Friday, January 25, 2013

Belief Systems

Monday, January 21, 2013
Maybe the biggest surprise for those of you who have known me over the years is my increasing involvement with organized religion.  It surprises me, for sure.  Before I go on, allow me to note the critical difference between organized religion and religious belief.  I may have succumbed to the lure of community, but I remain far removed from seeking salvation.  An article in today's paper reinforces my attraction to organized religion.  Reporting on the arrest of Monsignor Kevin Wallin, of Bridgeport, CT, the New York Times said, “Monsignor Wallin had been indicted on charges that he had been part of a cross-country drug ring, sold crystal meth and possibly laundered the profits through an adult sex toy and video shop he owned.”  This gives new meaning to the term High Holidays.  
Tuesday, January 22, 2013
The inauguration of Barack Obama for a second term as President produced some important media commentary on this historic event.  There was coverage of BeyoncĂ©’s lip-synching the national anthem at the swearing-in ceremony and discussion of Al Green’s failure to appear and sing his hit “Let’s Stay Together,” the first song that the Obamas danced to at the inaugural ball.  Combined with the analysis of Michelle Obama’s wardrobe and hairdo, the American people are now equipped to deal with the challenging problems of this complex world that lie ahead.
Wednesday, January 23, 2013
11° when I approached the subway station this morning.  I was not on my usual path, because I had to stop in to see doctor-lawyer-rabbi Morris Traube, my gastroenterologist.  We both were in fine shape, although only one of us desisted from suggesting that the other lose weight.  Actually, I’m acting on his advice immediately by getting a haircut right after work.
Thursday, January 24, 2013
I like language, even though as a descendant of the shtetls of Eastern Europe I rely quite a bit on grunts, poking and pointing to express myself.  Without language, for instance, my devotion to crossword puzzles would rapidly diminish.  Two near-simultaneous things stimulated my thoughts about language and wordplay, (1) an article in the New Yorker (12/24 & 31 issue) about an attempt to construct Ithkuil, a language with full semantic transparency; (2) the publication of Lawrence Wright’s book about Scientology, Going Clear.  
Here’s what came out of the memory vault.  In days of yore, in a land far, far away, I met a very talented computer programmer at a bridge game, and we soon decided to go into business together, designing and selling smallish (by the then-current standard) computers to smallish companies.  I named our first venture Ellington Associates, tacitly in honor of Duke Ellington.  I soon realized that the name had another reading.  My then-current wife was named Ellen and my partner’s wife was named Ellie.  So, I could reason that I embedded their names, without favor, into our enterprise.  After a short time, Tom (my partner) and I decided to make a slight strategic change in our venture, and I came up with a new name, Theta Computer Systems.  Even though I never joined a fraternity in college, I liked Greek letters, and Theta sounded right to me.  Additionally, I developed a rationale for the name as “The Tom Alan Computer Systems.”  
But, then it got interesting.  I had forgotten that the one and only local cable television service for outlying areas of Los Angeles was named Theta Cable.  This resulted in frequent telephone calls to us complaining about installation and reception problems.  Eventually, we got used to this and actually welcomed telephone calls from anyone, since our customer base was (How shall I say?) not heavily populated.  We’re getting to Tom Cruise, hold on.  
I believed that some of our customers’ (there was really more than one) needs could be met by existing computer software, and I found one company that produced a set of sound business programs that we could reuse for a reasonable license fee, which would save us a lot of time and trouble and give our customers predictable results. This company was located nearby in Los Angeles and I arranged a meeting in order to negotiate a deal.  When I was introduced to the management, bright people in their 30s, not unlike your reporter at the time, as the president of Theta Computer Systems, a glow seemed to emanate from the group.  We had a fruitful session, strictly about the business software I wanted to license, and I imagined that the good vibes resulted from my endearing personality.  Later, I learned that this crew were all Scientologists and theta and thetans are critical terms in their vocabulary.  Cf. Wright supra.  They thought that I might be a messenger from L. Ron Hubbard, the founder, still alive at the time, or at least a highly-placed member of their tribe.  
In summation, two simple efforts to name a small enterprise in plain English (well, some Greek) can evoke kaleidoscopic linguistic exercises. 
Friday, January 25, 2013 
Blue suede shoes.  I wore my brand-new blue suede shoes to work today.  It wasn’t casual Friday.  We don’t have casual Friday here, although sometimes I wish we did, because that would indicate that people are relatively well-dressed four other days each week.  Our department has about 60 lawyers, slightly under half that number are male.  Few, if any, of these men would be mistaken for associates at Lockhart & Gardner.  On any given day, many give the appearance of taking a break from driving their taxi.  I am confident in asserting that I am consistently the second best-dressed man in the department.  My officemate Michael takes the top spot.  Each day, Michael wears a conservatively-cut dark suit with shirt and tie.  No Nehru jackets for him.  His shirts are either white or striped.  He eschews the lovely plaids and checks that the British do so well.  Unlike many of our colleagues, he dresses like a lawyer, a well-dressed lawyer, not a disheveled defendant.  Even though we spend most of our time at our desks doing research and writing, unseen by the public or the bar, I believe that we should appear to spend a tiny fraction of our middle-class income on clothes, or at least dry cleaning.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Names In the News

