Category Archives: Posts by Jon Pine

Dear Joe Barton: I’m sorry you’re scum

by Jon Pine

Representative Joe Barton (R-Texas) apologized this week – on behalf of you and me and all the rest of the American people – to British Petroleum for President Obama’s $20 billion “shakedown,” otherwise known as partial restitution for the laid-off oil workers and others who have been financially devastated by the Gulf oil well disaster.

Jon Pine

The apology, which came during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on the disaster, might have made a tiny bit of sense, except for Barton’s dirty little secret: It turns out that his top campaign contributor is a company that owned 25 percent of the Deepwater Horizon drilling project – the very well that is still gushing viscous crude into the once-pristine waterway. The company is Anadarko Petroleum, whose PAC and employees have contributed a total of $146,500 to Barton since 1989.

Later the same day, Barton came back and apologized for his apology. Sort of. What he did was apologize that people “may have misconstrued” his use of the word “shakedown” to mean, well, a shakedown. How foolish of us!

All the apologies this week have put me in an apologetic mood myself, so here goes:

To Rep. Barton: I’m so sorry that you care more for the third largest corporation in the world than you do for the Texans in your own constituency who are now out of work because BP made multiple errors in judgment, and may have even broken several laws, resulting in the largest environmental disaster in American history.

I’m sorry that you’re sorry that BP was asked to set aside some money so that people whose careers have been destroyed by BP’s carelessness and possible criminal negligence will get some help with their bills now, not months or years from now after a protracted legal battle.

And I’m sorry that your desire for some sort of twisted political victory, and your Obama hate, caused you to open your fat mouth and say something so stupid, so insensitive, so wrong on many levels, that the leaders of your own party nearly soiled their three-piece suits when they heard what you said.

To BP’s Tony Hayward: I’m terribly sorry that your comfy country club life has been upset by this “small leak” all the way across the pond, as you described it in the first days following the conflagration that incinerated 11 rig workers. I’m sorry, but no, you can’t “have your life back” because there are 11 families who won’t ever get their lives back, thanks to your company’s actions.

I’m sorry that you lied and obfuscated and lied some more about the actual rate of the leak, so much so that our government did not respond as quickly and as mightily as it should have. I’m sorry that you’re still lying about the flow rate, and that your private security forces are perpetuating even more lies and obfuscation by preventing the media from seeing and reporting on the devastation up close.

And I’m sorry that our president had to ask you to do the right thing and set up a $20 billion emergency fund and that you didn’t do it yourself weeks ago. Hell, BP will make more than that in profits this year alone.

To Glenn Beck: I’m sorry that you are so myopic and deluded that you think President Obama didn’t rush to meet with BP’s executives because they are white. Are you that paranoid, Glenn? Did some black boys beat you up on the playground when you were little? If so, I’m sorry about that, too.

Next, Beck said that Obama was going to politicize the Gulf oil disaster and use it to push for his green energy initiatives. Well, duh! Of course. This is a perfect real-life lesson in what is wrong with our oil-addicted culture – that we would rather take phenomenal risks and stay on oil than to invest in safer, cleaner forms of energy. Even a third-grader sees the wisdom in using this tragedy as a real-life object lesson.

Sorry, Glenn!

To Sarah Palin: I’m sorry, Sarah, that you still don’t get it – nobody really believes that your chants of “Drill, baby, drill!” during the last few years were really only about onshore drilling. There’s a little invention called videotape, perhaps you should look into it. They show dozens of instances where you had the opportunity to clarify things, but you didn’t. For some strange reason your 15 minutes of fame keeps getting an extension, but your credibility ran out long ago. Sorry!

And finally…

To the birds, sea life and the human life that will be poisoned or killed: I’m sorry that BP’s executives consider us “the little people” and actually had the gall to say, “The Gulf of Mexico isn’t the only place with shrimp.” I’m sorry that money and power is what matters most to these cretins, and that they are too self-absorbed to understand that centuries-old livelihoods of tens of thousands of people are being snuffed out while they fret and fritter over their precious corporate image.

I’m sorry that BP felt it necessary to first pay dividends to their shareholders before setting up disaster relief for devastated Americans.

But most of all, I’m sorry that we all allowed previous administrations to permit other deepwater wells in environmentally sensitive areas, and that we all failed to do a better job of curbing our oil addiction.

So, so sorry.

© 2010 Jon Pine

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What if you could (fill in the blank)?

by Jon Pine

I’ve come to realize that some of my favorite movies might all fall into the category of “What-If” Films – films with highly conceptual themes, usually comedies, that generally turn reality on its head. They explore philosophical and spiritual ambiguities, with a liberal dose of irony, but do so with a light hand, thus avoiding one of the cardinal rules of comedy: Thou shalt not be overly preachy.

