Friday, May 23, 2014

Foot in Mouth

Monday, May 19, 2014
I made a terrible mistake this weekend. We went to a retreat with other members of West End Synagogue at a camp about 100 hundred miles north of New York City. That, in itself, was not the mistake. Quite the contrary, the event was a thorough success. One exceptional session was devoted to Ari Shavit’s important book on Israel, "My Promised Land," conducted by America’s Favorite Epidemiologist. Need I say more?

The problem that arose was my failure to notify the New York Times that we would be away for the weekend. So, when we returned to the front gate of the Palazzo di Gotthelf late Sunday afternoon, there sat all of Saturday’s and Sunday’s newspaper. This was a mistake for a couple of reasons. First, my time utilization plans for the rest of this week are shot. I am now presented with so much reading to catch up with that I may have to hurry a meal or two. More important is how even the briefest scan of the front pages dispelled the reverie induced by a weekend in the country. Thoughts of peace, love and harmony could not withstand the news of strife and turmoil from parts far and near that we had been sheltered from in the absence of radio and television, in a location with very spotty internet service. Even news of Saturday night’s rousing victory of the New York Rangers over the Montreal Canadiens only partially balanced word from the Ukraine, Nigeria, and the New York Times executive suite. On balance, ignorance was bliss.

One story that I caught up with this morning particularly agitated me, maybe because it attempts to propagate ignorance as the price of bliss.
The opening sentence captures the absurd idea at issue. "Should students about to read ‘The Great Gatsby’ be forewarned about ‘a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence,’ as one Rutgers student proposed?" 

Now, Pitkin Avenue in Brooklyn, where I grew up, was not exactly the Wild West. We did not have to face herds of stampeding buffalo, and attacks by fierce Apache warriors were limited to our Saturday afternoons at the movies. However, we learned that stuff happens, unpredicted, unwelcome, and unsettling. Nature and our fellow humans, by chance or by design, sometimes hurt us and the ones around us. We heard adults say, "Why me?"; "Why her?"; "Why them?" Many of our family and neighbors, as Jews, escaped extermination by leaving Europe, sometimes guided by hope, sometimes propelled by fear. We knew that life was not just a bowl of cherries.

And now, some students are urging "explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans." Blame the words, not the world! seems to be their message. That simply won’t work. The world is often too much with us.

While I realize that words may hurt us as much as sticks and stones, the sort of intellectual delousing that these protesting students propose (because, after all, such alerts must lead to euphemism at least or excision at worst) denies us the only effective, yet fragile, weapon that we have for healing and betterment – ideas. If you think I am insufficiently sensitive to the mental health of rape victims and war veterans, I suggest that they seem to be only the front for a broader attack on all sorts of life’s irritants. A draft guide for faculty on "trigger warnings" at Oberlin College in Ohio reads: "Triggers are not only relevant to sexual misconduct, but also to anything that might cause trauma. Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression." I would be surprised if Mother’s Day and Father’s Day greeting cards aren’t high on some students’ lists of trauma-inducements.

Taste of Northern China, 88 East Broadway, around the corner on Forsythe Street, just opened and is very small. It took over the space occupied by Xi’An Famous Foods, where 1 ½ people could stand and eat. Taste added on an extension, about 4' x 8' where 6 stools sit against a ledge. The preparation area holds two women fixing dishes, and one young man taking orders and payments. In that crowded space, one of the women was hand-pulling noodles.

I ordered one lamb, one beef and one chicken skewer ($1.25 each) and a meat sandwich ($3). The skewers, which had been grilled over an open fire, were tasty as almost anything with a lot of fat grilled over an open fire will be inevitably. The shredded meat (pork) sandwich was served in a 5-inch round near-pita, authentic Chinese the young man told me. It was mildly seasoned and cooked with a bit of onion, nothing like the spicy lamb burger served by Xi’An except in outward appearance.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014
The police chief of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire has resigned. He was overheard, in the words of the Union Leader, the state’s most influential newspaper, "call[ing] President Obama a ‘f*****g n*****’" and refused to apologize. According to the 2010 census, Wolfeboro, The Jewel of Lake Winnipesaukee™, has a total population of 6,269, of whom 6,119 identify as White and 11 identify as Black or African American, which probably explains the chief’s ethnic expertise. I am holding my breath for the chief’s views of Jews, because, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives (the US government avoids the topic), there are no measurable traces of Jews in Carroll County, New Hampshire, where Wolfeboro is situated.

325 Broadway has been the site of two failures recently. In 2011-2012, Sushein, Kaiten Sushi Bar & Restaurant operated briefly. This was a Kosher sushi restaurant where the plates travelled on a conveyor belt, allowing you to pick what you wanted. The physical layout of the restaurant was awkward and maybe the culinary focus was too narrow. In 2013, a young graduate of MIT took over the site and opened Siring Asian Grill, a pan-Asian, stir-fried to order restaurant. However, even with the conveyor belt removed, the space was poorly laid out and unattractive. Also, the menu, while more broadly conceived than Sushein’s, did not have a natural audience. I had occasion to speak with Smith, the first name of the young owner, of Thai background, a few times. I could not hide my pessimism as we sat alone at the peak of the lunch hour.

Today, on the way to work, many months after Siring closed, I stopped in Smith’s brand new enterprise, a Burger King franchise. The space has had a gut renovation, making it seem larger and far more inviting than previous designs. I think that it will be successful, although otherwise unremarkable, because familiar fast food will appeal to the many office workers nearby and tourists on foot in this historic and colorful neighborhood within striking distance of Century 21. On the other hand, it’s highly unlikely that I will be ordering a Whopper any time soon.

Thursday, May 22, 2014
I went to Jing Fong, 20 Elizabeth Street, expecting some good dim sum, which I got, and ample space to do my crossword puzzle, which I got. I did not mind being racially-profiled when I was seated at a round table with four suburban women close to me in age and complexion. I enjoyed giving them some guidance in what had to be an inaugural gastronomic experience for them. However, I was a little late to avoid one serious mishap when they got their digits crossed and wound up with chicken feet instead of chicken fingers.

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