There are so many apps, games and online sources of information that I'm a little reluctant to mention two that on snowy, stay-at-home days, gobble up some of my hours in a most enjoyable way. You might know about both of them already, but I thought I'd mention them just in case you don't.
A couple of years ago I learned about a nifty language-learning web site, Duolingo, on which one can study any of more than fifty foreign languages free of charge, and even better, free of ads. Who needs to spend hundreds of dollars on Rosetta Stone or some other overpriced course?
At the very least Duolingo is entertaining. Its graphics are perky, and there is a clever assortment of exercises and games, accompanied by fanfares, bells and whistles, that can keep you occupied for hours. I’m working on French, and although I never expect to speak or write like a native, I know that the practice is good for my aging brain as I add new vocabulary each day and refresh what I learned in college.
Although I had been aware of Duolingo for a while, only recently did I learn that it was originated and is headquartered in Pittsburgh. Begun by Carnegie Mellon University professor Luis von Ahn and a group of young colleagues, Duolingo's goal is to provide “Free language education for the world.” To find out what languages are offered go to: https://www.duolingo.com/courses.
Another site, which came to my attention on a cold day in January, is Quora, a platform for questions and answers, which might sound snooze-inducing, but I find it fascinating. Anyone can register to ask and answer questions, although there are a few guidelines to follow having to do with the aptness of a response and, of course, standards of decency. Most participants are ordinary people, many from foreign countries. But answers have been posted by such heavyweights as Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, British comedian-actor Stephen Fry and, last but not least, Barack Obama.
Quora states that its mission is to share and grow the world’s knowledge. “We want to connect the people who have knowledge to the people who need it.” A worthy goal, indeed.
Upon signing up Quora asks you to fill out a profile. I wrote that I live in Pittsburgh, am a Carnegie Mellon graduate, a musician, and that I like to cook and write. Somehow Quora knows how to direct appropriate questions to my page, although it hasn’t caught on yet that that I know absolutely nothing about engineering and robotics.
The first question I answered was, “Why is the Andy Warhol Museum located in Pittsburgh?” I simply typed in that Andy Warhol is a native Pittsburgher and that he attended Carnegie Mellon.
Many of the questioners, who are obviously not native English speakers, are curious about all kinds of things having to do with living in this country, speaking and writing in English, and topics regarding American dining and etiquette. A visit to the site will leave you amazed, and sometimes amused, by some of the questions. For example:
What has been the worst generation in America so far? A respondent begins: “Mine, the Baby Boomers. We are the smuggest, most entitled, laziest and most selfish generation since the Roaring Twenties, and probably before that...”
Another inquiry caught my eye because I’m a senior citizen and a veteran cruiser:
- Is it really cheaper per day to stay on a Princess Cruise ship than live in a nursing home? The answer is yes. For the reasons why visit https://www.quora.com.
Some other questions and answers I found interesting:
- Is it more correct to say “you and me” or “you and I”?
- What is the intended purpose of philosophy?
- What is it like to be raised by two people of the same sex?
- For Italians what is the most annoying mistake Americans make with Italian food?
Someone wanted to know:
- What are the worst decisions in U. S. history? This respondent began, “America’s transition from a drafted military force to a professional military force...”
And this one made me chuckle – and think:
- What is a difference between the way Americans think about Europe compared to the way Europeans think about America? “Americans think 100 years is a long time. Europeans think 100 miles is a long distance.”
Meanwhile, I’m off to spend some time at Duolingo and Quora before it’s time to put dinner on the table.
I watched Barack Obama deliver his last State of the Union speech with bittersweet pleasure. I will not live long enough to see another such handsome man, who is brown like me, stand before this assembly of our nation’s government bodies, to summarize the state of our union and lay out his hopes for our country. It isn’t all that it could be, but it remains leaps and bounds ahead of any other place on earth, no matter how venerable or exotic or grand.
What a man he is. What a husband and father. What an intelligent presence. And what character he must possess to have endured the bludgeoning he has received, the slings and arrows aimed at him while managing to retain his equilibrium, and his humor. The fact that he has not been assassinated – by bullet, by fire, or by noose – is a miracle. Say what you will about the Secret Service, they have obviously been doing something right.
How such a kind and good man could be so reviled by so many, so blamed for everything that’s wrong in the world is a never-ending source of amazement to me.
There is a website, Quora.com, on which readers ask questions about all kinds of topics, from the silly to the serious. “Who is the most interesting person you’ve ever sat next to on an airplane?” “What is a food in your country that would be considered unacceptable in ours?” “After 7 years of having him, was Obama a good president overall?”
