Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Feeling hungry?

During the year that I spent in China, I encountered numerous unusual gastronomical experiences.

To give you a brief idea of the things I saw, attached is a short list:

In grocery stores, neither milk nor eggs were refrigerated.

Milk was preserved with a chemical called UHT, and it had a shelf life of roughly six months

Eggs were the most desirable when they were still covered with the mud that enclosed them underground, and a recent delicacy was the eggs that contained chicks partially formed inside.

The local grocery store had live chickens in cages in the back, which they would slaughter for you on the spot, and you got your fish the same way. However, you should be aware of the fact that “boneless and skinless” weren’t real popular concepts in China.

In restaurants, you had to pay for napkins, and a lot of the restrooms (which were also used by the cook staff) didn’t have toilet paper.

On menus, I saw donkey, snake, and bamboo rat, but I never ate any of them – to my knowledge.

I DID try ONE worm at a lunch once (after a few beers) because it looked like elbow macaroni, and (ultimately) it had the consistency of calamari.

Some of my friends admitted to eating dog and cat on occasion, which leads me to the point of this story.

China has no laws prohibiting the trading of cats, and the theft of family cats is a LARGE problem in the country. With that thought in mind, it's appropriate to close this story with the following video:

Bon appetit !!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

You're in my crosshairs, pal

The June 24, 2009 edition of the Chicago Tribune contained two totally unrelated stories that may eventually have a common conclusion.

On February 19, 2007, Anthony Abbate, an off duty Chicago police officer, came behind the bar after his bartender, Karolina Obrycka (roughly half his size), refused to serve him any more drinks.

After throwing her to the floor, Abbate continued to kick her and hit her, before he finally stomped out the door.

Although he was placed on suspension for a period of time, Circuit Judge John Fleming has now dropped all charges against Abbate, and his only punishment is probation.

On June 20, 2009, Neda Agha-Soltan, a 26 year old Iranian woman, was killed by government forces (private citizens are not allowed to have guns in Iran) when she stopped to watch a rally about the recent vote in Iran.

Her dying moments were captured on video, and broadcast around the world on YouTube.

the shot that was seen around the world

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has not allowed funeral services for the young woman, nor has he allowed her family to put up black bunting on their home as a sign of mourning.

So, here’s the deal:

My daughter is roughly the same age as Neda Agha-Soltan.

If government forces took her away from me, I’m not sure what I’d do, but you can be absolutely certain that I’d do SOMETHING, and the government forces would have a lot of sleepless nights wondering what I was up to.

If I were a friend or relative of Karolina Obrycka, I’d also make sure that Anthony Abbate would be a nervous fella for a long time to come.

To quote Jim Malone (Sean Connery) from the 1987 film, The Untouchables:

“They send one of your guys to the hospital; you send one of theirs to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way”

Both of the stories above are representative of what I would call social injustice.

Ultimately, justice will be served, but it will be necessary to use one (or more) of the following strategies:

1) violent insurrection – a few weeks ago, the Taliban in the Swat Valley of Pakistan bombed an anti-Taliban Mosque, and killed 80 people. Almost immediately, about 400 villagers went after the Taliban, and were 90% successful in driving them totally out of the area

2) peaceful demonstrations – both Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. used non-violent confrontation as a very effective tool to defeat their adversaries: the British government, and the white racists of the south. Non-violent methods, though, usually carry a price:

Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated on January 30, 1948,

Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

A few days before I reported for basic training at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina for the Minnesota National Guard, and about a month before my cousin Donnie was killed in Vietnam, the picture below was taken at Kent State University in Ohio:

The "rest of the story" can be found here: four dead in Ohio

3) financial incentives

One of my favorite authors is a man named Thomas Friedman. Although he is a regular contributor to the New York Times, he’s also written LOTS of books. On June 23, 2009, he penned a story that described how economic considerations can be just as decisive as other methods of “persuasion”, and (as often as not) MORE persuasive.

