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December 17, 2009

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The Christmas spirit

Last week I received an e-mail from a reader demanding to know why on earth I’d headlined a story about the Sovereign Bank nativity scene “The Crèche is Back.” That headline ran at the top of page one with a story about the return of the crèche to the Sovereign Bank location after a year absence.

“It’s a nativity scene,” wrote the e-mailer. “Write it that way! Shame on you!”

In a follow-up message, the e-mailer explained, “Your paper is slapping a lot of Christians in the face by mis-representing [sic] a Nativity scene.”

After a few e-mails, one in which I explained that a definition of the word crèche is a nativity scene and that the word has been used by Christian carolers in the community for decades, the e-mail writer saw the error of his accusations and apologized.

The story for me, though was not that the e-mailer was confused about the meaning of the word crèche. I suppose it’s an understandable error. What really struck me was what seemed like an eagerness on the part of the writer to be offended by something he saw in the press.

For the last few years, numerous talk show hosts and Web-based pundits have been warning people that Christmas is under attack. One of the lead opinionators on the matter has been Fox News talker Bill O’Reilly who has been “reporting,” he says, on secularist attempts to keep Christians from enjoying Christmas. O’Reilly recently called a marketing expert on his show crazy for believing that substituting “Happy Holidays” for “Merry Christmas” was more inclusive.

One thing I will give O’Reilly: I can see how “Happy Holidays” can be tedious. The phrase is dull and lackluster in its ambiguity. It lacks the weight of tradition. “Happy” as an adjective is inferior in every way to “merry.”

I suppose O’Reilly is also right in suggesting that the phrase “Merry Christmas” isn’t likely to offend very many people. Christmas is celebrated in a much more secular way around the country, anyway. There are a lot more Santas than Baby Jesuses out there right now.

But where I think O’Reilly and others who fear Christmas is being cheapened miss the point is that the intention of “Happy Holidays” is not to defeat the Christian Christmas spirit or to smother its Christian meaning (Black Friday is taking care of that). It is instead an effort to be more inclusive.

What, I wonder, is the problem with trying to be more inclusive? O’Reilly and his supporters feel the expulsion of “Merry Christmas” from popular parlance is a move that smacks of fascism. But I can’t think of a more American thing than making sure all feel welcome.

Sure, the diminishment of “Merry Christmas” might make traditionalists feel that they’ve lost something. But we’ve gained quite a bit in the effort. We’re telling everyone that we don’t care about faith. No matter your beliefs, you are welcome to take part in the celebration.

That is a sentiment that is entirely American. And very much in the spirit of Christmas.

Pete Mazzaccaro

 

He’ll also gladly mail the book to you, but Borders seems like a swell place because of what happened during his reading there during the first annual Chestnut Hill Book Festival last summer. Hoffman, author of four books, including the recently published, “A Short Course in Beer,” was scheduled to talk on that Saturday at 1 p.m. and sign copies of his book. By 1:30, it was obvious that no one had put the word out.

“Not a single, solitary person showed,” he said. I sat there on a busy Saturday with my stack of books ready for signing. A heavily praised novel, ‘bang Bang!’  a novel with a cat in it, ‘The Bachelor’s Cat’;  ‘The New Short Course in Wine,’ and ‘The Short Course in Beer.’ Not a single person attended. Borders had not done any advertising or promotion, not even a small placard identifying  ‘that man back there.’ It was a bit mortifying.”

So, it would delight him to meet you in front of Borders before they pack up to go home. It would be living proof that the individual human spirit outlasts even the mightiest corporation. And how often do you get a chance to have a beer with the man who wrote the book about beer?

Not that he’s been all that sanguine lately. His publisher, a Canadian firm, Kunati Books, went belly-up three months ago and he’s still reeling from the shock.

Enemies: “How’ve you been?”

Lynn: “I’ll tell you how I’ve been. I’m going crazy. You know how I know I’m going crazy? I’m writing poetry.”

Enemies: “Poetry? What’s wrong with that?”

