Archives for category: Modern Society

DINING IN NORTH CAROLINA

It’s been five years since we moved to North Carolina from New Jersey and I’m still learning important new things about myself. This morning, I learned I don’t like cheese on my grits.
Most aspects of life here are easy to accept. Compared to New Jersey, the winters are warm, traffic is almost non-existent, and taxes are comically low. Food, however, is challenging. One of the best aspects of life in the land of the Soprano’s was availability of excellent Italian food. The only difficulty was determining WHICH restaurant to choose. In North Carolina, “Italian food” is largely confined to the defrosted fare found in mall-based chain restaurants.
Lately, after dining experiences ranging from dismal to mediocre that require a longer drive, we confine our Italian sorties to the place closest to our home with an authentic, old-world Italian name; we ignore the fact that it is actually run by two young, Brazilian sisters. As to pizza, we now make it ourselves.
Bagels also are better in New Jersey. Every town in the Garden State has at least one shop worthy of visiting on a sleepy Sunday morning. And you can count on a selection of whitefish salad and cheeses and cream cheese to go with the bagels. Not so in Dixie. Again, there’s a chain store in a shopping mall that stands in for a bagel shop; I wouldn’t want to be the first customer in a month to order a schmeer.
North Carolina is proud of its “barbecue.” Apparently, it competes with most other southern states for the designation as “the best.” Our local variety is vinegar-based, as opposed to the tomato-based type found in Texas and elsewhere. I’m not qualified to judge. I’ve eaten a couple of sandwiches. They were okay.
North Carolina cuisine also features something called “hush puppies,” which I’d grown up thinking were casual shoes worn by people with sore feet. Instead, hush puppies here are fried, finger-sized filets of dough, seasoned with varied amounts of sugar, sometimes including onions. Barbecue and seafood establishments are equally likely to place a plastic container of hush puppies on the table in lieu of the delicious Italian bread I crave. Though not inclined to “watch my weight,” I’ve never eaten a hush puppy without thinking: “What a waste of calories!”

Back to today: I awoke with an urge to go out for breakfast. In New Jersey, we would have debated which of several corner restaurants or diners fit the bill, all of which were within a five minute drive from our home. In Chapel Hill, our selection is between two places twenty minutes away: either the pancake place of esteemed reputation among the college crowd, or the elegant restaurant attached to “Southern Seasons,” the local gourmet shop.
Dismayed by the dry, indifferently-served pancakes in our last foray for pancakes, we opted for glamour. First, let me state clearly I intend no disrespect to Southern Seasons. The store is beautifully appointed and well stocked with every kitchen utensil and ingredient known to man; it’s a fine culinary establishment. Their restaurant, “The Weathervane,” is lovely inside and includes a flower-bedecked patio for outside dining. Because the inside air conditioning created a temperature akin to the South Pole to our just-back-from-Costa Rica bodies, we opted to sit outdoors.
The menu contained the usual selection of high-end breakfast fare, such as: eggs Benedict, smoked salmon and fruit and cheese selection du jour. Each ingredient’s organic and free trade bonafides are listed. As the one who suggested this treat instead of a bowl of cereal at home, I didn’t complain aloud about the prices, though the thought crossed my mind: “$12.95 for pancakes!? Are they made with truffles?” Hmmmm, possibly.
I ordered scrambled eggs with bacon, a biscuit and grits, a respectable southern meal. Grits, oddly, are the southern taste most readily enjoyed by me. Though derived from corn, they remind me of the cream of wheat my mother served when I was young. Compared to collard greens or black-eyed peas, for instance, I find grits to be the most accessible southern staple.
Our server was a local native, full of good cheer and “how y’all doin’ this mornin’?”
“Y’all want some cheese with those grits?” she asked. “Got pepper jack.”
Pepper in my grits sounded like a bridge too far, but I was persuaded by her good cheer to include aged Scottish cheddar. After all, The Weathervane is not the Waffle House, where grits require fake maple syrup for flavor.
“Are you sure you’ll like that?” asked my wife, Katie.
“How bad can it be?” I said. “I like grits, and I like cheddar cheese.”

Alas, when the plate arrived, I found the two tastes too divergent for my palate. The grits were bland and creamy; the cheese vibrant, salty and firm. “Yuck,” I said, after one bite.
Fortunately, the eggs were tasty, the bacon crisp and the biscuit fine. When the bill came, I learned that our server had succeeded in “up-selling” me a couple dollars on the cheese. I didn’t blame her; live and learn, y’all. Most of me is happy to have moved to North Carolina; only my stomach has some misgivings.

