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I am fortunate. I am fortunate because, once, I was poor.

You learn a lot from being poor. You get creative. Take food, for example.

During times when I struggled to make ends meet, I sometimes modified my diet, experimenting with less expensive substitutes (alternatives like textured vegetable protein) and more economical methods (yes, you can cook pasta with only a bowl and an electric tea kettle, but it takes a while). I learned where to find the best prices for food (including dumpsters behind grocery stores) and learned that when to shop is sometimes as important as where to shop.

When I was studying music in Jerusalem, I didn’t have much income. My scholarship covered my tuition and living quarters, but I still had to pay for food and clothing, books and supplies, transportation and postage and phone tokens. My parents usually sent a monthly stipend, but (adjusted for inflation) it was only about $150, which left me with a lot more month than money. I supplemented this by cleaning houses and playing gigs with the Jerusalem Symphony, but none of that was steady work.

It didn’t take long for me to find that the most economical place to shop for food was in the shuk. The shuk was like a farmer’s market, with aisles of open-air stalls selling fruit and veg and meats and spices, but it didn’t have the artisanal frippery and carnival vibe that permeate modern suburbia’s weekend analogues. No, the shuk was a place where working people shopped daily, filling a mesh bag with produce warm from the sun and bread warm from the ovens, taking it all home for the family meal. Vendors knew their regular customers, greeting them by name or honorific, chatting about current events or family woes, as together they searched for the ripest melon, the heftiest chicken, the most pungent cardamom, the sweetest halvah.

Prices were displayed, sometimes on a board above, but usually written with chalk on small slates propped up behind the stacked wares. As the day progressed, the desert heat intensified, creating a heady mélange of aromas, and the slates would become clouded by half-erasures and rewrites as prices were adjusted downward.

This was the time to shop: toward the end of the day, when vendors were especially eager to sell, sometimes at a loss, rather than cart what was left back into storage, and it was there, at just such a time, that I perfected my haggling technique (posted prices being merely a starting point, a suggestion as to where your journey would begin).

My girlfriend and I, low on funds, were looking for bargains, and the shuk, now in its last sun-drenched hour, was ready to supply them. Some stalls—the baker, the poulterer, the cheese-monger—had already shut down, their stock exhausted or the heat too punishing, but that was fine with us; we couldn’t afford chicken or cheese, anyway, and we could get simit—large sesame-topped loops of bread—from street vendors in the morning on the way to class. And there were plenty of vendors still open, willing to ride it out until closing in the hopes of a few last sales.

We bought a kilo of rice and some of that textured vegetable protein (aka TVP, aka kibble for people), then wandered past burlap sacks filled with nuts and seeds of all colors and sizes, until we came to a spot where the air was redolent with an almost indescribable mixture of warm wood, sweet hay, and a hint of something nearly but not quite citrus: tomatoes.

Two tomato vendors were set up across the pedestrian aisle from one another. One man was fanning himself with his newspaper and the other dabbed at his brow with a paisleyed kerchief. Before each one was a large display tray with a pyramid of deep red, glossy, perfectly ripe, and now fairly warm tomatoes. The prices were about two-thirds of what they had been that morning, but the first vendor had set his per-kilo price several agorot (subunits of shekels) below his across-the-aisle competitor’s.

So I ignored him and went to the second vendor.

We inspected his tomatoes. They were lovely, hand-filling Romas, perfect for a meatless ragout of TVP, to be served over rice, seasoned with wild herbs we’d pick along the road on our way home. I looked at the tomatoes, looked at the slate behind them, then looked at the vendor as I offered him half of his chalk-smudged price.

Naturally, he was wounded by such a paltry sum, but he did knock ten agorot off the price, bringing his price below that of his neighbor.

I shook my head, and walked two steps across the aisle.

The second vendor’s stock was just as good, just as ripe, just as inviting as the first. I offered him the price I offered the first vendor, but he, too, found it much too low. He had children at home, a family to feed. But—and there’s always a “but”—he liked the look of us, so he knocked ten agorot off of his price until he was the cheaper of the two.