The late John Wayne (Marion Mitchell Morrison) once uttered a phrase that describes the effectiveness of economic “incentives”:

“If you've got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.”

I’m not naïve enough to believe that the troubles in Iran, or the genuine fears now held by Karolina Obrycka, will vanish overnight, but this much I’m certain of:

We shall overcome some day

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

the Book of Signs

Imagine, if you can, that the Islamic fundamentalists who launched the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, somehow managed to carry out EIGHT more attacks on American soil, causing large loss of life, and the displacement of thousands of American citizens.

Without a doubt, the justifiable anger that we felt on September 11 would escalate into a rage that could not be contained, and would lead to widespread changes in not only our society, but in countries throughout the world.

In view of the stringent security measures that we’ve put in place since 9/11, is there even the remotest possibility that a situation like that could occur?

Not likely, but here’s a sobering thought:

It already has.

Starting in the year 1095, a group of right wing religious fundamentalists, convinced that ONLY their religion was the true path to salvation, launched a series of attacks on a group of people who were the most advanced civilization in the world at that time:

the Muslims.

The four oldest degree-granting universities in the world are all located in Islamic countries:

Academy of Gundishapur – established in Iran in 489
University of Al-Karaouine – established in Fez, Morocco in 859
Al-Azhar University – established in Cairo, Egypt in 975
Nazimayya – established in Isfahan, Iran in 1065

(The first western university, the University of Bologna, was established in Bologna, Italy in 1088).

The Muslims, under the direction of the caliph Umar, were also the first group of people to grant freedom of speech, way back in the 7th century.

The official name for the attacks on the Islamic world was the Crusades, and they covered a time period of nearly 200 years. By the time the 9th Crusade ended, in 1272, the influence of the Papacy was much diminished throughout the European continent, and Arab advances (including the development of algebra, optics, and refinement of engineering) made their way west and sped the course of advancement in European universities that led to the Renaissance in later centuries.

There are people today who believe that the Muslim religion is a "killer religion", but the truth is that Christianity is actually far worse. Roughly 4,000,000 people died during the first 4 Crusades, and another 1,000,000 died during the Albigensian Crusade. If you add in the people who died during the various Inquisitions. the number of people killed during the Wars of Religion in Europe, and the 6,000,000 Jews killed by the Nazis (Hitler was raised a Catholic), the total number of people killed by Christians in the name of religion would likely exceed 20,000,000 people. The folks who conducted the Inquisitions, incidentally, weren't shy about using torture which included a procedure that we know today as "water boarding".

By the way, you wouldn’t have had your morning coffee this morning if it weren’t for the fact that Muslim goatherds discovered the beverage in Ethiopia – in the ninth century.

In view of the fact that western civilization has had a rocky relationship with the Islamic world for roughly a thousand years, it’s not too surprising that some members of the world’s largest religious denomination (approximately 1.2 billion people) don’t like us very much.

A couple of months ago, The Book of Signs Foundation dropped off a free copy of the Quran on my doorstep.

After reading an article in the Chicago Tribune about the Foundation roughly a year ago, I had ordered my free copy of the book from the Foundation last fall, so I now have TWO copies of the Quran on my bookshelf.

After receiving the first one, I decided to read it from cover to cover to see if it contained any “evil passages”.

To a very large degree, the answer is “no”.

After reading the book, I put down a few thoughts on paper.

Ultimately, my “few thoughts” turned out to be over 4500 words, spread over 17 pages, which probably makes me one of the most educated Christians in the City of Evanston about Islamic culture, but it absolutely does not guarantee that I’m an expert in the field.

If you’d like to read the more detailed analysis of the book, drop me a line at my email address (umgrad69@gmail.com) and I’ll send it to you.

If you’d like to get your own free copy of the Quran, the contact information for the Book of Signs Foundation is listed above.

The stated purpose of The Book of Signs Foundation is to provide a reasonably accurate TRANSLATION of the Koran (Quran) , free of the political agendas and anti –Islamic rhetoric that we’ve seen a lot of since 2001.