Many readers have weighed in on that question – some positive, some negative. I don’t usually pass along lengthy passages written by others, but I’m including the following, by a respondent named Barry Postma, because I found it refreshingly fair, and there seems to be a shortage of fairness these days. Feel free to agree with him or tear him limb from limb. Feel free to doubt that he is a Republican or even in his right mind. He writes:
“He has been a pretty good President. As a Republican, I consider him the best Democratic President since JFK.
“I was frightened by his inexperience in 2008, but he has led well. He's one of those people, like JFK, who use inexperience as an excuse to question old assumptions and try new approaches. It turned out to be a virtue.
“I feared that his peacenik, unrealistic anti-war rhetoric would abandon Afghans and Iraqis who were dependent on our protection. But the withdrawals were gradual and considered. Maybe ISIS would have been less successful if there had been a major, continual US presence in western Iraq or if the USA hadn't assisted rebels in Syria. But it's also possible that ISIS became inevitable in 2005 when Bush didn't hand the nation-building enterprise over to the UN and bring our troops home. What Obama really did was temper Bush's policy with a little restraint, which was about as wise an option as any available to him.
“I'm impressed with the agreement with Iran that prevents them from developing nuclear weapons while recruiting their cooperation against ISIS. (I'd rather give credit for that to Obama than Sec. Kerry because I just don't like Kerry. A personality conflict, I think.)
“I was an opponent of ACA (ObamaCare). Clearly, not everyone was able to keep their existing plan as promised, and the falling health care costs we expected haven't materialized. [The rate of increase of health care costs has shrunk, but more because of a lagging economy than because of ACA. So says http://www.factcheck.org/2015/06...] I'm still unsure about it, and saving money in my personal finances by paying penalty taxes rather than buying health insurance. But what I dislike most is sudden change, and taking ACA away is the big change now. I concede to the status quo until evidence against it is overwhelming, which it is not against the ACA so far. Instead, the evidence is mostly neutral.
“On guns, I disagree with Obama's theory that regulating guns will have any effect on mass shootings, but I like what his 23 executive orders did (namely, put more cops in schools, enforce existing law better, promote gun research, and keep the background check system up to date). I disagree with Obama critics that claim he wants government to buy up all the ammo, intentionally botched the ATF's sting operation, or intends to take away everyone's guns. The rhetoric on both sides is silly, but the actions Obama has taken within the executive branch have been reasonable and moderate.
“Obama did the right thing focusing immigration resources on illegal immigrants who are not DREAMers. People who illegally immigrated as infants, toddlers, or young children didn't willfully break any laws, whereas grown adult border-crossers clearly did. That's the right place to put the focus.
“I also support the acceptance of Syrian refugees, which Obama and my Republican governor agree about.
“Obama's early speech to the moderate Muslims of the world was a fine idea, if overly idealistic and lacking in follow-though.
“Obama has kept about 45% of his campaign promises, and partially kept 25%. That's 70% that were at least partially accomplished. That's not bad at all!
“Obama championed a few traditionally conservative ideas, like putting more cops in schools and strengthening border security. He's preferable to, say, Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi in his willingness to work across the aisle.
“He seems like a decent guy and a strong family man, something I don't believe about Bill Clinton or Donald Trump.
“He's put up with the Birther and "He's a Muslim!" nonsense with poise and dignity, even humor. That kind of character is admirable and rare.
“Overall, I think he did remarkably well, for someone with whom I disagree about so very much. I'd happily shake his hand and thank him for his fine public service.”
Even those who would never deign to watch the Miss Universe pageant are probably aware that it made its biggest news ever this year. Call it a gaffe, a goof, or just a giant screw-up. Host Steve Harvey’s announcing the wrong contestant as Miss Universe takes its place as the biggest popular culture disaster of the twenty-first century – so far. The century is far too young not to assume that blunders unimaginable today will make Harvey's pale by comparison.
But for the moment he gets top honors, a dubious distinction to be sure. Whether it was the format of the card bearing the winners’ names or a teleprompter foul-up we’ll never know. What we do know is that Harvey had signed a multi-year contract to host the show, so he will be back, probably with an audience bigger than ever, an audience much needed by a show that has joined others of its ilk as moribund and anachronistic.
In the grand scheme of things, the Miss Universe pageant is pretty insignificant. But for the contestants and for Mr. Harvey on December 20, that might have been the most embarrassing thing that had ever happened to them, certainly for the young women. Imagine have a crown removed from your head.
Steve Harvey has become the "Mr. Television" of this generation. You may not be aware of the pervasiveness of “Family Feud,” third most popular game show in history behind “Jeopardy!” and “Match Game." Currently hosted by Harvey, it can be found on some network at almost any time of the day or night. And in addition Harvey has a daytime talk show that airs at 3 p.m. opposite Dr. Phil. So it’s unlikely that he’ll be drifting into the sunset any time soon.
