Garage Sale Reflections

I proposed to my wife over thirty years ago when we were both in grad school, poor but happy in a small midwestern city. My mother-in-law to-be telephoned her relatives in Canada to inform them of the upcoming nuptials and they asked the obvious question: what do they want for a wedding gift? Without consulting us or her husband, she replied, “Silver service.”

For thirty years, my wife and I have dutifully wrapped and boxed a least twenty pieces of silver service and schlepped them around the country as we moved for jobs. We cannot remember ever using one piece although my wife swears that we must have served on silver at least once. My only memories are pulling out the silver, moaning over the tarnish and wasting an afternoon polishing the pieces before wrapping them in fresh plastic wrap and putting them back in the cabinet.

We are moving again but this time we are paying for the move ourselves. After packing and unpacking the silver into cabinets and cupboards to be conveniently forgotten for years I insisted, the silver goes. We never use it and I am done polishing it. Thus began a series of conversations that culminated in a garage sale on a Sunday morning.

Downsizing has been a process. The back corners, the utility shelves and the closets were searched. Once we decided the task was insurmountable and someone else’s fault, we rallied our energy and started. The first weekends concluded with piles of junk on the curb. The weight of paperwork, notebooks and outdated materials of one Ph.D., one D.D., three M.A.’s, four undergraduate degrees and several careers was alarming. The unsalable was depressing. Metal for salvage was set aside for those entrepreneurial souls who cruised the neighborhoods on certain nights. By Monday morning, some of items were gone and others were dutifully thrown into the back of the garbage truck.

The house was purged and the garage was refilled. The digital notice went out and in the early evening the night before the sale, I nailed a sign at traffic light at the top of my neighborhood. Everything from the backyard was moved around to the fence for quick setup. The early morning alarm was set.

All the items were arranged for display on the asphalt of the driveway. I euphemistically referred to the furniture, the housewares, cd’s, silver, and other items as “crap” as in, “I put all the crap out; let’s see if it sells.”

By midmorning, I no longer thought of the items as crap. I had been blinded by my privilege. The couch, love seat, stuffed chair combo that had worn poorly was offered for free because bedbugs are an issue in my area and no reputable organization accepts them now. A family came somewhat early, asked about the furniture and claimed the set. A friend had phoned them, telling them of the offer. They took off all the cushions and then began calling everywhere to find a truck or van. In the late afternoon, we loaded the furniture in the back of large pickup belonging to a friend of a friend. The family was exhausted but content.

The gas grill went. The dresser was purchased by an employer for a woman who had no money after paying rent on an empty apartment. A woman who ships or delivers goods to poverty-stricken homes bought a box of bedsheets, mattress covers, bed ruffles, and tablecloths. We had a long conversation about the lack of supports. Her friend bought the mini-fridge for a house kitchen that only had a stove. More than one grandparent swung by searching for tools for their grandsons who work construction for a living.

Few if any want used books. No one wants dated stereo equipment either.

Almost everything went. Most of the items went to people without much means rather than the professional resellers that trawl garage sales early in the morning. Everything we sold was in working order. People needed what we had to offer, from tools and home goods to school supplies.

We had expected to make a couple hundred dollars with the assumption that we did not want anything we offered for sale to go into the landfill; better to sell it than dump it. Whether we realized what we had done, we had priced everything or repriced everything to get it out of my house into other households who would use it. I told the family who bought my gas grill where to get their propane tanks filled at the best price. I tied the eleven-foot extending ladder to the roof of a young woman’s car, after she walked her toddler in his stroller home first.

In Hebrew, business is called maseh u’matan, give and take. Nothing was priced to make a profit but I made a goodly one nonetheless. Everyone who chose to speak with me was treated with respect and the respect was reciprocated every time. People walked away with a smile and I smiled with them. The young man who purchased my lawnmower must have needed it because the relief on his face was evident when I quoted the price.

Their need struck me. Several of my visitors walked over from one of the main avenues only a few streets away. I must pass their homes daily, never giving them a thought or even a glance. As we talked and bargained, late model SUV’s trundled past, heading out of the neighborhood, their occupants staring at us as they passed. People said “thank you” and shook my hand. We exchanged names, neighborhood updates on traffic and congestion, and political commentary.

