Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A chocolate chip time machine

I won’t go into the psychological state that resulted in my coming home yesterday with two different bags of cookies and a gallon of milk, other than to say it had been years since I had last done that. Nor were they small packages of gourmet cookies, the only sort I normally indulge in, but Oreos and store brand chocolate chip.

When I poured a large glass of milk and ripped open the Oreos, I was suddenly transported more than 45 years into the past, to an afternoon when my mother and baby brother were asleep, and my father (who worked second shift) not yet awake. The memory was so vivid I nearly saw double, my own fingers superimposed over a five year old’s, as they dunked the Oreo into the milk. I honestly didn’t know for a moment whether my fingertips really were that cold, or if I was remembering how cold my fingertips got in the milk as I waited for the Oreo to become completely saturated with milk before eating it.

Understand that this is a delicate moment- the cookie must be totally soaked to be at the peak of perfection, but not so soaked as to fall apart into the milk and have to be retrieved with a spoon. Not that I would have, actually; cookie etiquette called for you to get a new cookie instead, and drink the sludge later. The memory didn’t fail me; I timed the dip perfectly, the cookie squishing delightfully in my mouth, the edge that had been between my fingers the only dry spot, like Achilles' heel.

The five year old cookie expert’s eye noted that the chocolate chip cookie didn’t have the structural integrity to saturate in the cup; it would have fallen apart almost instantly. Without thinking I shifted to the alternate milk protocol: I bit off a piece, but did not chew, holding it in my mouth as I took a sip of milk and held them together until the cookie was saturated before smooshing it against the roof of my mouth with my tongue.

I’m not a person noted for my keen memory- there are people I’ve sat next to at church for ten years whom I still need to read the nametag to get the last name right; I still have to look at the calendar to get the exact day of my brothers’ birthdays, having only the months memorized... and yet these memories were so vivid that it was only after I swallowed the first half of the chocolate chip cookie that I realized I had actually tasted another brand of cookie altogether- the one I had eaten on that afternoon in 1961. I had never truly believed the Zen master’s claim that it was possible to drink tea from an empty cup before; now I know that it’s true.

Who needs drugs? I have chocolate!

Monday, January 29, 2007

What is it about some people

that makes them think they must embellish points they have already won with lies to drive the points in harder? While people from all walks of life do this, this behavior is most egregious in politicians, whose words are recorded and can be recalled.

In a speech delivered in Davos, Switzerland last Saturday, Senator Kerry said, “"When we walk away from global warming, Kyoto, when we are irresponsibly slow in moving toward AIDS in Africa, when we don't advance and live up to our own rhetoric and standards, we set a terrible message of duplicity and hypocrisy," Kerry said.... So we have a crisis of confidence in the Middle East — in the world, really. I've never seen our country as isolated, as much as a sort of international pariah for a number of reasons as it is today." The conclusion may well be true; we may be a pariah state- he’s in a better place to judge than I am, he gets out more than I do. But he is knowingly lying when he lists the two reasons he did as the reasons the Bush administration has lost world respect.

Why do I so boldly call Senator Kerry a liar? Let’s take his first complaint: “When we walk away from global warming, Kyoto,...” While it is true that the US did cynically sign the Kyoto Accords, knowing full well that it would never be submitted to the Senate for ratification, it was Al Gore, representing the US for the Clinton administration that signed it, and it was Bill Clinton that refused to submit the treaty to congress! True, Bush could have submitted it to the senate when he took office more than a year later, but he did not do so for the same reason that Clinton did not: the senate had already passed a “sense of the senate” resolution stating that they would never ratify any climate treaty that excluded China, which Kyoto does.

This resolution, s.res.98
, was sponsored by Senator Byrd and passed by a bipartisan 95-0. There was no possibility of the Kyoto treaty being ratified under either President, and so no reason to submit it- something that Sen. Kerry knows full well, for as the link above shows, he voted for it! Sen. Kerry is blaming Bush for failing to pass a treaty that had actually failed under the previous administration- and he himself had been one of those who had killed it!

