Saturday, April 19, 2014

Hail Zeus

We shared the bread after a team effort to bake it, and then the two lively girls bowed down in adoration to their new friend Zeus. Zeus, the elegant old boxer, leapt for joy as they entered the kitchen area, prepared to take on all comers, jumping around, his 95 pounds, jostling the lithe ten-year olds, nearly knocking them over. Eventually he calmed down, and the friendship began.

Ellie and Sophie had come with Jenny to bake Bucellate, an Easter bread that I had taken on as my tradition, following in the footsteps of my mother and Italian grandmother. The recipe is different from theirs, but the ritual of making festive bread is what counts. As I got out the bowls, one for each of the four bread makers, the girls lay on the floor next to mighty Zeus, imitating his stretched out image. Then as I prepared the yeast and added ingredients to the individual bowls, they began petting him, rubbing his soft fur, certainly dislodging  a great deal of it with each stroke.

The hairs will be in the bread I thought. "Wash your hands, girls," Jenny said, " They have to be clean so you can knead the dough." Reluctantly, the girls rose up from their coddling and repaired to the bathroom to wash up. When they came to the table to mix the ingredients, Zeus followed them. His tradition was to hang around wherever there was food, hoping to have some scraps from the table. No pieces fell, but he did get a few more pats on the head from the girls, much to my chagrin since I was trying to do the process with no contamination from dog hair.

Eventually, the bread dough got mixed and kneaded the required time and was returned to the bowls for the first rise that would take about an hour. The girls went out to play in the sunny 50 degree heat that was melting the few patches of snow cover remaining from the April storm of the day before. Zeus, excited to have playmates, romped out to the stream with them. All returned within a few minutes, and then the girls, uncertain about the adults reaction,  popped the question, "Can we go wading in the stream?"

My internal reaction was "Are you crazy? That water is barely above freezing!" But Jenny said "Isn't the water cold?" "No" was the reply. "We felt it and it is very warm."  "I'll get some towels," I said, "but you have to be careful out there. There are a lot of rocks and stones that will hurt your feet." "We will be" was the response. Zeus stayed in, a little tired after all the romping.

The bread making progressed while they were in the stream. Jenny and I formed the risen dough into circles and prepared them for the second rising. The girls were a little disappointed to have missed that part, but after taking off their wet socks, they decided to explore the house. Zeus continued to rest.

Their youthful curiosity brought them upstairs into the alcove where they found the treasure trove. First, they brought down Bob, a big overstuffed furry cat. They talked to the stuffed animal that quickly became their friend. They held its paws as they introduced him to us, and carefully set him down, near his protector Zeus, so he could watch as they painted the egg white glaze onto the breads before baking.

"Did you find the frog?" I asked. "A frog... there's a frog!" they screamed with glee, and they thundered up the stairs. We heard stomping, and then thunder as they came down the stairs, each wearing a straw hat, a Huck Finn and Pancho, with Sophie solemnly bearing the green frog on her hat. They introduced the frog to Zeus and to us.

The house was filled with the aroma of the fresh bread, and we removed it from the oven. We decided to sample one loaf because it fell apart as we were removing it from the pan...so unfortunate. We tore it apart, little chunk by little chunk, and I realized that this was the best Bucellate that I had tasted in years, and there were no dog hairs. Zeus got his crumbs.

As they were about to leave, the adoration of Zeus began. First the girls knelt next to him and imitated his pose. Then they stroked and petted him. And finally turned to him and bowed their heads to the ground. "Hail...O great Zeus" they proclaimed.

Zeus saw them to the door. He got his obeisance, and ate his food, and then some leftovers from lunch.

In retrospect, over the past several months, I had noticed occasions when the great dog seemed to have difficulty getting his legs straight. I attributed that to the cold weather. He also snored a lot. All dogs do. And his appetite, except for treats, was waning. He had been coughing, perhaps kennel cough. Swallowing was difficult the past few weeks. He didn't run back into the house the way he used to. But that night, Holy Thursday, he had a seizure that lasted several minutes. After resting, he went outside for a few minutes, and then rested and panted for about ten minutes before he settled down to the evening sleep.

