Thursday, May 24, 2012

A new low: TSA steals from Army officer on leave

Photo by Flickr user  Foxtongue, licensed under Creative Commons

As someone who has been observing and writing about the TSA for a few years now, I often hear from members of the traveling public about their experiences with the agency. Their inevitably negative experiences, I should say, since I have not yet received a single e-mail, Facebook message, or Tweet in support of the TSA's violative naked-scans, intrusive body-gropings, unconscionable humiliation of disabled and elderly passengers and cancer-survivors, and terrifying behavior toward children. Not one. The stories always contain varying combinations of sadness, disgust, and fury.

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a member of the military, an officer and mother, who'd responded to one of my numerous Tweets publicizing our blog posts at TSA News. For obvious reasons, I'll keep her identity and exact words private, but I'd like to share with you the substance of her message to me, because it illustrates how truly reprehensible the TSA's behavior is.

My correspondent was in the States on leave from Afghanistan, and while here, she'd flown from her hometown to a larger US city in order to visit family and go shopping with her mother. When she returned home and began to unpack, she discovered her checked bag had been searched by the TSA. The standard slip of paper informing her of this was there. What wasn't there, however, were the outfits she'd just bought for her little daughter.  Also missing: the pretty new bras she'd treated herself to on her shopping trip.

We know for a fact that the TSA is an agency beset with criminals. And yes, there have indeed been countless, documented incidents of theft--from passengers' checked bags and carryons alike--of items with considerably greater monetary value than little girls' clothing and women's lingerie.  People have had camera equipment, computers and iPads, wallets full of cash and travelers' cheques, and more stolen from them by the faux-law-enforcement officers in blue to whom Americans are expected to entrust their belongings, no questions asked, don't bother filing a complaint when said belongings "disappear".

But to my mind, there is something uniquely appalling and unforgivable about stealing the very personal belongings of a military mother and her daughter.  "They ruined the only bit of cheer I'd had in months," she said.

For shame, TSA.  For shame.

Also at TSA News.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Limoncello Polenta Poundcake: The Revisiting

Photo courtesy of reader Duncan Campbell*

Just about everyone loves a good old gooey chocolate cake; I know I do. But I often find myself fancying something with a crisper, more citrus-y bite--chalk it up to the sun pouring in the windows (or who knows, maybe I'm finally growing up? Nah.) Anyway, several months ago I played around with a polenta cake recipe from the brilliant Moosewood Desserts cookbook, added my favorite Italian liqueur, and came up with a cake that's become an oft-requested favorite. The texture is wonderful--buttery yet slightly gritty, the way Milano cookies are--and the Limoncello's alcohol will evaporate during baking, making the cake fine for kids (I know mine adore it, though it contains nary a speck of chocolate), but if you like a genuinely boozy cake, you can also sprinkle some of the liqueur on top of your creation while it's still warm. Off to the kitchen with you, then, to make...

Limoncello Polenta Pound Cake

1 lb. unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus a little for greasing the pan.
3 cups sugar
the finely grated rind of 2 lemons
6 eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 teaspoons lemon extract
3 cups unbleached flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 cup Limoncello (a gorgeous, intensely lemony Italian liqueur)
1/4 cup milk
1 cup cornmeal (organic if you can, so as to avoid all the GMO corn out there)


Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. (give or take a few degrees if your oven is wonky like mine--I always err on the side of going a bit lower and baking longer in order to prevent an overly dark crust). Butter and flour a nonstick bundt pan and set aside.

Use an electric mixer to cream the butter and sugar until light, then add the lemon rind and mix well. Continue beating and add the eggs and the vanilla and lemon extracts, and beat until fluffy. Sift the flour and baking powder and mix it into the egg-butter mixture, using a wooden spoon now. Then add the Limoncello and milk, and stir until smooth. Mix in the cornmeal until just blended.

Scrape the cake batter into the prepared bundt pan and place in the center of the oven. You'll want to check on it in an hour, then every five minutes or so (it may take up to 1 hour and 15 minutes to be done). When your cake looks golden and is pulling away, slightly, from the edges of the pan, remove it from the oven, allow it to cool for 10 minutes, and invert it onto a large, flat plate. (Gently tap the edges of the pan if necessary.) Remove the pan from the cake, and voilá! A picture-perfect cake with an intoxicating fragrance is yours--to eat plain, to dust with powdered sugar and adorn with candles, or to serve warm with vanilla or lemon ice cream. Enjoy!

* Duncan writes: I used the juice of one of the lemons mixed with powdered sugar and a shot of Limoncello to make a glaze that I brushed all over the cake until it was saturated.