So let’s move to his second point: “when we are irresponsibly slow in moving toward AIDS in Africa,...” I offer this article from The Independent , January 2, 2007: “The foreign affairs legacy of President George Bush so far speaks most loudly of terrorism, Afghanistan and the quagmire of Iraq.

But statistics just compiled by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reveal that since taking over the Oval Office, Mr Bush, partly under pressure from his Christian supporters as well as celebrities such as Bono and Bob Geldof, has dramatically increased US aid to Africa. ... The development aid is complemented by Mr Bush's rapidly growing commitment to fighting HIV and Aids in Africa, as well as malaria. In what has become the largest health initiative of his presidency - the President's Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar) - Mr Bush has pledged $15bn over five years to fight HIV in Africa and provide drugs for Aids victims.
... "Bush and his Christian supporters seldom get the credit they deserve for their role in the global fight against Aids," the Los Angeles Times noted. "US spending on the disease overseas under Bush has risen tenfold, while Christian groups have given unselfishly to the cause."...”
I’ll add to that the words of Bob Geldof: “"You'll think I'm off my trolley when I say this, but the Bush administration is the most radical - in a positive sense - in its approach to Africa since Kennedy," Mr Geldof, who organised the 1985 Live Aid fund raising concert for Ethiopia, told Britain's Guardian newspaper.”

So... the most bipartisan foreign affairs effort in 50 years- the 95-0 rejection of Kyoto during the Clinton administration- and Bush’s African AIDS initiative- virtually the only thing he’s gotten right and is universally praised for- are the only two things Sen. Kerry can think of to criticize Bush for?!? Almost any other person on the planet could have stood at that podium for an hour listing Bush’s blunders without consulting notes- but Kerry has to make things up? Can somebody explain that to me?

Thank you

For nominating me for best new blog at the
Third Annual UU Blog Awards . That is such an honor that it feels greedy to ask for your vote as well- but I am doing so anyway. Make an old man happy!

Saturday, January 27, 2007

So near, and yet so far, Part 2

Davidson Loehr, in his essay Salvation by Character:
How UU's can Find the Religious Center
, once again does what he always does so masterfully: correctly diagnosing the disease, then discussing the symptoms instead of the underlying illness!

To Mr. Loehr, the problem is that our religious language has not kept pace with our changing religious concepts. What change is he referring to? “...we have not adequately filled the hole left by the death of God... The theological problem of Western religion can be put another way: During the last few centuries, God ceased to be a being, and became a concept. The "being" God needed a place to be, and that vanished when people stopped believing there could be anything "up there." Since then, "God" has "dwelled" in the minds and hearts of believers, as a concept, an idea, or a feeling. While the language has stayed the same, this "category change" for the word "God" has changed the game of theology almost completely.” He goes on to describe the problems this has caused, and the attempted solutions or ways around the problem others have tried: “Scientism, Politics as a Religion, Theological Double-talk”. He proposes his own solutions- redefining the language we use, and the questions we ask.

But there is one question so basic it cannot occur to him, any more than a fish can question water... his one TRUTH, the central concept upon which all else in his (and nearly all of UU theologians) philosophy hangs prevents him from asking it: Is God dead? He is so proud of not telling me what I must believe that it never occurs to him that it is equally hubris to tell me what I must NOT believe- a living God. This is the modern liberal theologian’s one essential creed, that God as being is dead. How many currently serving UU ministers believe in a living God- 5%? 1%? Any at all? Is it even possible to graduate from a UU seminary believing in a living God?

Mr. Loehr is aware that this is out of the mainstream of humanity- “Most dictionaries define "religion" as involving a belief in a god, and nearly everyone still takes that to mean a supernatural Being who lives somewhere "up there."“ Just how far out of the mainstream is it? While it’s impossible to get any definitive numbers, here are some low conservative estimates, culled from an evening‘s Googleing: believing in a living God, (not necessarily Abraham’s Jehovah, but a being nonetheless), some 5 billion. Those who have felt the presence of God directly, whether in a church service, or during a transcendental moment in their lives, over a billion. Those who feel the presence of God regularly, several hundred million. Those whom God has spoken to directly, (including Pentecostals who have spoken in tongues, Wiccans who have drawn down the Moon, VouDoun and Obeah and Santeria who have been possessed by a Loa, etc.), tens of millions.

