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Obama’s “Homeostasis”: It must be the Roedjak!

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 19, 2008

In Friday’s New York Times, David Brooks considered the causes and outcomes of Barack Obama’s seemingly even and unflappable temperament — his “homeostasis,” as it were — and suggested two types of presidencies Obama’s style might shape.  Obama, Brooks observes, has the class origins of a Clinton or Johnson, but without their self-defeating needs for affection or respect, and the evenness of an FDR albeit without FDR’s characteristic ebullience.  According to Brooks, Obama’s seeming emotional distance could lead to a presidency that is a needed island of calm and rationality or to one that is an island of ineffectual isolation.  An Obama victory will enable us to find out which.

So far, Obama’s seeming detachment has been exploited by his opponents as proof that “we don’t know who he his” or as a sign of his supposed smugness and intellectual superiority.  And, for quite a number of Democrats, Obama’s politeness and fixed smile are unsettling suggestions of a lack of the politically requisite instinct to go for the jugular.  I would suggest something quite different and far more positive … namely, that Obama knows how to eat Roedjak.

Roedjak is an Indonesian fruit salad, slices of not-yet-fully-ripened tropical fruit served with a sauce of thick sweet soy ketjap, tamarind paste, crushed chili peppers, and a dash of dried dessicated shrimp.  Roedjak‘s harmonic fusion of superficially contradictory flavors is more than culinary.  Roedjak restores equilibrium even while satisfying the senses.  Preparing and eating Roedjak is a tonic during moments of individual emotional turmoil. Domestic disagreements and work conflicts are calmed by sharing Roedjak when tensions begin to escalate. On the symbolic level Roedjak embodies much of what is positive in the wisdom and values of southeast Asia.

Political commentators — other than those Republican cranks who have accused Obama of having attended fundamentalist Muslim Koranic schools — have overlooked the Indonesian facets of the Democratic presidential candidate’s personality and past, his formative years on the island of Java and his being part a family with Indonesian connections as well as Kansan, Kenyan and African American ones.

In Java, outward emotional evenness and formal displays of respect are inherent to the workings of families and of villages.  Frontal confrontations are avoided and adversaries are given room to retreat.  Such stances are central to the the stylized conventions of Java’s traditional complexly hierarchical society and to the realities of domestic, social, and political life on an overpopulated agrarian island and in crowded mega-cities such as Jakarta.

On the surface, Java is devoutly Muslim but Javanese Islam rests on older strata of Hindu and Buddhist culture.  The characters of the Buddha and of the heroes of the Bhagavad Gita still resonate as strongly as those of the Prophet Mohammed and Ali.  They are part and parcel of classical Javanese theater and dance and of raucous puppet theater and shadow plays. In Java, one learns that displays of restraint are incumbent on leaders and are signs of strength in people at all levels of society.

And so, for the sake of the US and the world, I’d rather see the American presidency in the hands of a Roedjak eater than a heart-beat away from the rule of an eater of mooseburgers.  Join me for a mango, anyone?

Posted in Commentary, Food, Identity, Media, National Identity, Politics | 2 Comments »

“Selamat Hari Raya” Indeed!: Eid and Roshashoneh and the Infrastructure of the Internet

Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 30, 2008

In a post this morning, Doc Searls pointed to the number-four-ranking thread on Twitter being Selamat Hari Raya.  My comment on Doc’s post:

Selamat Hari Raya, indeed! If my memory serves me well: “A great good morning (dawn?),” somewhat ala have-a-nice-day, but far less banal.* It is nostalgic for me to read Malay/”Indonesian”. Lovely sentiments on a day that is both Eid and Roshashoneh. To Muslim and Jewish friends both, a sweet holiday and healthy year. To Christian friends similar wishes and the hope that they — as peoples of all religious backgrounds — will grow in their knowledge and appreciation of the “others” in their midst.

PS. Bravo for showing this small but important bit of proof that the net and web and social networking are no longer exclusively American or Western.

To add a few more words: Allow me to be possibly the only person on the entire Web to offer appropriate, albeit secularized, Muslim and Jewish holiday wishes to all in the the unlikely combination of Turkish and Yiddish.  Thus, from my heart: “Iyi Bayramlar!” and “Ah Gezunt Yohr!”  (Note: This seemingly odd linguistic mix will make sense to those familiar with the name and subject matter of my alter-ego weblog, Bubkes.Org)

To clarify my above-mentioned nostalgia, Malay and “Bahasa Indonesia” (the language of the Republic of Indonesia) are important to me for several reasons.  When I worked in Israel almost four decades ago, amongst my dearest friends were Dutch Jews with family connections to Surabaya.  During the 1970s, I worked on-and-off in Indonesia and spent months at a time in Jakarta and in rural Sumatra, as well as in Kalimantan (Borneo) and out on the Java Sea.  Most important, my dear step-daughter Floor has roots in Java, her mother having been born and raised in Surabaya.  And, not to forget, Floor’s grandmother and plethora of widowed great-aunts regularly fed me with excellent Javanese home cooking during a number of the years I lived in the The Hague.