I had scheduled an appointment with the vet at 11:00 the next morning, but after going outside on his usual morning routine, the regal dog rested, and again had difficulty getting up, and over the next twenty minutes, panted. As I talked to the vet on the phone at 10:00 on Good Friday, Zeus stopped breathing. He had lived for twelve years. Ten of those years, he was the protector of my daughter Meg as she walked him on the streets of Boston and New Haven. He came to me and Dan just before the birth of Khaled, now one and a half years old. He was with me when my dear wife Phyllis passed shortly after the baby was born. And he charmed Ellie and Sophie the other day, so that he had a loving send off to reign on high. Hail Zeus!


Thursday, January 16, 2014

Redistribution of wealth


CNN Money has an article about "Foreclosures hitting a six year low" emphasizing  "And it's coming at a good time as home prices rebound. 'There is unprecedented demand from institutional investors willing to pay with cash to buy at the foreclosure auction, helping to raise the value of properties with a foreclosure filing in 2013 by an average of 10% nationwide,' said Blomquist."

The winners are (no surprise) again the banks and the investors. Those who were foreclosed upon are screwed. This would be  almost 500,000 people in 2013, and the over a million in each of 2012 and 2011. And I wonder how many of the million or so long time unemployed have lost their  remaining life savings in this way.

What you have is an instance of a huge transfer of wealth from the bottom to the top. The foreclosures will sell at 10% or more than the foreclosure price. The banks will unload this "bad debt". Speculators will buy them at the beginning of a recovering market, and do well as they rehab a bit and resell. The folks who lost their homes will continue to plod along, having lost their most valuable possession with little hope of ever owning again.

Our millionaire congress people will continue to be on break, careless of the plight of their people. They passed a trillion dollar budget as they ignored the plight of the over a million and growing long term unempolyed.  Extending unemployment costs 27 billion. The amount of fraud in the process is minuscule in comparison to the cost. Pumping  27 billion into the economy so that some folks in dire straits can invest in their families, education, and a  life does not seem like too much to ask of our government.

As an offset, if that's necessary, why not raise the capital gains taxes on the 400 or so highest taxpayers who in 2007 and 2008 took a record share of capital gains during the meltdown years of the Great Recession, according to Forbes magazine. ( http://www.forbes.com/sites/janetnovack/2011/05/11/richest-400-took-record-share-of-capital-gains-during-market-meltdown-year/)

Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel winning economist out of Columbia University, estimates the loss in revenue to our national treasury at $30 billion over these two years when the tax rate on capital gains was first reduced to 15%. (The Price of Inequality by Joseph Stiglitz, p. 72) Talk about redistribution of wealth, social programs are among the first to be cut or mitigated by our congress. That redistribution is from the poor to the rich, rather than vice versa as some would have us believe.

It is easy to say but the rich have earned it, and the poor haven't. If society is to work for all, all should contribute as they can. This asks more of the rich, who in turn profit from a great economy, and opens the door for others to move up the social ladder. Some of us near the middle of the ladder will dismiss this by saying "I did it myself." But I say, hold on there. It was  a different time, and the climate that lets you say that now is completely different. There are problems that need more attention than shifting blame to those who have lost much, if not all in the redistribution of wealth.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Illusions dashed-Consumer Reports

I have always liked Consumer Reports. I think I still do...but!!!

I received notice in snail mail that my subscription was up. Fair enough. I don't like to send money or checks by snail mail and echecking seems to get mixed up because I cannot send the return stub back. Somehow, just using the account number doesn't work.

I wanted to take care of the subscription as soon as possible...remove one thing from my plate, so I called the 1-800 number "for faster service". The consumer report customer service was slow, and I was placed on hold. They have terrific classical music to soothe the customers on hold, so I put the speaker phone on to enjoy the fine quality of the sound. About a minute into it, I was encouraged to take care of my business on www.consumerreports.org  and it would be easy.

I listened to more music, and another minute or so, the same message came on. This was getting to be a long hold, and the music was becoming less soothing. After about the third announcement of the www address, I keyed the address onto my browser. The home page came up, sleek, business like.

I was experienced in these things. I went to my account, knowing full well that I had never set up an account, but this was an opportunity of a lifetime. I had two choices: enter my user id and password or subscribe. I entered my email and pressed "I forgot my user id" and the message returned was no email on file. That to me was unbelievable because every organization in the world seems to be able to get to me by email, to the extent that the first five minute after I open my email in the morning is spent deleting messages from every organization under the sun, most of whom I had never contacted had my email. These are the ones who make it through my generous spam filter.

