My Chopping Block

We’ve all been doing a lot of cooking at home during the last year or so, and I’m no exception. I’ve especially enjoyed making ramen noodle concoctions and stews, and experimenting with different flavors, seasonings, and ingredient combinations. I also like making those dishes because they typically involve some chopping and cutting.

Cutting and chopping are probably my favorite parts of the entire cooking process. For one thing, when it’s time to cut and chop I get to use my handcrafted, now well-scarred cutting board, which makes me feel like a real kitchen professional — even though I’m admittedly not an adroit chopper, and wouldn’t dream of doing the rapid-fire, fingers-at-risk chopping that you see on the cooking shows. For another, it’s just fun to get out a knife and experience the tactile sensations of dicing things up to whatever size you desire, then grandly sweeping them off the board into a simmering pot. Add some good music and you’ve got a nice little cooking experience going.

I particularly like the feel of cutting and chopping onions and potatoes. I’m not sure why, but during this continuing stay-at-home period attacking defenseless plant matter is especially enjoyable.

Jar Psychology

Are you a jar person, or a non-jar person?

I’m guessing the jar people out there, at least, know well what I’m talking about here. The jar people realize there is intrinsic value in a good jar or other potentially useful former food container. When, say, a peanut butter jar has been emptied of its rich, peanutty goodness, they carefully put the jar and its lid in the dishwasher for cleaning and, when the cycle is done, take the jar and place it is the jar storage cabinet in the kitchen that already holds a random collection of old pasta jars, coffee cans, and plastic storage containers that used to carry lunch meat. Why do jar people do this? Because you never know when you might actually need a good jar, and you don’t want to get caught short.

The non-jar people find this thinking to be baffling and utterly alien. They routinely toss perfectly serviceable jars that have been emptied of their contents into the trash, and if you ask them why they would patiently explain that such jars have fully served their intended purposes. They might also ask, pointedly, whether we really need to keep a supply of jars around when no one can remember the last time we actually needed a jar for any purpose whatsoever. They reason that, if once in a blue moon a storage container is needed, they can just go out and buy one.

This kind of thinking makes the jar people shake their heads in dismay and think of the fable about the industrious ant and the cavalier grasshopper.

It’s just one of the many points of division in this great country of ours. The jar people and the non-jar people just can’t understand each other, and probably never will.

Recognizing “Financial Abuse”

Recently I ran across this article on “recognizing financial abuse.” A mother wrote to a financial advisor about her son’s circumstances, out of concern that the son was in a “financially abusive relationship.” It seems that the son’s fiancee manages the couple’s finances and controls their accounts, so that the son is dependent on the fiancee for “anything he wants, even spending money.” Mom worries that the fiancee is intentionally creating a dependency relationship — and the advisor says the Mom is “absolutely right to be concerned.” The article then goes on to discuss financial abuse and its warning signs.

There seems to be a pretty significant back story lurking behind the Mom’s inquiry about potential financial abuse. You can detect a whiff of a Mom who is pretty darned involved in her son’s life — to the point of knowing intimate details about how a couple is managing their private finances — and might, conceivably, have been an overprotective helicopter parent who resents the fiancee’s role for a lot of reasons. But laying that issue aside: when one person in a couple takes principal responsibility for their joint financial affairs, is it really a cause for concern about “financial abuse”?

In my experience, most couples make an allocation of responsibility for financial matters, just as they decide who will be responsible for different chores around the household. That makes perfectly good sense to me and doesn’t seem like a danger sign in any way. You don’t want two people writing checks, and it is a lot more efficient to have one person tracking the household budget. If the son who is the subject of the letter from the hovering mother isn’t incredibly responsible with his spending habits, it’s perfectly understandable that the fiancee might want to assume responsibility for money management and put him (and herself) on an allowance so they don’t have an issue with overspending and growing credit card debt. So long as the couple talks about the issues and reaches agreement on who is going to do what, it’s hard to see why their situation might be cause for concern.

The article linked above notes — correctly, of course — that “financial abuse” can be a form of domestic abuse, and that people need to be wary of things like forged checks, “secret” credit cards, using money to manipulate, intimidate, or interfere with or control a person’s job or lifestyle. And clearly, people need to be sensitive to financial abuse of the elderly and fraudsters emptying accounts that credulous seniors carefully funded over their lifetimes. But those circumstances seem pretty far removed from one member of a couple simply taking charge of finances and trying to make sure that they stick to their budget. And there is a danger, too, in defining potential “financial abuse” so broadly that it sweeps in entirely innocent and rational allocations of household responsibilities. That’s not only going to embolden nosy Moms, it’s also going to make it less likely that people recognize the signs of true financial abuse.

