Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam

February 19, 2007

I was going to write about spam (the e-mail kind) but since I couldn’t bring myself to put out my own money for a can of the stuff (the pseudo-food kind) to photograph, I went to the Hormel Spam(R) Web site to grab a picture and got sidetracked. You’re greeted with the Spam song (no, I’m not joking) and if you wait about 30 seconds, there’s animation. In fact there’s a lot of animation on the site and a veritable treasure trove of links. I decided against consulting “What is Spam?” It used to show up on the lunch menu when I was in elementary school (usually as rubbery pink slices but sometimes in fritters), and I’d as soon not know what, along with a week’s worth of sodium, they were inflicting on hapless children.

There is a whole Spam subculture, much of it tongue-in-cheek, but not all, I suspect. There’s a Spam Museum (admission free), a Spam Fan Club, and a Spammobile that tours the country giving out free samples. There are Spam festivals, most notably the annual Austin, Texas Spamarama, which has been going on since 1978. And of course there’s a Spam store with a huge variety of items with which you can show your allegiance to the product. A Spam pig clock or timer for the kitchen, pillows (think how nice they’d look on your couch), a mouse pad, a collector’s spoon, a Spam emery board, Spam wine glasses for the truly elegant table setting, a Spam three-legged pig (don’t ask). The link to the Adult category didn’t work, which is probably just as well, since the thought of a Spam G-string and pasties is not enticing. It was hard to choose, but my favorites were the glow-in-the dark Spam stadium cup, scrunchy, and boxer shorts. I always figured that the chemicals in Spam made you glow in the dark, and now you can accessorize to match.

The surprise for me is that Spam doesn’t stop at the pink rubber I was forced to eat at school, now known as Spam Classic. There are 11 other varieties, including Spam Garlic, for the more sophisticated palate; Spam Low Sodium and Spam Lite, for those concerned with healthy eating; and Spam spread (remember that one for your next cocktail party).

There’s obviously more to Spam than Monty Python skits. I’m not tempted to give it another try, though. I’m a vegetarian.

If only we could do a retake

February 13, 2007

I signed up to receive alerts from the Alexandria (Va.) Police Department, which is how I know that a body was found at the weekend in a dumpster/skip a block from where I live, and that last night, the Alexandria police charged a man with first-degree murder.

First-degree murder means the killing was premeditated. The alleged murderer planned it, set it up. According to the police report, the suspect killed the victim “at his home late Friday night or early Saturday morning and then put her body in the dumpster.”

The victim, Anna Sherman, was 21. She died of “blunt force trauma.” In other words, she was clubbed to death with something heavy. What a waste. Barely more than a child, she had — in the normal course of things — a long life ahead of her.

The suspect is Frederick Simon Ajlan. 26, someone else who has a long life ahead of him. Maybe. He may spend a long time in jail (as well he should), but in the backward Commonwealth of Virginia, first-degree murder carries a possible death sentence, so he may die. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think people who murder should get away without lengthy punishment. Murder is wrong (in my opinion) — and that goes for the legalized, state-sanctioned kind too (in my opinion).

Last night I heard that a man I worked for years ago had died in his late sixties. He pretty much self-destructed through morbid obesity and reckless overspending. He was a bad manager but a nice man, and I am saddened by his death.

I am far more saddened, however, by the very incomplete story of a young woman and a young man I didn’t even know, who were involved in a relationship (according to the police report) that recent events suggest went bad. I would like to rewind the tape for both young people and write a different ending.

Alexandria Police Department photographs.

El Dia de los Muertos

November 2, 2006

I’ve been to Mexico only once—I must remedy that—and quite by chance, my visit coincided with el Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead—All Hallows or All Souls’ Day. Halloween is the eve of All Hallows (though I’ll wager that hardly any of the children out trick-or-treating last night know that).

El Dia de los Muertos is celebrated on November 2 in Mexico.The dead are believed to return to their earthly homes on that day, so in the couple of days before the holiday itself, families tidy the graves and adorn them with flowers and paper decorations. Candles are lit to help the dead find their way home. On November 2, families gather at the cemeteries to exchange memories and to picnic, sometimes with music.

