for some cases and for some reasons) to do so (e.g., more civility and hope and less confusion and chaos). What has not changed is the attack on the individual; although it seems to be done today with more ferocity and with greater vulgarity and certainty. This is all easily justified with little thoughtful reflection—another sign of confusion, it seems.

The writer in general is left to observe the current age, not with disinterest or detachment, but with honest appraisal. The decay and moral rot (always) seems worse in the time in which one lives. It, the sense of putrefaction of civil society, becomes stronger as one ages, fearing that things are not quite the way they ought to be, that we as a civilization have descended the steps of humanity, falling through the rotting floor. There is a sense of urgency, but the first responders don’t reach the scene of the accident.

Even as I state this, I lick my wounds and look up. I can’t say that our world is a pleasant one at this particular time, but it does have its magnificent moments of beauty, its subtle scents of sanity.

Friday, March 3, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: A Man Provides

“Happy is the man…”
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

Via: Youtube (“A Man Provides”)

I have been watching “Breaking Bad,” an AMC TV series, with my teenage son on Netflix. I know that this was a popular American series, and at first I watched it for the benefit of my son, but now I am enjoying it immensely. The acting and writing is top-notch. For those who have no knowledge of the series, a modern morality play, Wikipedia provides an excellent summary:
It tells the story of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a struggling high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. Together with his former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), White turns to a life of crime, producing and selling crystallized methamphetamine to secure his family's financial future before he dies, while navigating the dangers of the criminal world. The title is from a Southern colloquialism meaning to "raise hell". Breaking Bad is set and was filmed in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
In “Breaking Bad: Más” (Season 3:5; April 2010), approximately mid-way through the series, a drug kingpin (Gus Fring) tries to convince a chemist (Walter White) to work for him by appealing to his sense of manhood and his duty as a parent:
Gus Fring: What does a man do Walter? A man provides for his family.
Gus Fring: When you have children, you will always have family. they will always be your priority, your responsibility. And a man, a man provides. And he does it even when he’s not appreciated, or respected, or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it. Because he’s a man.
Leaving aside the illegal nature of the business, what Gus says is true; it is also true that men will understand (and acknowledge) this more than women, chiefly because there are a few things more important to a man’s sense of worth and well-being than working and in being a good provider to his family. This is not saying that women don’t enjoy working, but that men need to work to view themselves as worthy, credible and respectful members of society.

Another way of seeing this is look at what happens in places when the unemployment rate for men rises. It is about a steady paycheck and what this represents for men: a sense of self and purpose as well as dignity (from Latin: dignitatem or worthiness). It might be hard to believe that so much good can come about from men gainfully employed, yet it can and does. Such is the record of human history.

One can argue against this, but you will have a hard time convincing most men that they are wrong on this count. Call it human biology or cultural conditioning, it matters not. Neither does belittling the chief argument of why a man must provide. A man who is not working and not providing for his family is a man who is not only unproductive but also unhappy, often to the point of being miserable. Society is better off and more stable when a great majority of its men are employed. Men then have a secure and stable place in society.

Yes, some things are both simple and true.