One of the most important and meaningful dialogues the UUA could get into would be “Is a living God compatible with modern science?”- but it is a debate the UUA as presently constituted will never have. How do I know? Because one cannot have a true debate with those whom you despise- and that is not too strong a word for how believers are perceived within the UUA. Contempt for any such belief was the central theme of the “Language of Religion” forums the UUA held through the official website a couple years ago, and contempt fairly drips from every page of this, and many other of Mr. Loehr’s essays- “The Liberal Bias: Intellectual Integrity. Not all religious paths require intellectual integrity. In fact, most don't. ...That's a key difference between the broader conservative religious paths and the narrower liberal paths. ...If we're going to check our brains at the church door, almost any faith will do. Ours is, and has always been, a much harder and more demanding route. ...Like Santa, the old God-as-a-being is gone. Those who've dressed up in his clothes have tried to sell us visions of science, politics, and theological self deceptions.“

The fourth paragraph of his essay opens, “Mainline and liberal churches, including ours, continue to attract a smaller and smaller percentage of the population.” How many times has this been noted? How many blog entries, forum threads, and discussion groups have asked “We’re the most welcoming denomination there is- why don’t more gays join?”, or “We put more effort into race relations than any other denomination- why don’t more African-Americans join?” Could it be that after the first visit, they stopped thinking of themselves as a minority, and instead looked at themselves as believers amongst those who think ordinary Christians check their brains at the door? Could they have first felt welcomed as gays, then felt their integrity questioned as believers in a living God? It’s amazing to me how many UUs who lecture about institutional racism and heteronormative behavior in our culture at large fail to recognize the institutional atheism within the UUA.

I think we need to start a new dialogue among ourselves. Is an anti-creed- things thou must not believe- the same as a creed? Should we be as welcoming to those who have conventional beliefs as we are to those with alternative beliefs? Is God dead?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

So near, and yet so far

William R. Murry‘s article, “Reason and reverence“, in the Winter 2006 issue of UU World, discusses his faith, which he describes as humanistic religious naturalism . What he describes is so close to what I, and many other Neopagans believe... and yet, so very far.

Most Pagan faiths share the Humanist beliefs in social commitment and personal responsibility. Having rejected the concept of a “savior”, we have no one to take the blame for us- we have to accept the consequences of our actions. Having no savior, Pagans know they must work for the betterment of society; we’re not waiting for someone else to come and do it for us. Most Neopagans share the Religious Naturalism perspective that finds religious meaning in the natural world, as do a great many of the classic Non-Abrahamic faiths, from Shinto to Native American. Where we all differ from the classic Humanist or Mr. Murry’s Religious Naturalism is his rejection of a supernatural realm, or a supernatural God/s/dess.

He does say that he is a theist; but that his God belongs to the natural universe, rather than a supernatural deity. I think part of the difference is in the definition of “supernatural”, as my deity, too, belongs to the natural universe- but does not resemble his. When a modern Pagan, or indeed a modern theist of most any stripe says “natural” and “supernatural”, they mean “that which is understood”, and “that which is not understood”. When a modern atheist, or post-modern theist of Mr. Murry’s variety uses those words, they mean “that which is understood”, and “that which is fantastic in concept; non-existent”. For the first type of theist, the Divine is (or can be) an actual being, a non-human sentience; for the post-modern theist, the Divine is a vague “force of creation”, or more often “love”. To this kind of theist, an actual being would be “supernatural”, and therefore nonexistent.