I was reminded of all this listening to National Public Radio as I drove to work this morning. A Mexican, now resident in the United States, was comparing the dour sadness of American cemeteries with those of his homeland, which are places where life is celebrated, not mourned.

When I was in Mexico City, shop windows were full of exquisitely detailed candy skulls and candy skeletons in coffins. There were elaborate displays of skeleton weddings complete with photographer, skeleton jazz bands, skeleton dentists, skeleon funerals (which seemed somewhat redundant) and so on. There was nothing morbid about any of it.

Halloween goes back a very long way, I learned from the History Channel Web site, where there is a cool video. It started with the Celts, who marked the beginning of winter on November 1. On October 31, Samhain, the spirits of the dead were believed to return to earth and cause trouble, damaging crops. Bonfires were built and animals sacrificed to the gods. The Celts wore costumes to frighten away the malevolent spirits.

In the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV named November 1 (later changed by the church to November 2) as a day to honor saints and martyrs—it is surmised, to replace the pagan festival with something more acceptable to the Christian church.

Like so many Christian feasts, All Hallows now mingles pagan customs with Christian. Children (like the Celts) don scary costumes and ask for candy (sacrifices or gifts) so that they will not play tricks (destroy the crops).

One more seasonal post and then we’ll return to my trip to Italy.

Berry Picking

October 22, 2006

The place: the people mover between the plane and the terminal at Dulles Airport last Friday. The time: about 3:30 on Friday afternoon.

As soon as they sat down, the people on either side of me whipped out their BlackBerries or BlackBerry-equivalents, as did two people standing up. “This is always scary,” said the woman on my right to her standing companion, loudly enough to let us all know that, important as she was, the eight-hour flight from London would have meant a vast accumulation of e-mails demanding her immediate attention. A true candidate for Pseuds’ Corner.*

Once upon a time, people spent a few hours on a plane or went away on vacations, and their companies actually soldiered on without them. Whatever had to be done was done by someone else (if it was really that important) or else waited until they got back to work after the trip.

I doubt that the urgency of work-related tasks has increased significantly over the years, and I suspect that the business calls conducted loudly on cell phones from buses and metro trains and the compulsive e-mail checking over restaurant lunches are frequently unnecessary and can probably be summed up by a cartoon I saw some time ago in the New Yorker. A man is sitting in an empty subway car, mobile phone to his ear. The caption is, “Do you mind if I call you back later when there’s someone around to overhear?”

*Pseuds’ Corner: for the uninitiated, see Private Eye.
Not my picture of the berries. I didn’t have the nerve to whip out my camera and photograph the important people around me, so I took this off a gardening Web site. I’ve forgotten which one, so I can’t properly credit it, but if notified, I will.

Different realities

October 4, 2006

I was in line at the supermarket the other day behind a woman with a child of around two. He was sitting in the child seat of the cart, and his mother was handing him items to put on the belt so that he could help her unload the groceries. I’m always pleased when I see mothers with enough patience to do that kind of thing.

What did give me pause, however, was the fact that each item he placed on the belt—yes, every single one—elicited from his mother an increasingly emphatic cry of “Good job!” delivered in that over-enthusiastic voice that adults often adopt with small children. I’m all for positive reinforcement, but since putting cans of soup on a conveyer belt isn’t beyond the capabilities of any average toddler, I figured a “Thank you for helping Mommy,” delivered at the end of the process, would have been sufficient, and I wondered what Mommy would say if he did something truly remarkable. It was by no means the first time I’ve seen that, or something similar.

In the United Kingdom, I am told, there’s a movement to replace the term “failed”—as in failed an exam—with “deferred success.” Along the same euphemistic lines, several years ago, I was witness to a thoroughly irresponsible piece of driving by a juvenile that caused an accident in which several vehicles were damaged, but fortunately, no one was injured. I went to Fairfax County Juvenile Court to give evidence. The plea for the driver was “innocent” or “not innocent.”

These days, you mustn’t correct children’s homework with red ink because it’s traumatic for them. (Though as my cousin, a recently retired elementary school teacher points out, if your homework comes back covered in comments, it’s clear you got a lot of stuff wrong, whether the ink is red, green, or purple.)

A while back, I saw the results of a survey of the mathematical ability of high school students from 10 nations. In achievement, American children scored the lowest. The same survey students were asked to rate their own ability. In self-esteem, American children scored the highest. Self-esteem is good—if you have reason to esteem yourself highly. Otherwise it’s self-delusion.

