Monday, November 30, 2015

Holiday Trends at the Mall

The Mall at Peace in the Early Morning

For the first time I can remember, I actually visited a shopping mall on Black Friday this year.

I didn't make any purchases -- I went to return something I'd bought in error a week earlier.  So I wasn't in the crowd outside before the doors were swept open.   

Instead I went a half hour before the mall closed.   Parking was easy, and I completed my errand quickly.  This left me enough time to walk around the mall's upper and lower levels and see what was going on.

There were many people carrying several full shopping bags and also a fair number like me, whose hands were free.

What struck me was how many clothing stores had signs announcing 30 or 40 percent off their entire stock.  At the Gap, a sign said everything in the store was 50 percent off.  

Maybe this is normal for Black Friday.  Normal or not, it certainly is in line with reports that fashion stores are carrying too much inventory and looking to sell merchandise at serious discounts.


Trends

-- The National Retail Federation estimates holiday spending will increase by 3.7 percent this year.   I don't know if that's good news or bad news.  Here's the group's graph showing total holiday sales by year (the blue bars) and year-to-year changes (the orange line).  




--   The percentage of holiday shopping done online just keeps growing.  Almost 50 percent of the population planned to buy gifts online today, Cyber Monday.  (This may be why you found it more difficult to get working people on the phone today.)  

-- Self-gifting gets more popular every year.  According to Prosper Insight and Analytics, men are expected to spend 50 percent more on themselves than women.  Hispanics are more enthusiastic self-gifters than members of other ethnic groups.  (I have no idea what any of this means.)

-- Hoverboards.  Many, many self-balancing, battery-powered hoverboards.  








-- The holiday shopping season is starting earlier every year.  This year it began in early November, well before Black Friday.

Bad news for me.  Already I am already running late. 

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Odds and Ends

Why We Need Copy Editors, Chapter 37

The daily newspaper in my county recently reported a very sad case -- a woman whom neighbors described as kind and friendly was killed, and her body was found wrapped in a blanket not far from her home. Here's the lead:

     An investigation is underway after a body severed from its head was found 
     in the garage of a  . . .  residence late Monday evening . . . .  

"Severed from its head?"  What a mess we have here.  What was found was a headless body.   My guess is that the head was severed from the body, not the other way around, but nothing in the story indicates that the police even know this much.  Geez. 

The next day, the paper's headline writers embarrassed themselves with another faux pas in a follow-up story.  Here is the headline:   


Decapitated N.J. Mom's Cause of Death 
Remains Unknown, Investigators Say


This terrible headline invites laughter in an inappropriate situation.  The story explains that the police do not know whether the woman died before or when her head was cut off.  

Again, geez. 




Kristaps Porzingis


Not long ago, I discussed the New York Knicks' new center and his apparently felicitous effect on team performance.

Alas, I got ahead of myself.  On Monday, the Knicks traveled to Miami, where they lost to the Heat (still a serious team even without LeBron James), 95-78. Then, on Wednesday, the Knicks lost, 100-91, to the Magic in Orlando.


Carmelo Anthony
Yesterday, the Knicks returned home and got pasted again by the Heat, 97-78.  According to news reports, Carmelo Anthony (touted several years ago as the latest New York franchise player/savior) scored 11 points in the first quarter and none thereafter.
     
As for Porzingis, the lanky Latvian apparently tried playing some defense, which is always a novelty at Madison Square Garden.  He got himself into foul trouble and spent much of the second half on the bench.  The Heat outscored the Knicks, 47-29, in the second half of the game.  
      
At 8 wins and 9 losses, it appears that the Knicks are still the same old guys they used to be.

But it could be worse.  The Brooklyn Nets are now 3-12.



No Tipping Update



Joe’s Crab Shack, a chain of 138 restaurants not located in New York City, is taking a risk by raising its prices and waiters' hourly rates and telling its customers that they do not need to leave tips for the service staff.  

(When New York restaurateur Danny Meyer announced he was doing the same thing recently at his 12 restaurants in Manhattan, the news rocketed around the country, an indication of how Gotham-centric our news media are these days.)
  
