Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.

- Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Saturday, August 18, 2012


Beckta Dining & Wine (613) 238-7063 www.beckta.com
226 Nepean St., Ottawa, ON
Rating: 5 stars Price: $$$$ Last visit: August 11, 2012

Those who know me well, understand my passion for great food. For fine dining I look for a restaurant with a continental flair, super fresh, locally sourced ingredients, presented well by a friendly knowledgeable staff as prepared by a chef that can surprise me with interesting taste combinations.

I've wanted to eat at Beckta ever since I first read about it on the Ottawa Foodies blog. We finally made it there on our last trip to the Canadian capital. Based on that experience I feel confident in saying Beckta is perhaps the finest restaurant in Ottawa today. Situated in a converted house downtown, it is calm and refined. The service is impeccable. We arrived after being soaked in a sudden thunderstorm. They helped me dry off as I was seated. We never felt hurried, and we never felt ignored. Every member of the wait staff was fully knowledgeable about the food. The food is innovative, unique, almost indescribable. Sometimes chef Michael Moffatt reaches a bit too far in an effort to find the perfect pairing of tastes, but there are more hits than misses.  Here's what we ate:

As we surveyed the menu, we were served fresh crusty bread from a local bakery. The choices were fennel/date, whole wheat/nut and classic baguette. We tried them all and went back for seconds. The sweet butter was paired with an unique caramelized version.

We were then offered a bite-sized amuse-bouche of smoked char on lemon fennel puff pastry.

I started with a glass of Rose “Bistro,” (Hidden Bench, Beamsville Bench, Ontario, 2011) that is dry with a tart cherry after taste I liked. Merry tried and liked a cocktail of Campari with sparkling Eska water & fresh grapefruit.

For appetizers I had sweet pea soup with wasabi cream fraishe, verjus pickled ramps, pea shoots and baby fennel chip. This was an interesting contrast of sweetness with highlights of sharp spice.

Sweet pea soup

Merry got the prize, however with heirloom beet salad with baby radish, grilled halloumi cheese, black olive oil croutons with truffled leek vinaigrette. This salad is wonderful on so many levels, it needs to be tasted to be believed.

Heirloom beet salad
For a main course I chose pan roasted breast of Quebec Magret Duck with sun dried cherry gnocchi, arugula, early summer succotash, chantrelle mushrooms and fresh cherry cumberland sauce. Very savory dish. Duck was perfect at medium rare. I accompanied this with a spicy red wine recommended by our server called "Pipe Down" (Organized Crime, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario, 2010). I found this too sharp by itself, but our server was right to suggest it, as it went very well pared with the duck.
Quebec Magret Duck
Merry choose the exotic orchid flower rissoto with carmalized onions, almond cream, oyster mushrooms, wilted misuna (Japanese mustad greens) and baby spinach pesto. This dish had a light perfume taste from the flowers but the spinach pesto and misuna over-powered the other flavors and made the whole dish a bit of a dissappointment. 
Orchid flower rissoto
That let-down as quickly picked up with Merry's dessert choice of raspberrty cheesecake with cinnamon basil graham crumbs, exploded raspberries, spice box fudge, huckleberry molassas and fresh currants. This white mound with no crust has the exploded raspberries on the inside of a light, creamy filling unlike any other cheesecake. The graham crumbs, currants and fudge were scattered on the plate to be added as whim dictates.
Raspberry cheesecake

As we were having coffee, a surprise finish was brought out - a chinese spoon for each of us with a "deconstructed" apple crisp comprised of a small crust on the bottom, then cream filling with spiced apple bits on top accompanied by a small graham bar. A very nice last bite.
Dinner took about 2 hours in all. Price was $180 for the two of us including drinks and tip. Although the price is high, we agreed it was a good value for an extraordinary evening. We will certainly go again. Maybe next time we'll try one of their famous blind tasting meals.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


Say hello to Brenner, our new family member. Brenner is a seven-year old BC who the SPCA removed from a bad situation in PA. He made his way to Glen Highland Farm, a wonderful border collie rescue organization in Morris, NY, near Oneonta, run by Lillie Goodrich. We met him there yesterday (3/10/12).