Lynn: “Two things. First, if you’re a writer, you write to make a living. Poetry doesn’t produce any income. It’s a self-enclosed world. It’s like Maypole Dancing: more participants than spectators. All it produces is more poetry. Second, the things that people wax poetically about are narcissistic and self-referential. The rhythm, the diction, the subject matter — they all seduce you into letting your guard down, taking yourself too seriously. Poetry feels like a retreat from what used to be my life: writing and speaking about food.”

Enemies:  You mean you feel you should be out promoting your books, but you’re sitting at your desk writing poetry?”

Lynn: “Yes, and the weird thing is, I’m starting to like them — they’re pretty good poems.”

Enemies: “Yes, I read one on your website that has a line about how being depressed really lets you see the bubbles in your beer very clearly.”

Lynn: “Oh you liked that did you?”

Enemies: “Yes, I was thinking, what busy, happy person has the time to sit around watching the bubbles float up through his beer? So, that’s rather like you ... losing your publisher giving you time to notice your own thoughts and feelings by writing poems.”

Lynn: “Exactly, it’s not all negative.”

Enemies:  “So this ‘phase’ you’re going through. It’s because your publisher went bankrupt. What happens to your books now?”

Lynn: “A publisher rarely warehouses the books they’ve printed. They’re in the hands of the distributor.”

Enemies: “Were you allowed to buy big quantities at discount?”

Lynn: “Yes, at printing cost — that’s about 50 percent — but realistically, how many do I want filling my closets and attic? I bought two hundred copies of my beer book and one hundred of my “bang Bang!” book.

Enemies: “How long will the distributor keep them?”

Lynn: “Probably till Amazon.com loses interest and then they’ll be incinerated.”

Enemies: “Incinerated? You mean that literally?”

Lynn: “I do.”

Enemies: “Well, if you ever hit it big, the remaining copies will be scarce and become valuable collector’s items.”

Lynn: “Spoken like a collector. That phenomenon never benefits the author.”

Enemies: “I know. Sorry. So, if your books have already proved to be good books, why doesn’t another publisher simply pick up the rights and put them back in print?”

Lynn: “I don’t know. But that doesn’t mean I don’t keep trying. I begin each day by sending a round of letters to prospective agents, people who have handled books similar to mine. I told a friend of mine recently, who asked how I spend my time, I said, ‘I spend my time beginning each day by begging.’ That’s what it feels like. But you have to keep trying.”

Enemies: “I imagine so. Well, are your beverage books different from what’s out there?”

Lynn: “Yes, absolutely. I’m not out there trying to show off my knowledge. I don’t start by assuming that people are morons or idiots. I’ve written my beer and wine books for people who are interested and need an entry point. And if I have a message at all, it’s that pleasure is a vitamin for the soul. Taste is at the heart of this experience, but the experience is enhanced if you know what you’re tasting and have a language to talk about it with another person who also likes good food and wine and beer. My aim is as simple as that. That’s why I call my new book, ‘The New Short Course in Beer.’

Enemies: “That sounds good. I’m wondering what gives you the right to sound off on the topic. Do you have any credentials other than as a kind of gourmet.”

Lynn: “I do. Thank you for asking. I’m from Brooklyn. (laughs) No, seriously, I worked as a chef for numerous years in upstate New York — Syracuse and Oswego — and for a couple of years in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. When I moved to Philadelphia I founded the Culinary Arts program at Drexel University and was a professor there in that program. I also was a food and wine writer for the Philadelphia Weekly paper. I also put together the “Best of Philly” food and wine section for Philadelphia Magazine for a few years.”

Enemies: “You’ve got my attention with all that.”

Lynn: “I guess my current status is like this: I feel like the horse I rode in on got shot out from under me.”

Enemies: “That sounds tough.”

Lynn: “It is, except it’s given me another insight: when the horse got shot, I realized: I am not my books, I am still myself, I am not my achievements … dozens of paths lie ahead … in many ways I see this as an opportunity.”

Enemies: “To write about?”

Lynn: “No, actually writing poems is my way of writing these days. I know I said it was a sign of craziness earlier, but now that I think about it, it’s the sanest thing I could be doing. It’s giving me perspective.”