I waited on the phone, listening to more music, and finally, after a five minute wait overall, a person came on. I paid for my subscription, and then popped the how come question. "While I was waiting on hold, I was told I could take care of all my business at the .org address. How come there was no window to open an account? (get a user id, and password, and pay for my subscription)?"
My courteous rep told me I had to click on subscribe, "You have to open an online subscription for $30 to use that service."

Boy was I deflated. I would have to pay Consumer Reports $30 to manage my hard copy subscription of $26. There seems to be a disconnect here. Shouldn't an online version be cheaper than a hard copy sent via USPS? Wouldn't it make sense to encourage people to select online services with a lower price. What really boosts readership and cuts costs?
Whose side is Consumer Reports on?

Friday, September 27, 2013

Journey''s end

After two and a half weeks, I finally feel like my journey to the Mediterranean Sea area is complete. My daughter and grandson arrived home on Tuesday night, and I visited them the past couple of days.
She wanted to do the Tunisian leg of the journey on her own. She was meeting her relatives there and baby Khaled was being introduced to his grandparents on that side for the first time. It was a joyful occasion for everyone with welcome parties and birthday parties for the baby. Meg was treated to some of the beauty of this small North African country, and had much to say about the hospitality of the people. She walked around ruins that dated back over two millenia, and put her feet into the sea that was the center of the known universe for such a short time in history.
But the center of the visit was family. I can appreciate the grandfather holding the baby for the first time; singing the songs of Tunisia to his grandson. I enjoy thinking of the grandmother cradling the boy, telling him how beautiful and happy he is. I can picture the pride of his father as he spoke of his son to uncles, friends and neighbors. His aunt also loved this beautiful bundle of energy and fun.
Baby Khaled, speaking the universal language of smiles and cheer, squeals and infant sounds has proven to be a great ambassador to Turkey and Tunisia.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Travel observations

Upon reaching Taksim square after an afternoon in Kadikoy, we decided to relax, have  a nice dinner and get ready to leave. The airport “limo” was to pick us up at 10 a.m. the next day to get us to Ataturk airport so we could go through security before my plane departed at 1:15 p.m. Istanbul time.
We decided on an Indian restaurant that was a half block from the hotel. In America, when you go Indian, rice is served with almost all meals. Not in Turkey. Rice was a separate item. It was not a deal breaker, but little things like that often happen when traveling.
There were no wash cloths in our hotel room. We asked for them, and the maid said “No washcloths.” affirming and denying my request. I suppose it is important to bring a few with you while you travel, or one of those polyester puffs. Another thing that was different, but not unusual was the absence of a top sheet. A duvet over a comforter took its place.
Money is important. I worried about that part. I set out from here with 12 US dollars in my wallet. I returned with $2 and a few coins worth about 15 cents in Turkey. I suspect most of the things purchased there were rounded up to the nearest lira. Before I went, I visited my bank to make sure my debit card would work in the ATMs in Istanbul. I also called my Mastercard company to let them know I was traveling, including the dates so the card could be used abroad. These instruments both worked well. On a couple of occasions, the ATM said wrong pin, and I immediately withdrew my card, and went to another machine. The Mastercard was excellent for meals. No, I did not eat the card.
At ATMs, I would withdraw small amounts, like 80 lira ($40) so I would not be loaded up with foreign money at the end of the stay. This would not have been a problem since there are exchange kiosks at the airports.
The Metro pass was a mystery to me. Meg solved it. We had to put down a 7 lira deposit to acquire a plastic card at a store. Then, we had  to go to a machine near the Metro stop to get it charged for the amount that we estimated would be needed for the rides that we intended to take. Meg put 10 lira on the cards for each of us. The Metro plastic purchase was a bargain when compared to a taxi both in time and cost. We used the cards for ground travel and the ferry to Asia. It was really neat speeding along the streets by rail, missing the traffic tie ups and the vendors who seemed to know that the cabdrivers in the traffic jams  needed sunglasses and water, and if I rolled my window down, someone was bound to come up to the stopped vehicle with water or looking for a handout. The Metro was great, used mostly by working people who enjoyed the smile and flashing eyes of the baby.
We never figured out what to do with the cards to get our deposit back, so we left one with a friend who was staying another day, and the other in the room as a partial tip.
Security at airports always seems to be a hassle, but I suppose it is effective. At the Ataturk airport, it was necessary to pass security immediately on entering the facility. Bags had to be placed on conveyor belts, and everyone walked through a screening booth with hands held high. I had a laptop in my luggage that Meg wanted me to bring home. At first, the security person requested that I remove the laptop and send it through separately. I fumbled with several zippers on the suitcase, opened the wrong one, fumbled with the zippers on the second case, and the line was getting backed up. Finally, he said never mind, and I was through. I went to the line to get my boarding pass and check my bags.
Another screener asked if I had a laptop, and I answered yes. "Is it yours?" she inquired. I realized that I could claim ownership, but the next question in my mind would have proven me a liar, and then I might be sent to jail, so I said "No, it belonged to Yale University." The truth. She brought me back to the original luggage scanning area, and asked that I open the case and remove the laptop. Yale was written all over it, and threats about stealing it. She put it through the screening line, and then asked me to turn it on. Somehow, I found the button. She looked at the screen, pressed some more buttons, turned it off and returned it to me. She then ushered me to the head of the line for boarding passes. that was neat. I am not sure whether she put some stickers on the bag or not. Soon the bags were on their way to the plane.
When it came time to board, I went to the gate. Attendants looked at the boarding passes of the travelers, and showed them to the waiting area. As I walked through, I handed the attendant my passport and boarding pass, and she pointed me toward a ramp that led to a table. "Why are you traveling in Turkey? How long have you been here?"   "Why me?" I thought. "I'm just a gray haired old man!"  "One week, on a pleasure trip" I replied. They presented me with a sheet of paper that I had to sign twice in little boxes that were next to each other, as if to prove that I could sign the same way twice within 10 seconds. One of my signatures filled both boxes, but I wrote the second one over it. They put some stamps on my passport, and I was free to go.
Reentry at JFK...more to come.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Asia calling