Jon Pine

“Groundhog Day” is one of those films. What if a shallow, arrogant and cynical weatherman found himself stuck in a podunk town, forced to live the same day again and again, covering the same podunk “human interest story” over and over until he learns that the true meaning of love and life is to be selfless?

Then there’s “Sliding Doors,” an overlooked gem of a film in which the story of a fired PR professional literally diverges into two wildly different scenarios – each showing what might have happened to her depending on how she reacted to a split-second circumstance of fate.

In one of my favorite Woody Allen films, “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” a dashing depression-era movie character literally comes off the screen to rescue a young audience member from her miserable life and abusive husband. But then the actor, concerned that his come-to-life character might ruin his career, comes to town with a tough lesson: Real life ain’t like it is in the movies.

More recently there is “The Invention of Lying,” a fable set in a world where lying simply does not exist – until one man tells his dying mother a small fib just to ease her suffering a little. One lie leads to another and another until we, the audience, realize that our entire existence relies upon the little lies we tell ourselves all the time.

And then there are the bizarre, darker fantasies imagined by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman: In “Being John Malkovich” he explores what it might be like to actually get inside the mind of another human being, if only for 15 minutes at a time – after which you are unceremoniously dumped in a ditch on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. In “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Kaufman exposes a fantasy we’ve probably all had at one time or another: What if you could completely erase the memory of an ex-lover who has caused you deep pain?

Paul Giamatti as Paul Giamatti in "Cold Souls."

Falling somewhere in the middle is a wonderful bit of existential (or is it anti-existential?) escapism called “Cold Souls,” written and directed by first-time filmmaker Sophie Barthes. It is now available on DVD, but not yet on Bluray. The idea, Barthes says, was sparked by a dream she had in which she was standing in line at a doctor’s office, right behind Woody Allen, each of them holding containers with their souls inside, to be examined by the doctor.

Initially, she intended to expand the dream into a screenplay for Allen – no stranger to “What-If” comedies himself – but a chance meeting with actor Paul Giamatti convinced her to write the script with him in mind instead – not only as the lead actor, but also as the lead character. Hence, “Cold Souls” opens on Paul Giamatti, the actor, playing a character named Paul Giamatti, also an actor, rehearsing a scene from Anton Chekhov’s play, “Uncle Vanya.”

But something is impeding Giamatti’s ability to nail the part. No matter how deep he reaches, he can’t summon enough of the character to breathe life into his stage performance. To a writer, this would be called writer’s block; to an actor, it is equally as crippling.

After struggling for a while with this dilemma, Giamatti’s agent tells him about a ground-breaking doctor who has discovered a way to actually extract the soul from the human body, thus freeing the person from the encumbrances of, well, you know – pesky little annoyances like conscience and feelings. This might be just what he needs, the agent says, so he can be free to concentrate on his acting.

Giamatti is the perfect choice for this character, and of course, for the actor. His droopy, hangdog look and edgy, forlorn demeanor encapsulate the very essence of one who is – dare I say it? – soul-weary. Not just on stage, but in his home life with his wife (Emily Watson), and out with friends –  not quite sad, but certainly not as happy as he would like to be. He seeks a change, but he’s not sure what sort of change he’s after.

Dr. Flinstein (David Strathairn) shows Paul Giamatti a freshly extracted soul.

It is here that the story really takes off. Without giving too much away, Giamatti reluctantly makes an appointment to see David Flinstein, the soul-extracting doctor, played by Daniel Strathairn. After the extraction Giamatti finds that perhaps having no soul, while it is certainly freeing, may be worse than having a sick soul. But when he goes back to the institute to reverse the extraction, he learns that his soul is missing – “We probably shipped it to our New Jersey warehouse by mistake.” (Poor New Jersey seems to be the butt of jokes in several of my favorite “What-If” films!)

The plot twists and turns around an array of quirky characters: The members of an international “soul trafficking ring”; a Russian “mule” who has transported so many black market souls she no longer has the capacity for one of her own; a factory worker with the soul of a Russian poet; and a vacuous soap opera star who believes acquiring the soul of American actor Al Pacino will make her a better actress.

The laughs, while they don’t come fast and furious, are deeply satisfying nonetheless – some running gags with chickpeas, a confrontation with the Russian leader of the soul-trafficking ring, and even just the sight of Giamatti in a big furry Russian hat will make you laugh.

But beyond the laughs are the deeper questions that haunt all of us. What is a soul, and where does it really reside – in the heart, the head, or somewhere else? How much of our happiness depends on the health of our souls? And the question that has challenged scholars and theologians for centuries: What happens to our souls when we die?