Brenner had been at the farm for about a year waiting for the proper family to adopt him. Lillie thinks it took so long because he's an older guy and because he has Progressive Retinal Atrophy, a genetic disease that causes blindness in dogs. His sight is fine right now, but over time he may start to lose central vision. Blind dogs do quite well in familiar areas, so it's extra important for him to have a stable home now.

Brenner is very excited to be exploring his new digs. We are learning his likes and dislikes, and he is doing the same. He's a very sweet guy and is settling in well. We're not yet sure if we will keep his adoption name. Suggestions are welcome.

He is sure making us happy.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Joyeux Noelle

Dear Friends, I know it's been a long time, but my writing time has been focused elsewhere recently. Even though I promised to stay away from posting Social Security stories, this one just needs to be told.

These days a digital recording is made of all Social Security hearings. An index of the recording is simultaneously typed in real time by a “verbatim hearing recorder.” It its unending drive to proliferate silly acronyms, the government insists on calling these folks VHRs. The hearing recorders are essential since they create a usable record of the testimony. They also serve as the judge's clerk, checking the waiting room and managing the flow of people in and out of the courtroom.

Social Security assigns recorders from a list of independent contractors, and carefully rotates assignments from the list. Recorders bear their own expenses and are paid by the hearing. The recorders are usually geographically situated near the various hearing points. I try to make the recorder's job as pleasant as possible. This means, among other things, helping them deal with nervous claimants and protecting them from demanding lawyers. Over time, the judges get to know all the recorders fairly well. We learn their particular quirks as well as their strengths and weaknesses.

I started working with a very young recorder named Noelle about a year and a half ago. One of the first times she worked for me I was holding hearings in Utica, NY. Part way through the day she returned to the courtroom obviously upset after delivering a computer disc containing the evidence file to an experienced attorney in the waiting room. She plopped down in her chair, and made a disgusted face.

I just don't get it. Mr. K has seen me here dozens of times now but he still doesn't remember my name. He always calls me “Nicole.” People have done that to me, like, for always, but I'm sick of it. I told him a couple of times that I don't like it, but he keeps doing it anyway. I said, “look it's easy to remember, it's Noelle, like in Christmas,” but he still does it. He seems to think it's funny, but I don't. I think he should care enough to remember my proper name.”

I told her I agreed with her and we went on with business.

As it happened that day Mr. K had a number of hearings before me. Noelle told me at the end of the day he still had not mended his ways. After his last hearing I asked him to stay behind in the courtroom after his client stepped out.

Mr. K,” I said with a smile but in a stern voice, “Noelle tells me you insist on calling her Nicole, even after she asked you not to. You may think this doesn't matter, but it does. It hurts her. From now on I expect you to show her the respect she deserves and call her by her proper name.”

I could tell he did not know how serious I was. He wisely decided it would be a good idea to apologize profusely and promise not to do it again. I gently warned him that there would be dire consequences if he slipped up again.

Surprisingly, this warning worked. From that day on he faithfully remembered Noelle's name...until this last Thursday.

It was the first hearing of the day. Noelle took the updated evidence CD out to Mr. K. When she returned a few seconds later she closed the door and stamped her foot. She was indignant. She reminded me that I made Mr. K promise not to call her Nicole any more, but he just did it again. I told her I remembered. I assured her I would take care of it. I wasn't quite sure what I would do, but this time I wanted my warning to be public. Maybe that would focus his attention. All the regular practitioners know I usually start recording the hearing as soon as they sit down. This time I told Noelle not to start recording until I gave her the sign.

Once Mr. K and his client were settled at the table I took a deep breath.

Mr. K, I'm very disappointed about your behavior today.”

His head snapped up. Real alarm showed in his expression.

I'm sorry judge, what did I do?”