I probably gave away too much and priced lower than I could have. However, what I received in return for used goods that I no longer wanted was more than worthwhile. Said one man as we discussed the cushion-less couch in the mid-afternoon, “You understand; you have a good heart.” I truly got more out of my garage sale than profit.

As for the silver-plated serving pieces that started this process, on my wife’s advice, I swept them up into a box and sold them in bulk for a quick price to the purchaser of the dresser. I placed them in her car to be doubly sure she took them. There was a happy dance on the driveway when her car disappeared around the corner.

Nostalgia versus the Roasted Chicken

“O dear God, not chicken again!” was a common refrain  in my household and across many other houses as well. Chicken was tasteless, a poor excuse for a good meal because it was overcooked and dry. The skin was a spongy limp mouthful of yuck. Hiding it under tomato sauce or burying it in flavored rice did not dispel the fowl’s worst qualities.

(Fried chicken was apparently in a food class by itself and had little functional relationship to the roasted, broiled, baked, or boiled fowl of gastronomic dismay. My memory is a bit fuzzy but I am fairly certain that fried chicken was an entirely separate category in the food pyramid, right up there with candy, cookies, brownies and cakes, which is why my mother would not make it very often. Fried chicken is still the top American entry for the title “Food of the Gods” in my book.)

The domesticated chicken in the West emerged from India from a small red jungle fowl. A similar chicken emerged in the East, probably from Thailand. Cocks crowing are mentioned in the Bible but when the Bible discusses sacrificing birds and eating them, the text is referring to turtle doves. Ancient Greece mentions chickens by 600 BCE but again, as cocks crowing. They were considered exotic birds. Ancient Persia deified them and a pope elevated them. The earliest chicken recipes come from Rome, where the bird was preferred boiled and served with sauces made with the offal.

No fried chicken for the Romans.

According to the New York Times, roasted chicken is supposed to be a nostalgic comfort food that evokes the ancient ritual of families sitting around the table together to eat dinner. What I remember as nostalgia was picking up a white oven-bag of a whole roasted bird from the heated tray at the Winn Dixie after band practice and before homework. The birds in those bags were always available, no matter the day. Adding to the cozy warmth of store-cooked birds was the expectation of the leftovers of this salty, greasy mess turning into an unrecognizable science experiment by the next morning. Perhaps nostalgia for roasted chicken is a bit more fiction than food writers are willing to admit.

Returning to the dish: The holy grail of the roasted chicken dish is moist meat, crispy skin, and sweet juices collecting underneath for a simple gravy. I assume that a generation ago the educated cook could turn out a great dish with just a little bit of effort on the small, non-hybrid birds. Today’s version of oversized breasts and un-exercised muscles makes the cooking overly cumbersome and usually not worth the effort: the finished fowl today is typically not a religious epiphany.

However, even with the hurdles of the modern chicken farming (which is scary), a home kitchen can turn out a decent roasted chicken. The essential tool one needs for roasted chicken is a cast iron pan. Without cast iron, this simple recipe will not work.

1 whole chicken

Butter, oil or (best) chicken fat

Kosher salt and ground pepper

 

Preheat oven to 350o F

Wash the chicken. Pop out one thigh bone from the spine. Using a knife or chicken shears, cut the chicken in half up that side of the spine. Turn the chicken over and, using the palms of your hands, press down and break the breast bone, leaving the chicken flat.

Cover the bottom of the cast iron pan with kosher salt. Place chicken in the pan, folding the thighs so that the legs are facing in. Rub the chicken with the preferred fat. Season the skin with more kosher salt and pepper.

Shove the pan in the oven and roast for 90 minutes. Ten minutes before the end, check the skin. If the skin is not crisp, turn on the broiler to crisp the skin, being careful not to burn it.

Remove and plate the chicken if serving immediately. If not plating, let the bird rest on a chopping board, covered. The juices in the bottom are usually three or four tablespoons of fat and the rest is juice. You can use these juices either to make a gravy or to pour into a mason jar for another dish. I use the chilled fat from the mason jar to coat my roasted chicken the next week and the solidified juices for the gravy.

 

Immigration 30 Jan 2017

Waiting for the train into the city, I overheard two people talking with the casual loud volume long attributed to Long Islanders while we waited on the platform. “Thank God, I did not have to fly out yesterday,” the first one said. “The airport was a mess.”

“Yeah,” said the other, “the getting in/getting out was ridiculous.”