Asia in the background. This was taken at a
reception at Bahceshir University
sponsored by Meg's group.
Wine and appetizers.
Meg thought it to be cool to set foot on four continents within a week, and we set out to accomplish this on Friday, our last full day in Istanbul. Across the Bosphorous River, a short Ferry ride from the Eminonu, lay the Asian side of Istanbul. The same Metro card used for land transportation is used for the ferry. Over  a quarter million people use the service daily to get to jobs in the European section, and return. The ferry from Eminonu runs every twenty minutes. All we wanted to do was cross over. The word "No" came in handy at the ferry station. There were people all over the place attempting to sell us a tour of the river for 35 Lira. "No, we just want to cross over" and someone directed us to the right wharf for that. Still we were dogged with tour offers. "No, no, no..."
We found the queue for the ferry to Kadikoy, and the tour book was correct; people push hard to get to the front. Fortunately, it was not rush hour. In about fifteen minutes, we were in Asia. 
I went into a tourist information kiosk, and was directed to the town shopping area, just up the street.

Street scenes in Kadikoy 






I took these pictures to give a flavor of this part of Istanbul. Istanbul is 99% Muslim, and probably 60% Western. The ads in the background of these photos definitely have a Western appeal. I found this to be an odd conflict, produced by Turkey's relentless pursuit to join the European community, and yet retain its ancient Muslim heritage.
Often on the street, there are shoe shine stands, a lost occupation here in the US. My father used to shine shoes in his father's barber shop in the 1920s. In Turkey, it is still a living.
The down town of Kadikoy reminds me of old down town Troy, NY except the buildings are taller and the streets a little narrower. There were no department stores as we know them, but plenty of shops where you could get what you wanted- clothing, jewelry, knickknacks, children's items. All in all, Asia was a pleasant experience going back in time only a few years. I know there is more to Asia than Istanbul, and it would be different. Some year, I hope to check out the rest of it.
We became very confident of our ability to navigate the waters and the land transportation that we took the ferry to a different location on return. We went to the Kabatas wharf, and then had only one Metro stop to Taksim square, where it continued to be sunny and cheerful.


European Istanbul from return ferry
more to come....