Veteran late-night talk radio host Jim Bohannon (KDKA) sometimes gets under my skin with his slightly radical views. But I have to hand it to him: he had nothing but sympathy and praise for Steve Harvey, calling him a consummate pro and predicting that this incident will not harm his career in the least.
Bohannon invited listeners to call in with stories of their own most embarrassing moments. Most of the stories were pretty lame, but there was one gentleman who, as an usher at a wedding, was tasked with pushing one of four buttons that would broadcast the sound of bells throughout the town. But instead of pushing the wedding button he accidentally pushed the one intended for funerals. I can hear it now: “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide” sailing over rooftops as the wedding party bursts forth from the church.
In light of Harvey’s blunder, I tried to think of an embarrassing experience in my own life. We tend to repress things that are too painful to recall. But I finally unearthed a memory of a situation that at the time made me want to run away – far away.
Lorin Maazel, while music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony, made an arrangement based on the music of Wagner titled “Ring Without Words.” The original score calls for wordless women’s voices to be heard above the orchestra. Perhaps to save money or aggravation, it was decided that sound of the women’s voices could be adequately produced by a synthesizer set up backstage, with me at the keyboard. When it came time for me to play, although the console lights were on, not one sound emanated from the speakers into the concert hall. All the audience heard were a few toots and tweets from the orchestra along with whatever lower sounds provided the accompaniment to the women’s voices. Who knows what Maazel and the orchestra thought as they helplessly soldiered on despite the absence of the “main attraction”? It was a surreal experience played out in front of thousands, not millions, but horrifying nonetheless.
As soon as it was over, I grabbed my coat and escaped the hall as fast as my little fat legs would carry me. My home phone rang a while later. It was, of all people, the stage door guard telling me that the plug to the speakers had been pulled out of the wall. Because I tend not to be paranoid, I assumed that this happened by accident, that it was not sabotage.
Before the next concert, Maestro Maazel came striding along the corridor heading towards the stage. I don’t remember exactly what he said to me, but I responded with a vehemence he probably wasn’t expecting, “That was NOT my fault.” He never said another word about it.
Is there any one of us who doesn’t have a story about in incident that made us want to dig a hole and climb in, something we did or something we said? We eventually recover and get on with our lives. I survived my most embarrassing moment. Steve Harvey will, too.
A couple of decades ago I wrote several restaurant reviews for the Pittsburgh City Paper, and as recently as 2007 a couple for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, while they were in the process of replacing their full-time reviewer. At the time I felt competent to share my impressions of restaurant cuisine and ambience. Not any more.
In the intervening years there has been an explosion of new restaurants around town that reflect so many changes in menu offerings that I often don’t even know what some of the foods are.
Because we Americans travel so much we’ve become used to eating a wide variety of foods that until recently we had never heard of. That has spurred the introduction of fusion cuisine, which combines heretofore unimagined combinations of flavors from far-flung corners of the globe. I’ll never forget how surprised I was when, a couple of decades ago, a restaurant in Bloomfield began serving Chinese food and sushi. Chinese food and Japanese food are very different, and I couldn’t have been more surprised if they had offered egg foo young along with a bowl of rigatoni with red sauce. That’s an exaggeration, but we have become quite accustomed to a mingling of cuisines.
My husband and I used to consider ourselves pretty hip about restaurant food, and we would rush out to try each new restaurant before the ink on their rental agreement was dry. But in recent years we’ve settled on a few favorite places where we feel comfortable with the menus and have a rough idea of what’s going to show up on our plates. We’re a little beyond surf ‘n turf and shrimp cocktail, but we aren’t quite ready for Squid Ink and Leek Ash Gnudi or Tuna Bloodline Bolognese. Both are probably delicious, but they sound peculiar to our old ears.
Against our better judgment, we recently tried a restaurant that was touted in a national news magazine. When a restaurant in Pittsburgh, a city usually ignored as a dining destination, is written up in a national news magazine it must be fantastic, right? To some it may be. To us it wasn’t.
Menu aside, this tiny place had a bare bones look about it, and the wooden benches of the booth in which we were seated were harder than a pew in a Quaker meeting house.
Secondly, I never appreciate being presented with flatware wrapped in a napkin, which, when unwrapped requires me to place the utensils on the bare table. Has the table been cleaned? Whose unwashed hands might recently have been on that table? Has it been sneezed on? I don’t place flatware on the bare table in my own kitchen. Why would I want to do so in a public place?
Is not being served bread a recent trend? It’s always nice to have something to nibble on if you’re having wine or a cocktail while awaiting your entrée. Maybe the amount of uneaten bread sent back to the kitchen is threatening these restaurants’ bottom line. When we asked the waitress if they serve bread she answered, “Sometimes we serve bread,” in a tone that suggested she might bring us some if cajoled into doing so.
