Tuesday, August 21, 2007

I Blame HGTV

I've just finished doing the research and substantive edit of a book designed to help newlyweds through the process of buying a home. The author, a fan of sub-prime mortgages in SOME cases, does ask readers to do some major work before jumping in: make a budget and then stick to it for a few months, instead of just assuming that you will; don't have a mortgage bigger than what you are already paying in rent (providing you're meeting your rent payments without a problem); remember that happiness is not dependent on glass-tiled bathrooms with soaker tubs, etc. Basically, reminding people to stay sane.

Sanity has been hard to come by in real estate for the last few years. The early adapters to bubble housing prices and the rise of HGTV made a fortune. Soon, everyone felt that they should be in on it. If you weren't buying, upgrading, or flipping you were an idiot, doomed to a life as a wage slave. Turn on any one of half a dozen TV channels and you could watch 22 year old waiters and 40 something housewives leverage the finances to buy a wreck and then, a few setbacks and many visits to Home Depot later, reveal the newly gleaming home and their expected profit margin--usually about as much as most people make in a year or two.

I like buying lottery tickets. I probably average a $150 worth of them every year, usually when the jackpots have reached a point where I can give enough away to friends and family and still never have to work. My $3 a week gives me at least as much entertainment value as 75% of the movies I go to. So I consider them a good value, even though I only win about $50 a year. I've heard lottery tickets described as a sin tax or a stupidity tax; I prefer to think of them as a dream tax on avarice.

Which is basically what happened with the sub-prime mortgage market. People listened to their neighbours and co-workers, they watched the reno and flip shows, and almost every time they went online a pop-up assured them "No credit, no problem--you can still qualify for a mortgage!" They started to dream of surplus, of quitting the joe job and sitting down to acclaim for their financial acuity and good design sense. Banks and mortgage brokers fiddled with figures to enable clients to go into dubious debt. Clients abandoned all common sense and signed on the dotted line.

And now that dotted line has come due. Housing prices in one overly inflated bubble market, Los Angeles, have gone down by an average of 25% in the last year. That means a house that was worth $400,000 a year ago (probably financed with a mortgage loan of $412,000) is now only worth 300 grand--so, as your special 0% monthly payment of $1,144 switches to a mortgage rate of 5.5% with an unpayable $2,340 payment, you can't even sell it and come out even. Which is why subprime mortgages may temporarily overtake that old standby, medical bills, as the chief instigator of personal bankruptcy over the next few years.

Good luck to the all avaricious dreamers. They'll need it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Heart Broken: Pink Ribbon Envy

I’m lucky my heart isn’t broken—because, if it was, I’d be a lot more likely to die of it than my husband. Cardio vascular disease (CDV) is the number one killer of women in North America. In 2000, CVD killed over half a million North American women, more than twice as much as all cancers combined, yet only 8% of women polled identified CDV as a major health concern for XX genotypes. Even more shockingly, another study revealed abysmal ignorance on the part of American primary care physicians—only 1 in 3 knew that CDV was the leading cause of death for their female patients.

If I am lucky enough to know what heart attack or stroke symptoms feel like (back pain, numbness, headache, nausea, chest pain, etc.), and do make it into an ER or my doctor’s office, I’m statistically less likely to get the same set of diagnostics, surgical interventions, and follow-up medications as someone with a penis. Which is why I’ve got a 12% higher chance of dying than my husband does.

If you’re an African-American woman, your odds of dying are even better (and it doesn’t matter whether you’re rich, middle-class, or poor—the guy with the scythe is keenest on harvesting you). Good news for middle-aged men, though; your middle-aged wife is twice as likely as you are to die from CDV between the ages of 45-54 (it equalizes after that). I suggest carrying a nice insurance policy on her so that you can assauge your grief with a Porsche and a professional blonde.

There’s a highly visible campaign for breast cancer (it seems that at least once a month I’m forced to detour because a bunch of people in pink ribbons are running to raise money for breast cancer research and awareness) but very little for CDV in women. This despite the fact that a woman is 10 times more likely to die from CDV than breast cancer. Is it because the spectre of mutilation accompanies breast cancer--women turned into involuntary amazons, despite their lack of archery skills? Is it because breast cancer treatments affect a woman’s perceived sexual desirability? Did breast cancer just get a better media campaign? Or is it because all the good colours for ribbon campaigns have already been claimed?