And I will add: Earlier this month--and due to constant demand--I wound up making this cake two weeks in a row; I wanted to try a variation of my own the second time.  So I substituted the grated peel of two oranges for the lemon peel; pure orange extract for the lemon extract; and Grand Marnier for the Limoncello (same amounts). It was scrumptious, though I have to admit I still prefer the lemon version, which is a Tornello classic at this point. 

I break for Beauty

Photo by Tommy Eliassen / Barcroft Media

This breathtaking shot  is just one of many surreal images of the Northern Lights in Norway that are featured in today's Telegraph.
It's Finals Week at the boys' school, so our schedules--such as they are--have been thrown off somewhat, and certain lads who shall remain nameless are acting as though they're already on vacation, despite constant reminders to study and get to bed early.
If I've ever been more excited to see the end of a week (and term and year), well, I certainly can't remember.  Not that I am a fan of Florida's summers, mind you.  Ugh.  I'm just a fan of writing late at night and sleeping until it's truly light outside, you know?
So while I wait for the first round of exams to be over today, I'll think of the Northern Lights and try to imagine chill, salt-flecked breezes and the sensation of deep quiet.
Got an inspiring, beautiful link for me?  Share it in comments, please (invitations to extend my nonexistent man-bits are excepted, dear spammers).
(H/T Melissa

Monday, May 21, 2012

Police brutality at the NATO Summit in Chicago (UPDATED)

"My kind of town"
Chicago police, a random pedestrian, and an ironic bus message
photo by James Watkins

As expected, the scene in Chicago this weekend, as numerous groups dedicated to peaceful, non-violent protest, assembled and marched in that city, was marked by countless incidents of police brutality.  Initially, media reported "a few hundred protesters", but actual numbers (of demonstrators) were closer to 75,000 (I have not seen an official number anywhere just yet).

The Guardian is running a terrific live-blog of the #NoNATO protests.  If you're on Twitter, be sure to follow @OccupyWallSt @OccupyChicago for up-to-the-minute information and photos.

And here are just a few of the disturbing images pulled from my Twitter feed:

One of numerous photojournalists who were injured and/or arrested while covering the NATO Summit and attendant protests:

Getty photographer Joshua Lott being arrested while doing his job (or trying to):


There are many more excellent photos of Sunday's protests at the Chicago Tribune's gallery.

Saturday, May 12, 2012


"One can draw a straight line from the young man who pinned down a terrified teenager and walked a blind man into a closed door, to the adult who put the family dog in a kennel and strapped it to the roof of the car, to the businessman who laid off hundreds of people, cancelled their health benefits, and paid himself millions while their company went bankrupt. And the line continues: the governor who slashed education and raised fees on the middle class, and the possible president who would use his power to cut taxes on his fellow millionaires while pushing for the gradual demise of traditional Medicare."

-- Paul Begala in The Daily Beast

(H/T Dogs Against Romney)

Friday, May 11, 2012

Friday Frank: Punky's Whips; live, with Terry Bozzio

I agree with one of the comments at YouTube: No, it isn't drugs--just Frank Zappa and Terry Bozzio.

Mercy, that's some wicked guitar-playing. And as for then-wunderkind Bozzio, well, his talent more than makes up for his fashion sense (or lack thereof).

Make it an epic Bon Weekend, everyone.


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Baby ordered off plane: JetBlue's or TSA's fault?

An 18-month-old baby girl had cleared security at the Ft. Lauderdale Airport and, along with her parents, had already boarded the JetBlue flight when an airline representative advised the family that the TSA wanted her to get off the plane (emphasis mine):
“And I said, ‘For what?’” Riyanna’s mother told only WPBF 25 News on Wednesday. “And he said, ‘Well, it’s not you or your husband. Your daughter was flagged as no fly.‘ I said, ‘Excuse me?’”
Riyanna’s father was flabbergasted.
“It’s absurd,” he said. “It made no sense. Why would an 18-month-old child be on a no-fly list?”
Why, indeed. (Though you can see that this moppet’s ringlets are definitely heartbreaking, if not exactly threatening.)
It’s not enough that the TSA is terrifying young children by separating them from their parents, disallowing hugs from grandmothers, and barking at caregivers that they MUST NOT TOUCH the frightened child the TSA is busily groping. Now they’re yanking families from airplanes after clearing them and issuing them boarding passes.
And as you’d imagine, there is a cultural component to this:
Riyanna’s parents, who asked not to be identified, said they think they know the answer to that question. They believe they were profiled because they are both of Middle Eastern descent. Riyanna’s mother wears a hijab, a traditional head scarf. That’s why they have asked to remain anonymous. They said they’re concerned about repurcussions. That said, they are both Americans, born and raised in New Jersey, just like their daughter.