Crab Shack servers will be paid a wage starting at $14 an hour -- pretty good in the Crab Shack locations, where wages range as low as $2.13 per hour before gratuities. A group called Ignite, which owns the chain, said the new policy is being rolled out slowly.  

The hopes are that waiters will be more willing to work during non-peak hours and less resentful about having to split tips with other servers for taking care of large dining groups. 

Meal prices will go up by 20 percent, according to the ownership group.  The experiment will continue for a few months.


Another Cultural Appropriation
The Next Big No-No

The Toronto Sun reports that the University of Ottawa has ceased offering a free weekly yoga class for students with disabilities (and also non-disabled students).

Below, in Canadian, is why, according to the newspaper:

     Staff at the Centre for Students with Disabilities believe        that "while yoga is a really great idea and accessible            and great for students ... there are cultural issues of 
     implication involved in the practice," according to an 
     email from the centre.

     The centre goes on to say, "Yoga has been under a lot        of controversy lately due to how it is being practiced," and which cultures 
     those practices "are being taken from."

     The centre official argues since many of those cultures "have experienced 
     oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western 
     supremacy ... we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while
     practising yoga."

This is just the latest madness.  Colleges and universities, we are told, are beset by rape epidemics, are chock-full of racists and are minefields of micro-aggression enforcements that scare students and faculty into silence.   

Who needs this?  Maybe it is time to shut these schools and let the people educate themselves more safely with online courses.  




Thursday, November 26, 2015

Platform Shoes Fall Flat



I do a lot of walking, and so I am always interested in comfortable shoes, particularly ones that don't look like clodhoppers. 

This has been a bit of a challenge this season.  

Many footwear designers seem to have decided that, if platform soles look good on summer sandals, then why not make platform oxfords and platform loafers?  It has been a "thing" this fall.  

 I append pictures of basic black models here.  (Unfortunately some of these shoes have been rendered in pretty strange colors -- bright pink, say, or red with gold stars.)























All these shoes are from popular designers, but I'm not naming names.  Who among us has not made a mistake at one time or another?  

I will note that many of these styles are being offered at marked-down prices.

To their credit, most design houses seem to have hedged their bets by offering sleek oxfords and loafers that do not have platform soles.  I think we'll be seeing even more of them next year.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

An Improbable Park


Not many people remember it now, but in the early part of the last century New York was an industrial city. In Western Manhattan, the Meatpacking District bustled with 200 companies that prepared meat for shipment to other markets.  

Originally, meatpacking products were conveyed on a ground-level rail line. As the city grew more crowded, pedestrian-rail accidents increased, and so, in 1934, an elevated track, called the High Line, was built 30 feet above the roadway to send products to rail terminals and shipping piers.

But times changed.  Trucks replaced rail shipping, and meatpacking companies began moving out of Manhattan, typically to Brooklyn, where roads were less crowded and rents were lower. After a final shipment of frozen turkeys in 1980, the High Line was abandoned. 



Over time, the rail platform reverted to a state of nature.  Seeds carried by wind and birds embedded themselves among the tracks and grew into natural stands of weeds.  The whole thing grew to look rather shabby.  



Meanwhile, the Meatpacking District had turned into a neighborhood of trendy bars and restaurants.  By the turn of the Millenium, owners of neighboring buildings were lobbying to tear down the now dowdy High Line.

Some visionaries advanced a different plan.  They reasoned that the abandoned tracks were the only available open space in a very crowded urban neighborhood.  They proposed turning the High Line into a public park. 

Here is the result.











The transformation has been impressive.  I walked along the High Line on a gray weekday a few weeks back and saw several new construction projects that are oriented toward views of the park.



There also were many more people than in the top pictures, even though the weather was not encouraging and many plants had gone dry and dormant for cold season.  

This is true all year, I have heard.  After winter storms, people wait at the foot of the staircases and trot up into the park as soon as the snow has been shoveled.   

The High Line has kicked off a boom in its neighborhood.  The new Whitney Museum is just steps from its southern terminus, and at the northern end, the High Line will give way to a major multi-use development over the Hudson rail yards.  

The entire park is artificial in a way, very carefully planned and manicured in all seasons by a good-sized staff.  (Donations cover almost the entire maintenance budget.)  But even in a bustling, overcrowded city covered mostly with asphalt and cement, people crave the opportunity to walk a mile or so amid plants and above the noise of busy streets.




