Friday, March 9, 2012

The Culture Warts

Unrepentant selfishness and inflexible self-righteousness have seemingly inspired a war of cultures in the U.S. Indeed the preponderance of Americans are Christians and I am moved by the compelling message of the Gospels. I am baffled that in the name of Jesus it is acceptable to demonize and further disenfranchise anyone who doesn't embrace the same weirdly convoluted Christianity that devalues social programs and is viciously intolerant of any varying belief. Himself feels that the deification of John Kennedy has gone way overboard and I agree to the extent that JFK was a flawed individual. However it is shocking and saddening that a candidate can refer to the speech of any former president of the United States as "vomit inducing" and still receive a significant number of votes in various primaries. The message of the Gospels certainly has merit as a guiding force in a nation that is mainly comprised of Christians but egregious convolution of Jesus' message of tolerance and compassion in the quest for political power makes these times seem worse than any in my memory. A faction of the left is also culpable for shrillness, intolerance and the frequent indictment of Christians as backward and ignorant.

Civilized discourse on the most contentious of issues is feasible. After the murder of two women's healthcare workers in Boston, mediators convened representatives from both pro-choice and anti-abortion camps for secret meetings. The discussion continued for six years. Participants report that the dialogue served to strengthen individual convictions but also that life long friendships were formed by women despite their fundamental disagreement. A joint statement issued by the group reads:

We hope this account of our experience will encourage people everywhere to consider engaging in dialogues about abortion and other protracted disputes. In this world of polarizing conflicts, we have glimpsed a new possibility: a way in which people can disagree frankly and passionately, become clearer in heart and mind about their activism, and, at the same time, contribute to a more civil and compassionate society.

Ironically, a counterpart to the lack of civility in the public sector is a phony intimacy that seems to have inculcated transactions that best remain friendly but impersonal. The entry of my phone number so that I receive preferred pricing on Von's merchandise leads always to a “Thank you Mrs. Murphy” and “May I help you to your car (with that single pint of milk) Mrs. Murphy” and finally, “Have a nice day Mrs. Murphy.” I avoid a particular branch of Citibank, that is actually more convenient, because the tellers are over-familiar to the extent of creepiness. “What have you been doing today?” “Where do you work?” “Where are you going now?” Perhaps this aggressive friendliness is meant to somehow obfuscate the exorbitant charges that the bank manages to exact from my meager deposits.

I travel to the Bay area for a day and am subjected at Burbank Airport to my first pat-down, the TSA agent informing me that she needs to examine a sensitive part with the back of her hands. She dons gloves and gingerly pats my hipbones. Yet, for all the degradation, traveling alone still evokes a sensation of freedom and independence that satisfies my lingering teenage self. The car rental clerk is perky but intractable with regard to accommodating the conditions of my reservation. Even knowing that the Enterprise personnel likely work for near minimum wage and are obliged to wear neckties and pantyhose, the reservation foul up leaves me petulant and I am terse and snippy when asked by various agents “Where are you coming from?” “How was your flight” “Where are you off to now?”

It is after one when I make it across the jammed Bay Bridge for lunch in the Mission District with a colleague. Having breakfasted at 6 a.m. and eschewed Southwest Airline peanuts, I am starved. Dining in the Bay Area is always peculiar to me. It is challenging to find entries that never walked on four legs in other than designated vegetarian restaurants. It is easy to find scads of baked delicacies oozing butterfat and sugar but it is impossible to locate artificial sweetener for the uniformly excellent quality coffee. I order a quinoa salad. It arrives at table, a tiny mound the size of a conservative cupcake. Even though I am being treated to the meal, I shamelessly admit to my host that I am still hungry. We walk to a hoity toity bakery and I indulge in two tiny cookies and another cup of unsweetened coffee.

After a pitstop at my favorite clothing outlet and the purchase, for the first time in my life, of several medium size garments (note to Himself: all “on sale”) I traverse the bridge again and check into the (except for a big clump of black hair in the bath drain) lovely Hotel Durant, across the street from the Berkeley campus. (Note to Himself: booked through—very reasonable) A one-sheet from The Graduate graces the room, as this is the location where Mrs. Robinson purportedly worked her wiles.

An old Berkeley chum and I score a reservation at the Michelin starred Oakland restaurant Commis, known as a sort of poor man's French Laundry. The only available seating is at 9 p.m. which is pretty ambitious for someone who hasn't been awake later than 8:30 for many moons. We kill some time at Trader Vic's. Neither the decor nor the clientele are typical of a bay area establishment. Instead of militant recyclers, this is an outpost for veteran bar flies and the crowd is mostly an aggregation of brightly clad, raucous senior citizens. After my spartan lunch I require some fortification and caffination in advance of the late dinner. My companion chides me that the spare rib/fried shrimp laden pupu bar menu contains little I can eat and I correct him, clarifying that it contains little that I “choose to” eat but the distinction is lost on him. We settle on a hummus-like concoction made from peas instead of garbanzos. This arrives in a ginormous mound garnished with four tiny slivers of crisp pita. I am beyond famished now and in my effort to capture as much of dip as possible onto a teeny chip I slop a huge dollop of the day-glo green goop onto my sleeve.