I warned you about this sort of behavior previously, Mr. K, but you seem to have forgotten my instructions. I must insist you mend your ways, or I will be forced to take even stronger measures.”

But judge, I'm … I don't understand.”

You called Noelle “Nicole” after promising me right in this court that you never would do that again.”

Relief swept across his face. His client was chuckling. He muttered something about the failures of an old man's memory. Noelle was beaming.

Now promise me, again.”

He raised his right hand and promised.

OK, I'll let it slide this time, just don't let it happen again. Let's go on the record.”

The hearing began. Everyone was in a better mood.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Thanksgiving with Gaudi

The most visited tourist site in Barcelona is the unfinished cathedral designed by Antoni Gaudi, the Sagrada Familia. We visited it, of course, the day we arrived by “Ave” high speed train from Madrid, but that's another story. Note to architecture fans – the hyperlinks in this article amplify the story greatly, take a look.

We set out on foot on a pleasantly cool, sunny Thanksgiving morning from the lovely Hotel Constanza at Calle Bruc, 33 where we stayed the three days we were in Barcelona. Fortified with Cafe Solo (aka the best expresso you will ever taste) we strolled slowly up Passeig de Gracia through the heart of the Eixample district. This is one of the major avenues in the city. To my eye it seems a more beautiful, cleaner, classier version of NYC's 5th Avenue. It is lined with plane trees, ornate benches and art nouveau street lights. At this time of the morning the street was busy with extremely well-dressed pedestrians on the way to work. The sidewalks are even paved with beautiful art nouveau tiles.

In short order we came to the so-called “Block of Discord.” This entire district is filled with beautiful late 19th Century architecture, but this block is special because it includes two famous modernista buildings, Casa Amatller and Casa Lleo Morera. It's called the block of discord because of the way the modernista buildings contrast with their more sober neighbors and with Gaudi's wilder, tile-covered Casa Batllo. Casa Batlló is a complete redesign of an existing 1877 building done by Gaudi and his collaborators in 1904 – 1906. The local name for the building is Casa dels ossos (House of Bones), as the facade has a something of a skeletal, organic quality with a dragon scale roof.

We stopped for a while to admire the beauty of the place. We decided to walk a bit further up the avenue and tour Gaudi's Casa Mila, then return to tour Casa Batllo.

Casa Milà, better known as La Pedrera (meaning the 'The Quarry'), was designed and built by Gaudi between 1905 and 1910 for a wealthy family who lived on the ground floor and rented out large apartments on the upper floors. The facade and roof are famous for the undulating, organic look. The complementary wrought iron balconies and windows were designed by Josep Maria Jujol, who also created the interior plaster ceilings.

Architecturally, La Pedrera is considered an innovative work for its early use of structural steel and its self-supporting curtain walls. Other innovative elements were the construction of underground car parking and separate lifts and stairs for the owners and their servants. The building is currently owned and operated by Catalunya Caixa, a private educational foundation. The building tour starts with the incredible roof, moves down to an interesting Gaudi museum in the arched attic, then finishes in a restored apartment with its original art nouveau interior and furnishings. We were there for hours.

Outside again in the now warm mid-day sun, we paused across the street so Merry could take a couple of photographs of the facade. A well-dressed woman approached us.

Es beautiful, si, no?”

We struck up a conversation with her in Spanglish. She enquired whether we had toured Casa Batllo yet. When she found out that was where we were headed, she was adamant that we should not pay to tour the building. We understood her to say that the tour was less interesting than at Casa Mila. Further she insisted we could get a very good view of the back of the building with its intricate tiles, totally for free.

For, free?”

Si. Just turn right down the street right before the building, go into the big magazine, and … “

Wait a minute, magazine?  After thinking about it and being sure she couldn't think of any other word, I realized she was saying “magasin” – French for store. OK, so we turn down a side street, go into a store take the escalator to the second floor, remembering that in Europe the ground floor is floor 0, then wander through the aisles to the back, open a door and … well, we would have to see for ourselves.