Many items on the menu baffled us. From the list of Apps (appetizers) I ordered the Black Caviar Caesar just out of curiosity. Its ingredients, placed at a safe distance from each other on the plate, were described as, "Parmesan, baby kale, egg, white anchovy and focaccia." There was a small pile of Caesar-dressed kale. I wasn’t expecting a whole egg, but there it was, not hard-boiled or soft-boiled but something in between, prepared, I suspect, sous vide – sealed in plastic and cooked for many hours at a low temperature. There was a scant teaspoon of black caviar topped with a tiny silver-skinned fish, a fresh anchovy, my first. It was an interesting mélange of ingredients, but for eleven dollars I doubt if I would order it again.
My husband, who is not a vegetarian, ordered the meatless meatloaf, which was singled out by the magazine. It was a dry-looking mixture of asparagus, cauliflower, farro and almond cheese. He ate it bravely but said little. Our dinner partners ordered the roasted chicken with chickpeas, pistachio, radicchio and pea harissa. They soldiered through it but their reaction was subdued. We all agreed that this was our first and last visit. This nouveau menu was a little too nouveau for us.
Obviously there is a chasm between my generation – our husbands still wear jackets out to dinner – and the young diners who arrive in jeans, lugging backpacks, who evidently savor these new culinary combinations and think nothing of dropping $100 for dinner in a place with no tablecloths that reminded me more than anything of the PX at summer camp in the Adirondacks in 1956.
A five-star customer review on TripAdvisor says, “This is our new favorite restaurant in Pittsburgh.” They loved the peanut butter torte with celery sorbet and “cannot wait to try the beet ice cream when it’s available.”
Not to worry. They can have ours.
Another birthday just flew by -- my seventy-fourth. It didn't occur to me that I’d ever be this old. But here I am, and if I do as well as my mother, who lived to be ninety-four, I can look forward to at least another twenty years above ground, doing something useful, I hope. At this age my mother was just building up a head of steam raking in blue ribbons for her needlework at the Golden Age Hobby Show.
Those of you several decades younger than I don’t think you’ll ever reach this point. The very thought makes you shudder. But believe me, it’s not that bad, and if you’re lucky and don’t get run over by a bus or struck by lightning, you’ll get here – and fast. Your birthdays will come around so often you’ll feel as if you’re on a merry-go-round spinning you into the stratosphere.
In recent years I’ve expended a good bit of mental energy berating myself for not having done enough good in the world. Those individuals I most admire do good works. They align themselves with causes. They labor in the trenches for political candidates. They participate in marches and runs and walks for those in need. They visit the sick and infirm. They drive for Meals on Wheels. And I sit here wondering why I’m not more inclined to do those things. My excuses are many. My consolation? Writing modest checks.
Most mornings, because I wake up too early to get up, I listen to audio books downloaded from the library. Today I listened to Alan Alda reading from Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself. Alda, famous as Hawkeye from “Mash,” is a bright and amusing fellow who at times leans towards the sanctimonious. But he does come up with ideas that make sense, and on this morning of my birthday I feel better after listening to some of what he has to say.
He speculates, as most of us do, about why we’re here and what life means. And I have to wonder why there has to be a reason we’re here and why our life has to mean anything? Just the fact that we are here should be reason enough, and can’t we be grateful without having to imbue our existence with greater meaning? After all, there are an awful lot of people who have never been here or who are no longer here, and I’m just glad I'm not one of them.
When I’m tempted to lament my age I think of the many I’ve known who didn’t make it this far. At the entrance to our home is a four-foot-tall plant that was one small part of a dish garden given to us, when we moved here in 1994, by a friend who has been gone for sixteen years. The plant is still here, not in the best of condition in the care of Mrs. Brown Thumb, me, but it is living while my friend didn’t make it out of the twentieth century.
And there is the peace lily at the front window sent to the funeral home when my mother died, in 2005. It, too, is a mere suggestion of its former self, but it is still alive and serves as a daily reminder of my mother and also of how quickly those ten years have gone by.
It saddens me to realize that most of the people I ever knew not only are no longer around but many of them have been gone a long time. So I’m grateful simply to be sitting here, in good health, more or less in my right mind, planning my day and my weekend, and wondering what I’ll be cooking for dinner on Monday. How precious are those mundane considerations.
The thought that Alan Alda left me with, which I found most comforting, is that it might be a good idea for me to focus not so much on having done good but on having done well.
Perhaps my doing well has set an example that has energized those who are coming after me along life’s pathway. We never know how something we do or say, no matter how insignificant it may seem to us, might influence someone else for good and put them on the road to doing well.