This produces a conundrum for the post-modern theist that is clearly revealed in his article. He speaks of the importance of reverence; it is the fourth of his five characteristics a viable future religion must have. He says, “...but it is only reverence, understood as feelings of respect and awe, that can save us from the hubris that would destroy all the good we have accomplished.”, and “...a religion without a profound sense of reverence is no religion at all.” Exactly so. But nowhere does he explain, or even hint at the OBJECT of his reverence, his respect, his awe. As he quotes Carl Sagan at the end, one can infer that it is the universe itself he so reveres- but that seems a bit weak to base an entire religion on, doesn’t it? The stars are pretty, therefore I must change my life and work for others? It might be God he reveres, but given his only description of God, “...power of creativity, an immanent force for good in the world, or simply as mystery.”, that hardly seems like the object of a reverence so deep that it “...can save us from the hubris that would destroy all the good we have accomplished.”

Of course, he must remain vague, as any explanation of the object of such words as “faith”, “worship”, “reverence”, etc., would of necessity involve a definition of what he means by “God”, which means tap-dancing around the Humanist insistence that reason denies the existence of a living God. I believe there are two causes for this insistence that reason denies the existence of a living Divinity: 1. Misunderstanding the limits of reason. “Reason”, “Rationality”, or any human logic system is a mental construct to try to understand the universe- it is not the universe itself. When reason and reality conflict, it is “reason” that must yield, not reality. I discuss this here and here To those who still can find no room for a living God, I say first explain Dark Energy and Dark Matter , and then tell me how we know too much to believe. 2. Misunderstanding the nature of and limitations of the Divine. This, I believe, is Mr. Murry’s error.

Mr. Murry cannot see the hand of the Divine in nature. He sees the fact that “nature’s rain falls on the just and the unjust” not as the evidence of the Divine’s unconditional love, but as proof that “Nature knows nothing of justice, love, kindness, or generosity.” It seems that he buys into the fundamentalists’ concept of a judgmental God who punishes with natural disasters, and rewards by saving one from those same disasters. The only God he was looking for was an angry God. There are other visions of God- I discuss some of mine here He goes on to say that it is Humanism that “...provides the values that naturalism lacks.” This seems to me to be running very close to the hubris he himself warns against when he speaks of reverence.

The theist who believes in a Living Deity is caught between two forces: the background culture that insists on the false choice of either the God of Abraham, or atheism; and the Humanist who insists on the false choice of either reason or a “supernatural” God, but not both. Oddly enough, it is the second sort who cause me more grief in my daily life. With every passing year- almost every passing day- there are fewer and fewer Christians who would call me a devil-worshipper and attack me. If they do, I have the first amendment to protect me. If push comes to shove, I have the second amendment, too. (no, I’m not a fluffy bunny pagan) But there are plenty of Humanists and/or atheists in my congregation and my denomination who have no patience for anyone who does not see things their way, and are often not shy about announcing it, either.

Mr. Murry speaks of “A new humanism is emerging among Unitarian Universalists,...a religious humanism that offers depth, meaning, and purpose without sacrificing intellectual honesty or the spiritual dimension.” I hope that this is not another declaration of war on theism, but fear from some past experiences that it will become exactly that. I, too, refuse to sacrifice intellectual honesty; I will not write off my, and many others, transcendental experiences as temporary insanity. (as some oh-so-tolerant UUs have described them) I will not be ashamed of saying grace or any other ritual that deepens my connection to the Divine. I welcome the emergence of Humanistic religious naturalism as a new faith tradition, and hope that when he said “...and a profound respect for others.”, he meant respecting theists, too. If he does, perhaps UU will become the “viable religion of the twenty-first century” he seeks.

Friday, January 19, 2007

I’m proud of the Indiana State Senate

If things go the way common sense would dictate, Indiana will become the first state to immunize school girls against HPV. From the article in Indystar.com : “Senate Bill 327 would require HPV vaccines in girls before the start of sixth grade. A vaccine approved last year by the Food and Drug Administration wards off some strains of HPV, which can cause genital warts and cervical cancer. Indiana children must get booster shots for diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella before middle school, so the proposal's backers say it makes sense to add the HPV vaccine to that age group. But schools wouldn't be forced to turn away girls who aren't vaccinated against HPV, as they do for other required shots.”