Advertisements

P. T. !!!

My wife, Katie, is diligently subjecting herself to variations of Medieval torture as part of post-shoulder surgery physical therapy. The house is outfitted with ropes, pulleys, weights and rubber bands a thousand times larger than the ones that hold a pony tail in place. Moans and groans intermittently form an auditory back-drop, and they don’t indicate satisfaction.
Increasingly, at social gatherings among middle-aged people, maladies and therapies dominate the conversation, and more medical information is exchanged than I wish to acquire. My personal accumulation of unwanted medical knowledge commenced twenty years ago, when I was thirty-seven, and awoke to find a burning arrow wedged in the lower section of my back. Not a literal burning arrow, of course, but it may as well have been. I had never felt anything like it as I tried to stand up. I fell to my knees and crawled, ashen, towards the bathroom.
“What is it?” asked Katie.
“I don’t know,” I said through clenched teeth. “But it’s, it’s, it’s amazingly painful.”
“What does it feel like?” she asked.
“Indescribable,” I said, honestly, for I could not find words to do justice to the distress calling from a part of my body I’d never contemplated.
“What caused it?” she asked.
“Um,” I said. “Maybe lifting the children yesterday? Maybe ice skating last week? Maybe playing soccer fifteen years ago? Does it matter?” I didn’t intend to be snippy, but my mood was darkened by agony.
After pulling myself up with the help of the sink I found that standing ramrod straight provided some relief. Laying flat on my stomach, too, merely yielded pain, several steps down from anguish. Any position in between was excruciating.
“I’ll drive you to see Keith,” said Katie, referring to a client of mine who was a chiropractor. “He’ll know what to do.”
“I’m not sure I can sit in the car,” I said.
“We’ll use the station wagon,” she said. “You can lie flat in the back.”
“Like luggage?” I asked.
“Like a pair of skies,” she said.
“Wonderful.” I grimaced.

Keith needed only to look at my facial expression to take me in ahead of a full waiting room. After he elicited several unnerving cracks from my lower back, he declared: “It’s a strain of your gluteus maximus, a large butt muscle. It’ll loosen up as the day goes on.”
“Well, I’m certainly skipping my tennis game tonight,” I said.
“No, you can play tonight; it’ll be good for it.”
I looked at Keith incredulously, but he appeared confident. “Call me tomorrow,” he said, “to let me know how you feel. Then, if you come three times a week for a month or so, we can make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
With his “adjustments” and several Tylenol I was able to work that day, standing. Katie drove me home in the rear of the car.
“Should I really play tennis tonight?” I asked.
“Keith seemed to think it would help,” she replied.
When we arrived home, I shook my head as I gingerly changed for my weekly doubles game.
“This seems crazy,” I said.
I drove myself to the courts holding my body straight like a plank to reach the pedals. I hobbled onto the court and took a few warm-up swings. Immediately, the pain erupted like a volcano. I could barely utter apologies to my playing partners before staggering back to the parking lot. The drive home was luckily without incident as I drove in a haze of pain. Once there, I brushed past Katie at the door and fell, clothed, onto my bed for a largely sleepless night.
Before I could call Keith in the morning, he called me, which made me wonder how confident he felt about his diagnosis.
“How’s your back?” he asked.
“I’m really suffering,” I croaked. “Tennis was NOT helpful.”
The line was silent for a moment. Perhaps, Keith was reviewing his malpractice insurance policy.
“Um, let’s schedule you for an MRI,” he said, finally.

My first lifetime MRI was memorable. I had no problem with claustrophobia, as some do. And the odd, metallic clunking noises didn’t bother me. But lying flat on my back meant I was directly on top of the pain source.
“I think I know what childbirth feels like,” I said afterward, recalling Katie’s facial expressions during those events. Having seen me crawl out of bed, she didn’t disagree.
The radiologist immediately declared my condition to be a herniation of the L-5 S-1 disk, for those keeping score. Newly familiar with such descriptive terms as “lumbar” and “thoracic,” I told Keith, and he said: “Come in for some adjustments and electrical stimulation. I’ve fixed many a herniated lumbar disc. It might just be a bulge.”
For nearly a month, I worked standing all day at my law practice and traveled prone in the back of Katie’s station wagon or in the back of accommodating realtors’ or clients’ cars. I avoided sitting, even at closings, though that made me the subject of intense curiosity, and subjected me to other peoples’ sore back stories which, to my surprise, nearly everyone had. Keith “manipulated” and “adjusted” and “stimulated” my lower back every other day. At a minimum, Keith’s efforts served to pay his mortgage that month.
“The difference between how a herniation presents and how a strained gluteus maximus presents is subtle,” he started to explain one day.
“Unh,” I grunted in unsympathetic skepticism.
“If it’s just a ‘bulging’ disk, it can recover,” he reassured. “You definitely don’t want surgery.”
He was right about not wanting surgery. However, at Katie’s insistence, we sought a second opinion from an orthopedist. “If it’s merely ‘bulging,’ the chiropractor is correct,” said Dr. Bellotti, after probing my lower back for a brief instant, sufficient to nearly make me scream. “But I think yours is fully ‘extruded.’”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“You know how when an egg breaks, you can’t put the yolk back in the shell?” said the doctor. “That’s fully extruded.”
Dr. Bellotti referred me to Dr. Quain, whom he described as “the best neurosurgeon around.” Katie drove her human cargo across the George Washington Bridge to his office at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital the next day. There, Dr. Quain, a bald, sixty-something man of imposing girth and booming voice, banged my kneecap for a reflex that elicited no response and declared, like in the movies: “you’re not going home tonight. We will operate at dawn.”
“But the chiropractor said…” I started
“Chiropractors are merely one evolutionary step above slime,” he said in a tone that allowed no disagreement. “Your extrusion is extreme. Your sciatic nerve is completely blocked, so we must remove the disk material. When there’s no reflex, effective use of your leg is at risk.”

Sciatic nerve? Worse and worse. I was learning additional new vocabulary, and now I was slated for emergency surgery. The situation had only one consolation: my room on the twelfth floor at Columbia Presbyterian had an unobstructed, priceless view of the George Washington Bridge. I gazed at it all evening from my unmoving position in bed while I awaited the excavation of my lower back. I recall being delighted the bridge’s lights danced like fireflies, but I’m sure painkillers had something to do with my enchanting vision.