We were a bit doubtful, but what the heck. We thanked the nice woman, and headed down the street. A department store existed. We found the right floor, then a fire door leading out onto a low roof. We looked around, no one was watching. Merry, always the brave one, pushed the door open, No alarm. Whew.

The roof outside is set up as the employees' smoking area with chairs and vending machines. The view of Casa Botlla is wonderful. Judge for yourself.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Fighting Fascism at the Museo Reina Sofia

By accident we approached the museum from the rear entrance between the 2005 glass and steel additions and the 18th Century Sabatini building. As a result we found ourselves in a soaring courtyard with a giant whimsical sculpture in the center. We went immediately to the open plaza on the top floor and looked over the city of Madrid. We loved it. The Reina Sofia already had our hearts.

Above all the other art that can be seen in Madrid, I wanted to see Picasso's Guernica. I had seen it sometime in the early 1970s at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Picasso gave MOMA the painting for safe keeping in 1938. When I saw it, I was somewhat underwhelmed. It seemed poorly displayed, out of place and did not create the intense impact I expected.

Picasso painted Guernica in 1937 for the Spanish Pavilion of the World's Fair in Paris. At that time the Spanish Civil War was raging. The Spanish monarchy was dissolved in 1932 and an elected republican government established. The 1936 election swept a left-wing coalition, called the Popular Front, into power. Right-wing Nationalist forces attempted a failed coup d'etat in July 1936.

Led by General Francisco Franco, the Nationalist forces didn't give up. Open civil war broke out. The Spanish Civil War immediately became the symbol of the struggle between authoritarianism and progressive democracy. The war lasted until Franco's victory in April 1939, leaving up to half a million dead, many of them civilians. Franco obtained military support from Fascist Italy and Fascist Germany. The Popular Front received aide from the Soviet Union and France as well as many volunteer International Brigades.

During those times a life or death struggle raged throughout Europe between those who believed the state should be used to redistribute wealth and those who believed the state should defend the status quo. Giant Russia executed its monarchs, rejected its traditional ruling class and transformed into the Communist Soviet Union. Vested economic interests in the rest of Europe were more than a little concerned by this development. In the countries that had suffered the most from World War I, a new political force emerged that promised to solve the threat to stability posed by the communists and at the same time provide a modern social welfare state, Fascism.

In Germany and Italy Fascism proved quite popular and swept into power. Hitler and Mussolini quickly built massive military machines they justified by constantly referring to the threat of communism. In republican Spain, the Civil War became the focus of this battle for the soul of Europe.

On April 26, 1937 Franco arranged an air attack on a small Basque town to be carried out by his German and Italian allies. That town, Guernica, had no military significance. The Basques generally opposed Franco, and he wanted to show them how ruthless he could be. Carpet bombing totally destroyed the town and killed 1000 or more civilians. The era of total war had begun.

At the time of the bombing Picasso had already made plans for a different painting for the World's Fair. When he realized the enormity of what had happened in his country, he decided to take Guernica as his subject. Picasso said of the painting, “I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death.” With Franco's victory, Picasso vowed never to set foot in his native Spain as long as Franco ruled.

After the Paris Exposition, Picasso arranged for Guernica to be held by the Museum of Modern Art but specified that it be returned to Spain should a democratic republic ever be established. The painting was finally returned to Spain in 1981 and hung at the Prado. In 1992 it was moved to its current home at the Museo Reina Sofia where it hangs in a special gallery. Adjourning galleries show about two dozen preparatory works and a series of photographs showing the mural as it was being painted.

We slowly wandered through the Reina Sofia taking in the astounding collection of 20th Century Spanish art. Gradually the galleries filled with groups of school children. This museum has perhaps the finest collection of surrealism anywhere in the world, so the kids were quite well amused. Each class of about 25 kids were accompanied by a teacher who worked hard to keep them informed about what they were seeing and moving along.