It’s still absolutely true that there ARE some hard core Islamic religious fundamentalists scattered throughout the world, and it’s also true that the Christian world has its share of “kooks” (have you listened to Pat Robertson lately?).

The best defense against all those crazy people, I feel, is a reasoned attempt to find common ground with the vast majority whose outlook on life really isn’t much different than ours.

Although there ARE people who feel that Barack Obama is a dangerous demagogue, I’d be the first to admit that I feel MUCH more comfortable having him at the helm than the former owner of the Texas Rangers.

The statements that Obama made in Cairo on June 4 are a good attempt to find common ground with the folks that have a different background than we do. The entire text of his speech can be read at the link below:

Obama in Cairo

After listening to, and reading this speech, the only thing that I can add is this:

I feel good

Sunday, June 21, 2009

My sister - and Tiny Tim

If you’re over 40, you’ll remember Tiny Tim, the eccentric performer who zoomed to fame in the late 1960’s.

I was surprised to learn the other day that he has more in common with my sister, and some friends and family members, than I had imagined previously.

For starters, he and my sister share the same birthday.

In addition, very few people realize that he’s spent the last 13 years totally within the borders of the state of Minnesota.

And that falsetto singing?

It was all just an act.

His natural singing voice was baritone, but he could also perform in other ranges. On one of the songs on his first album, God Bless Tiny Tim, he sings a trio (with himself) in baritone, tenor, and falsetto.

Herbert Khaury was born on April 12, 1932.

At the tender age of 5, he became interested in music, and avidly listened to, and studied, “the music of the past”.

He started performing while still in his teens, but his career didn’t take off until after he discovered his “high voice”. He adopted the stage name of Tiny Tim in 1962.

He was a regular street performer near Harvard University in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, and this exposure eventually led him into the film industry, and (subsequently) television.

You and I may feel that his performance of “tiptoe through the tulips” is a little, um, weird, but it enabled him to get on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, as well as Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In:

He and the former Victoria Mae Budinger (Miss Vicki) got married on the Tonight show on December 17, 1969, and the ceremony was watched by more than 40,000,000 people:

Talk about a LARGE WEDDING!!

Less than a year later, he performed at the Isle of Wright festival in front of a crowd of 600,000 people, and his rendition of “There’ll always be an England” brought down the house.

His popularity declined in the 1970’s and 1980’s, but picked up again in the early 1990’s.

On November 30, 1996, he suffered a heart attack (his second) while performing on stage at the Women’s Club of Minneapolis, and died at Hennepin County Medical center a short time later.

He is interred at the mausoleum at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis, approximately 13 miles from Fort Snelling National Cemetery, where my parents, and my father in law, were laid to rest.

Although I’m not convinced that reincarnation is real, I’ve read enough books on the topic that I’m at least open to the possibility.

If the former Herbert Khaury miraculously came back to life, this is probably what he would say:

“God bless us, every one”.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

the leader of the band

Although my dad has been gone now for nearly 15 years, I always think about him this time of the year, and those thoughts always bring a smile to my face.

Laurence Joseph Brennan was the first son born of the marriage of Mark Brennan and Josephine Harris, a farm couple who lived in the small town of Hastings, Minnesota.

The family eventually grew to include eight children:

Marie (born May 16, 1899, died August 30, 1994)
Agnes (born October 25, 1902, died September 28, 1996)
Dorothy (born October 24, 1906, died October 26, 1992)
Laurence (born February 3, 1909, died October 31, 1994)
Clement (born June 24, 1911, died May 16, 1999)
Alice (born April 30, 1915, died March 19, 1988)
Josephine (born September 3, 1917, died June 12, 1990)
Marjorie (born April 7, 1920, died October 28, 1978)

Sadly, it didn’t stay intact for long.