This is a completely bipartisan effort- also from the Star: “The state proposal, written by Sen. Connie Lawson, R-Danville, has the blessing of every female senator -- seven Democrats and six Republicans.”

We needn’t worry about the state’s reputation, though- there are champions of the state’s reputation as the home of the ignorant yahoo fighting against it: "This says, 'Hey, you can engage in sexual activity and not be at risk for this disease,' which is pretty pervasive," said Micah Clark, director of the American Family Association of Indiana. "Without an abstinence message, it could offer some false hope that you're invincible against this disease, and you're not." I was with them opposing handing out free condoms to 13 year olds in the public schools- I did think there was an element of mixed message, of “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” there... but the HPV vaccine? Does he imagine a 13 year old boy is going to say to a 13 year old girl, “Hey, that thing about you not getting cancer is hot- wanna do it?”

A slightly more serious challenge is the cost- some $2.7 million. That is, after all, 3.6% of what we’re spending on the new football stadium for the Colts- some of the luxury skyboxes might have to settle for a Leroy Nieman on the wall instead of a Chagall; but still, if enough girls are spared cervical cancer, it may be worth it.

This is a remarkably far-sighted and sensible proposal for a legislative body who spends most of it’s time and our money on things like fighting against Daylight Savings Time, or fighting against the federal judiciary for the right to dedicate opening prayers to Jesus... I can only hope against hope it passes.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Reflections on my first year blogging

I started this blog on January 11, 2006 with some hopes but few expectations- which was a good thing, as 2006 proved to be a kidney stone of a year- it did pass, but there was pain. Friends and regular readers know that this past year I have dealt with death in the family and the collapse of my business, plus many lesser blows I haven’t bothered my readers with. I’m proud that with all that has gone on in my life I managed to keep the blog going at all- it would have been so easy to let it go, to drop this least important of my burdens when I was feeling overwhelmed. And yet, for reasons I don’t truly understand myself, I did not- I even managed some essays that I’m quite proud of.

Here are some of the posts that have meant the most to me this past year, even though not all of them are my best work, and in no particular order:

Two cat anecdotes, A genuine act of faith , and I wonder

Some thoughts on the UUA: Why I love UU , How UU can grow... , What is to be the UUA’s role in the world? , and Does UU have a center?

Some personal philosophy: Reason in religion , What gets me through the night , My favorite word of reverence , My musings on Moral Authority , and Holiday musings from an Earth centered perspective

And some random moments: Thoughts on food , Lay off of Hammurabi already! , "Think as I think," , In the Midst of Life... , Michael Moore parody , Dark laughter , U.S. energy use , and The myth of overpopulation .

I’m proud of these moments, but there were too few of them- I vow to do better in 2007!

Monday, January 15, 2007

Finally, Vietnam

Somewhere around three weeks into the Iraq war people started drawing false Vietnam analogies, but now in 2007 we are finally fulfilling them.

It started with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid warning the President before his speech that sending more U.S. troops to Iraq would be unacceptable - even though the President’s plan is nearly identical to that recommended by Speaker Pelosi’s own choice for Intelligence Committee chairman only a month ago . Other politicians who had criticized Bush for not sending enough troops are now criticizing him for sending more troops. Tipping point... it is now conventional wisdom that there are more votes to be gained by blanket opposition to the war than by being right about the war, even if it means flip-flopping when you could have had a legitimate “told you so”. Vietnam syndrome.

This means that the President’s plan is doomed to failure, because no matter what happens it will be reported as a failure on the evening news, just as the Tet offensive- the greatest US victory in the Vietnam war- was reported as a failure on the TV news. This means that Teddy Kennedy’s position, (and to be fair, he has been consistent from the beginning), that he frankly doesn’t care what happens to the Iraqis as long as we leave, will become the official position of the Democratic party.