Finally, we reached the painting I had come all this way to see again. The room is very large and dimly lit. The mural hangs alone on one whole wall. My first thought was how stark, how simply powerful it looked. Then to my initial dismay, a whole class of 8-year-olds filed into the gallery, briefly obstructing my view. Their teacher organized them on the floor about six feet from the painting. They quickly sat and quieted down.

For the next fifteen minutes their young teacher quietly spoke with the kids, gesturing occasionally at the painting. He spoke so softly I couldn't really hear him. The kids paid absolute attention. The gallery had become a side chapel in some great cathedral. The kids were in total awe.

Although I couldn't understand him, I knew the teacher was explaining the history of the Spanish Civil War, of Franco's authoritarian regime and of Fascism.

A hidden scar in the Spanish psyche was left by the decades of Franco's authoritarian rule. By now the elected government has done its best to remove all official recognition of Franco. Most government buildings and streets named for him have resumed their original names. The last statue of Franco in Spain was torn down in 2008.

Those who suffered under Franco live on, but do not recover. They hide the scar, but it will be with them for the rest of their lives. The only hope for the future is those kids on the floor in the Reina Sofia. I felt privileged to be present as they learned to live as free people.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


Merry and I arrived at the Madrid airport extremely bleary after a flight delay of four hours. We left home the day before at 9 am. Now it was noon the next day. Accounting for the time difference, we had been on the move almost non-stop for 21 hours with little sleep.

To get into the city from the airport we decided to ride the Metro. This involved a long walk through the airport, then two transfers between subway lines. We packed light but there were stairs and long hallways everywhere. At the end of the last transfer, a stranger appeared out of nowhere and tried to help me carry my suitcase down a short flight of a stairs. I managed to get him to let go just as a train pulled in. We hopped on at the last minute and found ourselves in a crush of passengers. When we got off at our station Mer discovered her backpack had been opened. A handbag bought for the trip but fortunately empty was stollen and her earring bag was missing.

We oriented ourselves and trudged to our hotel a bit shaken. Exhausted but safe we felt lucky to have carried all our money, credit cards and passports in our money belts. We reported the incident to the hotel desk, but they simply assured us we were lucky not to have lost more. We had planned to ride the Metro frequently in Madrid, but this episode made us change our minds.

A few days later we were walking in Barcelona in a nice neighborhood near the Sagrada Famillia. Suddenly we both realized our backs were wet. My pants and Mer's jacket were splattered all over with coffee. A guy rushed up to us with a handful of napkins and started to clean off the mess. He tried very hard to get us to go into his apartment where he claimed he would help us more. We both were aware enough to realize this was a scam. We pulled away. An older gentleman walked up and stopped to see what was happening. The first guy quickly disappeared. We walked around for the next few hours in spotted clothes that smelled strongly of coffee and creamora.

The desk clerk at our hotel told us this happens all the time. It turns out that throwing coffee, catsup or yogurt on clothes is a common scam. He suggested our best defense would have been to have thanked the guy for wanting to help and asked to take his picture.

We knew before making this trip that pickpockets and sneak thieves are common in Spain's large cities. We lost very little, but the psychological impact lasted throughout the trip. We always carried our valuables in money belts. We avoided crowds when possible and were always on guard. We had no further trouble. Everyone we met told us stories of their personal experiences with pickpockets, many of which were far worse than ours.

As I see it, the problem with the tactics used by sneak thieves is the reliance on the natural willingness people have to trust helpful strangers. When someone offers to help, my natural impulse is to be moved and thankful. This moment of relaxation is all a pickpocket needs to steal your wallet. As a consequence, in areas where pickpockets operate, a traveler needs to train themselves not to trust people who appear to be trying to be helpful. Is that seemingly nice guy who just offered to take your picture going to steal the camera?

I like to think I'm not naïve. I know there is a lot of poverty in the world. When I travel I know a certain portion of the people I encounter see me as nothing but an opportunity to make easy money. Nonetheless, pickpockets violate a trust that people ought to be able to count on no matter where they are in the world. Without that trust, travel is less enriching and more stressful. When we guard ourselves from open contact with the people in the country we visit, we miss the best part of the trip.