My dad’s mother, Josephine, passed away on November 12, 1920, at the age of 43, and his father Mark was killed in an accident on August 16, 1929, forcing dad and his siblings to struggle through the Great Depression without the guidance of their parents.

A few months after Pearl Harbor, Dad joined the Army , at the age of 33, leaving his brother Clem, and a few of his sisters, to run the family farm.

As the years passed, my dad’s family suffered other tragedies.

His oldest sister Marie lost her oldest son, Edward, at Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945.

His youngest sister Marge lost HER oldest son Donnie in Vietnam.

Uncle Clem continued to operate the farm for another two dozen or so years after my dad left to fight in WWII, and when he sold the farm in the mid 1960’s, he was approximately the same age that his father Mark was in the summer of 1929.

Clem milked the cows, and harvested the corn, but his true love was writing, and he wrote LOTS of stories. Somewhere in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, and also somewhere in the America Southwest, some of Clem’s descendants have custody of the notebooks that he used to put his thoughts down on paper, thoughts that take us back to a time and a place that no longer exist.

My cousin Edward died more than two years before I was born, but I spent a lot of time with my cousin Donnie as we were growing up, especially at the Brennan family picnics at the Olson family farm in Afton, Minnesota.

I was in basic training for the Army when the helicopter that Warrant Officer Donald J. Lundequam was piloting crashed in Bihn Dihn, South Vietnam on June 5, 1970, a scant 92 days after his tour of duty began.

Although I never had an opportunity to talk with my cousin Edward, I DID talk with my cousin Don again 26 years after his death.

His name is on panel 09W – Line 14 on a Memorial that had been designed by Maya Ying Lin, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, and is etched into black granite that had been quarried in Bangalore, India.

As I stood at the wall on that day in the summer of 1996, the somber black panels towered over me and drew me in.

Some of my former classmates and neighbors are on the wall, and panel 56W – Line 17 carries the name of Thomas Brennan, a young man whose personal history is eerily similar to mine.

Another Tom Brennan died on September 11, 2001 in New York City, but THAT story will have to wait for another time.

October 31 of 1994 is the wettest Halloween on record in the history of the City of Chicago.

It’s also the day when my dad slumped over in a chair in his kitchen in St. Paul, Minnesota, finally succumbing to the heart trouble that had plagued him for several years.

At his funeral a few days later, the organist (at the urging of my sister) played “Danny Boy”, which filled my eyes with tears.

I didn’t give the eulogy that day, nor do I remember much of what the priest said, but I’ll never forget the words that my cousin Jean said at the funeral lunch:

“you know, he was a pretty good guy”

Dad never made a pile of money, and he’ll never have a building erected in his honor, but I really can’t think of a higher accolade than that.

My dad and I were both born with the ability to pick out a tune on a piano “by ear”, but neither one of us would be considered musicians (although my son Brian is one of the most gifted drummers that you’ll ever meet)

Nevertheless, there are more than a few phrases in the late Dan Fogelberg’s tribute to his father, the musician, that remind me of the mail carrier from the East Side of St. Paul.

My dad was not a violent man.

Instead, he taught me how to laugh.

He taught me how to cry.

Most importantly, he taught me how to love, and I’m just a living legacy of a man who farmed the land.

the leader of the band

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Press "3" for Chinese

July 1 is celebrated as “Independence Day” north of our border.

Unlike our own Independence Day, the transfer of power in Canada from the English was MUCH more gradual than our separation. The initial transfer of control from the English to the folks in Canada was in 1867, but the full transfer of control didn’t actually occur until 1982 – not exactly what you would could a dramatic upheaval.

Apart from a common language, a common border, and a friendly trade agreement, we also share another part of our history, the part that deals with the topic of immigration.

In 1923, Canada passed the Chinese Immigration Act, which effectively reduced the immigration of native Chinese folks to almost zero. This act was actually a further restriction of the law passed in 1885 that levied additional taxes on Chinese immigrants. After WWII, most countries came to the realization (thanks to the Holocaust) that it no longer made sense to treat “foreigners” different from natives, and the act was repealed in 1947.