If Iraq follows the Vietnam example, the purges after our precipitous withdrawal will eclipse anything that went before; in Vietnam, about two million died- and they didn’t have the religious hatred involved. And just as the violence spread from Vietnam into Laos and Cambodia, so it will from Iraq throughout the Middle East. The Islamists already believe that their victory is inevitable; that all they have to do is shed blood- ours, theirs, anybody’s- and America will break and run. And why shouldn’t they believe it? It’s perfectly true. Tens of thousands of terrorists from all over the world will flood into Afghanistan, and we will flee before them- after all, after having surrendered Iraq, no American politician’s spine will suddenly stiffen over Afghanistan. The current government of Pakistan may or may not have time to flee to exile in Europe before the extremists take over, but it matters little in the long run- do you think the French or Italian police will be able to prevent the fatwa’s from being executed? Within two years, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan will all be run by Al Quaeda and Taliban forces- armed with Pakistan’s atomic bombs.

Has the war been mismanaged? It’s been the biggest cluster-you-know-what since Debbie did Dallas... but no matter how bad staying is, leaving prematurely will be worse. Strangely, though, the people comparing Iraq to Vietnam mean by that that we should leave- but the real lessons of Vietnam show we should stay.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A minor accomplishment

I finally had a couple hours today, so I sat down and labeled my posts. Now if anyone is sick enough, they can search my insane ramblings by category!

Friday, January 05, 2007

Five Theological Questions Meme

In her Friday 1/05 entry, Ms Kitty lists Five Theological Questions her mentor had asked. It brought back a lot of memories for me- when I had my first crisis of faith some 37 years ago, I began an intensive philosophy/religion search. In the course of that search, I ran across a number of similar lists, some ancient, some modern, and so these are things I have pondered many times over many years. Although my answer have varied over the years, and may do so again for all I know, I do have a current set of answers, and so I’m going to treat her questions as a meme.

1. Who am I and what is my purpose (the question of Being)?

I began as a not quite blank slate upon which much was written and much was asked. I did not frame the questions, but I am responsible for my answers. I am the total of all my decisions to date. One of those decisions was my purpose: to leave this world in a better shape than I found it. That means, at minimum, to follow the moral code I have adopted, one based on the principal of least harm. What more it may mean I’m still exploring.

2. What must I do to be made whole (the question of Salvation)?

I do not accept the basis of the question. I do not believe in Original Sin; we are born perfect, ready for heaven. When we sin, we are writing for ourselves a record that will be very painful to read when we achieve enlightenment- but that is our pain, self imposed, a pain that in our better moments we will embrace to aid our growth, like the pain involved removing a splinter. There is nothing else to be “saved” from.

3. Who or what is in charge (the question of God)?

There is a big and a small component to this. The small component is my life; I am in charge of that. Sure, there are times when I’d like to palm off the responsibility of making decisions to someone else... but it’s my duty, and I cannot give it to someone else even if I wanted to- because even that act is itself a decision, a decision to shirk my duty. Even to do nothing at all is a decision to accept another’s decision.

The big component is the world, and no one is in charge of that. The way in which we are made in God’s image is that we, too, have the power to create, the spark of unpredictability. God does not cause bad things to happen to good people; we do, by working at cross purposes. If mankind ever united in a cause, then that collective decision would be in charge... until then, no one is.

4. How do I know what I know (the question of Authority)?

Small surprise as a Unitarian but first I drip what I know through the filter of reason and logic. But I also know that logic often fails us, as I discuss here . Then it becomes time to ask your gut. Does my soul know this to be true, no matter what my mind says? Am I trying to argue myself out of what I know is right?

As to Authority... well, this may sound arrogant, but I accept no authority outside myself for the truly important questions of life. I’ll listen for wisdom, listen to proffered advice- but I regard no other mortal to be an authority on my soul.

5. And What does my death mean (the question of Time)?

This is something I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about. One reality at a time is my motto. I have faith that if I make myself truly worthy of this world, I have no need to fear what I find in the next one.

Tag: anyone who has answers ready!

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Recently encountered irritants

The aristocracy is not “To the manner born”. One is not host on a petard. It is the muster that one does or does not cut. Leech and leach: one is a noun, the other a verb.