My spirit sank into my belly, listening to these two adults discuss the spontaneous protests that broke out at JFK airport yesterday when President Trump’s travel ban was put into force. They appeared not to have a care about the issue of immigration and morally reprehensible nature of the executive order. Their only concern was selfish inconvenience. The protest spread across the JFK property, blocking lanes and parking garages, splashing the headlines, but these two did not want to discuss the politics that provoked it. To me they were ostriches with their heads in the sand.

Then I received an email from a foreign journalist trying to track down one of the board members of my organization. The reporter informed me that my board member was overseas and found herself barred from returning to the United States. She is Muslim and the reporter wanted to interview her. Frantic emails over twenty-four hours went unreturned. The board of directors bounced back and forth, debating what we could do besides pray, to help our stranded friend and compatriot. The terrible numbness of helplessness appeared on the edges of the conversation.

This morning we heard from her. She is okay and her company has provided attorneys. On the advice of her attorneys, all information is being kept confidential for the moment until they give us clearance to speak. No promises though.

My dismay and disgust with this unconstitutional and racist order did not grow when I had a name of someone I know affected by this evil decree. My abhorrence had already reached a critical mass. This morning I am left with planning an organizing initiative on behalf of my board member and praying that I do not have to use it.

Speak out. Demand that your community leaders go on record opposing this executive decree. Remind your state and national leaders that their party affiliation, Republican and Democrat, will not shield them from the repugnance in the streets of their districts. Insist that your clergy denounce it publicly. Remind your friends and acquaintances that there is no more time to hide one’s head in the sand, hiding behind misplaced partisan loyalties. Remember as well, this was only the first week of the new presidency.

In Season

When I updated my climate change website and added pointers on approaches to purchasing food stuffs, one of my “friends” who may not receive another invitation to my table for awhile pointed out that my menu did not practice what I had preached. The first point was to buy in season.  This is November and there are plenty of winter squash recipes but few green vegetable recipes, such as Brussels sprouts. I will forgive but the public fault finding did send back into the kitchen. For the late fall in North America:

Fall Roasted Salad

1 small red onion

1lb Brussel sprouts

3 small beets

3TBS olive oil

Red wine vinegar

½ cup fresh parsley chopped

1tsp kosher salt

Salt/pepper

 

8 hours (or more) before serving: peel onion and slice thin. Shove slices in smallest mason jar possible. Add 1tsp of salt. Add red wine vinegar to top of jar. Seal with lid, shake, and store in refrigerator up to three weeks.

One and 0ne-half hours before serving: Preheat oven to 400o . Wash beets and either put them in pie tin and cover with foil or just wrap them in foil. Cut off stems of the Brussel sprouts and half them vertically. Roll them in 2TBS of olive oil and lay them out on a baking tray. Sprinkle with salt. Small beets cook approximately 45 minutes and medium sized ones about 1 hour. Brussel sprouts cook ½ hour.

Pull out the vegetables after roasting and let them cool a bit. Peel the beets and cut off the tops. Dice the beets and add to bowl. Slide Brussel sprouts into bowl. Add last TBS of olive oil and fresh parsley. Add pickled red onion to desired taste. Adjust seasoning by adding salt and pepper.

Can serve warm or cold, but serve warm anyway.

Reasonableness

Reasonably one can argue that the death of old ideas leads to new ones but there is a process akin to mourning when a cherished belief is killed off. Learning new ideas also includes learning how to discard old knowledge that is no longer relevant or just plain wrong; in fact, this sort of learning is a necessary skill set. Knowledge changes and evolves as human beings mature and gain life experience. The ideas of a five-year-old are not relevant to the ideas of an eighteen-year-old, nor should they be. Our decades as adults are also dynamic and ideas will continue to drop and add through the years. Saying goodbye to immature ideas is part of the human process of growth.

Ideas actually have parts to them. They begin with assumptions that are taken as true simply because they exist. From the assumptions come the arguments, the justifications of the idea. The last part is the conclusions, the idea itself that appears solid because the assumptions are true and the arguments are sound. When most people talk about ideas, they take the assumptions and arguments for granted and speak only of the conclusions. However, when the soundness of an idea is in question, it is the assumptions and the arguments that are reviewed.