Sunday, November 22, 2015

Kristaps Porzingis





"A very tall flying object wrecked Houston on Saturday night," wrote New York Post sportswriter Marc Berman in today's paper.

The tall object was the New York Knicks' new forward, Kristaps Porzingis, a gangly 20-year-old who hails from Latvia.  Last night he scored 24 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and blocked seven shots.

More from Berman:

     "The Knicks’ 7-foot-3 rookie phenom, Kristaps Porzingis, in an even more 
     spectacular outing than Tuesday’s, inflicted major damage to the struggling 
     Rockets in leading the Knicks every which way in a 107-102 victory at Toyota 
     Center for their fourth straight win and an 8-6 record."  

Before last night, the Knicks had lost their last 11 games against the Rockets, and they had not won a game in Houston since 2004. 

Here are some highlights of Porzingis' game last night, including a Kareem-like left-handed skyhook.




The New York Knicks

Life has been difficult for Knicks fans for many years now.  The team owner, James L. Dolan, is a hard guy to like, and a string of coaches has struggled for years to convince the players that they should work together as a team.   

When Porzingis was chosen No. 4 in the draft this year, team fans were deeply apprehensive.  Knicks president Phil Jackson (a former championship coach whose NY job description is not entirely clear) worried aloud in August about whether Porzingis' narrow frame wasn't too spindly for the rough-and-tumble of a long basketball season.  

In short, expectations were modest.  

Porzingis of course was booed by Knicks fans in his first few court appearances -- the usual Empire State howdy.  New Yorkers are tough on their athletic teams.  

Now the big forward is the toast of the town.  ESPN calls him "the hottest young big man in New York since Patrick Ewing."  Ewing retired in 2002.

Porzingis' rookie performance has been compared already with that of Shaquille O'Neal in his rookie season, 1992-93.  High praise indeed.

At the moment, the Knicks are 8-6.  Before the season began, fans were resigned to another slow start; the last time they were over .500 at this point in the season was in 2012. Knicks fans know that life is hard and, since the early 1970s, full of disappointments on the basketball court.

This may be a turning point in the Knicks' fortunes.  Or it may not.  

Knicks' hopes have been dashed before.


Linsanity

In February 2012, a Knicks backup guard, Jeremy Lin, came off the bench to lead the team to string of victories. The Knicks had an 11-13 record before his first game, and then went 7-0 after he was put in the starting lineup.  In one game alone, on February 10, he scored 38 points.

Fans were enchanted, in part by Lin's unlikely story.  He was short (6'3"), Chinese-American and an evangelical Christian.  He had been undrafted for college (Harvard in his case) or by the NBA.  On at least two occasions, when he reported to arenas for games, security guards refused to believe he was actually a professional basketball player.

His novelty charmed many, but his Knicks career was brief.  A new coach arrived with a different strategy, and Lin suffered a meniscus tear, after which the unloved owner Dolan refused to extend his contract.  He has since played in Houston and Los Angeles, and is now a guard with the Charlotte Hornets.  


Saturday, November 21, 2015

Topless Sunbathing

The Idiosyncratist is an email friend of Vince Calucci, who lives in Venice, CA and is a keen observer of the boardwalk scene there.  Recently Mr. Calucci had a little fun describing the latest development in that famously louche location. With his permission, I share it here.


Venice Beach Council Votes to Let Women Sunbathe Topless

By Vince Calucci

Forty years ago, a cadre of Venice Beach sunbathers routinely basked in the altogether.

Now the Venice Neighborhood Council thinks the moment is ripe to take a half-step back to that time of physical freedom. 

In a 12-2 vote, the council moved recently to endorse “women being afforded the same rights as men to sunbathe topless.”

The city and county of Los Angeles prohibit nude or topless sunbathing. But Melissa Diner, the Venice council officer who sponsored the resolution, said the group would draft letters to the Los Angeles mayor and council members calling for Venice to be exempted.

“I think this is a serious equality issue, and I’m not going to shy away from it,” she said. 