The Power Of Positive Thinking

In 1952, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale wrote a book called The Power of Positive Thinking. The book used anecdotes to argue that maintaining a positive, optimistic attitude actually helps people to achieve their goals and feel better about themselves. One of the core messages of the book was that if you are pessimistic about what you can do, you’re heading for defeat before the contest has even started. Critics were dubious of the notion that a simple change in mental attitude could have a big impact on anyone’s life, but the book was a hit and resonated with people who thought there was a lot of common sense in what Dr. Peale was saying. I remember seeing it on Grandma and Grandpa Neal’s bookshelf.

It’s a huge step from believing that your own attitude can affect what happens in your own life to believing that your attitude can influence what other people are doing. Of course, that’s exactly what many committed sports fans do believe — deep down in their hearts, even if they wouldn’t admit it to others. They may not be sitting in the stadium or arena cheering on their team, but they believe that what they wear, what they eat, where they sit, and what they say and do on Game Day can have a crucial, outcome-determinative impact. The Dr. Pepper Fansville commercials definitely nail that aspect of the whole sports fan experience.

Can fans sitting in their living rooms watching on TV affect a game played far away? Can their thoughts and actions create eddies in the prevailing karma that can ripple out to the players and coaches and give them extra energy and mental focus and make a difference in their performance? Given life’s many mysteries, we’ll never know for sure — but we all believe it does, in some mysterious way, so why not be positive about it?t

Today, once again, I’m going to be positive about the prospects for the Cleveland Browns, and I’m hoping to enlist other fans in my positive thinking crusade. The Browns will be going on the road to Pittsburgh to play in their first playoff game in 18 years. They’re lacking a number of their coaches, including their head coach and ultimate play-caller, and some of their best players thanks to the coronavirus. For that same reason, they only got to practice once before their most important game in two decades. These aren’t the things you want to have happen when you’re the underdog in the first place.

Clearly, the odds are powerfully stacked against the outmanned Cleveland squad. They need all the help they can get. Who knows? Positive thinking by the legions of Browns Backers could well tip the balance in some inexplicable yet meaningful way.

Whatever happens tonight, I’m going to stay positive about this team and its chances for an astonishing victory, and concentrate on sending positive, optimistic vibes through the cosmic ether to the Browns’ players and coaches. Will you join me?

At Year’s End

Well, at certain points we thought it would never get here, but it did. The end of 2020 is staring us in the face. I’m fairly confident that, during my lifetime at least, no end of the year has ever been as eagerly anticipated as the end of 2020.

And, along the same lines, it’s safe to say that no new year is ever going to look better by comparison to the year just ended, and get more of the benefit of the doubt, than 2021. 2021 is like the proverbial second-string quarterback who suddenly becomes the fan favorite as the starting quarterback struggles and finally gets benched.

I’m a firm believer in using the end of the year period, when things typically slow down for everyone and holiday time arrives, to do some reflection on the year gone by and some thinking about the year ahead. Just because 2020 has been dismal doesn’t mean it should be promptly thrown down the memory hole, never to be thought of again. Those of us who made it through the year have reason to feel that our mere survival, with health and sanity intact, is a meaningful achievement. And many people used the shutdown periods to develop new hobbies or interests, to read more, to focus on cooking, or to volunteer to help out front-line health care workers. And even those of us who didn’t become fluent in a new language probably acquired a useful perspective on what is really important in our lives.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m as glad as anyone to turn the page on the calendar and see luckless 2020 in the rearview mirror, and I’m obviously hoping that 2021 will be the year that sees things return to what we used to call normal. But as I consider 2020, there are some things that I will want to remember, and hopefully build upon. It’s been a year that we all won’t soon forget, but it’s important to remember the positives as well as the negatives.

The Mystery Of Handedness

This morning I woke up and, as I do first thing every morning, I reached over to the end table to retrieve my glasses. Of course, I used my right hand to pick them up and put them on — just as I use my right hand to do just about everything, without a conscious thought.

Like the vast majority of humans, I’ve got a dominant hand. A pen goes naturally into my right hand, and I can produce somewhat legible handwriting with it. Trying to pick up and use a pen with my left hand feels incredibly weird, and I can’t write anything with it. The same holds true for throwing a ball, or using a towel to wipe down the kitchen counter. The right hand does the lion’s share of the work; the left hand helps from time to time by, say, doing its share of keyboarding and holding an object the right hand is working on.

Somewhere between 85 and 90 percent of humans are right-handed, between 10 and 15 are left-handed, and a tiny fraction are ambidextrous (able to use either hand with equal ease) or mixed-handed (preferring to use the right hand for some tasks and the left hand for others). Why is that so, as opposed to a world where every human can use either hand at their whim? What causes “handedness”?

