Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

I'd like to say a few words about me

By Dick Hirsch

So there I was at the water cooler the other day and I heard that Gary and Ramona, were, well, to say it discreetly, they were seeing a lot of each other after business hours.

I wasn’t much surprised by that news because it confirmed what I had learned the day before from Tom, who said that he had heard that Penny had seen Ramona at the mall. They had a conversation over coffee and Ramona intimated she was embarking on a serious relationship. She gave no further information about specifics. However, Penny, renowned for her skill at putting two and two together and often getting four, did the necessary math.

She was positive Ramona’s new love was Gary and she passed that information on to Miriam, who mentioned it to Larry who later told Tom who then told me.

By the time I heard, it apparently was old news because when I saw Jessica and Frank later that day and mentioned it to them, they laughed, nodded knowingly, and said they had heard about Gary and Ramona a few days earlier from Arlene. Oh, well, news does travel fast, and not all of it is broadcast on cable.

This imaginary scenario became relevant after I read a report on gossip, published in The New York Times. One thing about newspapers today, including the Times, is that they’re stretching the definition of news, looking far beyond the traditional news menu for items of interest. The story indicated there were certain psychological benefits to participating in the telling, retelling, or else merely tuning in on, some compelling gossip.

The one disclosure that immediately captured my attention dealt with the amount of time spent by people each day in gossiping about others. The report suggested that people devote between 20 percent and 65 percent of all their daily conversation to gossip about others. I think you’ll agree that is an impressive amount of talking. My experience over the years has shown there was a substantial amount of gossiping constantly underway in every venue, but I will admit I was startled by that estimate. The reason for my surprise was this:

I had always believed that the majority of people are at their happiest when they are talking about themselves without restraint. I’m sure you’re familiar with the type. No matter how the conversation starts, it somehow soon turns, with the speaker regaling the listeners with his or her most recent experiences. They just love talking about themselves, no matter how boring and uninteresting the tales may be.

You may have heard the apocryphal old story of the actor who perceived himself as a star. He apparently realized he was dominating the conversation and attempted a change of subject.

“That’s enough about me,” he said. “Let’s talk about you. How did you like my latest picture?”

If that attitude predominates, the individual can be described as a narcissistic personality, one who is self-centered and egotistical. The syndrome is named after Narcissus, a handsome character of Greek mythology who supposedly fell in love with himself after seeing his own reflection in a pool.

That’s an extreme example, but so many people certainly find themselves to be their own favorite subject. But if the reported facts on gossip are correct, even those people would spend a significant portion of each day gossiping about others. Is that possible? Does a narcissist have enough time to gossip? In an effort to find an answer to that question, I recall a conversation I had late last summer with a man well-known in the community for self adoration.

Yes, he said, he had seen our mutual friend, Paul, who was just recuperating from hernia surgery. Paul was doing well, he reported.

“I think we will be playing golf together within a week or two,” he said. “He missed part of the season, but it has been a great year for me. I’ve never played better and I’ve become a more patient player. I’m concentrating more and the results are that I’m hitting the ball further, eliminating mental errors, and putting like a pro.”

He went on to explain he was contemplating a trip to Scotland for a round or two at St. Andrew’s. The status of Paul’s surgery and recovery was quickly forgotten.

You know the type. Their problem is that if they are doing their quota of gossiping---20 percent to 65 percent---they hardly have sufficient time remaining to talk about themselves. Or do any work.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A recipe for any recession

By Dick Hirsch

This is a column I never wanted to write, a topic I never wanted to deal with. In most cases, should you ever read that statement, you‘ll know that something dreadful has happened, perhaps a death, the diagnosis of a serious illness or some other subject that will be likely to cause an emotional response in even the most hard-bitten readers.

Such is not the case today. I long ago vowed to refrain from this discussion unless it became timely. For years the timing has not been appropriate, so I gladly kept the idea in the vault, hoping I would never have occasion to use with it. But conditions changed, going from exuberant to bad and maybe worse.

This is a hard times column, a subject that required saving for publication during a recession, or even worse, a time when people in every layer of society are impacted by business failures, layoffs, missed quotas, a sharply shrunken stock portfolio.

They are looking for ways to spend less, and attempting to conserve the family food budget. The food budget is my target. I propose you should be interested in a remarkably tasty, healthy and inexpensive Italian dish called pasta e fagioli, pasta and beans.

You probably have heard it pronounced or spelled as pasta fazoole, to rhyme with tool, but the spelling is of little consequence. My familiarity with Italian food was limited to spaghetti and pizza when I first heard of pasta e fagioli. I was a callow youth, by a peculiar set of circumstances assigned to cover City Hall. They still used hyphenated descriptions in those days so I can say that the mayor was proudly Italian-American. Many of his appointees were men of about his age and the same background, having grown up on the West Side. Now they were department heads and directors in the city government.

I noticed that almost without fail, each Friday many of them would arrange to meet for lunch, sitting at a big table in the back room of a place in the old neighborhood. Tony, Danny and Frank would always go, as well as Bobby, Nick, Joe, Sammy and others whose names I can’t recall.