I recall little from the day of surgery except that Katie told Dr. Quain sternly: “You’re going to perform the surgery, right? Not an intern.” In this instance, her tone of voice allowed for no disagreement. The doctor agreed.
When I awoke after surgery, I felt instant relief, as though the herniation had never occurred. Once painkillers wore off, I experienced spasms for several days while the sciatic nerve reverted back to its old route down the spine. (More acquired knowledge!) But the interesting part of the experience was that the doctor did not visit me the next day.
“Does the scar look okay to you?” he asked Katie on the phone.
“I guess,” she said.
“Then he’s okay for discharge,” said Dr. Quain. “Come see me in a month. Meanwhile, have him take it easy.”
“That’s it?” she asked.
“He’ll be fine,” said the doctor. “Good-bye.”

One month later, now totally pain-free, Katie and I visited Dr. Quain. He looked at his handiwork briefly, and concluded: “Looks good. Now, nothing but walking or swimming for you.”
“For how long?” I asked.
“For life,” he said.
“But I play tennis, and soccer,” I said. “I want to play with my children, too.”
The doctor shook his head.
“What about physical therapy?” asked Katie.
“Not necessary,” said Dr. Quain.
Katie was not convinced. “I’d like a physical therapy prescription, in case he feels up to it.”
The doctor shrugged and wrote out a sheet. “Twice a week, if you insist,” he said. “But not before six months. Just remember, I’m not in favor of strenuous activity.”

Taking the doctor’s words to heart, I treated my lower back like a Tiffany egg. I didn’t touch it. In accordance with suggestions from “bad back” magazine articles (practically an entire genre) I made sure to exit cars with both legs first, to never twist around to reach behind, to roll out of bed without abrupt movements. I warded off physical contact with the kids, and let my racquets gather dust in the closet with my golf clubs.
Exactly six months after surgery, Katie scheduled a physical therapy appointment for me.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “But you’re going to try it. You can’t just give up all activities in your mid-thirties.”
She was right. I had to try, but how could a stranger touch my lower back? I barely ran my fingertips over the scar when I took a shower. I pictured it as a hot-spot of total disaster, like the button for a nuclear weapon.
When I arrived at the office for my appointment, I was relieved to see my randomly assigned therapist, Susan. She was a petite blonde, about five-foot-two, and clearly not capable of inflicting pain. I wondered if she worked with adults or only small children. Her hands looked too small for her profession.
“So, what have you got?” she asked.
I lifted my shirt to show her my small scar just above the belt-line.
“How does it feel?” she asked. “Does it hurt?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I never touch it.”
“Never?” she said, “for six months?”
“Doctor Quain said to ‘take it easy,’” I said, sheepishly.
“Ah, Dr. Quain. He’s ‘old school.’ Doesn’t believe in therapy and, incidentally, he believes his ‘cure rate’ is better if his patients never move. Lie down and lift your shirt,” she said, with a smile in which I thought I detected a glint of sadism.
Apprehensive, I arranged myself carefully on the therapy table. “Are you going to touch…?”
Before I could finish my sentence, Susan plowed into my scar with her knuckles, as though she were kneading the toughest cookie dough in history. In my shock, I almost screamed in anticipation of the tsunami of pain waves that were rushing at me. Then I realized, I felt… nothing at all. My back was totally healed.

For two months, I visited Susan twice a week. She provided a regimen of stretches. I commenced performing them daily to keep my back in shape. It is fair to say that my lower back is now the strongest part of my body; it’s the only part that has been exercised at least 350 days a year for twenty years.
I resumed playing soccer with the children shortly after therapy ended, and I play vigorous tennis now. I am still careful to “bend my knees” when I lift something, to avoid excessive sitting, and to walk every day. I am a BELIEVER in physical therapy, which will doubtless be necessary again. Let’s see, occasionally clamoring for attention these days are the right elbow, the left knee, and the right wrist. Time does not go backwards.


GOING ORGANIC

As both a new arrival to North Carolina and a recent refugee from a law career, I was seeking a new and interesting experience. An organic farming class offered at Central Carolina Community College fit the bill. Not only would I learn new gardening techniques and pest control measures, but for three hours a week I could sample the life of a working farmer.
Little did I suspect that organic farming consists of only one part gardening to nine parts chemistry and soil analysis. For a former literature major like myself, there were intolerably massive doses of incomprehensible terms like “Ph”.
The first class, held at a real farm in Pittsboro, began with the customary introduction of the participants. Several were already professional farmers in search of knowledge in the “organic” realm. Several others were considering career changes into full-time farming, though they had degrees or experience in such related fields as botany or forestry. One classmate had just inherited twenty-seven acres and craved direction and inspiration — organic farm or housing development? A contingent were women intent upon establishing a lesbian commune. And then there was me, in over my head, a retired lawyer who grows a backyard vegetable garden.
The farmer/professor was Doug Jones, whose past was intriguing. Doug graduated from Harvard circa 1975 and somehow missed the memo about investment banking. His was the stringy body of a man who has done backbreaking, painstaking physical labor for nearly forty years. Just as stringy was the grey ponytail down the middle of his back.
Certainly, Doug’s jeans, boots and flannel shirts started out clean each day; however, by the five p.m. start of our weekly class, they were always caked in strata of North Carolina soil that Doug could analyze in intense, fascinated detail, for several hours. To me, they looked muddy.
And THAT summarizes the course for me. Yes, I learned to place a tomato plant sideways in its hole. I learned to squeeze a seedling with proper tenderness when transplanting. I learned to construct a raised bed and to make a temporary greenhouse. I learned one should not refer to the class as “orgasmic” gardening in front of classmates who do not consider it a laughing matter.
But I also learned being a farmer is extraordinarily hard work. There are challenges wrought by bugs and bacteria made exponentially harder by the organic element. And, organic or not, there are battles with heat, drought, floods and hail. Yes, hail in North Carolina! And there are vagaries of produce prices and supply shortages, etc.
Farming is a seven-day-a-week, 365-day-a-year pursuit, and if the farmer is LUCKY, there is a small profit in the end. While I am happy to apply the lessons I learned to my humble garden at home, there is no new career in it for me. Ultimately, what I learned is not to complain about the price of organic produce at the market.