Scientists and researchers don’t really know for sure. The current thinking is that handedness is the product of both genetics and environment, and maybe some other factors, too. Scientists believe that at least part of hand preference can be traced to brain activity, with the right half of the brain controlling the left half of the body and the left half of the brain controlling the right half of the body. Hand dominance is related in some way to our brain hemispheres. But nobody has determined conclusively whether the brain set-up of different people causes their handedness, or whether an innate hand preference, expressed from the earliest days of life, causes the brain to become wired and developed in a certain way. There also appears to be a genetic cause for hand preference, which is why left-handedness is more common in some families than others. (In my family, Grandpa Neal, UJ, and Richard are all lefties.) And it’s also clear that training and practice can play a role in developing more “even-handedness”; long-time baseball fans are familiar with the story of Mickey Mantle’s father drilling him on using both hands because he believed switch-hitters were more valuable than batters who could only swing from one side of home plate.

I find it fascinating that something as basic to the human condition as handedness remains shrouded in mystery, resisting the best efforts of scientists, geneticists, and behavioral psychologists to figure out why it happens. It reaffirms that we’re all pretty complex organisms, and there’s still a lot about homo sapiens that remains to be discovered.

Gift Box Goodies

Yesterday as I was working at home I heard a rustling outside and a kind of thump on the doorstep. Those sounds, coupled with Betty’s frantic barking, told me there had been a delivery. I went outside and found a package, and when we opened it, we discovered a “made in Oregon” gift box from our friends who live in the Portland area. The box included cheeses, nuts, summer sausage, salmon, marionberry fruit spread, and chocolates — all with an Oregon provenance.

It’s a great way to showcase a state’s products, and it made me wonder if there is a similar collection of Ohio products that is available to ship for the holidays. We enjoyed getting a taste of Oregon, which we hit pretty hard last night and which made our holidays more merry. Thanks, Ben and Rebecca!

Lincoln, Lincoln, And More Lincoln

I’m hoping to do some significant reading for pleasure over the holidays, and two of the books on the holiday reading list feature my favorite historical figure: Abraham Lincoln. Richard got me Abe, by David S. Reynolds, for Christmas, and I’ve also picked up Lincoln on the Verge, by Ted Widmer, on the recommendation of a friend.

I’m not quite how many books about Lincoln I’ve read. It’s easily dozens. I’ve read fiction about Lincoln, like Gore Vidal’s excellent Lincoln, and fine biographies like David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln, and histories in which Lincoln is the star of the show, like Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. I’ve read books about Lincoln’s early days, books about his melancholy, and books of his speeches. I’ve read the classic Carl Sandburg biography. And even so, I eagerly look forward to reading still more about America’s 16th President, that towering, yet somehow still elusive, historical figure and political genius who guided America through its worst conflict with decency, fortitude, and self-deprecating humor and whose writings capture the real essence of the American concept better than anyone else, before or since. Perhaps these new books will provide some additional insight into the man who has been shrouded in myth since his assassination at the moment the Civil War was ending.

In my view, Lincoln is easily the greatest of America’s presidents. The only bad thing that comes out of reading about him is this: I always end up wishing that the qualities he brought to the office and to his political career were shared by more of our current political class.

Keeping The Lights On

We’ve got our holiday outdoor decorations up, and we’ve made the decision to keep the lights on 24/7, in an effort to make the holiday season a bit more merry.

We’re not alone in that sentiment. Our neighbors across the street and elsewhere on our block are doing the same, as are other households throughout German Village. It seems to be the same impulse we saw at Halloween: people appear to be a lot more focused on decorating during this crazy coronavirus year. It’s a way of thumbing our collective noses at the pandemic.

I like to see that feistiness.

A Cookie-Free Christmas

As regular readers of this blog know, my annual tradition is to bake holiday cookies for clients and friends as a humble token of my appreciation. At this time of year, I would normally be scouring the internet baking websites, old cookbooks, and ethnic recipes for new Christmas cookies to bake and add to the mix.

This year, regrettably, I’m going to break the tradition.

There are several reasons for my decision, all of which stem from the coronavirus scourge. Many of my clients’ offices are closed, and people are working remotely. Part of the idea of the tradition is to send a batch of cookies that can be put out at the office coffee station that everyone could share and enjoy as a small pleasure and little taste of the holiday spirit. Thanks to COVID-19, those office gathering points simply don’t exist this year.

I also think there are safety questions about baking and then shipping handmade cookies. The health care authorities carefully say there is “no evidence” that coronavirus is spread through cooked food, and I take them at their word. But there’s more to the issue than that. The cookie exercise requires getting the ingredients at the store, buying tins, baking the cookies, and then having them shipped and delivered. In an era where we are being urged to reduce our contacts with people, that’s a lot of points of contact that could be avoided by not baking the cookies in the first place.