All this to say—stop thinking of your heart as that cute cartoon character that cracks when a relationship goes south. Instead, ask your doctor what she or he knows about CDV and women. If they don’t know the facts, feel free to share the stats. If they get pissy about it, seriously consider finding a new physician. You’re reading this online, so Google women and heart disease and learn what the warning symptoms are. At least that way you can demand an ECG at the ER and threaten a lawsuit if no cardiac catherization is on the service menu. Ditto for follow-up appointments and medications with your doctor, should you be lucky enough to survive that moment when the heart breaks.

Death and taxes. We all like to do our level best to delay their arrival for as long as possible. So, if you’ve got a vagina (or care about someone who does), pass this on. Especially if, as Henry James so delicately and witheringly put it, they are of a certain age.And remember, “The heart has its reasons that reason knows not.” Pascal

Escoffier & Ho Chi Minh--Or Vietnam Explained

Anyone who has worked in a restaurant, particularly one that is higher-end, has experienced a microcosm of war. Hatred simmers quietly between the kitchen and the front staff; for despite the occasional, alcohol-fuelled carnal sessions between the two sides, the kitchen is convinced that the waiters are vastly overpaid (via tips), while the servers believe the kitchen has it easy because they so rarely have to interact with the public.

Within the two sides, there are also conflicts. In the kitchen, the chef abuses his sous-chefs, who in turn curse the line-cooks, and the line-cooks offload foul language and as much prep as they can get away with on to the dishwashers. The front staff is a little more fluid, but the maitre’D and the Sommelier are usually the elite; the dinner staff are above the lunch shift, and the bussers are anyone’s game (including the kitchen staff’s). On the floor, the main conflict arises from quietly hissed discussions about NOT wanting to serve the Australian table (they rarely tip), or whose turn it is to take the boorish celebrity who NEVER tips.

Over the sizzle of sauté pans, the suspicion between the cooks is more vitriolic. The chef is convinced, often correctly, that any one of his sous-chefs is plotting to either supplant him or steal his best recipes and move on to a better paycheque at another establishment. As a result, he will bully and denigrate them in a hateful fashion. The closer the chef is to the European kitchen tradition, the more of abusive he is, the result of the equally foul treatment he received as an apprentice.

This army-like system was formalized by Auguste Escoffier, who, in 1914, was the world’s most famous chef--and the boss of Nguyen Tat Thanh, a twenty-four-year-old college-dropout from French Indochina who reached employment at London’s Carlton Hotel via passage on the Admiral Latouche Treville as a cook’s assistant. It would be thirty years before he returned to his homeland, by then modestly calling himself Ho, the Shedder of Light (Chi Minh). During those years he studied in Moscow, formed a communist alliance in France, reputedly lived in Harlem, fought the Japanese in China and Thailand, and marched with Mao Tse Tung’s Eighth Route Army.

What, one wonders, were the effects of his kitchen experiences on the rebellious young Nguyen? To travel thousands of miles to escape the bleak realities of French Colonialism, only to end up at the beck and call of the man called the “Emperor of Chefs” must have been galling. To take, in exchange for the shillings that saw him through London’s brutal winter, the casual racial epithets and snarling abuse that is still a common feature of the kitchen experience. Most kitchen underlings boil over with a job-ending swing of the fist at their tormentor. This one went on to drive the French out of Vietnam and hand out a whipping that American armed forces last experienced in the War Between the States (and, in that instance, the sting was mitigated because the side that won was American).

The Vietnam War cut a swathe across American society, polarizing many of the offspring of those who had fought in the Last Good War against the parents they deemed blindly patriotic. Was America justified in attacking a foreign nation without provocation, anti-war activists asked? The ends of defeating communism justify the means, replied those who supported the war. As the world watched the fall of Saigon, a militarily humiliated America withdrew from Vietnam. Many in the American Right felt that, rather than the logistical nightmare of running an unsupported war where every civilian was a possible foe, the defeat was caused by internal flag-burning traitors, a position that both Bush Senior and Junior agreed with.