The Infrastructure of the Internet

As I frequently mention on this site, Doc Searls and I are involved in a number of initiatives pertaining to “framing” the nature of — and influencing the future of — the infrastructure of the Internet.  As Doc regularly points out, many people confuse the Web with the Internet, the non-physical infrastructure that enables the Web.  The Internet, Doc notes, is an incorporeal aggregation of protocols and agreements and, as such, is fundamentally different from all past forms of infrastructure.  I invariably chime in that the Internet and its ability to host an emergent “giant brain” of information and processes are carried in turn by an underlying infrastructure that is indeed physical and quite traditional.  And, increasingly, this infrastructure is located outside of the US, thus raising issues of security, use, and governance that are not identical with issues faced or perceived by Americans.  For the latest addition to world’s internet/telephony infrastructure see Six Telecom Firms Finish Cable Across the Pacific in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. (Disclaimer: My apologies if the link to this article expires after seven days.  The Wall Street Journal not only charges a substantial fee for subscriptions to its on-line edition, it is also niggardly to the extreme in its provision of permalinks.  As solid and professional as the Journal’s news content may be, its commercial policies reflect the mercenary profit-oriented and conservative stance of its editorial page.)

Footnote: Friends have let me know that my translation is too literal.  In use, Selamat Hari Raya is the traditional salutation used at Eid.

Posted in Food, Infrastructure, Internet, Language, Religion, Telecommunications | Leave a Comment »

VRM and Health: A Country Without Databases, Individual-Oriented Medicine, and “Tasty!”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on July 30, 2008

Further to yesterday’s entry on VRM (Vendor Relations Management) and health care

In The Evidence Gap: A Call for a Warning System on Artificial Joints the New York Times reports that a plethora of unsuccessful joint replacement operations could have been avoided in the United States had there been, as there are in most other industrialized countries, national data bases of patients’ experiences.  Application of VRM to health issues not only has the potential to ensure delivery of properly individualized health care but also to assess and address the needs of groups of individuals and to broadcast the results back to policy makers and the medical industry at large (sadly, medicine is an industry in the US rather than part of a social net or service delivery infrastructure).

Two Health-Related Footnotes:

1. Individual-Oriented Medicine: Two days ago, I visited a “Park Avenue” (i.e. top-draw, high-priced) eye doctor for diagnosis and treatment of what I thought was damage to my right eye.  After a 20-minute examination for which I was changed US$ 395.00, the doctor said my eyes were fine but that I should see a dermatologist and have a general physical exam.  That evening I described my symptoms to a friend who for years works on-and-off as a translator at the office of a Russian-born Brooklyn eye doctor with a primarily Russian immigrant clientele.  Over the phone, my friend was able to diagnose what ailed me as a minor but persistent virus-related affair and suggest interim treatment.   He pointed out that even while functioning in the midst of the US insurance pyramid, some physicians in Russian immigrant neighborhoods still manage to respond to the situation of the patient rather than artificial distinctions between medical disciplines.

2. Tasty!  A recent posting on the New York Times’s Well Blog reported an overturn of the common-wisdom of the last decades re:eggs and cholesterol and also reported that alcohol is good for one not only because of cardiac benefits of red wine but also because drinking enhances quality of life.  Several years ago, over lunch in a restaurant garden in Sofia, Bulgaria, I asked my fellow-diner, an overweight hard-drinking ex-journalist suffering from high-blood-pressure and high-cholesterol, why he had ordered tripe-fried-in-butter, sausage, and feta cheese for lunch.  His answer: “Because it is tasty!” (Zashto e vkusno!)”  After I lectured him pedantically on the evils of cholesterol and sodium, he stared at the plate of sliced tomatoes and cucumbers that comprised my lunch and replied: “You will die of too little ‘tasty’ long before I die of too much cholesterol!”