Monday, January 14, 2013
I was unhappy reading an article in the real estate section of the Sunday New York Times, even though it dealt with one of my favorite musicians, Christine Lavin. During a period from the late 80s through the mid 90s (not my age, the years), I attended her performances religiously. At least a couple of you can attest that I once went on stage with her at the Bottom Line, a folk/rock/blues/jazz club that succumbed to NYU’s rapacious real estate policies after operating for 20 years in Greenwich Village. While Christine Lavin wrote and performed ballads of love and loss, her wonderful sense of humor distinguished much of her work. Among my favorites are Fly On a Plane, Cold Pizza For Breakfast, Sensitive New Age Guy and Good Thing He Can’t Read My Mind.

A quick look at her web site,, shows that she is still actively recording, performing live and organizing events for other folk artists. So why ain’t I thrilled and delighted by the article in the Times? Christine Lavin is 61-years old, has been performing for about 40 years, recorded 20 solo albums, written songs, books and articles of all sorts, produced albums for many others, and received awards from critics and peers. However, her monthly budget for an apartment is $1,500, now that she has returned to New York after nursing her ailing mother. $1,500. $1,500! $1,500!! Christian Louboutin sells shoes for more; "meal for two at the restaurant [Masa, 10 Columbus Circle] can easily run to $1,500" (New York Times, 6/14/11); one ticket for next Monday’s game Knicks/Nets at Madison Square Garden in Section 108, one section removed from floor level, costs $1,772. This woman should be living in a palace with all the enjoyment she has brought to people for decades. If I could only get her a reality series, she could probably make several Kardashians – a monetary unit unrelated to anything of value in the real world.

8:00 P.M. In tonight’s episode of "The Real Folk Singers of Manhattan," Leonard Cohen makes a guest appearance and tells the girls how to pick a hat to wear on stage.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013
The path of true love never runs smooth. From today’s news wire: "The couple who met, fell in love and married over a shared name, have now filed for divorce. Kelly Hildebrandt and Kelly Hildebrandt have gone their separate ways. The pair with matching names made news when they tied the knot in 2009. But the couple came to realize that sharing a name wasn’t enough to keep them together. ‘She’s a Florida girl, and I’m a Texas guy,’ Kelly Carl told Miami news station NBC6. ‘We really did come from pretty different worlds.’"

I fully appreciate the difficulties that Kelly faced, or that Kelly faced, for that matter. The state of wedded bliss that America’s Favorite Epidemiologist and I have been sharing for almost 10 years has also met some formidable obstacles. First of all, our names don’t even share a consonant, denying us the natural bond that the HiLDeBRaNDTs have. Moreover, my young bride is a Bronx girl and I’m a Brooklyn guy. That’s an almost incalculable cultural and psychological gulf, nay chasm, that cannot be compared to a mere geographical divide in the otherwise homogenized Sun Belt. Yet, it’s all been worth it and I would counsel Kelly and Kelly to hang in there, if only to enjoy mystifying strangers upon first being introduced.

Nish Nush, 88 Reade Street, deserves a discussion, but as only a Middle-Eastern joint, not an Eastern joint, it does not increase our count. Nish Nush, as the menu says, is Hebrew for snack, and it also proclaims that it uses 100% Kosher ingredients. Even though its menu is all vegetarian, it does not carry any certification of its Kosher bona fides, which may be a good thing under the maxim Less is More.