Ah, the dreaded Terrorist Scarf of Doom. This incident is remniscent of celebrity cook Rachael Ray’s experience with Manufactured Fear American-style when she wore a checkered neck scarf in a Dunkin’ Donuts commercial, raising the hackles of an anti-Muslim blogger who promptly called for a boycott of the popular chain. (Alas, Dunkin’ Donuts caved and pulled the ad.)
As readers of this blog are well aware, however, the TSA is oblivious to public concern, anger, and even mockery, and they can always be counted on to take fear mongering to new, absurd levels. And then obfuscate as needed, or else lie:

WPBF contacted JetBlue and was told this was an issue with the Transportation Safety Administration. JetBlue also said both it and the TSA are investigating the incident.
But the TSA disagreed, telling WPBF this is an airline issue and therefore, it is not investigating.
So who called for the baby girl’s removal, when, and why? Why were her parents singled out and humiliated this way? If little Riyanna really was on a No-Fly list, error or not, why were she and her parents issued boarding passes — shouldn’t all No-Flys be stopped from getting on board a vehicle that does just that: flies?
While we wait for answers to those questions, perhaps the TSA and DHS could inform every American family whose ill fortune it is to be on this No Fly list without cause. That way, they can preemptively hire all the best attorneys before they make their summer vacation plans.

UPDATE: Erik Kain at Forbes, who also reported on this today, writes:
The TSA has reached out to me with a statement on this incident:
“TSA did not flag this child as being on the No Fly list. TSA was called to the gate by the airline and after talking to the parents and confirming through our vetting system, TSA determined the airline had mistakenly indicated the child was on a government watch list.”
“Individuals on the No Fly list do not get boarding passes,” the TSA also noted.
TSA was called to the gate by the airline?  Whom TSA are now blaming for "mistakenly indicating the child was on a government watch list?"  Meaning, TSA expect us to believe Jet Blue are so stunningly ignorant, they would think an 18-month-old baby was on a "government watch list" and were willing to hold up a plane loaded with passengers due to this "mistaken" impression?

I smell a big, blue-gloved rat.
Also at TSA News

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Republicans fear our venomous vaginas

This video is very funny, though not "funny ha-ha" as much as funny-sad.

And the saddest thing about it--apart from the fact that women's bodies are once again being used as political footballs--is this quote, which attempts to defend the Republicans' indefensible stance on denying rape victims the right to an abortion, from former State Rep. Stephen Freind (R) of Pennsylvania:

"The traumatic experience of rape causes a woman to secrete a certain secretion that tends to kill sperm." 

This is an adult American former lawmaker presumably one who has a college degree and attorney.  He helped make laws that affect hundreds of thousands of women in Pennsylvania. And like most of our Florida state lege, he is bog-stupid about science, about biology, about women's bodies.

Good fucking grief.

Fellow women, our vaginas are venomous.  Well, it certainly explains why Republican men are so scared of them.

(H/T @RealMenDontHate)

UPDATE:  Stephen Freind attended Villanova University as well as law school--Temple University, where he received his J.D.   Apparently, having college degrees does not necessarily mean one is educated.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Friday Frank: St. Etienne; 1982

Friday Frank is back! Let's start the day with a gorgeous guitar meditation: St. Etienne, the second solo from Drowning Witch (album: Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch).

You didn't think I'd let that metaphor go by without mention, did you?! The ship is us, the People. The drowning witch is our civil liberties--particularly the Fourth-Amendment-guaranteed freedom from unwarranted search and seizure, which government has somehow convinced Americans is a Bad Thing, a Bad Thing that must be drowned and done away with if we're to keep everyone safe from the Terrorists Hiding Behind Every Corner.

And with that thought...

Bon Weekend, Everyone.


Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Musing on Mad Men: The Memento Mori and Far Away Places; Yellow roses, time, and running and returning

"Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori!"
"Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you'll die!" said the servant to the victorious Roman General.  "You may ride in triumph today, but remember, tomorrow you may fall."
-- From Apologeticum, The Apology, ca. 197 A.D., by Tertullian. 
"All absence is death if we let ourselves know it." -- Dr. Orcutt 
"I thought you were dead!" -- Don Draper, having run away from, and then returned to, his wife Megan

This week's episode of Mad MenFar Away Places, was at once an Apologeticum (an explanation, or else defense, through the use of words); an exercise in synesthesia (the overlapping of sensory experiences, such as color and memory, so they are perceived simultaneously and surreally) that was somehow made real for the two-dimensional screen; and a thick and thrice-looped tapestry shot through with pain and possession; heartbreak and loss; and ultimately, love, and the absence of love.