The wave of publicity that instantly followed the decision had done exactly what Diner had hoped -- “It started a conversation about not only wanting to show our perky nipples on Venice Beach but about what other perky things people want to see.”

“Venice Beach was founded and designed around the European culture of Venice, Italy,” the neighborhood council said in its resolution, “and … topless [sun]bathing is commonplace throughout Europe, among primitive cultures throughout the world, and many places in the U.S.”

“I'm all for it,” said Diner, whose view is shared by a number of boardwalk denizens.

Topher Squires, a heavily tattooed surf instructor who lives in a van in a Venice Beach parking lot, said of the proposal. “It’s time that America grew up. This is the 20th Century, man.”

Roger Chaffle, 46, sporting a droopy C-cupped rack of his own and holding a sign that read “All Nipples Matter!” asked, “Why should a man’s nipples be allowed to see the light of day, yet a woman’s be hidden away like ill-mannered foster children?”


Nude Sunbathing in Venice History

Venice’s earlier flirtation with laissez-faire sunbathing ended soon after the non-nudist public took notice. News crews swarmed. Helicopters hovered. Lifeguards found themselves rescuing people with nothing material to grasp. Lascivious men in leisure suits showed up carrying cameras with telephoto lenses.

“It became a freak show,” Jeffrey Stanton wrote in his book, "Venice California: Coney Island of the Pacific."

In 1974, the city outlawed displays of genitalia and female areolas in parks and at beaches, and the Venice nude beach ceased to be.



Other Local Reactions

Mike Weisner, a Venice resident strolling the beach with his 2½-year-old son, Owen, criticized the idea of letting women sunbathe topless. “It would be great if they were all 10s,” he said, “but a lot of them look kind of rough -- like they did hard time or something. Who wants to look at that lineup while you’re sharing a pizza with your kid?”


Esme Greenfield, who frequents the beach, described herself as a supporter. “Personally, I think that women have the right to their own bodies,” she said. 
     “Here’s the problem with that — sexual harassment stems from a bigger issue than women’s bodies being on display, because personally coming down to Venice, I’m harassed on an almost daily basis.”


At his vendor station on Ocean Front Walk not far from Rose Avenue, Micah Denton, a homeless artist who looks like the victim of a catastrophic shipwreck, said the new vote for topless bathing was “almost like they were trying to get a strip club on the beach instead of focusing on providing shelter, hot showers, meals, baby wipes, and iPads” for people in need.

“Those nudies should be ashamed of themselves,” commented Sal Mangiacavallo, 87, surveying the crowd. “They’re too old. Half of them look like they’re playing bocce ball with cantaloupes.”

Bonin, the LA councilman who represents Venice, sought to douse any suggestion that he would carry water for the topless-sunbathing advocates.

“While I appreciate the idea,” he said, “right now my priorities for Venice are increasing public safety, housing the homeless and protecting affordable housing, reining in overdevelopment, enhancing mobility and improving the delivery of core city services.”


Broader Context

Mr. Calucci offers a humorous local take on what is a nationwide trend of clothing-optional initiatives and events.  San Francisco has had an active Naked Rights movement for many years, with practitioners demonstrating outside its city hall.  Naked bike rides attract thousands of riders every spring in cities worldwide.

And, too, there have been annual "Go Topless Day" parades every summer in many American cities.  Below is a picture of the 2009 parade on the Venice boardwalk.





Friday, November 20, 2015

Venezuela -- Upside Down, As Usual

Maduro


Venezuelan voters will participate in legislative elections early next month.  Against widespread opposition, President Nicolas Maduro is working hard to maintain his party's control of the National Assembly.

Election authorities have refused to put at least one opposition leader's name on the ballot, but Maduro's very political wife has secured a ballot slot.  

Another opposition leader, jailed for inciting violence after national protests in 2014, was sentenced in September to almost 14 years in prison after an apparently rigged trial that has been condemned by Human Rights Watch and protested by the US Department of State.
       Yesterday the man's wife said she was "cornered by violent collectives" -- more than 100 motor bikes and trucks -- as she traveled to carry his message to the southwest part of the country.

In Venezuela, it was ever thus.  The country's fate seems determined by the volatile value of its enormous oil reserves.