Posted in Bulgaria, Food, Health Care, Media | Leave a Comment »

Grandmother S. Redux: The Benefits of Early-Morning Schnapps and Mega-Doses of Red Wine

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 4, 2008

A couple of summers ago, I wrote a newspaper piece about my former summertime host and guru, Grandmother S. of the Black Sea village of K. in northeast Bulgaria, and the lessons I learned in her garden (click here for the full text and photos). Grandmother S. was well into her 80s at the time and still worked non-stop at subsistence farming. Her secret? Every morning at sunrise she drank a full-to-the-brim juice glass of homemade grape brandy on an empty stomach. “Styefko,” she used to tell me, “my brandy will give you the energy to work and will disinfect your stomach as well. But,” she advised, “drink it in the morning; morning drinking is good for the health, evening drinking is for alcoholics only.”

So, I took Grandmother S. up on her challenge. For three months, I arose at dawn and, before I allowed water, coffee, oatmeal, or yogurt to touch my lips, I downed a juice glass of Grandmother S.’s best homemade grape brandy (made with no seeds and with no sugar added to kick-start fermentation). The daily schnapps made me feel full of energy and raring to go. The only problem: I couldn’t think. Turning off the brain might help when faced with a day of hoeing vegetables but it can get in the way of writing, photographing, and even consulting.

I am reminded of Grandmother S.’s advice by Doc Searls’s link to this article in the New York Times announcing that red wine may be “potent” (sic) in preserving human longevity. Apparently, laboratory mice do better on treadmills when dosed with the equivalent of 35 bottles of red wine and humans may prolong their lives by drinking four five-ounce glasses of red per day. The article does not say whether the four glasses should be downed morning or night — but ever since the Judith Miller and Jason Blair affairs, I’ve tended to trust Grandmother S. more than the “newspaper of record.” From tonight on, I’ll keep my corkscrew next to my alarm clock.


Click here for a taste of Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross’s famed song Gimme that Wine. And, as the chorus of the song goes: “Unhand that bottle!”

Posted in Bulgaria, Commentary, Food, Health Care, Innovation, Links, Media, Music, Work | Leave a Comment »

R.I.P. Copeland’s, Farewell Reliable’s: Collard Greens, Turkey Wings, Gentrification, Urban Infrastructure, and a Final Word of Thanks to a Harlem Entrepreneur

Posted by Stephen Lewis on July 27, 2007

This weekend, Copeland’s Restaurant on West 145th Street in New York City’s Harlem will close its doors forever. The demise of this upscale “soul food” restaurant — a favorite of local residents, African-American celebrities, and atmosphere-seeking European tourist groups alike — was reported this past Monday in the New York Times. Although the Times article paid adequate respect to the restaurant and to its founder, Mr. Calvin Copeland, it neglected Copeland’s no-less-worthy stepchild, the restaurant’s neighboring storefront cafeteria and take-out, known for decades to locals simply as “Reliable’s” (a diminutive of its original name, The Reliable Catering Co.). Reliable’s served the same delicious food as Copeland’s but from steam tables manned by affable white-uniformed, hairnetted serving personel rather than off the arms of uniformed waiters and onto linen-covered tables as at Copeland’s. Reliables was also far more affordable than Copeland’s and thus attracted ordinary residents of Harlem on their ways to and from work plus a sprinkling of good-food-at-budget-prices-seeking New Yorkers, black and white both, fleeing the stiffness, artificiality, and high prices of restaurants in more high-toned neighborhoods downtown. On Sunday afternoons, while tour goups enjoyed staged gospel-music concert brunches at Copeland’s, ordinary Harlemites returning home from the neighborhood’s churches shared informal lunches at Reliable’s formica tables or waited in line for their take-out orders. Daytime and evenings, one could linger at Reliable’s for hours chatting with friends, watching fellow diners stream in and out, and, of course, savoring the wonderful food — mildly-seasoned smothered chicken, immense turkey wings, vegetable plates of collards, black-eyed-peas and rice, and, for desert, Reliable’s inimitable bread pudding.

“Like a Tornado…”

Reliables flourished for decades despite, or maybe because of, its setting in one of New York City’s most underserved and economically stagnant neighborhoods. Ironically, the neighborhood’s recent upswing is exactly what caused Reliable’s demise. Sadly, the upswing was not rooted in a regeneration of black Harlem or in a change for the better in the lives and prospects of its longtime, mostly black, inhabitants. Rather, it was a blitzkrieg-paced case of “gentrification,” a massive influx of mostly white and very much better-off luxury housing hunters. This was spurred in large part by developers buying up substantial amounts of what since the 1920s had been low-priced rental stock and rapidly converting it into high-end cooperative apartments and staggeringly expensive single-family townhouses. The outcome: A flight of lower-income Harlemites and a sudden demographic turnover that caught Calvin Copeland and most other non-real-estate-savvy New Yorkers by surprise. Referring to the sudden exodus of African-Americans from a neighborhood that had been emblematic of Black America for more than 80 years, the Times article quotes Mr. Copeland as saying: “The white people who took their place don’t like or don’t care for the food I cook … the transformation snuck up on me like a tornado.”