Ok, I’m really not a grammar Nazi. I was not among those who complained that Star Trek’s mission statement split an infinitive; I’m wont to tell those who chide me for ending a sentence with a preposition that that is the sort of nonsense “up with which one should not put.” I would never correct a friend or blog; I’ve always held that my pomposity in doing so would be a greater offense than a minor language faux pas. But the examples listed above were out of books from major publishing houses.

Come on, publishers- if you’re going to charge me $26.95 for a book you told me was an important work, hire a Goddamned editor! Running a book through a spellchecker is not good enough; have a human being- preferably a high school graduate- read the thing before committing to print. I’m not offended when Ludicris or 50 Cent abuses the language; they quite literally don’t know any better. But I expect better from major publishing houses.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Eating in Provence

Having covered the horrors of air travel in the first installments, it’s now time to explore the real reason anyone would go to the French Riviera- no, not nude beaches! (not in December, anyway) Food!

To begin with, we found it’s even more important in the provinces than in Paris to time your sightseeing around meals- you simply will not be served except at designated meal times. Between 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm nothing more substantial than a crepe or an ice cream can be had, and usually not even that. If you speak French, and are very polite, and have a really good reason for not being there at the appointed hour (like your plane being late), and they are feeling guilty over some secret sin and need one act of charity to be promoted from Hell to Purgatory, they will tell you where the nearest convenience store selling baguettes and cold cuts is- that’s as close as you’ll get to off-hours service. The reverse if often true as well- even relatively important tourist sites may well be closed during the critical lunch and dinner hours.

Once those restaurant doors open, however, wonders await. Being on the Mediterranean, you would expect a lot of seafood specialties, and you’d be right. True Bouillabaisse, for example, cannot be made anywhere else- it depends on species found only there. Bouillabaisse must be ordered 24 hours in advance (especially when you’re there in the off-season as we were). There’s a bit of ritual to it, too. First they present a silver platter heaped with freshly caught... well, I assumed seafood, although some of the specimens were so exotic that I could only hope they came from terrestrial oceans, for your approval. This is a very dangerous moment for me, just like the moment when the sommelier offers the cork and small sip for approval. Am I the only one who has to suppress an impulse to spit it across the room and scream “Are you trying to poison me?”, just to see what would happen?

Ok, evidently I am. Well, since I am not writing from jail, I suppressed the impulse with the chef, too, and he took the platter back to the kitchen. After appetizers and a bit more wait, servers came out with huge bowls, trays of condiments, breads, etc. The bowls were piled high with all the strange things I had approved earlier, each one cooked separately in whatever specific manner each demanded before being loaded into the bowl. Lastly, a large tureen of broth was produced and ladled over the pile in the bowl. In the interest of public sensibilities we should probably draw the veil over the rest of the scene.

Desserts in France are different from American restaurants- smaller, less heavy, less of an “instant diabetes” feeling. On the other hand, all French restaurants serve Creme Brulee. It’s not that Creme Brulee is the ultimate dessert, but for someone who grew up as a cross between Bart Simpson and Beavis & Butthead, a dish that combines a sugar rush with a blowtorch is irresistible. Afterwards is something else you won’t get in America: brandy and cigars.

There were other surprises as well. I had thought that raw fish was unique to Japan, but it’s not. “Carrapacio” is very thinly sliced, raw meat with spiced oil drizzled on it; it was available in salmon, beef and lamb. Being in close proximity to Italy, there was pasta and beans on the menu- in the rest of France, your only carbohydrate choices are bread or Pomes Frites. One last surprise was the method of pricing on the menus- be very careful, because it may not be what you think. We ordered a rare fish that was priced at 18.00 Euros... when we got the bill, it was over 80.00 Euros! The part we had missed was that it was 18.00 Euros per 100 gram serving, and that having killed the fish, they serve (and charge for) the whole thing, however many 100 gram servings it turns out to be. Had they not accepted plastic (which many places outside of Paris do not) it might have been very embarrassing!