Friday, September 20, 2013

Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul is in the old section of town, two stops from the Sultanhamet district where we were the day before.
 photo from Wikipedia

It is hard to capture this immense place in a photo, or in words. This is all indoors, packed with vendors and shoppers. The photo seems to be cleaned up. To me it was dimly lit and cavernous.There are a few main streets, and lots of connector streets. It is an old place that at one time was the center of commerce in this part of the world. I am guessing that you could take Crossgates mall, multiply the number of stores times 1000, and reduce the size of each store to maybe the size of your living room, you might get the picture. Then add a small front area about the width of the living room for displays, and racks of goods, and you have it. The Bazaar is divided into sections for gold, silver, copper, bronze, etc., jewelry,dry goods, spices, carpets, and more. there seem to be hundreds of shops in each category. No price tags on anything, forced an interaction between the shopper and the vendor.
So Meg, Khaled and I ventured into this huge building with a few things in mind: a shawls, some trinkets, and a handbag. Meg wanted to get a Longchamps bag. We looked over a number of bag displays, and what I thought looked good, she dismissed as cheap knockoffs. We then inquired in one shop about Longchamps bags. The vendor did not carry that line, and a young boy was assigned to us to usher us through the streets to a Longchamps supplied shop. His first attempt was incorrect, and that vendor had him lead us to another shop. We came to a display of bags, and he said something that made us believe we had arrived at bag almighty.
Soon, a young man approached us, and we told him what we were looking for. He opened a door next to the display and we were in handbag heaven. It was a bright, air conditioned room, way smaller than your living room. Handbags on the shelves. No Longchamps on display. Another man came in. Meg described what she wanted. He told us to have a seat, and he would be right back. He probably went to what we would call the basement or store room, and returned in 5 minutes with an armload of Longchamps in a variety of colors. He poured them out on the floor. Meg seemed to know that they were genuine, and she chose a color that the vendor agreed was very beautiful. "How much?" Meg inquired. "90 lira."  "Will you take 60?" she shot back. "No! Maybe 80." She offered 70 and the deal was struck at 75. " Would you like another?" he asked. But Meg declined.
Meg wanted to see the carpet section. The bag man had a friend who sold them, and another young man ushered us to the brother's carpet shop. We were ushered into a secret room, and the pitch was about to begin. Meg explained that we were not about to buy anything. The man was nice enough to back off, and let us admire the rugs. Upon leaving that shop, we noticed another that was more open. On the back wall there hung a huge carpet, worth $25,000. It was beautiful, way better than Huck Finn's Warehouse. But we could not carry it so we didn't buy it.
We were looking for some gifts for me to take back for friends and relatives. Vendors of shawls were all over. We came to a place that had wool, cotton, silk, pashmin, and blends. Honestly, they were all beautiful, and every one of them as priced seemed like a bargain. 40 lira was the highest priced. Nevertheless, Meg would not settle for their price. She manged to get the price down 5 lira on a mid-priced shawl, and then we chose one that was a traditional Ottoman pattern. The silk felt elegant to touch. We looked through some of the gold and silver shops on our way to find some memento type jewelry for gifts.
On the corner, a  bracelet display caught Meg's eye. When the vendor came up to us, he gave us some prices, and then found some that we less expensive, and oddly the price was not bad. Meg haggled a bit. We bought three bracelets. When the man found out that it was Khaled's first birthday, he pinned a traditional "evil eye" charm on him to ward off the evil eyes (poverty, disease, etc.) of life.
My honed math skills came in handy here, The three bracelets cost 30 lira. I had only 20 lira and one ten dollar bill in my wallet. I  offered the ten dollar bill as partial payment. The man said sure. So I  gave him just 10 lira and the ten dollars in payment. He was hoping for the 20  lira, plus the ten. He was obviously disappointed, but knew it was right.
We eventually left the Grand Bazaar, had a drink of bottled water, used the public WC where you had to pay a lira to urinate or squat in a trough. We made our way to the Metro.
After dinner, while relaxing, the phone rang in our room. It was for baby Khaled. The management had a complimentary birthday cake to deliver to him. It came with two candles...one for the first year and one for the upcoming second year. Two layers of chocolate sandwiched slices of banana. Delicious.
It was a great beginning for the second year of life. (More to come)