FEAR OF FLYING FRONTIER

Friends and family scoffed when I booked a recent flight to Philadelphia via the Frontier Airlines “hub” at the Trenton-Mercer County Airport in New Jersey.
“What kind of an airport is that?” asked one.
“I’ve never heard of that airline,” said another. “Do you need to flap your arms?”
“I hope Chris Christie doesn’t come over to shut the runway,” said a third.
“Well, I might get a story out of it,” I said, truthfully. “If nothing else, I’ll be $200 ahead.”
Yes, this was one of the few times I have chosen an activity in anticipation of a story. It didn’t hurt that the famous Frontier trip from Raleigh to Trenton costs only $39 versus the holiday-season-inflated $239 being charged by “real” airlines to fly to Philadelphia’s “real” airport.
“I guess it’ll be a little prop plane,” said my wife, Katie. She could not join me due to work obligations, but she supported my choice of airline; in fact, she’s the one who found it on-line.
“You haven’t taken out a life insurance policy on me lately, have you?” I asked, at the time.
“No,” she replied, smiling. “But maybe I should.”
Trying to ignore the image in my mind of a World-War II-era propeller plane, I moved on to additional logistical concerns: “How will I get from Trenton to my mother’s?” I said. “It wouldn’t be fair to have someone drive all the way to Trenton to pick me up.”
Instant research revealed the existence of a taxi that runs from the airport to a commuter train station in West Trenton, from which I could take a local train to downtown Philadelphia. From there, I could take another commuter line to Overbrook, a short walk from my mother’s condominium in the western suburbs. My personal version of Planes, Trains and Automobiles was set.
A number of prejudices had to be overcome in order for me to fly Frontier. There are certain aspects of life in which I accept generic or store-brand products, such as: aspirin, pasta, tee-shirts and copy paper. There are also areas in life that simply cannot be compromised, in my opinion, and require “name brands.” Principle among these are raisins, ketchup, tuna fish and tennis balls.
The above lists are neither comprehensive nor, necessarily, rational, but have developed over the years, and I am devoted to them. Airlines are a realm that have never been definitively on one side or the other; I’ve had tolerably tedious, as well as miserable experiences, on a variety of “major” airlines. Few non-“major” choices have arisen and, frankly, I’ve been comfortable with that. Thinking about Frontier, after all, sparked an anxiety-provoking recollection of a long-ago flight from Detroit to Muskegon on a six-seater that resembled a seventy-five minute roller coaster ride.
Still, for a story and $200, I was game.
The first thing I noticed about Frontier’s presence at Raleigh was that it was almost non-existent. The airport designated a skinny wooden lectern, nearly invisible between a newsstand and a restroom, as their “gate.” In numerous visits to Raleigh’s airport, I had never noticed it. Expecting only ten or twelve fellow travelers, I was shocked to see a crush of humanity wedged into the area around the lectern like sardines.
When I looked out the airport window, I was relieved to see a “real” airplane waiting, festooned with pictures of grizzly bears on the tail. “Before their last bankruptcy, they were based in Montana,” a man behind me explained to his friend.
Right on time, a young Frontier employee behind the lectern attempted to announce the boarding process. After several tries, it was apparent her microphone wouldn’t work. So she cheerfully displayed her North Carolina roots by shouting: “Y’all can start gettin’ on the plane.”
“Everyone at once?” asked the man beside me.
“Yep,” she said. “Ain’t no first class on Frontier.”
“Okay,” I thought. “We’ll ALL be second class passengers.”
And so it went. One hundred and fifty people piled onto the Airbus 318 and took their assigned seats in twenty-five six-seat rows. Surprising to me, every seat was taken. Boarding was random and chaotic, and we took off twenty minutes late, but so much extra time was built into the schedule that we arrived in Trenton ten minutes “early” after an uneventful fifty-nine minute flight.
The only anomaly was that a passenger across the aisle had a small dog in her lap. The flight attendant said: “The dog has to stay in its box.” But when the owner/parent replied: “She gets nervous in there,” the attendant thought for a moment, shrugged, and said: “I guess it doesn’t really matter.” Thus, the puppy remained out and eventually found its way to every lap in our row amidst much laughter. It yipped occasionally, but made less noise than numerous humans I’ve flown beside. Somehow, I can’t see that happening on United.