While it’s fun to fantasize about ditching your soul for a more exciting model, there are always consequences in these “What If” stories.  In “Groundhog Day,” Bill Murray reveled in an alternate universe where he could eat, drink and womanize with no consequences. But he also realized he was powerless to prevent the pain and death of those around him.

In “Purple Rose,” Mia Farrow chooses real life over fantasy, and finds crushing disappointment in both.

In “Being John Malkovich,” John Cusack learns he can inhabit Malkovich’s mind long enough to get the girl – but since the girl really doesn’t love him, he is doomed to an eternal prison from which he is forced to stare at the object of his affection – just out of reach – for eternity.

And in “Cold Souls,” Paul Giamatti learns pretty quickly that the soul on the other side of the fence is not necessarily greener. But more importantly, he learns, as we all eventually do, that happiness is a stacked emotion, the result not of taking something the other guy seems to have, but of, little by little, layer by layer, making something out of what you have.

And that’s just about as preachy as I’m going to get with this review.

© 2010 Jon Pine

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How is a raven like a writing desk?

by Jon Pine

In Tim Burton’s version of the Lewis Carroll classic “Alice in Wonderland,” Johnny Depp, as the orange-haired, googly-eyed Mad Hatter, asks, “How is a raven like a writing desk?” The answer to the question is of no consequence – rather, it’s the Hatter’s obsession with the question itself that makes him mad.

Jon Pine

I can’t help but compare supporters of the Tea Party movement to Mad Hatters, obsessed with bombastic questions, unconcerned with the answers, displaying a comical detachment from reality.

Some of their favorite nonsensical queries: “How is a centrist President like a Socialist dictator?” Or “How are the lowest taxes in 50 years like being ‘taxed to death’?” And, of course, the lulu of them all, “How are decades of deregulation, tax breaks for the mega-rich and tax loopholes for corporations like ‘big government’ running out of control?”

I’ve long ago stopped wasting my breath trying to talk the Mad Hatters down from their hallucinations. You can’t. Never mind that when the government was in their hands it underwent the largest expansion in recent history. Now that it’s in the hands of the Democrats and our first African American president, it is seen as a bloated, treacherous, treasonous Jabberwocky, and there’s only one solution – “Off with its head!”

Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter (c) Walt Disney Productions

Like all delusional paranoids, they have no idea what they’re saying. Abolish the IRS? Really? Turn corporations loose in a deregulated “free market”? Deep-six the Environmental Protection Agency? The Department of Education? Reverse portions of the Civil Rights Amendment?

Let’s slow down a bit and try to imagine what America would look like as One Nation Under the Tea Party, shall we?

Abolish the IRS. Well, for starters they don’t really mean abolishing the IRS – just the progressive tax. We’d still need a federal agency to collect taxes. Most Tea Party adherents say they prefer a so-called flat tax. But do they really understand what that would mean? It would mean that taxes for the majority of those in the middle class would go up. No more deductions for children, for charitable donations, healthcare expenses, college tuition, mortgage interest.

Over the past three decades or so, the tax burden has already, slowly but steadily, shifted away from the rich and toward the middle class. A flat tax would finish the shift, creating huge tax reductions for the rich and mega-rich. The theory, of course, is that rich people will then create jobs for the rest of us. But history has proven that to be a false premise. Job growth was actually higher during the Clinton years when taxes for the middle class went down and the taxes on the rich went up; during the Bush years, when the tax burden was reversed, job growth actually slowed.

Deregulate, baby, deregulate. Hmmm… If only there were some recent examples of deregulation gone awry. If only mass deregulation of, say, the financial and banking industries turned out to be not such a good idea. Or if, maybe, a huge industry like the oil, gas or coal industry flaunted environmental or safety regulations to a disastrous end. If only…

I lay awake at night fretting about the coming of the slick, which satellite photos now confirm has entered the “loop current” and may very well show up on the beautiful beaches here in Vero Beach, Florida. It could conceivably continue northward in the Gulf Stream and befoul beaches and fragile estuaries all along the Atlantic coast. And the more we learn about this catastrophe, the more we learn it should have been prevented.

Even the minimal regulations in place weren’t adhered to properly, and the small government blowhards want to deregulate further? Are you freakin’ kidding me? With nearly 4,000 oil and gas rigs in the Gulf of Mexico already, we don’t need one single more. Not there, nor anywhere else offshore. Yet, the Palins, the Pauls, the Becks and the other Mad Hatters are screaming again to “drill, baby, drill!”