It sits on a corner and both exterior walls are made entirely of 15" square glass panes. The interior affects an attractive factory look, exposed ducts, pipes, galvanized metal panels. About half the floor space is taken by the counter and open kitchen where 7 or so people, all male save 1, wearing fedoras, prepare your order. There are 5 tall tables, capacity 2 to 10, with stools. The table tops were thick glass, covering a bed of chick peas, uncooked. The menu accordingly focuses on hummus and falafel. I had the Deluxe sandwich ($8), which contained three different falafels – classic green, spicy roasted pepper and spinach & mushroom – stuffed in a pita bursting with hummus, salad, white & red cabbage, pickles, eggplant and tahini. It was delicious and, fortunately, very big.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013
I wrote it off when I first wrote up Shanghai Cuisine, 89 Bayard Street (January 20, 2010), an early stop in a long line of Chinatown restaurants to come. I never returned, although I passed it 2 or 3 times every week. With cold rain on and off, I decided to give into convenience today, and go the short distance to Shanghai Cuisine. The large menu offers chicken feet and pig stomachs, as well as a group of lunch specials ranging from $5.50 to $7.50, including soup or soda, white rice and tea. I ordered orange beef ($7.50), hot and sour soup and substituted brown rice for another 75¢. The food was good, but the portion of beef was small. I found myself chewing on some of the tangerine peels left on the bottom of the plate to feel as if I got my money’s worth. I shall return, if only to try their soup buns, which they aggressively promote.

Thursday, January 17, 2013
The saddest thing about the death of the lovely Lennay Kekua, Notre Dame star football player Manti Te’o’s girlfriend, in September last year was the effect that it had on the presidential election. While Lennay’s religious affiliation is unknown at present, Manti is a deeply religious Mormon. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect that he voted for Mitt Romney in November, and would have convinced Lennay to do the same had she survived. This, then, would partially explain the missing surge of Romney votes that Karl Rove waited fruitlessly for on Election Night. I’d like someone to gather data on the incidence of dead girlfriends among Republican football players. While it would not likely justify a recount, it might help Mitt sleep at night.

Friday, January 18, 2013
In light of the strange story about Manti Te’o, Notre Dame’s star football player and his apparently illusory girlfriend, I want to reassure you that America’s Favorite Epidemiologist is a real person. I have met her and members of her family on numerous occasions. I have attended at least one of her weddings. She has responded to my telephone calls and e-mails quickly and candidly. There is no doubt in my mind about her existence and continuing good health.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Picking Winners

Monday, January 7, 2013
Keep your fingers crossed. Yesterday, I got a call telling me that there is a respectable offer on my mother’s apartment in Queens. I told the broker to jump all over it and he promises more details in the next few days. Quick resolution of that matter will do more to relax my brother and me than 100 hours of Yoga. Not only do we have no use for the apartment, the controlling rules of the cooperative corporation bar us from occupying or renting out the apartment, although we are the legal owners. These strictures fairly balance the very low threshold to ownership initially for persons of modest means. Of course, leaving the space empty for any period of time serves no economic or social purpose and we hope that new folks may quickly move in and enjoy the apartment for the next 57 years.

The telephone call from the real estate broker came shortly before the start of the NFL playoff game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Baltimore Ravens. I’m not a fan of either team, and only paid attention to the Ravens when they played the New York Giants, late in the season. I find it near impossible to watch a game without a rooting interest, which arises for many folks by betting on the outcome. However, I don’t usually bet on sports events, so over the years I’ve tried to manufacture some rooting interest based on variables of geography (New York vs. the World), personality (players and owners) and ethics. Ethical rooting, akin to ethical investing in companies that eschew toxic products and/or toxic environmental or labor policies, was particularly strained in the Colts/Ravens game. On March 29, 1984, in the middle of the night, the Colts snuck out of Baltimore to accept a lucrative stadium deal in Indianapolis, abandoning a devoted fan base. So, it would seem that this match was easily rated on the justice scale – Indianapolis Exploiters vs. Baltimore Faithful. However, when looking at how Baltimore filled its football void, we see that the ownership of the Cleveland Browns announced its pending move to Baltimore on November 6, 1995, in the middle of the football season, again abandoning a loyal, long-time fan base for the owner’s financial gain. The irony of the Cleveland move to Baltimore was that it did not generate good financial results soon enough, forcing the sale of the team even as it developed into one of the more powerful franchises in recent years. So, where did that leave me? Not upset when my young bride suggested a trip to Shop-Rite in Englewood, New Jersey, for some heavy duty grocery shopping.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013
Ethical rooting is not easy, and the challenges are well-illustrated by last night’s miserable no-contest for the purported national championship of college football between the University of Alabama and Notre Dame. However, before getting to the ethical considerations, the other factors should be examined, although they are not necessarily dispositive. For geography, the Midwest (South Bend, IN) is preferred over the South (Tuscaloosa, AL). In fact, anything is preferred over the South except North Korea. As far as personality factors, only the outsized reputation of Alabama head coach Nick Saban is worth considering. He has won the national football championship four times in the last ten years with two different schools. Forbes magazine labelled him "The Most Powerful Coach in Sports." He is also the highest paid college football coach, which, as the employee of a public institution, has to make him the highest paid public official in the USA, at $5,476,738, before any bonuses. Like the late Joe Paterno, a larger-than-life statue of Saban has been erected on campus. How can I like him?