I was utterly spellbound, from beginning (to beginning to beginning) to end.

As I reflected on the stories and characters--as I began to scribble down my reactions--certain motifs floated across the page. The theme of time's elasticity--as expressed in the story of Michael Ginsberg's birth in a concentration camp; as perceived and recorded in Judaism; as experienced during an LSD hallucination. The mysterious yellow roses scattered throughout the first two story loops--roses that were budding, blooming, and ultimately shattered. The fear of death--of one's lover, of one's career, of oneself. And finally, the intertwined warp threads of apology and forgiveness that held together this exquisite hour of theater.

The episode opens with Peggy, dressed in a full slip with yellow roses embroidered across the breasts. She's trying to get ready for a big presentation to Heinz, a difficult client, and she can't find her talisman: a pack of violet candy Don had given her. Her lover Abe tries to calm her by promising to buy her another pack and say a brucha--a blessing in Hebrew--over it.  Peggy insists that it won't be the same, and heads to the office, hoping to find her good-luck candy there.

She arrives to find Michael Ginsberg already at work.  For the careful listener, there's an enormous clue as to what lies ahead in what Ginsberg says on the telephone to, we're led to believe, his father: "This conversation just went in a circle and we're back where we started."   Behind them, amid various photographs and drawings, a painting of yellow roses hangs on the wall.

Peggy's presentation does not go well, to put it mildly. She is the first (but not the last) to effect a change of scenery--to flee for a while. One impulsive encounter with a stranger in the movie theater later, Peggy returns to the office, falls asleep on Don's couch, and loses touch with time altogether--at least until Don calls. A voice from the future.
About those yellow roses: They haunted me. What was it about those sunny, shapely flowers that pricked at my memory, I wondered. Why did seeing them--again and again, in the office scenes as well as later, in Roger and Jane's story--sadden me so? Then, a realization: I had seen that form before, those gold points rendered in coarse wool instead of ethereal petal. They'd been sewn to the shirts of Europe's Jews at Hitler's behest, those six-pointed stars.  A few of them were displayed in a cabinet at Dachau, a German concentration-camp-turned-museum that I'd walked through, my arm tightly linked with that of my weeping best friend Anne, during a high school trip abroad.

A quick Google search led me to The Yellow Rose Project, a Toronto-based group dedicated to preserving the stories and memories of the Holocaust even as remaining survivors grow fewer in number each year.  From their home page:
I used to be designated with a yellow star but now I am celebrated with a yellow rose.
Interestingly, my research into the meaning of flowers--specifically yellow roses--turned up a variety of sentiments, with the most common ones being betrayal, apology, and forgiveness.
On to the theme of time, then.  According to author and Rabbi Maurice Lamm:
Jews keep time in a unique way from the rest of the world. The major ideas of the Jewish religion, even though they are intangible, are made accessible by being embedded in time. [...] In Jewish time, the day begins with the onset of night (the appearance of the stars) followed by the morning (which technically begins with the appearance of the North Star). According to some Jewish teachers, night and morning begin with sunset and sunrise respectively. For that is how the Torah describes it: "And there was evening and there was morning, the first day." 
Beginning the day with the night is, in a sense, a metaphor of life itself. Life begins in the darkness of the womb, then bursts into the brightness of the light and eventually settles into the darkness of the grave, which, in turn, is followed by a new dawn in the world-to-come. 
Life consists of light and dark: "And there was evening and there was morning." What we make of time is what counts.
The notion of time--its passing, its circling around, its expansion and contraction--provides visual and aural continuity in Faraway Places, linking the elements of the overlapping dramatic triptych in ways at once comforting and disturbing. There are numerous glances at watches, which tell it like it is--or, at least, as it is supposed to be. There are forays into the world of contracted time, when Roger's cigarette turns to a tiny butt in an instant, and overlapped time, when his partner Don appears--as though at the office--and tells him to go and be "in the truth" with his wife.

And having pulled a single flower from the plump arrangement of yellow roses on the Orcutt's table, Jane appears to feel time pause as she dances with Roger. "It's perfect here," she tells him. At home in the bathtub with Jane, Roger goes back in time and relives a joyful experience: the 1919 World Series. Later, the couple lie side-by-side, flat on their backs. Jane's elaborately beaded Roman updo--was she going for Veritas, the Goddess of Truth?--is now wrapped in a pink towel like Roger's. "What time is it?" he asks. "How could a few numbers contain all of time?" Jane wonders. We sense their baptismal renewal as they lay on the floor, gazing at the Greco-Roman light fixture hovering above them like an autumn moon; we know that neither Sterling will ever see things quite the same way again.