Their justification? We need to “get off foreign oil,” and by that, what they really mean is get off of oil from the Middle East. I’ve got news for you – we can do that without drilling a single new well.

Consider that more than half the oil we consume comes from domestic sources. Of the rest, 80 percent is from foreign sources here in the Western Hemisphere – countries with whom we have no serious beefs. With just a little effort, we could eliminate the remaining 20 percent of imports (10 percent of total consumption) that come from the Eastern Hemisphere.

Start by temporarily increasing imports from our friends in the West. Then raise CAFE standards for new vehicles over the next 5-10 years, while also raising the price of gasoline with a federal tax, the way that it was done in the 1970s under President Carter. Now, as then, consumption will decrease more than 10 percent; the gas tax can be used to fund development of alternative energy sources – just like it was used in the ‘70s.

Deep-six the EPA. This is perhaps the most foolish idea of them all. The Environmental Protection Agency was initiated by Richard Nixon – no tree-hugger, he. Why? Because unregulated – there’s that word again – chemical companies had been spraying DDT, dioxins, and all sorts of nasty pollutants directly into the environment, making millions of people sick. For a conservative guy like Nixon to take such an action, it had to be really, really bad.

During the eight years of the Bush II Administration, hundreds of EPA actions and regulations had been weakened or abolished altogether. But don’t take my word for it; just read Robert F. Kennedy’s excellent account, “Crimes Against Nature.” You’ll find a synopsis of the book here: http://www.commondreams.org/views03/1120-01.htm

And now the Tea Party folks want to do away with the EPA altogether? They truly are Mad Hatters!

Close the Department of Education. Another puzzling idea, which was championed by Ronald Reagan almost immediately after Jimmy Carter established it in 1979. “Established” is really not an accurate description of what Carter did, however – previously, education was part of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and Carter merely separated the education office so that it was its own cabinet-level department.

Most people erroneously assume the Department of Education oversees curriculum development, regulates education quality standards, or makes other intrusions into the education system, but this isn’t so. Rather, it oversees federal funding for education, and makes sure that schools honor citizens’ privacy and civil rights. Important stuff, right? Not to Tea Party Mad Hatters, apparently. Rand Paul wants to give businesses the right to refuse service to minorities; apparently he feels that schools should also have that same right. Say hello to segregated schools! Thank you, Tea Party!

Ironically, the one instance in which the Department of Education did set standards for education was George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind Act” – an abject failure by most people’s accounts.

Are you beginning to get a vision of what a Tea Party Laissez-Faire Utopia might look like? All kinds of new “freedoms” – including the freedom of corporations to do and say pretty much whatever they like. The freedom to pay more taxes so rich people and corporations can pay less! Woohoo! More taxes, less benefits – sounds good, right? Bring it on!

Freedom from government interference – if you’re black or Hispanic, you can consider yourself free to leave my store now, thank you very much, and the government can’t do a thing about it. You’ll also be free to study with other minorities, but not alongside my white kids – sorry! The government can’t help you there, either.

Or maybe you’ll want to put your kids to work – there will be no federal child labor laws to stop you. And none of those pesky OSHA standards to guarantee safe working conditions for the little buggers – or for you, for that matter. Just don’t expect fair wages – the “free market” means the government can no longer regulate utilities, so the company will make it up by cutting wages, and the government can’t stop them. No such thing as a minimum wage anymore! Isn’t that grand? And don’t try to unionize – that won’t be legal anymore, either.

This is just a glimpse of what you can expect. You can say goodbye to 10 percent unemployment – and hello to 20 or even 25 percent unemployment. We’ve just shit-canned millions of federal employees, remember? They’re all out there scratching and clawing for your job now – only there won’t be any guarantee of access to healthcare. The Mad Hatters have overturned healthcare reform, and they’re coming after Medicare and Social Security next.

We live in a huge, complex country, growing larger and more complex every day. We need more government, not less; more regulations, not fewer. The Wall Street debacle and the oil that is still oozing in the Gulf of Mexico demonstrate that our problems are growing larger and more complex, too – and that corporations and the free market, left to their own devices, will not protect us. But they will do all they can to protect their own profits.

The goal here should not be smaller government, but rather more efficient government. Instead of “Off with his head!” we should be calling for “Tame the Jabberwocky!” Government is not the enemy. Why would we listen to anything the Mad Hatters say?

A raven is like a writing desk – indeed!