Hugo Chavez


Chavez Memorialized



Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president from 1999 until his death in 2013, began agitating against the previous government in 1992.  He tapped into widespread dissatisfaction in the country.  

Oil, which accounts for 90 percent of Venezuela's exports, was selling at low prices in the 1980s and 1990s.  Despite a broad expansion and improvement of education in the country during this period,* average wages declined by 70 percent.  

People were understandably ready for a change, and Chavez was elected.  He had the good fortune to be president when oil prices began to shoot up in the early 2000s.  His government used the new riches to provide social welfare benefits that the broader population deeply craved.  He was very popular, especially among the poor.

Chavez fashioned his own form of Venezuelan socialism, known as Chavismo.  He castigated the rich as greedy leeches, and he nationalized joint venture oil partners like ExxonMobil and Conoco, replacing their leadership and technical employees with loyalists.


Oil

Venezuelan oil is not like light, sweet crude.  It is less pure with more sulfur -- more expensive to pump and to process.  This was not a problem as long as oil prices were high.  In fact, oil prices continued to rise during Chavez' tenure, running above $100 a barrel from 2010 until early last year.

Then, when oil prices declined, several problems came to light.  Maintenance of drilling and refining infrastructure had been deferred while oil revenues were devoted to social programs.  The loyalist managers also did not replace the technical skills lost when large companies and their staffs were tossed out.  And the high costs of extraction and refining made Venezuela's oil industry much less profitable.

By the end of last year, Venezuela had begun importing oil from Algeria and Russia.

By early this year, Venezuelan wells were producing 13 percent less oil than they had in 1999, and the oil was selling for less the half its 2012 price. 



Maduro's Problem

Reduced oil revenues, coupled with very high currency inflation, has frustrated Venezuelan citizens.  The government set price limits on certain essential goods, which discouraged companies from producing enough to meet popular demand.

As soon as price-controlled goods hit the stores, they were snatched up, often by black marketeers who resold the goods at higher prices.

We read last year that Venezuela was facing a toilet paper shortage, among others.  A government report leaked two months ago concluded that at least 15 food items and 26 cleaning and personal care products were essentially unavailable in Venezuela.  Unavailability of baby diapers was 96 percent; fruits, 92 percent; toothpaste, 58 percent, and on and on.   

Now lines form overnight at two-thirds of Venezuela's stores, private and public.  Grocery stores are patrolled by Venezuelan soldiers.  Working as a delivery truck driver has become a dangerous job. 

Early this year, the Venezuelan government arrested the chief executive of a private supermarket chain and accused him of provoking the long lines outside his stores.  The charge seems to be that the private sector was hoarding goods, possibly to smuggle them out of the country.

Things are hard in Venezuela right now.  A South American survey group says that 30 percent of the population ate two meals or less each day in the second quarter of 2015; the proportion had been 20 percent in the first quarter.


Elections

Support for Maduro is at or below 25 percent, and there are worries about the legitimacy of the December 6 elections.  

Brazil, which was to send election observers, has withdrawn from the program, citing Venezuelan manipulation and insufficient transparency.  The head of the Organization of American States has said the scales are stacked in favor of the ruling party. 


Failed Government?

The Chavismo movement always has been heavy-handed in its approach to governance, and it always has taken care of its own. 

There's an old expression -- Meet the new boss, same as the old boss -- that may apply here. 

A couple months ago, it was reported that Hugo Chavez' 35-year-old daughter is the richest woman in Venezuela.  Her net worth of $4.2 billion is invested mostly in the US and Andorra, which have more stable currencies and economies than Venezuela's.
       Nobody seems to have advanced a theory of how she amassed this wealth, but her father used to say, "The rich don't work, they're lazy." One Latin American paper called the situation  "(in)compatible with the socialist doctrine that Chavez tried to force on the oil-rich country." 
     Chavez died two years ago, but his daughters still live, very comfortably and at the country's expense, in Venezuela's presidential palace. Maduro, who succeeded Chavez, lives in the vice president's quarters.
     There have been other charges of Chavez family corruption.  