I went back to the first vendor, raising my counter-offer, at which he rubbed at the slate and dropped his price again.

At this point, I didn’t have to go back to the second vendor. All I had to do was look over at him, gesture to the first vendor’s slate, and raise an eyebrow.

The second vendor scrubbed and wrote a lower price on his slate.

I looked back at the first vendor. Scrub. New price.

Second vendor, same.

Eventually, the second vendor got down nearly to my counter-offer, at which point the first vendor laughed, put down his slate, and conceded. We went to the winner, bought a kilo, and went home, snagging some wild saltbush and rosemary along the way.

As I said, though, being poor taught me many things beyond how to haggle for tomatoes. I learned how to live within my means, how to budget, and the importance of putting some funds by for the future. I also learned to be grateful for what I did have, rather than fuming over what I didn’t.

Most importantly, though, it taught me empathy for others in similar straits, as well as how easy it is to fall into a bad situation. One accident, one bad decision, and bam! you’re in trouble, trouble that may dog you for years. While I’ve never been completely destitute, I was close enough to see it from my seedy flat in the bad section of town, and I don’t wish that upon anyone.

I’ve tasted poverty; it’s bitter and dry and degrading, and I’ve worked hard to avoid it. But many others are not as lucky as I have been. For myriad reasons, and despite their best efforts, too many families struggle to survive, here in my country and around the world. At least here, where we have the wherewithal to help, we should help, and yet it is so hard to get agreement on this, a matter that to me is a very basic truth.

I wonder if those who complain about our efforts to help those less fortunate, who berate the government’s efforts to address a problem that half the nation seems eager to ignore, who ridicule those who demand a wage that provides them enough for food and shelter, I wonder if those people would benefit from a few months living on TVP and tomato sauce.

k

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I develop software for my living, so all day I’m steeped in high-tech endeavors: data analysis, solution design, use cases, text-based and GUI-assisted coding, iterative testing, etc.

When it comes to actually living, though, I prefer low-tech activities, such as gardening, reading, writing, and working with wood.

But as much as I love low-tech projects, I am not above getting some high-tech assistance, especially when a project is all very new to me.

Enter: the Nerdy Gurdy.

(more…)

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Occasionally, the tyranny of social and news media becomes too much for me to handle.

About ten days ago, I reached my limit, full up to here with the naïveté of the left, the mendacity of the right, the fear-mongering of the media, and the narcissistic selfishness of humanity in general.

I needed a break. From damned near everything. (more…)

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My father was a distinctly midcentury man.

He was a man of tract homes and manual transmissions, cigarettes and pipe tobacco, straw hats and huaraches, sand dunes and surf fishing, Frank Sinatra and Mel Tormé, pancakes with his kids on Saturday morning and roasted meats with his dad at the table on Sunday nights.  He was a dry martini/red wine with ice kind of guy: uncomplicated, elemental, rustic, reserved.

And yet, in his final decade, I found him nearly indecipherable. (more…)

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Decades as an orchestral musician taught me the value of practice. Years of woodworking taught me the wisdom of the planning and the pre-cut double-check. A stint running a newspaper press taught me the dangers of over-confidence. Twenty summers working in my gardens taught me the peace that can come from taking the long view.

With that as preamble, it’s probably not a surprise that I am approaching my retirement with forethought, prudence, and not a few contingency plans. (more…)

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(Note: I’ve tried to start this piece about eight different ways, including caveats, trigger warnings, and explanations as to why I’m addressing this to men and not to all folks, regardless of their place on the gender identity spectrum. To be totally honest, I’ve only seen this behavior in cisgender males, so that is to whom I speak. Feel free to change the pronouns to fit your own experience.)

Now . . . that said:

Dear Men,

I’ve seen us do some stupid-ass stuff in the past, and I’m fully aware that we will continue to do stupid-ass stuff in the future. Some of this stupid-ass stuff is so outrageous that it takes us out of the genetic equation entirely. Other stupid-ass stuff merely (and hopefully) teaches us something, something like “let’s not do that again.”

