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.
A fellow named David Placek, who was recently featured on “Sunday Morning” on CBS, is a professional namer who is paid as much as $100,000 to name a new product. His company, Lexicon, is responsible for the brand names Swiffer, Dasani, OnStar, Outback, and Pentium. And Placek says that despite the impression one might get from “Mad Men,” it’s not as easy to name a new product as you might think.
Even so, tricky as naming mass market products might be, it is easier and less fraught with pitfalls than naming prescription medications, which, rather than being in the hands of companies such as Lexicon, is under the watchful eye of the United States Adopted Names Council.
When watching the evening news my husband and I often react with dismay at the parade of commercials, mostly for medications, wondering how in the world the manufacturers come up with brand names such as Harvoni and Farxiga, Zaditor and Anoro, Prevnar and – heaven help us – Latuda.
A prescription medication must have a generic name, for example omeprazole, and a brand name, in this case Prilosec. Such naming is a complicated process because there are so many combinations of words and letters that might make sense to you or me but won’t pass muster in the world of pharmaceuticals.
For one thing, they have to be recognizable worldwide, not just in the United States. Certain letters or sets of letters, me, str, x, and z, aren't allowed at the beginning of a generic name. And the letters h, j, k and w can’t be used because they lead to pronunciation problems in other languages. Plus there are occasionally suggested combinations that might sound fine to our ears but have negative or even obscene connotations elsewhere.
Prefixes that imply better, newer, or more effective as well as those that evoke the name of the sponsor, dosage form, duration of action, or rate of drug release should not be used. And prefixes that have an anatomical connotation or refer to a medical condition are not acceptable.
Some drugs such as Xalkori, used to treat lung cancer, don’t have to resonate with consumers because they won’t be picking them up at their local pharmacy. Xalkori was named by the full-service branding consultancy InterbrandHealth, which also came up with such tongue-twisters as Zelboraf, Yondelis, and Horizant. It’s doubtful that you’ve heard of those, but you have heard of Interbrand-named Prozac and Viagra.
In addition to the Adopted Names Council, drug names have to pass muster with the U. S. Food and Drug Administration and its European counterpart, the European Medicines Agency. Strange as it may seem, a drug cannot boast about its power or efficacy, which is why, according to David Schultz at Slate, “You won’t be seeing any drugs named Cholesterol Busters or Angina-B-Gone.”
Care must be taken to prevent one drug's being confused with another, which could be the case with Neulasta, an immune system booster following chemotherapy, and Lunesta, which is a sleeping pill. Confusing those two could have dire consequences.
Even over-the-counter drug names can be puzzling. Their function is often obvious but not always. We don’t have to wonder what Nyquil and TheraFlu are for, but Zyrtec and Zegerid might have you scratching your head.
All of the drugs we are likely to pick up at a pharmacy, as peculiar as their brand names might be, have chemical names that are even stranger. The chemical name for Celebrex is roficoxib. For Viagra it’s sildenafil. Those unwieldy names describe the drugs’ chemical components and fall into categories such as statins, used to lower cholesterol, and benzodiazepines, which treat anxiety. Occasionally a drug is named for an individual who developed it. Carfilzomib, used to treat multiple myeloma, was named for molecular biologists Philip Whitcome and his wife, Carla.
Keeping all of this in mind, I’m sure you’ll agree, when you’re filling out forms for that new doctor, that no matter how odd the name of your medication might seem, it’ll be easier to list Victoza, Invokana or Jublia than liraglutide, canagliflozin, or efinaconazole, names better limited to the laboratory or the pharmacist’s glossary.
Back in the early eighties my husband read a book about which he was enthusiastic although his enthusiasm didn’t impel me to pick it up and read it. He had his books. I had mine.
A few weeks ago, for reasons known only to the gods, I stumbled upon the book online and downloaded it onto my iPad. And I’m delighted that the gods brought it back into my line of vision.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981. The award was posthumous. Toole had committed suicide in 1969, at age thirty-one, eleven years before the book’s publication, ostensibly because he could not find a publisher.
Humans deal with rejection in a variety of ways, and who knows what other factors might have contributed to Mr. Toole’s doing away with himself. We’ll never know for sure. His mother destroyed his suicide note.
If the lack of a publisher is the reason, much of the blame has been laid at the feet of Robert Gottlieb, editor at the time at Simon and Schuster who wasn''t satisfied with Toole’s original manuscript. And although Toole made many revisions over a two year period, Gottlieb ultimately rejected the novel saying:
“The book is a brilliant exercise in invention, but it isn't really about anything. And that's something no one can do anything about.” I can’t imagine what Mr. Gottlieb could have been driving at. Whatever it was, no matter how much Toole tinkered with it, Gottlieb eventually suggested that Toole move on to writing something else.
As far as I know Gottlieb is still living, and I have to wonder if he felt any responsibility for Toole’s descent into hopelessness. Probably not. The world of publishing is a killer of dreams that only the strongest survive.
A Confederacy of Dunces, described as “a canonical work of modern literature of the Southern United States,” is the story of Ignatius J. Reilly, a character unlike any you are apt to encounter elsewhere. He is morbidly obese. He lives with his mother in New Orleans. He is plagued by attacks of flatulence, and he is utterly contemptuous of the mores of contemporary society.