© 2010 Jon Pine

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Will we ever learn? I hope so…

By Jon Pine

Yesterday, for a brief moment, my depression and anger over the unfolding environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico lifted. I watched as two birds who were rescued from certain oily death were released back into the wild – gently scrubbed free of oil, nourished and nursed back to health by veterinarians with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Jon Pine

“Lucky,” a young male Northern Gannet, and a young male Brown Pelican were flown by chartered plane from Louisiana to their new home in the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge near here, in Indian River County Florida. As I watched the birds paddle out into the water and eventually take flight – after nearly a week in captivity – my heart also soared a bit, and for a moment, my faith in humanity returned. Maybe we won’t destroy ourselves and our planet in my lifetime after all.

A variety of public, private, national and local agencies were responsible for bringing these two fellows here to their new home. With so much attention paid to two little critters, perhaps we CAN muster the will necessary to change our ways and move toward a day when man-made catastrophes like this just don’t happen.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents release a Pelican that had been rescued from the oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

In a way, the story of these two birds and their new home is a perfect metaphor for the raging debate over fossil fuels versus clean energy. For your consideration: Why, of all places, were they released here? There are several answers:

For starters, the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge is far from the site of the slick. It also happens to be located smack-dab at the nexus between the tropics and the subtropics – and as such is, arguably, the most biologically diverse estuary in the United States. Hundreds of species of birds, fish and mammals live here, including 15 listed as endangered or threatened.

In other words – this is Bird Heaven to these two guys. I would imagine that within hours of their release they’ve each found others of their species to hang around with, fish with, mate with, and just generally live a sludge-free existence.

"Lucky" the Northern Gannet is released into his new home.

So how did this bird heaven come to be? Glad you asked! President Theodore Roosevelt established Pelican Island as the country’s very first national wildlife refuge in 1903. Why? So glad you asked again! It has to do with fashion: At the turn of the 20th Century, birds like Pelicans and Gannets were hunted almost to extinction for their feathers – which were prized like gold to decorate ladies’ hats and other fashion accessories.

Teddy Roosevelt – a conservative Republican, by the way – recognized that something needed to be done or many species of birds would end up extinct.

Today’s conservative Republicans don’t seem to share Roosevelt’s understanding for the environment and our natural resources. Like the demand for the prized bird feathers of the early 1900s, today’s insatiable greed for oil profits threatens to doom hundreds of species of animals – this time in the Gulf of Mexico. But conservative Republicans, and a few conservative Democrats, continue to cry “Drill, baby, drill!” Even President Obama included new offshore drilling in his energy reform plan. Hopefully, he is doing some hard thinking about that right now.

What will it take for them to learn? Another exploding oil rig? It’s not far-fetched to believe that it might happen. Did you know that, in the Gulf of Mexico alone, there are more than 3,800 active oil and gas drilling operations? Do we really need more of them in such an environmentally sensitive area?

And can we agree to stop calling the Gulf oil well catastrophe a “spill”? It is a man-made underwater crude oil geyser and no one seems to know how to make it stop.

This morning as I write this, and as the oil geyser continues to spew into the Gulf, the three stooges at the center of this catastrophe – British Petroleum, TransOcean and Halliburton – will be pointing fingers of blame at each other during a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The very idea of it reminds me of the final scene in Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” where the surviving participants in a jewel heist point guns at each other, while accusations fly about who among them is the undercover cop. (Without spoiling the movie for those who haven’t seen it, suffice it to say, that scene ends very, very badly.)

There’s a corny old saying: When you point your finger at someone, your other three fingers are pointing back at you. It’s trite, but true, in this circumstance. We all should have demanded better from our leaders long ago. At the very least, demanded stringent safety regulations on ALL drilling rigs. Better yet, demanded a moratorium on offshore drilling in environmentally sensitive areas.

But better still, demand that we finally, forcefully, consistently move clearly in the direction that would eventually take us off of all fossil fuels.

If we don’t, we may run the risk of extinction, just like our feathered friends at the turn of the 20th Century.

For more photos of the wild bird release click here.

© 2010 Jon Pine

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“Get the honey, Junior!”

by Jon Pine

In the hilarious 1980 film, “Fatso,” Dom DeLuise, as Dominick DiNapoli, is trying to lose weight. So he joins a group called the Chubby Checkers – sort of a cross between Alcoholics Anonymous and Weight Watchers. When Dom gets the urge to overindulge, he’s supposed to call his fellow Chubby Checkers, who will come over and talk him down.

Jon Pine

Dom has locked the refrigerator and all the cupboards with a chain and padlock, and has given the keys to his brother, Junior (Ron Carey), for safekeeping. Under no circumstances, no matter how hard he begs, is Junior to turn over the keys to Dom. That very night, however, Junior finds himself roused from his sleep by Dom, who is pointing a gun in his face. “Gimme those keys, Junior!” he growls.