The idea of God is subject to the same rules of assumptions and arguments. In the Jewish, Christian and Islamic worlds, the arguments for the belief in God have been disproved over and over again. Sometimes the weakness is the argument; however, the fatal flaw in all of the ideas about God is the assumptions. (See the work of Immanuel Kant.)

When the assumption is wrong, everything that follows from it is also wrong. A loss of a belief of this depth requires a fundamental reshaping of how a person approaches and operates in the world. The old responses are now empty and hollow because they no longer make sense. While the philosopher can hide in intellectualism and scientist can stand behind rationalism, most of us adhere to the principle of reasonableness, which includes the non-intellectual components of human thought such as emotions. For reasonable people, losing a cherished idea such as a God who is personal and personally involved, is also painful, something that may require mourning.

Ideas are not purely rational or utterly intellectual, contrary to the rigid strictures of the day. There is an interiority* to our search for ideas that resound. They have to also satisfy some need in our interior life or at least offer balm to the questions of why? and why not? of our deepest thoughts. That an idea would satisfy our cravings for answers about the meaning of life or the meaning of our existence is . . . reasonable.

Reasonable as a criterion is much more personal, more personally painful than purely logical arguments. They are also much more satisfying too.

*Philosophy term indicating inner dialogue and reflective thinking of human beings.

My TEDx Talk

“God in the Public Square” has been posted here. This seventeen minute talk examines non-theist God beliefs, a huge part of our culture today that few even acknowledge exists. For non-theists, God is a “What” rather than a “Who”. Non-theists have been central to the conversation in the Public Square since the founding of the United States and are still in the middle of the great debate.

tedx004

TEDx Adelphi University | AU PAC | April 5th 2016. Copyright Chris Bergmann Photography

God for the Rest of Us #1

Many of us are seeking a God we can believe in without discarding all of the amazing knowledge that we use in this unprecedented age of human advancement. Evolution is a fact and the Big Bang Theory is a fact. Computers, quantum physics and genocide are all facts of life. With all of this information and the rush of new ideas and concepts that we rely upon daily, what is a God for the rest of us?

#1 God of the Bible

Torah presents God as the Parent God, intervening in history, granting favor to the obedient, and lending a miracle or two to His children, the Israelites. This God has to present principles by which people can live without resorting to violence and mayhem first. This God sets down laws that are derived from the principles. He rewards good behavior and he punishes bad behavior. Like any parent, God of the Torah loses his patience with His children quite a number of times.

In the middle part of the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Hosea presents the image of God as the husband and Israel as His unfaithful, whoring wife. The prophet preaches that the relationship between God and Israel is not father and child but instead, husband and wife. This is not an equal relationship though because women were still property in significant ways and the husband was the final authority. Song of Songs softens the “authority and property” model with the erotic love poetry of two lovers. Rabbi Akiba, in his argument on why Song of Songs should be in the Bible, suggests we read Song of Songs as God the groom and Israel the bride.

The Book of Esther, in which God makes no appearance, presents the greatest challenge to those who want to believe in God. God is not in the story and He is not even in the wings. Through their own courage and tenacity, Esther and Mordechai save themselves. The Silent God, the God who does not answer, will haunt every person who finds themselves in harm’s way throughout the millennia. They will pray for rescue and salvation, and there will be no divine intervention.

The God who answers this dilemma of silence in the Book of Job offers no comfort. “You know not what I do. Even if you did know, you could never understand,” explains God in the whirlwind in a long piece of poetic prose in the last chapters.

The Bible gives us four major images: God the parent, God the husband, God the Silent and God who cannot be known. Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims embrace God the Parent and at times, God the husband. Atheists point to God the Silent and God who cannot be known and respond, “What’s the point then?”

If you are not Orthodox or Atheist, the search for a God for the rest of us must continue to look elsewhere.

Skepticism or Ignorance

On one of the more academic message boards I follow, someone asked, “How do we know the First Temple (Solomon’s Temple) actually existed? Those who took the man’s question at face value gave proof texts from many different books in the Bible while admitting that there is no archeological evidence. There is no archeological evidence because one cannot/should not excavate under the Dome of the Rock. No matter, the skeptic was not convinced; he became belligerent.