In September of 2001, blind patriotism got another chance. With a nation in shock, the government was able to quietly remove many of the rights and freedoms that had been fought for in the Revolution. Journalists unprotestingly swallowed whatever they were fed by the Administration. An unprovoked war was initiated, without any of the awareness and accountability that the Vietnam experience should have fostered. Rather than independent critics, the media were now “embedded” cheerleaders. Military virility was reasserted as the US led coalition quickly marched through to Bagdad.

America was finally back in the kitchen. What did it matter if it was the wrong one, and if no one had any clear notion of how to get the meal from hearth to table?Bush and Co.’s illogical determination to invade Iraq (Pakistan or Saudi Arabia would have been more logical targets, if it really was about terrorism) came, in part, from the perceived humiliation of not “finishing” the first Gulf War, that war overshadowed in turn by the defeat of American military might delivered by a bunch of "gook" peasants lead by Uncle Ho. In light of all this, is it so inconceivable that one of the sparks that lit the current conflagration was a young Vietnamese baker’s resentment over his treatment at the hands of the man who gave the world Melba toast?

Salted Fish and Telegraphs

Like so much of traditional Swedish cooking, writing begins with the metaphoric dried fish. Once it was juicy, wriggly, and swam in water that was polluted to differing degrees. Now it has been hooked, eviscerated, soaked in brine, and dried to the texture of a board. The core impulse must be boiled; water must be forced into withered flesh, and then the dish begins...I've just emerged from editing over 750 pages of a densely factual book written by a doctor. English is his third or possibly fourth language. The syntax was so convuluted that the orignal manuscript read like a game of Telegraph (which probably doesn't hold much meaning to anyone under 20).
On a sunny May morning in 1962, a man on a bicycle made his way into the French vinyard where my father, just finished writing exams, was working to hand him the pink enveloped telegraph that told him my mother was pregnant. This was to be the first and last time he ever received one. My father was 20-years-old, a Londoner, and the only child of Jewish parents. My mother was an Irish Catholic typist. They met at a party in Dublin, where my father was attending university on a basketball scholarship.
They were giddily in lust/love, but probably would have gone their seperate ways if smuggled condoms hadn't been so scarce. On his 21st birthday, against the wishes of his parents, he married my mother. It was not a happily-ever-after romance. But it was a real life together. So far, 45 years of varying degrees of happiness and misery have come from the news on that little slip of paper, delivered out of the anachronistic straw basket of the telegraph company's uniformed cyclist.

Bitter Fruit--Crab Apples & Horse Chesnuts

The civic trees in the last two cities I have lived in bespeak a certain puritanical bent. In Vancouver, beautiful chestnut trees grace many of the older streets and boulevards. In Ottawa, areas of a similar age are planted with apple trees. But, sadly for the poor, care has been taken to ensure that the fruit they drop each year is not edible (or at least, not without a great deal of preparation). The crabapples are bitter, and although one or two of these tiny fruit may be pleasing in the same way that Sweetarts are, more than this causes gastrointestinal distress. The horse chestnuts up the ante—their outer layer is poisonous and their inner layer must be carefully boiled to avoid acting as an emetic.

Both cities began planting these trees in the 1930s. In the midst of the depression, the decision was made to plant fruiting trees that would not provide sustenance to the poor and indigent. This is the kind of compassion we have come to expect from our politicians, grounded in the fundamental work ethic of the puritans. Why should people get something for nothing? Unless, of course, they are the very wealthy contributors to the politicians campaigns. In which case, their neighbourhoods can expect to have a greater preponderance of parks, libraries, and recreation facilities.

Three seasons a year I am grateful for these trees; the stark silhouette against the winter sun, the first tender leaves of spring followed by a delicate flowering, and then the exuberant green canopies that shade the blistering sidewalks. But in autumn, I begin to dislike these trees. They become ugly, a reminder of broken promises made to the poor. They remind me that I live in a culture that prefers to disdain anyone who has fallen along the wayside. In autumn, these trees are not beautiful to the thousands of children who go hungry every day in these rich cities. They are beautiful only to those who are blind to the inequities around them.