The United States had its own version of the Chinese Immigration Act, but it was called the Chinese Exclusion Act. The act was passed in 1882, and it eliminated ALL Chinese immigrants until 1943 (a year after we started the Japanese interment camps). Even in 1943, though, the number of Chinese allowed into this country was only a token amount, and it wasn’t until 1965 that the quotas were expanded to realistic numbers.

A heavy preponderance of the goods we buy in this country today are made in China, due (in part) to China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001. Our trade deficit with China was $268 billion in 2008, and there have been some interesting cultural blendings in recent years.

China's largest home appliance manufacturer put in a bid for Maytag four years ago, and a Chinese company recently bought the Hummer brand from the now bankrupt General Motors.

When the Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower) becomes the Bank of China Tower at some point in the future, there's going to be a LOT of people in Mayor Daley's city who are going to be up in arms!

There was a time in our recent past, however, when the Chinese were our bitter enemies. The Chinese sided with the North Koreans during the war that lasted from 1950 to 1953, and they used some heavy handed interrogation methods to extract information from U.S soldiers. Chinese support of North Vietnam was also the main reason that both we and the French got our butts kicked in our
wars in French Indochina
(French Indochina was renamed Vietnam in 1946).

As the New York Times reported last July (see below)

what IS waterboarding?

the U.S adopted virtually the SAME unreliable interrogation methods that the North Koreans used in the Korean War for the prisoners that are currently being held in Guantanomo Bay, Cuba.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite comic strips was Pogo, penned by the late Walt Kelly. Although his early cartoons were primarily designed simply to be humorous, he veered into political commentary in the early 1950’s, a courageous thing to do when Joe McCarthy was still making waves in the Senate. In a lot of ways, he was an early version of Gary Trudeau, who still writes Doonesbury today.

The most famous strip that Mr. Kelly ever penned was the one that said “we have met the enemy, and they is us”. Admittedly, the guys we have locked up in Cuba are definitely not nice guys, but we definitely have been guilty of pushing the envelope a little too far due to the actions of our recently defeated President, George W. Bush.


It seems like Pogo was right after all.

The latest group to come under our scrutiny (apart from the bomb chuckers from the Middle East) is “all those damn Mexicans”, who are the folks from our other NAFTA partner, Mexico.

Illegal immigrants from Mexico have probably been a problem in this country since 1849, the year after we took control of the large parts of our country that USED to be part of Mexico. In 1954, President Eisenhower approved an operation with the politically incorrect title of "Operation Wetback".

"Operation Wetback" ended just before President Eisenhower left office. Although it DID solve the problem of illegal immigrants, it failed to eliminate its cause, which is why we are in the process of building a god-awful expensive wall to stem the tide of all the “illegal immigrants” from south of the border. In spite of all the efforts made by our government, the Hispanic population continues to be the fastest growing segment of our society.

As a reflection of that growth, the message “press 2 for Spanish” started to appear roughly 20 years ago.

For some reason, the phrase still manages to ruffle a lot of feathers today, particularly among our “fellow Americans” who speak ONLY English, and who may not be aware of the fact that in little more than one more generation, the "minorities" will be will be a majority in America.

Not long ago, the Swedish vodka maker, Absolut, published an ad that was intended ONLY for vodka drinkers in Mexico.

That ad can be seen below:

habla espanol, senor?

If our little disagreement with a guy named Santa Ana had turned out differently, it’s entirely possible the phrase in vast parts of our country today would be “press 1 for Spanish, and press 2 for English”

The next logical extension, of course, is to add “press 3 for Chinese”

Due to the spread of the English Empire, as well as America’s influence on world affairs at the end of WWII, English has been the international business language for at least 100 years. Since 60% of the words in the English language are derived from Latin, it could be argued that the international business language is actually Latin, but that’s a topic for a different time.

The language that is spoken by more people in the world than any other language is Mandarin.