The mayor was seldom able to join them because he was busy at some civic luncheon, but he made no secret of his desire to join his pals at Friday lunch.

“What’s the attraction at the place,” I one day asked Tony.

He stared at me the way people stare when they have just been asked a stupid question.

“It’s not the place, kid” he said. ”It’s the pasta e fagioli that they serve only on Fridays. We all used to hate it when we were young, but now we crave it.”

Those were men who were boys during the Great Depression of the 1930s. One of the things they remembered most clearly was that their mothers regularly served pasta e fagioli as a money saving dish. It was known as a meatless dish served on Fridays, but during the depression it was seen much more often.

“I would groan when I saw it,” Tony recalled. “Not again,” I would say. “It was the same at everyone’s house, all through the neighborhood. But it’s all different now. Our wives won’t make it, we eat steak, roast beef, fish and chicken, but now we are old enough to remember that dish. We hated it then, but we love it now.”

I joined them for lunch one day and had my first serving. I haven’t had it often enough since. Although it is beloved by many, it isn’t on menus in many restaurants, perhaps because it is economical. My wife, Lynn, always willing to try a new dish, prepared a pot full, using this recipe:

One can (14.5 oz.) stewed tomatoes, crushed in hand; one onion, chopped; four-five garlic cloves, minced; three-quarters cup of olive oil; one can garbanzo beans, not drained; one can butter beans, not drained. Put all the ingredients into pot and simmer for one and a half to two hours; cook one quarter pound of ditalini (truncated macaroni), drain and add slowly to the bean mixture. Add chopped parsley, salt, pepper and a touch of hot pepper flakes, then serve with grated Romano cheese. Serves four.

Forget about steak. Try this. It tastes great and fits nicely in the budget. I didn’t want to write this column, but I’m glad I did.


Saturday, December 06, 2008

An examination of a racial relations record

By Dick Hirsch

If you’re of my generation, there is a good chance that you continue to be astonished and inspired with the results, even though the presidential election is already history. To think that Barack Obama, an African-American, could be elected is an event that most of us agreed would never happen.

It’s difficult for many younger persons to understand that feeling. They generally share the opinion that nothing is beyond reach. Of course, they didn’t live through the years when bigotry was much more open and widespread, when the Ku Klux Klan was powerful enough to swing state elections and when the German-American Bund held rallies and parades. When such images are stored in your memory bank, it was an incredible event, a milestone whatever your viewpoint, to elect a man who looks like Barack Obama and who has such a peculiar name.

It resulted in amazement and considerable rejoicing around the world. A friend sent me an e-mail image, reproductions of newspaper front pages from across the US and the world. You may have seen it; hundreds and hundreds of front pages in every language, all paying tribute to the accomplishment of the American electorate. It may even be an indication that in the future the US reputation will soar among those other peoples. Well, maybe not soar; but let’s say improve.

In the wake of the election I examined my own race relations record. It probably isn’t much different from many readers. Zero. There were no colored people in my neighborhood or at my grade school or high school. Colored was the accepted term then. There was one Negro man---that was an appropriate term then---in my class of about 250 at a small New England college. I knew his name, but I never knew him. During my working life, especially as a reporter, I had casual meetings with others, and participated in the verbal transition as the description evolved from Negro to black and from black to African-American. The contacts were cordial, but no relationship ever grew into what could be described as a friendship.

There was just one exception. It developed when I was attending a summer program at a university in Vermont. It was there I met a guy from New Jersey, a fellow student participating in the same six-week program. His name was Fletcher. He had an engaging smile and he dressed like the rest of us, usually khakis and a polo shirt. He stood out in the crowd for two reasons; he was the only African-American in the group, a deep mahogany shade, and he was 6 feet 5 inches tall, the sixth man on one of those great Duquesne University basketball teams of that era.

We were pals. Much of the day involved various classes and organized activities, but afterwards there was time for nights out; movies, restaurants, a few of the local bars where students were welcome. We made quite a sight, a salt and pepper pair shambling down the streets, with pepper towering over salt. I liked him a lot. When the session ended, we vowed to keep in touch. It never happened. We did speak on the phone a couple of times, but long distance calls were more unusual then.

When winter came, he called me from Pittsburgh one evening and asked whether I was going to be in Buffalo over the Christmas vacation. I was. Duquesne was playing at Memorial Auditorium. Would I like tickets? Sure, I said. Great, he said. I’ll leave two at the box office in your name. Terrific, I said. Maybe we could meet after the game and go out for coffee or a snack. Maybe, he said, but he usually stayed with the team. Come down to the arena early; I’ll see you before the game. OK, I said, and I did, along with my friend, Arthur. Fletcher met us and we were outside the locker room and on the sidelines watching them warm up. We had great seats. As I recall, Duquesne won easily.

We met again after the game, but Fletcher returned to the hotel with the team. I never heard from him again, or should I say he never heard from me again.

These days you can often find people if you do a little investigating. I was thinking about Barack Obama and I decided to call Fletcher and discuss the election, the impossible that became reality. I found him. He became a vascular surgeon, but he never had a chance to vote for Obama. Fletcher died in October. What else is there to say? That’s life, I guess.