CONCERT-GOING

I found myself at Memorial Hall on the UNC campus last night for a concert by the Israel Philharmonic. They are touring the United States this spring and fit in a date at our local university on their way from NY to Miami. What a thrill it turned out to be!
First, the people. Though I was born when Eisenhower was president, a symphony concert is still a place where I am, relatively-speaking, in the flush of youth. Much of the crowd appeared to have been bused in from retirement and assisted living facilities. Only a tiny contingent, perhaps three percent, were college students. And, judging by the amount of time they spent furtively playing video games and checking e-mail and Facebook during the concert, I suspect most of them were in attendance in order to score bonus points from their Music 101 professors.
My first glance at the program was concerning. There was a piece by Faure, followed by two by Ravel, and finally, Berlioz. While I like classical music, I admit to being somewhat of a meat and potatoes fan, with large doses of the big guys, Beethoven, Brahms and Bach. I prefer discernible melodies and rhythms. I know Ravel, in particular, to be full of atmospherics; his is the sort of music where you aren’t sure when to applaud.
My concern was somewhat confirmed when I noted the orchestra to contain not one, but two harps. More than one harp is rarely a good sign for fans of un-subtle symphonic music.
This being the Israel Philharmonic, in order to access the hall, I had to walk through a gauntlet of demonstrators. These misguided souls are under the impression, apparently, that violinists have a role in setting government policy. They are aggrieved that cultural exchanges are occurring between our country and Israel and feel that Muslim culture is short-changed.
Two things came to mind. First, a troupe of Muslim performers were at UNC last fall, called the Manganyar Seduction. I found their performance to be fabulous and interesting and none of the demonstrators outside were even aware that performance had taken place, much less attended it. Second, as I assured them, if Palestine or Iraq or even Abu Dhabi sent over a world class orchestra, I would be delighted to hear them. In fact, if the Gazans could manage a first-rate string quartet, I’d be willing to listen. In my opinion, to demonstrate against the appearance of the IPO was simply lunatic.
Back to the music: The Faure piece, Pelleas et Melisande, turned out to be familiar. The performance was splendid, subtle but beautiful. It was not dynamic enough to turn the students away from their mobile devices, however. The Ravel selections proved as atmospheric as feared, but still had lovely moments and some surprising risings and swellings of sound. Unfortunately, both pieces were divided into six or seven portions. After each section there was a pause. And during each pause, the audience felt compelled to let loose with a spasm of coughing, sneezing and throat-clearing that made me think I was at a nineteenth-century tuberculosis sanitarium, or in my usual situation on an airplane.
Listening to Ravel afforded me the chance to contemplate. I thought about the experience of attending a concert in Chapel Hill versus my previous home in the suburbs of New York. There, world class performances were always available. Unfortunately, accessing Lincoln Center from Ramsey, NJ sometimes required the logistics of the Normandy invasion, particularly if it was on a weeknight evening. Also, the cost was astronomical, and the crowd seemed jaded and unimpressed.
In Chapel Hill, we attend concerts for twenty percent of the cost, five percent of the hassle, and everyone is excited to be there, except for some of the students. When we go to hear the sixty-piece North Carolina Symphony we never fail to conclude: “Wow, they are really, really good. They are only 90-95 percent as polished as the New York Philharmonic, but for the price and convenience, it’s a worthwhile trade-off.”
But “really, really good” is not the same as phenomenal. Once in a while, it is necessary to be reminded of true greatness, of a full-throated ensemble of 105 off-the-charts-amazing musicians, working together as one to deliver a timeless performance. The second half of last night’s concert, featuring Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” was such an event.
From the first notes, the performance held the hall in rapt attention. The coughers were suddenly cured, the few students who had not escaped at intermission looked up from their smartphones. The music rolled, like waves, from section to section of the orchestra. Bells tolled, drums boomed, strings flowed in unison.
The familiar piece, so well-known as to seem dull to me on the radio, was thrilling to see in person. Who knew there was a timpani quartet in the middle of the final movement or that an improbably bearded, yalmulke-wearing orthodox percussionist could play a snare drum with such aplomb? When the last blasts from the brass section sounded like cannons it was as though we were transported to another dimension, where sound-waves vibrated every wall, every seat, right through to the bones.
When the final chords subsided, there was a pause before the audience realized they were still on this earth, at a concert, and it was time to applaud. The sound welled up quickly, with people shouting “bravo” and rising as one to provide the deserved standing ovation. The crowd refused to stop cheering until the conductor returned and led an encore.
“Wow, these people are starved for culture,” I imagine some of the musicians were thinking. But, no, Chapel Hill has a laudable amount of culture. We have many very, very good performances to enjoy. We just don’t often have a world class orchestra in front of us. And we didn’t want to let them go.