His belligerence only confirms the status of this person – the man is ignorant. The stupidity of the question is easily explained by the course of Israelite history. Solomon’s Temple and his palace was a turning point in Israelite history but not because of a standing House of Worship dedicated to the One God. The excesses of slave labor and the territorial ceding of twenty-three towns and villages in the northwest corner of the country to the Kingdom of Tyre to pay for these buildings led to civil war and a split of United Kingdom into the minor kingdoms of Judah and Israel, kingdoms that never reunited. If the skeptic had studied the Biblical history of the First Temple just a little bit, then the question never would have been asked.

A cliché that has been tossed about for years, usually to encourage shy students, is “there is no such thing as a stupid question.” For a shy student who is afraid to ask, asking any question is a pedagogical success because the content of the question does not matter as much as the new interaction with the teacher. A first question becomes a starting point for teaching a student how to engage the material. However, the cliché is not always understood from a teacher’s point of view but is assumed as a broad statement of academic integrity, that is to say, any question is legitimate. Perhaps in perfect world but in our day the cliché is just a “feel good” sentiment that permits ignorant questions that suck time, effort and life out of a lesson or conversation. When questions and challenges stop the learning process, they are stupid questions. Belligerence on the part of questioner is one of the symptoms of destructive pedagogic behavior.

Skepticism, a philosophical tool of the Greeks, was developed to test the soundness of an argument and its assumptions. Skepticism uses questions as tool to test the soundness of an idea, like using your finger to thump a watermelon to test its ripeness. Like the cliché above, skepticism is great when used in this limited sense but as a broad tool used to challenge everything, skepticism is destructive and debilitating to the process of learning or decision making. Using skepticism as a broadside is meant to attack rather than create.

For anyone who has come prepared to a class and listened to another student who has not prepped ask an ignorant question that the first sentences of the assignment answered, the sense of dismay is powerful. Yet this is not the destructive skepticism that destroys a lesson but statement of pervasive ignorance. Correcting ignorance, no matter its source, can be used as a part of teaching. Pervasive skepticism is not redeemable.

How many times have teenagers exclaimed, “Why do we have to study this? I’m never going to use it.” This is not a teachable moment. If the student has exclaimed, “When am I ever going to use this?”, only then is the opening to teach available. Overindulgent Skepticism kills learning.

Then again, there are some people whose agenda is to do just that.

Star Wars for the Ignorant

The Star Wars pre-trailer trailer was released and a torrent of commentary and opinion was released through every media outlet available. Rampant speculation about a big budget action film is a great way to build anticipation for another episode of a movie franchise.

Imagine the thrill of this writer, http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/02/opinion/beale-star-wars/index.html?hpt=hp_t3, who got his essay/rant posted as a link on the front page of the CNN website. Of all the points of view, insights, speculations, and ruminations that are currently available, this writer makes it to CNN. Way to go, sir! A great coup!

Except the piece is factually incorrect.

The entire article pivots off of this sentence: “But here’s the thing: George Lucas’ creation, basically a blown-up Flash Gordon adventure with better special effects, has left all too many people thinking science fiction is some computer graphics-laden space opera/western filled with shootouts, territorial disputes, evil patriarchs and trusty mounts (like the Millennium Falcon)” I cannot speak for the writers of Flash Gordon who were writing in the twenties and the thirties but I am certain about the origins of George Lucas’s creation.

George Lucas was interested in being an excellent storyteller as much as an expert cinematographer. Joseph Campbell, a professor of world mythology and a clear, concise writer, was ascendant in the sixties and the seventies. His most provocative thesis was the existence of a universal set of plot lines, which he presented in his book “A Hero of a Thousand Faces”. Mr. Lucas read this text carefully and crafted the plot of the first three movies on Joseph Campbell’s scholarship and arguments. Bill Moyers discussed the Star Wars plot at length with Joseph Campbell on a PBS television presentation titled “The Power of Myth”. (Campbell has another book using the same title.)

Star Wars, especially the first movie, was extraordinarily sophisticated on many levels, which is why the movie was so successful across the globe. Before the groundbreaking special effects and use of science fiction conventions, the story was captivating by itself.

The writer of the CNN opinion piece was ignorant. The editorial staff at CNN is guilty of the same crime. More of the shame is that the origin of Star Wars is a compelling story. Joseph Campbell’s books are still worthwhile reads although some of his conclusions have been scaled by the next generation of scholarship. Star Wars was not an accidental success although many of the actors thought as much during filming; the movie was cinematic storytelling at its best.