Most of this stupid-ass stuff results from our testing the limits of our abilities (and/or physics), to see if our abilities are in sync with reality. For instance, I once believed I could, in one jump, go from both feet firmly on the ground to both feet on the countertop. Whilst wearing clogs (hey, it was the early ’80s). My belief, as it happens, was misplaced. My shins still bear the scars. Lesson learned.

However, some of our stupid-ass stuff hurts people other than just ourselves. Sometimes, we hurt others more than ourselves. And sometimes we hurt only others. These are harder lessons to learn because the ones we hurt, well, often they’re the ones we love most, and they hide their pain because of their love for us. We, not seeing their pain, continue on with our stupid-ass stuff, ignorant of the damage we cause.

Case in point: fear of marriage. (more…)

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Ages ago, I had a golden ticket.

It opened gates that were closed, gave access to forbidden lands.

My trusty US Passport, respected throughout the world, allowed me to depart the country of my birth whenever I chose, but could not guarantee entry to all nations beyond our borders. It was, simply put, insufficient to get me into the places I wanted to go.

I needed a golden ticket.

I needed my vaccine passport.

Should I have balked at the requirement? Should I have, with hackles raised in righteous indignation, told these other, these lesser, these pipsqueak nations to go straight to hell because by god, I was an American, and no one was going to put restrictions on my absolute sovereignty? Is that what I should have done?

Was I weak? Was it a sign of a lax morality, a milquetoast nature, or a spineless lack of patriotism when I subjected myself to these jabs? Was I exposing my cowardice when I exposed my arm to these vaccines? Was the mild ache in my shoulder from the smallpox, yellow fever, diphtheria, and tetanus jabs some sort of reaction to this un-American act? Were the symptoms of cholera and typhus I experienced (due to the live vaccines administered), were they merely a sign of my own turpitude?

No. Such sentiments would have been as ludicrous back then as they are today.

And yet, here we are, arguing about this exact thing.

Public health and safety are the primary purposes of government. A pandemic, such as the one we experience today, is a threat to public health. Our best tool against it is an effective vaccine, distributed as widely as possible so that, as a nation, we can grab the brass ring of herd immunity.

But not everyone admits this reality. For some of our nation’s people—certain demographic groups, political parties, and even entire states—public health and safety are set aside while, with a misguided sense of outrage, these folks stand up and shout to the rafters their creed of individual freedom. These sections of our society feel that their personal privilege trumps any greater concern, for others, for neighbors, even for loved ones.

And so, we are stuck on this carousel, spinning ’round and ’round, suffering wave after wave of resurgent infection and death, and the brass ring remains tantalizingly out of reach.

Vaccine passports are going to be a reality. Just as when I was young, fresh-faced and dewy-eyed, wanting to visit lands unknown and experience cultures as alien to me then as the beliefs of these deniers are to me now, nations are going to require proof of vaccination before entry is permitted. You can rail and shout your fleck-spittle manifesto of faux patriotism and American exceptionalism all you want; without proof, you shall not pass.

More to the point, due solely to the calcified stupidity of this sizable proportion of our society, we cannot even trust one another and this vaccine passport may be required domestically as well. Want to see your home team compete against the visitors? Show you’ve been vaccinated. Want to experience that arena concert? Prove you’ve had the jab. Proof, or go home.

This is the future, and ironically, it is a future that these deniers are making manifest by their very actions. They are causing this reaction, just as that typhus vaccine caused my body to react with fever, chills, and sweats. The body politic is fighting off the viral infection these deniers represent.

Don’t want the jab? Fine. Don’t get it. It’s your choice. You have that freedom in this country. But Americans are not demigods walking amongst mere mortals, and actions have consequences.

So don’t act surprised when you get turned away from a nation, an airport, a venue, a concert, a restaurant because you chose to value your privilege above the health of others.

Get your jab.

Get your golden ticket.

k

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