A hilarious chase ensues, but Junior holds firm. He calms his brother down and convinces him to call his Chubby Checkers – two portly gents who rush right over. But the intervention soon turns to a discussion of their favorite foods. Sonny, one of the Chubbies, asks for a cup of hot water with lemon. Then he asks, “Did you ever suck the jelly out of a jelly doughnut and then fill it with chocolate swirl ice cream?”

Suddenly it becomes obvious that hot water with lemon is not going to satiate these particular Chubbies. Sonny asks Junior for another cup of hot water “with just a drop of honey in it this time.” “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” asks Junior. “Besides, the honey’s locked up in the cupboard.”

His voice returning to a growl, Dom says, “Get the honey, Junior!” Intervention’s over. It turns into a chant: “Get the honey! Get the honey! Get the honey!” as Dom and the Chubbies converge on Junior, tear the doors off the cupboards and begin a food orgy that would choke even Monty Python’s Mr. Creosote.

Italians have, uhm, how shall I say it – a “special” relationship with food. And Anne Bancroft, the director of “Fatso” and an Italian-American herself, understood this relationship perfectly. No other culture takes its cuisine to such wild extremes. We take foods that are already decadent and way too fattening on their own, and then we smother them in cheese, or layer them together in casseroles, or stuff them inside each other, reaching gastronomic heights seldom reached in other cultures.

Even our salads – which we call “antipasti” – are loaded with cured meats and aged cheeses, drenched in pungent olive oil and sweet balsamic vinegar. We consider that a “light appetizer.”

What’s worse, we are literally weaned on these caloric conglomerations. In the opening credits of “Fatso,” a crying baby Dom is comforted not by a pacifier but by a cannoli. Later, as an adult, we see Dom gaze at a photograph of his mother and say, “How you loved to feed me! Look at your chubby baby now, ma. I’m a fat, fat man, a damn fatso.”

My own Italian mama, God love her, treated us kids pretty much the same way. Got a hangnail? “Here, eat this, you’ll feel better.” Stubbed your toe? “Have some chicken cacciatore.” Didn’t make the basketball team? “I’ll put on a pot of water for macaroni.” There was always a big pot of sauce either cooking on the stove or waiting in the fridge to be heated up.

Even if you were feeling fine, feeling great, like when you did make the basketball team, a fat slice of cheesecake would add to the celebration.

No one trusts a skinny Italian cook. It means he or she is doing something wrong in the kitchen. It’s no accident that my mom, the best cook of the four sisters in her family, is also the roundest. She didn’t serve just turkey at Thanksgiving – we also had a tray or two of lasagne. Same was true of Christmas and Easter. Even now, when I visit her, even before she says hello, my mother wants to know what she can make for me to eat.

Years ago, I sat my maternal grandmother down and, with pen and pad in hand, I grilled her for her recipes for some of my favorite dishes. I soon gave up in frustration. She gave me no specifics, because like all great cooks, she used no measuring devices whatsoever. “Add some fresh garlic,” she would say. “How much?” I asked. “Well, add some, then taste it, and if it tastes okay, that’s enough. If not, add some more.”

Or she’d say, “Cook the fettucine until it’s done.” “How long is that?” Same sort of answer: “Taste a piece every now and then, and you’ll know when it’s done.” I suspect that her caginess was more than just the sign of a good cook who measures ingredients by instinct and boils pasta with the help of an invisible timer in her head. Rather, I believe it’s a matter of Italian pride – no Italian woman ever admits that she is a better cook than her mother. And that is probably as it should be. It is certainly true of my own mother.

The maternal instinct to feed your children never really goes away, but my siblings will agree – our mother takes it to an extreme. And as a result, we have all struggled with weight issues on and off all our lives. Right now, I’ve got Dom’s body shape from “Fatso” – not quite obese, but certainly fatter than I’d like to be.

Becoming a quasi-vegetarian (I still eat seafood) didn’t help, and might actually have made things worse; pasta is a good fall-back as the main course when meats are no longer an option. There are plenty of meatless Italian dishes to tempt me – eggplant parmigiana, pizza, calzone, ravioli, risotto, stuffed shells, manicotti. I even created my own recipe for vegetarian meatball lasagne, which was good enough to fool my mother last Thanksgiving, believe it or not, if only for a little while.

But still my waistline grows. A few years ago, I bought a cookbook with low-fat alternative recipes for popular Italian dishes. I tried a few – but it’s just not the same. I even tried making cannolis with low-fat ricotta cheese. It can’t be done. They come out way too soupy and run all over the place. Besides, cutting corners on these dishes just seems so… sacrilegious. My Italian readers will understand what I mean.