Congratulated for breathing, protected from reality by euphemisms, and allowed to have an unrealistically inflated sense of their own abilities, children growing up today (it seems to me) are going to have a hard time when they go to work and hit the real world where people are not rewarded for simply showing up and are expected to take responsibility for their screw-ups.

But now if you’ll excuse me, I am going to ponder the following: Should I bask in the newfound comfort of my deferred success in high school Physics; or should I worry that the term implies a need to try again, whereas “failure,” as it was insensitively called in my day, happily releases me from further obligation?

The Promised Land: V

September 19, 2006

The workers of many religions and nationalities clasping hands across the factory conveyer belt are the central message of the mural we have been examining for the last several days: There are no boundaries between workers. We are all workers, and we are all, therefore, equal because whatever we do, we contribute.

I recognize two symbols of ethnicity at the right of the assembly line of workers:


In the middle is symbol of the Celts and below it is, I think, a Native American symbol. But the top symbol, which seems to be two seahorses facing—what is that? It’s one of many unanswered questions about this superb mural. The muralist’s name appears below, and I plan to track her down and find answers.

If you visit the Washington, D.C., area and are interested to see this mural, you’ll find it on Mount Vernon Avenue in Alexandria, on the side wall of the building that supports the Tenants’ and Workers’ Support Committee. The creation of the mural was featured on Sept. 7 and Sept. 8 on Alexandria Daily Photo.

The Promised Land: IV

September 18, 2006


In these two details, we see celebrated the strength and solidarity of women. In the larger detail, the women are led by the iconic figure of Rosie the Riveter, who became a World War II propoganda figure used to encourage American women to work in factories in place of the men who had gone to war.

The original Rosie, seen immediately below, was painted by Norman Rockwell as a cover illustration for the Saturday Evening Post of May 29, 1943.

© Curtis Publishing Company

More familiar is the Rosie of the “We Can Do It” propoganda posters.


I will wrap up this series of posts on the Chirilagua mural tomorrow.

The Promised Land: III

September 17, 2006

Today I am looking at some of the smaller details of the Chirilagua mural. A reminder that what follows is my interpretation of the symbolism in this mural. I don’t know whether it’s what the muralist had in mind.


Various folk art motifs appear in the mural, recognitions of the many cultures that exist in this country. Some are easily recognizable and others not (or not to me). Here I see a shamrock. Beneath it is the Yin Yang symbol (more usually seen turned 90 degrees counterclockwise). It stands for opposing but complementary forces in nature: feminine-masculine, night-day, dark and passive-bright and active—and in this context, perhaps the difference between dream and reality. Under it is what at first sight I saw as having elements of an Ionic capital, but now I think may be a Native American or a pre-columbian symbol. Any ideas anyone?


Here are representations of the types of work many immigrants perform: driving taxis, working in the fields or on construction sites, working as housekeepers and cleaners. Two hands reach for the dove of peace, or perhaps release the dove of peace—in either case the hope is for peace.


This is part of the bottom of the mural, On the left, shackled hands, the symbol of subservience; on the right, the black power salute, a symbol of the fight against subservience. I don’t have even a guess about the two blue diamond shapes over the shackled wrists.

The heart looks to me like a Pennsylvania Dutch motif.

The black cat, its back arched, and the loaf of bread with the roses both stand for activism and the rights of workers. The black cat or wild cat is used as a symbol of radical unions (think wildcat strike) and the loaf and roses represent the 1912 Bread and Roses strike. The work week had been reduced by law to 54 hours per week, and in answer, the mill owners cut wages. Thirty thousand textile workers struck. Some of the women carried signs saying “We want bread and roses too”—not just the basics of existence, but something more.

I see what appear to be roots growing down to the motifs. Perhaps because the country is rooted in these facts and values, among others? What do you think?

More tomorrow.

The Promised Land: II

September 16, 2006

A reminder that what follows is my interpretation of the symbolism in this mural. I don’t know whether it’s what the muralist had in mind.