My first ethical consideration is public vs. private institution, where I opt for the public, true to my roots. That’s Alabama. History, on the other hand, favors Notre Dame, if only because Alabama remained aggressively racially-segregated until they could only beat other all-white football teams. Of course, anti-Papists would have to shy away from Notre Dame, but I’m open to women of all beliefs.

A critical ethical factor for me is the academic standing of the respective opponents. Here, Notre Dame easily dominates. U.S. News ranks it 17th in the nation, while Alabama is 77th. The web site (based solely on student-ratings) gives Notre Dame an A+ for academics, while Alabama gets a B+. I must note that America’s Favorite Epidemiologist has taught me that University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) has an excellent medical school and a distinguished epidemiology department. Of course, UAB has its own football team, the Blazers, operating far below the level of the Crimson Tide.

In general, at a distance, Notre Dame seems to evoke more seriousness than Alabama. As of 2005, the last NCAA report available, Alabama’s football team had a graduation success rate (GSR) (measures graduation over six years from first-time college enrollment) of 75%, compared to Notre Dame’s 97% GSR. In the period 1998-2005, Alabama football’s GSR ranged from 39% to 75%, while Notre Dame’s never went below 93%. So, in the end, I rooted for the team that quickly fell behind 28-0, losing in a rout 42-14.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013
Vanessa’s Dumpling House, 118A Eldridge Street, differs notably from other Chinatown dumpling houses, such as Tasty, Fried, Jin Mei and Prosperity, because of its ample floor space. It is generously-sized, with a long bench against its northern (left-hand) wall faced with 7 two-top tables and one round table, as well as a short ledge in the front window with 4 stools. Its entire right-hand side is taken by a counter staffed by 6 women, one taking orders and payments, the others preparing the orders. Behind a glass wall at the rear, four other women were actually making dumplings, rolling, stuffing and folding. Everyone was busy. Compared to the typical closet-sized joints (which are otherwise enjoyable for non-claustrophobes), Vanessa’s offers enough room to swing a cat, which may result in a future meal.

The menu features dumplings, "sesame pancake sandwiches," noodles and soups. Ordering was easy because $5 buys 10 assorted boiled dumplings, the varieties distinguished by slight differences in the color and shape of the wrappers. The assortment included chive & pork, vegetable, shrimp and basil & chicken. You can order 8 chive & pork dumplings for as little as $2.50. Most varieties were available fried as well. Per my traditional custom, I washed down these excellent dumplings with a Diet Coke.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Housemaid Is Beheaded In Death Of Israeli Boy
This shocking headline is in today’s New York Times, reporting on the execution of a Sri Lankan woman, who was probably 17 years old at the time her employer’s child died in her care in 2005. The government carried out the sentence in spite of appeals from the Sri Lankan government and several international human rights agencies, because of the defendant’s age, lack of legal counsel, and other doubts about the integrity of the prosecution.

Oops! I made a slight error. The actual headline was:

Housemaid Is Beheaded In Death Of Saudi Boy
In spite of many faults that I find with Israeli policy on many fronts, I remain a Zionist because only the second headline is real and none of us can ever imagine seeing the first.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Three More Years

Monday, December 31, 2012
I sent the old year out with a duck – a herb tea smoked duck ($18.95) – at Famous Sichuan, 10 Pell Street, where the duck tempted me a couple of weeks ago. The restaurant was not very busy, although directly opposite, Joe’s Shanghai had lines out into the street waiting for their soup buns. The good news was that the other patrons at Famous Sichuan were all Chinese, except for one couple who ordered as I would if I were a couple. The duck was good, a large portion, meaty pieces, as close to fat-free as you could hope to find in Chinatown. The flavor was a little milder than I would like, more Lipton than Earl Grey.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013
In a burst of support for the motion picture industry, we went to see Lincoln on Saturday and Amour today. The movies are very similar, examining long-term marriages, except the Lincolns were younger and he was still working.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013
"Happy Anniversary." "Good job." "Who would’ve imagined?" "That’s really something." This is a small sampling of what I’ve been hearing as I begin the fourth year of this (ad)venture. I set about educating myself exactly three years ago, the first week of January 2010, when I moved over to the big courthouse at 60 Centre Street. For nearly eight years prior, I had been at the friendly, but isolated courthouse at 71 Thomas Street, an address that stumps many taxi drivers to this day. That’s a solid Tribeca location, near some of the finest restaurants courtesy of David Bouley and Drew Nieporent. However, it was difficult to find a collection of decent joints nearby for lunch. A decent joint requires digestible food, air conditioning in summer, ample seating, reasonable prices and a flat surface to work the crossword puzzle. Another factor that, for instance, disqualified the Odeon, immediately opposite the courthouse door, was charging for refills of iced tea. I was, and remain, deeply offended by being charged another 2 ½ or 3 bucks to add a few tablespoons of colored liquid to a glass full of ice. Obviously, places like the Odeon barely fit the definition of a decent joint to begin with, so losing my patronage after one visit made little difference to our respective fates.