CLIMATE OF DISBELIEF

I have a dear friend who I know is more politically conservative than I. However, I respect his intelligence and have always been impressed by his sharp humor, his professional success and his love of family. In short, he is a “mensch” and, accordingly, I try not to allow honest disagreements over things like tax policy and foreign affairs to interfere with our friendship.
My friend often forwards e-mail attachments containing jokes or links to interesting or touching stories. Rarely does he venture into politics and, when he does, the subjects are largely non-controversial. In face-to-face discussions, we have found common ground on such subjects as crime, American intervention in foreign wars and baseball (both our preferred teams stink). I was surprised, therefore, when he recently sent me a link to a purported “finding” that global warming is a hoax.
Several earlier posts touting solar power reveal my lack of objectivity on this subject. I am a believer that there is no more important issue in the world than the environment. Polls show me to be among only 2% of respondents who feel that way. I understand that most of the other 98% feel there are other priorities, but I’d never thought I would encounter a person in my milieu, who is an actual “denier.” Those people are lumped in my mind with the lunatic fringe, along with folks who deny the Holocaust, evolution, the dangers of smoking, and who agree with Sarah Palin on any subject.
“You’re kidding, right?” I wrote back.
“No, I’m really interested to see how you would debate this,” he responded.
“I won’t waste my time ‘debating’ something that is beyond debate,” I wrote. “This is settled science.”
I hoped the subject was forgotten when another e-mail arrived the next day attaching an alleged study conducted by three PhD’s. “You’ve gotta admit it’s just possible you’re wrong.” he tweaked. “This paper is convincing. The planet is actually cooling.”
Unhappily, I spent an hour wading through the turgid prose of the three professors. Most of their arguments consisted of picking apart the methodology of various climate studies, the format of their statistics, and offering alternative interpretations of data. For instance, if one examines several particular five year periods in the last century, one can find what appears to be a cooling trend. Most of what I felt, however, was confusion. It was as though a shotgun of arguments was being indiscriminately fired at the solid wall of climate research in the expectation that several pellets would find an opening. As intended by the authors, I imagined, when I finished reading, I felt confused.
“If real PhD’s see so many holes in the argument,” I thought to myself, “perhaps it has been a little hyped. Heaven knows, Al Gore is not above self-promotion.”
I decided to check out the three professors on the internet. The first turned out to be a marketing professor at a college in Australia. Her research was funded by the mining industry. The second was a business professor in Pennsylvania. He was a paid spokesperson for the coal industry and supplemented his income by lobbying in favor of the construction of coal-powered electricity plants. The third author was a medical doctor, also unrelated in any way to climate science, who has been reliant upon Exxon and/or the Petroleum Institute since at least 1994. Whenever there was a conference or debate regarding climate science, he was paid to appear on behalf of industry and present their talking points.
“The authors are charlatans,” I wrote to my friend. “You should check their credentials before sending me this garbage. They are not even remotely scientists. One must ‘consider the source’ when viewing papers that happen to support the interests of rich and powerful industries.”
I was certain my friend would regret having misled me. I expected him to thank me for setting him straight, for introducing to him a minimal level of skepticism. I could not imagine he would lend credence to Donald Trump with regards to someone’s birthplace, for instance.
“Okay,” he responded. “Check out this one.”
A link was attached to a 2009 study indicating that thousands of scientists have been organized to oppose the ‘consensus’ on global warming by a “noted physicist, Frederick Seitz, a recipient of the National Science Award.”
With no small degree of trepidation, I researched Dr. Seitz. On the face of it, he was a significant thinker. For forty years, starting in 1939, Dr. Seitz was a brilliant innovator and academician. Late in his career as a physicist, however, he became aligned with cigarette manufacturers and used his status as a noted “scientist” for their benefit. It is not clear what, but something happened in his life that made him go over to “the dark side.” Some have speculated he needed money. Others suggest he felt marginalized in mainstream science by the 1970’s and was looking for a way to “fight back.”
Dr. Seitz was not merely a skeptic that nicotine was addictive and harmful; he was the leader of the pack. He organized a campaign that churned out a blizzard of “pseudo-scientific” doubt about nicotine addiction. He reaped massive monetary rewards for his efforts. Partially as a result, it took over twenty years from the time of the Surgeon General’s 1964 report on its dangers for meaningful efforts to curb smoking to be implemented. In the meantime, how many additional millions of people suffered the effects of addiction? How many billions of dollars were earned by the cigarette industry?
As older readers may recall, and younger readers may be surprised to learn, Richard Nixon was the president who established the EPA and signed the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts of 1969. Protection of the environment was a bipartisan concern. After all, Democrats and Republicans breathe the same air and drink the same water. How did Fred Seitz come to be connected to the climate issue? To make a story that is the subject of entire books extremely short, (See “Merchants of Doubt” by Oreskes and Conway, 2010, if you want the LONG version) it happened like this:
Led by Exxon, the oil industry perceived their long-term profitability could be threatened if carbon-based industries were limited. In the early 1980’s, they turned to the same “scientists” who obfuscated the tobacco issue for so long – not just FIGURATIVELY the same, but LITERALLY. Fred Seitz had done so well on behalf of cigarette manufacturers he was enlisted to plant seeds of doubt regarding climate change, to contest the uncontestable, to poison the well, so to speak. He reassembled his “dream team” of obfuscators, once again, to run roughshod over consensus scientific conclusions and plant their writings in sympathetic journals. In a stroke of evil genius, he recognized that the issue could be couched as part of “The Liberal Agenda.” Thus, news outlets (everyone knows which ones) that reflexively make light of issues supported by progressives became free, twenty-four hour-a-day doubt-sowing machines. The urgency to combat the problem of carbon-fuels addiction has been effectively muted by the resistance of half our political representatives in the thrall of industry contributions.
“How could I make my friend see the light?” I wondered. He seems disinclined to read even the simplest background material on the authors he recommends. He would dismiss such information, apparently, as products of the “lame-stream media.” I was feeling despair when I recalled something about my friend: one of the coolest things about him, and one of the things that made me admire him originally, was that the chain of pharmacies he owned did not sell cigarettes. He sacrificed profit for principle.
“I’ll remind him,” I thought, and dutifully asked him if he recalled taking such a position. For good measure, I mentioned once again Dr. Seitz’s more-than-coincidental connection to both tobacco and climate change, thinking my friend’s having pierced one veil of denial would lead to his piercing of another.
He wrote back almost immediately: “My idea was very simple, how could we sell cigs in the front of the store and meds in the back? Seemed very hypocritical to me. Nothing to do with the environment or green movement.”
I was dumbstruck. Again. Where I see clarity, rationality and obvious connection, this man, whose IQ I know to be significantly higher than average, (not only is he great at business, he’s a tough out in Words with Friends) sees only a left-wing conspiracy. My only hope is his revulsion at hypocrisy. I’m sure I could point out instances of hypocrisy on his side of the argument but, realistically, he’ll just tout the glacier in Norway that’s gotten bigger or the ninety-five-year-old smoker who didn’t get cancer. There’s an anecdote for everything!
Life is too short. When I perceive a “man of science” to have blind faith in the gospel according to Palin and Trump, I’m afraid he is irretrievable. The famous motto of the United Negro College Fund seems apt: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” I lack the energy to continue fighting this battle; maybe I’ll look for a good cartoon to send him, or a kitten video.


