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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Yes, I’m Guilty

I suspect that guilt is like inferiority: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” So spake Eleanor Roosevelt. Due to free will and other highfalutin concepts, we choose what makes us feel guilty. In a way, guilt denotes a certain conceit; we feel bad because we think our actions hurt someone else. That must mean that guilt is empowering. We feel guilty because we have the power to affect the way others feel. Or we feel guilty because we have the power to do bad things. Wow! Guilt is starting to sound like a good thing.

I can see it now: "The Power of Guilt, Bob Etier’s dynamic explanation of the positive aspects of guilt…” Ah, but I digress. Or would the proper word be “hallucinate?”

There is no end to the things that cause people to feel guilty. Forgetting someone’s birthday, not saying please, running over a neighbor’s cat…the list goes on and on. The first time I called my husband an idiot, I immediately felt remorse, but he thought it was funny, so now when people ask me to describe Chip, I simply say, “he’s an idiot.” He’s not really an idiot, though he does think that most of what I say is funny. That, I believe, is called "humoring.” (Confession: I don’t describe Chip as an idiot, I only say that to his face. And only when he’s being one. He laughs.)

Back to guilt. There’s an old saying, “The Jews invented guilt, but the Catholics perfected it.” I don’t know about that. I do know that the fabulous “greatest generation” knew guilt's value. A fellow baby boomer confessed to me that she was very polite. So am I. If I’m not, I’d feel very bad. That means, of course, being polite to some of the meanest, most miserable scoundrels. Smiling and saying “thank you” when being stabbed in the back or slapped in the face.

Who taught me I should feel bad when I don’t treat everyone like life’s a tea party? The greatest generation—those parents and teachers and media role models (think Nancy Drew and Miss Manners) who instilled “proper” behavior through generous applications of guilt. After all, didn’t we all want everyone to think we were “nice” little girls and boys? The funny thing about being polite is that it often causes people to do something for which they should feel guilty. Who hasn’t been dishonest at some point to spare someone’s feelings?

Shortly after enjoying the discussion of my manners, I received a phone call. I checked the caller ID; I must admit that I’m rude enough not to answer the phone based on who or where the caller is. For example, the only calls we get from Boise, ID, are from the recorded sons of Ronald Reagan. The call I got this morning was coming from Clover, South Carolina. Since I’m in North Carolina, it’s very possible that a call from South Carolina is a legitimate business or personal call. Who knows? Maybe a neighbor got stranded in Clover and is calling for help. (Not a bad image though…stranded in clover).

This morning’s caller asked for Frank Ay-tair. I’m fair. I know our name is notoriously unpronounceable, so I just say “I’m sorry he’s at work, may I help you?” (See how polite I am?) The caller asks “Are you Mrs. Ay-tair?” Silly me, I admit I am, knowing that this is someone who doesn’t know us in the least, or they would 1) be able to pronounce our name, and 2) not call Chip “Frank.”

After ascertaining that she had a potential victim on the phone, the caller mumbled some identification, and asked “How are you?” “I’m fine,” I replied. “How are you?” This is an indication of my dishonesty; why would I ask how someone I don’t know is when I don’t care? Already I’m feeling guilty.

Once establishing that we were both fine (thank God!), the caller continued awkwardly reading from her script, which was going to beseech me for a donation. I don’t donate over the telephone. Sometimes I explain to callers that if they’d like to send me information in the mail or direct me to their website, I’d consider their pleas. I didn’t do that today.

This morning, maybe because I had just been ruminating about how being so polite hasn’t gotten me anywhere except frustrated or insulted, this caller had irritated me. Big time. I was super-annoyed that part of the script was to ask me how I am. Not only do I not care how the caller is, she and her organization don’t care how I am. The only aspect of my health that interests them is financial.

As she launched into her spiel, she told me she was calling for the North Carolina Special Olympics and assured me that she knew that I know the great work done by the Special Olympics. I hung up.

I never hang up on anyone. I sometimes say, “if you can’t speak to me like a human being [whatever that means] then I’m going to hang up and we can talk later.” That’s not a line I use on telemarketers; usually I tell them I’m unemployed (which, most importantly, is true) and while I would love to buy five or six magazine subscriptions, this is just not the right time. Actually, there is no right time since I have about a dozen subscriptions and read only two.

I sit here—clicking away on my keyboard, drinking my Snapple, eating my string cheese and French twists—steeped in guilt. This is patently unfair. I felt insulted by the call (whether I had a reason to is immaterial), and I feel guilty. The guilt makes sense, though. After all, the woman was calling for a good cause, she was just doing her job, she didn’t know I’d react badly to her false friendliness, Special Olympics is such a good cause—and, most of all, how would I like it if someone hung up on me?