Like Dom, on occasion I have turned to food for comfort. I tell myself it could be worse – I could be turning to alcohol or drugs. But it’s just as unhealthy, at least for me. I am on two medications for high blood pressure, and my joints strain and ache under the extra poundage. Not good.

So what to do?

My cousin Joe – we shared the same aforementioned Italian grandmother, and grew up surrounded by the same temptations – has hit upon a solution that is so simple it might actually work. He calls his system ELFS, which stands for (are you ready for this?) “Eat Less Food, Stupid!” Brilliant, huh? Basically, he’s come up with a computerized way to keep track of the calories and grams of fats, carbs, etc. in the foods you eat regularly. You enter your body mass index (BMI), and it helps you compute how much food you should be eating to achieve and maintain a healthy BMI.

Over time, as you enter your favorite foods into the database, you start to learn just how much we ALL overeat. Portion sizes – on packages, in restaurants and at home – have grown WAY out of proportion in our culture. It’s no wonder we are the fattest country on the planet.

So I’m gonna give Joe’s idea a try. I’ll keep you all posted here, on this blog, hopefully having some fun with it along the way. I know that at some point I will have to add an exercise component to this experiment, too.

That should be interesting…

© 2010 Jon Pine


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Filed under Dieting, Entertainment, Humor, Posts by Jon Pine

My birthday wish: More zombies!

by Jon Pine

Today I start yet another trip around the sun. I won’t tell you how many trips I’ve made, but here’s a clue: just a couple of days before I started my first trip, John Glenn made three trips around the Earth in just under five hours.

Jon Pine

Had I not dallied upon entering this world, says my mom, my first name would have an “h” in it and my middle name would be Glenn, in honor of America’s first space hero. The punishment for my tardiness? A lifetime of correcting people who misspell my name, and of trying to hide the fact that my actual middle name is “Clifford.” (Go ahead. Laugh. I’ve made my peace with it. Sort of.)

So how, exactly, did I decide to usher in this latest trip? With zombies, of course!

I’m not usually a fan of the horror/gore film genre, but there’s just something about zombies that cracks me up every time. They’re just so… silly. As a concept, I mean.

Think about it: Zombies are dead, but not really dead. They’re hungry, but only for living flesh – they never eat other zombies. But somehow, lots of people only get nibbled-on by zombies, not fully devoured, otherwise how do you explain the proliferation of all those new zombies?

There’s more: Zombies lumber around, they can see, and climb, but they can’t speak. They are aware enough to know that you are alive, that you’re not another zombie, but not smart enough to realize that you are about to kill them. Oh, and just when you think they’re really dead-dead, watch out – because they might just be undead. Still undead? Undead again? Something to that effect.

See what I mean?

All of this, of course, makes them perfect comedy foils. And perhaps the most hilarious evidence of that is the film “Zombieland,” which I watched last night with friends. If you like your blood, guts and dismemberment leavened with massive doses of smart, funny dialog, then this flick’s for you. It also contains a cameo by a huge comedy star that just may be the funniest five minutes of film in the past decade. I won’t spoil the surprise here.

Birthdays are, naturally, a time of reflection. And this morning I got to thinking: Zombies are also a perfect metaphor for growing older. Sometimes as we age we tend to sort of lumber along, oblivious to most of what is around us. We’ve settled on a path toward what it is that feeds us, often missing some really great opportunities and experiences just off the pathway.

And mostly, we hang around with other zombies – people who look like us, sound like us and behave like us. But when we were young, we laughed at those “old people” who were so “set in their ways.”

When did we become those people? And who’s laughing now?

So I’ve come up with some rules for my next trip around the sun. Or maybe they’re actually “anti-rules.” You can decide:

1. Watch more zombie movies. It doesn’t matter that the logic doesn’t add up. Neither does life’s logic – learn to laugh about that. (Next up: “The Devil’s Rejects.” Someone also suggested “Shaun of the Dead.”)

2. Color outside the lines more. That’s where true art resides.

3. Be more passionate. About something. Anything. Better yet, about everything. It’s one of those things that separates humans from other species.

4. Talk less, listen more. The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. We can’t learn unless we first learn to listen.

5. Take my inner child out for ice cream. Or to fly a kite, climb on some monkey bars, make a sand castle, or just do something fun I haven’t done in years. If adults look at me in a disapproving way, consider that a bonus.

6. Work less, participate more. Nobody ever said on their deathbed “I wish I’d spent more time at the office.”

7. Quit complaining. And remember my friend John R.’s credo: “Things could always be worse.” This, from a man who received a cosmic screwing that robbed him of his home, his family, his reputation, and 18 years of his life, but who somehow still manages not to be pissed off at everyone and everything.