ICE CREAM

Among the major food groups in my diet is ice cream. I have come by this naturally, having been raised in a family that considered a trip for ice cream the “go-to” activity for those occasional Sunday afternoons when my father was willing to indulge. In his seven-day-a-week work schedule, Sunday afternoon was his leisure time.
The childhood ice cream routine, circa 1963, doubtless shaped my later ability to negotiate as a lawyer, parent and husband. My mother was co-conspirator in prevailing upon my father, and she taught me to over-ask initially, while being prepared to accept an inevitable counter-offer. For instance, if she suggested we go to the Guernsey Cow, a massive ice cream and confectionary emporium an hour away, my father would typically offer to drive to Miller’s, a less-august shop thirty minutes away. If she suggested Miller’s, we would be prepared to accept a visit to Leof’s, a drug-store with an ice cream counter just three minutes away by car, or a ten-minute walk.
If my father were resistant even to Leof’s, my mother and I would resort to the freezer where there was a likely a half-gallon of Breyer’s ice cream. In those days a half-gallon was really a half-gallon, before manufacturers figured out they could make sleek packaging that SEEMS to be a half-gallon but is tapered to actually contain significantly less.
There was also a Baskin-Robbins shop near our home, but it never entered the negotiations. B-R was our ice cream target of opportunity, when passing by. Such a treat could occur on any day of the week and did not usually involve my father. The essential flavor at Baskin-Robbins, though thirty-one were touted, was mint chocolate chip. Some of the other flavors were doubtless delicious but, as far as my mother and I were concerned, there was only one flavor.
When my father occasionally surprised us by agreeing to go to the Guernsey Cow, it was actually a Pyrrhic victory for me. Truthfully, I did not particularly like their ice cream. There was no compelling flavor and, in order to make the long ride worthwhile, we usually ordered banana splits. Now, I realize there are people who love banana splits, just as there are people who love jelly in cookies or chocolate, but I have never enjoyed fruit with my ice cream or jelly with my cookies or chocolate.
The other specialty at the Guernsey Cow was homemade butterscotch taffy. Though I have a weakness for most sweets, I was not a fan. I feared that taffy, like Sugar Daddies, Tootsie-Rolls, and their ilk, would pull out my fillings. I do not recall this calamity actually occurring, but my fear of dentists was enough to sour me on taffy. Alas, my fear was apparently not compelling enough to make me brush my teeth thoroughly and consistently enough to avoid having fillings in the first place.
Later in life, my own family lived in Ramsey, NJ, a community where Baskin-Robbins franchises grew like trees. Stopping for ice cream was a staple of the post-soccer practice routine for all three of my children, but particularly for my daughter, Sarah. The health benefits of the soccer may have been outweighed by the diet shortfalls of the ice cream, but the psychological benefits to both of us made the trade-off worthwhile; anyone familiar with adolescents knows that a cheerful and cooperative 11-14-year-old daughter is priceless.
Scientific tests have not been undertaken, to my knowledge, but I believe preferences in ice cream flavor are inherited. From birth, Sarah never deviated from mint chocolate chip as her flavor. And it had to be from Baskin-Robbins. Imitations by other manufacturers, often labeled “chocolate mint chip” were specifically NOT acceptable. Along with subtle taste distinctions in the mint ice cream, the key to B-R MCC (as it was sometimes called in our efficiency-minded household) was, and continues to be, its tiny, melt-in-the-mouth dark chocolate flakes. Other brands, with their white ice cream and/or large chunks of chocolate, or imitation chocolate, were simply unacceptable.
I take pride in my daughter’s perhaps-excessive devotion to B-R mint chocolate chip. While I may have fallen for the occasional pralines and cream, vanilla or chocolate, Sarah’s devotion is PURE. When she went to college, I mailed her coupons for Baskin-Robbins. Among the advantages of the off-campus apartment where she lived in Wilmington, NC, was its proximity to a Baskin-Robbins.
So it was not entirely a surprise, last week, when Sarah, who moved last spring to nearby Raleigh, had a specific request for her birthday which falls on Halloween.
“I want a Baskin-Robbins mint chocolate chip ice cream cake,” she said on the phone, a few days ahead of the event.
My initial response was flat-footed: “There isn’t a Baskin-Robbins in Chapel Hill. Would Ben & Jerry’s or Cold Stone Creamery be acceptable?”
The silence on the other end of the line was deafening. It occurred to me I should appreciate how amazing it was for me and my wife, Katie, to have the exclusive opportunity to share her twenty-fourth birthday. As a Halloween baby, Sarah’s youthful celebrations were always dominated by the hubbub of trick-or-treating and parties. Now that she is a young adult, and given her tendency to be involved with a boyfriend, her unattached status this year may prove to be a one-time event.
“I’ll find a Baskin-Robbins,” I recovered to say.