Moving directly below the detail of yesterday’s post, we see a sheriff stopping a would-be immigrant at the border. She carries all that she is taking to start her new life, and it is so very little. The ship in the background is the Mayflower, and symbolizes the first settlers—the people responsible for the foundation of the the United States. The man standing directly behind the woman looks to me to be in colonial dress and I see him not as a real person but as the shade of one of the first settlers—another reminder that those first immigrants created this country. Stretching across the desert behind the woman are crosses, which, to me, stand for the people who lost their lives making the journey to the border into the United States.

At the upper right is a pointing hand. You will see in the detail below whom it belongs to.


The pointing finger belongs to an angry-looking judge. He is indicating to the would-be immigrants that they should go back to the countries they came from. The sign round his neck refers to House Resolution 4437 “To amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to strengthen enforcement of the immigration laws, to enhance border security, and for other purposes,” introduced in December 2005.

Behind the sheriff, we see George Washington, the father of this country, as a baby. Slightly behind him is his African American nurse wearing chains to symbolize that she is a slave. This detail interests me very much. Depicting servants as smaller than those they serve makes very clear their status as inferiors. You will find the device in ancient Egyptian art. She is also slightly behind him—yet her chained hand is on him. The message is plain, I think: The support of the slaves whose names and faces are lost to us has every bit as much to do with the growth of the United States as do the actions of those whose names and faces are so well-known.

As an aside, it is apparently a shock to many visitors to Mount Vernon, the plantation home of George Washington, to see the slave quarters. I suspect that there’s a reluctance to accept that a revered figure kept slaves, a practice we deplore today. In fact, he inherited 10 slaves from his father, and by his death, there were more than 300 slaves at Mount Vernon. He was considered a “benevolent” slave-owner by his contemporaries. Some of his slaves were taught to read. In later life, he was publicly in favor of the abolition of slavery, and under the terms of his will, he freed his own slaves, but he could not legally free those who belonged to his wife, Martha.

More about this mural tomorrow.

The Promised Land: I

September 15, 2006


If you read my Washington, DC photo blog, please bear with what starts out as repetition. I’m indebted to Marie McC of Alexandria Daily Photo for taking me to see this mural She featured it in the making on Sept. 7 and Sept. 8, and I posted briefly about it on Picturing Washington on Sept. 15.

The mural is in the Chirilagua (a.k.a. Arlandria) neighborhood in Alexandria, Va., and it touched me deeply. The more I look at it, the more I am caught up in its symbolism. I talked about a couple of details on the Picturing Washington post, but I’d like to go into the mural in more depth here.

I am an immigrant too, and the mural brought home to me something I’d not ever stopped to reflect on: that I am a very privileged immigrant compared with those who came across the border with nothing and did the menial jobs no one else wanted. In contrast, I came to the United States from a secure and comfortable life in the United Kingdom to a place in graduate school, a teaching assistantship to help pay my way, and a secure future (as far as any future can be secure) based on my British and American education.

Every interpretation is just that—an interpretation. Art speaks to most of us on some level or other, whether or not we can articulate what we feel. What I get out of this piece of art may not be what you get out of it. That’s for you to look and determine.


Starting in the upper left corner, we have flying saucers. What do we make of them? Perhaps that those who can contribute come not just from many countries, but also from many universes? Our minds should not be closed to those worlds we don’t yet understand? I don’t know.

Dominant are two motifs. First is the pair of men, one bearing a “Welcome” sign, the other with a handful of dollars. Welcome to the land flowing with milk and honey. The riches beckon and the people come, one after another, surmounting difficulty (the drainpipe) to enter the promised land. See how small they are in comparison with the symbols of riches? And see how small they are compared to the huge hotel? Many of those little people will end up there—not as pampered guests, but as those serving them. Their future is to be the maids who change the beds and scrub the bathrooms, the doormen, the bellboys, the dishwashers in the hotel kitchens.

The second motif: Three planes fly towards the promised land. Are they simply bringing more immigrants? Perhaps. But I think the fact that there are three is significant. Are they the three planes that caused the destruction of 911, reminding us that we are not the inviolable promised land? We are threatened. All those who seek our shores do not have good intentions.

More tomorrow.


August 13, 2006

According to the law of the United States, at 18, you can vote; you can have consensual sex and your partner won’t be accused of statutory rape; you can die for your country; and you can buy cigarettes, which will possibly help you die sooner than otherwise, but for one of your country’s strongest lobbies rather than for your country itself—but hey, dulce et decorum anyway.