It’s All in the Infrastructure

New York is a city in which the neighborhoods of the rich, poor and middle-class traditionally abut, and in which people of all backgrounds and walks of life are hyper-aware of each other’s existence, like each other or not. Such proximity and agglomeration have contributed to the economic mobility of the City’s residents and has shaped the traditional liberality and egalitarian nature of New York politics. A variegated population has also ensured that New York is continuously supplied with a work force adequate to the performance and competitiveness of its economy. Part of New York’s greatness is that it has avoided the tradition malaise of American cities, i.e. the impoverishment and death of inner cities and flight of the middle class and the rich to bedroom communities and distant suburbs. Until recently, New York has also avoided the European equivalent of this syndrome, i.e. the takeover of the inner cities by the young and the wealthy and the banishment of the poor and lower-income to oppressive housing estates and violent banlieue. New York’s relative demographic balance did not emerge by accident. It has been shaped and shepherded by public policy, from the rent control decrees of World War II and subsequent rent stabilization laws to the massive “slum-clearance” and public housing projects of the 1930s through 1960s. (How public housing destabilized neighborhoods will be treated in future entries).

New York had always been a city that has realized the importance of its human and physical infrastructure — housing, public transportation, universities, museums and concert halls, hospitals, and one of the world’s highest quality and most reliable water supply systems — and had been willing to invest accordingly. Still, there have been exceptions. One particularly acerbic recent mayor is reputed to have said: “This is the world’s most expensive real estate; if you can’t afford to live here, get out.” Such an outburst is easy to make but harder to live up to the consequences of. To be blunt, without affordable housing for the lower income people who serve them, New York’s rich would have to do their own cooking and eat from dirty plates in the exorbitantly-priced restaurants they patronize, not to mention having to change their own sheets and empty their own bedpans in the hospitals that are there for them when they fall ill. This year, issues such as the sudden encroachment on affordable housing in Harlem, the seeds of gentrification in long-dormant neighborhoods such as Brooklyn’s Bushwick, and the surprise conversion of lower Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Town from fixed-rent lower-middle-class housing into luxury housing at “market” rates have revived full-force the debate over New York City’s housing policies. This debate is made even more timely and intense as New York’s revived role as a world economic and cultural center continues to work like a magnet, attracting wealthy new arrivals as well as the City’s traditional “huddled masses yearning to breath free.” (Over the next months, I plan to post a number of entries on these issues and other facets of urban change and public infrastructure, both on this site and, in a more anecdotal and visual way, on my alter-ego site Bubkes.Org.)

New Vegetables and New Names: “Branding” Comes to Harlem

A dearth of black-eyed peas and collard greens is not the only change gentrification brings to Harlem. The name Harlem itself is threatened. To make luxury housing more palatable to white investors and buyers and to disassociate the neighborhood from its 20th-century African-American and proletarian antecedents, real estate developers turn to the flim-flam of “branding.” To “spin” Harlem’s image, they have resurrected the name “Hamilton Heights” (previously familiar only to NYC historians, cartographers, and city planners) as an appellation for that section of Harlem in which Copeland’s is located. Sadly, so it seems, the white Midwestern, New England, and European corporate-types and professionals moving into and transforming the neighborhood find it more attractive to tell the folks back home and their colleagues at the office that they live in Hamilton Heights rather than simply to say that have landed in Harlem.

Finally: Thank you, Mr. Copeland

As a long-time customer of Reliables’ and a sometime patron of Copeland’s, I want to thank Calvin Copeland for years of fine cooking, sincere welcome, and good service to me and to people of all races. In flush years, an occasional meal at Copeland’s enabled me to feel quite flush indeed, and, in lean years, Reliable’s enabled me to eat very well for very little. And, not to forget, the ample tables, leisurely pace, and relaxed atmosphere at Reliables’ were the comfortable backdrop for hours of serious conversation and laughter with my closest friends.

In his family life, employment policies, and hospitality Mr. Copeland had the humanity, wisdom, and courage to cross the absurd and regrettable color lines that still divide and mar much of life in America. Thank you, Mr. Copeland, for enabling this “white” New Yorker to gain so much physical sustenance, aesthetic fulfillment, and human warmth in Harlem. I wish you continued good health and success in all you still plan to undertake. And … I’ll never forget the bread pudding!

Posted in Cities, Food, Infrastructure | 8 Comments »