Enemies: “Well, we’ve come full circle now. Let’s close with this: How can someone get your books?”

Lynn: “Go to my Web site, Lynnhoffman.com and click through to my e-mail address.”

Enemies: “Do you deliver?”

Lynn: “That’s funny. Sure, why not? Tell everyone yes.”

(Hoffman said he is also open to meeting at Earth, Bread, and Brewery or McMenamins — for people who don’t want to come all the way into Chestnut Hill.)

Next week in Enemies of Reading

Hugh Gilmore sums up another year of “stunt reading.”

Will he make 100 books again?

On Dec. 30, the year’s final column, Hugh reports in on the mystery novel be begrudgingly began to rewrite in October.

He said he’d be done by New Year’s Eve. So will he?

 

A tour de Eforce: Seeing where our recycled stuff goes


During the last Weird Waste day, organized by GRINCH (Green in Chestnut Hill), many people who brought their televisions and computers asked, “Where will it all go?” and “What happens to it now?” Good questions from informed citizens who wanted to make sure that their items were going to be recycled properly, having paid a good chunk of money to do so.

GRINCH hired an electronics recycler with a good reputation, and in turn told people that their electronics would be hand dismantled, and that not one piece would end up in China. But afterward, some members of GRINCH and I started to question our blind faith in an industry that can be nefarious in its business practices.

The video I mentioned in my last article, “Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground” is a case in point. This Frontline exposé tracks a computer monitor that graduate students of the University of British Columbia give to a recycler who tells them, “This will all be dealt with safely and locally.”

They begin their journey by filming their monitor being loaded into a shipping container, which they subsequently track to the port of Hong Kong. Once in China, it is piled on top of a mountain of e-waste. From there it makes its way downstream to neighborhoods where adults and children alike – tens of thousands of them – work in the toxic e-waste trade with no environmental or health regulations.

This is, of course, what GRINCH, as an environmental group, was trying to avoid and caused us to ask the question, “How do we really know that our recycler is doing what they say they are doing?” or, in other words, “Where did our e-waste go?” Since we are not private eyes or have Frontline budgets, we decided that one thing we could do is tour the Eforce Compliance facility, the haulers and recyclers from our event.

Eforce grew out of Selectronics, which has been on Grays Ferry Road for 28 years and developed as a scrap division, becoming an independent component stripper. This was a burgeoning business years ago as big institutions and corporations, like the University of Pennsylvania and Unisys, started unloading their outdated mainframes and servers.

According to Charles Nygard, managing director and our tour guide at Eforce, the federal and state government, as well as the City of Philadelphia all have environmental guidelines for e-waste disposal. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issues permits for this disposal, but has come under fire recently because its guidelines are easy for waste handlers to circumvent. Many times this involves shipping to one country, which in turn ships it to another with fewer regulations.

Eforce has obtained a Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) certification that took it nine months to obtain and is currently one of the only recyclers in the city that has one.

“We knew that this way was going to be harder,” Nygard said, “but we also knew that this way is going to be the wave of the future.”

Eforce receives tons of electronics every day from its corporate clients. We watch as a monitor is dismantled by hand and the components are sorted into large 4-foot cardboard cubes, called Gaylord boxes, taking about 7-10 minutes apiece. Items that still work and have a resale value, such as newer computers or televisions get put aside for Selectronics’ retail outlet or sold to other retailers in second-hand markets.

“Eighty-five to ninety percent of the televisions we get still work,” Nygard said. “We have a guy from the Northeast that takes any TV that’s working and resells them for about $30. The biggest commodity in electronics is currently cell phones, not only because of the metal recovery but due to a strong refurbishing market. If it’s a working unit we try to get it back into the hands of a nonprofit.”

As we walk through the rest of E-force’s warehouse, Nygard reassures us.

“We tell people they can come anytime and check us out,” he said. “We have nothing to hide. If you see overseas shipping containers outside of a recycler’s operations, then they are sending them overseas. Luckily,” he continues, “the markets over there are dwindling to practically nothing.”