Chinatown, immediately adjacent to the complex of courthouses around Foley Square, by contrast, offers decent joints galore. When I was reassigned here three years ago, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity, creating this gustatory catalog, larded (if you’ll pardon the expression) with occasional forays into other subject areas. With that recap of the past, let’s push ahead into 2013 on a possibly high note.

Mission Chinese Food, 154 Orchard Street, an address once at the center of shopping for underwear on Sunday when little Jewish men and women were allowed to stay open because they had closed their stores on Saturday, has gotten raves from the New York Times since it opened. A sister to a San Francisco restaurant that actually began as a food cart, it was acclaimed as the best new New York restaurant in the newspaper last week. I was fortunate enough to be accompanied by Art, Jerry, Jon and Michael to allow substantial penetration into Mission’s menu, something that one lone wayfarer cannot do ordinarily.

From the street and upon entering, Mission could not look like a bigger dump. Down a few stairs, along a narrow corridor crowded with boxes, a bicycle and people moving in the opposite direction as you moved into what was once a backyard, now covered by a wooden-plank roof. Tables of odd sizes could hold about 30 people, with a bar making room for half a dozen more. Extra chairs are stored on racks hung from the ceiling. At lunchtime, Mission opens at noon with people already waiting on the sidewalk. Before we left, all the modest space was occupied. I’ve heard that at night, the wait is near-endless.

The menu was very interesting, and much of we ate was very good. We chose: Chongqing chicken wings ($10), nestled under a blanket of hot peppers, which were unnecessary because the wings had been marinated in very hot pepper oil before cooking and could have melted an ice berg; salt cod fried rice ($11.50) with small discs of Chinese sausage, lacked any distinct flavor, at least surrounded by some of the pungent dishes on the table; Kung Pao pastrami ($12), with peanuts, celery and potatoes in a very hot chili sauce (pastrami in ½ inch cubes, so not easily recognizable by itself); thrice cooked bacon ($12) with Shanghainese rice cakes (not to be confused with those puffed rice cakes that women eat trying to suppress a murderous urge to eat potato chips), tofu skin, bitter melon, and hot chili oil; Taiwanese clams ($12) in a delicious caramel sauce; Beijing beef pancake ($10), more of a wrap with hoisin sauce (consensus favorite); and "egg egg noodles" ($12), with a soft-boiled egg, ginger, scallion and Chinese sausage. We had some extra bowls of white rice cooked with barley. No-name bottles of still and sparkling water were provided at no extra charge. Because Mission had been closed for the holiday, it did not have sizzling cumin lamb breast ($16) and broccoli beef brisket with smoked oyster sauce ($16) available, which I might have tried.

Portions were small to medium, not typical for Chinatown, although admittedly at Orchard & Rivington we were in a different micro-climate. Few, if any, of the dishes might be found anywhere else, which defines Mission’s uniqueness. On the whole, I would describe Mission as Interesting, worth a visit if you can find a time slot (no reservations accepted except for the few seats at the bar, strangely enough) that doesn’t keep you out on the sidewalk in a crowd of people no more than half your age.

Friday, January 4, 2013
"Famed French actress and animal rights campaigner Brigitte Bardot will request Russian nationality Friday if plans to euthanize two elephants at a zoo in the French city of Lyon go ahead . . . . On Wednesday, she appealed to French President Francois Hollande to intervene on behalf of the Indian elephants, named Baby and Nepal, who are believed to have tuberculosis." This news item follows on the heels of President Vladimir "Pussycat" Putin giving Russian citizenship to French actor Gerard Depardieu, who is unwilling to pay the price of French civilization. Imagine the headlines we may soon see:

Kardashians Found No Cheap Silicone in Silicon Valley

Trump Ditches US Passport and ‘Foreign’ President

Bye-Bye Barbarino, Travolta Tries Transylvania

Romney Moving Closer to His Money

NY Jets to New Zealand, Excuse to Miss Games