He has been resting in peace for thirty years until coming back to life recently with a resurgence of interest in his adventures and in the life of his creator. Audiobooks.com recently recommended A Confederacy of Dunces, and a definitive book, Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces, by Cory MacLauchlin, reveals so many interesting details about the provenance of the book that I’m planning to read it again.
A Confederacy of Dunces is not for everyone. I found it fascinating and amusing, although some with delicate sensibilities might find it unappetizing. If you’ve visited New Orleans you will agree that the book captures the mood of that unusual city. MacLauchlin writes: “As many New Orleanians attest, no other writer has captured the essence of the city more accurately than Toole.” And underscoring that tribute is a statue of Ignatius J. Reilly standing outside the old D. H. Holmes department store, and other characters from the book make annual Mardi Gras appearances.
Credit for the publication goes primarily to Toole’s mother who was determined that her genius son’s work would be published. After it was rejected by numerous major publishers, she prevailed upon Walker Percy, author and instructor at Loyola University New Orleans, demanding that he read it. He initially resisted but as he recounts in the book's foreword:
“The lady was persistent. There was no getting out of it. Only one hope remained – that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me to read no farther. But in this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good.”
Things moved quickly after that. The book was published by the Louisiana State University Press in 1980 and a year later won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, only the second to be awarded posthumously.* It has since been translated into twenty-two languages.
I have long been fascinated by stories of rejection that have a happy ending. Toole the man did not have a happy ending. But he would be more surprised than anyone that so long after his demise his rejected book is not only still being read, but is now considered a classic, and that there is a recent upsurge of interest in his work and his life.
Incidentally, the book's title refers to an epigraph from Jonathan Swift's essay Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting: "When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him" – as appropriate to Toole as to Ignatius J. Reilly.
*James Agee's A Death in the Family was awarded the prize in 1958.
I recently read the biography of a gentleman who, although he was a professional musician, a bass player in the Denver Symphony, worked for a number of years to make ends meet as a skycap at the Denver airport in the late 40s, before the orchestra had a year-round season, as was true of most American orchestras.
One day he stumbled upon an idea: He and his fellow skycaps could form a kind of investment club in order to get a financial foothold. “We set up a corporation,” he says, “the whole legal thing with lawyers, and got it set up right.”
The plan was for each member to put five dollars a week into the fund and at the end of the year the money would be invested in stock market mutual funds. There were forty men, and at five dollars a week, that $800 a month would yield a sizable chunk to invest by year’s end.
But the men grew nervous and started pulling their money out saying, “I need money I can spend, and now.” They didn’t understand what this small investment could mean in terms of growing their money. So they all took out their money except the gentleman himself who, in a few years, had accumulated nearly ten thousand dollars. The men accused him of cheating them. But he admonished them, “You cheated yourselves.”
In the early 1950s, my father, whose employer did not have a pension plan, was advised by a knowledgeable friend to invest in mutual funds, which although they had been around for a while, weathering the Depression and World War II, were still considered pretty exotic in the 50s.
My father not only heeded the gentleman’s advice putting a portion of his income into mutual funds, he also attempted to convince others to do the same. It wasn’t an easy sell because people were skeptical. They would rather keep their money in passbook savings accounts or in a shoebox under the bed.
At the same time my father enrolled me into a mutual fund placing some of my earnings from playing the piano in church and babysitting into the fund each month. When I was twenty-one the down payment on my first grand piano came from my mutual funds earnings. And without the money my parents had squirreled away into mutual funds, rather than live out their lives in relative comfort, they would have had to rely largely on Social Security. I shudder to think of how different their life would have been.
Mutual funds are safe investments because, rather than putting one’s eggs into a single basket, as is the case with individual stocks, the money is invested in a variety of funds. Most of us are familiar with them by now because company retirement plans such as 401 K’s and Roth IRAs are based on money invested in mutual funds.
Microsoft recently published an online list titled “Four Ways to Earn Money Without Lifting a Finger.” At the top of this list are mutual funds: “Investing can multiply your money for decades if you play your cards right. You have probably heard of compounding interest, when your money makes money and then that money makes money. This is what happens when you set aside money in something like a 401(k) account and leave it there until retirement. Once you put the money in, you don't have to do anything, and you're still making money. All you have to do is review your statements every so often to make sure your investments are meeting your needs and goals.”
Another of their suggestions is real estate. That might work for some but it sounds like work to me.
The easiest way to save money is to pay yourself first. If you’re doubtful you can spare enough to invest in a mutual fund, put five or ten dollars a week into a targeted savings account. You won’t miss it, and the way time flies it won’t be long until you have enough to open a mutual fund account, which might not require as much as you think. A mutual fund can be opened with as little as $500, or less if you meet certain requirements such as having a set amount automatically taken from your bank account each month. And explore no load funds so that you don’t have to fork over a chunk of your money to an intermediary – a broker or financial planner.
For a wage earner just starting out, putting aside a small amount each month can grow in ways that will surprise and delight down the road. And for those of you with expanding families, wouldn’t opening a mutual fund for that new grandchild be a fantastic way to put the child on the road to financial security?
Your earnings from mutual funds and other conservative investments might not move you from the ninety-nine per cent to the one per cent, but when it’s time to put four new tires on your car or get your winter-ravaged driveway repaired you should be able to do so without having to take out a loan.