Nygard said his firm was trying to reduce its carbon footprint.

“We break everything down, and we try to use local smelters, refiners, etc.,” he said. “We don’t want to ship our stuff 500 miles.”

At this point in our tour, I think we’re all feeling better about our choice of Eforce as our recycler.

We also learn a good rule of thumb when it comes to disposing of our electronics: If someone says they’ll take it for free or that they’ll pay you for your monitor, don’t believe it. No one can take your stuff for free and handle it responsibly.

The key, it seems, to handling our electronic waste problem is to develop products that have recyclability built into them. Apple Inc. is in the forefront of both building recyclable components and also offering to recycle older models. Consumers pay the price for this upfront when they purchase their computer instead of at the end of its life when they want to get rid of it. To process something properly, there has to be a charge for it, and there’s no way to get around it.

If you’d like to see the Frontline video for yourself, use this link, www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/ghana804/video/video_index.html. Find Eforce on the Web at www.eforcecompliance.com, and its facility at 3114 Grays Ferry Avenue. Contact me at ecologic.chlocal@gmail.com.

 

Thoughless presents: the dark side of giving


Look: I’m generally a grateful guy. I’m relentlessly thankful when someone buys me something I want but never would buy for myself. Still, there have been times when I’ve received a gift so thoughtless, so contrived, that I could barely hide my resentment – like the cheap transistor radio my uncle Mike bought me for Christmas – and the identical one he bought me the year after that.

Most of these presents have come from relatives who knew little about me, but, through circumstances out of their control (e.g. Pollyanna) or a mistaken sense of obligation (e.g. godparenthood), have felt compelled to give me something, anything. Some have come from people who should know me well enough to realize that I would return their ridiculous gift immediately or bury it in my sock drawer.

These were not isolated incidents. They were symptoms of a largely unrecognized epidemic: Semi-Involuntary Retail Expectation Syndrome.

Many of my acquaintances, friends and family members have been victims of this awful disease, too, according to my utterly unscientific poll.

Georgeann, whom I’ve spoken to maybe three times since we graduated from college five years ago, told me she received the collector’s edition of Schindler’s List from an ex-boyfriend even though they never watched it together and “never even talked about the movie once!”

“He also bought me a paper shredder that year,” she wrote.

Bob, one of my best friends from college who now produces a morning news show for a Fox affiliate in D.C., got “a pick your own adventure book” from an uncle … when he was 17.

“He had no idea what age I was,” Bob said. “Also, he spelled my name Bobbie.”

My sister Danielle was disgusted when she opened the Ed Hardy handbag that my brother, Todd, bought her last Christmas.

“Todd always gives [expletive deleted] gifts,” she said. “But I thought maybe it would be good for once.

“When I was opening it there was suspense. I still didn’t know what it was. I turn the bag over and see this ugly decal of a coy fish on this hoboish knapsack.

“At that point, I was disappointed for two reasons: 1) I felt like I put time into my gifts and 2) I could’ve bought six bags for that price. I would’ve been happier with a brush.”

She dutifully reminded me to mention the time I got a stick of gum from her uncle Scott for a Pollyanna present – not a pack, a stick. How could I forget?

Listen: I’ll admit that I’ve given some worthless gifts, most notably the 1993 box of Topps baseball cards that I wrapped for Todd after ripping open each individual pack to look for John Kruk and Lenny Dykstra. But I have never succumbed to the SIRES virus, and my stinginess and general contempt for humanity are mostly to thank.

Sometimes giving a gift shows how little you know or care about someone, not how much. Sometimes it signals a superficial interest in the recipient’s world. If that’s the case, why bother?

I realize this might make me look like a Marxist or a heretic or both, but I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m sickened by holidays that have been robbed of their meaning by disingenuous schemers. People have enough junk in their lives. What they need is warmth and sincerity, and I strive to give that to the handful of people who make my life worthwhile. Unfortunately, I have only a limited supply of that, and my fiancée has cornered the market.

Everyone else will have to settle for something they’ve wanted but never would have bought for themselves. Except for my brother, that is. His gift is hideous.

 

 




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