8. Read more, write more, watch less TV. Except, of course, when zombie movies are on TV! (Ironically, “Zombieland” was originally written as a pilot for a TV show. When it was turned down, it was turned into a movie instead.)

9. Count my blessings. But share some of them with others. Just another piece of creature comfort for me might be a life-saver for someone else.

10. Exercise more, eat better. There really is no excuse, so quit making them already. Remember the Number 1 rule from “Zombieland” – Good Cardio! You wanna be able to outrun the zombies.

© 2010 Jon Pine

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Haiti’s earthquake is our tragedy, too

by Jon Pine

As soon as I heard about the horrific earthquake in Haiti last Tuesday my thoughts immediately turned to a tiny village called Simonette, about 15 miles north of Port au Prince. Here, like so many villages dotting the hills of Haiti, live some of the poorest people on the planet.

Jon Pine

Their “homes” are mostly sheets of tin and wooden boards tied together with rope or wire. The floor is the dirt beneath their feet. Most sleep on a blanket, a thin mattress or maybe just some scavenged cardboard. A fortunate few manage to earn enough money for some bricks and mortar to construct sturdier walls.

But there is no running water; instead, the villagers tote it in on foot, in five-gallon plastic buckets balanced atop their heads, from a community well more than a mile away. There is electricity – sometimes. It’s off way more than it’s on, so it can’t be counted upon. Meals, when they can afford to eat, are simple fare cooked in steel pots over a charcoal fire. Almost always it is boiled rice and beans.

I visited Simonette in 2003 with friends who had been missionaries in Haiti for more than 20 years. Their latest project was to support Ed Hughes, a retired Canadian tool and die maker who had set up a make-shift orphanage just outside the village. There, two dozen or so boys and girls, who had either lost their parents or whose parents could no longer afford to care for them, found comfortable beds, sanitary conditions, at least two hearty meals a day, and the means to attend school every day. I was there to take photos and video to create fund-raising materials.

We have not heard any news about the condition of the orphanage following the earthquake. Tragically, Ed died a couple of years ago after falling off the orphanage roof while trying to adjust his satellite antenna; his son reportedly runs the orphanage now. We sort of lost touch with them after Ed died, and I’ve been trying to locate the area on some satellite photos taken after the quake. But it’s such a tiny village it is not listed on any maps. I am hoping that, by some miracle, they are all okay.

But what is “okay”? That’s the question that has been haunting me this week, as I worked with other local volunteers to collect food, medicine and other emergency supplies for the victims of this horrific tragedy. If we help the survivors get back on their feet and resume a life close to what they had before last Tuesday, is that “okay”?

I don’t think so.

An estimated 80 percent of Haitians live below the poverty line, with 56 percent living in abject poverty. One in three babies born does not survive to age five. These statistics are from before the earthquake.

This is not “okay”.

The tragedy in Haiti is our tragedy, despite what jerks like Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robertson want us to believe. We should never have accepted this level of poverty so close to us, while we enjoy comparative riches beyond belief.

Haiti’s long-standing poverty is a major reason that the destruction and death tolls from the quake are so great. Port au Prince, the capital city, was designed for 400,000 people. But nearly three million live there, wedged in beside and on top of one another in spaces designed for far fewer people.

Construction there has also been substandard. Often, to save costs, concrete was mixed “thin,” with not enough cement and too much sand. Just as often, steel reinforcing bars, or “rebar,” was either skimped on or eliminated altogether. Many buildings that probably should not have crumbled, did.

Of course, money alone can not fix all of Haiti’s long-established problems. The widespread corruption and lawlessness must be addressed, too. My hope is that this tragedy will focus the eyes of the world on ALL of Haiti’s problems, not just this latest catastrophe. Because even though the quake has killed an estimated 200,000 people according to the Associated Press, poverty there has surely claimed the lives of many, many times more.

I know what some of you are thinking: “We have our own troubles now. We’re in a recession, bankruptcies are rampant, and unemployment is through the roof.” But I’ll share a couple of little stories:

On Thursday, a young lady pulled up to our food and medicine drive in an older model car. Clearly not one of our many rich housewives who live near the beach. She handed us a couple of small bags with some food and hygiene items. “I will be back tomorrow,” she said as she pulled away.

Yes, she did come back. Because Friday was the day she received her food stamps. And she used all of them to fill the back seat of her car with more food for Haiti.

And there was the Hispanic couple with two small boys who pulled up thinking we were giving out food instead of collecting it. Clearly in dire straights themselves, once they understood what we were doing, they came back and each of the boys pressed a crumpled ten-dollar bill into my hand.

If they can afford to give, can’t we all afford to give?

© 2010 Jon Pine

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