Since China has nearly 6000 years of history, and since the Chinese economy will be the largest economy in the world by the year 2035, it’s not inconceivable that at some time in the fairly near future, you’ll start to hear “press 3 for Chinese” on recorded messages.

It's also not too far fetched to imagine that well before the close of the 21st century, the international business language will be Chinese, not English.

If that doesn’t put a chink in your armor, I don’t know what would

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Thoughts on D-Day

During the Vietnam War, I was certified as a Huey helicopter repairman (my MOS was 67N20), and I served a total of 6 years in the Minnesota Army National Guard.

Concurrently, my sister was an officer in the Navy, and spent her entire tour of duty stationed as a nurse in Long Island, New York.

In the months following Pearl Harbor, our dad (at the age of 33) joined the Army to help defeat the original Axis of evil.

In spite of our military service, I wouldn’t consider our family to be a military family. Although all of us DID make our contribution to making this country a safer place, our contributions pale by comparison to the sacrifices made by the men and women of our armed forces who have faced mortal danger on a daily basis.

For more than 60 years, our Presidents (including Barack Obama) have made speeches on the beaches of Normandy, largely to a group of increasingly older and smaller group of men, who had participated in the greatest amphibious operation in the history of the world.

Arguably, the speech by Ronald Reagan in 1984 was the best one, but all of them at least made an attempt to pay homage to the brave soldiers who literally changed the history of the world.

It’s impossible to imagine what it must have been like to be part of that invasion force, but I suspect that the opening clip from Private Ryan comes pretty close to depicting the terror of the event.

Although I’ve listened to a lot of speeches about our armed forces, and watched more than my share of war movies, the tribute that brought the biggest lump to my throat (oddly enough) is a Ford commercial that was released during the early years of the current war in Iraq:

Next November 11, say another prayer of thanks for our veterans, and be sure to watch that 2005 Ford commercial one more time.

If you happen to run into a vet not long after that, just tell him this:

“I’m just glad that you’re home”.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

lick 'em and stick 'em

When my 1971 Dodge Charger was new, I remember pulling in to the local Shell station on White Bear Avenue in St. Paul to buy premium gas, which was priced at 36.9 cents a gallon.

When the attendant came out to pump the gas, he also cleaned the windshield and checked the oil, and occasionally also checked the air in the tires.

Often, I was offered a “Shell glass” as part of my reward for stopping in, but I ALWAYS received green stamps.

It may surprise you to know that S & H green stamps have been around since 1896. Thomas Sperry and Shelly Hutchinson formed the Sperry and Hutchinson Company way back then in order to help a variety of enterprises (primarily supermarkets, retail stores, and gas stations) to expand THEIR businesses.

At the height of the company’s popularity, the S & H rewards catalog was the largest publication in the United States, and the company issued three times as many stamps as the United States Postal Service.

The popularity of green stamps peaked in the 1960’s, but the
recessions of the 1970’s had an adverse effect on the sale of stamps.

The loss of its largest customer, Publix Supermarkets, on May 27, 1989, eventually led to the collapse of the “green stamp” collection phenomenon.

In a sense, you could say that the green stamps that we all received for goods that we would have purchased anyway, without incentives, amounted to “money for nothing”:

The concept of getting rewards for shopping lives on today, in programs ranging from frequent flyer miles to the VISA and MasterCard’s rewards programs, but (somehow) it just isn’t the same.

As a kid, I always felt that there was some magic to those little books filled with green stamps. My sister and I were given the honor of licking the stamps and putting them into the books, and it was ALWAYS a lot of fun to travel to the green stamps redemption center to claim our reward for money well spent.

The Sperry and Hutchinson Company was sold by its founders successors in 1981, but it is STILL in operation today, under a slightly different name.

S & H Solutions offers S & H Greenpoints, a digital version of Green Stamps, but you can’t touch them, taste them, or smell them, and because of that, we’re all just a little bit poorer.