And I’ve also come to realize that there is a pretty broad spectrum of personal reactions to the ongoing pandemic. At one end of the spectrum are people who are still largely isolating and won’t go to restaurants, at the other end are fatalists who think we’ve overreacted and are willing to take their chances in doing just about anything, and there are lots of different points of view in between those two poles. I don’t know whether the recipients would feel uncomfortable about getting some home-baked cookies delivered to their door–and potentially causing that kind of reaction would be inconsistent with the whole point of the exercise in the first place.

So, I’ve reluctantly concluded there will be no cookie baking this holiday season. It makes me wistful, but a lot of traditions have been interrupted this year. Next year, the fates and vaccine manufacturers willing, maybe I’ll do a double batch to compensate for the Cookie-Free Christmas of 2020.

The Last Day Of The Four-Day Weekend

There’s a special quality to the last day of the four-day Thanksgiving weekend holiday. Those of us of a certain age remember working on the Friday after Thanksgiving, but those days are long gone for most white-collar workers. Now it’s generally accepted that we’re looking at four solid days off. And frankly, by the time late November rolls around, we can use a four-day holiday — this year especially.

Each day of those four days has its own identity and personality. Thursday is all about The Meal and the excitement surrounding it. Friday is devoted to regretting your Thanksgiving overindulgence and catching up with your guests. Friday is the day for meaningful conversation. By Saturday, everyone has settled in and caught up; Saturday is a day for just enjoying each other’s company. And when Sunday rolls around, the goal is to wring every last drop of enjoyment out of the holiday weekend before it regrettably comes to a close.

This year, the four-day weekend seems to have been quieter and simpler. There may have been some Black Friday shopping sale craziness somewhere, but if so there wasn’t much of it. 2020 has sucked in more ways than we can count, but it least it has discouraged people from going out and engaging in brawls with other shoppers trying to get that last big-screen TV on sale. This year, Thanksgiving seems to have gotten back to its family-oriented roots.

Enjoy Day 4. We won’t see it’s like again until Thanksgiving 2021.

Tree Time

With Thanksgiving behind us, it’s time to start focusing on the next big holiday on the calendar. And St. Mary Church here in German Village stands ready to satisfy your evergreen needs with a traditional Christmas tree lot. This year the lot has been spread out so the trees can comply with social distancing requirements, and there’s an ample supply of additional trees stacked up and at the ready, too.

We haven’t had a Christmas tree in years, but I do love that fresh, clean pine tree smell. it’s a pleasure walking past the lot in the morning.

Refrigerator Envy

On Thanksgiving, everyone could use a large, empty refrigerator that is about twice its normal size. You know — a refrigerator that is large enough to allow you to retrieve a can of Diet Coke without risking knocking over multiple aluminum-foil covered bowls, serving dishes, and gravy boats that have been carefully stacked and balanced to consume every square inch of scarce refrigerator space?

Why can’t somebody invent an expandable refrigerator that you could use for the holidays? Like dining room table manufacturers did years ago, when they figured out that you could design tables to be extended so as to include an extra leaf or two when needed? Ideally, the expandable holiday refrigerator would include a special pie storage area, a beer bottle rack that would project out when the door is opened, and an extra large storage area to carefully secure all of the leftover turkey that will be used over the coming week.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving! Or, as it will also be known in our household this year, happy Big-Ass Pie Day, as Kish bought a super-sized pumpkin pie for us to gobble down as part of the festivities.

Hey, if there ever was a year where you could justify an extra portion of pumpkin pie, without guilt, it’s 2020. And some extra whipped cream, too.

When The Kids Come Home

We’re pretty excited in the Webner household today. Tonight — the airlines, coronavirus pandemic, and any federal, state, and local authorities who want to have their say willing — we’ll have Richard, Julianne and Russell under our roof with us for the first time in a year, since Thanksgiving weekend 2019. And what a year it has been!

It’s kind of hard to describe what a happy — elated, really — feeling it is to see your kids in person after a long absence. Video conferences and phone calls and following Twitter feeds are fine, but there’s nothing like actually sitting in the same room with your grown children, rediscovering how they look since the last time you saw them, observing them interact with each other, and engaging in the kind of idle chatter that allows you to really catch up with how their lives are going. You want to see first hand how they look and how they sound and how they act. I’m looking forward to the walks and card games and kitchen and dinner table conversations where there is no specific agenda and the discussions can wander into whatever random areas might enter into the conversational flow. Those are simple, but real, pleasures.

For us, as I suspect is the case for most long-distance parents, the urge to see your kids face-to-face is heightened when a global pandemic rages and has ruined prior efforts to get together. In our case, COVID-19 wrecked multiple prior planned visits over the past year, and I know that it has affected the plans of some families that were hoping to reunite for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. We’re hoping the stars align for us this time.

And if they do, tomorrow we’ll all gather around the dinner table, welcome UJ to join us, pass around the turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes, celebrate a classically American holiday, and simply enjoy each other’s company. We can’t wait!