In the next few blog entries, I will share the stories of how we broke out of this distrust of strangers and found real adventure in Spain. Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Cotton mill robots

Over the course of his 15 years working for Hanesbrands at their Parkdale cotton mill the claimant I was questioning had done virtually every job in the factory that a guy with only a high school education could get: laborer, machine operator and finally machine mechanic.

Except for the front end, Judge, you know where they gin the raw cotton.”

Why didn't you ever work the gin end?”

“It's just too dirty, you know, dust, seeds and sticks, cotton fiber everywhere.”

I had already established that he and his wife moved up to Central New York from eastern Georgia so they could get help from his wife's family while they figured out what to do next. His wife was working as a home health aide, not making much, but they were scraping by. His back gave out on him at age 45 from a combination of bad genes and hard physical labor.

So how much would you have to lift when you were a machine tender, back when you first worked at Hanes?”

Well you see, the cotton would be run through the first machines then wound onto a roll that would get taken off to the next set of machines. Those rolls probably weigh about 100 pounds each.”

Would you have to lift one of those rolls yourself?”

Sort of, we would slide them out of the machine then heft them onto a cart, so yeah, I had to lift them a bit.”

“OK, how often did you do this?”

All day, over and over. You might not know it, Judge, but we worked 12 hour shifts at that mill, three days on, then one off, then two on, one off, then three again. About once a month we got a straight week off but the next week we had to work seven days straight, then back to the same schedule all over again.”

Was it seasonal work? Did you work more hours during the cotton harvest?”

No, that was the schedule year-round. The company has a big warehouse full of cotton modules, so there was always work. It is the third largest yarn factory in the world. It can put out 1.5 million pounds of cotton yarn every 12 hour shift.”

[In case you don't know about cotton modules, you can take a look at a post I wrote about how cotton modules are made a few years back. You can find that article here.]

I see, so what job did you do next?”

I ran a bunch of carding machines for a few years, then ran the spinning machines.”

Were those machine operator jobs as hard?”

No, that was pretty easy work, actually. There wasn't any lifting to speak of. You just have to watch the machines to be sure they don't jam up or anything. If that happens then you turn off the machine, climb in and try to unjam it. If the operator can't clear the jam, you call a mechanic.”

OK, so what was the hardest part of your machine operator jobs?”

I'd say cleaning the machines after the shift. You would have to climb all over them dragging an air hose to blow off all the cotton lint and dust. So there was a real lot of climbing.”

Was dragging that air hose heavy?”

No, not unless one of those stupid robots ran over the hose.”

Excuse me sir, did you say robots?”

Yeah, see Fruit of the Loom got them first. They found out pretty quick that they didn't work all that well, so they got rid of them by selling them to Hanes. Let me tell you Judge, those robots are really stupid.”

Sir, excuse me, but even though it doesn't have much to do with your case, would you mind telling me a bit more about the robots?”

Sure, see they use them now to do the heavy lifting of the fiber rolls and move the rolls around the plant. They are sort of like big boxes on wheels. They run around the mill following magnetic tape on the floor. They've got some sensors to keep them from running into anything or anybody, but the two on the side point out, and the two in the front point in. That leaves two big blind spots. Believe me, they run into things. I heard a woman got caught between two that where running in opposite directions. They broke three of her ribs.”

 “So these robots would run around the mill and sometimes your air hose would get caught under them, is that right?”

Yeah, when that happened and I would pull on the hose, it felt like I was hauling on 1000 pounds. Not only that, but they would go off the tape and run into the machines or the walls. Some of the guys figured that all the fiber on the floor was messing them up. If fact someone discovered that they would follow a polyester ribbon just as well as the magnetic tape. One day at the end of the shift, somehow all the robots ended up in the ladies room.”

I resumed the hearing as soon as we all stopped laughing.