Commis has no sign. The room is stark white and the open kitchen is nearly as large as the seating area. Our server is elegantly clad and obviously a big devotee of yoga—probably the kind where the room is way over heated and you sweat like a pig. She is one of those woman whose skin is taut over good bones and comes off as severe, even when smiling. The menu is prix fixe and we are interrogated as to our dietary requirements and she categorizes me, somewhat disapprovingly as a shellfish shunning, poultry eating pescaterian. The amuse bouche arrives and we are suddenly in a skit from Portlandia. A dish of rocks is placed between us. Nestled in the stones are two round objects which the from the server's elaborate description we are able to comprehend only the word “cheese.” My first reaction is “Cheetos” but my friend's palate is much more discerning and he nails it more accurately. Cheez-its. For each of the next courses that contain pig or crustacean, I am served a huge white plate with about a tablespoon of food containing radishes gracing the center.

My dining companion confesses an aversion to raw oysters and scallops but scrunches up his face and bravely takes a bite of each. He leaves the rest of the tiny portion uneaten. I calculate that each unfinished plate represents a waste of about twenty bucks. While I refrain from chomping down the exquisite shellfish, the situation indeed creates a Jewish dilemma.

We are asked if we prefer sweets or cheese for dessert and go for sweet without a second thought. The sweet is presented and described as “spent beer grains with tarragon ice cream, tangerine and mascarpone crème. It's delicious, as were all of the other courses but, my L.A. born friend and I spend most of the meal snickering, blasphemers in this East Bay food shrine. Spent beer grains. Really.

It is lovely to sleep on thousand count sheets without cats fighting in my hair. There is no paint flaking off the ceiling and the toilet requires no jiggling. I wake early and stroll down Telegraph Avenue on the prowl for coffee. I made my first trip to Berkeley with college friends in about 1975. Things were starting by then to go rotten but there was still some of the 60's vibe I drank in, having spent my childhood regretting that I was too young to be a hippie. Now the enormous Cody's Bookstore is gutted and the building due to be leveled. Someone has written on a sidewalk in chalk “Free Leonard Peltier but otherwise there's Jamba Juice and American Apparel and scads of kids who are better at math than Himself or I or our first born. The verdict is still out on Spuds who castigated me recently for assuming he'd suck at math just because the rest of us did.

I have breakfast with a Cal student, the daughter of a dear friend since high school. She, like my oldest, is a freshman and she is jaunty and at ease in the world when she meets me in the lobby of my hotel. She is in the band, studying architecture and about to move into her own apartment. She loves Berkeley but after growing up in L.A. perceives with sophistication that the denizens of the bay are a bit smug and sanctimonious. The cultural divide between the north and south of the state, while nuanced perhaps, is palpable and makes it easier to see why other parts of the nation seem downright foreign.

I travel alone and stay by myself in a nice hotel and perhaps this makes it easier for me to drink in how thrilling it is to be nineteen, away from home and faced with endless possibilities. I am unable to figure out the word processing program on my new Macbook and most of this piece is written in pen on the back of travel documents while flying from Oakland to Burbank. I land and head straight to the office to tie up loose ends and transcribe what I've written for my weekly post. I've had two unfettered days to feel nostalgic at the sensation of being young and independent for the first time. On a normal Friday I would tweak this writing for another hour or so before pushing the publish button but having had my fancy meal and five-star hotel sheets I long with fervor for my table and my own bed. I'm going home. They're waiting for me.

1 comment:

Fionnchú said...

The verdict is indeed out on Spuds as he snarls at us while cramming (after endless episodes of "30 Rock" and "Portlandia") for the SAT tomorrow. I hope he does better with a combined score doubtless exceeding that of both of his parents together. He's as grumpy as me, that's for sure. I rode my bike to take the SAT and had practically no worry or prep at all. My math scores speak for themselves.

I do envy people living Up North often, but as with you, my Angeleno nativity leaves me perpetually feeling, well, as Bay Areans might when visiting the Big Apple. We notice our own culture only when apart from it, when we notice its absence in where we visit, and in turn those peering at us see our own culture, our maladroit gawks. As your waitress--don't call her that in P.C. Berkeley--does you in yoga-draped scorn and yuppified all-you-can't bear to eat counterculturalism, topped with good old consumerism in the one region I hear the recession has not hit. Cody's aside, but blame Silicon Valley for that e-commerce shift! The Hotel Durant even by its name recalls Will & Ariel, a more civilized, less hectic, if less enlightened Berkeley era surely different from who fills Telegraph Ave and Sproul Gateway today. Again, we Bruins always feel second-rate compared to THE UC, no location added.

Glad you found sales and that it all fit in one bag, one way to keep expenses down. And, Rover is indeed delighted to stop moaning and pacing. Welcome home to dog hair and kid digs, no room service or TSA. xxx me