Maduro's wife has been active in the Chavismo uprisings and government for more than 20 years.  A former (and presumably future) legislator, she succeeded her husband as speaker of the National Assembly when he became foreign minister.  
     During her five years in the leadership, she installed 40 of her family members in legislative jobs.  When people objected, she maintained, apparently with a straight face, that all 40 were the most qualified candidates for their positions. One of her nephews holds three jobs and titles:  national treasurer, CFO of the state oil company and director of the Venezuelan development bank.
     A couple weeks ago, two other nephews were arrested in Haiti and extradited to the United States for scheming to smuggle cocaine from Honduras to the US.  She of course has said this was an American plot.

I'm sure any serious investigator could find many more connections between Chavez supporters and lucrative jobs and fortunes. 

The point is not that socialism failed in Venezuela.  It doesn't seem as if socialism ever was given a try there.  It's just another strong-man government buying people's support with their own money.

Like many revolutions inspired by revulsion at sitting governments, the Chavez movement replicated the government it replaced but with a new name.



* One of the most distinctive elements of Venezuela's improved education system was the development of possibly the finest public music education program in the world.  It started in the pre-Chavismo period and presumably has been continued since.


One of its most famous alumni is Gustavo Dudamel, just 34, who is in his seventh season as the Music and Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which has signed him to a contract through 2022.  He is also the Music Director of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela.  Dudamel is in demand as a guest conductor worldwide and has devoted himself to musical education for children. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Diners of New Jersey


For several years now, I have lived in New Jersey.  Like all states, Jersey has its little quirks.

The Jersey quirk that puzzles me most is the food service phenomenon know as the diner.

New Jersey Diners

New Jersey diners are restaurants that serve inexpensive meals -- breakfast and lunch, usually dinner. A few are open 24 hours a day.  Diners are not pretentious places.  Their menus never change and consist of basic grub, nothing special.  

Traditional Jersey diners look like this one, which is not far from my home.  It's pleasant and efficiently run.  Nobody gets in your face before you've had your coffee. I used to hang out there and eat pancakes when the million-woman cleaning squad invaded the house at 7:30 a.m. every few weeks or so.  


The diner is a second home to many regulars who stop by just about every day. The Significant Other and the younger person still travel there occasionally for Saturday lunch.  

Apparently a number of similar-looking New Jersey diners have been dismantled, boxed up and sent to Europe, particularly France.  (Sort of like the Egyptian Temple of Dendur, which was shipped to New York and reassembled in its own annex of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)  Apparently the French really dig the diner aesthetic.

In fact, the look of New Jersey diners has been updated over time.  Now most diners seem to have white-rock exterior walls and metal roofs like the one in the picture below.  



It's not a particularly stylish look, but its ubiquity may serve to signal to drivers that, hey, here is a diner in case you want a slice of pie and a cup of coffee.  Whatever.  I'm pretty sure no restaurants of this design will be popping up soon in the 16th Arrondissement.


Diner Lore

Many people in Jersey love diners and have fond memories of diner experiences.  More than a few homages, picture books and histories of Jersey diners have been published and apparently have sold well. 

I read an interview recently on the publication of the latest of these books.  Here is some of what the author said.  


     "Me and my buddies would go to the Tick Tock (Diner) and play the juke box. 
     These are very little, mundane things, but looking back, those are the things 
      that really stick with you. You’ll remember that—those are the things that really 
      keep you going sometimes, when you need a nice thought . . .
           "The old owner, Nick, (of the Tick Tock), I think that’s what he meant when 
      he would tell people that, like, ‘Okay, you’re at a diner, 20 years from now 
      you’re going to remember these days, these friends, these conversations,’ 
      and it means a lot. A diner’s got a good place for that in people’s hearts. 
            "It is kind of a Jersey thing. When you go out of this area, and I talk about 
      that, we got the population density and the road density, but you get out of 
      Pennsylvania and Maryland, you don’t find diners. It’s not part of that culture, 
      we grew up here, and this is our culture." 

So maybe that is it.  Diners are good gathering places for young people who have big appetites and small budgets, and who are too young to meet in bars.  Diners also may be good spots for local business people who want to meet and talk without being shushed by all the loners concentrating for hours on their screens at Starbucks. 

I fall into neither of these categories.  That may be one reason why the charm of diners has eluded me.