And so it is come morning, when Jane lays among scattered yellow petals. Roger reminds her about their shared journey through time and truth and tells her she spoke in German. It was really Yiddish, she tells him. When Roger leans in to kiss Jane goodbye, we see more yellow roses in a vase in the background. As they part company for the last time--and you have to listen closely here--a mournful oboe is preceded by the faintest chime of a grandfather clock, counting time, and that in turn becomes the ringing telephones of the SCDP office.
Now come the Drapers, with Megan in sharp orange, dressed for the occasion--a visit to an upstate Howard Johnson's--she didn't know she'd be participating in. It is the same time as earlier in the show--which is to say, the time when Peggy was sorting herself out for the Heinz presentation, before she tangled with the sexist client who had her taken off the account; before she ran away and came back, fell asleep, and called Abe to tell him--again--that she always needs him. Don tells Megan she has to accompany him on this trip, and although she's clearly torn about leaving work she enjoys, off they go.

Don is not Jewish, but I found the following passage, from The Concept of Absolute Time in Science and Jewish Thought, to be illuminating:
In this system human temporal existence takes place, along with one's perception of the world. In such a system the Creator is perceived as 'Nothing'-consonant with the universe having been created from Nothing. 'Nothing' is the Absolute that is not humanly perceived; it is absent from the human proper coordinate system, and not involved in the humanly perceived world.
There is a special cycle in this system comprised of the dual-process of 'escape and return,' (ratso and shov). [...] The process of escaping implies the aspiration to reach the Absolute, to comprehend the Almighty, and to merge with Him.
In the final limit, it implies the departure of the soul from the body, i.e., transformation back into Nothing in the material sense. The opposite process to escaping is that of returning to the physical world in which we live. According to a Hasidic concept, each individual as well as the Absolute possess the proper, permanently recurrent ratso-shov cycle.
What does this have to do with Don Draper? Jay Michaelson's essay about the "reminder that you will die"-- Memento Mori: Jewish Spirituality and the Sanctification of the World -- clarifies it a bit:
One distinctive feature of Jewish conceptions of that awakened consciousness is viewed not as a “steady state,” but as ratso v’shov (literally “running and returning”), oscillation between expanded and contracted mind, being and nothingness. The experience of enlightenment is one of movement between...“God’s point of view” and “our point of view.”
Ratso v’shov. Running and returning. Is that not exactly what Don has been doing throughout his entire life? The problem is, he has it backwards: by running from his childhood, running from his own identity, and running from Betty, and now Megan, he is not escaping the physical, the painful, and running toward enlightenment and love.  So, throughout Don's years of back-and-forth between being (who he is) and not-being, he never achieves an ecstatic state; he never knows the pure joy of love for love's sake. He might convince the world (and the audience) that he loves Megan, but his words belie a different sort of arrangement altogether, one that has to do with ownership, with belonging to and taking from; with losing and finding.

Recall Don's words to Roger when he learned of Betty's ill health a few episodes back: Rather than sympathy for someone facing a possible future of pain, sickness, and untimely death, he mused how awful it would be for his children "to grow up without a mother."  Skip ahead to Far Away Places, and listen to the ownership-tinged language Don uses when talking to and about Megan.  He jokingly orders her to go along with him on the Howard Johnson trip; on the road, he tells her there has to be some advantage to being the boss's wife.

At the Howard Johnson restaurant, Don tells the waitress to bring them orange sherbet and two spoons, ignoring the fact that Megan wanted pie. And when Megan doesn't fold in two and acquiesce (she's finally had enough of being told what to do when she had other plans), he launches into a tirade, accusing her of wanting to embarrass him, and of talking about him in French to her mother. Megan lashes back with a low blow aimed at Don's dark past--Why don't you call your mother--and off goes Don, running away yet again, out to the parking lot. Get in the car, he orders her.  She wants to talk; Don just wants to run away, and so he does, his gaze fixed eerily ahead as he speeds off.

Have you seen my wife?  Was my wife here? And later, I thought I lost you. There is no apology, just that: an admission that he almost lost something, that it was a fight, and now it's over. He still doesn't get it. There is no enlightenment for Don--not yet anyway. He will run and return again.

And in the final scene, wherein Bert calls Don to the conference room and regales him with another Memento Mori--this time about the way his work is suffering, about his not being infallible and invincible--we're left wondering how many more cycles of Ratso v’shov, of running and returning, Don will go through before he'll know love.

Also at Basket of Kisses, the Premiere Mad Men Blog