Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam

February 19, 2007

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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

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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

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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

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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.
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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

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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
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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:

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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.

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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
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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.

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© Curtis Publishing Company

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

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