“Good,” she said, fully aware of her advantage over her defenseless father.
After I hung up, Katie said, “We drive past Ben & Jerry’s every other day, but I don’t know of any Baskin-Robbins around here.”
“There has to be one,” I said, confidently, though I was aware that the concentration in North Carolina does not nearly match that of New Jersey.
I Googled Baskin-Robbins locations and, sure enough, there was a shop in Durham, only thirty-five minutes away.
“That was easy,” I declared, recalling the busy shops in Ramsey with their freezers full of ice cream cakes from floor-to-ceiling. “I’ll go pick up a mint chocolate chip cake.”
“You’d better call first,” said Katie, wiser than I in the ways of local businesses. After all, she’s dealt with the “authorized appliance repairmen” who consult the manual, and the plumbers who put spigots in backwards.
“You don’t think they’ll have a mint chocolate chip cake available?” I asked.
Sure enough, they did not.
“We can order one,” said the girl on the phone. “It’ll take a week, though.”
“Her birthday is in two days,” I said.
“Sorry,” said the Durham Baskin-Robbins.
I located one other shop in the semi-vicinity, in Apex, a fifty-minute drive, and called.
“Do you have a mint chocolate chip cake available, for Halloween?” I asked, with trepidation.
“We don’t,” said the girl on the telephone, “but let me see if we can get one.”
I waited in suspense. A different voice came on the line.
“Hi, I’m the manager. We can custom-make a cake for you,” she said. “You can pick it up on Halloween after one o’clock.”
“Thank you,” I said, with relief. “Do you want the details?”
“No, we’ll have the designer call you for those,” said the manager.
“Designer?” I said.
“Yes sir,” she said, with pride. “We have an off-site specialist come in to make our cakes.”
“Wow,” I said.
After I hung up, I related the discussion to Katie. I concluded, with amazement: “It’ll be a small cake. There’re only three of us. What kind of training is involved to become an ice cream cake specialist?”
The next day the phone rang.
“Hi,” said a pleasant voice with a soft, southern accent. “I’m Carly, the cake designer for the Apex store. Tell me what you have in mind.”
I explained the relatively small size of the cake, Sarah’s devotion to mint chocolate chip, and her preference for chocolate crust over graham.
“Okay Mr. Sanders,” said Carly. “Tell me more about your daughter. What does she love? What are her passions?”
“You mean besides mint chocolate chip ice cream?” I asked.
“Yes, I want to know about her as a person,” said Carly.
I took a moment to contemplate how this discussion could be taking place with a stranger in regard to an ice cream cake. I wondered for a moment if I were the butt of a practical joke. I wondered what this cake was going to cost. But I couldn’t cheap out on this; I’d already come too far.
“Um, Sarah loves her dog,” I said. “That’s probably her main passion right now.”
“What kind of dog?” asked Carly.
“A cocker spaniel,” I said. “Her name is Stella, and she’s brown, with caramel-colored eyebrows,” I added, trying to anticipate her next questions.
“Great,” said Carly. “I’ll start working on it.”
“By the way, not that it matters,” I started to say, also anticipating Katie’s next question. “How much….”
Carly had already hung up.
After lunch, on Halloween, we drove to Apex. When we arrived at the store, in the corner of a small shopping center, we noted that the property looked new. The shop was bustling with three young women behind the counter.
“I’m here to pick up an ice cream cake for Sanders,” I said.
“Oh, yes,” said the manager, a tiny Chinese woman, smiling. “Carly made a very special cake for you.”
She reached up to the top shelf of the freezer behind the counter and brought down a box, twice as high as it was wide, perhaps eight inches across.
“Look,” she said, pointing through the cellophane top.
I peered into the package and beheld a work of art, a square cake topped with brown icing and orange trim, including a doghouse and a dog that looked remarkably like Stella, floppy icing ears and all, holding a banner from her mouth that read “Happy Birthday, Sarah.” I was truly impressed.
“It’s perfect,” I said, brandishing my credit card.
“Carly will be so pleased,” said the manager. “She takes great pride in her work.”
“That’s clear,” I said.
The manager accepted my card. “Fifteen dollars,” she said.
I couldn’t believe it. “This was a custom-made cake,” I said. “How can it only be fifteen dollars?”
“That’s what it is,” said the manager.
I felt a strange sensation, that of enjoying a job extraordinarily well-done, for significantly less than expected. I felt embarrassed to be paying such a small sum with a credit card. I grabbed two additional pre-packed quarts of mint chocolate chip from the freezer to bump up the total.
“Can I leave a tip for Carly?” I asked.
“No,” said the manager, “but you can fill out the on-line survey and say something nice about her.”
“Absolutely,” I said. We completed a tribute to Carly as soon as we returned to the car.
If he were alive, my father would probably not find much that is familiar in modern-day North Carolina. However, he would certainly relate to the 1963-like price of an ice cream cake from the Apex Baskin-Robbins. In fact, there is a small, delicious piece of cake in the freezer that Sarah accidentally left behind. I think it has my name on it.