But you can’t legally have a beer.

Here’s another interesting alcohol-related anomaly.

I went to the supermarket this evening and bought, among other things, a bottle of wine. The cashier set aside the wine and scanned and bagged everything else. Then she scanned and bagged the wine, after which, she picked up her intercom phone and called for a manager. “Sorry to keep you waiting, ma’am,” she said to me and, by extension, the people behind me, “but I’m not 21. I can’t ring up alcohol.”

A manager eventually arrived and pressed the key that rings up the entire sale.

So the under-21 cashier can handle the bottle of wine, she can scan it, she can put it in the shopping bag—but she can’t press the key that actually rings it up. In other words, she can’t technically sell it to me, though after someone else has facilitated the sale, she can accept my payment.

How silly is that?

Will that be all?

August 10, 2006

I stopped at Dunkin’ Donuts yesterday on my way to work to buy a cup of coffee. Ahead of me were a man, then a woman, deep in whispered conversation with a boy of about 10. We waited two or three minutes while the man ordered his coffee, received it, and paid. Then it was the woman’s turn.

DD employee (indicating two bottles of water that the woman was carrying): “Will that be all?”
Woman: “No … er … let’s see …what do you want, honey?” (More whispered conversation with child.) “Umm … .”

Now the woman and boy didn’t walk across the parking lot in front of me, so they hadn’t just got there. They’d been there long enough to get the bottled water from the fridge, then we waited for the man to finish up being served. It never occurred to them, during their sotto voce chat, to start discussing what they wanted?

Woman: “Plain bagel, toasted, with cream cheese.” (Yet more whispered conversation with child while DD goes off and prepares the bagel.)
DD: “Anything else?”
Woman: “Yes, another plain bagel, toasted, with cream cheese.”
DD (goes off and prepares the second bagel): “Is that it?”
Woman: “And a chocolate cream donut.”
DD (having fetched and bagged the donut): “Will that be all?”
Woman: “One small coffee, cream, no sugar. And the water.”

Halfway through this, the man behind me gave up and left. I stayed out of a kind of ghastly fascination with how much longer it could go on—and the fact that the alternative for coffee was the new Starbucks around the corner that I walked out of last week after waiting for five minutes, during which time one customer’s transaction had still not been completed. (As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.)

Do you know the scene in Cabaret where Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli) takes Brian (Michael York) under a railway bridge, and when the train goes over, she screams at the top of her lungs (of course, unheard over the noise of the train)? Well, I badly needed that railway bridge. My other impulse was to push the woman up against the wall, tell her she was the most stupid person I’d ever had the misfortune to encounter in my life, then grab her by the neck and squeeze the life out of her. Fortunately I didn’t act on it, which is how come I am sitting here writing this and not in the pokey paying my debt to society.

Anyway, the rest of my day was better. Oh, except for walking out of the Starbucks next to the Chinese restaurant where I had lunch because I got bored with being ignored while the barrista polished the espresso machine and chatted with a friend.

Is the message that I should stop drinking coffee?

Found art

July 31, 2006

I don’t know who this chap is, but his picture was all over the place in Lille. I don’t like graffiti, but I do like collections of affiches like these. They seem to me to be quintissentially European. Here are some more.




Vive la différence!

July 26, 2006

I was a teenager when I first started to travel out of England, where I grew up. I didn’t care about traditional souvenirs; one of the coolest things for me was to come home with a tube of toothpaste of an unfamiliar brand that said it was “dentifrice” or a bar of soap that called itself “sapone.” The ultimate in cool was using foreign, and therefore exotic, products.

Now the same stores and the same products are everywhere, and I find it very disappointing. It’s not that anyone makes me shop at Tesco in Prague or eat at McDo (God forbid!) in Paris or buy Colgate toothpaste in Venice; it’s that I don’t want it to be even a possibility.

Sales were going on while my friends and I were in Lille (carefully avoiding Euralille for fear of finding a WalMart), and I’m happy to say that the exotic kicked in for me because the window displays were far more creative and daring than anything you’d be likely to see in the United States. This one was my favorite: At Gatsby’s “chaque homme est unique.”