And there is another reason.


Diner Food

Except for pancakes smothered in syrup -- which I shouldn't be eating anyway -- nothing I have eaten in a diner has made me want to return.  This includes Greek salad (a not especially Greek staple of diner menus), sandwiches, burger baskets, dinner entrees and, quite often, the coffee.  All very unfortunate.

Several years ago, I swore off eating in diners.  I'm a terrible cook and nobody's idea of a gourmet, but at some point you have draw a line in the sand.  That was mine.  

(This can be difficult when traveling back from the West Coast.  Planes often arrive at 9 p.m. or so, and by the time the SO and I get home, the sidewalks have been rolled up and the only eatery still open is a diner in the next town over.  I have learned to store leftovers in the freezer for these moments.)  

So I was surprised this fall when New Jersey's major newspapers launched a joint project to find the best darn diner in the state.  

To me, this seems like trying to find the street fair with the best funnel cakes.  

For two weeks, readers were invited to nominate and vote for their favorite diners.  People LOVED it.  More than 42,000 voted in Northern Jersey alone.  

Now the papers' staffs will establish a list of 40 semi-finalists.  After judges sample the cuisine and atmosphere at all of them, the list will be winnowed to a lesser number of finalists and finally -- tadaa! -- there will be the naming of the finest diner in the Garden State.  

Good for those newspapers.  It is always heartening to see people take an interest in local publications. 

As for me, well, no.  It's a Jersey thing.  I just don't get it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Grandma's Celebrity Gossip

Grandma

Our popular columnist continues her discussion of celebrities who have died in recent months.

Donna Douglas, the happy yekl on “The Beverly Hillbillies” died.  She was 81 and a real estate agent who sold a house in Cheviot Hills to my son-in-law David’s brother Morty. Long story short, the house had mold, and like Ed McMahon’s place, it was a big mish-mosh and tsuris for all.

Dick Van Patten was in a couple Mel Brooks (who’s still alive) movies, on TV with infomercials for the Beano pills, and the show “Enough is Enough” (“Eight is Enough”). He was 86.

Jackie Collins was 77. A lot of schmuz she wrote. So bad were her books that the other yenta schmuz writer, Barbara Cartland, called them “nasty, filthy, and disgusting.” 

Jackie’s sister, Joan Collins, appeared in some of her TV movies. She’s still alive and was in “Dynasty” and married that short English shikker with the Groucho eyebrows (Anthony Newley) who did that song I liked about the shmegegge (“What Kind of Fool Am I?”).

Jack Carter, the Catskills shvitzer, was 93. Him I remember from “Match Game” and Ed Sullivan.” Your head he could make spin, so fast he spit out the jokes.

Another Brooklyn comedian to go was Joan Rivers. Before her it was Totie Fields. In nightclubs is where Joan got her start. Then it was TV talk shows and the red carpets. So much work she’d had done to her face that in the end she looked like the puppet from Wayland and Madame. She once said, “No more Botox for me. Betty White’s bowels move more than my face.” Always the kibbitzer, she was 81.

Madame, left, and Joan Rivers: Separated at birth?

Maureen O’Hara was 95. She was the one with the red hair and lots of chutzpah, (like Barbara Stanwyck, but with a better nose job), but she’s dead too. 

Olivia de Havilland from “Gone With The Wind” is still around, but she’s 99. At that age, it’s hard to tell if they’re dead or alive. I think they should wheel them all out (the living ones, that is) at the Oscars and let us get a good look at them. 

That way we can decide whether or not it’s worth living that long.

I’ve said enough already.


Monday, November 16, 2015

Oh, Deer



Above are some neighbors of ours.  

After eating the entire understory of northeastern forests, they and their friends have relocated to the suburbs.  

My neighborhood had few of these residents about 10 years ago.  They have big brown eyes and gentle demeanors.  They are quite attractive, and they do not throw noisy parties.  

Now our neighborhood has more of them -- and I suspect a number of their cousins also have settled in areas nearby.  Our state, which had virtually no deer 100 years ago, now is home to an estimated 200,000 deer.  