Here I sit, guilty guilty guilty. And worse yet, I’m not a nice little girl. Darn! This day had started out so well.

Another St. Patty’s Day, Another Lent

How do I always get myself into trouble on St. Patrick's Day? It's one thing to make promises you can't keep; I make promises I don't want to keep.

I believe that there is something wrong with anyone who doesn't eat corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's Day (infants and anyone without teeth or the ability to eat solids are excepted). If you are a vegetarian, you should be eating corned tofu and cabbage (flavoring the cabbage with the same spices omnivores use for their corned beef), or whatever your favorite meat substitute is AND cabbage. Boiled cabbage.

There are probably dozens of ways to prepare corned beef, but on St. Patrick's Day there is but one: boiled. For hours. With cabbage. And potatoes. Just the thought of it makes me high. It probably doesn’t hurt that there's corned beef and cabbage boiling away in my kitchen as I type. The aroma intoxicates me.

There aren't many meals that are so easy to prepare, yet so impressive on presentation. It's not that corned beef is especially artistic; I know it's not when I serve it. But there's something that says "work" about a corned beef supper. By the time my corned beef is ready (after hours and hours and hours of simmering), it will be sliced and served with boiled potatoes, cabbage, and sliced carrots. I don’t know if there's any particular Irish significance to carrots, but they seem to go well with the rest of the amalgamation.

If you've never made your own, believe me, it's much simpler than that other holiday staple, the Thanksgiving turkey. You buy a corned beef that's already seasoned, potatoes, carrots, and cabbage. You put the corned beef in a big pot, cover with water (the beef, not the pot), and boil for a few hours. After the first hour or two, add your vegetables.

You can't just throw the whole head of cabbage in; you've got to cut it up first. Some people put in whole leaves; I cut it down to bite-size pieces. If you are using fresh potatoes and carrots, you've got to peel them, then add the whole potatoes to the pot, slice the carrots, and add them. Here's where I cheat. I use canned carrots and canned new potatoes. By the time the carrots and potatoes have finished boiling with the rest of the dish, you won't know they came from a can. Frozen would work just as well.

How long the corned beef must be boiled depends on its size. Generally, there are four steps: simmer the corned beef for about two hours, throw in the vegetables, simmer for another two hours or so (the longer you boil it, the better it will be — within limits), remove to a serving plate, and wait ten minutes before slicing. Every hour or so, check to make sure the water hasn't boiled down too much. You don't have to cover the pot, but if you have four cats, like we do, it can't hurt (Boris the Bad has been known to grab chicken out of a pot of boiling water). When the meat seems to be falling apart, it's ready.

Slice the corned beef and arrange it on top of the boiled veggies. I have to have spicy brown mustard for the beef, and butter for the veggies. If you are lucky enough to live near a bakery (particularly in the Northeast), get a nice fresh loaf of rye bread to serve with dinner. Oddly, the rye bread goes better with this meal than Irish soda bread. The rest of us will have to make do with packaged rye bread (unless we're feeling ambitious and want to make our own bread, which isn't such a bad idea because that takes about as long as boiling the corned beef).

There really is only one thing for adults to drink with corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's Day. That would be green beer. If you're preparing the meal yourself, get some beer, add a tiny bit of green food coloring, and you're set.

So how, if I follow these instructions, could I possibly get myself in trouble on St. Patty's Day? Easy. St. Patty's Day and Lent coincide, and I always give something(s) up for Lent. For two years in a row, I gave up beef. The first year, I made corned beef for my family. Never again; there is sacrifice, and there is SACRIFICE. The second year I deferred the corned beef until Easter. Not the traditional Easter dinner, but wonderful nonetheless. So this year, I didn’t give up beef. No — brainiac that I am, I gave up alcohol.

I'm not a "big drinker" but Chip and I enjoy having a drink together occasionally, so that enjoyment is basically what I've given up for Lent. But here we are on St. Patrick's Day again and guess what. I can't have green beer. When I make a commitment, that's it, no getting out of it. No matter what. Even if it involves a Saint who, if he exists, would probably plead my case and get me off with a light sentence. I guess I could get some alcohol-free beer, but that feels like cheating.

Beer or no beer, I'm Irish today, and I'm going to enjoy all the corned beef and cabbage that I can eat. If you want to celebrate the day but don't want to cook, go find a nice deli that's making corned beef and cabbage sandwiches. Be sure to get one on a nice, seeded rye and don't forget the deli mustard.