There are annual deer hunts to cull the herds in forests and reservations, but nobody, including me, has suggested hunting in suburbs.  My guess is these animals plan to stick around for the long haul.

The only real complaint I have about them is their effect on my garden.


Landscaping in Deer Country

I know two families who have no trouble with deer.  Both erected six-foot fences surrounding their flat properties many years ago.  Their gardens abound with hybrid shrubs, decorative annuals and even flowers.

Six-foot fences are no longer permitted in our town, and they wouldn't help my situation anyway because deer could jump over such fences from the upslopes in our next-door neighbors' backyards.

So I try to plant things that deer don't like to eat.  

It used to be that garden publications ran lists of "deer-proof plants.  That stopped some years ago when deer began to eat many of the plants on the lists.

Now there are shorter lists of "deer-resistant plants," which are accompanied always by warnings that the deer haven't read those lists.  If hungry enough, a deer family will eat just about any herbaceous specimen.


My Garden

For years now, I have studied deer-resistant plant lists and consulted our garden guy about what to plant in the yard.

Viburnum is one such plant, a lovely bush with spring flowers that is common in my neighborhood.  Below is a viburnum.


And here is a picture of a viburnum that the garden guy suggested for our back yard.  You will notice the difference.


I have another viburnum that looks just like this one.  Both are surrounded by mulch that is pocked with hoofprints.  

Another old "deer-resistant" staple is spirea, which used to be regarded as an uninteresting perennial good only for odd garden corners at the back of planting beds.  Now homeowners plant spirea in bulk in hopes of warding off hungry deer.

One reason spirea are not highly prized is that they lose their leaves in winter.  Here is one, probably four feet tall, whose owner is pulling out dead branches at the beginning of the winter season.  By spring it will sprout thick green or yellow leaves, and perhaps even some white flowers.



Below is a spirea by our outdoor deck.  It used to be about the same size as the one above.  Now it's about 12 inches tall. 


A couple times, I spied deer nibbling on the spirea and chased them away.  They just kept coming back.  I have 10 other spirea that look pretty much the same.



Alternatives

Gardening in deer country is not for the faint of heart.  I have investigated three alternatives and settled on one.

1) Barrel cacti.  Several are shown in an attractive grouping below. They are a nice green color and grow fast.  Their sharp spines surely would discourage deer from tasting the cactus flesh, which reportedly has a bitter taste to boot.  In spring, these cacti blossom out with bright yellow and orange flowers at their centers, which would be difficult for our woodchucks to reach and consume.  
     (Woodchucks LOVE flowers, by the way.  Don't let me get started about the enormous potted chrysanthemum they stripped overnight several autumns back.)
  

Unfortunately, the weather here gets too cold and is too rainy -- nothing like that of the Sonoran dessert -- for barrel cacti thrive in my garden.

So it was on to 

2)  Deer spray.  Two months ago, our library hosted a well-attended presentation on deer-resistant plants.  Long story short -- there are many plants that are deer-resistant until they aren't.  Then you have to start again.
     A local entrepreneur attended to promote his company, which rids gardens of deer by regular applications of spray containing a smell that is obnoxious to deer.  He offered a free first spray application, likely presuming that afterward customers would be hooked and would sign up to spend a couple thousand dollars a year for refresher sprays.
     My reaction was that we already spend too much money on gardeners, lawn mowers, leaf blowers, fertilizer preparations, gutter cleaners and a tree service.  
     At some point, you just have to say no.

My new plan is

3) Deer nets.  These unobtrusive black nets apparently interfere when deer try to sink their teeth into attractive foliage.  A friend of mine has used these for several years, and she actually has normal-looking hydrangeas in her yard.  Pretty impressive.
     Home Depot sells deer netting in four-foot wide rolls of about 70 feet.  So I'm going with that.  All I need is 10 or 12 rolls of the stuff and some free time between now and the first frost.

Wish me luck.


Note

I apologize for the centered spacing of the copy in the first half of this post.  It looks normal in draft form, but rearranges itself  in previews of the finished product.  I don't know why.  I have wrassled with the thing for the better part of 30 minutes, doing all the appropriate stuff, to no avail.  Since the result seems readable -- albeit a little odd -- I am leaving things as they are.  I'll try to do better next time.